Monday, October 3, 2011

Do You Have Faith in Violence?

I have a bone to pick with Richard Dawkins. Actually, I have quite a few, but let’s try and restrict ourselves to one for the sake of focus and at least the ghost of brevity. In general, I have a rather open attitude towards other faiths, including a lack of faith. I’m not ashamed to show you mine, and I won’t be upset if you display yours in turn. I may pray for you to come to know God and our Savior, and I accept that you may pray for me to see God as you know him, or simply harbor hopes that I’ll get over my God delusion and join you in a post-religious view. All of that is fine, if I denounce your ability to declare your understanding of God/gods/no gods, or stop you from asking others to consider your beliefs or lack thereof; I’m supporting de facto limits on religion. As a devout Christian, I honestly feel that the freedom to not be a Christian is a vital part of real faith. If you can’t choose to know Christ or to turn away, you will never have the fullest, richest chance to build and rebuild yourself in his light, developing a personal relationship.

But Richard Dawkins is not happy with this arrangement. He feels a need to kick sand in my face and show me tough love. He wants to tear away what he sees as the security blankets of the feeble world and make us grow up to be real men (not an actual quote). He has decided that having any religion is an unacceptable danger to himself and to the world at large, and that right thinking atheists need to stop molly-coddling the faithful and get in our faces and see us stamp out belief in any kind of divinity.

I don’t want to risk readers who have the good fortune to avoid Dawkins' anti-religious writings to feel I am misunderstanding him, or pulling words out of context to make a point he does not support. He has a keen mind, and has written many things not touching on religion which provoke thought and educate the mind. So here is a full paragraph quote, so that we can start from a place of mutual understanding, and you can be sure I am not dealing from a marked deck:

"Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!" -- Richard Dawkins, The Guardian, 10-11-2001

I’m going to deviate from my usual manner of musing to respond to this line of thought. I know that Dawkins is an adamant atheist, and unlikely to be swayed by my musings to accept the loving, merciful, and life affirming nature of God, and the very human perversions of his will and prideful atrocities of man committed in his name. Therefore I will not attempt to refute his assertions by appeal to divine nature, but will instead consider his conclusions from the perspective he himself asserts is correct; what if there was no God? In each of the cases below, I will be assuming we live in a godless world, and that following a great atheist awakening all churches have been closed to due lack of worshipers. The first couple of sentences seem to be establishing boilerplate in no need of deeper analysis. I will pick up after “…lethally dangerous nonsense.”

“Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness.”

Really? The vast majority of faithful from most religions likely hold to the righteousness of their Prophets, founders, or spirits as being superior to other faiths and to typical mortals, but almost all faiths are built on some variation of the concept that man’s mortal life is tragically flawed and we must find a way to repair the damage. From Buddhist desire to transcend suffering, to Christian dedication to repentance, to Muslim calls for submission, religion's orthodox line is almost always one calling on the members to view themselves as less righteous than they could be, and subject to failings which alienate them from a better state. Sure, fringe sects of many faiths may adopt a radical alternate interpretation of their holy teachings which condone or promote violence to outsiders as a valid means to self improvement, but these are already deviant teachings denounced by the community in a world which still believes in God. In our new godless world people would still be seeking understanding, self improvement, and approval. There would also still be those seeking to promote political agendas, gather personal wealth, satisfy their egos, and other base drives. It does not require the intervention of a god to tell those already focused on their own lack of worth that you hold the key to understanding their true nature. One does not have to turn to a “higher power” to be willing to buy into to the honeyed words of a con. It seems that the root of the danger here is the perversion of the beliefs and tools of a majority by a venal and self serving minority, the “unshakeable confidence” is less in their own righteousness, and more in their lack of any other viable means of escaping their unrighteousness. Danger from this point seems more about the exploitation of the weak and wounded and less about God, maybe we’ll find a more solid case on the next point.

“Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others.”

Sure, we don’t have to look very far to find religion telling folks that death is not the tragic end of their being, and someone could be manipulated to use this as a foundation for setting aside their fear of mortality. But, looking at our post-religious world, would the end of church really be the end of martyrs? We can jump back to Socrates, who I accept did voice his belief in gods. When faced with his own death it was not over his faith or his gods, but the worldly truths he had learned and was teaching; he chose to die. Look to fiction, Dickens' “A Tale of Two Cities” invokes a man willingly going to death for friendship, and while a reader could argue it is love more than friendship, it is still not for God or his religion. Men are willing to die, and kill, for their beliefs. It is a matter of record that for most of Western history, faith has been at the heart of the beliefs of the figures in power. Had history developed on an atheist track, we may well have records of Swiftian wars over cracking eggs in place of wars over Luther’s reforms. How would the beliefs of the fringe elements of society, those whom we see involved in religious suicide bombings and terrorism attacks (as opposed to planning) today, be manipulated in a churchless world? It would not take much to pervert the methods of any number of secular therapy or psychoanalysis methods to tell others that they have no hope of fixing their messed up life, and only death can end their suffering. That if they will die killing the supporters of that evil other political figure, at least they will be remembered with pride and love, not as a cowering mental wreck. While this point is less off the mark, it would seem that this danger is not of religion, but rather of conviction, and the one would not simply vanish with the other.

“Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition.”

