Tuesday, October 28, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, CHPT 8

Sunday, October 26, 2008

This chapter explains Dawkins antipathy to religion. He lists many examples of religious fundamentalism and nuttiness, much of it malign. But what of my local vicar? His brand of religion seems very benign. Yet Dawkins sees even the moderate religious person as posing a danger, for they are still, he thinks, promoting unquestioning "faith" as a virtue:

Christianity...teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe. If someone announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith or another, or none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to 'respect' it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and 'community leaders' (who elected them by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the 'true' faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn't have any demonstrable standard to pervert? (p. 347)

I imagine many moderate religious people will see this as a caricature of their faith. "Of course we don't expect children to show blind, unquestioning faith. Of course we encourage them to think and question", many will say.

Many will also insist there is an objective justification for their particular set of beliefs. They'll perhaps start with the historicity of Jesus, say, and build out from there, explaining why this interpretation can be shown to be objectively to be more accurate than that, etc. The philosopher Richard Swinburne is an example of a Christian who certainly doesn't make his belief rest on blind, unquestioning faith, but on e.g. philosophical argument (I think Swinburne's belief is wrong, of course.)

I suspect that, whether or not it's true of Richard, it is true of many thoughtful Christians that they do think their belief is fairly reasonable, and that they could, in principle, be persuaded to reject it if shown that it really isn't very reasonable at all. In which case it's not a "faith" position of the sort Dawkins describes.

So it's true, I think, that Dawkins does oversimplify here. But then he is right about a great deal, too. For example, there is a kind of automatic "respect" given to religious beliefs simply because they are religious - a respect that is heavily ingrained in us (I catch myself giving it sometimes) but which really is not warranted (as I argue here).

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