The Cynical Anti-Intellectualism of Dawkins

Daniel Came:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”center” text_align=”left”]”… it is quite obvious that Dawkins is opportunistically using these remarks as a smokescreen to hide the real reasons for his refusal to debate with Craig – which has a history that long predates Craig’s comments on the Canaanites.

As a sceptic, I tend to agree with Dawkins’s conclusion regarding the falsehood of theism, but the tactics deployed by him and the other New Atheists, it seems to me, are fundamentally ignoble and potentially harmful to public intellectual life. For there is something cynical, ominously patronising, and anti-intellectualist in their modus operandi, with its implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people’s beliefs about religion. The presumption is that their largely non-academic readership doesn’t care about, or is incapable of, thinking things through; that passion prevails over reason. On the contrary, people’s attitudes towards religious belief can and should be shaped by reason, not bile and invective. By ignoring this, the New Atheists seek to replace one form of irrationality with another.”[/pk_box]

James Barham:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”center” text_align=”left”]”Now, it is understandable that Dawkins should disdain to debate someone so far below his own celebrity star-power as Professor Craig. On the other hand, by that criterion, he really ought to limit himself to appearing with other bona fide media stars, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (not that they would find much to disagree about).

If, however, Dawkins’s principal concern were the truth, as opposed to protecting his celebrity status, then he ought to jump at the chance to debate Craig. If modern science really has put the question of the existence of God to rest once and for all, then what better forum to get this across to the public than Oxford’s venerable Sheldonian Theatre next Tuesday? It really is a pity, because for many of us interested in the question of the existence of God, such a match-up would have the quality of a real clash of the titans.”[/pk_box]

HT: Uncommon Descent

5 replies
  1. Lee
    Lee says:

    For there is something cynical, ominously patronising, and anti-intellectualist in their modus operandi, with its implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people’s beliefs about religion.

    Having read the books, I assure you they don’t just hurl insults. It is disingenuous to write that this is the extent of their published work. More importantly, the target audience is not really believers anyways, for most of them (LTCN being the exception). Just to further bolster the point, Harris himself has repeatedly and publicly conceded that he is not a diplomat, and he doesn’t expect his books to convert the vast majority of the religious. He is writing to atheists and agnostics in an attempt to goad them into putting conversational pressure on the faithful when their dogmas intrude upon issues that matter.

    Now, it is understandable that Dawkins should disdain to debate someone so far below his own celebrity star-power as Professor Craig.

    This is not his reasoning, which makes it a bit of a strawman. The rest of the quote builds upon this false assumption. He doesn’t debate Dr. Craig because he doesn’t think Dr. Craig’s creationist views are worth giving yet another stage to for muddling actual discussions of reality. The irony, of course, is that Dr. Craig himself has said that debates are not about getting at the truth, they are about winning (at least to him). Therefore, if “Dawkins’s principal concern were the truth”, I find it hard to believe a debate with Dr. Craig would further that aim.

    Lee.

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Having read the books, I assure you they don’t just hurl insults.

    That’s true. But take The God Delusion for example. It trades on arguments that any sophomore philosophy student would be embarrassed to come up with, and could easily refute. It vastly overstates the case against God (or Christianity in particular), while ignoring pretty much the entire body of literature on theism versus atheism. In essence, it seems to boil down to a rant against God thinly disguised with the pretense of argumentation, rather than an argument against God with a bit of ranting thrown in (after all, who doesn’t love a good rant?)

    You also have to look at the overall way that New Atheists present their case, and the way they hold up their end of the discussion with Christians. Most of them take a very anti-intellectual approach. You only need to look at Dawkins’s forums to see that. While the popular-level books that started the movement are bad, the general tone of the movement is even worse. For example, look at how Scottish pastor David Robertson’s letter to Dawkins, critiquing The God Delusion, was received. Richard Morgan drew a lot of attention to the nature of “discussion” that goes on there when he converted to Christianity; see here for example.

    Now, you could say that this isn’t representative of New Atheism in general. But it’s hard to see that, given that New Atheism is nothing if not a movement comprised of New Atheists, and the Dawkins forums are populated by those people. And of course, it’s not as if the behavior of Dawkins’s followers doesn’t rub off on Dawkins himself. It’s not as if he doesn’t have ultimate control of the forums, right?

