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.