Richard Dawkins Speaks About the Problem with Metaphors

On October 12th, 2012, Richard Dawkins received the “Emperor Has No Clothes Award” at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s annual convention. The award goes to someone who “make[s] known their dissent from religion.”

The video of his talk is now online and it’s worth a view. Dawkins begins speaking at the 14:30 mark and the transcript is available. In the speech, Dawkins talks about the problem with bad metaphors (and those who end up believing they are actually true):

Imagine you are God. You’re all-powerful. You’re all-loving. So it is really, really important to you that humans are left in no doubt about your existence and your loving nature, and exactly what they need to do in order to get to heaven and avoid eternity in the fires of hell. It’s really important to get that across. So what do you do?

If you’re Jehovah, apparently this is what you do. You talk in riddles. You tell stories which on the surface have a different message from the one you apparently want us to understand. You expect us to hear X, and instinctively understand that it needs to be interpreted in the light of Y, which you happen to have said in the course of a completely different story 500, 1,000 years earlier.

Instead of speaking directly into our heads, which God has presumed the capability of doing — simply, clearly and straightforwardly in terms which the particular individual being addressed will immediately understand and respond to positively — you steep your messages in symbols, in metaphors. In fact, you choose to convey the most important message in the history of creation in code, as if you aspired to be Umberto Eco or Dan Brown.

Dawkins also speaks about the problem of God in American politics and offers his belief that President Obama is not really a Christian — pure speculation, he admits, but one that doesn’t ultimately matter since Obama is a politician and politicians in America have to at least pretend to respect religious faith even if they don’t find it credible or helpful.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hugh-Kramer/1217598709 Hugh Kramer

    (Pun alert) If you can’t use them to draw analogies, then what’s a metaphor?

    • http://www.facebook.com/TheFitzwaterExperience Mary Huntley Fitzwater

      Cows and sheep…. ;-)

    • Fentwin

      Hey, some folks have never metaphor they didn’t like.

    • tobias27

      Hey Hemant – What’s a Mehta for ??

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        #groooooooan.

        ;-)

    • Randomfactor

      “A man’s speech should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?”

  • Baby_Raptor

    If you were really a benevolent God filled with nothing but love for your creation, you wouldn’t torture them for eternity because you’re perfect and they aren’t.

    The Christian god went one step beyond that. He created people to fail, then punishes them because he’s perfect and they aren’t.

  • LutherW

    I hope that Obama is not atheist. Then he would be a lying atheist, not good for our reputations. In the state of the union speech he said:

    “We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected
    here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the
    right to vote.” http://www.bradblog.com/?p=9865

    Last I checked, all our rights were Constitution-given, and that was given from “we the people.”

    • skinnercitycyclist

      My take on rights is not that they are Constitution-given, but that they are natural rights inhering in human beings by virtue of being human. The Constitution RECOGNIZES those natural rights. The Constitution is the practical embodiment of the theory laid out in the Declaration, which speaks of inalienable rights that derive from “nature and nature’s God,” if I am remembering correctly. The God Jefferson referenced is in no way the God of rightwing evangelical Xianity but a completely impersonal deist figure.

      • pRinzler

        How do you know that human rights are natural rights? What has led you to conclude this, versus some conclusion opposed to the one you hold? How have these rights “inhered” in people?

        As I imagine answers to these questions, things fall apart quickly, but perhaps you can do a better job than I.

      • Glasofruix

        Nope rights are not natural, they’re a social construct.

        • 3lemenope

          Societies are a natural phenomenon.

          • Glasofruix

            And the rights given to individuals in those societies might be very different.

            • 3lemenope

              They *might* hypothetically be very different, but they tend actually to cluster around a set of rather similar ones. The similarities in some areas are so strong in fact that it gives rise to serious doubt as to whether the hypothesis is plausible; perhaps there are rules that human societies will always write, regardless of contingencies, that are due to something fundamental about human nature.

        • Blacksheep

          You know in your heart that certain things are wrong, not because of a social construct.

          • 3lemenope

            Oddly enough, though, the plausible list of ethical things we know by instinct differs significantly from the ones provided and reinforced by the religions of the world. Notably, religions often seek to justify behavior that intuitively feels wrong for some other end.

          • Baal

            I don’t “know in my heart” anything and you don’t either. We both ‘know’ based on various thought patterns in our brains. Our brains are perfectly capable of considering ideas that are factually in error – it’s a big enough problem that some of us have decided to be skeptical and look for evidence that confirms or denies our thoughts. Others are happy to take someone elses thoughts and just run with them uncritically. Which one are you Blacksheep?

        • pRinzler

          There are two senses of the word “natural” that might apply here, and distinguishing them is important.

          1. Natural can imply essential or fundamental so that denying something natural is automatically wrong.

          2. Natural can imply merely empirically demonstrable in some or many circumstances but not necessarily, so denying something natural is not automatically wrong.

    • Sergio Castro

      I get the sense that Obama is agnostic. He’s an intelligent, philosophical guy…At the very least he would say that he’s not sure there’s a God, even if he believes in a higher power.
      Once his Presidency is over we’ll probably hear more about his religious beliefs or lack thereof. Personally I would rather he stays quiet about it while he’s in office, because he can accomplish more without adding a religion controversy to the long list of obstacles he’s trying to overcome.

