In which I use some unnecessarily inflammatory hypothetical examples à la Dawkins


‘Look at all the atrocities carried out in the name of religion’, you say.

That’s fine. It may be a bit of an oversimplification, and ‘in the name of’ isn’t exactly synonymous with ‘solely because of’, but I am happy to concede that heaps and heaps of really shitty things have happened, and continue to happen, in the name of religion.

And, hey, I’m an atheist. Or—if you’re of the opinion that ‘agnostic’ is a useful term—as close as one can reasonably be to an atheist; about a 6.9 on Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability scale. Additionally, I’d count myself within the ranks of ‘antitheists’. (For those of you who are new, this is a term coined by the late Christopher Hitchens in order to differentiate himself from those who, despite non-belief, consider the idea of a deity to be a nice one.)

Thing is, though, you can’t measure the numbers of atrocities not committed because of religion. You also can’t measure the number of atrocities that might have been committed.

For every Qutbi terrorist who blows himself and a bunch of other people up in the hope of reaching Paradise, there may be ten—while we’re dealing in offensive stereotypes here—Kentuckian farmboys who don’t fuck their baby sister because of the fear of God put into them by their local pastor.

Those are arbitrary examples*, and in no way an argument for Christianity over Islam. Nor do they say anything about the existence of a ‘higher power’. They do, however, make the religion-as-force-for-good argument a bit more complicated than the last Hitchslap compilation video you watched would have you believe.

‘Well, you can’t measure things that haven’t happened, Stupid.’

Sure, but just because we have no way to definitively measure potential things, it doesn’t make them non-things. That’s a bit like saying: ‘We bring in money from sales, a lot of which goes towards covering our operating costs. But, since we don’t have the encryption key for the drive on which our operating-cost figures are stored, we’ll just assume everything we bring in is pure profit.’

It’s tempting to say that a potential outcome avoided is just one of an infinite number of hypothetical eventualities; and that’s true, but—just as with Dawkins’ probability scale—they’re not all equally likely.

If you want to say you’re anti-religion because you ‘Fucking Love Science’, that’s all well and good, but don’t then go and unscientifically skew the numbers. All that does—and it absolutely has done—is invite the conflation of science with post-9/11 xenophobia and nationalism. Just look at the YouTube success of someone like Pat Condell; he’s basically a textbook BNP loon, but he’s been gifted a facade of reason by the arguments put forward by Dawkins et al.

A little background on the ‘Four Horsemen’, for the uninitiated:

  • Richard Dawkins is undoubtedly one of the greatest science communicators ever. The Selfish Genewas brilliant—even though the title was always going to provide ammunition for people who hadn’t read it to argue against its thesis, not to mention the dreadful ‘Nice Guys Finish First’ chapter redefining all borderline-sociopaths as ‘nice guys’ and any actually nice guys as ‘suckers’—and The Greatest Show on Earth remains my all-time favourite book. The God Delusion is pretty good, too. For mine, in terms of the glut of mid-2000s anti-God books, it’s the pick of the crop. It isn’t perfect, though. Not even close. And it certainly isn’t a science book. Also, Dawkins unironically endorses the suggestion that atheists refer to themselves as ‘Brights’, so he absolutely deserves every ‘your a dick’ he receives on Twitter.
  • Christopher Hitchens was always entertaining, a brilliant orator, and certainly the greatest debater I’ve ever seen. I also give Hitch a bit of a pass because he readily admitted that, given the choice, he would not get rid of religion, saying he enjoyed the argument too much. Religion was a huge cash cow for him and he knew it. I suspect he didn’t believe in half of the stuff for which he passionately argued, and it doesn’t matter one bit. Granted, Hitch 22 was tedious, as was Letters to a Young Contrarian, but most of his written work was thought-provoking and wonderful, even when horribly misguided. Yes, even that stupid Vanity Fair piece on unfunny women is worth a read, if only to illustrate how a little bit information on evolutionary biology can be dangerous. (Posthumous tip: you don’t think women are funny because you were brought up in a series of super-privileged British boys’ clubs, Christopher; same reason you and your mate Niall Ferguson reckon imperialism is so awesome.)
  • Daniel Dennett is probably fine. He seems nice enough. He gives good TED. A lot of his philosophical output is beyond me, but I will continue to persevere with it over time. Also, he’s a total ringer who’s just making up the numbers. Plus, that ‘great friendship’ Dawkins speaks of having with him seems kinda one-way.
  • Sam Harris is … well, Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, and they’re all a bit weird (just look at Blossom). His short Letter to a Christian Nation was slightly more reasonable than The End of Faith, but it was still a bit shit. Harris also a massive hypocrite in that he thinks that all mysticism is bullshit, except for the Zen Buddhism-style mysticism that he likes; he thinks Israel’s policy of Palestinian obliteration is secular in nature, but will twist himself in knots to blame Hinduism when a Tamil explodes; he thinks religion is terrible because of the violence it inspires, but he loves mixed martial arts and you’ll have to pry his collection of guns from his cold, dead hands. He also needs to stop spending all his time talking about Jainism in order to get laughs, only to then say, ‘and Islam is the opposite’, as if that is a serious argument and not just a lukewarm punchline he can deliver to audiences who have paid to hear him tell them what they already believe. (Y’know, because they’re free thinkers. You can tell they’re free thinkers because they’re at a Free Thinkers Convention, all agreeing with one another and telling each other the same two jokes about non-stamp collecting and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

*Okay, they’re super-extreme examples that are likely to piss a bunch of people off. I probably should’ve just kept it to X and Y.


About samquigley

I'm Sam Quigley.
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