Friday, January 05, 2007

The "new atheism" and history

Common to the recent anti-religious writings of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is (roughly) the following train of thought: (A) religion is irrational, and (B) tends to lead people to be irrational about pretty much everything, and so (C) tends to lead to violence.

Sometimes it seems that (C) is supposed to follow from the general principles of (A) and (B), in apriori-ish fashion. But of course concrete evidence is needed, and so usual suspects like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and, more recently, terrorist attacks by Muslims are trotted out.

Regarding the historical examples of supposedly religiously motivated violence, blogger Shannon Love criticizes Dawkins on the grounds that (let's say) his grasp of history lacks opposable thumbs. Love (an atheist, and former Dawkins admirer) notes that there was no non-religious world-view around back in the day, and remarks:
This leads to a form of confirmation bias on the part of atheists. They look into the distant past, see some actions we disapprove of in the modern world, notice that the people who chose the actions had a religious world view, and conclude that the religious world view caused the problem. However, since everybody in the distant past had a religious world view, and no significant decision makers until the very recent past had an atheistic world view, the fact that decision makers in the past were religious tells us about as much about them as the fact that they all breathed oxygen.
That last bit made me giggle.

There's further discussion about the Crusades and Inquisition, which I don't really know about, but it sounds good. She moves on to the modern era to consider some of the morally questionable political activities spawned by atheists, as well as the abolition of slavery and the establishment of welfare programs, where religious motivations seem to play a central role. None of these points really prove anything, but whatever. All the reviews of Dawkins and Harris that I've seen in major periodicals have turned out to be pretty unenlightening (whether they're pro or con), but this one's all right.

(A note of regret concerning the title. Because it's a catchy label, I've used "new atheism" to refer to Harris and Dawkins and their followers. Unfortunately, Daniel Dennett has also been lumped in with them under that category, despite the fact that he can actually navigate an argument and make decent conceptual distinctions, and proposes a critical look at religion without being anti-religious. I think he belongs in better company.)

1 comment:

John said...

These related essays give a unique understanding of the origins & consequences of the science vs exoteric religion culture wars.