The background is a brief quote from Daniel Dennett which I posted as one of my Quotes of the Time Being. Alon responded with a tangentially relevant comment, I responded with my position on the issue, and mentioned that "what's really bothersome among the people Dennett is attacking is that they often attack Dawkins et. al. on purely tactical grounds, with a disregard for what's true." Bronze Dog also chimed in, saying he too cared about what was true.
In Alon's response, he said, among other things, that for Dawkins and his fellow religion critics religion is the root of all problems in the world. I pointed out that Dawkins has explicitly rejected this position. Alon's response? He claimed the fact that Dawkins has rejected the position he attributed to him doesn't matter.
Pause and think about this for a moment. I criticized some of Dawkins' opponents for acting with a disregard for truth, and this quickly lead to one of them claiming that it didn't matter whether the critic's characterization of Dawkins' position matched Dawkins' statements. In essence, Alon is claiming a right to slander. This is actually an example of contempt for truth far worse than anything I had in mind in my initial comment. Talking about having an opponent prove your point for you. Did I mention Alon's an atheist, has blogged at Unscrewing the Inscrutable, and that I first met him at the CFI conference? My first impulse is to be embarrassed that an activist atheist could say something like what he said, though I suppose that's as silly as expecting to see special virtues in every person who does not believe in fairies. Oh well.
In the spirit of full debate, I'm going to go through everything Alon said in support of his position. First, from the initial comment:
For example, Harris ends up endorsing an incredibly conservative agenda about Muslims that a consistent empiricist would eschew; some of the things he says about Muslims would do Rush Limbaugh proud.There are three weird things here packed into one sentence: first, the apparent assumption that a "consistent empiricist" would automatically reject anything "incredibly conservative" (whatever that means--I learned long ago that political labels aren't terribly useful). Where on earth does the apparent identification of liberalism (whatever that means) with empiricism come from? Second, he insists Harris' position must be wrong without a shred of evidence, in spite of the superficial appeal to empiricism. Third, and perhaps worst of all, he appears to argue if a person agrees with Limbaugh on some point, the person must be wrong. Now, I have never heard Limbaugh explicitly state his position on the color of the sky, or the sum of two and two, or the moral character of Stalin, but I suspect we would find these as points of agreement, and I cannot find in me the slightest desire to change my position on these issues for that reason. Furthermore, I cannot help but note that Limbaugh would probably applaud Alon's view of "radical feminists."
Really, that was one of those sentences that looks like an argument at first glance, but once you've analyzed it, the view that the author only ever meant to make a baseless assertion begins to look like the more charitable interpretation. Moving on:
Dawkins invented a whole pseudoscience, memetics, so that he could pathologize religion.This sentence prompted me to actually read the original proposal for the idea of memes in The Selfish Gene, and I could not find a shred of evidence for Alon's view therein. Dawkins does discuss God in one paragraph (out of thirteen pages), but only as an illustration of a larger point. I see nothing to suggest he was trying to pathologize religion. He mainly comes off as a curious scientist trying to figure out how culture works, and throwing out an interesting explanation. The explanation is not a dumb one: it notes that cultural artifacts undergo semi-conservative replication much as genes do, and plausibly infers that the processes involved might be similar. He later went into more detail on memes and religion, and observed that many religious systems have ways of getting people to believe independently of whether they're true, but I see no reason to think this was the sole driving force behind memes. More importantly, Dawkins' observation about religious systems appears to me to be correct (see faith, damnation, etc.) Next!:
Neither seems to have ever seriously considered the possibility that people can consider the evidence unbiasedly and come to different conclusions...I see little reason to think that Dawkins and Harris think that can never happen (though some people, like philosopher Richard Feldman, have argued it can't happen). In the narrower area of reasonable religious belief, I would wonder if they have simply considered the claim and found it wanting. Finally:
...or the possibility that in a world with 5.5 billion religious people, a lot of unrelated problems would be superficially entangled in religion.Oh, yes, they dismiss that possibility out of hand, except of course in the sections of their books where they explain specific ways in which religion causes problems.
Tags: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, atheism, truth