Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, atheism is not the answer.

One of the things that often frustrates me is that people, even incredibly intelligent people, often pose simple answers as solutions to very complex problems. Anyone who has read any bit about this blog knows that I am an unabashed agnostic-atheist. Over at d-C, Karen wrote an interesting article that I think adequately sums up where I stand as well. I recognize that I will never be in a position to be a prominent spokesman for atheism, nor would I really want to be. I am often frustrated, however, by those who are prominent spokespersons for atheism.

In 2007, Richard Dawkins gave a speech at TED in which he received a roar of laughter when he kiddingly announced he is suggesting “militant atheism.” Dawkins’ speech has a two-fold message: (1) Darwinism is corrosive to religion, (2) atheists should ‘come out’ and be confident about attacking religion as a whole. One of the fascinatingly naive underpinning philosophies of the major voices for atheism today (Dawkins, Hitchens, the fine folks at the “Rational Response Squad”) is that if humanity eliminates religion from the world, everything will simply ‘work itself out.’

Seriously?

Take this picture I’ve seen on dozens of websites and blogs:

As one captivated by the world of politics, I am familiar with the ideas of spin and shaping perceptions. I genuinely hope that some of the highly intelligent people who boast images such as this recognize that eliminating religion does not eliminate suffering and evil. One need look no further than Soviet Russia under Stalin to recognize that atheism does not equal utopia.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not switching sides. I think the world will be an increasingly better place as the influence of religion loses its potency. But religion is only one symptom of larger problems. Around the middle of the 20th century, physicist Enrico Fermi asked what became known as the “Fermi Paradox,” given the vastness of the universe, why do we see no evidence of advanced life? Carl Sagan, among others, has suggested (and this is and can only be speculation) that as life develops to the point of ability to communicate beyond their own planet, they may likely destroy themselves. For us, the increasing ability to observe the universe is occurring simultaneous to our ability to destroy the entire world easily and immediately (imagine if the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone the other way).

The history of humanity is a history of mutual destruction. Children learn history by reference of wars. The time between wars is often what is more fuzzy in our minds. We discovered sticks and used them to hit one another, then someone realized they could throw a stone from further away and avoid being hit by the other’s stick. Sticks and stones gave way to swords and bows. These gave way to muskets, which led to cannons and missiles and eventually nuclear warheads. Currently leaders in the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Pakistan, India and Israel have the capability to destroy the world in moments. Not to mention any lost warheads from the breakup of the Soviet Union and attempts by Iran and North Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

Humanity has a long way to go to learn to control its aggressive tendencies. I am hopeful though that this is possible. The Cold War ended without firing a nuclear warhead. Democracies allow forums for non-violent means of resolving conflict. The United Nations, perhaps impotent now, offers hope for a brighter future without war.

Would 9/11 have occurred without the fundamentalist religious dogmas of extremist Islam? Perhaps not. But without this religious influence, there would be other wars. There would be other non-religious extremist sects.

Now, I am not opposed to the concept of attempting to reduce the influence of religion on humanity. I desire as much as Richard Dawkins that the American dollar will one day replace “In God We Trust” with “In Ourselves We Trust.” But I am not naive enough to believe that stripping religions of their credentials will solve the worlds problems. Religion is but on symptom of the problems we face. The same people who follow religions will follow dynamic leaders or jump on the bandwagons of causes without truly examining them.

Atheism is qualitatively better than theism. Atheism is not, however, the answer to all the world’s problems.

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18 Responses to “Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, atheism is not the answer.”

  1. Derek Rishmawy Says:

    I have to say, I have almost nothing to disagree with this blog except for the obvious points a Christian believer would have. This is why I find you to be one of the most clear-thinking agnostic/atheists I’ve ever talked to. Please, go spread the light to your unbelieving friends. :)

  2. I very much enjoy your blog and the experiences you have been writing about here.

    There is something very fundamental about religion – all religions – in that they provide ready-made answers to very basic needs and questions pertaining to the human condition. In a theoretically rational (and presumably tolerant) world, could we stop individuals having notions about the world, their origins, the universe, what happens to them after they die, and the feeling that someone out there is guiding them in their lives? I seriously doubt it.

    I think that many deeply religious people are in a loving relationship with their deity, and they exhibit exactly the same behaviours as any lover would – vulnerability to manipulation, lack of criticism, protectiveness, wonder, trust, obsession, happiness. Lots of things can engender such feelings. Patriotism, Fandom, Celebrity, children, parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, communism, a personality cult, etc. Religion is just one driver, albeit a very strong one.

  3. Doug Indeap Says:

    I too agree with much said here–except the entirely unnecessary and mistaken swipe at Dawkins. He certainly has pressed harder than most to foster rationality and reduce superstition (including religion). He has not, though, suggested in the least that reducing or even eliminating religion’s sway is a panacea and all will thereafter be sweet and rosy. In this one aspect, this post sets up and knocks down a strawman.

  4. Doug,

    Thanks for the comment. For the record, I am a fan of Dawkins myself, but the consistent impression I have received from him–and more especially his following–is that what should be stopped is religion rather than the motivating factors that use religion for ‘evil.’ My critique is more of some of the the common views in ‘popular atheism’ of which Dawkins is a leader and superstar. Either way, I’ll go back and re-examine my critique.

