November 29, 2006

The War on Dawkins

Speaking of Richard Dawkins (see my recent post), it appears that his in-your-face antics have caught the attention of the South Park guys. Dawkins may view this as a positive development, thinking that it will help spread the word about atheism. I'm not so sure. I fear that this episode may end up being an important warning to atheists that insulting people may not be the best way to change their minds.

I have not read The God Delusion yet, but I plan to start it soon. I have read other books by Dawkins, and I generally like what he has to say. However, I do have some questions about how he says it. If his intent is to write solely for atheists, then bravo - change nothing and keep writing. However, if he wants to persuade believers to embrace reality instead of superstition, then I fear his approach may backfire.

News of the South Park episode suggests that Dawkins is already earning a reputation as an abrasive ideologue. In The Revealer article, Daniel Sorrell writes, "Dawkins’ strident, aggressive brand of atheism and his haughty poise undercut an argument that would be more persuasive if made in a cooler, more judicious tone." According to Sorrell, South Park is attacking Dawkins because his approach has crossed from science into extremist ideology, making him no different from the dogmatic believers he criticizes.

I understand this criticism, but I have to point out a vital difference between Dawkins and the religious extremists. His views are based on reality rather than myth. That is, the core of his belief system is rooted in empirical data derived through the scientific method and refined by the self-correcting discipline of science. In contrast, the religious believers rely simply on faith. Their beliefs have no basis in, and are often in direct conflict with, reality. Thus, if we are to compare Dawkins to religious extremists, we must focus exclusively on his style. There are simply too many other important differences.

Is it true that Dawkins would be more influential if he wasn't quite so antagonistic? Probably, but he certainly would not be nearly as well known. My fear is that if Dawkins ends up becoming little more than a caricature, his worthwhile views will be dismissed without provoking the sort of meaningful dialogue they might otherwise yield. Worse, this effect could spread to other atheist authors.

For more on this topic, see Daylight Atheism and Pharyngula.

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