The Anti-Dawkins “Thunderbolt”

This is the most generous tribute an atheist ever paid to religion, or more specifically, to the rites and reliquaries of religion: A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, … Read More

By / December 28, 2006

This is the most generous tribute an atheist ever paid to religion, or more specifically, to the rites and reliquaries of religion:

A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious, And gravitating with it to this ground, Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round.

Philip Larkin (the above strophe comes from his poem "Church Going") didn't need the "God delusion" to appreciate what was awesome and ineffable about ancient institutions. Other-wordly preoccupations of man have been around so long because there's something in man that causes them to be. Anyone who's ever used an ethereal metaphor to enhance language, who hasn't got ice water in his veins, knows that to step into a church or mosque or synagogue is to feel the weight of ages and thus something inextinguishable about human nature. This is a humbling experience regardless of whether or not you believe the attendant hocus-pocus of those robed compulsions.

Venerating the persistence of religious myth — if not quite the myth itself — is what made George Orwell abhor the communists' destruction of cathedrals in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. I can't quite remember if Orwell used the word "blasphemy" to describe these cretinous assaults on centuries-old art and architecture, but his reaction was more than visceral, it was akin to pious offense. I'd also wager that his opposition to totalitarianism was greatly aided by witnessing how blithely the agents of historical "progress" could erase ruins of the past to make way for the monuments of the future.

Being an atheist doesn't mean that you must submit, out of some hollow sense of decorum, to religious hubris or to what you find logically or intellectually bankrupt in a collection of religious tenets. "Have a little respect for tradition" from the mouth of a true believer can often mean "Keep yours shut because you insult me if you take issue with my idea of the cosmos" — which is as preemptive and bullying as the worst "militant" or angry atheist will ever get.

Richard Dawkins has always struck me as an unfortunate megalomaniac, or self-appointed messiah, working to advance a necessary cause. As a polemicist, he's more than entitled argue that faith is a symptom of weak-mindedness and that in the secular vs. religious culture war, you're either with us or you're a fucking idiot. But he should know that this is hardly the way to enlist more numbers into the ranks of radical disbelief, which requires coaxing the doubtful into a state of pure skepticism.

Reading the Comments section of our still-buzzing Sam Harris/Dennis Prager dialogue, I've noticed that epistemological certitude is pretty evenly distributed between the God Botherers and the Myth-Busters, so at least both sides are equally committed.

But I have to wonder about a Times of London op-ed that takes on Dawkins for his immodesty when that op-ed has the modest byline of "God." Talk about metaphysician, heal thyself.

Whoever wrote the piece trots out all the prosaic defenses of religion and points, as if for the first time, to all the same elisions in the atheist's brief. At least one elision suffers from a severe category problem.

Hey now, did you know Josef Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot were nun-killers and an icon-smashers when they weren't busy liquidating millions of people? Ipso facto, the forces of godlessness murder at least as readily as the backers of the Almighty. Not quite. The materialism of communism placed more of an emphasis on the public ownership of the means of production than it did on the non-existence of the soul. What led to the shocking statistics of the gulag or the killing fields was actually the one thing Marxism had little time for: the role of the individual in history, in this case, the pathological dictator. Atheism, when invoked as a sidecar conviction of communism, is barely a correlation, and very definitely not a cause of that ideology's record of mayhem and mischief.

Dawkins argues that religion is the cause of violence and misery because those very things are justified in canonical religious texts. Keep in mind that Stalinism was inextricable from what Boris Pasternak termed the "reign of the big lie" (What gulag? Those shot prisoners were confessed enemies of the people, etc.) You won't find a nod to mass murder or genocide in any Soviet proclamation, but it's right there in the Old Testament, isn't it? So aren't those who claim to derive their morality from bronze age tracts either condoning what God gets up to in them, or trying to wish such activities away with fanciful PR? (Sorry, the nasty bits didn't happen. But the pleasant ones — you're going to hell if you question those.)

Dawkins doesn't say you have to believe in the divine to murder millions or incite wars. You just have to be drunk on the certainty that you're serving a higher, infallible master who's established a predetermined end to human affairs, whether that master is God or History or dialectical materialism. All are contagions of Captive Mind Syndrome, yet only one has proven ineradicable and still eats up hours of analysis time in the lab. Explaining why religion endures is Dawkins' greatest, glibbest failure as an atheist. William James, Sigmund Freud, and now James Wood do the job infinitely better.

Although, "God" could use a little forensic coaching himself:

Biblical creationists believe that the Book of Genesis is a source of factual information about the origins of the world. They teach that I literally created all things in a series of instantaneous acts over six days some 5,000 years ago. Most sensible believers in the book subscribe without demur to Darwin’s theory of evolution while reading Genesis in the light of the mystery so well articulated by Martin Rees — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And now, I am bound before I finish to comment on what you call the God Hypothesis. You define God as “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence which deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”. This is typical of militant atheists who constantly define me purely in terms of the criteria of science alone, rather than in terms of a quest for spiritual contact that becomes a reciprocal loving relationship between creature and creator.

"Sensible" believers in the book, in other words, believe what they want to in their own improvised way, which means they're either apostates in denial, or dogmatists tricked out in the more fashionable wardrobe of reason. Since science hasn't got everything all squared away (and never will), sensible believers can still retain some kernel of piety while labeling the sillier portions of the Bible not as "revealed" truth but as allegorical lesson plans for the good life. How is morally instructive, and wholly man-made, secular literature any different to the "sensible" reader? Would we trust anyone who believed in the reality of a protagonist, or the infallibility of the author, or got so bent out of shape when it was suggested that neither exist?

The most convenient term to describe God is one that has relevance to both the pro-Dawkins and anti-Dawkins crowds because it has both a biological and mythopoetic meaning: imago. On the one hand, it's a fully formed, winged insect, a testament to the ancestor's tale of evolutionary trial-and-error; on the other, it's an idealized conception of another person or oneself. Nature or imagination. Does religious belief enter into it, or can either scenario work without that assumption?

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