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The Sins of the Fathers
February 19, 2012 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Richard Dawkins on the surreal experience of being the subject of a Sunday Telegraph "gotcha" article.
posted by Artw (167 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
What is the context or background (Yes, I rtfa but it starts off assuming I know the backstory of some kerfuffle)
posted by infini at 9:01 AM on February 19, 2012


Don’t buy the Telegraph on Sunday, but do look it up on the web and marvel at the depths to which a once-proud newspaper is willing to sink.

Looking at it online is about the same as actually paying for it, in that the traffic will impress their advertisers and also encourage their editorial board.
posted by hermitosis at 9:03 AM on February 19, 2012


The Guardian have a summary.
posted by Artw at 9:05 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


there is no context or background - that's dawkins' point - some idiot reporter pesters him with inane and irrelevant questions

(and i should note that i'm no fan of dawkins - but this interview attempt is ridiculous)
posted by pyramid termite at 9:09 AM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is this the way public debate works now?

"I think religion is a bad idea"

"But 200 years ago your family owned slaves, isn't that true?"
posted by demiurge at 9:10 AM on February 19, 2012 [23 favorites]


The Telegraph story in question.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:12 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


But if it were Fox News doing the genealogical research, the slave-owning ancestor would be considered a GOOD thing.
posted by evilmidnightbomberwhatbombsatmidnight at 9:13 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


demiurge: “Is this the way public debate works now?”

This is the UK we're talking about. It's not really about Mr Dawkins' personal opinions of religion; it's about the fact that the newspaper-buying public knows his name, so money is to be made in producing a scandal. There seem to be very few public figures over there who aren't the subject of this kind of bullshit.
posted by koeselitz at 9:14 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


demiurge: "Is this the way public debate works now?"

Is this an actual question? Have you not been paying attention for the last decade 25 years century -- who am I kidding, this is the way it's been done since ancient Greece.
posted by Plutor at 9:14 AM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


If Dawkins is wealthy because of the accumulated wealth from his family owning slaves, especially if he refused to recognize or apologize for that fact, I could understand criticism of him as a person on those grounds. But as a simple attempt to smear his name and somehow damage his work or reputation as a geneticist, evolutionary spokesman, and public atheist, what the hell?
posted by Jehan at 9:15 AM on February 19, 2012


"You believe in genetics - doesn't this mean you have EVIL DNA?"
posted by Artw at 9:18 AM on February 19, 2012 [34 favorites]


Dawkins has enough faults of his own that we hardly need to go looking to the faults of his great-great ancestors to find things about him that are disagreeable. A ridiculous story. The British Empire was built on some bad practices? Who knew?
posted by tyllwin at 9:20 AM on February 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


The Telegraph story in question.

I swear I felt my IQ drop a full 20 points reading that garbage. The Telegraph isn't even fit to wipe one's arse on.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:21 AM on February 19, 2012 [16 favorites]


I don't know why they messed around here. A better story:

You have ancestors who were in the Roman empire. Does that mean that you have a gene that makes you support killing and torturing Christians only for their faith?!1oneoneeleven
posted by jaduncan at 9:26 AM on February 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


Also let me just note how *super* happy I am that the right wing press appear to be wishing to import Fox News-style aggressive religion to the UK.

It's very clear that Baroness Warsi, the Mail, the Telegraph and the other usual papers are all having stories about aggressive secularism (ironically enough) at the same time just when the UK economy is failing to recover as predicted. Classy distraction move there, thanks for that.
posted by jaduncan at 9:32 AM on February 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm no fan of Dawkins, the opposite in fact, but this is utterly ridiculous... as I started reading I thought 'yeah, I bet some of his ancestors where Christians too'. Turns out to be even worse!

As it happens, my ancestry also boasts an unbroken line of six generations of Anglican clergymen, from the Rev William Smythies (b 1635) to his great great great grandson the Rev Edward Smythies (b 1818). I wonder if Adam thinks I’ve inherited a gene for piety too.

As I'm descended from Russians, I думаю, мне придется вернуться к моим родным языком для всех последующей вариации сообщения
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:45 AM on February 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


Give them what they want.
"Why yes, I think that the urge to own slaves is genetic. That's probably why I maintain in the family tradition and still keep 24 slaves on our estate, even though it has largely fallen out of fashion."
posted by 445supermag at 9:46 AM on February 19, 2012 [10 favorites]


As I'm descended from Russians, I думаю, мне придется вернуться к моим родным языком для всех последующей вариации сообщения

Welcome back! I see you Russian-language genes have mutated quite a bit in the interim!
posted by Nomyte at 9:52 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


He probably fulfills his genetic need to hold slaves by having grad students.
posted by humanfont at 9:52 AM on February 19, 2012 [79 favorites]


This religious reporter is missing the bigger story: Dawkins is also related to Adam and Eve, the sinners who got humanity booted out of paradise.
posted by Davenhill at 9:55 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Dawkins is also related to Adam and Eve, the sinners who got humanity booted out of paradise.

That's not the way Dawkins tells it.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:56 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can somebody please do Adam Lusher's family tree, just to check that all of his forebears were upright and perfect?
posted by Jehan at 10:00 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does the Telegraph have some particular grudge against Dawkins? The EVIL DNA piece also links to another article trumpteting the defeat of "militant secularism" because Dawkins couldn't recall the full title of The Origin of Species. Did his evil DNA cause him to kick their cat at some point?
posted by Panjandrum at 10:02 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


i've just realized something shocking that will shake the religious world to its foundation - NONE of the pope's ancestors were celibate
posted by pyramid termite at 10:03 AM on February 19, 2012 [45 favorites]


Also let me just note how *super* happy I am that the right wing press appear to be wishing to import Fox News-style aggressive religion to the UK.

The British press has been doing this sort of thing since before Limbaugh was in swaddling cloths.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:04 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Filthy tabloid character assasination, yes (though if you beleive the US is free of that you live in a precious little bubble) but the religious angle in Journalism and Politics is definatly a weirdly un-British angle that seems to have crept in out of nowhere in the last six months.
posted by Artw at 10:09 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


A more interesting question is how the Telegraph's circulation would be affected if anyone whose great-great-great-great-grandfather owned slaves was barred from buying it. I mean, the is the same paper they call the Torygraph, right? The one with the awesome obits of crusty old majors, polar explorers and eccentric aristocracy?
posted by Diablevert at 10:11 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did his evil DNA cause him to kick their cat at some point?

I think they missed a trick by not updating those old cartoons of Darwin having tea with apes but with Darwkins and some 16th century dudes with a whips instead.
posted by Artw at 10:13 AM on February 19, 2012


A silly story, but it's worth looking into Dawkins's family background, if only for the pleasure of reading his delightful obituary of his father John Dawkins.

The eighteenth-century Dawkinses seem to have been a pretty undistinguished lot. Henry Dawkins (1728-1814) was a Member of Parliament for 20 years without ever speaking in a debate. His son James Dawkins (1760-1843) surpassed this record by not speaking in the House of Commons for 35 years. Clearly Richard inherits his loquacity gene from some other branch of the family.
posted by verstegan at 10:23 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jehan: If Dawkins is wealthy because of the accumulated wealth from his family owning slaves, especially if he refused to recognize or apologize for that fact, I could understand criticism of him as a person on those grounds.

Why should he have to apologize for it? It's entirely beyond his control! I don't think it's even possible to give a sincere apology for something like this; part of a sincere apology is admitting responsibility, and you can't honestly do that if you aren't responsible.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:25 AM on February 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


I thought the Bible was OK with slaves.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:32 AM on February 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


I actually don't think that it would be the worst thing in the world if wealthy descendants of former colonizers made a point of paying reparations; Dawkins' "but who would I pay them to?!" retort is disingenuous in the extreme.

Still crappy journalism.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 10:32 AM on February 19, 2012


The liberal guilt meme covertly implanted by my parents (without a single ostensible reference to slave-owning ancestors) combined with my knowledge of my mother's father's family's Virginia origins has much greater power than any of my genetic makeup.
posted by kozad at 10:34 AM on February 19, 2012


the religious angle in Journalism and Politics is definatly a weirdly un-British angle that seems to have crept in out of nowhere in the last six months

Are you kidding? The right-wing press have been going after scientists, atheists and other unholy people (eg sluts and homosexuals) for decades. This is ALL about attacking a prominent atheist, it's not a regular celebrity smear.
posted by Summer at 10:36 AM on February 19, 2012


If you wnat the genetic descendents of former colonisers to pay reparations then that's going to include a fair number of the colonised.
posted by Artw at 10:36 AM on February 19, 2012


Since slavery was and is practiced in Africa, we may suppose that by this reporter's reasoning many slaves and their descendants are themselves genetically predisposed to support slavery. They should also pay themselves reparations.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:36 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hold on, are conservatives in favor of slavery reparations now? When did that happen?
posted by empath at 10:37 AM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Telegraph isn't even fit to wipe one's arse on.

Very few websites would meet this criteria.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:38 AM on February 19, 2012


Why should he have to apologize for it? It's entirely beyond his control! I don't think it's even possible to give a sincere apology for something like this; part of a sincere apology is admitting responsibility, and you can't honestly do that if you aren't responsible.

The key issue is if he is wealthy from the fact that his family owned slaves, which seems not to be the case here. But anyway, there's no reason why any person must accept their inheritance, and doing so is a positive act that an individual must account for. You cannot say, "This money simply landed in my lap, and I am innocent of all wrongdoing," if you actually take the money. Knowing that you own something obtained unlawfully or immorally without amending or explaining your ownership of that thing, can constitute an unlawful or immoral act in itself.
posted by Jehan at 10:40 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are you kidding? The right-wing press have been going after scientists, atheists and other unholy people (eg sluts and homosexuals) for decades. This is ALL about attacking a prominent atheist, it's not a regular celebrity smear.

You must have been living in a different Britian from me then, because I can't really imagine Baroness Warsi or Michae Goves bullshit flying event at the height of Thatcherism.
posted by Artw at 10:41 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hold on, are conservatives in favor of slavery reparations now? When did that happen?

My thoughts entirely. Apart from this being a fucking stupid hack job, it's in the wrong newspaper.
posted by ob at 10:44 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Guardian ran this doozy recently, which is about one step away from "Hey, did you know that NAZIS were actually SOCIALIST?".
posted by Artw at 10:45 AM on February 19, 2012


Virtually all the wealth in the world is built on slavery of one kind or another. Slavery was the norm for most of human history.
posted by crazylegs at 10:52 AM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Still crappy journalism
I disagree. Calling it journalism is kind.

I'm not a big Dawkins fan. The atheism is irrelevant. I've always thought he is too acerbic and aggressive - as the adoption of the opponent's social manipulation is, IMHO, more 'evil' than holding a given position. (One can demand the destruction of 'x' race or religion, but if one says and does nothing about it, or is open to reason, it's a moot point how 'evil' the position is. Bob: 'Say, Ron, should we as whites kill all the jews?' Ron: 'No, Bob. They're human beings like us. Bob: 'Hey, I never thought of it that way. Huh. Ok, yeah, we probably shouldn't')

But here, he's entirely too agreeable and reasonable.

