Magic and Reality

Richard Dawkins has complained, on countless occasions, that religious people do not engage rational thought in selecting their beliefs. For me, the frustrating part of this is the success he’s had in convincing others that this complaint is more descriptive of religious individuals than himself.

As much as he knows about evolutionary theory, Dawkins has shown himself a novice at theology, logic, and rational argumentation.

When asked for a rational ground for ethics, he responds with a rant about his personal distaste for biblical morality. When asked for a reason to believe his view (that all truth is physical), he responds that there is no scientific (that is, physical) evidence that something else exists. When debating God’s existence, he emotes that the idea is “petty”.

Then, when speaking about the situation, he complains that theists resort to taking offense in lieu of rational debate.

I’ve met many intelligent, reasonable atheists who can give clear reasons for their beliefs, and are unwilling to make intellectually lazy statements about religion in general. Dawkins’, however, can’t be said to understand Christianity well enough to have criticized it. He loudly insists on the non-existence of God, apparently unaware that (if one is attentive to his statements) he’s been arguing against a god that no one actually believes in.

The fact that this man has such a large group of enthusiastic supporters strikes me as something of a social crisis. Can people en masse really believe that demanding that the opposition is unreasonable somehow makes one rational?

There seems to be, in the self-proclaimed defenders of rational thought, a thorough-going belief in a kind of magic. They act as if wearing the talismans of reason, reciting the incantations of “evidence” and “science”, and purging one’s mind of any doubt in philosophical materialism will mysteriously make their position true. As one blogger put it:
“What’s new about New Atheism, in contrast to old atheism where you could just get along not believing and not really thinking about it, is that structurally it is so very like a church.”

This seems only confirmed, if not exacerbated, by the fact that Dawkins, after spending years criticizing religion for “indoctrination” has published a book aimed at children which lists biblical narratives among myths which have been disproved by science. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with such a book in itself, but that many have been put-off by the unabashed hypocrisy of the action.

Equally problematic was Dawkins’ simultaneous unwillingness to address logical challenges to his position. It appeared to many as if he were removing himself from the need to provide logical support for his case, addressing only his own fans and children too young to raise serious questions – or have much confidence in the questions they do raise.

Those of greater philosophical depth, whether they are theists or not, should be very eager to curb the (lack of) thinking in this movement. As a theist, I’ve long criticized many churches for believing that we don’t need to engage reason to have faith. How much more, then, should we criticize a group for believing that we don’t need to engage reason to be reasonable?

Dismissiveness and cynicism about philosophy, theology, and the search for spiritual truth is not skepticism. It is as close-minded a dogma as anything being said to a congregation on Sunday morning.

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