I almost want to skip this point; it is so absurd on the face viewed in isolation. Does Dawkins actually mean to refute almost all of modern social science and claim that the human habit to separate into “Us-Them” is an artifact of religion? I know that Dawkins is English, and as such may have never attended an American College sporting event, but I would hazard that he must have at least read accounts of Liverpool-Manchester Football (Soccer) matches. The dread anticipation of Riots that come with heated rivalries and have been known to lead to numerous assaults, property damage, and general disorder over the wearing of the wrong teams colors for the road you happen to walk down? Living in the American South I can also attest to both social stigma and physical violence offered to people over the simple issue of their accent. Sure, these events are not how most of us live our day to day lives, but surely we don’t think that situations such as Northern Ireland or Israel/Palestine would suddenly self resolve if we woke up tomorrow and found both sides had removed the religious element of their identity? Religion may be used to perpetuate a feud, to start a feud, or to justify a feud, but at the heart the drive to separate us and them is human, and would find another way to express itself without God. The danger here is actually in our DNA, not our worship.

“And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!”

I’m actually going to insert a qualifier here. The article I am quoting was written in a British paper to a British audience. It has since been widely quoted and gone global, but this may not have been Dawkins' own intent. I do not feel qualified to judge the social mores of modern newspaper reading England, and if Dawkins intended the ‘we’ above to be restricted to that audience only, the following comments may be off base.

Analyzing this sentence I am obliged to return to our real world as it now stands, in lieu of the post-religious world of my early refutations, speaking of how religion is reacted to now must be addressed from the present. Dawkins' purports that social respect 'protects religion from normal criticism.' This would seem to imply that religion is somehow protected from critique, either in forcing one to listen unjustly, or forcing one not to speak against it. Let's dispose of the first point. Is Dawkins launching a frontal assault on the tolerance I praised in my opening paragraph? Is he contending that while he should be allowed to live free from God and be free to encourage others to leave their church that it is intolerable to be told another does believe in God? This would require Dawkins to believe that only some nebulous enlightened class has the right to speak freely, a notion which I do not find supported in his many public statements. I certainly don’t impose what I believe is true as a limit on what others can state, or even believe. I enjoy the view point of my Pastafarian friends, and I suspect even they don’t actually believe what they claim. I think Dawkins likewise does not feel that what he believes should be a litmus test for what it is acceptable to profess. I suspect that even if Dawkins does not respect the religious views of others, he does not mean to forbid them to be spoken of, so what could this sentence mean?

For the simple sake of sanity I must therefor assume that Dawkins feels that while we are all free to express our faith, he does not feel free to criticize other faiths, or at least that there is a high social barrier to doing so. Aside from the head hurting position of reading in a major paper how hard it is to speak against other faiths, allow me to point you to a few organizations which seem to find little difficulty in expressing religious criticism. I will not provide actual links to the sites due to offensive content, but leave you free to find them if you wish to test my claims. I heartily endorse staying away from: Westboro Baptist, Chick Tracts (Chick Publications), Exposing Mormons, Real Jew News,,, and many others. With only a few minutes of looking at these and similar sites, one can find outright denouncement and outrage aimed at almost any modern religion or lack thereof, from a wide range of Christian faiths, to Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Atheism, Hinduism, and more. These attacks come from Evangelical Christians, Atheists, Catholics, and more. Five minutes on these sites quickly convinced me of the need for more, not less, respect. The path of refusing to respect and honor your enemy is an unavoidable one on the path to dehumanize them, and make it acceptable to treat them in ways you would never tolerate being done to your family. On this final point, I think Dawkins is the least on point of any of his claims; not only does he not show how religion is responsible for this danger; but the action he advocates is in fact a call which could directly place others in harm’s way.

By this point, I hope I have illustrated that none of the "Dangers" Dawkins is warning us of have their roots in religion, but rather in man. Certainly, man, acting in his limited way may do terrible deeds, but he does not need to worship God to do so. After all, if Dawkins is correct and there is no God, then all the evil we have done and will do in his name must have come from the mind of man. If we were to take away religion from mankind, his nature would be unchanged and he would either invent new Gods to justify his desires, or find godless ways to express these evils. You cannot blame a non-existent God for the crimes of men. If you wish to claim that God is the cause of evil, you thereby accept his reality, and now we are debating the need for suffering. If you wish to claim he is a fiction, then you admit the actions you denounce are the actions of men, driven by the desires of men, and taking away their God will not make them less susceptible to new lies which promote the same acts. If God does exist, then we can at least take solace in the hope that he will help us in our long, painful journey to move beyond our lesser natures.

In the end, I actually feel bad for Richard Dawkins. The article I quoted was written a month after the hijackings of September 11, 2001. These words came at a time when we all were full of roiling, conflicting, and difficult to understand emotions. Many of us turned to God to find solace, comfort, and meaning. Dawkins need to deny a God closed this door to him, and left him needing some other way to cry out. When so many cried to God, Dawkins had to cry only to his fellow man. Dawkins sees how imperfect the world around us is, and he wants a better world free of the mindless violence and hate we see around us, but without a God to guide us forward, he sees a false belief in God holding us back. He wants a better world so much that he has to place the blame on something, and religion is one thing he can point to that he is willing to do without. What could have been a secular call towards a utopian ideal, a call for us to find our better nature and try to become better as a whole people is thereby subverted into a temper tantrum against God, and a need to engage in the very Us/Them divisions which fuel strife which he tries to claim are an artifact of our faith. The call to overcome becomes a taunting of those he sees as less righteous than himself. He seeks to use labels to separate the good atheists from the dangerous faithful... the article becomes on deeper analysis almost a parody of itself. I could understand being driven in the heat of the moment to be so angry, but Dawkins has made no effort to distance himself from these thoughts. I can understand the anger and confusion that Dawkins must have felt, I don’t know what else was in his heart, but I do know that whatever it was, God is willing to forgive it and continue to share his love with Dawkins, and for some reason Dawkins will not forgive him or his followers for that.

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