“We’ve been researching the history of the Dawkins family, and have discovered that your ancestors owned slaves in Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. What have you got to say about that?”


My ancestors used to sleep on dirt, pick lice off each other and eat it and throw feces at each other, but I and other humans have evolved past that. What's your excuse?

Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins.

You have absolutely no clue what you're talking about do you? You paid no attention in elementary school and so wasted thousands of dollars in taxpayers money, a portion of which we should demand back from you as you've demonstrated you have not even the slightest concept behind basic biology.

He is now facing calls to apologise and make reparations for his family's past.

Really? From who?
"There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity."
Then get the hell off my continent black and white humans. You can have your blankets back.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:55 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


My thoughts entirely. Apart from this being a fucking stupid hack job, it's in the wrong newspaper.

There are few great ancestral fortunes and estates in Britain which do not originally derive from colonialism in some form, and those that didn't directly employ slaves on, say, plantations or in mines, were made by commerce with those that did. So yes, this is a pretty bizarre article to pitch at the Telegraph's hidebound readership, which identifies with precisely the group he puts Dawkins in.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:59 AM on February 19, 2012


George_Spiggott: Doublethink is an insanely usefull concept in situations like these.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:10 AM on February 19, 2012


You must have been living in a different Britian from me then, because I can't really imagine Baroness Warsi or Michae Goves bullshit flying event at the height of Thatcherism.

Admittedly, the Baroness Warsi stuff is beyond the pale. But papers like the Daily Mail have been attacking evolution and the 'enemies of Christianity' for a long, long time.
posted by Summer at 11:23 AM on February 19, 2012


Having just got my genetic heritage test results back allow to me express my greatest regret and apologies for my ancestors invading and conquering England, the only genetic predisposition I share with those distant ancestors is a love of richly patterned garments. Once again, I am sorry.
posted by The Whelk at 11:24 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can't wait for the time when Tesco has to pay reparations for modern-day slavery. HEY TELEGRAPH! oh it was your friends that brought that legislation in?
posted by davemee at 11:28 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Knowing that you own something obtained unlawfully or immorally without amending or explaining your ownership of that thing, can constitute an unlawful or immoral act in itself.

Actually, here's where the question of whom should be paid becomes relevant.

When the theft is recent enough that you can still find the original owner, you can give them what they're due and justice is served.

When the original owner is unavailable, you might be able to find their estate or descendants--but this is usually impossible for slaves, whose family relations were never even written down.

At that point you might still try to give the money to a cause somehow related to the people injured... so, what would that be? It's a bit late to donate anything to abolitionist organizations, so I guess you might go for some charity to do with race issues... there are charities about that, to be sure. But it's ambiguous whether that would serve to mitigate the aftereffects of slavery or one of the UK's various other forms of racism.

If we're going to get as close as possible to repaying debt to the persons harmed--which seems to be your angle?--he wouldn't want to donate to UK charities, anyhow. The Victorians certainly traded a lot of slaves, but mostly with American and Dutch colonies. For their own laborers it was ultimately cheaper to pay them a pittance to stay in the country.

But then, where did Dawkins' great-to-the-nth grandfather's human cargo end up? He might have kept ledgers on that, but maybe not, and they might well not be trustworthy.

It's an awful lot of work to go to for symbolic justice, and I think that Dawkins' disaster relief charity might just do more ethical good per-pound.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:43 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Having just got my genetic heritage test results back allow to me express my greatest regret and apologies for my ancestors invading and conquering England, the only genetic predisposition I share with those distant ancestors is a love of richly patterned garments. Once again, I am sorry.

Unless you've still got a castle and a fistful of knight's fees, then it's okay.
posted by Jehan at 11:44 AM on February 19, 2012


(I shouldn't have said Victorians; Big Slavery goes back to the Jacobian era and maybe earlier.)
posted by LogicalDash at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Almost certainly we're all descended from slave owners (and indeed from slaves) if you go back far enough, and you probably don't have to go back very far.

Ugh. Two points: one, no, "we're" all not; two, being descended from slaves is not equivalent to being descended from slave owners. If he wants to make the point that slavery touches our genetic legacy at some time, sure, I guess. But that's a facile point to make, and besides which, the (intensely stupid) accusation isn't that he had ancestors at the same time as slavery, but that he had ancestors complicit in maintaining and profiting from the practice. Being descended from those oppressed by that practice is not an "and indeed", unless he wants to make the argument that slaves in some way perpetuated their own bondage, and I doubt very much that he does.

Dawkins is obviously in the right on this, at least as regards that idiotic article, but this is a very sloppy line of reasoning.
posted by Errant at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2012


At that point you might still try to give the money to a cause somehow related to the people injured... so, what would that be? It's a bit late to donate anything to abolitionist organizations, so I guess you might go for some charity to do with race issues... there are charities about that, to be sure. But it's ambiguous whether that would serve to mitigate the aftereffects of slavery or one of the UK's various other forms of racism.

No, that's good. That would be great in fact, as any good cause would do. The principal of finding justice today is less relevant than abjuring any part in the injustice of yesterday. I'm well aware that "it's too complicated" is the go–to argument when speaking about reparations for slavery, but the problem can be simplified by just giving up the damn money. That's it. If you want to be clear of slavery, just give up the money that came from it. You don't have to give it to the "right" person, just so long as it's no longer held by descendants of slavers. There's no need to complicate this issue.
posted by Jehan at 11:56 AM on February 19, 2012


Jehan: You cannot say, "This money simply landed in my lap, and I am innocent of all wrongdoing," if you actually take the money.

Actually, I'm not sure I agree with that. Virtually everyone on Earth is the beneficiary of some former injustice or other. I believe there is almost nothing to gain, and a hell of a lot to lose, by not simply letting the dead past lie.

It's not that I don't believe we should fight inequality; we should. I just think it's better fought by appraising the current situation and dealing with the way things are now, rather than looking into the past and trying to right old injustices conducted by those who are dead against others who are also dead.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:07 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jehan: That's it. If you want to be clear of slavery, just give up the money that came from it.

But what money? How do you identify which part of hundreds of years of wealth came from slave-ownership? Dawkins states that some members of his family squandered money. No doubt, other slave-owning families invested well and multipled their money. In each case, how much of the remaining wealth (spread thinly across families, real-estate, investments) should be paid in reparations?

And even then, haven't all descendants of 16th - 19th century Europeans and Americans benefited directly from slavery? The Industrial Revolution was fueled, in part, by the low cost of raw materials coming from the Caribbean and the Americas. That in turn positioned Europe and America far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of development, which - fast forward to today - gave me, upon being born into one of the wealthiest nations on earth, an immediate advantage over most of the world's population. I'm fairly sure than none of my working-class no-name ancestors owned slaves directly, but I'm also sure there's a good chance I wouldn't be here today if they weren't born into an economy where artificially cheap sugar, cotton, fruit, oil, rubber, metals and wood were allowing their nation to grow rich and plentiful.
posted by rh at 12:11 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wasn't aware that Sacha Baron Cohen had returned to journalism.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:12 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's it. If you want to be clear of slavery, just give up the money that came from it. You don't have to give it to the "right" person, just so long as it's no longer held by descendants of slavers. There's no need to complicate this issue.

Oh, he already did that. He runs a charity, in fact.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:13 PM on February 19, 2012


rh: But what money? How do you identify which part of hundreds of years of wealth came from slave-ownership? Dawkins states that some members of his family squandered money. No doubt, other slave-owning families invested well and multipled their money. In each case, how much of the remaining wealth (spread thinly across families, real-estate, investments) should be paid in reparations?

LogicalDash: Oh, he already did that. He runs a charity, in fact.

In answer to both of these comments, I already said above:

The key issue is if he is wealthy from the fact that his family owned slaves, which seems not to be the case here.

To clarify, those with above–average wealth derived from slaving should consider giving it up, but this doesn't seem to be the case for Dawkins, so it's irrelevant however many charities he has founded. Also, I'm not talking about reparations, just giving the money away so that the slavers' descendants no longer have it.

The alternative to demanding that they give up their wealth is to say that they can keep their money and the past injustice is of no consequence. Do we really believe that? Can you think of no injustice today that would not fill you with anger to know that in the future the perpetrators' descendants still benefit because of it, and that others defend their right to such benefits? We are not talking about hugely difficult problems such as countries filled with millions of migrants or structural disparities in the global economy here, just simple family wealth that can easily be given away.

Nobody here would condone slavery, so why do we condone its profits? I guess the best way to launder money is time, as eventually time will legitimize even the most awful of crimes.
posted by Jehan at 12:40 PM on February 19, 2012


You know, The Hartford Courant explored and apologized a couple of years ago once it discovered that it had benefited from slave ads. I know nothing about the Telegraph. But did its owners' families benefit from the shipping trade, or the flow of cotton and the textile trades? As I said, I don't know the paper's history but before it points a finger...
posted by etaoin at 12:48 PM on February 19, 2012


To clarify, those with above–average wealth derived from slaving should consider giving it up

Yes but this isn't a problem for Dawkins specifically so much as the entire British nation, so the Sunday Telegraph is a good as institution as any to start making reparations, as etaoin notes.
posted by mek at 1:17 PM on February 19, 2012


The alternative to demanding that they give up their wealth is to say that they can keep their money and the past injustice is of no consequence. Do we really believe that?

Two answers:

1. Yes. Personally, I'd go with the bible on this, and hold you to three generations. Past that --- once the behavior, the criminal and the victim, are more than 100 years in the past and out of living memory, I'd say no, you don't owe anyone anything for your great grandfather's crimes.

2. The thing that makes my first answer outrageous is the idea that anyone would agree that past injustice is of no consequence. I don't, of course; the injustices of the past have many ramifications today. But I reject your premise, that the actions of a person in the present can meaningfully atone for that.
posted by Diablevert at 1:20 PM on February 19, 2012


According the Telegraph article, the Dawkins family estate (Dawkins is a one-percenter!) was created in part by slave labour. Genetics or religion (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with the story.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:25 PM on February 19, 2012


Dawkins is obviously in the right on this, at least as regards that idiotic article, but this is a very sloppy line of reasoning.
You don't really understand what was said. The farther back in time you go, the closer we're all related, to a pretty crazy extent. We all, almost certainly, have both slaveowners and slaves in our ancestry, although which one is the most recent will vary between people.
posted by kavasa at 1:33 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes. Personally, I'd go with the bible on this, and hold you to three generations. Past that --- once the behavior, the criminal and the victim, are more than 100 years in the past and out of living memory, I'd say no, you don't owe anyone anything for your great grandfather's crimes.

