‘Atheist Fundamentalism’

23:53 Fri 15 Dec 2006. Updated: 02:24 16 Dec 2006
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I read a hostile review of The Root of All Evil, Richard Dawkins’ documentary, on the liberal website Alternet.org today.

I didn’t like it. The author (Lakshmi Chaudhry) derides Dawkins’ views on religion without substantiating actual objections, and apparently trusts that the audience will see how patently ridiculous Dawkins’ statements are. For example:

When we cede our “critical faculties” to believe in the idea of a higher power, Dawkins claims, we are immediately invested in a panoply of increasingly ludicrous propositions: that the Virgin Mary ascended directly to heaven, Moses parted the seas, God created the world in seven days, or beautiful virgins await good Muslims in heaven. Why not, he asks, believe in fairies or hobgoblins?

And the answer to that is? Chaudhry doesn’t bother to say. Furthermore, the conclusion of the article seems to support belief in fairies or hobgoblins, as Chaudry says:

As innately human endeavors, religion and science are therefore as unreasonable, noble, immoral, kind, tyrannical, odious, compassionate — in other words, irredeemably human — as the people who literally embody them.

But wouldn’t this apply to all human endeavor? Including fictional creatures such as hobgoblins and fairies? Those creatures are viewed as ‘superstition’ now, but were once offered either as symbols or explanations for phenomena by our ancestors. They, too, expressed what Chaudry terms “our need to both submit and to control, to know and to believe, to be in the visible world and to transcend it”—and so they are presumably elevated to the status that Chaudry grants religion.

Making a distinction between religion and superstition seems difficult. If lots of people you know believe it, and some large organized groups defend it vigorously against all evidence, it’s likely to be religion.

Chaudry is claiming that toleration of religion is necessary, otherwise one becomes an ‘atheist fundamentalist’ (whatever that really means). But Chaudry doesn’t really give any good answer to the difference between religious beliefs, some of which (the universe was created less than 10000 years ago) are obviously utterly ridiculous while others (all life is sacred) are less so. It should be clear that those precepts that are less scientifically testable are likely to be less ridiculous…

In any case, the entire comparison is ridiculous, because Dawkins’ brand of ‘atheistic fundamentalism’ basically comes down to his strong conviction that the scientfic method has already and will continue to lead to important truths. That, and his refusal to allow strong convictions that are based merely on unsubstantiated assertions to claim the same truth value.

Different ways of seeing the world are important and valuable. Pure materialism can be strait-jacketing, it can be arrogant, and it can be reductive if done the wrong way. Those weaknesses can be overcome relatively easily (humility, proper acceptance that we don’t know everything, is key here, and in fact fits into the scientific mindset well), and it should be clear how useful such an approach is. On the other hand, what is the use of ways of seeing the world that are demonstrably false? Asserting that Holy Writ determines the facts, rather than empirical evidence, is clearly very close to both superstition and insanity. Insisting further that other people should accept this assertion, that in fact they should be ‘protected’ from evidence to the contrary, clearly shows deliberate ignorance and the fostering of that ignorance. Yet this is what religion demands around the world. It’s not ‘fundamentalism’ to point out that the only ‘evidence’ for beliefs that are being presented as of life-and-death importance comes from simple unsubstantiated assertions, many of which contradict entirely what we can prove about how the world works.

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