Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Logical Path from Faith to Extremism

This post was triggered by Richard Dawkins' words in his debate with John Lennox in The God Delusion debate (the relevant portion is from 1:11:56 to 1:15:22). I recommend watching and listening to the full debate. The audio transcripts are available here.

In this post, I disagree with Dawkins, and present my response to Prof Lennox's statement.

Dawkins quotes John Lennon ("Imagine ... a world without religion", etc.) in the beginning of his book The God Delusion. Prof Lennox asked the audience to imagine one without atheism too, in which there would be no Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot (all Marxist atheists) to burn the temples and torture the believers. Prof Dawkins then responds by saying that atheism is less harmful than theism. He says to the effect that acceptance of theism as an article of faith is worse than the acceptance of atheism because there exists a logical path from theistic faith to extremist violence, whereas atheism does not lead one to violence on its own.

I disagree, with a proviso. I think any belief system is separative, whether it be theism or atheism. Now it can be argued - successfully, I think - that atheism is not a belief, it is the absence of a belief in God. However, it is a viewpoint, whether it be a belief or a lack of belief. And this viewpoint has many vehement backers and propagators. Atheism is a movement today which seeks to convert people to its viewpoint just like religious groups seek to convert people from other religions.

Now while I agree with the content of atheistic viewpoint ("There is no God"), what I find puzzling is Richard Dawkins' seeming obliviousness to the hatred many atheists have towards believers. Richard Dawkins himself uses the words "petty", "nutcases", "lunatics" for theists and creationists in his arguments.

Might one not conclude that it is possible for someone vehemently attached to the atheistic view to logically proceed from disapproval to verbal violence to physical violence? This conclusion is possible. I am quite confident that Richard Dawkins won't come to blows with John Lennox, but it is possible for some people (the mentally weak and unbalanced ones, whom Dawkins wants to protect from indoctrination), who choose to wear a cloak of blatant atheism and wish to teach a lesson to the benign and harmless theists in society.

The problem is that our selves are emotionally invested in our viewpoints, and disagreement is an assault on our sentiments. Whether someone believes in God or not, he exists as a separate "self" with certain precious feelings. His feelings and self can get hurt. An atheist's feelings, for example, can quite possibly get hurt if someone criticizes his viewpoint. This emotional investment in our viewpoints is the more important issue facing humanity, and not what our viewpoint is (which is also important). The validity of viewpoints is very important, but a person with a valid intellectual viewpoint is not very different, in his essential animal nature from one with an invalid intellectual viewpoint.

People can come to blows over the simple choice of a hotel room, because they are emotionally invested in their opinions and because they view disagreement as hostile behavior.

Though, to be fair, there is some truth to the fact that religious people fight not just because of an emotional attachment to their belief or viewpoint, but also because their scriptures and leaders actively command them to tame or kill the heretics and the philstines. To that, I say that religious commandments are not ab initio, their perversity is not incidental, their perversity is because belief invariably seeks to infect others, and passionately so.

Atheists are not content with being atheists. Aside from the valid concerns about education, evangelism and about children being denied the virtue of scepticism, atheists are usually quite impudently eager to engage in a debate about the existence of God with unwilling believing adults. If faith be private, let it be. If someone is infecting impressionable others with a questionable belief, then by all means counter it with reason and debate and high level policy changes, but not with vehemence or hatred.

Even then, if the impressionable others be adults, let them be. It is reasonable to do some research about the belief system, or about the scripture, or the spiritual group, and publish one's findings, but to actively seek to convert others to atheism smells like evangelism to me.

Hence, my response to Prof Lennox is: Faith in a commandment and passionately intolerant attachment to a viewpoint both lead to violence and oppression, whether it be an atheist or a theist. Religion is obviously a faith, and doubly, it can be fanatically intolerant at times. Atheism is not a faith (it is the lack of one), but people who are atheists can be fanatical and intolerant as well. The violence in Communist regimes, if due to being Marxist-atheistic, was the oppressive violence of intolerance, and not the violence of atheistic injunctions (there are none).


cg said...

