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

That's Nicholas Kristof, the excellent New York Times op-ed columnist who has been so persistent in bringing to Americans' attention the genocide in Darfur, and whose commentaries on both foreign and domestic matters are always sharp and on the mark.

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 na├»ve 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.


  1. I've been reading a lot about reactions to Dawkins book, especially on the Scienceblogs network, where there is quite a debate going on. Finally I went out and bought the book yesterday.

    I must admit I have been inclined in the past to apply the term fundamentalist to some of Dawkins utterances, mostly because he seems concerned to eliminate the middle ground which is something that fundamentalists always do.

    But having read most of the book, I find that it really has made me think a little harder, something that I did not find with Dennet's Breaking the Spell [not that I didn't learn anything, just that I wasn't forced to think harder as I was with The God Delusion].

    In particular, I see some cogency in his point that moderate religion supports absolutist religion by inculcating faith (believing without evidence) as a virtue. I had always realized that truth and certainty are two different things, but was content to leave it at that. Now I see that it is necessary to go a step further and revalue (or devalue) faith as a virtue.

    Probably it is this evaluative aspect of Dawkins' work, tacked on to the theoretical analyses, that excites the ire and dismay of those who want to live in harmony with religious neighbours. Well, I do sympathize, but I don't see how the evaluation can be avoided.

    There were other parts of the book that I also found thought-provoking. And it is, on top of everything else, a delight to read.

  2. I've watched several hours of video of Dawkins and Sam Harris explaining their main points, and the point I agree with most is that religious moderates are an unwitting umbrella for the extremists. The crazy "Jesus Camp" types have a free pass. Moderates laugh at them but they never criticise them in any meaningful way.

  3. "Kristof goes on to characterize the latest atheist backlash ... as an 'obnoxious offensive.'"

    That's not quite what Kristof said:

    "That site [whydoesgodhateamputees.com] is part of an increasingly assertive, often obnoxious atheist offensive"

    This isn't too inaccurate. Atheists are becoming more assertive, and often it does spill over into obnoxiousness.

    Also, while it's easy to wrongfully roll out the atrocities of the communists as a way of saying "this is what an atheist world would look like" (insert scary music here :-)), it is fair to use the evils of godless communism to point out that it is blind ideology, rather than religion per se, that is the problem, and that we can do evil even without religion. Kristof isn't as clear as he could be, but he seems to lean toward the latter rather than the former. (Last time I checked, Kristof himself was atheist, IIRC.)

    "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 naive or disingenuous."

    Maybe, but copying some of the mistakes of the fundies, such as sloppy thinking and demonizing the opposition, is not a good thing, and we shouldn't go too easy on those who do copy those mistakes.

  4. Just completed reading Dawkins book yesterday and Harris a couple of weeks ago.

    Took me 3-5 weeks alltogether and over that time read several reviews criticizing them.

    I completely disagree with the reviews...its clear that the reviewers had their religeous blinders on, perhaps not even reading the books completely. Certainly not really following the authors arguments. One reviewer's criticism was they did not attack the Moslem religeon as much as Christian...yet that was clearly explained by Dawkins as simply the example he was using as most of his intended readers were Christian.

    I found Dawkins' book very carefully argued. Harris' book just what I wish I could say to my christian friends or give them to actually read.

    Yes there are good Christians, bad Christians, good Moslems, bad Moslems, good Athiests, bad Athiests, well reasoned books and poorly reasoned books. Dawkins, Harris, and their books are good and a service to humanity.

  5. Coupla points.

    It may be that faith is not a virtue, but any deeply held belief calls on the sincerity and earnestness of the person that holds it, and this may represent the best in that person. This probably should encourage civility.

    Also there is the problem of logical compatibility. The Tower of Babel story is logically incompatible with modern linguistic findings. But Deism or Theistic Evolution, while they may or may not be warranted, are usually regarded as logically compatible with modern scientific findings. Dawkins wants to go after these as well, and actually treats them as scientific hypotheses. He may be right that original theism was the scientific theory of its time, but I doubt if the same could be said for these later philosophical positions, which were explicitly designed either to purify the god-concept in the light of modern findings, or to withdraw the god-concept from conflict with science. He treats these kinds of believers as fellow travellers, which may account for some of the adverse reaction he gets.

  6. madm4n said:
    > It may be that faith is not a virtue,
    > but any deeply held belief calls on
    > the sincerity and earnestness of the
    > person that holds it, and this may
    > represent the best in that person.

    That kind of deeply held beliefs is pretty rare. Few people are willing to be that sincere and earnest and accept that there is no reason for them to believe, and thus really take a leap of faith. Most people fall back on "ordered" world arguments, and get pretty uncomfortable when confronted with counter examples. Such unexamined faith has more to do with intellectual insincerity, stubbornness, and laziness. I would say not men's best qualities.


