Tuesday, January 15, 2013

In Defense of Dawkins

Via PZ Meyers, we get a post from Satoshi Kanazawa that is strongly critical of modern atheism and Richard Dawkins. It's not a primary focus of mine in this blog, but I am familiar with a lot of the arguments on these matters, and it seems to me that Kanazawa is deeply confused.

I also feel the need to add my voice in support of Dawkins, as I think he is often unfairly criticized. More on that at the end of this post.

Kanazawa, it seems, does not believe in God, but does not identify as an atheist because,
"Thanks to Richard Dawkins and his ilk, “atheist” now means someone who is (and acts as if he is) intellectually superior, and who mocks and derides the deeply held and personal religious beliefs of less intelligent others by pointing out how wrongheaded and stupid they are to believe what they believe."
This is just wrong, regardless of how prominent atheists may or may not behave. It's just as wrong to say that "Christian means someone who is heterosexist" or "Muslim means terrorist."

And also(!) everyone knows this--no one uses these words interchangeably, and it makes perfect sense to say a "respectful atheist" or "gay-friendly Christian." It doesn't make any sense to say "pacifist warmonger" because the meaning of "warmonger" rules out being a pacifist. Words can change their meanings, but the evidence that any particular word has changed its meaning is how that word is used by, and makes sense to (native) language speakers. This is just a misunderstanding of semantics on Kanazawa's part, but it undermines his whole thesis, so it's important.

Next, he goes on to say that "apart from Islam, most contemporary religions throughout the world today are for the most part forces of good most of the time." The exclusion of Islam is unjustified and prejudicial. All of the criticisms that can be laid against Islam have analogues in other religions.

What's more, he criticizes Dawkins and people like him, because "Dawkins tells religious people to their faces that their beliefs are delusional because God in fact does not exist." Of course, Kanazawa agrees with Dawkins--he just would never tell people to their face, apparently. And this is one of the things that I find most annoying about the criticisms of Dawkins. The claim is that it's more respectful of religious people to let them practice and preach their religious beliefs, and to never engage with them on the content of their beliefs.

This claim is actually very widely held, it seems, but it seems wildly mistaken to me. Obviously, I don't think we should accost people with our points of view, but many religious people like getting in these discussions. They like talking about their religion, which is no surprise! And I think it shows them more respect to take their claims and points of view seriously, even whilst you vigorously disagree. If I respect you, I care about what you believe, because it matters would you do and what you say. That's why, when it's appropriate, I often try to engage with those who disagree with me on an number of topics. The idea that respecting religious people means never challenging their beliefs is exceptionally condescending, because it implies that we don't have to worry about what certain people believe. In fact, it's important that we all have justified beliefs as best as possible, which is why I support critical public dialogue and a rigorous education system.

If you watch some of the documentaries Dawkins has done, in which he has discussions with religious people, I think you'll find that he is very respectful. He tells them when he thinks they are wrong, and sometimes gets upset when they make outrageous claims. But that's how we treat adults.

Kanazawa makes a bunch of other claims, citing studies that show that Americans are much friendlier than other countries. This is supposed to be because we are more religious, and maybe it is. But it's hardly clear to me that being "civil and courteous" is the real measure of how "good" a society is--things like foreign aid, income distribution, and equal treatment under the law are likely better criteria for the moral character of a society.

One last bizarre quote:
It is ironic because, according to Dawkins himself, I am actually more atheist than he is in the original meaning of the word. Fellow Big Think blogger Mark Cheney quotes Dawkins as saying “On a scale of seven, where one means I know he exists, and seven I know he doesn’t, I call myself a six. That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely confident, that I absolutely know, because I don’t.” It’s funny, because, unlike Dawkins, I absolutely know for sure that God doesn’t exist, as any scientist would. For scientists, it’s very simple; absolutely nothing exists in the universe, except for those entities for which there is credible scientific evidence for their existence. So I know for sure that God doesn’t exist for the same reason that I know Santa Claus or Superman doesn’t exist[sic]

But I am not an atheist.

This is just bad philosophy of science. Even old-school logical positivism (which is now considered philosophically naive) would not entail that God absolutely does not exist. At most it would entail that the sentence "God exists" is semantically meaningless, because there's no way it could be verified, and thus no way for it to be true. But that leaves open the possibility that the concept of God could be understood in a way that could be verified, and thus leave the possibility of his existence open. The correct position for scientists on the existence of things that cannot be detected would be withholding judgment. In the case of something that seems fanciful(fairies, God, Santa Clause), we can provisionally assume non-existence, which is Dawkins' position.

As I mentioned, I think Dawkins gets unfairly crticized. He's often lumped in with Hitchens and Harris, who do espouse other problematic views, but for the most part Dawkins is quite mild-mannered and respectful. I think his treatment as some vitriolic anti-religious bigot is evidence of two things: one, the position held by many intellectuals that I mentioned above, which is that not actually taking the claims of the religious seriously constitutes respect; and two, that religion generally is privileged over irreligion in our society. Just as speaking out against other forms of privilege (say, human privilege) is thought to be impolite or unseemly, speaking out against religious claims chafes with many people's sense of decency. And when there aren't any substantive reasons to counter someone's argument, you can always call them a jerk.

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