Monday, October 16, 2006

Richard Dawkins: faith is evil

Some more confused ideas from the Dawkins interview:
I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence.
Actually, a lot of believers think that there is plenty of evidence for their beliefs. Some creationists, for example, will say that it takes more faith to be an atheist than a creationist. I think they're wrong about the evidence, and wrong about what faith is, but in any case Dawkins' characterization of faith doesn't fit this substantial section of the religious populace. Anyway, moving on:
And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything.
Technically what I think he's talking about is believing things without justification. So I suppose he's saying that it's evil to believe things without justification.

There are two problems with what Dawkins says here. The first is that this doesn't have much to do with religion: most cases of unjustified belief have nothing to do with religion at all. The second is that unjustified belief (in and of itself) isn't evil or problematic or even optional. The most rational among us can justify our beliefs only to a point--eventually justifications run out. As per the namesake of this blog:
If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."
Of course, having an unjustified evil belief is evil--but that's because the belief is evil, not because it's unjustified. So, let's cut to the kernel of insight which Dawkins provides: evil things are evil.

Dawkins provides some examples of such evil beliefs, and then goes on to discuss the role of faith in society (the bolded emphasis is mine):
If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die -- anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed -- that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that.
I'm not sure how Dawkins could possibly think that last sentence there is true. Hereabouts, nobody is the least bit expected to respect the notion that blasphemers and apostates ought to be killed. And while my knowledge of the cultural norms of Britain is somewhat limited, I'm pretty sure the same goes for Dawkins' side of the pond as well.
Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically -- the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York -- all in the name of faith.
Well, we are expected to respect some forms of faith, and let some forms of faith go without challenge, at least at a political level. Dawkins has apparently convinced himself that this ideal of mutual religious respect extends, without qualification, to those "evil consequences" he lists. This is simply false, obviously bizarre--maybe Dawkins should turn his critique of unjustified belief against himself.


Wulf said...

Actually, a lot of believers think that there is plenty of evidence for their beliefs.

I'm not sure what you mean by this. I know people who take the Bible to be evidence. They are mistaken about what constitutes evidence. But I also know people who say that they have had personal experiences that they cannot deny. That's evidence for them, but not evidence they can share with me. They won't be able to prove their faith to me, and I certainly won't be able to dissuade them of theirs.

Some creationists, for example, will say that it takes more faith to be an atheist than a creationist.

It's not just creationists who say this. It's anybody who understands that you cannot prove atheism. It is, therefore, a faith.

But as I noted when I wrote about this, Dawkins thankfully addresses that point. It's something that most self-avowed atheists won't.

Wulf said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that I think you make excellent points in both this post and the previous one. I especially like your point regarding his comment, And we're all expected to back off and respect that.

And please consider stopping by and reading my article on Dawkins and the Salon interview. I'm at AtlasBlogged.

Toby said...


For creationists, it's not just that you can't prove (strong) atheism. Their thought is that there is evidence against atheism, because there is evidence for creationism.

MisterEff said...

While I think Dawkin's has long since 'fallen off' to use the hiphop vernacular, I think you are missing his point about the expectations a lot of religious (and non-religious) folk have about the amount of respect that should be given to religious claims.

He's saying, and I think there is a ring of truth to it, that in discussion, it's simply considered innappropriate to question religious tenets, or at the very least, it is not expected that the religious person need justify their actions beyond referring to the specific tenets of their religion. It is deemed socially inaappropriate to ask for further justification, once the religious tenet has been invoked. It's a argument stopper of sorts. Dawkin's is suggesting that this cultural norm, and I think it is one, is one in need of revision.

But then again, I haven't read the interview. Haha.

Toby said...


It's true: falling back on "God said so" in an argument is a conversation stopper. Possibly we both got this idea from Rorty, and, as I recall, his solution to this problem isn't that we need to criticize religion more; rather, we need to rule out "God said so" as a possible move in our public discourse.

I agree with all of that, but it doesn't really have anything to do with Dawkins' point. He was talking about ideals of mutual religious respect specifically with respect to ideas like the death penalty for heretics, Islamic terrorism, the Crusades, and the Inquisition. And there's obviously no tendency in our culture to let the proponents of such ideas get away with just saying "God said so".