It is not the criminal acts which are the problem—I agree that we should never hold children to the acts of their parents—but rather the benefit gained from them. If we can agree that an act for gain was illegitimate, on what grounds is the gain from that act legitimized? So long as the individual's benefit continues they partake in an illegitimate legacy, and once they know yet continue to partake, that becomes an immoral act of itself. If my father robbed a bank for me, how can I take the money and remain moral?
posted by Jehan at 1:56 PM on February 19, 2012


Almost certainly we're all descended from slave owners (and indeed from slaves) if you go back far enough

What do you mean "we", kemosabe?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:20 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


If we can agree that an act for gain was illegitimate, on what grounds is the gain from that act legitimized?

On the grounds that if you tried to unwind the beneficial consequences of every unjust action that took place in the last 200 years, you would basically be dismantling human civilization in its entirety and starting from scratch?
posted by strangely stunted trees at 2:37 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since when the hell did 400 acres become an "estate"? That is a pissant little farm that would be barely economic.

(not to confuse the issue that he inherited it and it is an estate via that sense - however the first sense is also being used)
posted by wilful at 2:46 PM on February 19, 2012


What do you mean "we", kemosabe?
By "we" he means "all humans." In this he is correct. If you go back 10,000 years, it's almost certain that you have both slaves and slaveowners in your ancestry. In fact it could occasionally even be the same person, if someone was born a slave and was later manumitted and became prosperous enough to buy their own slaves. And of course the human race has been around for what, a couple hundred thousand years? All 8-billion or so of us are descended from a population that dipped as low as like 10 or 20,000 people at one point, IIRC. We're all pretty closely related.
posted by kavasa at 2:54 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


By "we" he means "all humans." In this he is correct. If you go back 10,000 years, it's almost certain that you have both slaves and slaveowners in your ancestry.

Yes, yes, I know. I just couldn't resist.

Tangentially related, apparently everyone of European descent has Charlemagne for an ancestor. From the first link:
"The idea that virtually anyone with a European ancestor descends from English royalty seems bizarre, but it accords perfectly with some recent research done by Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale University. The mathematics of our ancestry is exceedingly complex, because the number of our ancestors increases exponentially, not linearly. These numbers are manageable in the first few generations—two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents—but they quickly spiral out of control. Go back forty generations, or about a thousand years, and each of us theoretically has more than a trillion direct ancestors—a figure that far exceeds the total number of human beings who have ever lived."
Justice for the victims of the conquest of Lombardy!
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:07 PM on February 19, 2012


At some point, justice needs to be to somebody's benefit, or it ain't just. We return stolen property to its rightful owner in the hope that they might get some of the benefit of it that they expected. We release the unjustly imprisoned in the hope that their life, however foreshortened, may nonetheless be better for them out of prison than in. We punish bad people partly for the deterrent effect and partly for solidarity, to show that the victim and their kin are not alone in thinking that what happened is terrible. When there's no one to punish, we invent demons in stories and have days of remembrance--the alternative is to forget what happened, which would be an affront to those who do.

Giving up your family's ill-gotten gains when there's no one left in your family deserving punishment and no one outside your family deserving the money doesn't benefit either party. Unless it makes you feel better, I guess.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:08 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Baroness Warsi article is (I assume unintentionally) hilarious *.

The relationship between the UK and the Holy See is our oldest diplomatic relationship, first established in 1479. And today, thanks to the great success of the Pope’s visit, it is one of the strongest too.

We're just going to gloss over Henry VIII's struggles with Rome which led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and establishing himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England and the 400-odd years of, at best, patchy relationships since, are we?

It seems astonishing to me that those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity.

Really? It seems astonishing to me that in the 21st Century in the UK we are discussing the role in government of an established religion and hereditary royalty and peers. Seriously. The 21st fucking century, and we are arguing about fariy tales and princesses in our government. And me and Dawkins are the radicals? You've got to be fucking kidding me.

*I provided a link if you feel you have to, but it makes me feel dirty to deal with the Toygraph to the extent that I refuse to participate in their ridiculous airport offers where they essentially pay you to take their paper. I wouldn't encourage the fuckers.
posted by Jakey at 3:11 PM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


That "little farm" is actually pretty impressive. 400 acres may not be an estate, but it's a fair chunk of land to look after.

And the most surreal thing about this, to me, was seeing the article also offered in Polish. What's that about?
posted by CCBC at 3:15 PM on February 19, 2012


All 8-billion or so of us are descended from a population that dipped as low as like 10 or 20,000 people at one point, IIRC. We're all pretty closely related.

Not even that, all of us are descended from a pair of populations so small that one only had one man and the other only one woman.

Why creationists haven't jumped on the obvious logical fallacy and made this part of their case is beyond me.
posted by clarknova at 4:38 PM on February 19, 2012


I agree that we should never hold children to the acts of their parents—but rather the benefit gained from them. If we can agree that an act for gain was illegitimate, on what grounds is the gain from that act legitimized?

Simple: Enough time has passed that everyone involved has been dead for 100 years. I am typing this from a desk in North America; the very ground beneath my feat was been nicked from the residents about, oh, 390 years ago. I have received considerable benefit from that act; about 94% of my own personal ancestors, according to my mom's family history poking around, were fairly poor peasant farmers in Europe. By receiving stolen property --- e.g., immigrating --- they were able to materially better their own economic conditions.

More close at hand --- my great-grandpa, family legend goes, ran a book on the side of his bar tending job, back in the day. Should I ring up the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and ask them how much I owe them in back tax an interest for that black market income?
posted by Diablevert at 4:44 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The shoddy treatment that Dawkins routinely receives at the hands of the media is one of my few sources of sympathy for him, and this week has been a bizarre example that media pundits just don't understand atheism. The earlier "gotcha" involved elevating Dawkins to the status of general, treating On the Origin Of Species as atheism's scripture, and his failure to recite the full Victorian title as a major battle.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:18 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Talking of useless shitbag journalism...
posted by Artw at 5:27 PM on February 19, 2012


>Not even that, all of us are descended from a pair of populations so small that one only had one man and the other only one woman.

clarknova, not sure if that was meant ironically or not, but that is a complete misunderstanding of the science.
posted by wilful at 6:32 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was struck by Dawkins' comment in passing: Steven Pinker’s brilliant book, The Better Angels of our Nature, wherein he describes basically what sounds like a rehash of The Civilising Process by Norbert Elias. Or am I missing something? Worth reading?
posted by meehawl at 9:44 PM on February 19, 2012


I'm a) not a Dawkins fan and b) definitely not a Telegraph reader; I realize the whole "Dawkins has ancestors that owned slaves therefore everything he says is invalid" argument makes basically no sense.

But the idea that white people living today shouldn't pay reparations for crimes long since past because clearly it's been over a hundred years confuses me; because it implies that there aren't ongoing wrongs being done. It's not like the ancestors of slaves aren't substantially worse off while white people continue to enjoy wealth that was earned off their forebearers' backs... oh wait, yeah it is.
posted by SoftRain at 10:13 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can the "I'm no fan of Dawkins, but..." people explain why they don't like him? Surely not because he's "too strident"? To me the guy always seems almost super-humanly patient when arguing with his Creationist and fundamentalist opponents.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 10:46 PM on February 19, 2012


The "Sins of the father fallacy" quote is a hoot. I want to read his exegesis on Exodus written in propositional calculus. Maybe this plague of boils might cease, and later when Job's wife tells me to "Eat Shit and Die!" I will reply, "I don't believe in the germ theory!"

Egomaniac.
posted by eegphalanges at 10:52 PM on February 19, 2012


I *am* a Dawkins fan.

I like how he points out that religion is indistinguishable from bullshit.

All these "I'm not a Dawkins fan but... " posts crack me up.

But mostly they disappoint me. But I'm used to being disappointed in humanity. Stupid humanity.
posted by smcameron at 11:07 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can the "I'm no fan of Dawkins, but..." people explain why they don't like him? Surely not because he's "too strident"? To me the guy always seems almost super-humanly patient when arguing with his Creationist and fundamentalist opponents.

1) Opposes religion due to its lack of verifiable truth; spouts meme-theory suppositions about the whys of religion that are by definition unverifiable.
2) Once complained that a fellow atheist should lighten up about the sexist creepytimes at a conference.
3) Typically picks easy targets for atheist apologias, and says the hard targets aren't actually religious or are irrelevant, because they aren't whatever hypothetical brand of Christianity he's on about.
4) Perfectly happy to profit from non-logical-positivist constructs such as capitalism that have certainly inflicted verifiable harm, but are generally good to white English people who started out with money.
5) Attends engagements with pretty severe assholes like Sam Harris without saying that maybe it shouldn't be cool to assassinate and torture people at the drop of a hat, as Harris has suggested.
6) Hasn't changed his views in reaction to a severe, fact-based spanking by fellow atheist, known expert on religious belief and extremism, and guy who brought statistical analyses to his argument, Scot Atran. Fact based points of view should be based on facts, right?
7) Basic failure of analysis when it strays outside his area of expertise, such as historical and geopolitical influences on what religion did/does. Relies on amateurs like Pinker instead of actual historians and political scientists because they nod along, and also because of a basic contempt for non-hard sciences common to Edge.org alumni.

. . . but still didn't deserve that idiotic newspaper article.
posted by mobunited at 11:07 PM on February 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


That reads like a list of reasons why Dawkins isn't a perfect morally infallible human being who is also an peerless expert in all fields of knowledge. Some of his ideas (the meme theory of religion) are just speculation, but what's wrong with that? It's not presented as fact. He spoke out against the Iraq War, which counts as a public repudiation of Harris and Hitchens as far as I'm concerned. I love his books and I agree with most of what he says about religion, so I count myself as a fan. I'm a fan of Stephen Jay Gould too, even though I disagree with lots of what he wrote. Dawkins just seems to have an unreasonable amount of haters amongst people who you would think would be naturally on his side. Tough crowd. Hadn't heard of Scott Atran before though, so thanks.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 11:55 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can the "I'm no fan of Dawkins, but..." people explain why they don't like him?

Atheists are like Marxists. They dislike people who are on their own side but don't share their particular sub-category of belief much more than they ever dislike those whose views are diametrically opposed to theirs.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:56 PM on February 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Sorry for a diversion, but it occurs to me that reparations, even if we supported the concept, would be pretty impossible at this point. Let's say somehow we get past the difficulty of finding all of the descendents of slaves to whom we must pay reparations (no money goes to dark-skinned descendents of Africans who migrated here after slavery, like Barack Obama, but some money would in theory come to a lot of "white" people with a slave ancestor who then had children or grandchildren who "passed" into whiteness). Who pays? There were actually very few slaveowners and lots of slaves. I've seen estimates that fewer than 1% of US citizens (white males) were actually in possession of slaves during the height of slavery. Should the descendents of abolitionists and those who fought and died for the abolitionist cause be forced to cough up some dough to me because I had one black ancestor 250 years ago, but all sunburned Irish and French immmigrants and their decsendents ever since?
posted by Cassford at 11:58 PM on February 19, 2012


I'm not sure why a bunch of farmers with no involvement in anything wrong or illegal (as far as anyone knows) should be made bankrupt just because they're related to someone the Daily Telegraph doesn't like. Sounds like the Mugabe approach to reparations.
posted by Summer at 12:06 AM on February 20, 2012


Richard Dawkins in ‘single-celled ancestor’ shock.
"To many it appears clear hypocrisy that Professor Dawkins – who has spent much of his career talking up the benefits of being a multi-cellular organism – is directly related to a single-cell organism."
posted by Richard Holden at 3:48 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can the "I'm no fan of Dawkins, but..." people explain why they don't like him? Surely not because he's "too strident"? To me the guy always seems almost super-humanly patient when arguing with his Creationist and fundamentalist opponents.

