Dawkins and Critics

Richard Dawkins’ book, titled the God Delusion coupled with books  by Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens  has finally opened  religion up to public scrutiny.  These books soon catapulted to the top of the bestseller lists and have ushered in a rash of public debates about the effect religion has on our lives. It is pretty clear that Dawkins’ style of criticism has worked so much better at arousing public interest than our former attempts to appeal to reason have ever done.  His open examination of religion has markedly change society’s attitude towards atheism. Suddenly the word atheist can no longer be so easily and contemptuously dismissed as not worthy of discussion

But just as we about to reach the crux of change that will make atheism fully respectable to our society, some humanists are effectively reducing the full effect of Dawkins and company’s efforts by openly criticising their methods.  I think it is time we tried to understand  why those professed non-theists among us discourage — indeed, oppose —  Dawkins’ attempt to bring religionism before the auspices of public opinion.

An indication that  some of these disapproving humanists are more than a little bothered by these outspoken non theist “attacks” on religion is shown by the way they distort  Dawkins and friend’s criticisms  by  claiming they amount to a hostile, negative  attack on a person , an individual, rather than on a particular world view—- even going to the extent of referring to some of the more outspoken atheists as atheist fundamentalists
( what those fundamentals happen to be are never mentioned)

They seem unable to understand that you have to assert yourself in order to make changes to public opinion. Surely the experience of both gays and feminists show us that you can not reshape public perceptions without arousing considerable anger and backlash. They seem unaware of what every advertising organization knows — — that you have to expose the weakness of your opponents position in order to justify your preferred alternative. Cultures resist change and it takes extraordinary effort to overcome that resistance.

This particular group of humanists point out that we should be tolerant of another person’s point of view and they are right about that but they should also know that we should be  able to live with those who hold different positions than those we hold.  I know people who are strongly critical of each other’s political stance, yet still seem able to retain their close friendships and I can not understand why that should not also be true when the topic is a religious one. We are not being hostile when we question someone’s religious beliefs -we, too, are  entitled to an opinion.  One has to wonder why our more conciliatory  atheists/humanists feel  religion deserves a separate category

Particularly when you consider how successful Dawkins and friends have been in bringing this topic into the public domain, it is hard to see why atheist critics continue to disparage his technique.  Remember, for centuries it has been considered rude, indeed in very poor taste, to discuss religion in the public realm and as a result religion has been able to operate under the radar of reason.  Richard Dawkins’ publisher told him that his book the God Delusion”  could not have been published a mere 20 years earlier. Yet today that book was on  the bestseller lists for months on end, as have books by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens .  And now we are actually seeing pro atheist  signs on buses in not only England but also in France, Spain and now  Canada and the United States, opening up more debates, more opportunities to  discuss religion out in the open. Whatever Dawkins and friends are doing is working and working for the first time in western history.

Further, when one considers how powerful and persuasive religion can be– note its amazing ability to elicit funds from its followers– and when one considers how small organized non theism is compared to this mammoth, it is hard to see why  those who are free from its tentacles would be carrying out this kind of rear guard action against the efforts of  their fellow atheists. But that is what many people, Michael Shermer included, have been doing . So the question we need to ask is what makes these professed non theists so opposed to Dawkins and friends’ efforts to expose religion to the harsh  glare of reality?

Well, here is my take on that. While Humanists have essentially chosen science as their guide through life,  we have also grown up in a religious culture, one in which our literature, our philosophies, evolved under the assumption that a deity of sorts was running the show and it is not easy for any of us to eject all facets of that musty religious stuff from our brains. Indeed, as Carl Coon points out (Progressive Humanism) our philosophy calls for an active and ongoing effort to dislodge old religious truisms from our cranium. I suggest that those among us who are hesitant to support Dawkins and  company are  still much more religious than they would give themselves credit for. One might say they have thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater–they concede there is no god but still cling to the Christian culture that they were educated in.
agm        Andy Mulcahy





About Monist

Hi, my name is Andy Mulcahy . I consider myself a monist and I am retired from steam engineering lo,these many years ago, and the Portland Cement industry. I have evolved into a Humanist-am a member of the Victoria Secular Humanist Association and The Humanist Association of Canada.
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2 Responses to Dawkins and Critics

  1. ron says:

    Andy, Dr. Robert Buckman throws some light on this subject in his excellent book “Can We Be Good Without God”. We are all hard-wired to a belief system involving some greater power, starting from birth with our parents whose ability to give and take away is beyond our understanding and control. As we grow, this belief is transferred into the mystical world of deities. Initially it is very reassuring and enticing, the ‘opium of the masses’. Its very tough to break away from this ingrained belief. But like all things, the more you understand something, the better able you are to change your opinion of it.