      • Pseudonym

        So what you’re saying is that Obama is agnostic because he doesn’t fit with your idea of what a Christian must be?

        You know, I personally don’t see how a Christian could be in favour of kill lists and drone strikes. Reality doesn’t support my prejudices either.

        • icecreamassassin

          The whole ‘group labeling’ thing always has me at a loss. I get your point, and I’m not sure if this really applies to President Obama, but are there any objective indicators for what a Christian is? We can list those out, compare those indicators against the reality of Obama, and see if he fits, right? Are there a set of beliefs and/or practices that would be the ‘bare minimum’ requirements for someone to be able to be properly labeled a Christian? Or is it strictly a ‘team affiliation’ thing?

          As a non-Christian, do I get to have a say in what those ‘objective’ indicators really would be?

          I will say that I think Sergio is stretching assumptions here claiming that Obama would say that he’s not sure there is a god, as I’ve never heard him actually say that or have any reason to believe that he would say such a thing. Intelligent, philosophical…yeah that’s all great and well but compartmentalization isn’t exactly a rare trait amongst people.

          • Pseudonym

            The whole ‘group labeling’ thing always has me at a loss. I get your point, and I’m not sure if this really applies to President Obama, but are there any objective indicators for what a Christian is?

            The short answer is “not really”. Wittgenstein (philosopher, but known to linguists as the father of modern semantics) famously explored this problem in some detail. Basically, any non-technical noun has no reliable objective set of indicators which separates X from not-X. The surprising thing is that it turns out not to be a problem in practice; we almost always know it when we see it.

            Modern thinking is that semantic denotation is best thought of in terms of prototype categories, which is probably how we really process semantics. So we have a set of people whom we know are definitely Christians, and conclude that people like them are also Christians.

            Membership of the categories can have varying levels of fuzziness. Archaeopteryx, for example, is sort of a bird and sort of not a bird. A penguin, on the other hand, is a 100% genuine bird, but it’s a poor bird-prototype; it’s not a very good example of a bird.

            Like all non-technical words, there is no authority who decides what a word means. Words are defined by how they are used. So to a dictionary compiler, coming up with a set of definitions (look up any word in the dictionary, there is almost always more than one definition) is an act of discovery, not an act of fiat. You need to look at how everyone uses the word.

            As a non-Christian, do I get to have a say in what
            those ‘objective’ indicators really would be?

            Why would you want to do that? Coming up with your own nonstandard usage for a word is only going to cause confusion, both for anyone trying to understand you, and for you whose thoughts may thereby diverge from reality.

    • Blacksheep

      It’s much better to have “God given” rights than “Written document” rights. The latter is too easy to re-write.

      • trj

        What rights did God give us? I mean, apart from the right to own others as slaves?

      • icecreamassassin

        The former is too easy to make up ex nihilo without any checks. At least a written document can be referenced; the word of god can’t. Well, I guess it can, but when someone disagrees with it (no shellfish!), you can’t just rewrite it. And every time god is asked for clarification, well, he’s pretty silent on the matter, or if he isn’t, then he’s ambiguous, cryptic, and unhelpful in determining what is or is not a right that he is bestowing. At least with the latter, a group of people can go “oh, that’s kinda archaic and outdated, let’s rewrite that crap” or “oh crap, guess we were wrong about that one, bunches of people are suffering needlessly because of this assumption, let’s rewrite it”. The former doesn’t really give you that ability, and frankly I think that’s a BAD THING. Why shouldn’t we adjust things as we learn more and more about the ramifications of our actions?

  • John Small Berries

    Dawkins also speaks about the problem of God in American politics and offers his belief that President Obama is not really a Christian — pure speculation, he admits

    Does he bother to produce any actual evidence to support his belief, or is it yet another case of a skeptic exempting himself from the rules that he demands others must follow?

    • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

      Uh, did you miss the “pure speculation, he admits” part? Skeptics are fine with speculation if it’s clearly labeled as such.

      • Nox

        And part of the basis for that speculation is an american political climate where all politicians have to claim to believe certain things regardless of whether they believe them. That part is observable, and it suggests it will be hard to get real data on who really believes what,

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    Nice speech. Here’s a strange, ANTI-metaphoric correction of one part:

    “Do you literally believe that the wafer becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ?”

    The above is the obvious metaphor — bread = body, and red wine = blood. Pretty damn obvious metaphor, right?

    Ridiculously enough, the Catholic Church does NOT use this. I found this out while reading up on Catholics who can’t consume wheat and must be gluten-free.

    First, even though “bread” is ancient and can be made from other seeds besides wheat, and even though the bible doesn’t specify what kind of bread, the RCC somehow has decided that only wheat-based bread can be used. (Presumably, it was unleavened bread, i.e. matzo, but that can be made from wheat, barley, and other grains, and modern bread wheat didn’t exist back then).

    But the RCC also tells gluten-free Catholics that just drinking the wine contains both “the body and the blood of christ”, thus rejecting the obvious metaphor.

