Christian Long

Richard Dawkins: Militant Atheism

In TED Talks on April 11, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Reflection by KYLE M.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Richard Dawkins:  Militant Atheism

The core thesis driving Dawkins’s speech can be summed up by the irreverent invitation he offers as his closing statement.  In a grave, impassioned tone, he urges his immediate audience (along with the entire world) to “stop being so damned respectful [of religious beliefs].”

It’s an unmistakably bold declaration, no doubt spiked with enough potency to incite the roiling discourse Dawkins considers a necessity; in the presentation, he (convincingly) demonstrates that atheists are a tragically mute minority, and intends for his brand of tact-defunct sound bites (such as the claim that he wants for people to not only cease to respect religion, but to “stop being polite [about it]” as well) to inspire them to raise their voices, challenge theism, and increase the influence of the global intelligentsia. To those already possessing a deep-seated distaste for religious dogma, it’s indeed a persuasive call to arms; being free to openly and bluntly belittle an idea one deems absurd is predictably tantalizing, and it’s a right that most would agree should be afforded to every human being.

Still, before one begins stridently waving the flag of non-belief, an important issue must be tackled: is Dawkins’s methodology productive, and above all, beneficial?

As far as I’m concerned, not quite, and such is established by several of the points Dawkins himself makes. One needs look no further than the beginning of his speech, where Dawkins lays out a powerful proclamation: he suggests that the idea of a god never was a satisfactory explanation for the complexity of life, as a creative force would logically be more complex than the creation, thus “compounding” the problem. It’s a sound argument, and one I have no qualms with; yet, ironically, he proceeds to suggest that “evolution is deeply corrosive to religious beliefs”, implying that respecting the ideas is not needed to eliminate them: the key is, allegedly, to simply raise consciousness of the facts.

The contradiction is evident, and indicates a fundamental misunderstanding on Dawkins’s part about why religious beliefs are clung to in the first place. If the god hypothesis was never a valid explanation for complexity, then it was not formulated due to being logical; it must have been an easy answer that provided comfort and purpose, two of humanity’s most sought-after goals. Why, then, would the rational nature of evolutionary biology sway anyone’s opinion by itself? Such suggests that the idea of god spread due to being the logical option, which Dawkins himself refuted. There is clearly a value to the idea that transcends the explanatory; therefore, if the beliefs are to be “out-grown” by mankind, hitting people over the head with science will not suffice.

The conspicuous misunderstanding balloons as the presentation rolls on.

“There is no rational reason that these beliefs cannot be criticized,” complains Dawkins (somehow missing the blatant conclusion that criticizing such ideas with cold rationality won’t be met with an equally rational response). His assertion is correct, but he spends no time asking WHY criticism is still taboo; the answer is that, even though it is without justification, people place infinitely more significance on religious beliefs than common conceptions. If someone insists that one has a pen in his/her pocket, yet he/she reveals that it is a pencil, the individual in error has little reason to deny they’ve been proved wrong (other than arrogance); religious notions carry far more weight, providing the masses with hope and lessening trepidation towards death. In order for these cherished ideas to dissipate, careful tactics must be employed; asking someone to discard them simply based on evidence is a bit much for the average human, as demonstrated by our species’ innate tendency to swallow any information that conforms to our personal narrative, yet harshly scrutinize dissenting data. To use Dawkins own words, one must “sugar the pill” to get a message across; might respect and politeness be adequate?

Dawkins ends his speech shortly after sharing a pithy anecdote on the life of Darwin; a moment I wish Dawkins spent more time ruminating over, as it gets to very heart of my objection more than I ever could. Darwin claims to a contemporary that he wishes to not be called an atheist; rather, he feels he should be labeled an agnostic. The colleague replies, “Atheist is agnostic writ aggressive.”

Darwin’s simple retort?

“Why should you be so aggressive?”

I hold no problems with Dawkins goal for a more enlightened tomorrow; nevertheless, to suggest that respect and politeness be shoved from our discourse on religion could not be a more counter-productive means to this end. Being strident only fits within the pre-conceived notions the religious hold about atheism, and being purely logical won’t change beliefs held for reasons contrary to such; compassion, empathy, and understanding are the keys to opening minds. Arguing with the religious without regard for tactfulness will simply add fuel to the fire and further entrench their position; to acknowledge their beliefs as natural and to carefully make one’s own aware to them with kindness is how change is made.

If and when Dawkins realizes this, his eminence could yield far more than books simply preaching to a ready choir; until then, the debate will remain as stagnant as usual.

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  1. […] a previous TED Talk I analyzed, I devoted a large portion of the write-up to firmly disagreeing with the speaker, Richard […]

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