This must be an interesting watch. About what you presented:
'Atheists are not content with being atheists' - I think this is too generalized. In general, people may not be content with being who they are and might aurgue and justify themselves bcoz of their very nature, but it doen not seem to have much to do with athiesm i think. There may be a percentage of believers who are content with thier belief and do not go out there to validate or justify or make others convert and same way there wud b a perecentage of athists who are fine and content.
However i agree with what u concluded that atheists can be equally fanatic and intolerant (just bcoz faith or no faith, attachment to a viewpoint is a human tendency)

pankaj said...

there are other ways in which atheism can lead to violence. one logical thought progression of a lack of belief in a higher authority is a rejection of conventional moral values (violence is bad, compassion is good, world peace is an ideal worth pursuing). i am an atheist and not particularly violent, and it seems to me to be perfectly logical to go that way.

i dont think prominent atheists like hitchens and dawkins do a very honest or thorough job of debating religion - the debate is mostly about refuting religion as objective truth and steam rolling the opponent (hitchens arguments almost always appeal to the emotion than reason). i think it really is a question worth considering - has religion been a good overall social force, and would the world really be a better place with only atheists?

check out the following excerpt of a debate between hitchens and chris hedges - an rare example of a believer showing immensely more wisdom than an atheist.


Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Pankaj,

Thanks for your response. You are quite right. Religion has morality built in (whether it be due to scriptural authority, or fear of God, or love of God, or love of one's fellow human beings for being in the image of God, or seeing God in everything around us).

However, keeping theism and atheism aside, can one not simply understand that malice and aggression and violent intolerance are self-centered responses bring unnecessary pain to others, and to me as well? Most of us do understand this, but we are unable to "control" our dark sides enough, so morality etc. becomes essential to make us civilized.

Neither atheists or theists are innocent, as in free of malice.

Innocence is not possible as long as "I" am there with the animal passions and social identity.

Religion gives a reason, or commandment, for us to love others. But if one removes the source of malice in oneself, all these injunctions and efforts to love are superfluous, redundant, unneeded. Then one is benignity and benevolence and fellowship regard personified.

Love and compassion feed on malice and separation, whereas in the absence of both these polar opposites, what remains is a simple regard and care of all that one interacts with, since there is no "me" to pollute one's interactions.

Harmanjit Singh said...

You might also find pertinent the following review of the film "Religulous", it vindicates my assertions in this article:


In this film, Bill Maher goes around the world poking fun at, and ridiculing, theists and in general being a less than stellar example, to put it mildly, of what fellowship regard is for an atheist.

pankaj said...

"can one not simply understand that malice and aggression and violent intolerance are self-centered responses bring unnecessary pain to others, and to me as well?"

morality does not necessarily follow from common sense. it does not follow logically from atheism that "unnecessary pain to others" is no be avoided. avoidance to pain to oneself is obviously sought by all, and also pain to ones close ones, as that is immediate and isntictive.

general good, or good for the stranger, has to be somewhat philosophically grounded. one may pursue general good, or uphold existing values to ensure there is no social reprisal, but that always leaves a person free to do anything where there is no reprisal.

i wonder sometimes, if religion is an attempt to install a mellowed "software" on the instinctive hardware of humans. but obviously it is not simply that, as it is also a vehicle of power etc etc.

hedges would say that the concept of morality, love in the face of hatred, altrusim, equality of all, owe a lot to christian theology, and have done a great deal to civilize humankind.

hitchens would say solidarity, love, compassion are universally essential parts of the human nature, and religion has done more harm than good.

i dont know...

your statement that annhilation of "i" may be the most desirable way to end strife makes sense, but it seems hugely unrealistic to follow as a civilizational objective. thanks for the link, checking it out.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Pankaj:

"your statement that annhilation of "i" may be the most desirable way to end strife makes sense, but it seems hugely unrealistic to follow as a civilizational objective."

# It is quite hard, you are right, to question one's beliefs and to whittle down one's passions. But hard or not, this questioning and investigation seems to me to be essential.

Maybe, as time goes by, we will inflict our future generations less and less with separative, emotion-fed beliefs, and provide more and more examples of adult personifications of benign felicity (instead of the current universal population of passionate, emotional adults who live as a psychic "I"). I am not holding on for that hope, but it is a possibility, and seemingly the only one which allows true peace.

Till then, let the social checks and balances (including the various forms of morality) continue as an interim solution! They are well-meant, including the religious commandments.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi cg,

"I think this is too generalized. In general, people may not be content with being who they are and might aurgue and justify themselves bcoz of their very nature, but it doen not seem to have much to do with athiesm i think."

# Right. Passionate belief invariably seeks to infect and convert. I was making the statement in the context that Dawkins set ("Atheism is better than theism."). "Not being content" in this context means wanting to convert others to one's viewpoint.