    Not that this makes any sense at all…

    • Pseudonym

      A Catholic once told me that it takes more faith to believe that the wafer is bread than to believe in transubstantiation.

    • ImRike

      If transubstantiation is true, people who are allergic to wheat should not have any problem with a wheat wafer, since it would not be a wheat wafer any longer. It was changed into… I guess into meat? No problem with gluten there.

    • nakedanthropologist

      The priest dips the communion wafer in the wine (briefly) as part of the transtubstatiation ritual. According to the Latin rite, the symbolic and physical mixing allows the spiritual properties to be transferred and shared by both the bread and wine. This is partly theological and partly practical; some people may not be able to take both forms of communion, but for this mixing. (Former Catholic here).

  • Art_Vandelay

    Obama has given me absolutely no indication whatsoever that he’s not a Christian but it’s easy to think that when you compare him to the fundamentalist wing-nuts that oppose him. Also, let’s face it…that church he belongs to in Chicago? Not exactly what you would call “moderate.” Why would anyone pretending to be a Christian for political leverage choose a church like that?

    • Pseudonym

      Exactly. The parsimonious explanation is that he really is a member of that church, and like the majority of Christians in the English-speaking world, he hadn’t regularly attended for some time.

  • http://www.allourlives.org/ TooManyJens

    Dawkins also speaks about the problem of God in American politics and offers his belief that President Obama is not really a Christian

    Ugh. He did this with Stephen Colbert, too — he went on Penn Jillette’s radio show after doing the Colbert Report and said he didn’t think Colbert could possibly really believe in Catholicism because he was too smart.

    I think it’s douchey when Christians tell atheists that we really believe in God and don’t want to admit it, and I think it’s douchey when atheists say the same thing about Christians. I really wish Dawkins had stuck to writing about science. He was so much less offputting in that role.

    • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

      I tend to agree that its off-putting, There is a difference however between an atheist offering an opinion like Dawkins does and what the Christians do.

      Dawkins’ opinion is that some people seem too smart to be believers. Yet he does acknowledge that some very smart people have been and are believers in some kind of god, so it is clearly a matter of personal opinion on individuals.
      Christians making the claim that atheists ‘really believe’ are doing so to overcome a doctrinal problem, Their holy book and the common wisdom within their circle tells them everyone knows God, so the existence of a single genuine atheist creates an insurmountable problem. The problem is therefore avoided completely by declaring atheists ‘believers’. Dawkins being proven wrong on his assessment on Colbert or Obama, may change his opinion on those men, but presents no comparable challenge to him.

      • Pseudonym

        It’s expressed in different language, but it is ultimately the same thing: If you were smart like me, you should inevitably see the world the same way I do, and it’s puzzling to me that you don’t.

        I don’t believe that you should see the world the same way I do. If I did, that would make me an evangelist, and I’m having no part of that.

        • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

          No, its not the same thing, and I explained why. There are religious sects that have no doctrinal problem with the fact that atheists exist. Christianity does. The existence of atheists alone is a problem, before you even get to their arguments and beliefs, which leads to the many rationalizations on that point. This is not simply finding it inconceivable that others believe otherwise.

          On the other point, I find the way you denigrate the idea of “evangelism” troubling. The religious connotations of the term aside, evangelism is simply promoting an idea. Do you have a problem with Neil Degrasse Tyson being a science evangelist? Do you object to people promoting ideas in general or only in respect to atheism?

          “If you were smart like me, you should inevitably see the world the same way I do, and it’s puzzling to me that you don’t.”

          If you have arrived at a position through logic and evidence, it is not unreasonable to take that stance. Unless you’re taking a position that reality is relative to subjective experience, I don’t see that you can take any other stance. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t open to being shown to be wrong.

          • ctcss

            “There are religious sects that have no doctrinal problem with the fact that atheists exist. Christianity does.”

            Perhaps some forms of Christianity do. Mine certainly doesn’t. I don’t see any reason why the existence of a non-believer or a different believer should make any difference to a Christian. Do Jews or Muslims or Hindus pose a problem for me? Nope.

            “Do you object to people promoting ideas in general or only in respect to atheism?”

            Personally, I object to obnoxious evangelism, whether religious, atheistic, vegetarian, etc.

            “Unless you’re taking a position that reality is relative to subjective experience, I don’t see that you can take any other stance.”

            And why should limited, flawed, inadequate, inaccurate humans consider that they have anything other than a subjective view of reality? Do we really need more people who think that they have a lock on truth and can’t wait to tell others what it truly is?

            • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

              “Perhaps some forms of Christianity do. Mine certainly doesn’t. ”
              Good for you, and I mean that.
              It doesn’t change the fact that there are verses in the Bible, like Romans 1:20-21 that contradict that. That you found a way to reconcile these verses with your beliefs doesn’t erase them.
              Furthermore, if you recall, this issue is dealing with the types of Christians who assert there are no ‘true’ atheists. Since you clearly don’t fall in this category, my comments do not apply to you.

              “Personally, I object to obnoxious evangelism, whether religious, atheistic, vegetarian, etc.”

