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The Dawkins Paradox

November 6th, 2006 · 3 Comments

The video below, in which Richard Dawkins interviews totally-not-gay-purchaser-but-not-user of-crystal-meth-from-studly-masseurs Ted Haggard, has been making the blogospheric rounds as evidence of Haggard’s looniness. (By the way, have you got your Pastor Ted T-shirt yet?) But while I essentially agree entirely with Dawkins on the substance of the argument here, I find myself reacting to the video in the same way as Radley Balko: He comes off as a huge prick too.

The odd thing is that this approach is at odds with Dawkins’ own theory of how ideologies spread and displace rival ideologies. Just as genes survive when they increase the propensity of their hosts to survive and reproduce, ideas survive and spread when they have features that make the evolved brains in which they live more apt to adopt and spread them—and these features may or may not have anything to do with the truht or reasonableness of said ideas. And Dawkins, as well as folks like Susan Blackmore, have built plausible accounts on this basis of why religions tend to be very good at getting themselves spread. And yet he seems to think that just hammering at people with the right arguments will finally cure us all of the theological virus.

Blackmore, on the other hand, suggests that one crucial component of religion’s success is that it tends to compel altruistic or helpful behavior, which makes the folk on the receiving end of that behavior prone to imitate the folks who exhibit it. And this meshes with my own experience. I’ve had a number of acquaintances and friends who started out more or less liberal come to hold political views closer to my own, but almost never, I think, primarily through direct political argument, let alone any kind of conscious and concerted effort at conversion. Rather, I think it’s been that if you spend a while hanging around a number of basically decent, non-crazy, reasonably intelligent people who believe X, then X enters the population of beliefs you regard it as acceptable for decent, non crazy, reasonably intelligent people to hold.

Persuading people to give up religious beliefs, then, is probably not so much a matter of convincing them that these beliefs are not supported by good reasons. People know that already—that’s why it’s called “faith.” Rather, it’s a matter of peruading people that you can be happy, successful, and moral without these beliefs. Religion is appealing in the first instance, I suspect, because the people firmly in its grip seem so often seem energized, kind, blissful. And Dawkins obviously understands this in theory, but explaining that you can find contentment and meaning without some great theological narrative is probably a lot less effective than just demonstrating it. Unfortunately, most religious memes contain an internal injunction to try to spread them; secularism doesn’t. So happy atheists are generally indifferent to what their neighbors believe, so long as it doesn’t result in hassle for them, and the evangelists end up being disproportionately combative sorts. Maybe secularists should start putting the same effort into pondering effective missionary tactics that Evangelical Christians do.

Tags: Sociology



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sandy // Nov 7, 2006 at 12:17 am

    I think there’s an incentive problem. If you’re an evangelical, you at least have the altruistic satisfaction of saving someone from eternal damnation, as well as the self interest of doing He Who Can Smite You Into Little Bits’s work.

    If you’re a secularist, your only motivation is to convince other people that it’s OK to leave you alone. There’s not the (after-)life-and-death element to it, so it’s never going to be as big of a motivator.

    As evangelism, simply having some sort of humanitarian relief charity under the secularist brant (SecularAid) with no preaching might accomplish the sort of goal you’re thinking about, but I’m not sure you could get enough secularists to join it as opposed to any other charity given the weak motivation.

  • 2 Nick Danger // Dec 2, 2006 at 10:40 pm

    ‘Persuading people to give up religious beliefs, then, is probably not so much a matter of convincing them that these beliefs are not supported by good reasons. People know that alreadyââ?¬â?that’s why it’s called “faith.”‘

    Um, well, no, that’s not why it’s called faith. It’s called faith from the Latin fides, which means to make a commitment to something. One needs “faith” in one’s exercise program if it is to work — that doesn’t mean one adopts it blindly, with no good reasons. Aquinas provides a good refutation of that.

    As always, Julian forwards the “freshmen community college philosophy class” understanding of religion.

  • 3 Nick Danger // Dec 2, 2006 at 10:46 pm

    Oh, and it’s interesting that, by Dawkin’s own standards (postulating, for the sake of argument, that he has any), he should be strongly pro-religion — after all, every single example of a society we can find surviving for any length of time has had strong religious beliefs.

    It seems that Dawkins has just unfortunately has caught a nasty “anti-religion meme” and can’t think through the implications of his own theories!