Sunday, 8 June 2014

Richard Dawkins and tedious fanaticism

I enjoyed an article by Deborah Orr in Saturday’s Guardian, in which she took Richard Dawkins to task for his militant atheism.

It does seem extraordinary that anyone can be militant for non-belief. You fervently don’t believe in God? I’d have to ask, do you have a sense of irony?

In any case, there is a common feature that runs through all my friends who are believers. None of them attempts to convert me. I have my beliefs, they seem to say, and I value them but I’m not going to thrust them on you, and I’m certainly not going to expect you to embrace them.

As a result, they don’t try to put up an argument to convince me to adopt their viewpoint. Now, it’s perhaps unreasonable for me to try to assign motives to people whose beliefs I don’t share, but I think their behaviour is based on two considerations.

In the first place, they know that faith isn’t a matter of rational argument. If something can be proved, it doesn’t need faith to accept it. The whole point is that faith goes beyond rationality to a different realm – one, as Kierkegaard said, that requires a leap. I can see no way of proving that Christ was resurrected, or that the Archangel spoke to Mohammad, or indeed that Moses heard the voice of God in a burning bush. These are things you believe because you believe them; or you don’t.

Secondly, these are matters on which people must be allowed to reach their own conclusions. The believer may be saddened at the idea that a friend is making a decision that will exclude him or her from the Kingdom of Heaven, but that is no justification for trying to override that choice.

God’s so important if you believe in him
But why fixate on him if you don’t?
Now, I believe both these considerations matter deeply. I appreciate the religious friends who apply them. And I think at the very least I owe it to them to return the favour. Their choice to believe is as valid as mine not to. Since, what’s more, the choice is not one that is susceptible to rational argument, there’s no point even in debating it. I may ask for information, out of interest, about a religious person’s beliefs, but I see no more point in trying to refute them as in expecting to be converted by them myself.

So I really can’t get Dawkins’ position. Militant Atheism? If God exists, he’s all-important. But if you’ve decided he doesn’t, why on earth would you spend any time debating the matter? There are quite enough things that undeniably do exist and need debating; why would you fixate on one that, in your view, doesn’t? And if it offends people who deserve more consideration, people who are or could be friends, isn’t that an even better reason for desisting?

Dawkins reminds me of one of Winston Churchill’s wiser sayings: “A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.”

Frankly tedious.


Awoogamuffin said...

I know that Dawkins is irritating and often shrill, but I don't fully agree with the growing fashion of bashing him.

It's wrong to claim that religion is a private matter; it affects every part of our society, and leads to all sorts of stupid or unethical decisions in politics, health, human rights and education.

I think especially in the UK we can afford to turn against Dawkins because the secular view is winning, though not so much in America, where he's most active.

David Beeson said...

I think there's a fundamentalist quality to Dawkins' stance which I find unappealing. Perhaps what I'm saying is that there seems to be a certain equivalence between the tedious religious bigot and the tedious atheist bigot, as there is an equivalence between the non-fervent believer and non-fervent atheist. I like to line up with the non-fervent, and so find myself closer to that kind of believer than to the militant atheist.