Saturday, January 18, 2014

Michael Robbins, Richard Dawkins, and the Rationalist Critique of Religion

Michael Robbins’ comments about Richard Dawkins in his review of Mary Worthen’s The Apostles of Reason inspired me to go back and reread The God Delusion. While I would not go so far as to call Richard Dawkins a “clown” as does Michael Robbins, I would say that Dawkins misses a lot of opportunities to critique and criticize religion, Christianity in particular.

Dawkins begins The God Delusion with a 7 point scale of belief. At extremes are atheists and Christians who are absolutely certain that God exists or does not exist, as the case may be. Dawkins places himself at the almost but not quite point in his scale of being pretty sure that God does not exist. He phrases it as “God probably does not exist.” Basing one’s belief (or non-belief) on probabilities is offensive to the religious mind which craves absolute certainty and the absence of doubt. Religious belief typically treats doubt as sin, as rebellion against a good and loving deity. “Almost but not quite” in religious matters doesn’t cut it.

I appreciate Dawkins’ honesty in acknowledging shades of certainty and doubt, but I can’t but wish that he had gone further to argue that certainty as the religious mind understands it is a pathological condition and that life shows itself in a plethora of shades of gray. Absolute certainty is not only a pathological condition, it is an invention of religious-minded fanatics and is a historical phenomenon. Dawkins’ book would be more of a challenge to the religious mind if he had argued that certainty as the religious understand it bears only a passing similarity to certainty as scientists and most people have come to understand certainty: certainty comes in shades. This partiality of certainty is intrinsic to the concept.

As it stands The God Delusion firmly stands in the tradition of rationalist critiques of religion. The overall strategy is to force the reader to confront the absurdities religion begets. Absurd beliefs cause (unnecessary) pain and suffering. No one wants to suffer unnecessarily. Ergo religion is a bad thing and is (probably) false to boot. Obviously, this syllogism fails if it is shown that some people want to suffer, the guilt-ridden for example.

The religious, Christians especially, are obsessed with suffering, their own and that of others. Suffering is proof positive of obedience to God and His Will. It is intrinsic to religion to desire suffering, whether it is the emasculation of one’s reason through creationism, or the concern over fetal suffering, or the high rates of teen-age pregnancy that abstinence-only sex ed begets, or the persecution of homosexuals even if in one’s own family, or an extra mouth to feed in an already too large impoverished family. Religion claims pain and suffering as its private and exclusive domain. It promises to give meaning and purpose to suffering, even at the cost of absurdities. By the way, the question of the meaning of life is really the meaning of suffering: why do I suffer? and why am I unhappy? No one asks about the meaning of life when they are happy.

It is because of beliefs and practices about suffering that rationalist critiques of religion recur and never seem to gain a decisive victory over religion. The rationalist critique fails to win victory over religion because of religion’s attachment to suffering. The religious-minded accuse the rationalist critique of shallowness.

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