I agree that the role of God-talk in public discourse needs to change (especially in the US), but Dawkins way of arguing the point is idiotic.

Paul said...

Try this out: A good article on the topic of Dawkins and anti-faith.

Myself, I'm no fan of even the concept of faith, but in my limited experience, any attempt to oppose it or stamp it out among others only makes it stronger. If faith is evil, then it's an evil people will have to outgrow individually.

Toby said...

in my limited experience, any attempt to oppose it or stamp it out among others only makes it stronger.

I was witness to one exception: the deconversion of Peter Kirby on alt.atheism. Of course, he was a kid back then, and I think he'd been raised in Catholicism. And I seem to recall that his deconversion was triggered more by polemics than argument.

Anonymous said...

Atheism is not a faith, but the exclusion of faith as a reasonable justification for opinions or actions. Atheism is not the same as Anti-theism, The prefix "a" comes from Greek; meaning: no, absence of, without, lack of, not.

As atheist I accept there are many gods, I can read about them on wikipedia. As atheist I do however not consider these gods to be physical entities in the real world, but the product of human imagination, invented for a purpose. I consider believers to be like a child having an imaginary friend or the more commercial Santa Claus some parents insist on convincing their child is a real person.

It is interesting to see how desperate theists or believers of different imaginary friends claim their God to "real" and how desperately they try to bend science to fit reality into their imaginary world rather than adjust their beliefs to reality.

All religions and Gods have a philosophical and social value, They offer humans a way of interpreting life and a way of living with the uncertainty and complexity of this vessel called planet Earth. As such religions are equal with any philosophical school.

However when a philosophy goes against scientific discoveries and disrupt social progress for mankind just for it's own preservation and impose it's views as being more righteous than scientific evidence and the laws of a country, we have a problem.

It is this problem Richard Dawkins is trying to highlight and deal with. He is actually doing something that should fit very well with Christian values, he is saying "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone".

No believer seems to comprehend the clarity that comes with liberation from blind religious faith. Sadly, it is that very blindness that keeps them captive.

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Sorcerymfg said...

Just sad that this even has to be a discussion in the year 2011. I just love the hypocrisy of those seeking to hang on to faith, when we have a much better method of separating reality from fantasy, its called the Scientific method for those still in the dark ages here... Yeah you know that think that brought about the very computer your typing on, that computer didn't happen by faith or prayer, but hard thinking, something not appealing to most Christians I find.

SmarterThanYou said...

I couldn't read more than 2 paragraphs before I had to stop.

You are an idiot. Calling non-evidence "evidence" doesn't make it evidence sweetheart :(

As other posters said, stick to the scientific method please.

Stephen said...

Atheists do have faith, everyone has 'a faith', it only depends on how one defines faith. If you have faith in yourself, then that person's own strength is their god. This goes the whole way back to the Garden of Eden and 'the lie', "you will become like God, knowing Good and Evil". How can anyone talk about evil and then turn right back around and deny God is Truth and only God is Good at the same time is mind boggling blindness. The gods all through the ancient times were considered even rulers and kings, common people who refused to believe in anything but their idols which were nothing more than symbolic metaphors of themselves to control people and/or were used as explanation for things science hadn't explained yet like the weather. It's ironic that or truthful really that Christ Jesus was bring an end to have to earn your way to God by being 'good enough' and also condemned both the religious leaders and the politics of being two sides of the same coin. Here is where the line was have a faith or faith system, "man made religion'...but what He was Bringing and Now Is was the Faith of God, not men. This can only be made Known through Revelation in Truth and is impossible to understand and / or be explained to a person who has not had The Revelation of God (As He so chooses to give it based on the intent of a persons heart). This is spelled out by Paul but The Lord even said, when asked "Why do you speak to them in parables"? and He replied, "To them it has not been given to Know the Secrets of the Kingdom of God"..which means to them they were parables, but to those who have Eyes that See and Ears to Hear the parables were telling why the world is the way it is and how to break free from "the System" . This was nothing new, it had been going on since pre-history and now was brought fully to Light, 'but man loves his 'wicked deeds' as written which means in opposition to Perfect Righteous than to face the Truth so that they might be healed. This is not religion, he was giving us and does each day REALITY itself...that transcends political and religious powers..and His Church" is the world and knows no limitations of time and space. It's not an 'earth church building' but an actual Reality. The atheists god is belief in the god that doesn't exist...his own mind. For if he says, "that's not possible, I don't believe in God" which we say, That's what I just said . The reality is we are all condemned to die (obviously) so no one is exempt from that will...will we go by a faith we've been taught by men or by God? Where's the proof? Look at's no different than the times in the Old Testament, not one thing has changed to this day for the most part, the names change but the story remains the same. Cain represented in part carnality, our own mental capacities. Abel was EnAble'd by a Knowledge unknown to the human mind which is Given from outside this Existence. God is Truth, anything to negates that is then calling Him a liar. Not Good. ..hence, evil...just like Dawkins acknowledges exists.

