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January 17, 2006

On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism

Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.

Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)

However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."

Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."

Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at January 17, 2006 6:45 PM


Bunting's critique reminds me, for some strange reason, of the accusations thrown at feminists way back when. Any woman who spoke up without apologies was"shrill." Now that atheism is coming up with some blunt spokespersons, she can't do any better than "badly rattled" and "panicked."

Chesterton's statement was an overgeneralization when he made it; it hasn't changed because Bunting tries to use it as a hatchet. I don't see her as either tough, smart, or wise. All she's doing is flailing away at her own straw men.

Posted by: Catana at January 17, 2006 11:48 PM

Catana's absolutely right. I'm surprised you find her tough, smart or wise. Faith had nothing to do with the acquired knowledge that the sun will indeed "rise" in the morning. People of faith can do science, they just can't have "faith" in a result, they have to look at experimental findings and/or the evidence. No faith necessary. Oh, and the "evidence" doesn't support panic. If Bunting senses any unmistakable whiffs, she should bathe more regularly. People say things like "I have faith in my family" all the time, which is not really true. What they have is the knowledge, acquired through a lifetime of interaction, that their family will help them in times of need: that, and the genetic altruism that comes from being related.

Bunting is correct about frustration however. It's been two thousands years since a Jewish mystic supposedly rose from the dead. A belief based on stories that were not written down until much later and not by anyone who actually knew an historic Jesus. The people writing the stories were anything but neutral observers and they lived at a time when there was no methodology for understanding the laws of the natural world. All of this, and yet people still have unsupported faith. People, most of whom are alive not because of faith or prayer, but only because of the applied science of "Western" medicine. (I myself would have died at the age of 6 at any other time in history. My mother and younger brother would have both died in childbirth). People, who are living insulated, protected and well-fed lives, not because they prayed for it, but because of the applied science of 20th and 21st Century technology. People reading this blog on a personal computer that I'm sure they didn't get on faith. Frustration, yes.

Posted by: Carl (OGeorge) Buell at January 18, 2006 6:56 PM

I second the above, although I suppose there is some interest in the question of whether, apart from advances in science and technology, cultural explanations can be provided for why atheists feel empowered to speak out at particular times. I don't think it's simply growing frustration. But in fact, I'm even more interested in the question--although perhaps this corollary question is not part of your history--of why believers express outrage, or even punish, atheists at particular times. What accounts for these periodic eruptions of anger? By the way, Prof. Stephens, what accounts for your periodic eruptions of grumpiness? You are in India (don't you professors ever teach?) with your wife, in what is probably a nice hotel. Enjoy it. Because yes, atheists and schoalrs writing about atheists do indeed enjoy more than science, and do marvel and have a sense of awe (difference between awe and piety).

Posted by: george at January 19, 2006 8:10 AM

Grumpy? I thought I did a better job of hiding it. And I was teaching in India...

Look, I'm trying to see and be fair to the other side here. I lean toward science and medicine, of course, and Nietzsche's perspective: "'Faith' means not wanting to know what is true." However, I do think there might be something to the argument that one counter to an extreme skeptical position -- "but that doesn't prove the sun will definitely rise tomorrow" -- could be a kind of faith. (Another, probably better answer, which goes back to the Greek skeptics, could be some notion of plausibility.) Faith also becomes interesting as an aspect of temperament: I trust it will work out.

I agree with Catana on the Chesterton statement. But our man Dawkins appears -- haven't seen the programs yet -- to have gotten a bit loose on some of his points. And I did find Ms. Bunting tough and smart on some of them (though Catana is right again on the word "shrill").

And yes this odd itch the faithful seem to have to persecute those who do not share their faith will very much be part of my story.

Posted by: mitch at January 19, 2006 6:01 PM

I have not seen Dawkins special. However, I would like a theist to justify or even explain why they utilize faith to test the claims of religion but would never resort to such a dubious process to evaluate fact claims for even trivial matters. I have discussed this issue with various theists of fairly substantial intellect and they can't explain it. This seems the most effective way to discuss the problem of theism with a theist, not comparing Bible passages and the amazing claims of religion - but rather the widely divergent ways theists evaluate religious claims versus any other claim.

Posted by: Singularity at January 19, 2006 9:41 PM

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