His approach to religion strikes me as too simplistic, frequently using a variant of his "memes" which, in turn, is a failed attempt to reinvent semiotics and diffusion of innovations. He's also a bit dismissive of formal agnosticism and ignosticism.

At least in my case, PeterMcDermott is almost, but not quite, completely wrong, as I mostly dislike the way media elevates Dawkins above just another atheist writer who's right about some things and wrong about others to the status of "general" or "high priest of atheism".
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:12 AM on February 20, 2012


That reads like a list of reasons why Dawkins isn't a perfect morally infallible human being who is also an peerless expert in all fields of knowledge.

mobunited isn't saying Dawkins is a bad person, they're saying that they are not a fan. Why are you bringing morality into it?

He spoke out against the Iraq War, which counts as a public repudiation of Harris and Hitchens as far as I'm concerned.

You have very low standards for repudiation.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:21 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


At least in my case, PeterMcDermott is almost, but not quite, completely wrong, as I mostly dislike the way media elevates Dawkins above just another atheist writer who's right about some things and wrong about others to the status of "general" or "high priest of atheism".

Is that you conceding the stuff that I'm right about, or pointing out why I'm wrong in your case?

FWIW, I don't have a dog in this race. While I'm a strong atheist myself -- see no reason whatsoever to believe in the notion of a divine being, ie, an entity with agency that is responsible for conjuring us all into existence, and who subsequently polices our moral behaviour -- I've never read a book by Dawkins and so don't feel strongly about him one way or another.

Yes, he has become the media poster boy for atheism, but I see that as a consequence of lazy journalists who are happy to repeatedly call that guy they know can be counted on to 'give good quote'. And that's what Dawkins does. He gives quick, easily assimilated, one-line answers so they can call him and quickly get what they need to make the story work.

Interviewees who tend towards long, caveat-filled explanations don't get a return call because they're no fucking use. Even the broadsheets need an explanation thats accessible and summarizes the position. As long as it's 90% right, that's close enough. If you want it closer, read a book.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:50 AM on February 20, 2012


PeterMcDermott: Dawkins appears to define atheism in terms of opposition to religion, which means he does not speak for those of us who are members of religious communities and/or consider the religious beliefs of most other people to be simply irrelevant.

I'm an atheist because I build a spirituality, ethos, and practice around a worldview lacking god. The theistic beliefs of others are largely irrelevant to me, and likewise, Dawkins except for the fact that I'm repeatedly challenged with, "What about Dawkins?" (Well, that and the inexplicable popularity of memetics by people who should otherwise know better.) His status as a media talking head/whipping boy gives me little reason to push his writing to the top of my priority list.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:45 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think reparations are a reasonable idea on the systemic level because almost all whites in Europe and North America have benefited from some form of slavery. I don't think the Telegraph is particularly interested in that form of social justice though when it calls out a professor who inherited an average farm with profits of merely $20,000 a year.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:32 AM on February 20, 2012


His most recent book was really pretty great, imo, and I highly recommend it. I am not an expert on evolutionary biology, however.

I got to spend an afternoon with Dawkins once. In person he is one of the most soft-spoken, shy, awkward and unbelievable earnest people I have ever met, and you'd never know it by some of his more inflammatory speeches and things.

As for this mess? Sigh.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:50 AM on February 20, 2012


The mathematics of our ancestry is exceedingly complex, because the number of our ancestors increases exponentially, not linearly.

O, the complexity.
posted by stebulus at 4:19 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is not a given that the number of anscestors we have increases exponentially. In many places marriage between first cousins is quite common and even preferred. In those circumstances the growth would be linear.
posted by humanfont at 5:07 PM on February 20, 2012


mobunited isn't saying Dawkins is a bad person, they're saying that they are not a fan. Why are you bringing morality into it?

The complaint that he didn't do enough to disassociate himself from Harris over his support for torture is a moral criticism of Dawkins isn't it?

You have very low standards for repudiation.

I have high standards for showing guilt by association.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 5:13 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


The complaint that he didn't do enough to disassociate himself from Harris over his support for torture is a moral criticism of Dawkins isn't it?

I really don't care that he spoke out against the Iraq war because it in no way repudiates Harris' stance that torture is cool, and religious people should be killed for promoting "dangerous" points of view. In fact, what the fuck? Linking this to the Iraq war reproduces the lie that made the war happen in the first place.

Yes, if you go on jolly speaking tours with people who say these things are awesome, you have a moral obligation to directly repudiate them in no uncertain terms. Torture and assassination really are pretty bad things. And it's not as if their association is built on contrasting opinion -- they're not the Timothy Leary/G. Gordon Liddy road show.

These things would not be problems if Dawkins did not have any particular moral prescriptions. If his activism consisted of merely telling people that an opinion many reasonable seeming, intelligent individuals hold is ridiculous that'd be a hard sell, but slings and arrows against his character would indeed be unjustified. But his message is in fact that an opinion many reasonable seeming, intelligent individuals hold is *immoral* -- that it injures other people to operate under that belief in any form, and that sharing it with children is child abuse. That's a claim of moral authority.

When you do that then yes, people can complain about more than intellectual inconsistency but problems with your values, too. Mocking a woman in a public forum using the imagery of genital mutilation is fucked up. Buddying up with a dude who things torture is good speaks to character. And while it does not make Richard Dawkins a villain, it means that reasonable people can think it's a bit of an asshole move, yeah.

. . . and again, that ambush piece was terrible.
posted by mobunited at 8:08 PM on February 20, 2012


The theistic beliefs of others are largely irrelevant to me

That's convenient for you, but other people aren't so lucky.
posted by empath at 8:58 PM on February 20, 2012


I really don't care that he spoke out against the Iraq war because it in no way repudiates Harris' stance that torture is cool, and religious people should be killed for promoting "dangerous" points of view.

[citation needed]
posted by empath at 8:59 PM on February 20, 2012


...I mostly dislike the way media elevates Dawkins above just another atheist writer who's right about some things and wrong about others...

This is a dislike of the media, not of Dawkins. It's like when people complain about Twitter/Bieber/whatever because of the hype, not because of anything intrinsic to the object.

Dawkins appears to define atheism in terms of opposition to religion...

[citation needed]

He defines it as a lack of belief in god/s. In fact, he has a 7-point scale ranging from hardcore atheism to hardcore belief, with agnosticism in the middle.

Regarding reparations, I think there's more good to be done from helping whoever is struggling right now regardless of how well-off their ancestors were. Dawkins is better off than most people without being anywhere near the 1%, and started a charity to help people who are less well-off than he is. I think he's in the clear on that one.
posted by harriet vane at 10:27 PM on February 20, 2012


empath: That's convenient for you, but other people aren't so lucky.

And an issue in which religious people are on both sides proves what here?

harriet vane: This is a dislike of the media, not of Dawkins.

Thank you for agreeing with me. I'm sure if you want to argue with someone who actually dislikes Dawkins, there's more than a few around metafilter who will oblige you.

He defines it as a lack of belief in god/s. In fact, he has a 7-point scale ranging from hardcore atheism to hardcore belief, with agnosticism in the middle.

Sure, and then he defines religion in terms of theistic belief, and therefore, the antithesis of atheism.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:49 AM on February 21, 2012


Can the "I'm no fan of Dawkins, but..." people explain why they don't like him?

My apologies, I thought you actually meant "no fan" and "don't like" rather than asking for something completely different. I'm not currently a fan of comics and basketball either, in that I don't pay money or spend time to patronize those activities, but that doesn't translate into hatred.

Dawkins just seems to have an unreasonable amount of haters amongst people who you would think would be naturally on his side.

I'm not a big fan of "naturally" on sides. When we agree, we agree. When we disagree, we disagree. When he's unreasonably attacked, (as he was this week,) I'll defend him. I do the same for religious people as well.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:10 AM on February 21, 2012


PeterMcDermott: Dawkins appears to define atheism in terms of opposition to religion, which means he does not speak for those of us who are members of religious communities and/or consider the religious beliefs of most other people to be simply irrelevant.

This is what I find difficult. I believe church and state ought to be separate, but I don't care if the people down the road want to build a church or a mosque because they gain some comfort and guidance from following the religion of their choice. I also, while not being a religious believer, can completely see why Jesus is a role model for people because he did a lot of good work that some who call themselves 'Christian' would do well to remind themselves of. I don't think anything is to be gained from seeing those who do believe as somehow intellectually or morally inferior. (See Dawkins' argument that there is no such thing as a 'muslim child' or 'jewish child', ignoring that a) religious belief and culture are extremely closely intertwined b) it is entirely possible for a child to decide whether they do or do not believe regardless of their background, if attending a Catholic school is anything to go by.) In fact, I often envy those who do have a religious belief as I envy the strength and comfort that comes from it. But like being in love, you can't make yourself believe.

And my family tree goes back to the Vikings, so perkele.
posted by mippy at 7:19 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Citations?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/in-defense-of-torture_b_8993.html
http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/

You can even read his defences to people's annoyance over his arguments for torture, targeting killings and nuking the Arab world.
posted by mobunited at 9:33 AM on February 21, 2012


You can even read his defences to people's annoyance over his arguments for torture, targeting killings and nuking the Arab world.

I think he was playing cutesy with the torture argument, but I think it's valid to point out that if bombing campaigns and collateral are legitimate, that torture also probably is.

And he in no way suggested nuking the Arab world (or even the Muslim world).
posted by empath at 9:36 AM on February 21, 2012


My apologies, I thought you actually meant "no fan" and "don't like" rather than asking for something completely different. I'm not currently a fan of comics and basketball either, in that I don't pay money or spend time to patronize those activities, but that doesn't translate into hatred.

Sorry I wasn't clear. I read "I'm not a fan of Dawkins, but..." as a euphemism for "I dislike Dawkins, but..." because if someone feels merely neutral about someone, why qualify opposition to a attack on them like that? There's only a "but" there if you might otherwise tend to approve of criticism of them.

I really don't care that he spoke out against the Iraq war because it in no way repudiates Harris' stance that torture is cool, and religious people should be killed for promoting "dangerous" points of view. In fact, what the fuck? Linking this to the Iraq war reproduces the lie that made the war happen in the first place.

I mentioned Dawkins' opposition to the Iraq War because it's the main example of him distancing himself from atheist hotheads like Hitchens and Harris over political issues that I am aware of. I can't track down any specific disavowal, but I would be surprised if he had never been asked for his thoughts about Harris' torture comments given the controversy, and I would be surprised if he hadn't disagreed with them if he had, given other disagreements, so I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. You can't just assume he agrees with everyone he shares a stage with about everything unless he explicitly repudiates them, that's absurd. I'm not sure what lie that made the Iraq war happen I am reproducing here either, I thought that particular lie was the lie that Iraq had WMDs.

