Sunday, October 07, 2007

Respecting Religion

I have often opined on this blog that I see little basis for the complaint of some of my fellow Christians that somehow secular liberals "disrespect" us. Most of my experience confirms this viewpoint, but I do occasionally encounter a rare exception. Let me dissect one recent example to show just how outlandish and illogical someone has to become in order to cross that line of respect. I recently read Richard Dawkins's 2006 book, The God Delusion, which provided one such extremely rare example of true disrespect of and arrogance toward sincere religion.

Now Dawkins does make a few good points in the book--for example, about the bad things that have been done in the name of religion, some of the morally despicable conclusions that one might reach by taking the Bible too "literally" (as if such a thing were possible in a consistent way), and the dangers of forcibly inculcating children with dogmatic, unquestioning religion-based fear. (Why after reading this book do I have a sneaking suspicion that Dawkins's militant materialist and reductionistic atheism might lead to similar problems? Hmmm...) But, on the whole, Dawkins's book projected such a tragic combination of arrogance (trust me, the tone is unmistakeable, from the very beginning) and ignorance (about the faith experiences and beliefs of the millions of us who don't conform to his simplistic caricature of religious belief) that I wondered if I should even bother typing up a blog entry on this book, which I had initially hoped (mostly in vain) would provide an interesting starting point for a thoughtful discussion of the various arguments for and against religious belief.

Nevertheless, given the wide publicity Dawkins's book has received, along with my propensity to use this blog as a forum for venting frustrations in all directions, let me proceed anyway. I could critique any number of aspects of this book, from his bizarrely non-comprehending dismissal of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God (ummm...Prof. Dawkins, I think the whole point of envisioning a Creator that is beyond the physical world is to get beyond the infinite regress of material causation, not to prolong it) to his absurd inability to grasp the fundamental inanity of citing a carefully controlled double-blind study based on praying for a first name and last initial (!) supposedly showing the non-efficacy of prayer (and I don't care who funded it, it is an utterly ridiculous--and substantively irrelevant--idea to "test" prayer in this way). But beneath Dawkins's contemptuous sneers peppered throughout the book, I actually began to feel sorry for him, due to his inability to comprehend ideas that cannot be reduced to objectively verifiable scientific truth claims--ideas that speak to the mystical side of human experience, of mystery, of awe and wonder. What an impoverished way of looking at life and existence he seems to have. But now I feel myself sliding into the same pitying contemptuousness with which Dawkins approaches people who hold religious beliefs. So I will ask his pardon and proceed with a close reading of what is perhaps the most relevant chapter of his book for all of us Christians like me (and I think this would describe far more than those of us who are left/radical) who would never in a million years subscribe to the supertitious, hocus-pocus caricature of religious belief that he uses most of the book to critique.

The relevant chapter is number eight, "What's Wrong with Religion? Why Be So Hostile?" Indeed I had spent most of the book wondering that exact question. Perhaps some of his reviewers did too. Or maybe he has enough self-awareness to realize that his reasons for promoting such an aggressively urgent and ardent atheism will seem strangely flimsy without it. But let me give him credit, for he states his central argument in this chapter very clearly, as follows: " point in this section is that even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes." (p. 303)

An interesting claim. One might even call it an empirical claim. Yet does Dawkins provide any hard historical or social scientific data to show that "If X, then Y," where X is is a preponderance of mild and moderate religion and Y is a consequent flourishing of extremist religion? Sorry, nope. I must admit that I don't have any disconfirming evidence either, but it seems wildly implausible to me that religious moderation fosters religious extremism. It's almost a contradiction in terms, but not quite, for we could perhaps live in a society where militant atheism stamps out all religious belief completely, and perhaps that society would have less religious extremism. But, to my mind, it seems much more plausible that militant atheism and religious extremism feed off each other. Kind of like religious extremists of different faith traditions often feed off each other. Dawkins's own anecdotes of victimized atheists wrongly disowned or shunned by strongly religious relatives (whose plight I fully sympathize with) provide ample testimonial evidence of this point.

Now if you will indulge me, let me deconstruct several subsequent pages (pp. 303-306) in detail, in which Dawkins sets forth his reasoning for reaching this paradoxical conclusion...

Dawkins: "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers. The alternative, one so transparent that it should need no urging, is to abandon the principle of automatic respect for religious faith. This is one reason why I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith. The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism."

