Dawkins Responds To Me

Dawkins Responds To Me April 4, 2012

Today starts a much easier two weeks for me with respect to traveling and lecturing, as several of the schools I teach at either have spring break or days off for Easter, so even though I will still have a lot of other academic chores to attend to, you can nonetheless expect me to be blogging closer to the prolific pace at which I like to keep you accustomed.

By this afternoon I should have time to get writing again. In order to sate you in the meantime, there has been some heartening feedback to my post on Sunday defending Richard Dawkins against general criticism his Reason Rally speech received. It turns out Dawkins himself read the piece and had the following to say in the comments section to the post linking to my article at RichardDawkins.net:

I am extremely pleased by Daniel Fincke’s article, which says exactly what I SHOULD have said and, to my regret, didn’t make sufficiently clear in my Reason Rally speech. The best way to summarise it would be to modify the quotation from Johann Hari. Johann said, “I respect you too much to respect your ridiculous beliefs”. From now on, my version will be, “I respect you too much to accept that you really believe anything so ridiculous as you claim. Please either defend those beliefs and explain why they are not ridiculous, or else declare that you do not hold them and publicly disown the church to which you claim loyalty.”

Politicians who curry favour with voters by claiming religious affiliation should learn the downside of such self-serving claims. They should be made to defend, in public, the ridiculous beliefs of the religion to which they pretend loyalty.


That was extremely gratifying. I very much appreciate Professor Dawkins taking the time to express his appreciation. I am, of course, a grateful admirer of his work in biology and on behalf of atheism. I also appreciate my many Facebook friends and the bloggers Richard WadeEd BraytonChris Hallquist, and Dana Hunter for things they’ve said the last few days too. Just in general, the last few weeks I have been receiving what has felt like an enormous amount of appreciation from every quarter—readers, friends, colleagues, students, people I’ve written about—that has made me feel very encouraged.

Being a philosopher means being disagreed with and challenged pretty steadily. Graduate school, from which I was only recently released after serving a ten year sentence, was for several years a rather unsupportive environment for me where my self-confidence was really badly damaged. In some ways that was healthy. I had a ton of growing up to do as a person and as a scholar to realize just how much I did not know, and to realize how much other people really did know and how much harder it is than it looks to a cocky know-it-all 22 year old kid to actually say things which are both new and true. When you are used to being one of the smartest kids in the class and (seemingly) winning every argument, it is necessary and eventual that the competitive real world teach you some lessons about how much humanity has done without you and how much you have to learn from others before you will have anything to teach them. Graduate school is a wonderful place to learn your place. But it can also be in some ways so negative, unsupportive, or indifferent to your intellectual and emotional struggles that it can be excessively discouraging. And I experienced a lot of that too. Only in the last several years, when John Davenport and John Richardson came onto my project and Eric Steinhart took me informally under his wing did I wind up getting the kinds of personal attention and guidance that I needed to finally start thriving intellectually for the first time since I was an undergraduate. But even after that, the complete lack of interest in me by the schools hiring tenure-track professors, combined with the poor pay and no health insurance that I get for all the hours and energy I pour into my teaching efforts as an adjunct professor, have really made total discouragement and disillusionment an occasional temptation throughout the last few years.

And arguing for philosophical positions often invites a lot more challenges than Amens, no matter what you are saying. No matter how good your argument, the beauty of the philosophical dialectic is that someone is always going to have an objection to what you say, no matter how good a philosopher you are. As Eric Steinhart likes to put it, a philosopher complaining about being criticized is like a firefighter asking, “What’s with all the fire?” So I am used to clicking on the comments on my posts and bracing for attacks and then often receiving them and feeling the pressure to answer all of them. Since I am always bearing up for intellectual combat and always engaging in it, it’s hard emotionally to think that readers actually like me. So I really appreciate all the people the last few weeks who have actually taken the time in person, in e-mail, on Facebook, or otherwise, to share enthusiasm for my writing and to wish me well personally. It helps balance out the self-critical mind’s tendency to seize on, and be impressed by, only the negativity—even when the negativity is a thoroughly good, welcome, and vitally necessary thing (as the vast majority of my readers’ critical comments are).

Finally I should also thank Patrick Mefford for badgering me on Facebook a couple weeks ago for defending the New Atheists (in this post). His false equivalence claims that atheists are comparably unreasonable (or worse) to faith-believers and his sniffing specifically about Dawkins’s The God Delusion not being philosophically robust or informed enough irritated me sufficiently to plant the idea in my head of writing a defense of Dawkins in the first place. I certainly don’t agree with Dawkins or the average atheist viewpoint on everything. But when I read people who don’t adequately appreciate the very good things about the New Atheists or the atheist movement and who are unwilling to contextualize their criticisms within such an appreciation, or when I see them holding atheists to standards of rationality and civility to which they don’t hold religious people, I find I have few sympathies with them and get defensive. I have needled my fellow atheists and demanded more philosophical nuance and introspection from them plenty and will continue to do so. But when the general worthwhileness of atheists or atheism is challenged on the bases of a few minor and remediable flaws compared to what they criticize, I am going to get defensive and aim to put things in perspective.

Some day I will get around to a post which pushes back against philosophers’ tendencies to disparage the New Atheists on account of their philosophical imperfections. I also will continue writing posts that push back against the equally irritating anti-philosophical, scientistic aspects of atheists’ thinking. Just as far as I’m concerned anyone who wants to disown or attack the atheist movement for its tendencies towards a few philosophical mistakes and not appreciate it for the greater good it does in advocating against the deep, anti-philosophical errors of faith and willful dogmatism, has their sense of perspectives and priorities totally out of whack. Those who are committed to rationalism should be working within the atheist movement to steer its philosophical articulations in better directions rather than, in false equivalence, calling for a pox on both the atheist and theist houses or, worse, defending religious institutions as though the ways they inculcate irrationalistic habits of thought were not more explicit and systematic.

In response to my defense of Dawkins, amidst all the heartening praise, gratefully readers have also been raising many challenges to his sentiments and to mine. I hope to address at least several of the more interesting and serious criticisms starting this afternoon at the latest. In the meantime, I just want to highlight a few posts where I draw my own careful distinctions about the ways and reasons we should be confrontational with religious believers and the ways and reasons in which we should not. These posts, unlike the last one, do not purport to speak for Professor Dawkins and sometimes may diverge from his views:

My Thoughts on Blasphemy Day

In Defense of Mocking and Embarrassing Religion

Who Are You Calling Stupid?

I Don’t Really Give A Fuck About Tone, Per Se

Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religion?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist

And, of course, I recommend my entire 10 part series on reaching out to religious believers which starts with this post (with links at the bottom to all the others) for a lot of the nuances, and the full scope picture, of how I see debate working best.

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