    While I fully support what Dawkins et al are doing, my concern is that the rest of us less luminous lights might be spending too much time and energy on cerebral exercises and not enough on the practical matter of stopping religion creeping back into our so-called secular society. To that end, we need to be better organized to oppose the demands of religious groups which impact the rest of society, and to be more vocal in opposing religious practices which impede individual freedom of expression and personal growth.

  2. Monist says:

    I agree, Ron that it is better for us to deal with the practical matter of keeping religious forces at bay, but I think this can only be done by first getting by the last defense against reason, and that is their use of the spirituality card. Need to nail that. Here are three “definitions” of the word that I like, particularly the last one because it is mine.
    Cheers, Ron


    The problem with trying to rescue the word spiritual is that it has already been ruined
    beyond repair, and thus isn’t worth saving. It means absolutely nothing because for a word
    to mean something it must have a generally agreed upon definition, and if it has more than
    one definition it must be such that you can figure out what is meant by the context.
    “Spirituality” is defined differently by each person who uses it, and some definitions
    seem mutually exclusive, nor are the context of the conversation much help in most
    instances. The purpose of words is to communicate. What does the word “spiritual”
    communicate? I’m not asking what it means to you, but what common meaning it has. From
    what I can tell, any common meaning it used to have is completely lost esp. since most
    people who use the word completely ignore the dictionary and make up their own esoteric
    I’ve heard dozens of definitions for the word spiritual .It means everything, and
    therefore communicates nothing. The word needs to be retired and put out of its misery”.

    By: Lynne Schultz, founder of Earthward

    Spirituality” a term frequently used to describe the vaguest intimations of supernatural
    realities, is popularly considered a mark of virtue and is as hostile to atheism as
    religious belief. Spirituality, after all, is simply religion deinstitutionalized and
    shorn of any exclusionary doctrines. In a pluralistic marketplace, it has considerable
    You can claim to be a spiritual person without professing loyalty to a particular dogma or
    even understanding it. Spirituality makes no intellectual demands; all that it requires is
    a general belief in immaterialism (which can be used to increase your material
    Wendy Kaminer, “The Last Taboo” (1996)

    I think one of the sleaziest practices in today’s society is this attempt to defend
    spurious claims on the grounds that there is a spiritual—and thus unassailable—dimension
    to be considered in its evaluation… What good does this meme (spirituality) do? What,
    pray tell, are its parameters?
    For every free ad we get in the community section of our local papers, there will be a
    dozen or more ads that include the word spirituality in them. Churches, of course, use the
    word abundantly – -it effectively bypasses scientific evidence that might be troubling to
    their story. But many others, like the new age group, while rejecting the church’s dogma,
    hang onto this escape from accountability with as much gusto as do their mainstream
    But what do ordinary citizens mean when they use the word? Are they talking about empathy?
    If so, why not say so? Of course we are programmed to feel empathy for our fellows. Our
    species could never have survived without this innate drive to support and help each
    other. Common sense should tell us this but now science backs that premise . (Mat
    Ridley’s: “The Origins of Virtue” offers many examples of the ways in which members of a
    species cooperate with each other in order to ensure their species survival.) No need to
    invoke the mystical to justify human compassion..

    Or are they talking about our instinctual sense of wonder? That genetic drive to survive,
    that will to live, that zest for life that all extant species must have bundles of in
    order to face the seemingly ruthless environment that challenges, encompasses, us? But
    note that sense of awe, of curiosity is always directed towards the real—like the stars, a
    new born baby, a brilliant sunset—all parts of our physical world, not parts of some
    ethereal ectoplasm. What can be called spiritual about that? Everything that jump-starts
    us exists in this spectacular, material world.
    Only the materialist dare gaze upon the
    bursting energy that is this amazing universe – –
    all others shade their eyes (with words) from

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