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Mon, 13 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 10: Hate by Any Other Name?

This post continues my critique of the ideas in Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. You can find the whole critique here.

Until now, I have concentrated on factual and logical problems with The God Delusion. However, one of the main problems with the book is neither a factual nor a logical problem, but an ethical one. I am referring to the book's extremely mean-spirited tone. (I am not the first to comment on this mean-spiritedness [1].) Early in the book, Dawkins says he wants to remove the respect traditionally accorded to religion (pp. 20-27). This part of the book even bears the title "Undeserved respect" (pp. vii, 20). In the rest of the book, Dawkins does not merely remove the undeserved respect. He spews a stream of hostile and corrosive rhetoric, mercifully interrupted by stretches of more level-headed material. If language as hostile as that in The God Delusion were found in a book on race or ethnicity, it might well get condemned in some quarters as hate speech.

I will not try to point out all the instances of vitriolic or insulting language in The God Delusion. There are far too many instances for that. Instead, I will just point out a few telling examples.

  • Dawkins quotes from a speech by noted religious physicist Freeman Dyson, made while Dyson was accepting an award (pp. 152-153). In between the lines of Dyson's speech, Dawkins inserts made-up words that Dyson never said, making it look as if Dyson were speaking insincerely. Dawkins admits that the added italicized words are not Dyson's, but still he puts them into Dyson's mouth, making Dyson look insincere. This attack on the brilliant Dyson is not simply a criticism of Dyson's beliefs. Instead, it amounts to a below-the-belt personal attack. Later, Dawkins seems to be trying to cover himself when he characterizes Dyson as "way above being corrupted" (p. 153). However, this quick disclaimer does little to reduce the suggestive power of the fabricated words, or the impressions of Dyson that those words leave in the reader's mind.
  • In his discussion of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA concept (which tries to reconcile science and religion), Dawkins surmises that Gould really did not believe NOMA at all, and was merely "bending over backwards to be nice to an unworthy but powerful opponent" (p. 57). In other words, he is suggesting that Gould lied. Again, a below-the-belt attack - but this time against a deceased man who cannot even answer back.
  • At one point (p. 108), Dawkins suggests that those involved with theology "are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true." In other words, if you are on the other side of the debating table from Dawkins, there's a good chance you are living in a fantasy world. Rational argument indeed!

These few examples are enough to expose the ratty tone of the book's rhetoric. Just imagine these examples multiplied many times over. The book leaves the impression that if you think differently from Dawkins, then you are insincere or cowardly at worst, ignorant and confused at best - and perhaps senile to boot (p. 98 n.). It is sad to see such rhetoric in a book whose author is known as a distinguished scientist.

Perhaps the most hateful aspect of The God Delusion is its constant carping on the evils of religion. I have dealt with these examples of bad religion collectively in an earlier post. There I showed that these examples prove nothing about the existence of God or about the goodness of religious thought in general. These examples only show that some particular religious beliefs are desperately wrong. (You don't need to be an atheist to figure that out; you just need to watch the evening news.) However, the failure of Dawkins' polemic against religion is not its worst defect. Even though it does not succeed in proving anything, Dawkins' insistent ranting about the evils of religion has the potential to whip up rage against ordinary religious people.

Imagine what would happen if the author of this book were not an atheist criticizing religion, but a member of a particular faith criticizing another faith. Suppose, for example, that a Christian wrote a book against Judaism with the same degree of hostility and ridicule that Dawkins uses to attack religion in general. Suppose further that this Christian author hinted that unconverted Jews constitute a danger to humanity. What would we say about such a book? Many of us would consider it a work of hate. The author of the anti-Jewish book might try to defend himself by saying: "But I wasn't attacking Jews, I was only attacking their beliefs!" That argument would not wash well with many of us. Anyone who portrays adherents of a belief as menaces to humanity is attacking the people, not just the belief. That kind of criticism goes beyond mere criticism of ideas.

Dawkins does almost the same thing as our imaginary Christian. The main difference is that he attacks a different group of mostly good people. (The two groups - religious believers and Jews - even overlap.) Dawkins doesn't only attack religious criminals, such as al-Qaeda or child-abusing priests, though he does criticize these (see especially pp. 303-304, 315-318). Instead, he portrays all religion as a menace (chap. 8) - and he does so in a way that suggests religious people are vehicles of that menace. (He even likens religion to a contagious virus (pp. 176, 186-188).) In effect, he portrays religious people, not only religious ideas, as a problem for the world. Why should Dawkins get a free pass? Why are we afraid to call The God Delusion a hateful book? As I pointed out in my earlier posts, the book is full of faulty arguments. What makes this book significantly better than, say, a fiery Christian polemic against Judaism that uses weak arguments as talking points?

I suspect that many readers give The God Delusion more respect than it is worth because they are afraid to question the opinions of a well-known scientist. However, this fear should not stop them from using their reason. Personally, I am a lifelong supporter of science, but even an ardent admirer of science must admit that scientists are not perfect. Occasionally a scientist messes up just as badly as anyone else could. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Philipp Lenard became a follower of Adolf Hitler and served as "Chief of Aryan or German Physics" for the Nazi Party. [2] The tragic stories of eugenics and of lobotomies provide other examples of scientific error. These errors eventually got corrected, but not in time to prevent harm. I am not suggesting that Dawkins would embrace errors as gross as these. I am only pointing out that his scientific credentials do not guarantee that his ideas always are right. Critical thinking is necessary in this imperfect world. You need it even when reading a book by a "big" scientist.

Another reason people might take The God Delusion seriously is that Dawkins is a good writer. It's true that he's a good writer, but of course this says nothing about the truth of his ideas. It is unfortunate for humanity, but nevertheless true, that people who hold lousy ideas sometimes write well.

Still another possible motive for undue reverence toward The God Delusion is the sheer density of information in the book. This book is packed with scientific and historical information and ideas. The reader may get the feeling that the book is full of new insights, perhaps even revelations. However, this does not tell us anything about the book's truth. A good science fiction novel can create the same feeling, and can be just as full of ideas and information. That doesn't mean that the plot of the novel is factually true. (The difference, of course, is that the science fiction novel is not meant to be true.)

I suggest that we abandon any undue reverence toward The God Delusion, and start telling it like it is. The God Delusion is not a book that a rational thinker should believe. For reasons discussed here and in my earlier posts, the book does not succeed in building a credible case for atheism. It's still possible for a thinking person to be an atheist - but if you are going to be one, you need to find better reasons than the faulty arguments and misguided rhetoric in The God Delusion.



[1] See, for example, Alvin Plantinga's comments on the nastiness found in The God Delusion. (Plantinga, Alvin. "The Dawkins Confusion." Books & Culture, March 1, 2007, [], accessed 5/10/2009.)

[2] Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967, [], accessed 7/8/2009.

posted at: 23:59 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry


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