Even though I disagree with Harris, I don't think his comments about torture are so terrible that they taint anyone who has any kind of association with him. He's posing a hypothetical about whether torture is immoral under all circumstances with no exceptions, or whether that principle might be forced to bend under extreme conditions (e.g. waterboard one guy to save 1 million innocents from dying in a nuclear explosion). It's provocative, but given that he writes about the nature of morality it's a relevant and interesting question for him to pose: are we only principled up to a point, after which we become utilitarians? However, he was foolish to expect that people would see it as a thought experiment and not as a political statement given the highly charged politics of the "War on Terror", and I also think it's a really really bad idea to start making exceptions to the "no torture" rule even hypothetically because it sets a precedent for gradual normalization. Reasonable people can disagree however, and if any kind of serious or interesting discussion about morality is going to happen then morally unconventional ideas need to be allowed on the table, and people need to be permitted to ask exactly what the limits of stated moral principles are, are they absolute or relative and so on. People have seized on Harris' comments in an out-of-context kind of tabloid fashion to yell "Look! This nasty atheist wants to torture and kill religious people for their beliefs! Just like Stalin and Mao and Hitler!!!"
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 5:55 PM on February 21, 2012


CBrachyrhynchos, if you don't hate Dawkins but you greatly dislike the media portrayal of him, that's entirely reasonable. It just doesn't answer the question that was put to the thread. I'm not looking for an argument.

Sure, and then he defines religion in terms of theistic belief, and therefore, the antithesis of atheism.

Well now I'm confused. Religions aren't defined in terms of theistic belief? All the religious people I know define it that way, often with quite specific details of the types of things that must be believed to be a member of their religion and not some other religion. And I take them at their word.

Or do you mean that it's possible to be a believer without being a member of a specific type of religion? Because my understanding is that Dawkins doesn't see unaligned believers as much different from organised religion, but major religions expect him to address all the specifics of their particular flavour of belief in copious detail, so that's where the bulk of his public atheist work goes. Just because he spends more time addressing the majority, doesn't mean he's unaware of the minority.

Also, even if you were to accept religion as largely equal to theistic belief, that doesn't mean that atheism is the antithesis of it. Surely an 'absence of' is not the same as 'opposite of'?
posted by harriet vane at 9:11 PM on February 21, 2012


harriet vane: CBrachyrhynchos, if you don't hate Dawkins but you greatly dislike the media portrayal of him, that's entirely reasonable. It just doesn't answer the question that was put to the thread.

I answered the question put to the thread, (and Peter's claim as well). Unfortunately, it seems that the question put to the thread was the wrong question.

harriet vane: Religions aren't defined in terms of theistic belief?

No, which even a trivial survey of world religions, liberal arguments for religion, and the history of atheist thought would reveal. Some religions even don't have an explicit theistic belief, or formulate that belief strictly in pragmatic terms.

But, it's worse than Dawkins just addressing "majority" religion. He pulls the courtier's reply to say that his critique applies universally across all forms of religious belief, practice, and community, and I'm deeply unconvinced of this.

In fact, some of the completely unfair attacks against him came about in response to some methodological wankery on his part. His foundation commissioned a survey of religious practice in the U.K.. Then he imposed a restrictive definition of religion in his interpretation of the data to make political claims about the truthfulness of religious identity. And, he predictably applies the same ideas to cases where theistic belief doesn't matter, such as De Botton's attempt to recreate religious humanism.

And then, there's "viruses of the mind."

Which isn't to say that Dawkins is a bad person or deserves the shoddy treatment he received this week. I don't have to agree with the guy in order to protest stupid and unfair criticisms of him.

L. P. Hatecraft: Sorry I wasn't clear. I read "I'm not a fan of Dawkins, but..." as a euphemism for "I dislike Dawkins, but..." because if someone feels merely neutral about someone, why qualify opposition to a attack on them like that?

There's two things I object to about the attacks he's received this week. The first is that they're patently stupid, unfair, and irrelevant ad hominems against him as a person. So there, the qualification serves to put the focus on the nature of the attack in question. It's not about agreement or disagreement with him as a person, but about the bad behavior of the media pundits in question.

The second part is that the attacks have included hyperbolic misrepresentation of the relevance of Dawkins, Darwin, and On the Origin of Species to atheism and atheists. Essentially, the media narrative is that by discrediting Dawkins as a person, they discredit atheists in general. So there, the qualification serves to point out the diversity of thought by atheists, including disagreement about Dawkins and "New Atheism."

L. P. Hatecraft: There's only a "but" there if you might otherwise tend to approve of criticism of them.

Why wouldn't I approve of criticism that's intelligent, fair, and relevant? Are we obligated to agree with everything he says and writes?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:43 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just want to say that I'm glad Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins are out there taking the brunt of this bullshit. It's so much nicer than when people were afraid to say they were atheists.
posted by empath at 10:22 AM on February 22, 2012


CBrachyrhynchos: Why wouldn't I approve of criticism that's intelligent, fair, and relevant? Are we obligated to agree with everything he says and writes?

No, of course not. By "tend to approve of criticism of them" I meant "tend to approve of and agree with the criticisms that are made of them" not just approve of them being subject to criticism in the first place. Of course all public intellectuals should be criticized.

mobunited: These things would not be problems if Dawkins did not have any particular moral prescriptions. If his activism consisted of merely telling people that an opinion many reasonable seeming, intelligent individuals hold is ridiculous that'd be a hard sell, but slings and arrows against his character would indeed be unjustified. But his message is in fact that an opinion many reasonable seeming, intelligent individuals hold is *immoral* -- that it injures other people to operate under that belief in any form, and that sharing it with children is child abuse. That's a claim of moral authority.

No, there is no such claim. Dawkins' arguments don't depend on his moral authority. They are not of the form "I say this is immoral, and you should accept it because I am an authority on morality". In other words, he's not the Pope. They depend on the evidence he puts forward and the logical validity of his arguments, along with some assumed basic moral principles that the audience can decide for themselves whether they accept. So, undermining his moral authority by bringing up nasty comments he wrote on someone's blog or people he's shared the stage with doesn't really mean anything. What he says would be just as true (or false) if it was Ted Bundy saying it.

And, I agree with him that it is immoral to indoctrinate children with many religious beliefs (although if the parents sincerely believe them I guess that would be a mitigating factor in their guilt). It's cruel to scare children with visions of eternal torture and tell them that people not in their religion are going there. It's wrong to teach children that some people are "perverted" and that God doesn't love them. It's wrong to teach children that their beliefs about scientific facts can be "good" or "evil" as opposed to "true" or "false". It's wrong to handicap their intellectual development by teaching them scientific falsehoods. And so on. Not all religions do these things but plenty do, and the ones that don't should quit whining when people complain about it if they don't want to be seen as apologists and enablers.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:07 PM on February 22, 2012


L.P. Hatecraft: "Not all religions do these things but plenty do, and the ones that don't should quit whining when people complain about it if they don't want to be seen as apologists and enablers."

Fortunately, some of us have a more nuanced view than "sit down and shut up."

In fact, a few of us theists have spent quite a bit of time attacking dominionism, evangelicalism and religious fundamentalists online and in meatspace over the years. And defending ourselves and our own beliefs and rights from their depredations. But hey, don't let that stop you from telling us to shut up. Quite helpful to the general discourse, thanks.
posted by zarq at 7:57 AM on February 23, 2012


CBrachyrhynchos: ah, I'm clearer now on what you mean about religions not necessarily being theistic. I disagree that his critique doesn't apply to them. To the best of my knowledge, non-theistic religions still have beliefs in what I'd call the supernatural - reincarnation, rituals having real effects in addition to conceptual effects, etc. The claims of lack of existence still apply, even if the montheistic stuff doesn't, because reincarnation (as just one example) has more or less the same quantity and quality of evidence as the concept of a single, omniscient god.

The courtier's reply is that all the details of the Emporer's clothes don't matter because there are no clothes. Dawkins says that the details of the belief don't matter because there are no supernatural things, just 'natural' ones.

Each believer obviously views their own team as being of primary importance, but given the sheer mass of differences it'd take a lifetime to work through them all. Dawkins starts with the ones prevalent in his life, because you've got to start somewhere so why not. And although I suspect he'd be happy to leave it at "no evidence of the supernatural" people keep asking him to debate things like the contribution of religion to morality, or art, or whatever. To date, I've never heard of a non-theist religious person delivering a better critique of Dawkins' position than a theist religious person.

Can you link me up to anything about the survey? I'd like to know more about it.
posted by harriet vane at 12:30 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


To the best of my knowledge, non-theistic religions still have beliefs in what I'd call the supernatural ...

Then the best of your knowledge is wrong, making both the courtier's reply argument incoherent, and leads to the absurdity of Dawkins and Williams debating different flavors of agnosticism.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:46 AM on February 24, 2012


zarq: Fortunately, some of us have a more nuanced view than "sit down and shut up."

"Stop whining about atheist criticisms of religious fundamentalism that don't apply to you" is not equivalent to "sit down and shut up".
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 7:31 PM on February 25, 2012


Then the best of your knowledge is wrong,...

I wish you'd explain more then, instead of being passive-aggressive, because I'd like my information to be as accurate as possible.

According to you, there's at least one religion out there which doesn't match up to what many people would think was a reasonable definition of religion. I would have thought that if there's no deity and no supernatural, we're looking at a philosophy, not a religion, but feel free to englighten me as to which ones I've either forgotten or wasn't aware of. And according to you, Dawkins fudged a survey. But you've ignored my polite request for further information. It's kind of rude to bring these up in a conversation (note: not an argument) then not elaborate.
posted by harriet vane at 2:35 AM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, there are a number of non-creedal religions. Along with a number of religions that don't have a deity. And of course you run into the problem of defining "supernatural" to begin with. As well as religions where your personal belief is irrelevant, and your participation is a matter of family and/or community. Not to mention the fact that a fair bit of post-modern theology is formally agnostic. The fact that "many people," define religion narrowly doesn't make such narrow definitions reasonable.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:22 PM on February 26, 2012


Dawkins is very specific about what he's talking about when he's talking about 'religion', and if he's not talking about your special snowflake variant, that's lovely for you, but it doesn't really negate the specific argument about the kind of religion that he's talking about.
posted by empath at 6:48 PM on February 26, 2012


but it doesn't really negate the specific argument about the kind of religion that he's talking about.

I've read nearly all of his books including "The God Delusion," multiple times, read various essays he's written and seen a large number of talks and interviews he's given that have been posted online.

I don't believe I've ever seen him make a distinction between harmful and non-harmful religions. I know he's gone out of his way to say that there are no non-harmful religions, primarily because he believes they discourage independent rational thought. I've seen him say that absolute belief in religion is exceptionally harmful. But no more than that.