  5. I don’t know what Dawkins says specifically, but I agree with your point here. I think people use what’s available to get and keep power – religion is a big one, and one that makes it easy to manipulate people. But it’s certainly not the only one, and it’s not even always used for evil.

  6. comicbookfan Says:

    I do agree atheism is not the way out…but it is a step towards solving problems. Education – destroying cultural hegemony by involving people of other countries to increasingly experience life in a different country – like taking an american out of home and making them work in a developing country even for a couple of years, especially if their education is in programs that are tailored to government positions – these are things that can be done, yes?

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Agreed. Religion is only an symptom in a larger problem. But the problem is Religion is a larger part of the problem. Because in religions what is being exploited is the ‘faith’. It is very difficult to compromise with someone when he’s driven by faith. So if there should be a transformation from a religions to a non religious state it should be done slowly and carefully. Going attacking religions won’t do anything. But i have to say that one of the biggest problems right now are religions. Problem lies not in religions but in unconditional faith. So you are right about some things and Dawkins also right about some things.

  8. I love this post. As a spiritual Muslim, I view religion as a vocabulary for manipulating ideas that cannot be approached or grasped by binary processes…thus your definition of qualitative superiority is, to me, subjective. But thank you for pointing out this very helpful and crucial point…you are fighting hate, for once, and not individuals!

  9. I used to call myself an atheist. I now call myself a “radical agnostic, part because militant atheists call agnostics wimps and the like. Once of these days, we radical agnostics will start a dahij, like a jihad, but we kill our enemies more quietly and politely.

    Sometimes in a parody of Anglican “high church/low church” I call myself a “high agnostic.” High agnostics are very close to atheists. In a dim light you can’t tell the difference. (Religious believers consider us to always be in a dim light.) “Middle agnostics” believe neither liberals and conservatives have a monopoly on truth, but do obey the law of gravity and believe that not going faster than 186,000 miles per second is not only a good idea but also the law.

    Low agnostics can be religious believers if they believe in paying attention to facts and using common sense. Most low agnostics frown on killing each other except in self-defense, which they tend to define fairly narrowly.

    Seriously, I admired and liked your post very much. Both atheists and religious believers are capable of acting very badly or acting very well. Two writers I find illuminating on these matters are Ben Kiernan and Ernest Becker.

  10. Aspentoll Says:

    I really don’t think any other religions are as dangerous as fundamental Islam and fundamental
    Christianity. Both seem to believe that they have to do the bidding of
    an entity that is not really accessible to all people. The problems happen when overly zealous leaders of these two religions begin to have their
    religious delusions about how things should be. The Imams of
    Islam and the Pat Robertsons, Jerry Falwells, to name a few are
    too capable of igniting overly zealous religious fervor which can be problematic.
    Going to war because they believe
    in the “end times”, not really trying their best while they are alive because they believe they will be saved to a heavenly place after they die, are dangerous attitudes.
    The “Four Horsemen” of atheism
    are trying to point out that these people are dangerous. We all should recognize this fact and make an effort to come out and
    vocalize.

  11. pixel junkie Says:

    I agree with the main message you’re trying to get across with this post but I think Dawkins does that kind of stuff to get atheism out there and to get people to think about it; those chuckles means he got to them on some level.

  12. Wow, you’re the fresh air among all the atheists that have bad breath. I think it’s good that you see the real problem that New Atheists refuse to look at.

    By the way, you should join http://www.theologyweb.com if you aren’t already on there.

  13. Samuel Skinner Says:

    I think that not having religion and faith to justify things would reduce the amount of conflict… possibly. On the other hand if the conflict theorists are right… eh- I’ll stay a fanatical antitheist.

    On the subject of the Fermi paradox I found this-
    http://bbs.stardestroyer.net/viewtopic.php?t=122418

    The worst answer to the Fermi paradox- we don’t see other intelligent life out there because they kill their neighbors.

  14. guiltyconscience Says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Ken Ham is a nutter, but back in the days of dogmatic evangelicalism, my church used to peddle his crap. I think there may be a valid principle which could be applied to the situation posed by extreme religion.

    In speaking of atheism and it’s perceived ill effects, he said that abortion, evolution, etc… merely symptoms of the deeper seeded issues. He suggested that Christians combat atheism on at its root.

    I believe that CTC has touched on this principle and applied it well. He’s not attacking the symptom. CTC has recognized the heart of the issue and has begun to address this rather than to merely attack religion in and of itself. Bravo.

  15. [...] James also pointed out that de-Conversion had gotten in on the recent theology conversation. My reading this post led me to a trackback to this blog. [...]

  16. so- yea its wishfull think for dawkins who is a militant atheist-that all would be fine if religon would go awy-but this is a strawman though by his part. like it sayed its the foundation of th overall probelm-belive it or not wat is fundemental to atheism is like a rielgon 2 orelse u could nt consider to be as 1.must rememebr-no matter-wat u r responsibel for your own acitons and if u cant act responsibly or even question the basic fundemetals of exixtance-then u probably a robot. just as dawkins would like the world to be-wishfull thinking though

  17. Remember Stalin was educated by Jesuits

  18. Janice in Toronto Says:

    It’s time to give up the notion of the great skydaddy.

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