Is it not possible to respect someone's religious faith (even Osama bin Laden) and yet still disagree adamantly with him or her about a great many things? One would hope that Dawkins is not so stingy with his respect of others in everyday life. But that's not what he is complaining about, I don't think. What upsets him, as I read him, is not "respect" per se, but when people invoke religious claims as a trump card to justify any behavior they wish. And who could disagree? True, the USA has an exceptionally permissive view on the freedom of religion (allowing religious schooling of children, for example, or allowing some drugs in religious ceremonies), but no one--I repeat, no one--is arguing that "respecting" religion demands letting people do whatever they wish in the name of religion. No sane person, even in America, would condone letting a serial killer in Montgomery go free because he claimed that his religion demands that he kill Alabamans. In practice, the line is often trickier to draw, but how could this possibly justify a blanket disrespect of all religion? I am tempted here to remind Dawkins that people have used "science" to justify some pretty extreme and awful things in the past, but that would in no way force me to oppose everyone who invokes "science" as a reason.

"It might be said that there is nothing special about religious faith here. Patriotic love of country or ethnic group can also make the world safe for its own version of extremism, can't it? Yes it can, as with the kamikazes in Japan and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka."

Okay, once you admit this, Prof. Dawkins, you have basically undermined your whole argument. (Oops!) And you need not look half way around the world to find ample examples of nationalism and patriotism that distort people's moral sensibilities. Once you accept that "extremism" can come in many forms (oh no, even militant atheism? or worship of scientific reductionism, such as a genetic basis for everything?) it is hard to single out religion as somehow different.

"But religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation, which usually seems to trump all others. This is mostly, I suspect, because of the easy and beguiling promise that death is not the end, and that a martyr's heaven is especially glorious. But it is also partly because it discourages questioning, by its very nature."

Nice try wiggling out, but I won't buy it. Forget for the moment that "it's in our genes" (among many other popular non-religious articles of faith) has also lately been a favored silencer of critical thinking for some people. Let me just beg to differ that religious faith "discourages questioning, by its very nature"--not my religion, not my faith. That is about the most backwards way to characterize a deep inquiry into the mystery of life and existence. My own (and many others') journey of faith is all about questioning, probing, admitting that we don't have all the answers. The irony of all this is that Dawkins's own book is arguing strenuously for shutting out other alternatives to his own belief, declaring in the book's very title that God is a "delusion".

"More generally (and this applies to Christianity no less than to Islam), what is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them--given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by--to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades. ... And they were taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their madrasas, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book like demented parrots. Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong."

Prof. Dawkins has simply not even begun to do justice to the rich and thoughtful tradition of religious thinking that has a more sophisticated view of what faith entails. What is funny about his caricature of religious faith is how strikingly divergent it is from the notions taught at most mainline Protestant theological schools these days (to take the example I know best). The kind of critical thinking about all of our taken-for-granted beliefs--including science, including capitalism, and even including selfishness (hah!)--is exactly what good education is all about, including in our churches, synagogues, mosques, and seminaries. If you define "faith" as acceptance of beliefs without questioning them or attempting to justifying them, then I can kind of see his point, but then it would apply just as equally well if not more urgently to so many other unquestioned beliefs in American society, such as the intrinsic superiority of the USA, the value of using market forces to solve our social problems, that science will solve everything, that all valuable questions can be reduced to "objective" and reductionistic factual analysis, or even more particularly the ridiculous notion that we are somehow ruled by our genes. By the way, one could also skewer Dawkins's assertion that suicide bombers are created primarily by mild-mannered, moderate religious teachers in madrasas by pointing out that such moderates are our best hope and key allies in the struggle against extremism in all its forms--not to mention that if the stunning recent book by Peter Dale Scott, The Road to 9/11 (University of California Press, 2007), is any indication, at least one of the leading terrorist trainers of Al Qaeda was an agent of the United States government (and of course we also know that that in its early days, al Qaeda in general was supported by the USA as "freedom fighters" against the Soviets). And this is not even to begin mentioning all the other varied factors that are widely known to be major contributors to the origins of extremist violence in the Muslim world--struggles for control over resources, American military presence in the Middle East, even the contempt of Muslim extremists for moderate Muslim governments, for goodness sake. So to somehow pin the worst acts of religious extremism on co-religionist moderates is far too much ignorance of historical fact for me to take seriously.