    Speaking for my own part, I have some insight into the New Atheist phenomenon, since I was one (albeit before the term was coined). A “bright”, as some like to say. I can still remember exactly the sort of attitude I had. Although I paid lip-service to rationality, I was actually driven by a simple contempt for religion, and for Christianity in particular, and for the Christian God most of all. I would routinely come away from discussions with Christians thinking, “What complete morons—how could anyone possibly believe such garbage?” But I would never make any attempt to understand the reasons for their beliefs. I would simply assume no good reasons could possibly exist. That is the sort of thinking you see in New Atheism. It is a cultic kind of movement, rather than an open-minded or scientific one.

    More importantly, the target audience is not really believers anyways

    I’m pretty sure The God Delusion contains a foreword in which Dawkins explicitly states that he wants Christians to read it, so they can become atheists. I may be wrong, but I’m fairly sure that’s the case.

    He doesn’t debate Dr. Craig because he doesn’t think Dr. Craig’s creationist views are worth giving yet another stage to for muddling actual discussions of reality.

    That’s not the reason Dawkins gave, though. For one thing, if by “creationist” you mean “young earth creationist”, then Craig is not a creationist. For another thing, there’s nothing muddled about Craig’s thinking—he is internationally recognized as one of the top philosophers in his field.

    The irony, of course, is that Dr. Craig himself has said that debates are not about getting at the truth, they are about winning (at least to him).

    Could you link to this? I wonder what the context of his comment was. In some sense I guess it’s true, but it’s not as if winning is unrelated to the truth.

  3. Lee
    Lee says:

    Hello again, Bnonn.

    Now, you could say that this isn’t representative of New Atheism in general. But it’s hard to see that, given that New Atheism is nothing if not a movement comprised of New Atheists, and the Dawkins forums are populated by those people.

    This is the move religious folks object to on a continuous basis.  You are essentially seeing what you want to see, on both sides.  You see intellectually sophisticated Christians everywhere you look, and snobbish, unsophisticated atheists wherever you seek to find them.  The reality is far more nuanced for both sides; select comments on RD.net are only a representative sample of RD.net, not the wider new atheist community.  This is simple statistics.  

     It’s not as if he doesn’t have ultimate control of the forums, right?

    He does not.  IF he did, that would be the quintessential example of stifling open debate.  You don’t censor unsophisticated Christians, why should he do the same for atheists?  Why would you expect that?

    Speaking for my own part, I have some insight into the New Atheist phenomenon, since I was one…

    This goes both ways: someone who was once a christian for bad reasons, who then becomes an atheist, can just as easily draw the same invalid inference about other Christians on the basis of his or her experience.  Surely you recognize that :)

    Although I paid lip-service to rationality, I was actually driven by a simple contempt for religion, and for Christianity in particular, and for the Christian God most of all.

    This is what it means to be a bad skeptic, or a bad atheist.  You had no good reason to remain an atheist, and thus converted based on reasons discovered to do so, but it does not follow that therefore there are no good reasons to remain/convert (to) an atheist.  To further infer that all of new atheism holds this mindset is silly!  

    But I would never make any attempt to understand the reasons for their beliefs. I would simply assume no good reasons could possibly exist. That is the sort of thinking you see in New Atheism. It is a cultic kind of movement, rather than an open-minded or scientific one.

    I’m a new atheist, and I regularly frequent blogs such as yours, and read the philosophy and theology that I can understand (which certainly isn’t the top tier stuff).  Is my example not enough to convince you that your conclusions are possibly false?  that perhaps you are mistaking contempt for the (imo) contemptible in addition to sufficient reasons to object intelligently, for just plain shallow contempt?  Also, I’d love to hear how you equate new atheism with a cult movement.

    I’m pretty sure The God Delusion contains a foreword in which Dawkins explicitly states that he wants Christians to read it, so they can become atheists. I may be wrong, but I’m fairly sure that’s the case.

