Monday, June 4, 2007

Zia Haider Rahman on Aggressive Atheism


Zia Haider Rahman, a British writer who was born in rural Bangladesh and educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Munich universities, has an interesting take on the rise of aggressive atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, among others in the Guardian's Comment is Free group blog:

A few years ago a friend of mine, a young Jew, died. His friends and family gathered in a north London cemetery on a misty winter morning. While we waited, a member of the congregation approached us offering a skullcap but apologising for having only one to spare. I reached out, grasping for it. One of the huddled group of friends joked that I'd probably feel warmer. "No," I replied, fixing the tiny cap on my head, "I feel less naked before God." To my ears here and now, my response sounds a little pompous, but at the time it was an immediate reaction, unmediated by reflection. It came from the gut. I am not a Jew. I cannot even describe myself as a religious person. But on that cold morning what seized me was something primal.

What must be apparent to anyone with any sensibility of the frailty of human beings (this might exclude Dawkins) is that faith can help in times of distress. Life is hard for many people, and very hard for everyone because of death. In the face of suffering, the Dawkins Brigade have little more to offer than their seething hostilities.

Criticisms of Dawkins and other atheists are of two kinds. The first kind, the province of those with a religious bent, is simply that religious beliefs are true, not false. Those who hold this view, such as Inayat Bunglawala, must reject Dawkins' claim that the case for religion is felled by the sword of reason, either because they believe that adequate counter-arguments are available or because they reject the relevance of reason in determining the case for faith, which brings them to the second kind of criticism, advanced even by atheists such as Martin Kettle. This second criticism asserts that Dawkins is stepping outside the realm of science and addressing questions of meaning and purpose, which are questions that science cannot answer. Arguably, the second criticism is not in a distinct category: one rationale for holding this position is to clear the way for a theistic perspective.

I don't know about the first but the second criticism is unfair. Rather than straying outside their terrain, antitheists are telling us that our craving for purpose and meaning is itself the seed of our rational downfall. The question is futile to begin with, they say. The world of the scientific materialist is not inhabited by such questions. Evolution itself is utterly bereft of design, purpose and meaning; its engine is undirected, random mutation. The materialist worldview is that of matter alone, with no place for anything else, so that even the notion of free will - the cornerstone of questions of meaning and purpose - is to them laughable. In their world, free will is an egotistical fancy, "a trick of perspective", as the philosopher John Gray described it. (Indeed, evolutionists demolish free will by arguing that our attribution of free will to others is itself only a genetic adaptation that helps us as social animals seeking to influence other humans to do things for us.)

The antitheist paints a dismal world, which may yet be accurate, but his or her mission of conversion is doomed. In the final analysis, it is by the reckoning of his own creed - of humans as creatures of evolution - that Dawkins is found to be ineffectual. Humans are disposed with a religious instinct. What else explains our elaborate burial rituals all the way from cavemen who could barely walk to modern humans who can fly?

If the impulse for religion is in our bones, then the antitheists' angry rebukes today will leave no enduring impression. What comes with the wind, goes with the rain. For whatever the religious instinct is, whether it is a blessing of natural selection or a mischievous spandrel, each new generation, for generations to come, will be born with the instinct intact. And since our genes are so selfish that they don't care a whit for the wisdom of Dawkins, the religious instinct will persist until evolution, not Richard Dawkins, takes us in another direction.


Read it all.

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