Argumentum ad religionem

Puzzling words from the New York Times:

>This is different from the scientific assault on religion that has been garnering attention recently, in the form of best-selling books from scientific atheists who see religion as a scourge. In “The God Delusion,” published last year and still on best-seller lists, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins concludes that religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful,” Dawkins wrote. He is joined by two other best-selling authors — Sam Harris, who wrote “The End of Faith,” and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote “Breaking the Spell.” The three men differ in their personal styles and whether they are engaged in a battle against religiosity, but their names are often mentioned together. They have been portrayed as an unholy trinity of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.

I think there are three problems with this passage. In the first place, “assault on religion” casts the matter of the scientific analysis of religion in erroneously partisan terms. Even though some religions or religious people (and indeed only some of them) might consider scientific analysis of the phenomenon of religious belief to be an “assault”, there’s no need for the New York Times to adopt their perspective. There is in fact every reason not to. To do so is to assert that religious claims–taken here in their rich and varied multiplicity–belong to the same category as scientific claims–that is, claims supported by empirical evidence (which the article later denies anyway). Besides, any science that tends to undermine the claims of some religion would then have be understood in this silly perspectival way: the geological assault against the age of the world, and the meteorological assault against Biblical accounts of the flood, and so forth.

Second, there’s the matter of what these authors are assaulting. Are they assaulting religious belief? Or are they assaulting the justification for religious belief? Which religion? Are all people of faith the same vis a vis their relationship to science? Nope.

Finally, what makes their assault “scientific”? This latter point seems to be the more serious one. While one of these books is written by a scientist, another by a kind of scientist-in-training, and the last by a philosopher who is a big fan of science, that’s hardly reason to call their writing “scientific.” As I understand them–and readers of those texts are encouraged to respond here–Dawkins spends some significant amount of time on Atheological arguments of the philosophical type. Having been found to be false–or just assumed to be false in Dennett’s case–they proceed to explain belief in things that do not exist.

As was the case in yesterday’s post, the search for a balanced perspective does not necessarily begin with the assumption that there are two sides to every story, excluding of course that of the experts.

6 thoughts on “Argumentum ad religionem”

  1. Scientific investigation is not an assault except in the most deluded understanding of the word. Is it an assault on the rainbow to try and understand colour scientifically? Is it an assault on the brain to try and understand manic depression? Such wording is foolish.

    But the author consistently uses polemical laguage, trying to keep his editorial burner on high. Notice how he uses Harris ond book with the more shocking title “End of Faith” instead of the book that’s actually on the NYT best seller list, the more genially titled “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Notice too his use of Dawkins’ quote. In his intro he writes, “Dawkins concludes religion IS nothing more than a useless…” but in the actual quote it Dawkins says, Religious behavior MAY BE nothing more than…” This is how scientistst write and where so many journalists go wrong. Dawkins (Or Scientist A) presents a hypothosis, compares it to the evidence, seeks to test it, and presents a possible explaination.


    Dawkins speads a chapter (and not a particularly long one) is showing how classic argument for the existence of God, even if they were true, would not lead to the personal God of the major religions. He makes it very clear that it is this personal omni-god, not the distant philosopher’s god, that he’s talking about. He then goes on to sight eveidence of a simpler and superior explaination for things in the world and gives further examples of how, and that the denial of this evidence leads to bad consequences. Dennett, as I understand his intent in this work, really puts god’s existence as secondary and focuses on the nature and implication of beleif itself.

  2. I agree, it is hard to call their assault scientific. While I have not read Dawkins or Dennet, I can say that Harris is not so much scientific as pragmatic. He compares and contrasts the Christian and Islamic religions. Harris points out that they are exclusive in that they demand they are the truth above all else, and that they promote behavior that cannot sustain civilization for reasons that I agree with after having attended many sermons on the Book of Revelations. He see’s value in the eastern religions, in that they are more along the lines of modern cognitive studies and more tolerant. If I perceived Dawkins and Dennet tone to be less arrogant, or even to focus on the area that I consider to be the achilles heel of the Abrahamic religion (Near eastern archeology) I might buy the books. Dawkins claims Abrahamic religions are ‘bronze age myths’ (which I agree with) but I haven’t heard him back it up.
    In my view, the smoking gun is going to be found through near eastern archeology. There has been some good work in that area. But until they get all those texts they’ve found translated and compared, they are not likely to have enough evidence to revise the odds on Pascals Wager. Can anyone read Canaanite?

  3. The best place to find Dawkins backing up his claims is in his books. How exactly do you perceive him and Dennett as being arogent without addressing their texts?

  4. Hi Nevyn,
    I have listened to or watched over an hour of each of them talking about their books or addressing the topics in their books and in my opinion their tone seemed arrogant. I look for free samples of their work so I can try before I buy, so far I value other works over theirs. I took exception to Dawkins handling of Ted Haggard in his video, and I take exception to Daniel Dennetts advocation of the ‘Bright’ movement. From what I have seen I have not been persuaded to buy their books even though I have a similar viewpoint to theirs.

  5. I suppose I must appreciate your personal feelings towards individual personalities, and I neither can nor am inclined to agrue aesthetics. My only real quible then is with the statement “I haven’t heard him back it up” and “I haven’t read his books.” Something to remember though, Newton was a real SOB.

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