So what exactly are you referring to?
posted by zarq at 10:42 PM on February 26, 2012


Ok, you don't want to name anything, so I googled your phrases. Non-creedal religions gives me a Wikipedia link which mentions a few different types such as Quakers, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Churches of Christ. However, they do all still fall into the category of monotheistic religion and there's definitely belief in the supernatural in the form of souls as a bare minimum, plus angels, etc in several as well.

Googling non-theistic religions gives me Buddhism (dualism, and reincarnation as discussed before), Hinduism (also non-creedal, but majority believe in reincarnation, karma, dharma and are generally dualist) and Jainism (dualist). So we've still got supernatural elements here.

I use the definition of supernatural as 'not currently measurable or detectable by scientific instruments or human sensory perception'. I find that definition suitable for a discussion of belief and atheism like this.

So I'm still seeing the courtier's reply as relevant to these two groupings - failure of a god or supernatural things to actually exist. And I'm pretty sure that people who participate in religion for the sake of community and tradition are one of his target audiences for The God Delusion. I don't think he was particularly successful at trying to outweigh the value of tradition and community with other factors such as truth and justice, but I think he was trying. He did a better job of getting atheists to come out of the closet.

zarq, I think Dawkins sees a belief in the supernatural as harmful in itself. So I agree with you that he doesn't particularly distinguish between harmful and non-harmful. I can't seem to find a link to the video, but I'm sure I've heard him distinguish between harmful and pointless, with the latter meaning the kind of theism that posits a non-interventionist, non-omniscient, non-omnipotent, non-Creator god that can't be detected because it doesn't actually do anything and doesn't persuade believers to act any differently from atheists.

That doesn't stop people from claiming that he hasn't addressed their snowflake, if they think his objection is to monotheism/fundamentalism/the Old Testament/western religions/etc.

PS - googling for details of the survey gave me no useful results, it's probably a bit too vague.
posted by harriet vane at 5:29 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


harriet vane: "zarq, I think Dawkins sees a belief in the supernatural as harmful in itself. So I agree with you that he doesn't particularly distinguish between harmful and non-harmful. I can't seem to find a link to the video, but I'm sure I've heard him distinguish between harmful and pointless, with the latter meaning the kind of theism that posits a non-interventionist, non-omniscient, non-omnipotent, non-Creator god that can't be detected because it doesn't actually do anything and doesn't persuade believers to act any differently from atheists. "

Interesting. I'd like to see that video.

That doesn't stop people from claiming that he hasn't addressed their snowflake, if they think his objection is to monotheism/fundamentalism/the Old Testament/western religions/etc. "

So... I'm Jewish. My main objection to Dawkins has always been that I feel he doesn't use qualifiers properly when referring to us. My personal religious beliefs have minimal, if any impact on others by design. I don't proselytize or foist my theistic beliefs on others. They do not conflict with my scientific understanding of the universe, and I'm vehemently opposed to teaching religion masquerading as science in schools. My religion doesn't even drive how I vote.

As my kids grow up, they'll be encouraged to learn as much as they can about the world around them, as objectively as possible. To question everything. Then make draw their own conclusions about their lives without having anything forced upon them. Yet because I'm a theist and am teaching my kids about Judaism, he lumps me in with child abusers. And I do understand why he might think that I'm somehow damaging them, but it's quite frustrating to be put compared, inappropriately I might add, with pedophile priests.

This isn't my way of claiming that he hasn't addressed my snowflake. It's a sense on my part that by vilifying all theists, of every stripe, he's engaging in a lazy straw man argument. A stereotype. He doesn't have a problem tarring theists of every distinction equally, (or relatively equally) even when it seems apparent (at least to me,) that they aren't, in fact, equal. It feels like a dishonest argument.
posted by zarq at 7:40 AM on February 27, 2012


empath: Then his argument isn't exactly universal is it?

harriet vane: I find that to be an overly-simplistic analysis of the religions you cite, which include rich traditions of skepticism and doubt in many of the things you cite as supernatural.

But then again, by your definition, the set of prime numbers, which can't be addressed using either science (as properly understood) or human perception are supernatural. God (probably) doesn't exist. So what? What next? The questions I consider important as an atheist not addressed either by elevating science outside of its proper scope, or by taking a reflexively antagonistic stance toward all varieties of theism.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:01 AM on February 27, 2012


It's a sense on my part that by vilifying all theists, of every stripe.

I don't think he does this, but if you care to provide an example, I'd be willing to change my mind.
posted by empath at 9:06 AM on February 27, 2012


Of course, the scandal is continuing with my newsreader overflowing with articles that Dawkins has renounced atheism by identifying himself as a "6.9" on a 7-point scale he used in The God Delusion.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:32 AM on February 27, 2012


CBrach, are you implying the existence of a religious tradition that worships the prime numbers, or something comparably close to reality? Because if not, then you appear to have abandoned your argument that there exist religious traditions that don't subscribe to any supernatural beliefs.

There are probably some mathematicians who "believe" in prime numbers in the same way that a theist "believes" in God, but you can do just as well by accepting that a "prime number" is one that has no factors apart from 1 and itself, and then evaluating other proofs of their properties as they come. We don't know whether or not there are infinitely many prime numbers, if that's what you were referring to. Some mathematicians have thrown their bets one way or the other, but that's certainly not a requirement for being a mathematician.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:48 AM on February 27, 2012


There's a whole lot of work being done on the philosophy of math re: the reality of numbers, but ultimately you don't have to believe in the reality of numbers. They're just symbols being manipulated by a set of rules. If they happen to match up with reality, that's wonderful, but it isn't necessary. You can accept certain things as axiomatic within a given system of logic without believing in the reality of any of it.

You can accept, in fact, the existence of god as axiomatic and work out the logical the consequences of it, without being a theist. In fact a lot of atheists started there, and couldn't work out a consistent belief system that included it, which is how they became atheists.
posted by empath at 10:53 AM on February 27, 2012


empath: " I don't think he does this, but if you care to provide an example, I'd be willing to change my mind."

I got mired in a huge, highly unpleasant argument about Dawkins a couple of years ago in MeTa that got rather personal. (My own fault, really.) I made some of these same arguments there. I'd honestly really prefer to avoid repeating that experience here.

Some of his published works, including Virus of the Mind, his TED talk, The God Delusion and Religion's Real Child Abuse refer to religion as a destructive meme or virus. Not just one religion, but all, and in the case of both essays, specifically to teaching religion to "gullible" children. In each of these links he specifically mentions that absolute, unquestioning faith is seriously dangerous. (I happen to agree with him wholeheartedly about that.) But his characterizations of religion and religious belief and indoctrination are not restricted to fundamentalists.

And again, I actually agree with many of his conclusions. Religious extremists are dangerous. I've certainly been very vocal here myself about the evils of dominionism and other encroachments over the years. I just wish he wouldn't lump me and mine in with them.
posted by zarq at 11:14 AM on February 27, 2012


I think you're going out of your way to take offense, to be honest. He's talking about using religious doctrine to control and manipulate children. If you don't do that, then he's not talking about you.
posted by empath at 11:33 AM on February 27, 2012


Logical Dash: CBrach, are you implying the existence of a religious tradition that worships the prime numbers, or something comparably close to reality?

Certainly I would say that the better arguments for a transcendental or presuppositional deity are similar, and don't involve the dualities of supernatural/natural. I'm ignostic when it comes to those definitions of god, but I'll liberally admit there there are a fair number of unscientific assumptions behind that.

Because if not, then you appear to have abandoned your argument that there exist religious traditions that don't subscribe to any supernatural beliefs.

Nonsense. One can walk and chew gum. One can also point out that a given definition of supernatural is self-refuting, and point out that it doesn't apply to theologies that explicitly reject those forms of duality.

It's more precise to say that there are theologians who believe in "god" the same way that a mathematician believes in prime numbers: as an axiomatic assumption used to justify other logical statements. And then you have explicitly pragmatic and agnostic theologies that treat "god" as an especially beautiful conjecture.

Any proof regarding prime numbers would, by Harriet Vane's definition, be supernatural as they do not depend on either sensory perception, or scientific inference. We can reasonably say there's an infinity of prime numbers, as well as an infinity of numbers of various flavors, because we're not using scientific inference to address those questions.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:49 AM on February 27, 2012


empath: “I think you're going out of your way to take offense, to be honest. He's talking about using religious doctrine to control and manipulate children. If you don't do that, then he's not talking about you.”

Where exactly does he explicate this difference between religions he is against and religions he is for? Like zarq and others in this thread, I'm familiar with Dawkins' writings, but I don't think he's ever made that distinction.
posted by koeselitz at 11:54 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you read the linked article, he's talking about specific behavior that specific religions engage in.
posted by empath at 11:55 AM on February 27, 2012


empath: "I think you're going out of your way to take offense, to be honest. He's talking about using religious doctrine to control and manipulate children. If you don't do that, then he's not talking about you."

Could you please point out where he explained which religions do and which do not control and manipulate children? Because I'm not seeing a distinction being made. And in the God Delusion, he specifically says that religion is an enemy of rational thought because they maintain unquestioned faiths.
posted by zarq at 11:58 AM on February 27, 2012


Could you please point out where he explained which religions do and which do not control and manipulate children?

He doesn't, because most of them do, but if you have any examples of ones which don't do that, feel free to name them.

He endorses this lecture in that same article which goes on at length and in detail about specifically what he is talking about.

He's not simply saying "All religion is bad". He and his ideological allies have a specific and detailed critique of the religious indoctrination of children that you can argue with if you like.
posted by empath at 12:04 PM on February 27, 2012


And in the God Delusion, he specifically says that religion is an enemy of rational thought because they maintain unquestioned faiths.

I really don't understand why people keep picking at this. You should mentally just replace 'religion' with 'religion which engages in this specific behavior which i'm about to describe, which includes the vast majority of religions, but obviously there are some exceptions to every general category', if it makes you feel better. If your religion doesn't maintain unquestioned beliefs, then he is not talking about you.
posted by empath at 12:08 PM on February 27, 2012


He's not simply saying "All religion is bad".

No, he is.

He and his ideological allies have a specific and detailed critique of the religious indoctrination of children that you can argue with if you like.


How is he defining religious indoctrination, please?
posted by zarq at 12:10 PM on February 27, 2012


How is he defining religious indoctrination, please?

Read this. Dawkins said it's "a superb polemic on how religions abuse the minds of children", so I assume he agrees with it, and he's made similar arguments in his books.
posted by empath at 12:13 PM on February 27, 2012


empath: “I really don't understand why people keep picking at this. You should mentally just replace 'religion' with 'religion which engages in this specific behavior which i'm about to describe, which includes the vast majority of religions, but obviously there are some exceptions to every general category', if it makes you feel better. If your religion doesn't maintain unquestioned beliefs, then he is not talking about you.”

Then Mr Dawkins is choosing a stunningly nonstandard way to communicate this – by not saying anything about it, and by relying on you to explain it to people.

