On Dawkins’s Cultured Despisers

I relatively often come across academics who express contempt for Richard Dawkins’s atheist activism and The God Delusion. What is interesting about these critics is how many of them share his contempt for fundamentalist religion. Ironically that is the core of his contempt for religion and theism too.

These academics are usually people who will implicitly talk about fundamentalist, literalist religious beliefs as so plainly and obviously false that one need not even go to the trouble of explaining all that is wrong with them. Even if these academics are themselves religious or sympathetic to religion they will chummily share a laugh with a curiously outspoken atheist like me over how absurd the beliefs of fundamentalists are. They will often express outright puzzlement at how any one could believe things so bizarre as fundamentalists do.

I do not share in these academics’ puzzlement since for a long time I actually was a fundamentalist, in essence, even though I already was leery of the word. To me such people are not just some harmless oddball curiosity for the learned to laugh at or to analyze with an anthropologist’s sense for understanding people without judging or desiring to change them.

Those believers are my former self and their beliefs used to shape my mind and heart in fundamental ways. Not only that, but they are living my former life, and my alienation from that former life constitutes a core part of my biography and my present identity. And having been intellectually, morally, emotionally, and psychologically systemically misled and, in some crucial ways, held back and twisted up, by these beliefs and the communities that purvey them, I take very seriously the issue of how to dispel the delusions of believers. I do not feel like an elite who can wink at the reckless childishness of the common folks’ superstitions the way one delights in the imaginations of actual children. I see other adults’ intellectual infantilization as neither harmless, nor a matter of indifference, nor as a moral necessity for those supposedly not as psychologically superior and autonomously trustworthy as I.

So I don’t share these academics’ revulsion at Dawkins’s efforts to reach out to the everyday believer and vigorously shake them out of their delusions. When I explain to them that all Dawkins is doing is addressing the literal falseness of religious beliefs because truth matters in religious matters as much as in any others, I often get, from some atheists and some believers both, an out of hand scoff that that’s a total misunderstanding of religion—religion isn’t about literal truth in the first place! So it’s wrong to address it as literal propositional truth claims in need of refutation as though their cognitional content mattered at all!

This response frankly maddens me. And it does so even though I agree that religions serve many functions that are, indeed, wholly independent of conveying truth. And I even am sympathetic to the notion that some of those functions are human necessities, whether they are fulfilled by religions or other replacement functionaries. The dismissal of all arguments about the literal truth of religious claims bothers me because it blithely ignores the actual structure of many religious believers’ faiths. And ironically it does so in the name of being understanding about religion. It’s an attempt to be intellectually charitable about religious belief by ignoring the kinds one has contempt for instead of understanding them.

To actually acknowledge what religion is for actual people, we should take seriously the fact that for many religious people (including and especially fundamentalists), religious beliefs must be literally true or they are worthless. That is a real kind of religious way of believing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the most pervasive kind, all told. And those believers deserve to have academics who give them a shot to share the skeptical academics’ own consciousness of how false, on literal terms, religious beliefs are. They have the right to decide that their religion is not for them if it is shown false on literal grounds or to reinterpret their religion in expressivist terms if that can still work for them. They should not be condescended to and treated as though they misunderstand religion should they find its literal falseness disillusioning and a cause for apostasy. They don’t “misunderstand” religion and its functions. They often understand full well what their religion means to them and on what grounds they can or cannot assent to participate in it in good conscience.

And yet these academics have a bitter sort of contempt for Dawkins for being marvelously effective at raising the consciousness of many believers who are actually grateful to discover the truth of the irrationality and falsehood of their beliefs. He is making the literal falsehood and absurdity of religious beliefs clear to those who do not already grasp what these academics take for granted—that whatever benefits religion is giving people, literal truth is not one of them.

And even more importantly than that, Dawkins and the rest of the atheist movement are (at least  ostensibly) trying to counteract the systematic training religious institutions give in outright anti-rational ways of both forming beliefs and then insulating them from criticism. It boggles my mind and infuriates me that more academics are not outraged at the ways that religious institutions do not just teach apparent falsehoods but actively miseducate people in how to reason. Relentlessly, and with all manner of shameless emotional manipulation, they teach people from childhood to affirm beliefs without evidence, to merge those beliefs so tightly to their identity that they are too painful to ever let go of, and to accept their least justified beliefs as their most sacred and unquestionable beliefs. They go so far as to convince people to orient their very moral reasoning itself, which should be the most scrupulous and conscientious part of themselves, by reference to their least rational and least careful ways of reasoning and believing—their “faith-based” and fear-based ones.

