Saturday, July 18, 2009

Hokum

The guy's name is Robin Wright, and his book is The Evolution of God. He talked with Bill Moyers last night on TV. Most interesting. Man's concept of God evolves along with man, he says, and God has evolved to a much more tolerant being than the vengeful earlier forms of his evolution. The whole process is a net positive, a net gain in human morality.

So it's against this backdrop that Wright notices in this piece that the modern day atheists are also all right-wingers about foreign policy. Now, why would this be? Because, Wright argues, the "new atheists" [Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins--recent authors calling God's existence into question] all brand religion as evil. The Middle Eastern conflicts are a good example. Both Harris and Dawkins contend that the Arab-Israeli struggle is rooted in religion, and that's what explains Islamic radicalism. So, the line of reasoning goes, since "Muslims are possessed by this irrational, quasi-autonomous force known as religion, then there's no point in trying to reason with them, or to look at any facts on the ground that might drive their discontent." Hence, right wing foreign policy, which posits as a given that the West is the only rational player on the field.

Wright destroys this idea by pointing out that, er, other things besides religion trigger conflicts among human beings.

People are survival machines built by natural selection. (This Dawkins gets.) When they sense threats to their interests, they can not only get violent, but wrap themselves in a larger cause that justifies the violence. Here they're as flexible as you'd expect well-built survival machines to be: that larger cause can be religion, yes, but it can also be nationalism or racialism. Hitler whipped up more fervor with the latter two than the first. Whatever's handy.

Of course, when religion is handy, special problems can arise. If there were no belief in paradise, there would be few suicide bombers. Then again, there might be less charity. Whether belief in posthumous rewards has on balance done more harm than good is an empirical question whose subtlety Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens don't exactly emphasize.

Which is putting it delicately. The trinity of atheists are not too subtle at all. Bottom line: There is a lot of hokum being dispensed by the new atheists. Whether it's as much as the Christian right has dispensed is a matter for debate. But I don't think intelligent reviews like the one I've been talking about are going to make the slightest difference. People have their minds made up on this subject of religion, and irrationality rules both sides.

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