    I don’t believe it says that.  I don’t have my copy hand, as I loaned it a while ago, but I believe the forward contains an admission that his work is unlikely to convince anyone sufficiently devout, and is merely aimed at agnostic-christians and agnostic atheists(this same caveat is to be found for certain in End of Faith, and probably in God is Not Great).  Even if it does state what you claim, it doesn’t really matter.  Author’s intent and the impact of a published work is often at odds, so to say his book doesn’t fulfill his explicit goals isn’t to say that it doesn’t fulfill any purpose.  I think that even if it didn’t convert a single soul (which would be false according to his testimony concerning email correspondence with readers), it presents a different take on the question.  Again, open debate isn’t like the VIP section of a club, everyone is welcome.

    Moreover, Dawkins doesn’t pander to the top tier, or even mid-tier, philosophical-theological academia.  It is a popular level book, and reads like one.  I have invested a significant amount of time and effort, and much of metaphysics remains a complete mystery to me.  If the only resources were Acquinas and Mackie, and commentaries of each, very few people on either side of the debate would even care, much less understand.

    That’s not the reason Dawkins gave, though. For one thing, if by “creationist” you mean “young earth creationist”, then Craig isnot a creationist. For another thing, there’s nothing muddled about Craig’s thinking—he is internationally recognized as one of the top philosophers in his field.

    It is the reason, when he explained why he doesn’t debate creationists.  Old earth creationists are obviously preferable to young earth creationists, but having defended the rephrased creationist propaganda, Intelligent Design, Craig puts himself in a category that Dawkins had peremptorily excluded from his agenda.  It isn’t as though Craig asked for a debate, and Dawkins then declared that he doesn’t debate creationists.  Dawkins has been debating within the biological community for decades, this was a previously determined position.  

    Could you link to this? I wonder what the context of his comment was. In some sense I guess it’s true, but it’s not as if winning is unrelated to the truth.

    It was in answer to one of the questions on his website.  I doubt I would be able to find it, but I also doubt Craig would deny it.  He has stated as much in his discussions of debating in general.  His academic work stands separate from debating, which is for him part-game, part-evangelizing.  That’s not to say his arguments don’t work, or truth is excluded, only that no one enters a debate looking to learn something or change their mind.  If someone completely dismantles his arguments(hypothetically), he’s not going to pack up and go home, he will counter as best he knows how.  

    That is part of what makes it a joy to watch him debate, but this is a difference between Craig and Dawkins that should be recognized.  Prof. Dawkin’s debating has been, primarily, academic in nature (i.e. his debates with other prominent biologists, in public and print).  They are kind of an extension of his research in biology.  Dr. Craig, on the other hand, while contributing immensely to the philosophical literature, has held to the same 5 arguments for 25+ years because they present an effective winning model.  

    So I suppose, to sum up, while I can certainly concede that The God Delusion hasn’t rocked the foundations of the cutting edge of metaphysics, or really even caused a tremor, the charge of “anti-intellectualism” is “vastly overstating” valid criticisms of his book.  It is also a blatant insult to his published thoughts on the subject, which is precisely what you accused him of doing to Christianity.  Fair is fair, after all :)

    Lee.

  4. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    This is the move religious folks object to on a continuous basis.  You are essentially seeing what you want to see, on both sides.  You see intellectually sophisticated Christians everywhere you look, and snobbish, unsophisticated atheists wherever you seek to find them.

    I don’t see that at all. There are some highly intellectually sophisticated atheists. Mackie. Nielsen. Smith. Flew, before he became a deist. And there are village atheists. Dawkins. Harris. Luftus. Avalos. The difference between their arguments and approaches is like day and night.

    And there are some highly intellectually sophisticated Christians. Plantinga. Craig. Anderson. Welty. But I don’t see that standard of thinking everywhere. Few people are naturally talented enough, well educated enough, and have time enough to approach that level. In fact, I doubt the average Christian is more intellectually sophisticated than the average atheist, at least not in the West. And there are certainly more village Christians than village atheists, just by sheer weight.

    The reality is far more nuanced for both sides; select comments on RD.net are only a representative sample of RD.net, not the wider new atheist community.  This is simple statistics.

    But as select comments on RD.net are representative of RD.net, so RD.net is representative of new atheism. I haven’t yet seen anything in new atheism that looks like the intellectual sophistication of “old atheism”. And it’s not as if it’s just Christians saying that. Even atheists are distancing themselves from new atheism because they despise its tendency to replace intellectual rigor and charity with emotional rhetoric and vitriol.