              Likewise. Not what ‘Pseudonym’ was talking about though.

              “And why should limited, flawed, inadequate, inaccurate humans consider
              that they have anything other than a subjective view of reality?”

              There is a difference between acknowledging we have subjective perceptions of reality and believing reality itself is relative to our perspective.

              • Pseudonym

                Not what ‘Pseudonym’ was talking about though.

                Close to it, actually. What I object to is any message which claims that I have to be like you.

                I don’t have a problem with what Neil deGrasse Tyson does. He doesn’t claim that everyone should be like him.

                Romans 1:20-21

                It would be inappropriate to get into biblical exegesis in this forum, but I don’t think you understood what Paul of Tarsus was saying there.

                • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

                  “Close to it, actually. What I object to is any message which claims that I have to be like you.”
                  I find that incredible. (I know, that’s funny given the topic). You seem to be objecting to any sort of reasonable discussion about ideas, as any discussion is an attempt to change people’s minds and have them think like you, in which case I don’t understand what you’re doing here talking.
                  I’m assuming I’ve misunderstood you and you only mean coercive attempts to change people, Is this correct?

                  “I don’t have a problem with what Neil deGrasse Tyson does. He doesn’t claim that everyone should be like him.”
                  When it comes to doing good science, of course he does!

                  “It would be inappropriate to get into biblical exegesis in this forum,
                  but I don’t think you understood what Paul of Tarsus was saying there”

                  That’s possible. But if so, so have millions of Christians who create the problem we were discussing. You don’t have to believe a given interpretation of scripture but you don’t get to ignore what a face-value interpretation of it gives us, especially when it is accepted as such by a large segment of self-professing Christians.

                • ctcss

                  “I’m assuming I’ve misunderstood you and you only mean coercive attempts to change people, Is this correct?”

                  If you mean a bullying, arrogant approach, which assumes the listener is always wrong and the speaker is always right, with no consideration given to trying to understand the listener’s viewpoint, yes.

                  “When it comes to doing good science, of course he does!”

                  Actually, I think Tyson is simply trying to do the best job he can of explaining the subject and letting the facts do the convincing. He tries to do a good job of teaching, and his approach is admirable. His agenda is not to convince, but to educate. He isn’t trying to intellectually bully his audience, which is why people are not turned off by what he does. He wants his audience to come to their own conclusion, not just go along with his. But the typical evangelistic view is more about having the evangelist doing the convincing.

                  “You don’t have to believe a given interpretation of scripture but you don’t get to ignore what a face-value interpretation of it gives us”

                  OK, why do you think that a face value interpretation of a small sound-bite of scripture should necessarily be the brass ring? Human language is limited, thus we use language in whatever way we can to somehow get our message across, scripture included. However, sound-bite theology is a really good way to simply justify one’s human predilections rather than try to grasp the conception afforded by a much larger view of scripture. You questioned how I came to my enlightened view despite Romans 1:20-21. Maybe it’s because I am trying to understand the much larger message preached by both Jesus and Paul (among others.) And the sound bite you are citing fails to convey that larger message.

                  “especially when it is accepted as such by a large segment of self-professing Christians.”

                  Honestly, are you really going with appeal to popularity? Why does it matter what a large segment believes? Isn’t it far more important for a person to try to discern where the truth actually lies, even if it means going against the popular view? Don’t you realize that any useful approach to scripture is going to need to be a questing, thoughtful, loving, and humble approach (vs a complacent, unthinking, self-righteous, self-congratulatory approach), rather than just simply going along with whatever someone else (even many someone elses’, or “important” someone elses’) view might say?

                • Nox
                • ctcss

                  “Who defines what a religion is? The leaders or the followers?”

                  Actually, I’d have to say the founder of the religion.

                  “If the words and actions of christians don’t count as representing what christianity really is”

                  They may or may not, depending on whether they understand what the founder was trying to convey. Do you honestly think that the subset of Christians who hate their neighbor or hate their enemy are trying to follow what Jesus asked of them? Is their hateful view of what Christianity is an accurate representation of what Jesus taught regarding those actions towards others?

                  “and the teachings promoted by the christian churches don’t count as representing what christianity really is”

                  Once again, they may or may not, depending. I’m not trying to slam anyone here, I’m just pointing out that trying to follow Jesus should be rather important to a Christian. Every Christian leader and follower needs to honestly ask themselves just how closely their words and actions correspond to what Jesus taught. Trying to follow Christ is a non-trivial exercise, at least as I understand it. (And no, I certainly don’t consider myself to be anywhere near what I ought to be. But the standard that Jesus established exists, both for me and for everyone else. We just need to do the best we can to try to follow it, as well as trying to improve our understanding and our actions as we go forward.)

                  “and the contents of the bible don’t count as representing what christianity really is”

                  I think that the Bible is key, but honestly, it needs to be understood in order for people to be able to use it. Jesus only had the OT available to him. But despite so many modern people’s dislike of the OT and what is in it, Jesus apparently didn’t consider it to be a problem or a drawback for his ministry at all. He seemed to view it in a way that was different from those around him. He saw a message of redemption and inclusion and healing, and acted on that knowledge. Basically, I think it is reasonable to say that Christians need to have the mind of Christ in order to properly understand the Bible (and God) as Jesus did in order to enable them to follow the Christ. Once again, a non-trivial task.