  7. Here is dawkins reply to Kristof:
    To the Editor:

    Nicholas D. Kristof is one of many commentators to find the tone of
    the newly resurgent atheism "obnoxious" or "mean."

    Ubiquitous as they are, such epithets are not borne out by an
    objective reading of the works he cites: Sam Harris's "Letter to a
    Christian Nation," my own "God Delusion" and
    www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com (I had not been aware of this splendid
    Web site; thank you, Mr. Kristof).

    I have scanned all three atheist sources carefully for polemic, and
    my honest judgment is that they are gentle by the standards of normal
    political commentary, say, or the standards of theater and arts critics.

    Mr. Kristof has simply become acclimatized to the convention that you
    can criticize anything else but you mustn't criticize religion. Ears
    calibrated to this norm will hear gentle criticism of religion as
    intemperate, and robust criticism as obnoxious. Without wishing to
    offend, I want "The God Delusion" to raise our consciousness of
    this weird double standard.

    How did religion acquire its extraordinary immunity against normal
    levels of criticism?

    Richard Dawkins
    Oxford, England, Dec. 4, 2006

  8. GCB: Most people fall back on "ordered" world arguments, and get pretty uncomfortable when confronted with counter examples."

    If they were in fact good and well reasoned arguments, I doubt anyone with a half a wit would be uncomfortable with what was presented.

    "That kind of deeply held beliefs is pretty rare. Few people are willing to be that sincere and earnest and accept that there is no reason for them to believe, and thus really take a leap of faith."

    Faith isn't, in the first place, what you seem to think it is. Faith is more like when a believer sees a situation that does not look promising, but holds on to doing the right thing even when the indications or appearances are not such that would make the individual want to choose the more noble route or attitude.

    (I'll use myself as a negative example)
    I likely should not have interjected my comment on my husband's lack of interest in adopting on another thread. My commenting on that issue was not the faith filled response to what God might accomplish with or with out me. But by me saying something faithless like that in his presence he may fill even less inclined to do what is right and noble in the long run.

    That's kind of how an absence of faith can work itself out in real life decision making.

    Actual leaps of faith are rarely made. I think it is a series of bad decision making that ruins a thing.


  9. I had read some of the reviews (posted on Dawkins' own web site) before obtaining a copy of TGD. I was somewhat surprised to find the book much less harsh than what I had been led to believe by the critics. The book was fairly long and took me two full weeks to complete it but I highly recommend it (as well as the even longer Ancestor's Tale).

    As a pretender to intellectualism, I would like to see atheists prevail through calm, considered dialogue but I look at the world around me and recognize that this approach will be drowned out in a sea of clamoring religious voices. If we aren't vociferous and sometimes even a bit obnoxious, we will be ignored.

  10. I'm an atheist and a fan of Dawkins but I think his approach is better suited to rallying other atheists than to turning the believers.

    He never leaves his naturalistic world view, to see things from the other side as it were. I think that people's implicit ontologies are more often loosely dualist or idealist than Dawkins's assumed physicalist stance. Religion is far more about people, morality and relationships than it is about world views anyway. There are personal, cultural, political and economic reasons for people to be drawn into religion and few of these are tackled in TGD.

    I've a piece on the uphill battle facing anti-religionists here.

  11. Just had to include my two cents worth here. I've recently read Dawkins' TGD and Sam Harris' "Letter" and "End of Faith" - all three are incredibly powerful books. Over the past weekend, I had the time to read entirely thru www.whydoesgodhateamputees, and I must say that the author does two very important things that the 3 books do not. One is to write at a much lower grade level than Dawkins or Harris; most likely many of the people who need to read this kind of material are not college graduates. The other is to start quite gently, then work up to the strong points much later, all the while patiently explaining and reiterating every point made. It would be perfect reading for kids around 14-16 years old, while they're still open to new ideas.

    Thanks to all three of these authors, though, for contributing to sanity in the world. I was fortunate to be able to attend a lecture by Dr. Dawkins a few weeks age, and I came away feeling that maybe there's hope for our world, after all.


  12. Sometimes I too think it can be counterproductive to act like Dawkins and Harris. Some other times, I just rejoice in their "in your face" type of approach.

    Last week, in one of our naturalist group meetings (about activism), one of the guys said something like this: "the gays did not get where they are by being nice; the women did not get there by being nice; the blacks did not get there by being nice..." and stuff like that. Meaning, I believe, that nobody will by "their own niceness" hand you your civil rights.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.