Stephen said... continue one thing I've been pondering. Dawkins could be correct though..that the religions of the world are evil..for Jesus said, "The only sign this 'evil' generation will see is the sign of Jonah". The god of the world is Satan (evil). hence anything of the world is 'evil' including man -made religions. Look around at the world at large from a global perspective. Even what is not considered evil is all relative to either greater or lesser degrees of the same thing all amounting t being meaningless and all leads to death in the long run. But God is LIFE Itself, uncreated pre-manifested in form, how can anyone argue with uncreated LIFE itself? Easily apparently...but it does not make any less false than anything one says to justify themselves within the realm of a LIE to begin with. In that case, even cause and effect is a LIE in the long run as one thing leads to another within the realm of The LIE . There's no way out of it. "The Light came into the world but the ways of the world were evil. The Light penetrates the Darkness but the Darkness knows it not NOR can it Comprehend it"...Buddha Sought Enlightenment and said (Buddhists can be atheists) "I seek the Way, I seek the Truth, I seek the Light" Christ said, "I AM The WAY, I AM the TRUTH, I AM THe LIFE" and I AM The Light of Man. That means, HE is Enlightenment Itself. Everything Buddha sought. Churches have condemned themselves in many regards and that will not pass un-Judged by Perfect Righteousness, no one is exempt. I don't know about you, but something at least has to be done about all the sociopaths, psychopaths, greedy rich politicians that control peoples lives, and deceiving pulpit pounders who extort money from so-called innocent people. The Darkness is but utter ignorance of that which is The Knowledge of God in the Light of Perfect Truth and Righteousness. Everyone wants what is right yet will turn right back around and deny it when it stares them in the face, just like Pilate did.

Tom Brown said...

There's a difference between faith and hope.

If the 9/11 hijackers had merely hoped that they would go to paradise because they hoped they were pleasing Allah, then what are the chances they would have carried through with their plot?

Hope doesn't inspire confidence. Faith is hope mixed with unwarranted confidence.

What warrants confidence about reality? Only one thing really: science. Science practiced with Feynman Integrity... bending over backwards to try to imagine how you might be wrong, and fully disclosing all the facts that might cast a shadow of doubt on your findings... and sharing this all openly with the scientific community. And testing and retesting each and every hypothesis about reality... being fully aware of all the subtle and not so subtle ways we humans fool ourselves with confirmation bias, colored perceptions, etc.

Religious faith is based on all the faulty human reasoning and perception problems that science practiced with Feynman integrity hopes to attenuate as much as possible: it's one big "confirmation bias" of pure subjectivity. And it's used to justify a sense of certainty about one's beliefs. Beliefs such as what will please Allah.

That's why faith is evil: it's the antithesis of Feynman integrity:

"It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it."

-- Dr. Richard Feynman

Tom Brown said...


"How can anyone talk about evil and then turn right back around and deny God is Truth and only God is Good at the same time is mind boggling blindness."

Which of the 1000s of gods are you referring? There's an equal amount of objective evidence for all of them: zero.