In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech

In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech April 1, 2012

While the media has largely ignored The Reason Rally, the one most popular bit of news that seems to be traveling around and getting criticized is Richard Dawkins’s recommendation to the crowd that we should incredulously and mockingly ask people who say they are Catholic whether they really believe in the transubstantiation during the Eucharist in which bread becomes literally the body of Christ and wine becomes literally the blood of Christ.

Critics are responding to Dawkins’s remarks by accusing him of hypocritically and perversely using what was nominally a rally for reason to pump up prejudice and mocking unreasonableness. To interpret his critics charitably, the following assumptions must be in play:

“To be rational in the utmost is to consider one’s opponent’s best arguments rather than to attack either strawman or ‘weak man’ arguments.”

“To attack with mockery, rather than argument, the prima facie absurdity of transubstantiation is to evade serious rational discussion of the question of God’s existence.”

“To attempt to persuade someone by mocking their beliefs rather than carefully refuting them is to attempt an end-run around rational debate and to try to bully someone into agreement by pressuring them that if they do not agree with you they will look silly and be thought a fool.”

“To mock someone’s beliefs is an inherently demeaning thing to do to them.”

There are several reasons these assumptions miss the mark.

First of all, these criticisms of Dawkins lazily and unreasonably ignore the actual rationale that he gave for specifically raising the issue of transubstantiation. It was actually not to make the believer feel stupid for believing such nonsense. Dawkins explicitly expressed doubt that the majority of nominally believing people really do believe such absurdities. He did not impugn their intelligence but rather he actually assumed they were smarter than their supposed beliefs. He was calling atheists to challenge nominal Catholics to confront the dissonance between what they actually believe and the Catholicism they often only passively belong to.

He wants nominal Catholics to reconsider why they so reflexively call themselves Catholic and thereby identify themselves as holding beliefs that upon the slightest introspection or incredulous challenge they will find they do not really find remotely plausible. Most importantly (and conveniently ignored by his opponents), Dawkins cited reputable survey data to support the notion that more people in England identify as Christian for reasons such as “wanting to think of myself as a good person” than for actually using religious teachings as their moral guide in life. The Christian leaders use their claim to great numbers of believers as the clout with which to bully politicians and society in general. Dawkins wants the Catholics whose beliefs the Church does not really represent to start grappling with this fact and with the disconnect between what they really believe and the institution they reflexively claim has authority over their beliefs and practices (to their own potential detriment).

I submit that this is as rational a place as any for Dawkins to request atheists to focus our confrontations with Christians, especially in an explicitly political, and not philosophical, speech. He called us to challenge the irrational ways in which ordinary people blithely confess to membership in an institution whose beliefs they either do not know, do not conscientiously live by, or cannot with a straight face defend; and yet which nonetheless claims to speak for them and their values in the halls of political power. Dawkins wants to challenge the soft power by which the Church keeps millions of nominal Catholics on the rolls by not forcing them to think too hard about what they believe or whether their faith beliefs square in the slightest with their common sense. He wants to show that in fact a greater majority is in practice as secular as the atheist minority, in a great many implicit beliefs and behaviors and that they should start understanding themselves accordingly.

While Dawkins explicitly calls for ridicule and contempt for patently absurd beliefs, he is equally explicitly not recommending a simplistic, dismissive “point and laugh” strategy aimed at (impossibly) marginalizing believing people as citizens. He is, rather, recommending something that true believing Catholics should not be threatened by or insist on exemptions from; namely, that they be demanded to affirm their Church’s beliefs or stop calling themselves Catholics.

And, in fact, if Catholics had the slightest confidence in their more absurd teachings, they wouldn’t be threatened at all by the prospect of atheists routinely asking them (or their brethren) if they actually believed what Catholicism teaches. The response in all the Catholic articles about Dawkins should have read, “Professor Dawkins, I’ll answer your question: Yes! I believe in the true transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and here’s why it’s more rational than not believing in it.” And they should have followed that up with triumphalist exhortations to fellow believers to proudly affirm their belief in it. And the bemoaners of “Cafeteria Catholicism” should have joined Dawkins in raising the bar on their fellow Catholics and said, “Either start accepting Church teachings or admit you’re an atheist like Professor Dawkins calls you to!”

I suspect though that they doubt, as much as Dawkins doubts, that many believers would find those appeals as inspiring as an appeal to their sense of persecution and grievance.

And if they thought Dawkins was really making a strawman of Catholicism, or a weak man argument against it, for either mocking the doctrine of transubstantiation as irrational or for treating belief in that irrational doctrine as a litmus test for true Catholicism, then they should have either explained either why it is perfectly reasonable for a Catholic to believe in the doctrine on rational grounds or explained why one can reject the transubstantiation doctrine while still remaining Catholic.

This was and still is a fine opening for the true defenders of reason to put the atheist pretender in his place. By all means, crack open the medieval philosophy texts and explain to us the metaphysical contortions that were used to justify this doctrine. Explain to us why these metaphysical categories are rationally necessary even today and show us how when they are applied in the most logical possible ways they make transubstantiation not only minimally reasonable but rationally compelling as most likely true. Educate us! Show us exactly why it is a respectable belief according to reason, and not just according to faith, and why Dawkins should be seen as a fool for thinking it so easily dismissable and contemptible for rational people to believe. I would love to read those retorts and luxuriate in the persuasive way they put us brash, ignorant unreasonable New Atheists in our place. Really, I love being disabused of errors. Use philosophy to show me we New Atheists are wrong and I will love the chance to show how willing I am to admit I am wrong in the face of an actually plausible argument. I can’t wait.