I hope one could be forgiven for concluding that when Richard Dawkins says "religion" he means what he seems to define it as – unquestioned faith – and that when he says the word "religion," he is not secretly implying a whole paragraph of explanatory text that he hopes everyone will understand.

One would think he's a Talmudic scholar or something, the way you're saying he writes between the lines.
posted by koeselitz at 12:13 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then Mr Dawkins is choosing a stunningly nonstandard way to communicate this – by not saying anything about it, and by relying on you to explain it to people.

I think, on the contrary, that people are going out of their way to misread what he is plainly saying by using a non-standard definition of religion that includes a religion which has no supernatural beliefs, for example. He's using the normal definition of the word and talking about the vast majority of religiosn without mentally footnoting it with all of the fringe edge cases that people in this thread keep bringing up.

and, btw, pull quote from that 'polemic', if you don't feel like reading the whole thing:
You'll agree that, if it were female circumcision we were talking about, we could build a moral case against it based just on considering whether it is something a woman would choose for herself. Given the fact—I assume it is a fact—that most of those women who were circumcised as children would, if they only knew what they were missing, have preferred to remain intact. Given that almost no woman who was not circumcised as a child volunteers to undergo the operation later in life. Given in short that it seems not to be what free women want to have done to their bodies. Then it seems clear that whoever takes advantage of their temporary power over a child's body to perform the operation must be abusing this power and acting wrongly.

Well then, if this is so for bodies, the same for minds. Given, let's say, that most people who have been brought up as members of a sect would, if they only knew what they are being denied, have preferred to remain outside it. Given that almost no one who was not brought up this way volunteers to adopt the faith later in life. Given in short that it is not a faith that a free-thinker would adopt. Then, likewise, it seems clear that whoever takes advantage of their temporary power over a child's mind to impose this faith, is equally abusing this power and acting wrongly.
posted by empath at 12:19 PM on February 27, 2012


I've read it. And this is the second time you're linking to it. And you're missing its point.

This is a quote from The God Delusion that references Humphrey:
IN DEFENCE OF CHILDREN

My colleague the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey used the 'sticks and stones' proverb in introducing his Amnesty Lecture in Oxford in 1997. [141] Humphrey began his lecture by arguing that the proverb is not always true, citing the case of Haitian Voodoo believers who die, apparently from some psychosomatic effect of terror, within days of having a malign 'spell' cast upon them. He then asked whether Amnesty International, the beneficiary of the lecture series to which he was contributing, should campaign against hurtful or damaging speeches or publications. His answer was a resounding no to such censorship in general: 'Freedom of speech is too precious a freedom to be meddled with.' But he then went on to shock his liberal self by advocating one important exception: to argue in favour of censorship for the special case of children ...
... moral and religious education, and especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed -- even expected -- to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Children, I'll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas -- no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children's knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.

In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that the· planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.


In The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that by teaching children to believe in religion, "superstition," i.e., things which do not exist, theists are harming them and impairing their ability to perceive the universe rationally. Which is what he's also saying to some degree in Virus of the Mind This is also the crux of Humphrey's argument.
posted by zarq at 12:28 PM on February 27, 2012


empath: “He's using the normal definition of the word and talking about the vast majority of religiosn without mentally footnoting it with all of the fringe edge cases that people in this thread keep bringing up.”

The main one was Judaism. That's an edge case?
posted by koeselitz at 12:30 PM on February 27, 2012


In The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that by teaching children to believe in religion, "superstition," i.e., things which do not exist, theists are harming them and impairing their ability to perceive the universe rationally.

Why yes, exactly. If you're indoctrinating your children with superstitious belief, you're harming them. If you're merely exposing them to superstitious beliefs without indoctrinating them, that's a subtle but important difference, because it offers a choice.
posted by empath at 12:39 PM on February 27, 2012


Go back. Read the quote again. You're putting words in their mouths, by drawing a distinction where they do not. Let's review. I'll even bold-text the most relevant part:
Children, I'll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas -- no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children's knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.
Exposure ≠ indoctrination. Also, note the "or" at the end there.
posted by zarq at 12:46 PM on February 27, 2012


And yes, as koeselitz says, Judaism may be a dwindling religion, but we're certainly not an "edge case."
posted by zarq at 12:47 PM on February 27, 2012


The main one was Judaism. That's an edge case?

He's talking about specific religious behavior. It really doesn't matter what religion you are, most of them operate the same way. You can be a really laid back agnostic, pro-choice pro-evolution Catholic who barely brings up God around their kids, never talks about their religion with anyone, and gives away money to the poor, etc, but your existence doesn't negate criticism of Catholicism as it is generally practiced.

His criticism is about a specific pattern of religious behavior, which includes the vast majority of religious sects and religious people. I'm sure he would be thrilled if all religious people were the same as the people in this thread, because nobody would ever hear from them about their beliefs because they would keep them to themselves, but we all know that's not the case.
posted by empath at 12:50 PM on February 27, 2012


Exposure ≠ indoctrination. Also, note the "or" at the end there.

I don't disagree with them an iota. It's just a matter of degree. Are you giving your kids a free choice about their beliefs? That's what matters. Whether you drill them on catechisms or just create an environment where non-belief is impossible to consider, you're not giving them a choice. After a certain point, exposure becomes indoctrination.

I'm sure you wouldn't think they'd consider teaching your kids about Christian belief itself is abuse. Their own books include lots of information about religious belief.
posted by empath at 12:54 PM on February 27, 2012


(or Jewish, or Hindu or Buddhist, etc)
posted by empath at 12:55 PM on February 27, 2012


Just want to clarify, that depending on what you're indoctrinating them into and the lengths you go to indoctrinate them, it could be a really mild form of abuse--- let's take for example the relatively harmless belief in Santa Claus, just as an example. There's nothing that wrong in encouraging that while they're very young. But imagine if you never told your kids that there was no Santa Claus. And moreover never allowed them into an environment where they could be exposed to the idea that there was no Santa Claus, only allowed them to spend time with other kids believed in Santa Claus, and punished them if they ever expressed doubt that there might not be a Santa Claus, and you made them study several hundred page books about the North Pole and rudolph the red nose raindeer and made them memorize facts about Santa Claus, and so on-- and you kept this up well into adolescence. After a certain point, it must change from being 'cute' to being just plain 'abusive', yeah?
posted by empath at 1:11 PM on February 27, 2012


After a certain point, exposure becomes indoctrination.

Oh, come on. Now you're blatantly moving the goalposts to prove your point.

They said: "Children, I'll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas". You're now putting qualifiers around it that they didn't say!

If they had said "after a certain point, exposure becomes indoctrination" then I'd agree. Hey, indoctrination, forced education and lack of choice are mentioned in other respects throughout the book and in that very chapter, but that's not what he's saying here!

I'm sure you wouldn't think they'd consider teaching your kids about Christian belief itself is abuse.

I said this less than an hour ago in this very thread:
In The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that by teaching children to believe in religion, "superstition," i.e., things which do not exist, theists are harming them and impairing their ability to perceive the universe rationally.
So um... yes I would think that.

posted by zarq at 1:21 PM on February 27, 2012


empath: “His criticism is about a specific pattern of religious behavior, which includes the vast majority of religious sects and religious people. I'm sure he would be thrilled if all religious people were the same as the people in this thread, because nobody would ever hear from them about their beliefs because they would keep them to themselves, but we all know that's not the case.”

I'm sorry if I'm just not getting where this is going, but –

You said zarq was going out of his way to take offense. But on the contrary, it seems to me that Dawkins clearly and directly describes exactly zarq's own religious practice, and then argues from there that that practice is wrong. Moreover, I don't know that zarq was really taking offense – I'm not really privy to his feelings about it, and he hasn't really acted out in a way that betrays them. All I'm really sure of is that zarq disagrees with Dawkins, and that that disagreement is not insignificant. And I can't really see any way here to say that that isn't true, or to pave over the differences to say that zarq is making something out of nothing when he takes issue with Dawkins' stated beliefs.
posted by koeselitz at 1:28 PM on February 27, 2012


They said: "Children, I'll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas". You're now putting qualifiers around it that they didn't say!

You're taking one sentence when the whole essay makes it clear what they're talking about. They specifically say why they believe that exposure is wrong, and it has to do with choice. Merely exposing them to bad ideas isn't bad, it's exposing them to them in the context of indoctrinating them into a belief system.

n The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that by teaching children to believe in religion, "superstition," i.e., things which do not exist, theists are harming them and impairing their ability to perceive the universe rationally.

There's a difference between 'teaching them to believe' and 'teaching them what people believe', yes?
posted by empath at 1:28 PM on February 27, 2012


Rick Santorum says exactly what I'm talking about in this speech.

That's a roomful of Christians cheering for child abuse. And they're cheering it on because they know the survival of their religion depends on continuing that cycle of mental abuse, generation after generation. Because as soon as they get a taste of freedom and education, they're gone.

I'm also sure that you aren't raising your kid that way, Zarq, so I'm not sure why you're so offended by Dawkins criticism of that method of child raising.
posted by empath at 3:38 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any proof regarding prime numbers would, by Harriet Vane's definition, be supernatural as they do not depend on either sensory perception, or scientific inference

Only if you believe that the numbers, or some other aspect of the proof, "exists" in the same way that neutrons and asteroids exist. There are people who believe this: mathematical platonists. It's a popular position, but there are alternatives: a formalist might say that numbers exist only as effects of our logical faculties, which in turn are effects of our neurons and so forth.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:28 PM on February 27, 2012


LogicalDash: Both positions would be supernatural given Harriet Vane's definition because they are not:
1: perceptual or
2: understood by science.

(Worse than that, science itself becomes supernatural unless you admit that some variety of non-scientific formalisms are reasonable.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:31 AM on February 28, 2012


koeselitz: "I'm sorry if I'm just not getting where this is going, but –

You said zarq was going out of his way to take offense. But on the contrary, it seems to me that Dawkins clearly and directly describes exactly zarq's own religious practice, and then argues from there that that practice is wrong.


He does. Worse, he's attacking faith as a whole, not just organized religion. So if someone identifies in any way as a theist, he's saying that by teaching that theism in any capacity to a child, we are harming them. Dawkins even goes so far as to say that kids should not be labelled as "Jewish" or "Muslim" until they have the mental capacity to choose for themselves. Which, sure, okay in principle. But if my four year old kids get asked if they're Jewish, they're gonna say yes. Just as they would if they were asked if they are American. Because being Jewish is part of their cultural identity -- never mind what they believe.

Moreover, I don't know that zarq was really taking offense – I'm not really privy to his feelings about it, and he hasn't really acted out in a way that betrays them. All I'm really sure of is that zarq disagrees with Dawkins, and that that disagreement is not insignificant. And I can't really see any way here to say that that isn't true, or to pave over the differences to say that zarq is making something out of nothing when he takes issue with Dawkins' stated beliefs."

