We have a couple of more eye-witnesses to the start of Dawkins’ lecture tour in Arizona, Jim Lippard and John Wilkins. Lippard gives an interesting account, while Wilkins…well, I guess Dawkins interrupted his lecture to walk up the aisle, smack John with a truncheon a few times, rifle his wallet, and as he was stalking away from the poor guy crumpled in his seat, hissed that he was the atheist pope and he could do anything he wanted. At least, that’s what I imagine must have happened, and John hadn’t quite recovered from his concussion before he started writing his complaints.
First of all, he makes a dreadful tactical error, and he should know better — it’s a game we encountered all the time on talk.origins. While accusing Dawkins of irrationally demonizing religion, the running them of his critique, the great dirty word that he uses to bludgeon Dawkins in reply, is to claim with flashing eye and a sneer and a spit that he’s practicing atheism as one of those filthy religions. You can’t piously grant religion the great latitude to believe whatever doesn’t harm others, and defend it as exempt from the kind of criticism Dawkins delivers, while simultaneously damning atheism because you think it is a religion. It’s inconsistent and verging on hypocrisy.
And what is the basis of accusing Dawkins of fomenting vile religion? That he encourages “Us’nThemism” and “derogation of the Other.” Let’s grant Wilkins that this were true (I disagree, however)—this is the defining character of a religion, that it encourages a group to hate another group? This is what religion is? Dawkins is definitely harsh on religion, as am I, but neither of us have apparently achieved the depth of contempt and the simplicity of reduction that Wilkins has…but then, he trained as a theologian, so I guess he would know better.
But of course, the foundation of his accusation is simply not true. There will be no atheist religion. Dawkins’ tour has none of the trappings of the last visit of the pope; he does not set himself up as a moral authority; there will be no Atheist Crusade; we do not have rituals, a sacrament, a dogma. Wilkins’ sloppy flinging of the ‘religion’ insult does more damage to religion than it does to atheism.
But in one respect, he is right. I think the New Atheism is trying to adopt some of the ordinary and worthy human impulses that have been hijacked by religion for so long. To name one specifically, community. I think it is an indictment of the pernicious influence of religion that it has so thoroughly undermined the whole notion of a social community that when secular people with purely secular motives engage in community building, normally rational people gasp in horror, point, and shriek, “He’s creating a cult!” It’s an attitude the religious love to encourage, because it can be used to short-circuit any competition. We can always trust people to use religion as an epithet against any non-religious community, while somehow, conveniently, always neglecting to apply it in the same way to the one class of organization that really deserves it, religion itself.
As for the charge that these New Atheists are unable to tolerate a harmless religion, and that their goal is the elimination of the enemy, that’s complete nonsense. We want to eliminate them in the same sense that we want to eliminate illiteracy; we will educate, we will talk, we will stand up for our ideas. Further, my standard reply to questions about what I want to happen to religion in the future is this: I want it to be like bowling. It’s a hobby, something some people will enjoy, that has some virtues to it, that will have its own institutions and its traditions and its own television programming, and that families will enjoy together. It’s not something I want to ban or that should affect hiring and firing decisions, or that interferes with public policy. It will be perfectly harmless as long as we don’t elect our politicians on the basis of their bowling score, or go to war with people who play nine-pin instead of ten-pin, or use folklore about backspin to make decrees about how biology works.
I get the impression that John believes religion has already achieved the innocuous status of bowling. Maybe for you, John, but not for most of the rest of the world.