Or, if the transubstantiation is not rational but is yet also not a true litmus test for Catholicism, then by all means show us why the average Catholic should not be expected to hold that belief. Point out the places where popes, bishops or esteemed Catholic theologians repudiate literalism about the Eucharist. And then, if you can actually do that, go ahead and explain to us why it is horribly bad and demeaning for us atheists to disabuse the average Catholic of that belief when even some estimable, learned Catholics reject it!

Or, if the belief is a rational litmus test for Catholic belief and it is not defensible on rational grounds but only on dogmatic ones, then explain to us in detail why true defenders of reason prove themselves by their willingness to make beliefs that are not grounded in reason immune to the criticism and ridicule that might help people abandon their unsupported beliefs. Explain to us why true defenders of reason, unlike the “arrogant” people at the reason rally, do not take a belief’s lack of evidence as grounds for dismissing it as either likely false or, at least, as an insufficient basis for the full commitment of one’s life and identity that religions demand.

And while you are at it, columnists and bloggers, show consistent adherence to your newfound principle that forbids all use of mockery in political and philosophical polemics. Please swear off all future uses of sarcasm or any other rhetorical devices for highlighting irrationality in the positions of politicians and other public figures or movements you criticize henceforth. Retract all use of humor or confrontational language in your past writings. Call for political satirists to be thrown off the air and off the internet as inimical to rational debate. Don’t be hypocrites! Stand up for a neutered form of reasoned argument that allows itself no contentiousness or laughter in the face of falseness!

And if you believe that all criticisms of the contents of beliefs is demeaning to one’s opponents’ dignity, then stop demeaning all of us atheists by implying, or even stating, that our beliefs are false. You’re demeaning us!!

And if you think that we are only targeting the transubstantiation because it is low hanging fruit, i.e., an obvious absurdity much easier to defeat than the tougher question of the existence of God, then I will make you a deal on behalf of all New Atheists everywhere. (I know what you’re thinking—how can he dare to consider himself authorized to speak for all New Atheists everywhere. Just keep reading and you’ll see! I doubt any New Atheists won’t sign up for this deal. Link me to any articles wherein they do!) As soon as all religious people stop believing in and promulgating beliefs that are easy to refute or expose as false, we will all stop refuting those beliefs and stop exposing them as false. We will throw them on the ash heap of history with the Greek gods and think of them as a waste of time to worry about refuting. I promise.

But for as long as millions of socially and politically empowered people either believe, or at least claim to believe, absurdities, we have every right and responsibility to debunk those absurdities, no matter how easy that is to do or how politically disruptive to your ends it might be for us to do it.

Now, if you cannot agree to any of the above, then you can just admit that you want to give religious beliefs special privileged exemptions from criticism and/or you want to smear outspoken atheists, all out of either (a) your personal irrational unwillingness to have your own religious beliefs scrutinized rationally or (b) your elitist desire to patronize religious believers who you think are well-meaning benighted boobs that are both intellectually beneath refutation and way too useful for political purposes you support.

Those are your choices. Which do you agree to?

For the objective record, below the fold is the relevant transcript from Dawkins’s speech in full context, followed by an embed of the video of the full speech (starting at 10:21). The quoted sections come from 17:18-8:05 and 22:21-25:25 of the video.

I am often accused of expressing contempt and despising religious people. I don’t despise religious people, I despise what they stand for. I like to quote the British journalist Johann Hari who said, “I have so much respect for you, that I cannot respect your ridiculous ideas.”


[W]hat I want to suggest you do when you meet somebody who claims to be religious, ask them what they really believe. If you meet somebody who says he’s Catholic, for example, say, “What do you mean? Do you mean you were just baptized Catholic? Because I’m not impressed by that.” We just ran a poll by my Foundation in Britain, just ran a poll in Britain, in which we took those people who had ticked the Christian box in the census (and, by the way, that figure has come down dramatically)…and we asked them, “Why did you tick the Christian box?” And the most popular answer to that question was, “Oh, well, I like to think of myself as a good person.” Well, we all like to think of ourselves as good people. Atheists do, Jews do, Muslims do. So, when you meet somebody who claims to be Christian, ask her, ask him, “What do you really believe?” And I think you’ll find that in many cases, that they give you an answer that is no more convincing than that “I like to be a good person.”

By the way, when we went on to ask a specific question of these, over 54%, “What do you do when you’re faced with a moral dilemma? Where do you turn? Only 10% turned to their religion when they want to solve their moral question. Only 10%! The majority of them said, “I turn to my innate sense of goodness.” The next most popular answer was, “I turn for advice to relatives and friends.” So, when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is, “I don’t believe you.” I don’t believe you until you tell me, do you really believe, for example, if they say they are Catholic, “Do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafter, it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that?!” Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood? Mock them. Ridicule them. In public. Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe that need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

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