Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why Dawkins is so hostile

This is my summary of Richard Dawkins’ chapter “What is wrong with religion? Why so hostile” from The God Delusion. The summary was my first major assignment in Interp, a writing class which in my case focuses on religion and power. But even before you read the summary, let me tell you what I think of Dawkins' argument: I think some of his reasoning is valid, and worth giving some attention. However, being an insider of faith myself, I completely disagree with his generalized assumptions about the nature of faith, and can not agree with Dawkin's conclusion. I'll limit my critique to that for now.


Religious faith makes people dangerous. At least according to Richard Dawkins, a biological theorist most famous for his militant standpoints against religion. His satirical style and unpolished language makes it clear that he has no interest in negotiation; this is war, and the goal is to eliminate. However, Dawkins’ is quick to assure us he is not dangerous, like militant fundamentalists using bombs, beheading, stoning burning or crucifixion. Nonetheless is there reason to be hostile, and armed with a belt of sharp-tipped words, Dawkins explains why.

Religion has consequences. Consequences, as we will see, are important to Dawkins, and it is the consequences that ultimately make religion dangerous. For one thing, religion can suppress bright individuals who are too intelligent not to see the head-on collision between their faith and the real world. But what is worse, religion makes certain people violent and dangerous to others, as their absolutist unquestioning views of moral cause them to take judgement in their own hands and largely ignore laws set forth by society. What happens when such fundamentalists themselves come to political power cause Dawkins even darker nightmares.

One could of course argue that it is these fundamentalists that are dangerous, and not religion itself. However, Dawkins rejects such a notion, and points to the virtue of faith that is so prominent in religious practice. “Faith is an evil,” he upholds, “because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” (p. 308) Further, faith is what fundamentalism is built upon; as Dawkins defines it, fundamentalism is to know something is true because it is written in a holy book. Unquestionable. Not a product of reasoning. Faith.

As long as faith is at the core of religion, then, religion itself must be evil.

A word for the corresponding unreasonable firmness in one’s moral believes is “absolutism.” An absolutist does not discuss whether something is good or bad. As long as his holy book says something is bad, then bad it is. End of discussion. This is the attitude Dawkins finds among pro-life supporters and those who oppose rights for homosexuals. More specifically, absolutists fail to consider consequences when making moral judgements.

In the case of homosexuality, Dawkins points out how it is an “unmistakable trademark of the faith-based moralizer (...) to care passionately about what other people do (or even think) in private.” (p. 289) To Dawkins, what happens in private has no moral component to it. As long as it does not hurt anyone, who cares? Who is there to care? Absolutists, on the other hand, do not care if anyone gets hurt. In fact, what makes moral and immoral to them has no grounds in their own reasoning at all, but is solely based on what their holy book tells them.

This view is even more evident when it comes to abortion. While Dawkins do recognize that there exist arguments against abortion grounded in reasoning, such arguments tend not to be frequently used by the major pro-life groups (all of which are deeply religious). Rather, their argument usually goes like, ‘since the embryo is a human being, we must not under any circumstances kill it. That would be wrong according to the book.’ Seemingly relevant consequences are not considered – such as how much suffering the intervention or non-intervention would cause.

At least the quasi-consequentialism that is breed by such unbalanced views of worth has caused some disturbing acts of ‘moralism’ – such as the murder of Dr Britton, who worked on an abortion clinic. The murderer, Paul Hill, proudly reported his crime to the police, and smiled as he was preparing for his martyrdom and heavenly reward. Now, most people would call Paul Hill and his equals for psychopaths. But Dawkins views them differently: “They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good (...) because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.” (p. 304) Faith, then, is to blame.

Dawkins emphasize that faith is powerful. When for instance a suicide bomber decides to pull the trigger and blow himself up – then he actually believes that paradise awaits. When Reverend Jerry Falwell proclaims that AIDS is a punishment from God to a society that tolerates homosexuals, he says so because he actually believes it, or when Paul Hill kills doctors, he actually believe he is doing good. “They actually believe what they say they believe” (p. 304) is the simple explanation of dangerous fundamentalism, yet so difficult to grasp for non-believers.

The London bombings is a prime example. Media tries to explain the attack with bad political leadership and social issues within the communities in which these well educated terrorists circulated, but eloquently avoid discussing their religion. To Dawkins, it is absurd not to blame religion – there is no other reason why one would do what they did. No social benefit to be claimed in this life. A pregnant widow and discredit to their community is what inevitably would be the result, which the terrorists in question must have anticipated if they ever made such considerations. What good is that? “Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people,” (p. 303) Dawkins subsequently declares.

Dawkins does not argue that all morals set forth by religions are bad. He neither explicitly claims that anyone who is seriously religious will turn out like the bad cases of fundamentalism that he describes. In fact, unquestioning faith does not seemingly have any damaging consequences if the moral one happens to believe is correct and good. But bad things quickly start to happen when what one has unquestionable faith in is wicked – it is straight out a problem when belief in some screwed up moral becomes a virtue of faith.

The core problem with religion, then, is not its moral doctrines per se (though they can sometimes be frightening enough) but the notion that these moral doctrines are unquestionable. The problem is religious faith. That is what makes the people dangerous. If religion then harms the human process of developing sane ethics, well, Dawkins concludes it should be fought.

Read more: The God Delusion


  1. Well-written and interesting summary, bro :)

  2. my views on religion