About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Even Kristof occasionally doesn't quite get it right
Well, almost always. Recently Kristof has fallen for the very common fallacy of equating religious and atheistic “fundamentalism” as if they were pretty much the same thing. Commenting on Richard Dawkins' and Sam Harris' recent books, which are critical of religion (don't know why he left the significantly more intellectual Dennet's volume out of the fray), Kristof talks about “snarky” web sites such as whydoesgodhateamputees.com. Granted, the site's message is aggressive, but in an intellectual, not a jihadi sort of way. The authors of the site raise uncomfortable issues: “If God were answering the prayers of amputees to regenerate their lost limbs, we would be seeing amputated legs growing back every day; it would appear, to an unbiased observer, that God is singling out amputees and purposefully ignoring them.” Harsh, but a good point nonetheless. And the web site isn't calling for shutting down churches, killing prominent religious figures, or strapping bombs to one's body before walking into a religious shrine. All it's doing is engaging in a bit of provocative discourse. Tasteless, perhaps, but hardly “fundamentalist.”
Kristof goes on to characterize the latest atheist backlash (three books in all, countered by thousands of truly fundamentalist volumes, tv and radio shows touting all sorts of religious nonsense) as an “obnoxious offensive.” C'mon, Nicholas, a bit of an overreaction, don't you think? Which underscores the point that even among liberal intellectuals any attack on religion is frowned upon, regardless of all our lip service to the free exchange of opinion that characterizes an open society. You know, last time I checked the Constitution didn't provide any protection against insults, but it did protect the right of people to (verbally) attack other people's opinions.
Kristof then quotes Dawkins: “Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ no Northern Ireland ‘troubles.’” Hmm, I must admit, the vision evoked by this tasteless and obnoxious atheist offensive is in fact quite appealing.
Ah, but – Kristof immediately reminds us – atheists themselves are guilty of all sorts of crimes, just remember Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao (thankfully, he skipped Hitler, who was in fact a Christian). And this is perhaps the most disappointing thing about Kristof's commentary. He fell for the common Christian fundamentalist confusion between atheism as a free choice of individuals and societies and atheism as a state-imposed means of exercising power. Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao where dictators, who had an interest in squashing any potential alternative ideology, beginning with religious ones. They were not atheists in the sense that Dennett, Dawkins and Harris are talking about.
Kristof also falls prey to yet another specious piece of reasoning: that despite religion's great tragedies, there are a lot of religious people doing good work around the world. Of course there are, and nobody is claiming that they aren't or shouldn't be doing it. But Dawkins' bet is that those same people would feel compassion and engage in charity regardless of their specific beliefs in this or that god. In other words, the claim – debatable if you wish, but thought-provoking nonetheless – is that people are often good without religion, but that it takes religion to make (some) people really nasty.
I said before that I don't think Dawkins-like attitudes are particularly productive, and that in fact the real enemy is any kind of blind ideology – religious, political or otherwise. Nonetheless, a threatened minority (because that's what atheists are), has a right to vent now and then, and to compare this sort of reaction to “fundamentalism” is either naïve or disingenuous. Just think of Dawkins' book as the equivalent of Gay Pride parade: in your face with humor, but otherwise harmless. I'd like to exted an open invitation to Kristof to lunch whenever he is available, just to have a little chat about what atheism is really like, outside of the religious propaganda. And I'll contribute an extra check to his Darfur campaign if he accepts the invitation.