I agree with Dawkins on most topics with regard to religion. Keep religion the hell out of schools and legislatures. It doesn't belong there. If you want to vote according to your beliefs, then do so, but don't try and force me to follow yours. I have strong opinions about the Church and its political influence. And equally strong opinions about child abuse by clergy (from any religion, not just Catholic -- there are Jewish clergy child abusers.)

On the other hand, I do resent being lumped in with fundamentalists. And yes, empath, I believe this is what he is doing. Santorum is an extreme example. I disagree with Dawkins that all religion is harmful. My beliefs don't infringe on anyone else's -- except to the extent that I believe people should not have the right to try and convert me. I'm frustrated because I feel he makes being a moderate theist harder, because to some extent he's vilifying us all. I feel the same way about Jewish fundamentalists. And Christian ones.

If you feel I'm blowing this out of proportion or not seeing it properly, we can agree to disagree. But it seems rather clear-cut to me.
posted by zarq at 9:41 AM on February 28, 2012


I think this is probably also worth mentioning: Religious Jews usually have a very wide range of levels of observance, even within our own sects. My own beliefs and the traditions I follow aren't necessarily typical, even though I identify as a member of the Jewish Conservative movement. I don't observe the Sabbath, for example. (I'm not shomer shabbat.) And what my wife and I teach my kids or how our religion does or does not influence our politics may also not be typical of other religious Jews. On top of this, a huge number of people who identify as Jewish are doing so as a culture -- they're entirely secular. They might be Jewish agnostics or atheists. Or they might believe but be entirely non-observant.

Because of this, and of the religion's "hands off" tradition with regard to proselytization, classifying us as a group is a bit difficult. And when I talk about my own experiences being Jewish I don't speak for anyone else but me.
posted by zarq at 9:53 AM on February 28, 2012


OK, CBrachyrhynchos, let's say that my definition of supernatural is inadequate because the way I phrased it includes prime numbers. As I said, I felt that it was adequate for this discussion about actual religions and actual words Dawkins has said, but evidently it doesn't work for discussions of mathematics. Now what? How does that address the topic of Dawkins' basic issue with religion, which is that it encourages people to change their lives based on non-existent personalities? Does a tradition of debate over the exact nature of reincarnation or angels or gods become any less odd if they don't even exist?

Zarq, I understand where you're coming from on Dawkins lumping different attitudes to religion by religious people all in together. I do think it's where he's most often tone-deaf. He doesn't consider (and I reckon it's a really damaging blind-spot in his ability to communicate) the range of differences that are felt within the billions-strong group of people who are believers.

But if we give him the consideration that he can't seem to manage, of looking at it from the other point of view... Say if you start from his position that gods do not exist, then even encouraging children to consider that they do is asking them to join the parent in a mistaken belief about how the world is - at best, a sincerely-held and well-meant delusion. Regardless of what the belief is, the fact that it is false is what's damaging. The fact that some religions add dangerous oppression and aggression on top of that doesn't make the underlying falsity any less dangerous to rational thought. From his perspective, it's harming children's ability to know and understand reality, and therefore their ability to survive and build a society that's more than just surviving. And to give him credit where it's due, he follows through on trying to do something to prevent that harm because it sincerely concerns him.
posted by harriet vane at 5:34 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Worse than that, science itself becomes supernatural unless you admit that some variety of non-scientific formalisms are reasonable.)

If, when you say you "believe" in a formalism, you mean that you think it exists, then you're right.

Usually, when people "believe" in formalisms, they mean that those formalisms are rules that they follow. Principles. Like how I believe in the value of truth and honesty, meaning that I try to be true and honest whenever possible, and not that I think Truth and Honesty are real physical entities, like mini-gods or something.

This distinction is rather important to discussions about belief. You really can't substitute the one for the other, although it's extremely common to do so and fail to notice.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:11 AM on March 3, 2012


falsity any less dangerous to rational thought. From his perspective, it's harming children's ability to know and understand reality, and therefore their ability to survive and build a society that's more than just surviving.

There's a lot of presumptions in those sentences that I don't quite know that I would agree with. It's not, for example, at all clear that the human brain relies on rational thought to determine much, and so not clear that irrationality is necessarily harmful.
posted by Diablevert at 6:58 AM on March 3, 2012


LogicalDash: Usually, when people "believe" in formalisms, they mean that those formalisms are rules that they follow. Principles. Like how I believe in the value of truth and honesty, meaning that I try to be true and honest whenever possible, and not that I think Truth and Honesty are real physical entities, like mini-gods or something.

To me, that sounds a lot like what many theologies are doing when they talk about god as merely a pragmatic philosophical principle to ease discussion of philosophy. They are, rather like Dawkins and Russell, formally agnostic or even ignostic. God is a formalism adopted to examine questions of human morality, purpose, and meaning.

This distinction is rather important to discussions about belief. You really can't substitute the one for the other, although it's extremely common to do so and fail to notice.

Certainly, such as when people naively define religious thought as being in one category and not the other.

harriet vane: OK, CBrachyrhynchos, let's say that my definition of supernatural is inadequate because the way I phrased it includes prime numbers. As I said, I felt that it was adequate for this discussion about actual religions and actual words Dawkins has said, but evidently it doesn't work for discussions of mathematics. Now what? How does that address the topic of Dawkins' basic issue with religion, which is that it encourages people to change their lives based on non-existent personalities? Does a tradition of debate over the exact nature of reincarnation or angels or gods become any less odd if they don't even exist?

It doesn't work for many forms of theology either. Dawkins quite reasonably doesn't make strong arguments for ontological non-existence, only for the pragmatic assumption of non-existence. However, that makes his arguments against religious thought who freely admit that god is an axiomatic assumption merely one of aesthetics.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:14 AM on March 4, 2012


What do you mean by 'an axiomatic assumption' and by aesthetics in the phrase 'merely one of aesthetics'? I don't have a tertiary education, or any formal training in philosophy or apologetics, so you're talking over my head.

Diablevert, I don't exactly agree with Dawkins on that issue. I tend to take a similar but less extreme or strong version of the opinion. Irrationality has governed almost all of human history, and in many ways we've been a success. But every time I hear people freaking out over the incidence of terrorism while driving without wearing a seatbelt, or of people refusing vaccinations against HPV because it might encourage their pre-teen girls to become promiscuous, or deciding on economic theories based on ideology rather than economic data... well, I think a little more rationality might actually make the world a better place.
posted by harriet vane at 11:04 PM on March 5, 2012


However, that makes his arguments against religious thought who freely admit that god is an axiomatic assumption merely one of aesthetics.

This type of argument is the subject of a field called epistemology. It's different from aesthetics.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:32 AM on March 6, 2012


This type of argument is the subject of a field called epistemology. It's different from aesthetics.

In the best case, yes. In the case of Dawkins, no. There are few solid epistemological grounds to make the distinction between atheist and theist flavors of agnosticism, and his defense of atheist agnosticism is weighted on the premise that it results in more beautiful views of the world and better moral frameworks.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:20 AM on March 6, 2012


I think the grounds are pretty solid, actually. Well, presuming that when you argue about God you're talking about the personal, conscious entity with an agenda who created the universe out of nothing. If your concept of God is just "the set of things that are divine" for divine = something to do with your concept of cosmic significance, then all I can argue is you've chosen a crappy label for your set, such that it will be misunderstood a lot.

We still don't have good models for what persons are, nor how consciousness works. So if you assume that a personal God exists, you're also making a bunch of assumptions about persons and consciousness. Unstated assumptions are bad philosophy.

Now, suppose you go ahead and state those assumptions. Maybe God has a mind with all the computational abilities of the human mind, but extended to infinity, like how Turing machines are infinitely extended models of real computers. Whatever. Now you're making a bunch of strong, specific assumptions about something that's outside of the universe, and therefore unobservable.

While a priori assumptions aren't actually verifiable, it might be possible to falsify them if you hold your assumptions to some standard of quality. For example, suppose you want your belief system to be "as true as possible," meaning that as many of your beliefs as possible are based on inferences and observations that you can falsify, and for those you can't falsify, you can at least be very sure of what they state and imply, so you can be adequately sure that others who claim to share your beliefs actually do share those beliefs, and you can falsify the implications of your beliefs in order to detect flaws in the beliefs themselves. Since non-falsifiability is a liability, the number of a priori assumptions should be as small as possible.

God is poorly defined. His properties are rarely agreed upon even by members of the same religion. Schisms happen all the time.

God's implications are not clear. Is He still around, watching us? Does He have a plan for every event in the universe or just a few? There's no way to resolve those questions, either by argument or experiment. So you end up making even more a priori assumptions.

This will all make building a worldview around God very difficult... well, supposing you want a philosophically rigorous worldview. I mean, I'd certainly like to be able to make moral decisions based mainly on reason and not on paging through a fat stack of arbitrary rulings on God's intentions for us. I guess most people don't?

That's bad epistemology right there.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:56 AM on March 6, 2012


Well, presuming that when you argue about God you're talking about the personal, conscious entity with an agenda who created the universe out of nothing. If your concept of God is just "the set of things that are divine" for divine = something to do with your concept of cosmic significance, then all I can argue is you've chosen a crappy label for your set, such that it will be misunderstood a lot.

I'd call that to be a big problem right from the start given that quite a bit of modern theology is better described by the second concept than the first. I'll agree that "god" is a crappy label for things like the philosophical constructs of Spinoza and his heirs, and probably Brahman and Tao as well. But it's those constructs that the usual arguments for atheism are weakest against.

While a priori assumptions aren't actually verifiable, it might be possible to falsify them if you hold your assumptions to some standard of quality. For example, suppose you want your belief system to be "as true as possible," meaning that as many of your beliefs as possible are based on inferences and observations that you can falsify, and for those you can't falsify, you can at least be very sure of what they state and imply, so you can be adequately sure that others who claim to share your beliefs actually do share those beliefs, and you can falsify the implications of your beliefs in order to detect flaws in the beliefs themselves. Since non-falsifiability is a liability, the number of a priori assumptions should be as small as possible.

That's not the argument that Dawkins has been making lately when he invokes entirely non-falsifiable notions of beauty and interpretations of the anthropic principle in support of his atheism. I agree with his claim that biology is beautiful because it's a naturalistic system in a huge universe that might be one of many universe. But that's not an epistemological claim, that's an emotional and aesthetic one.

On an axiomatic level, I don't think that theistic claims such as a prime mover or a transcendental schlub that explains the uncanny relationship between math and physical realities are unreasonable. (I'm a moral realist who recognizes that the axiom "suffering exists" is likely a non-falsifiable conceit.) I think calling those things, "god" usually leads to the kind of thought that attributes other dubious properties to it.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:46 AM on March 6, 2012


Well I wish Spinoza's name had come up when I first asked about non-theistic religion.
posted by harriet vane at 7:19 PM on March 7, 2012


But it's those constructs that the usual arguments for atheism are weakest against.

They're usually argued against by the invisible gardner analogy, because you've essentially defined god into being something meaningless which has no effect on the world. You might as well chuck the concept entirely.
posted by empath at 7:52 PM on March 7, 2012


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