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Forced to the Extremes

If I were to respond to only one item in The God Delusion, it would be this one. Put simply, I am a moderate by conviction, and Dawkins is most definitely not.

To illustrate, let me quote:

. . . Desits differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins of confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist’s metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism. [emphasis in original]

Now to some readers this may seem like a gentlemanly opening for dialogue, but based on the remainder of the book, I would have to argue otherwise. Dawkins sees two possibilities–religion of all related varieties on the one side, and atheism on the other. He downplays moderation of all types. There was the time in reading this book that I thought I would respond only to that point, because for me this is the critical issue. Do we look at all the various options across the spectrum, or do we try to reduce them to a binary choice between two extremes? If we reduce them to the two extremes, I wind up with the religious fundamentalists. I’m not going to say that’s unfair. Fairness is not the most important issue. But it is inaccurate.

No matter how much rhetoric is expended to try to pretend otherwise there is a difference between me and an old earth creationist, and in turn between the old earth creationist and a young earth creationist. There is even a difference, hard as it may be for a defender of the theory of evolution to see, between someone like Kent Hovind and Kurt Wise (pp. 284-286). The world doesn’t divide itself into only these two extremes.

Now while I consider this an extremely important point, it might be irrelevant to the theme of the book, except that Dawkins regularly attacks those who take a more nuanced position than his. An entire section is titled “The Poverty of Agnosticism” (pp. 46-54) and it is not at all kind to agnostics.

I would have to admit that this section annoyed me even more than most of the attacks on Christianity. I would regard Agnosticism as an extremely rational alternative. In fact, from a purely intellectual point of view, barring any leap of faith or other such maneuver, I would probably fall into that camp. But Dawkins is fully convinced that there is or will be a natural explanation for everything, and thus even suggesting that one doesn’t know simply strikes him as too weak.

This results, again, from that simple binary approach. If you make the assumption that there are two alternatives, either it can be demonstrated that God exists, or atheism is true, then if you can show that the demonstration of God’s existence has failed, atheism is the only remaining option. It’s no surprise that agnosticism draws Dawkins’s ire here! It’s the obvious alternative. If you fail to demonstrate that God exists, you don’t assume the alternative; you realize that you don’t know.

If one forms the question instead as “How do we understand the existence of the physical universe?” the answers are somewhat different. They would include God, a self-existent physical universe (so atheism), and no possibility of coming up with an understanding. Each of these alternatives would need to be examined on its own merits.

One more note on the issue of moderation:

As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers. The alternative, one so transparent that it should need no urging, is to abandon the principle of automatic respect for religious faith. This is one reason why I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called ‘extremist’ faith. The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism. (p. 306)

One of the most common arguments I face from fundamentalists and also some conservatives is the “slippery slope” argument. If you give anything away, it’s only the first step to giving everything away. But this is a fallacious argument because it has built in the assumption that the correct position will result from choosing one of the extremes. Perhaps the position in the middle is the most correct, and in that case we would have a “slippery slope” on either side.

This quote is also further evidence that I did not miss the nature of the book in my comments on Plantinga’s review. Put simply, there is no religious position which Dawkins finds tolerable. All of the positions in the middle are simply dangerous compromises.

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