                  “then what is christianity?”

                  I’d say it is the understanding of God and God’s kingdom that Jesus taught about and acted on and expected his followers to understand and act on as well. Once again, a non-trivial task.

                • Nox

                  Which Jesus?

                • ctcss

                  A bit cryptic for a question, but I guess I would say the Jesus being described in the gospels that were chosen for inclusion in the Bible. And yes, the gospels differ, but then, they aren’t documentary videos of what happened, nor are they court transcripts. They are (at least as I understand them to be) the recollections of the followers of Jesus regarding his works and words. And since they all seem to offer somewhat different viewpoints on events and the wording of sayings, as well as some different contents, I look at them all (as well as the rest of the NT and also the OT) to gain a sense of the conception of God that Jesus was trying to teach his followers about. And as I tried to point out in my previous post, trying to follow Jesus (as he was described in the Gospels) is a non-trivial exercise. And I would imagine that is why one sees such a variety of Christian theology and practice in the world. None of what Jesus asked his followers to do is easy or even always necessarily crystal clear. (Even his close disciples had trouble grasping his meaning many times. Persisting in such an effort over a lengthy period of time was the only way that change was accomplished in their lives, from what I have read in the NT.)

                  Thus we all try to do the best we can. But making a serious, sincere effort to understand and to follow Jesus needs to be core, at least IMO.

                • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

                  “If you mean a bullying, arrogant approach, which assumes the listener is
                  always wrong and the speaker is always right, with no consideration
                  given to trying to understand the listener’s viewpoint, yes.”

                  I agree that this is bad behavior, but I don’t see Dawkins reflected in that statement. Being forthright about one’s position, especially after having given it serious thought is not the same as being arrogant and intolerant of other opinions. It may be that the opposing viewpoint has been considered and rejected. To maintain an artificial neutrality at that point is itself dishonest to himself and to his interlocutors.

                  “…But the typical evangelistic view is more about having the evangelist doing the convincing.”

                  When NDT is doing educational work, he’s letting the evidence do the talking, as did Dawkins when he did that job. When he goes on the talk show circuit to advocate for science, he uses one-liners and sound-bites like the rest of ‘em. NDT is advocating for science, RD for atheism, but the methods are not as different as you think. Don’t confuse taking different approaches to different arenas as a difference in outlook.

                  “Honestly, are you really going with appeal to popularity? Why does it matter what a large segment believes?”

                  Because beliefs inform actions and actions affect us all, not just the believers.

                  “Isn’t it far more important for a person to try to discern where the
                  truth actually lies, even if it means going against the popular view? ”

                  “Don’t you realize that any useful approach to scripture is going to need
                  to be a questing, thoughtful, loving, and humble approach”
                  No, I don’t because I have no idea what you mean by those words.
                  “Questing” Yes, if you mean inquisitive, no, if you mean ‘presupposing a divine message and trying to shape our understanding of the test to justify this presupposition.’
                  “Thoughtful” Yes, always good.
                  “Loving” No. I reserve my love for people, not books.
                  “humble” Yes, if you mean “being appreciative of the possibility of being wrong”. No, if you mean “selectively acquiescent to the supernatural claims of a particular scripture, as opposed to others”.

                  If you want to talk about the true meaning of scripture, we can have a discussion about that, and why I think your thoughtful Christianity is still wrong, as the literalists’ is, but as you said, that is beyond the scope of this discussion.
                  My original point was talking about the non-negligible amount of Christians who declare that atheists knowingly reject a god they know exists, using verses like the one I mentioned.
                  You had no reason to be offended by that. I was not addressing you, since you said you don’t believe that. Your problem was that I used the term “Christianity” to describe Christians. But that there are dozens of mutual contradicting versions of Christianity is not a problem for the commenting atheist, and it is not up to me to decide pick a “Christianity” to be true and the others to be false. Whether you think *their* interpretation is wrong is beside the point
                  for me. This is for Christians to work out among yourselves. So long as you share a club, you will have to share the reputation.

                • Pseudonym

                  I agree that this is bad behavior, but I don’t see Dawkins reflected in that statement.

                  Yes, but to be fair, I don’t think that ctss was making a characterisation of Dawkins’ statement per se. I think the discussion had moved on just a little.

                  I think that Dawkins’ statement was not malicious, just deeply ignorant. If it puzzles him that smart people can be religious (or, as some people do, wave it away with half-understood psychological terms like “compartmentalisation”; to his credit, I don’t think Dawkins has ever done this), then he really doesn’t understand people.

                  There’s no shame in ignorance, though it’s not a good look when you flaunt ignorance in public. Just look at Sam Harris.

                  This is for Christians to work out among yourselves. So long as you share a club, you will have to share the reputation.

                  I don’t think that Fred Phelps’ reputation should be shared by Stephen Colbert, any more than Josef Stalin’s reputation should be shared by Carl Sagan. I try to treat people as individuals where possible, though it’s not always easy.

                • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

                  “I think that Dawkins’ statement was not malicious, just deeply ignorant. If it puzzles him that smart people can be religious”

                  I’m actually a little less charitable with Dawkins’ motives. As I said, it is not an absurd position for a person who has arrived at a logical conclusion they are fairly certain of, to be puzzled with people they think are reasonable arriving at a different conclusion. We don’t generally express that puzzlement in public. I suspect he’s purposefully expressing his disbelief in this manner, to “break the spell” people have about discussing supernatural beliefs. Considering this is something he addressed at length in the God Delusion, it seems that it would be a sticking point with him. In that sense there may be an underlying motive to his bluntness. If this is true, I think it is a good move, if it forces people to critically consider religious claims.
                  There are thoughtful people who are deeply religious, but there are also many thoughtless people who are religious, and it would be good to get them thinking.

                  “I don’t think that Fred Phelps’ reputation should be shared by Stephen
                  Colbert, any more than Josef Stalin’s reputation should be shared by
                  Carl Sagan. I try to treat people as individuals where possible, though
                  it’s not always easy.”

                  This is irrelevant when the individuals claim to identify with a specific group and I am specifically addressing the group. If I criticize the Catholic church for their stance against condoms in Africa, or supporting the Ugandan bill that would kill gays, or the pedophile priest protection ring, and Colbert *protested* in defense of “real” Catholicism, I wouldn’t have any qualms in lumping him with the whole. In contrast, I wouldn’t blame the recent Phelps granddaughter (whose name escapes me) for the hideousness of the WBC’s actions, because she did the right thing: she left them behind. You don’t get to avoid criticism and at the same time keep the club membership card.

                • ctcss

                  “I agree that this is bad behavior, but I don’t see Dawkins reflected in that statement.”

                  I don’t either. In general, I think he is a decent sort of person, fully capable of listening to others when he wants to, and I actually wouldn’t mind having him as a neighbor. However, I am not thrilled with his forays into religious discussions, mostly because he seems to be doing it for political reasons rather than doing it for the consideration of truth claims. I was rather dismayed when (confronted with religious behavior that wasn’t simplistic in nature) he said something along the lines of “Well, most believers wouldn’t agree with [that much more reasonable stance]“. I would have been much more impressed with him if he had given a thoughtful evaluation of the different stance, rather than just being dismissive of the speaker. As I said, he seems to be doing what he does for political reasons.

                  “NDT is advocating for science, RD for atheism”

                  This is the crux of why I like NDT and don’t like RD. NDT is assuming that science will do the talking and that the listener will, if they are trying to follow along, begin to see the merits of science and gradually dismiss superstitious thinking all by themselves. RD, on the other hand, is (in so many words) trying to press the listener to change their thinking whether they want to or not. I do not like people who approach such matters with an evangelical mindset. It shows a disrespect for the individual that they are bent on converting. NDT seems to respect his listeners’ personal integrity and allows them to figure things out (and to take their time doing so) when given useful information in a friendly and helpful way. RD does not seem to respect the personal integrity of his listeners and has no problems insulting them by trying to force his way in the front door, so to speak.

                  Basically, I find RD’s approach to be somewhat akin to the thought behind Leninism. If I recall correctly, Marxism predicted that capitalism would fall all by itself. It would be a revolution carried out by the oppressed working classes who had finally decided to throw off their shackles of their own accord. Leninism, on the other hand, felt that the revolution could be forced to occur whether the workers were ready for it or not. IMO RD has his listeners in his metaphorical cross-hairs. I didn’t like that approach when it was being used against me by evangelical Christians, and I don’t like it when RD (or anyone else with a similar mindset) uses it either. Targeting people is disrespectful towards the people being targeted.

                  “Because beliefs inform actions and actions affect us all, not just the believers.”

                  I note that you are making a political statement here, not a truth statement. I was focusing on whether or not something could or should be considered to be the truth in my comment. (And just to be clear, politics also has a concern for me as well. I am not a mainstream Christian and, as such, am just as likely to be in someone’s cross-hairs as you are. Apostates are probably even worse than non-believers in the eyes of “true-believers”.)

                  “questing, thoughtful, loving, and humble approach”

                  Yes, inquisitive. Yes, thoughtful. Yes, loving towards others, as well as loving knowledge. Yes, humble because any of us can be wrong and not realize it.

