On fundamentalism

Curious about the latest rash of misrepresentations of Dawkins, I’ve been re-reading The God Delusion in order to compare what he says with what people like John Cornwell and Mark Vernon claim he says.

First of all there’s the ‘he ignores sophisticated theology’ complaint, the ‘God is not an old guy in the sky, God is the ground of all fzzzwrkklppp’ complaint. He says right at the outset that he’s not talking about the more rarefied or ‘sophisticated’ ideas of god. Page 20:

My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists…In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.

That’s what the book is about – so the grandiloquent but empty oratory of Terry Eagleton and Chris Hedges is simply thrown away, because irrelevant.

Then there’s the question of hostility, and the tension between religion and science, and whether it makes sense to call him a ‘fundamentalist atheist.’ Page 284:

As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect.

That’s not a fundamentalist thing to say – it’s an inherently and searchingly antifundamentalist thing to say. Fundamentalists are not interested in changing our minds or in wanting to know all possible exciting things that are available to be known. It’s a perversion of meaning and of argument to claim that someone who defends the value of changing our minds and of wanting to know exciting things is a fundamentalist. It’s such a fundamental perversion of meaning that it’s hard not to suspect bad intentions.

Then there’s the issue of ‘moderate’ religion making the world safe for the other kind. Page 286:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

He could have worded that last sentence differently – he could have said ‘But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism to the extent that it teaches children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue’ – and that would have been better, because it may be the case that some ‘sensible’ religion doesn’t teach children that unquestioning faith is a virtue. But I think the basic idea is reasonable, and probably right, and well worth pointing out at a time when the word ‘faith’ is valorized all over the damn place.

This is not to say that the book is without flaws; I don’t think it is. I think in the effort to reach a broad audience, Dawkins uses a demotic language which sometimes becomes merely vulgar. But all the same, so far I’ve found quite a few passages that simply say the opposite of what Cornwell and Vernon and Alibhai-Brown claim he says.

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