    He does not.  IF he did, that would be the quintessential example of stifling open debate.

    Much like a good police force is the quintessential example of stifling lawlessness. “Open debate” in this case really just means spleen-venting and, in some cases, what seems to amount to hate speech. Dawkins isn’t a government. Censoring his own forum according to some fair guidelines would reflect well on him. We manage to censor a lot of rubbish here and yet still have successful open debates.

    You don’t censor unsophisticated Christians, why should he do the same for atheists?  Why would you expect that?

    I’m not sure what you mean. We’ve never had any Christians come on this board and post obscenities or ad hominem devoid of argumentation. If they did, I can assure you their posts would not be approved. And on my personal blog, I routinely moderate well-meaning but ultimately vapid comments from Christians, while letting through equally vapid comments from atheists simply so that I can respond to them to show how vapid they are.

    This goes both ways: someone who was once a christian for bad reasons, who then becomes an atheist, can just as easily draw the same invalid inference about other Christians on the basis of his or her experience.  Surely you recognize that :)

    Actually I don’t, since I don’t believe one can be a genuine Christian and then fall away. One cannot be unborn.

    This is what it means to be a bad skeptic, or a bad atheist.  You had no good reason to remain an atheist, and thus converted based on reasons discovered to do so, but it does not follow that therefore there are no good reasons to remain/convert (to) an atheist.

    Even if I grant this, the point is that I recognize the same bad skepticism in the sorts of people who post on RD.net. Their behavior exactly mirrors my behavior as an atheist.

    To further infer that all of new atheism holds this mindset is silly!

    I don’t think I said all of new atheism is like this, did I? I was making a general observation.

    I’m a new atheist, and I regularly frequent blogs such as yours, and read the philosophy and theology that I can understand (which certainly isn’t the top tier stuff).  Is my example not enough to convince you that your conclusions are possibly false?

    I’ll readily agree that there are “tiers” of new atheism. But either the bottom tier is far larger, or far more vocal. You are a comparatively rare example of a self-identifying new atheist who can conduct a civil conversation and at least try to engage charitably with the opposition. At least in my experience.

    I don’t believe it says that.  I don’t have my copy hand, as I loaned it a while ago, but I believe the forward contains an admission that his work is unlikely to convince anyone sufficiently devout, and is merely aimed at agnostic-christians and agnostic atheists(this same caveat is to be found for certain in End of Faith, and probably in God is Not Great).

    Okay, I’ll take your word for it.

    Moreover, Dawkins doesn’t pander to the top tier, or even mid-tier, philosophical-theological academia.  It is a popular level book, and reads like one.

    That’s fine as far as it goes. The problem is that the arguments aren’t just made simple for a popular audience. The arguments are actually sophomoric. They are not “toned down” versions of rigorous and well-respected arguments in the upper tier of philosophy. They are, to be honest, rubbish. That’s why both atheist and Christian philosophers have panned Dawkins (I mean, look a Daniel Came’s comments in this very article).

    What saddens me is that so many people are convinced by what is basically poorly-though-through rhetoric. I don’t blame Dawkins, of course. I blame poor education. If people were taught to think critically instead of emotionally, I doubt Dawkins’s books would have even gained much popularity.

    If the only resources were Acquinas and Mackie, and commentaries of each, very few people on either side of the debate would even care, much less understand.

    I agree. I find Aquinas and Mackie fairly heavy going myself. It would help if modern philosophers were taught to write, of course. But again, I don’t have a problem with good writers who can popularize good arguments. I have a problem with good writers who can popularize bad arguments :)

    no one enters a debate looking to learn something or change their mind.

    Well, not the debaters themselves, I expect. But I do believe many people who are investigating both sides and aren’t yet decided go into debates to learn something and possibly have their minds made up. And I certainly watch Craig’s debate with the desire to learn new arguments for both atheism and Christianity. I find that interesting, because so far the arguments have always seemed decisively to come down on the side of Christianity. Not that they always seem so initially, but that’s part of the interest. Sometimes it seems like there really is a good argument for atheism or against Christianity, and investigating that is awesome.

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