Wednesday, June 13, 2007

militant atheist Dawkins defended

I'm still obsessing over the anti-intellectual and other horrors of religion, having bought a handful of books at a second-hand stall while serving at a CD and record fair over the long weekend. Such titles as A History of Religions, The History of Judaism and The Speculative Philosophers [including an essay by Augustine on the immortality of the soul, taken from his City of God], give an idea of where my queer head's at these days. I've also just bought a copy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's The Caged Virgin. But the book I'm most into currently [apart from a biography of John Curtin] is a potboiler from the authors of Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, first published in the early nineties. It promises to expose the orthodoxy's massive efforts to suppress material which might threaten its control - all very relevant of course to my reflections on orthodoxy, so I've a neat excuse for reading it.
So I'm particularly alert to commentary critical of the brave sprinkling of voices speaking up for evidence against faith.
Not surprisingly, Dawkins cops a lot of this, and the other day someone derided his Root of all evil? program for describing religious people as 'stupid' and presenting a subjective view.
A reference was made, I think, to the scene in which he is watching some sort of religious pilgrimage, with a look of grim amazement. It was at this point, apparently, that he was supposed to have said that all these people were stupid. Of course, Dawkins said no such thing, that is not his approach, but maybe my companion inferred that he thought these people stupid, from Dawkins's much more polite but no doubt uncompromising remarks. Unfortunately I don't have a transcript of the program, but I know Dawkins's style well enough.
Anyway, this moment in the program was one I identified with strongly. My reaction when I see crowds of candle-kindling Christians, or breast-thumping Moslems, is always much the same, a visceral reaction of heart-heaviness, frustration and despond. Religion is an insult to human dignity, Dawkins proclaims. It certainly makes me feel insulted. And Dawkins's humane anger is far from new - eighty years ago in his essay Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell wrote that the whole conception of God 'is a conception quite unworthy of free men'. At a time when Islam was a very distant concern for British intellectuals, he also wrote 'I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.'
Russell, like Dawkins, looked largely to science to carry us clear of the religious morass. A forlorn hope, it would seem, especially after watching Root of all evil? It's demoralising enough to watch Dawkins hounded out of some sickeningly rich primitivist Christian's compound for daring to dispute the idea that our Earth is less than 10,000 years old, it's even more demoralising to consider that to most Islamic preachermen, talk about the age of the planet, or of evolution, would simply be gibberish.
There's such a lot at stake in this matter. For that reason, I find it unconscionable that Dawkins should be singled out for criticism as some sort of bigot, or 'preacher', or militant. Why should we stand idly by when politically powerful primitivists spruik messages of blatant ignorance and fear? Why should the likes of Dawkins, Grayling, Sam Harris and other relatively mild-mannered non-believers be pilloried for standing up to be counted in needful times such as this? Why aren't more people aghast at the ignorance, intolerance and manipulation that lies at the heart of all the 'great' world religions?

I read with amusement, at Pharyngula I think, that any atheist who writes a book or even an article defending atheism is called militant these days. To be added to Flaubert's Dictionnaire des
idées reçues.



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