                  “presupposing a divine message and trying to shape our understanding of the test to justify this presupposition”

                  Perhaps you would be more comfortable with something like “presupposing a [model] and trying to put that model to the test”? I have no problems with doing that. That’s pretty much what my religious practice is all about anyway. But the test period is my lifetime, the lab is my life, and the quality of the results (obtained here and now, not after I pass on) will depend largely on the quality of the effort I actually put into the testing I am doing. (The jury is still out on that one. Hopefully my “funding” will hold out until I am done. :) )

                  “it is not up to me to decide pick a “Christianity” to be true and the others to be false”

                  And I am not asking you or anyone else to do so. I would just appreciate having some qualifying words thrown into the mix such as “some Christians” or “many Christians” or “politically right-wing Christians” or “anti-science Christians”, etc. For example, would you think it fair to be upset with right-wing, war-mongering Christians and then lambaste Quakers along with them? Then why not specify that your beef is with the right-wing, war-mongering Christians and leave the other Christians out of that particular polemic? (You can always go after the Quakers when you’re in an anti-oatmeal frame of mind. ;) )

                  BTW, thanks for the thoughtful, courteous replies. It’s been amazingly refreshing talking with someone who doesn’t try to play games. (And thanks to Pseudonym, as well, for bringing up helpful points and embodying a good attitude, despite the fact that I shoe-horned my way into this discussion.)

                • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

                  ” However, I am not thrilled with his forays into religious discussions,
                  mostly because he seems to be doing it for political reasons rather than
                  doing it for the consideration of truth claims”

                  I would agree, but that comes with the territory of activism, I think. You don’t take pensive and measured stances when your words are being preyed on to be misquoted, where a more nuanced statement will be used, misshapen, as a hammer on his back. Check out, if you haven’t seen it yet, one of the numerous copies of the “Dawkins stumped” video. When even his pauses are misused, you can imagine how careful he should be with his words.

                  Re your comparison between Marxism and Leninism, I can see the point being made, but the problem is, no revolution ever started with all the oppressed raising up their arms in unison. There have always been people who try to push the zeitgeist to and fro.
                  There is an argument to be made that shocking language will jar some people into thinking about stuff they haven’t been thinking about, and this I suspect is Dawkins’ goal. He’s being the loud one so that the ideas he’s espousing are heard in areas where they werent before.

                  “I note that you are making a political statement here, not a truth statement”
                  I might say it’s both. The point being that, that millions of believers holding that claim to be true leads to the behavior I was addressing in the beginning of this dialog.
                  “And I am not asking you or anyone else to do so. I would just appreciate
                  having some qualifying words thrown into the mix such as (…examples)”
                  I get what you’re saying, and I sympathize. Part of the problem is that I take for granted that generalizations are always inaccurate, and I tend to use “the format “examples do A” to mean “Some examples do A” rather than “All examples do A”, which is obvious in phrases like “Alaskans like to hunt” but less obvious in others. Another part of the problem is, as you said, it shouldn’t be my problem to distinguish between the good and the bad within a group, it is the good parties’ job to distance themselves from the bad.
                  It is upon you (Christians) to get your own house in order. As much as I sympathise, It’s not my responsibility to uphold your honor, if it is being stained by those who carry the same flag as you.
                  If it is any comfort, I have the same problem. Under atheism, there is really no connecting thread apart from non-belief, so there is no guarantee two atheists will share views on anything else. So having been called a nazi, objectivist, pagan liberal (all by the same guy, in the same discussion) generalizations tend to chafe me as well. But it is still my responsibility to make my views known.

                  “BTW, thanks for the thoughtful, courteous replies.”
                  You’re very much welcome!

                • Pseudonym

                  You seem to be objecting to any sort of reasonable discussion about ideas, as any discussion is an attempt to change people’s minds and have them think like you, in which case I don’t understand what you’re doing here talking.

                  It’s possible that I’m not being clear.

                  If it helps, think of a model of the gun control debate. This is a model in the scientific sense, so it’s not meant to be realistic, but a simplified scenario so that we can understand some elements of it qualitatively.

                  Let’s assume for the purpose of the model that public debate is clustered into two camps, which we will for convenience call pro-gun and anti-gun. The pro-gun camp believes that the right to own firearms is absolute, that you can’t trust the police to respond in a timely manner to a crime and hence have to take steps to defend yourself, gun ownership is a moral good, and so on. There is also an anti-gun camp, the details of which are not important for this scenario.

                  Now consider two positions which the pro-gun camp could articulate. One is “I have a right to own a gun, and you can’t stop me”. Another is “you should own a gun to defend yourself and your family”.

                  Regardless of the merits of either position, there is a world of difference between the two.

                  The former position says “this is my position, and I’m not budging from it, and if you want to interact with me on this topic, you need to understand it”. There is a certain amount of fundamentalism in this point of view (it is, after all, just a model), but I would think that this falls within the bounds of “reasonable discussion”.

                  The other position is, I would argue, not “reasonable discussion”. It is imposing their values on you, with some victim-blaming thrown in for good measure.

                  Both positions are hard and uncompromising, but only the latter says “you have to be like me”.

                  Did that help?

    • Blacksheep

      Colbert believes in Catholicism wholeheartedly, in fact he teaches Sunday School. Atheists (as I have seen on FA) sometimes have trouble accepting that very smart people have strong faith.

      • 3lemenope

        I see this on both sides of the theistic divide. There is a strong undercurrent of belief that the other party’s brain is fundamentally broken on some level, because it has to be: it produces conclusions utterly incompatible with my own given the same data. The idea that, for example, one’s own brain could be broken, and *that* is what is producing the discrepancy, doesn’t seem to occur to many people.

