Defending Dawkins and the Mail & Guardian

This is in response to Steve de Grouchy’s article, found here.

For my co-thinker Jacques Rousseau’s response, click here.

Steve de Gruchy in “Taking aim at the atheists” (Mail & Guardian, April 9) commits a number of fallacies in the short space provided to him. This firstly gives the lie that the M&G are “Dawkinite” in their view, which he claims has been the common denominator in M&G‘s treatment of religion. Forgetting that we have been exposed to only one view – that of believe or burn -  for the majority of modern times, it is at least refreshing to see something new reprised in the public sphere. De Gruchy also does not list what he calls a “disproportionate amount” given to Dawkins views – since I only recall a few interviews myself and perhaps a book-review.

Like Russell and Lucretius, I view religion as a virus to our species – but I do not accept Dawkins as some prophet or harbringer of the “atheist apocalypse” (as de Gruchy call it). De Gruchy does not so much focus on the ideas as on Dawkins himself, stating that Dawkins and “born again atheists” “blindly ignore what is going on before their eyes”. Presumably, de Gruchy has set himself the myopic injunction to clarify my views. Of course, saying that one is mistaken is not the same as saying why. Not once in his entire article, does de Gruchy highlighy why Dawkins’ views are wrong. He simply makes ad hominem attacks (“arrogance”; “naive”)  and incorporates all those who do not believe in his particular brand of religion and his one true god as mistaken.

Very well, professor. But why are we mistaken? Why is the use of scientific rationalism a mark of myopic thinking, rather than invoking an arbitrary deity based on no evidence whatsoever?

But perhaps the biggest fallacy is one you would expect a theologian to ignore. De Gruchy lists various machinations within the turgid engine of religious groups – their funding, their associations, their good work – and indicates that it is very much a part of our society. All good and well, but so what? The point that critics of religion like myself indicate is this: no one can deny the power and might of various religious groups, nor the good work they do. But this in no way makes religious claims of the divine, Jesus walking on water and Heaven true or valid.

De Gruchy then pulls “the charity card”. There are two ways to go against the notion that – to summarise the view – “lots of charity is done by people of faith. See how good faith is?” Well, lots of carpets, tables, benches, and most prisoners are of the faithful. Does that at all indicate that if you are faithful, you will commit crime or be prone to making tables? Of course not. So why does it indicate that faith is the cause for altruistic behaviour (this, however, does not repudiate that there could be one)? I personally know many volunteers who do not believe and who are hard at work to save Africa’s people. Does this make atheism any more legitimate? Of course not. The second way to oppose the intermingling of faith and charity is to ask the question: “Would you rather be under the care of someone who does it for goodness’ sake? Or does it to win some higher power’s favour?” I find it abhorrent to think there are people who do good out of the need to get into Heaven. Goodness should be done for the sake of our fellow man and not for the sake of an imaginary one.

De Gruchy invokes the intelligent appearing but rationally unsound claim of atheists confusing “questions about God and questions about religion”. Well, no, professor. You have. Whilst we continue to see no evidence for the existence of a deity – and since you can provide not a single good reason to believe – you instead go on to talk about religious groups and their activities. But that is not the point. The point is, religious claims are false and these groups are premised on false beliefs. We can then talk about religious groups – but we have not confused the two. Religious claims and religious groups are two different things – the former being untrue, whilst the the latter being unimportant in repudiating our counter-arguments.

And if the professor wants to invoke the good of religion, he must accept the bad. Is it any wonder that Joseph Khony invokes the Ten Commandments as his reasoning for gathering child-soldiers and massacring innocent people? Is it any wonder that the Pope can say that condoms promote AIDS, rather than prevent it? What about the Bishops who lured people into churches, only to burn them down in Rwanda? Now, none of this tells me anything about whether god exists or not. It does tell me the awesome arrogation of knowledge and power that people can invoke when they believe they have a divine backing.

