There is a new book out by Richard Dawkins called “The God Delusion.” His mission is to bring the discussion of atheism out in the open and to make a case for it and against the belief in God. Salon.com has a great write-up of Dawkins’ work and his new book. Readers of the medical blogosphere may notice that atheism has been popping up lately. Dr. Herbert wrote a piece about an atheist patient of his. The Neonatal Doc wonders what is said at an atheist funeral. As an atheist, I’m sensitive to pieces like these because I wonder exactly what I’m going to do when caring, not for the atheist, but for the religious. What am I going to say when a family asks me “Do you pray, doctor?” or “Will you say a prayer for my loved one?” Dawkins’ book is already incredibly popular and receiving a great deal of press. He’s keeping a blog as he tours the world promoting it. I don’t normally care about things like this, but I really hope that Dawkins is successful in making the discussion public. I often feel like a pariah in my own community for my atheism, and have even kept it a secret from my more extended family. I’m writing this now because of an article I read in the San Fransisco Chronicle. It’s by Dinesh D’Souza who authored “The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.” On first glance, I think it’s a disgusting and irresponsible title. But I’ve been wrong before about the covers of books, which is why I read his take on “The God Delusion.” I was so disappointed in his review, not for its conclusion, but for its absolute laziness. I can’t help but draw the conclusion that this is his writing style, and that there is likely little useful in his book. If you like, you can read his article and then see my response to him below.
I won’t paint those that believe in a God with the same brush that I would paint Dinesh D’Souza, but I will say that this isn’t the first time I’ve run into this type of reasoning. I was incredibly frustrated as a child whenever my parents or teachers become angry and impatient with me as I continued to question them about God or about the contents of the Bible. I will never forget when I was small, asking my mother, “who created God?”
“Nobody. God always was.”
“How is that possible?”
“God is like a wreath or a circle, without beginning or end.”
“But didn’t something make the wreath and the circle?”
“That is part of the mystery of God.”
I think that if people take their beliefs seriously, then they should explore them with some measure of academic rigor. If you don’t understand why you believe something, then what use is it to you? Why would anyone be willing to just accept ‘mysteries’ if there is no need?
I remember an old priest on the Oncology floor who had decided to discontinue his treatment. He knew he was going to die and felt that his further use of valuable resources was against his ethic. He was a teacher of theology. He saw right into me and began the conversation with, “How do you feel about working around so much death?” What happened next was fantastic. We argued about theism and atheism, organized versus personal religion, death and dying, and the foundation of morality. It was not acrimonious or condescending on either side, but was instead a meeting of exciting ideas and strong arguments. It was a quality of argument about religion that I have not enjoyed since.
If Dawkins’ book does anything, I hope it makes those that believe in religion form more powerful arguments for their belief and to CARE that those arguments are strong. I also hope that if people discover that their arguments are weak, that they CARE that those arguments are weak. If something is right, then know why. If something is wrong, then know why. But for God’s sake, care. For those that want to make their arguments for or against God stronger, test your mettle against this book.
I’d like this email to somehow reach Dinesh D’Souza. I am an atheist but was raised a Roman Catholic with all of the private schooling by nuns and monks that you would imagine. I’m assuming, here, that Dinesh’s article is something like a question, or a wondering, and I’d like to address a few parts of it.
That a “group of leading atheists is puzzled by the continued existence and vitality of religion” is not the same as saying that atheists are puzzled, and is no more useful than attacking Christianity after noting that a “group of Christians believe that handling snakes is the pathway to Heaven.” No single group is representative of the whole, nor is their likely a unified “whole” around anything except the most basic of tennents: the absence of god on one side and His Majesty on the other.
“Wilson says there must be some evolutionary explanation for the universality and pervasiveness of religious belief. Actually, there is.”
Actually, there are more. I understand that for the coherence of an article, you had to pick one vein and flow with it, but I think you’ve ignored some much less flattering options.
Imagine that the human brain was selected through evolution to handle challenges of greater and greater complexity. What do you do with a brain so powerful when you’re not thinking to save your life? You think. You think and think because you can’t turn it off and you stumble into imagination. And is it so hard to imagine someone stumbling on the idea of cause and effect and to very quickly run up against the problem of first cause? That idea would torture you if you couldn’t file it away. The solution is a belief in God. The solution for all things in similar situations is God. Why does it rain? Why does it not rain? What moves the Heavens? And so on. It’s not hard to imagine the idea of God as being the product of a mind capable of imagination and reason butting up against a lack of information about the workings of the world. And, anecdotally, have we not seen the sphere of those things explained by God shrinking and shrinking as the sphere of those things with perfect explanations through science expands and expands?
“Now imagine two groups of people — let’s call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe — who subscribe to one of these two views….The religious tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.“
Both tribes are made of matter and it is the Religous Tribe that cannot explain why it is able to think at all. To offer an answer is not the same as explaining. “Why is the sky blue?” can be explained either with secular physics or answered with “because God decided so.” Explanations are backed by evidence and reason while anyone can have an answer. The Religous Tribe’s belief in being a special creation is empty of such reason and nothing about which to brag.
“Should evolutionists like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Wilson be surprised, then, to see that religious tribes are flourishing around the world? ”
I’ve already covered this, but to recap: it is no failing of the logic of atheism that the conditions still exist in the world for people to rely on religion as a placeholder for the deeper understanding that comes with education.
“By contrast, atheist conventions only draw a handful of embittered souls, and the atheist lifestyle seems to produce listless tribes that cannot even reproduce themselves.”
Shame on you for using such a weak argument. First, an Atheist convention is as likely to be representative of the Atheist community as a Christian Convention is to be of the Christian community. I’d love to see the numbers behind your claim though we both know you’re pushing anecdote as fact. Second, what do you mean by the “atheist lifestyle?” What wide brush are you using here to gloss over your lack of any fact?
You continue in this article with straw-man after straw-man, and they don’t deserve a sound rebuttle since not much effort went in to erecting them. Similarly, every time you rely on “it seems” to finish your sentence, know that you are being lazy about your writing and your craft. If you take this issue seriously, then you owe it to the people that you inform to be as harsh a critic of your own views as you are of others.
But finally, I must address the most insulting part of this piece.
“It seems perplexing why nature would breed a group of people who see no purpose to life or the universe, indeed whose only moral drive seems to be sneering at their fellow human beings who do have a sense of purpose. ”
Do you really believe that atheists have no moral drive? Really? You wouldn’t bat an eyelash if atheists just started murdering, raping, and pillaging as Christians are so eager to predict the godless should? No, I suspect that you know that atheists have a moral drive, that you are too lazy to think much about it, and that it is COMICALLY you that is fulfilling your purpose by sneering at your fellow man.
Do monkeys have morals? They have rules within their groups. They punish those members that break those rules. They mourn their dead. Do they have God, or is there some other way to arrive at moral drive? The great irony hear is that those people that think that all morality comes from religion and is predicated on the fear of punishment (by God, by Hell) are the very people that have never deeply thought about why they act the way that they do. They receive instructions, are notified of consequence, and proceed ignorant.
It’s nothing of which to be proud.