        So when confronted with an articulate and crafty interlocutor, it does not do to dismiss them as stupid outright, but *something* must be broken, so we talk in terms of compartmentalization. It’s just *this* bit that’s broken, and everything else is fine, and isn’t that tragic?

      • Baby_Raptor

        Are you claiming to be one of those “very smart people”? Because if so, I can see why.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

        Except that a truly smart person would be able to see through the lies and bullshit and reject religious faith based on logic and reason.

  • DG

    Do atheists have anything to say about any of the other million religious and spiritual belief systems that don’t have something to do with the Christian message? I mean, I doubt I can gather more than 1% of everything atheists say that doesn’t directly aim at Christianity, and often a decidedly Protestant fundamentalist view of religion and doctrine not shared by the bulk of the Christian world. Surely they have something to say about the overwhelming bulk of the rest of human religious belief. Don’t they? Anyone? Goodness knows I don’t think Dawkins has anything to say. Almost all of his witticisms have one target. And one assumption.

    • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

      People spend more time dealing with what is in their closer surroundings.
      Dawkins has spoken out against the Catholic pope several times, as well as Islam. Sanal Edamaruku in India deals with eastern religions, or did until he got under the skin of the Catholic church The Greek atheist association ‘Atheia’ deals with the excesses and absurdities of the Greek Orthodox church. These are all just of the top of my head, so it may be you need to research your claims a little more.
      I do find it amusing that you chose this speech to claim that atheists mainly attack fundamentalism, since Dawkins spends a good chunk of it addressing Mormonism.

      • DG

        And yet they are only dealing with those particular traditions. That’s the point. I mean, they aren’t saying anything other than based upon their own backyards what they find problematic, while at the same time having ideals that are not consistent across the global spectrum. So an atheist who wants to make a difference takes on a variety of beliefs from a host of cultures. After all, atheism must say something, it can’t just be the old men in the balcony on the Muppet Show. It has to show that Dawkins’ own takes on the problems cut across the spectrum, not just when applied to a single theological tradition. After all, atheists claim to know more about other religions than anyone. Start proving it. Right now, it seems as though they are content standing in the comforts of their own homes and yelling at their neighbors, rather than do the heavy lifting and see how well a singular objection reaches across multiple, and sometimes contradictory, truth claims. See what I mean? I’m aware of Indian atheists who focus on that particular heritage. I’ve worked with one. I know there are atheists unique to the Islamic world. But what atheism needs to produce is an atheist who has done the heavy lifting across the board (they can’t account for each and every variation of course, but at least the major traditions). Then it becomes more difficult to have believers say ‘yeah, but that’s not what we say/they say/those others say.’

        • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

          So you go from “atheists only address fundamentalist Christianity” to “No single atheist has addressed every permutation of belief”.

          Yeah, I’ll go with Reginald Selkirk and take this as trolling.

        • Sordatos Cáceres

          Sure, of course if he wants to expend the rest of his life investigation about every little iteration that come out of every delusional person in the world…

          Nobody said that atheist know more about every religion than its practicers that would be impossible

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

          hi, sweetie. atheist here, done the “heavy lifting.” in more traditions than you probably are even aware exist. ancient, modern, monotheistic, polytheistic.

          you should read more. there are lots of us out here.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Tsk tsk – trolling on the Sabbath. Jesus would be unhappy with you.

      • Pepe

        Hey, to be fair, trolling for Jesus is one of the easiest ways to get into heaven. Or something.

    • Carmelita Spats

      You tend to go with what you know. Superstition is the target. Christianity is just one of its many incarnations and a socially acceptable form of mental illness which continues to demand taxpayer support and privilege. I tend to attack the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the RCC in Latin America, because I grew up in the Mexican Opus Dei and I still have loved ones suffocating inside the decimated colon of the creepy death cult. I’m also livid at the massive pile o’ sheeyite that the RCC has gloriously spread throughout my country: bigotry, misogyny, death, Quinceañeras, and much manly macho grunting. However, I also criticize the Santa Muerte cult, the risible Cult of Valverde, homeopathy, indigenous shamans, alternative medicine, quack healers and other forms of idiotic superstition.

    • Baby_Raptor

      You attack the enemy that’s harming you at the time. Go find an Atheist in a non-Christian dominated country. I bet they’ll talk about a different religion.

      A little thinking could have answered your question. But I guess thinking is hard?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    obama is not really a christian. i am sure of it.

    damn, i watched the whole thing. nice sunday afternoon not-sportsballl entertainment. thank you H. hadn’t seen this one before.

  • Pseudonym

    A person receiving the “emperor has no clothes award” give a speech about bad metaphors? I think my irony meter just overloaded.

    • 3lemenope

      LOL

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Harrison/23417637 Michael Harrison

    Regarding Dawkins’s statement about the self-deceit practiced by sophisticated theologists, I have noticed that the most celebrated apologists, when arguing against atheism, use the same strategy: raise one of the Big Questions (Why are we here?, What are the foundations of ethics?, etc.), state that atheists can’t answer this question, and assert that Christians are exempt from even trying. So, definitely.

    • 3lemenope

      Detective Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?

      Sonny: Can you, detective?

      [Awkward silence]


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