De Gruchy patronisingly calls our views arrogant. He says: “Like latter-day missionaries, catechists of  European secularism think they know better than the “natives”. The arrogance is astounding.” The professor should know that modern secularism is not European but American – as the beautiful First Amendment indicates. But, ignoring semantics, why is it arrogant to suppose people can cope without a god, live fruitful lives without petty fairy-tales and magic books? It is because we secularists think we are all equal, capable of such thought and thus capable of relieving themselves of a god. That is to look at people face-to-face. De Gruchy is patronising to think the so-called “natives” are not ready for secularism. Shame, he would say, leave them to their silly beliefs. If we did not care about others, I personally would not be writing this letter. It is because we feel so passionately about helping people live better lives, devoid of supersition, to grasp reality by the throat instead of by the lapel, that we are so strident in opposing bad ideas like religious claims.

De Gruchy also believes we will get there through religious “solidarity”. People of various faiths should be able to interact and atheism, according to de Gruchy, is creating discord where there was harmony.  Harmony, like between Shi’ite and Sunnii Muslims in Pakistan – both of the same faith, notice but just different branding – who slaughter each other every other day? How can their be harmony between completely opposing religions, each believing their particular brand is the right one, and whose infallible books contradict each other? Being a Christian requires you believe that Christ is Lord and God. Being Muslims means only viewing Allah as the divine. You can not be both nor can either view be reconciled, or else they lose the very definitions of their faith.

And this was news to me: Apparently, “we are not a secular nation but a religiously plural one”. The professor has failed to remember that there is freedom of religion (plurality) and freedom from religion (separation of Church and state, and the privacy of faith practice should one choose to indulge), both in our secular society. Our constitution rests in having no faith-based interference, but allowing everyone to practise his beliefs in private. That is secularism. If it were not, it would be tainted by the theocratic justifications and arbitrary expulsions. As much as the faithful do not like it, we are secular.

De Gruchy also says, to solve societal problems we need “more theology, not less.” Gazing into ancient words and pretty imagery is not going to solve the problem of water-shortages in Africa; it will not solve AIDS; it will not ground our governments decisions; it will not allow us to lower the crime rate. Theology will only add to discord, since, as I indicated, we are plural and that means that different faiths have completely opposing theology but premised on the fact that each is infallible. De Gruchy uses the following analogy: “If people sing badly, we do not shut down music schools. We train better teachers”. Ignoring what a terrible analogy this is to religion, I have one to offer against it: “If a certain drug is distributed to people that harms them, we do not kill the people or doctors. We get rid of the drug.”

Finally, in a display that proves he wants to go out with a bang, like an abstract suicide bomber, de Gruchy says that atheism causes fundamentalism! One would think, according to de Gruchy’s view, that atheism is having a large impact on society, forcing people to stop talking about their faith lest the scary atheist-police silence them. And, because atheism is the ruling view, the faithful must take their views underground where, apparently, it becomes dangerous. He gives no justification for this and, like most faithful invocations, simply asserts it as true. It certainly can be attributed to the rise of secularism and Western thought into societies – but there is no legal claim to dismiss religion. Nor are all secularists nonbelievers. The only legality involved is that it must simply be a private affair and one that is not influencing major societal decisions. Is it the Allies fault that they were hated by the Nazi’s, when the Allies fought to dissolve Europe from the darkness of Nazism? No. So it is not the fault of secularists that there are toxic agents in the already murky stream of religious thought. We simply want to be rid of the whole stream altogether. Secularists did not cause the Inquisition, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, or the death of 15 girls in Saudi Arabia for not wearing abayas. The religious are perfectly capable of poisoning themselves with the most potent drug of all: god. Whilst they are overdosing, or trying to justify elements of obstruction (called religious apologetics), we are trying to focus on the present life we have.

De Gruchy then has committed a number of fallacies. The only area in which both our feet are squarely set is in the public: that is, religious people should take their claims to the public sphere and let it be judged as such. This means that the religious can not talk about “offense” since they are bringing ludicirous claims to a public sphere, or agora (as the Greeks called it) where this open market-place of ideas will decide which ones are the victor: the claims for god or those for reason.