Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Even the atheists are starting to doubt Dawkins

The first rule in attempting to mainstream a theory or opinion which has been heretofore considered marginal is, or at least ought to be, that the chief spokesperson for the theory or opinion in question be himself within the mainstream of his peculiar school of thought. It will do no good to put forward an extremist to speak on behalf of that which is already viewed as extreme. Hence, the rise and fall of atheist Richard Dawkins is, in the end, a case study in how not to make unbelief culturally acceptable. Dawkins' latest tirade, chronicled by British blogger Andrew Brown, is illustrative of the reason the very non-believers for whom he claims to speak are beginning to become his strongest critics.
Richard Dawkins on Mumsnet came up with a remark to silence all his critics: "What have you read of mine that makes you think I have a skewed agenda?" It certainly left me opening and shutting my mouth like a breathless goldfish. Actually the whole thread is worth reading: it is from here that the story has come forth that he wants to start an atheist school. Whether that will actually happen is another thing. But it is in any case revealing of his reasoning. (There doesn't seem to be a way to link to individual comments on Mumsnet, but all these quotes are cut and pasted from the thread.)

He was asked by one commenter:
"What would you say to parents of children who attend quite orthodox state-funded schools who are very anxious that their child be educated within that context? I am thinking specifically of the ortho-Jewish schools around my way (north London). I know for a fact a lot of these parents cannot countenance the idea of their child being educated within a non-Jewish school. What do you think they should do?"
His response was:
"That's a good point. I believe this is putting parental rights above children's rights."
It is impossible to read this as meaning anything but that children have a right to be educated as Richard Dawkins thinks fit, but not as their parents do. He alluded several times in the threat to the sufferings of atheist parents forced to send their children to faith schools:
"Is it better to stand by one's principles or be hypocritical in order to provide the best option? What a horrible dilemma to be forced into."
But apparently this doesn't apply if your principles are religious ones, because then your children have a right to be educated as atheists.

Of course, the Dawkins position here is purely a matter of assertion. It's impossible to imagine anything that might qualify as evidence for the view that it is okay for atheists to discriminate against parents who have particular religious beliefs, while it is very wrong for believers to do so.

But "evidence", tends to be defined backwards in these polemics – in other words, he starts from the axiom that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God, (implied here in his remark that "Every atheist I know would change their mind in a heartbeat if any evidence appeared in favour of religious belief") and then find meanings for the term that fit this use. This is of course the same trick as defining faith as belief without evidence and then using this definition as proof that faith is irrational.

If that sounds unfair, consider the uses of "evidence" in his discussion of education here:
"Children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded. If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists."
It's clear here that Dawkins is starting from the definition that "evidence" is what can't justify a belief in God, whereas "tradition, authority, revelation, and faith" have all been used to justify religious belief, so they must be bad.

But the idea that you can separate a respect for evidence from a respect for tradition and authority doesn't survive a moment's reflection on the ways that children actually learn. That's true whether or not God exists.

To be sceptical, critical, and open-minded are all mental, and even moral disciplines. Obviously, all education in any schools, should try to produce such children. But these skills don't come naturally. Indeed, Dawkins, in other moods, will emphasise the utter lack of these skills in small children. So how are they learned? If you want to teach children to be sceptical, critical, and open-minded, you have to start from authority and induct them into a tradition where these things are valued.

The construction of reasoned arguments is a skill that many people never master at all. If they ever do, it is on the basis of social and moral skills, involving self-discipline and a respect for others, which can only be taught with authority. When you are bringing up children "Because I say so" precedes every other sort of "because", and it must. We learn to yield to the authority of reason by our experience of earlier yielding to other sorts of authority.

Obviously, not any tradition, nor any old authority will do for this purpose. Most cultures, for most of history, have put very little value on originality and non-conformity. Teenagers, above all, are hideously concerned about whether they fit in and it takes skilled and strong-minded teachers to relieve even some of this anxiety. But they can't do it without the support of an authoritative tradition that values non-conformity.
The backward logic employed by Dawkins, defining terms so as to make them fit his argument, is an example of what Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, refers to as "strong rationalism," a criterion which requires a proposition to "be proved rationally by logic or empirically by sense experience" before it can be accepted as credible. But "proof," under this criterion, is defined as "an argument so strong that no person whose logical faculties are operating properly would have any reason for disbelieving it." Most philosophers, including the atheist Thomas Nagel (who admits he has "fear of religion"), believe "strong rationalism" is impossible to defend. To be fair, many Christian apologists use this philosophical trick with impunity, but Dawkins' slavish dependence upon such a dubious criterion places him on the margins even within his own atheistic camp. One of the most devastating critiques of his book, The God Delusion, came from Terry Eagleton, a Marxist, writing for London Review of Books. Keller quotes this choice excerpt:
Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. . . . Reason, to be sure, doesn't go all the way down for believers, but it doesn't for most sensitive, civilized non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. . . .
Skeptics and non-believers like Eagleton and Nagel have a level of understanding about faith which is lacking in Dawkins. They can be conversant with people of faith in a way Dawkins cannot. Yet, it is Dawkins who has anointed himself as the spokesperson for the "new atheists." Perhaps his fellow non-believers should move for a vote of no confidence.