Misleading anthropomorphic thinking, rationalization in the teeth of counter-evidence, poor reasoning with respect to probabilities, indulgence of confirmation bias, blind traditionalism, mental authoritarianism, and practically all other cognitive errors to which humans are prone not only go uncorrected but are actively reinforced and outright cultivated by religious traditions. Religious institutions train countless people to embrace irrational modes of thought instead of to reject them. This training goes counter to practically everything an actual education tries to teach and exacerbates the faulty habits of thought that an actual education would seek to correct. Why are not all academics up in arms about this travesty against reason? And why are not more philosophers in the public square correcting all the philosophical muddles that everyday people believe since the closest thing they have to philosophical education is from pulpits?

This extensive counter-education, this undermining of actual education, is not just being done in a handful of fringe religious sects. This goes on in countless mainstream churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, and homes. Beliefs are inculcated through fears of eternal torture and dissenting consciences are intimidated by everything from threats of disownment and excommunication in more liberal countries to threats of imprisonment or death in more authoritarian ones.

But since Dawkins is not a philosopher and does not write with a philosopher’s technical precision about metaphysics, since he does not treat religion with an anthropologist’s lack of judgments, since he sometimes takes the effort to attack the worst popular religious beliefs that laypeople actually hold instead of the more sophisticated ones academics hold, and since he is being so gauche as to dispel the illusions of the little people, he is seen by elitist academics as doing the public an insulting disservice of some sort. Because apparently there can be no books pitched for the average believer to convince them of judgments about the general literal falsehood of religious beliefs which elite academics take for granted.

Atheist books must be either non-existent or, to be acceptable, be so abstruse that no ordinary people could read them. Billions of dollars can be made every year selling lay people worthless superstitious myths and falsehoods from the orthodox to the New Age, and countless sermons can be preached to average people weekly, but atheists should never counter any of this with something pitched to ordinary people, nor anything containing any modicum of anti-theist, anti-religious bite to counteract the barrage of pro-religious messages that bombard people from infancy.

And these academics are either unaware of or contemptuous of the countless atheists who had their consciousness raised by Dawkins. These critics either resent or miss altogether Dawkins’s genius as a powerfully influential leader of an identity movement. Dawkins told the average atheist it was okay to own their disbelief and many found this liberating and exhilarating. I can imagine why the religious academics are threatened by this and want to dismiss it as a real phenomenon or as a bad thing if real. But why are many atheist academics resistant to this consciousness raising?

If they’re so enlightened about how religion functions for people independently of its truth, then surely they must understand how important it is to people to have strong identities connected to their fundamental beliefs and values. And if they think this is a mostly benign or constructive thing for religious people, why do they react with visceral suspicion at atheists’ forming an identity around their atheism? Can’t they see this is analogous to religious people fulfilling their cravings for identity and community as rooted in their perspective on the world? Can’t they see how this could be just as constructive (or at least as benign) as what they approve of in religion?

Partly this might be met with contempt because, I guess, as irreligious atheists themselves they feel above the kinds of connections between identity and beliefs and values that the religious whom they patronizingly approve of have. So possibly they resent seeing other atheists—people like them—apparently mired in such a thing. It could be (and I claim no empirical knowledge here, I am throwing out hypotheses to be investigated) that they associate atheism with elites who know better than the average person and think it tacky of such elites to go around exposing the embarrassing errors of more simpleminded folk. If this is true, they’re oblivious or callous to the very averageness of the average atheist and to their need for identity too. And they probably overestimate their own immunity to a need for identity. Their own identity is wrapped up in being part of an elite that’s too good for trifling with fundamentalists as though they were not beneath refutation. Finally in some cases their antagonism to confrontational atheists may be an allergy to religious debates altogether based on their bad experience with religious dogmatists or based on a view of atheism as inevitably an “anti-“ position by nature, and so bound to take the form of dangerous hostility if made into a kind of group consciousness.

But these are my best psychological inferences and speculations for a frame of mind I’ve never been in myself. I’ve always cared about the truth or falsity of religious beliefs and thought it important that religious people be challenged to deal seriously with objections to their beliefs.

Finally, a quick note. Although many movement atheists are indeed getting a religion-like satisfaction of having their atheistic beliefs tied in to their identity and made into a grounds for community, this does not in any immediate way turn atheism into a faith or, even, a religion. Faith requires beliefs willfully ill proportioned to their evidence and dogmatically obstinate to evidence in principle. Atheists could be prone to faith beliefs but atheism itself is not such a belief for most atheists since most atheists perceive their disbelief or lack of belief to be at least an attempt to be responsive to evidence (or lack thereof) and not a matter of willing to believe as one desires.  And religion involves much more by way of ritual and far more robust identity and community commitments than most atheists at present seem willing to have with one another (though some atheists are actually part of religions or want to be).

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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