Richard Dawkins, Sherry Marquez, and Reductio Ad Absurdum

After Pat Robertson said that Haiti’s earthquake occurred because Haiti had made a pact with the devil, other Christians distanced themselves from his statement and had a different reaction: don’t worry so much about the question of theodicy, but help those in need and see God’s hand in those offering assistance. But this response from some Christians so irritated atheist Richard Dawkins that he declared himself with Pat Robertson (in his interpretation of what Christianity is really all about):

Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. . . . It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.

I think that Dawkins is in error to make Pat Robertson’s case for him, and here’s why: Most people who call themselves Christians are not in the grip of as many reductio ad absurda  as atheists would like to place upon them. This frustrates atheists because they think that the true Christian should follow the implications of their beliefs to the absurdities that they so obviously contain.

By contrast, I am deeply relieved that there are lots and lots of professing Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, Randians, environmentalists, and Leftists in the world who do not draw out their lives to the full implications of what they profess to believe. Yes, it shows incoherence at the heart of their belief systems. But it also shows an opportunity for change and reasonable moderation. I don’t think, for example, that those of us who profess to be atheists or agnostics should be encouraging religionists to follow reductio ad absurda. Whatever people profess to “be” (Christian, Muslim etc.), we should praise those among them who have the good common sense to sometimes stop their syllogisms short. G.K. Chesterton wrote that the madman is not the one who has lost his reason, but one who has lost everything but his reason.

Let me give you another example: atheism. There are more than a few people (me included) who have tried to point out to atheists that there is a slippery slope to Nietzschean nihilism and the will to power in atheism, but almost no atheist ever actually goes there. Why? Because most of them have the good sense to stop the atheist line of reasoning short of this (even though they could, if they looked at what they believed closely enough, land there). Likewise, a Christian that doesn’t sell all he has, and doesn’t read in the Bible a vindictive god, and thinks the Earth is old and not young, and doesn’t believe that hell is where most people go when they die—and still calls himself a Christian—is okay by me. I want a world of moderate people who reality test their ideas, and exercise a bit of common sense, and don’t just put their beliefs down upon the world like wind-up toys and let them run roughshod to their “logical” conclusions.

The truth is that all belief systems contain paradoxes and absurdities and ethical outrages if taken, in a certain way, to their logical conclusions. We want less people going through the world like Pat Robertson, blasting away (rhetorically or otherwise) at other people with their relentless and narrow “rational” syllogisms. Such people turn Obama’s health care ideas into “Bolshevism” and earthquake devastated Haiti into the sign of a nation “cursed by God.” But as Shakespeare’s King Lear says:

“No no! This way lies madness!”

And here’s where I feel sorry for Dawkins: he is, by wanting Christians to fall into the grip of their own reductio ad absurda, getting possessed by those very absurdities himself. He is making the argument for the fundamentalist understanding of scripture and is thus falling under the spell of his own “demonic projection”: religion is evil because when you follow the reductio ad absurda in it you arrive at great evils. But this is also true of atheism—and any other ideology set into practice by a maniac. Pat Robertson, Joseph Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, Rush Limbaugh, the Unabomber, and Glenn Beck are all ideological zealots in the grips of their own unique blends of reductio ad absurda. They are monomaniacal fanatics. It’s sad when Dawkins, as he ages—and obviously out of impatience—falls in with some of them to make his points about how evil certain things (like the Bible) can be. In short, I think it’s rather lame when people like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne start sounding like Sherry Marquez, reducing whole groups of people to cultural stereotypes who follow narrow and fanatical syllogisms to their most disastrous and ridiculous conclusions. Whatever their professed beliefs, most people (thankfully) have an instinct for pausing, surveying, and recalibrating their ideological positions to accord with changes in circumstances, and we need to make distinctions between those who do this and those temperamental zealots, in the grip of their own comforting simplicities, who don’t.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Richard Dawkins, Sherry Marquez, and Reductio Ad Absurdum

  1. storykeepr says:

    I’ve observed this for some time in arguments made by atheists; especially those of the Dawkins school, to promote the view that faith practitioners are devoid of reason.
    Some are founded on assumptions about the religious which are not always true. Assumptions like, for example, that most believe the earth is few thousand years old; that they reject the authority of science in explaining the physical world; that the anthropological explanations of belief systems and findings of evolutionary biologists have been unknown to the believing masses; or never contemplated by individual believers in their journeys of faith.
    What puts the atheist in a position to tell anyone what it is they believe, or should believe, esp. if the latter’s belief system is open to different interpretations?
    If the atheist’s theory rests on their unique interpretation of such a belief, or the beliefs of a fanatical minority, then it cannot be extrapolated to the entire population of religious people. It is inherently flawed. It is science behaving unscientifically.
    It is like trying to convince me that the earth is diamond shaped, by proving it is not flat, when I believe it to be round…It is like me pointing that out to you and you telling me that I in fact believe it to be flat…. because it is convenient, no necessary, for your point.
    Why don’t people call it what it is? I respectfully suggest that atheists, like non-atheists, may be susceptible to sheep-like behavior at times, and will utter a claim like ‘there is no god’ even when it is an unscientific deduction.
    Faith is not static; its practitioners experience paradigm shifts in their understanding and practice of it. Hence what Dawkin’s refers to as the ‘Christian tradition’ alludes to ‘fire and brimstone’ thinking which most Christians agree today, is contrary to the point of the ‘gospel’ (good news).
    Faith involves calculated choice as it does trusting in the unseen. It is remarkable that we are able to rationalize, understand, and argue back and forth about theories of our own behavior and still choose to engage our minds and imaginations in the way of faith. Faith allows for malleability –a universe of possibilities.. The capacity for it is one of the things that make us uniquely human.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Story:

    When you say—“Faith is not static; its practitioners experience paradigm shifts in their understanding and practice of it”—I think you’ve hit it on the head.

    Religionists try to set up straw men against atheists and atheists try to set up straw men against theists—and the effect is to turn one another into reductio ad absurdum charicatures. The atheist must logically be the grossest immoral nihilist and the theist the crassest believer in young earth creationism. Of course, some such “creatures” really exist in the world—and have existed—but we need to make distinctions as well, and treat people as contingently formed individuals (which they are).

    —Santi

  3. J. J. Ramsey says:

    There are more than a few people (me included) who have tried to point out to atheists that there is a slippery slope to Nietzschean nihilism and the will to power in atheism

    I can understand how atheism could lead to something that might be called “nihilism,” for lack of a better term, since unlike many religions and quasi-religious ideologies, atheism offers no ultimate meaning (whatever that’s supposed to be), and atheism in and of itself doesn’t really offer much in the way of hope. That said, you seem to be implying that there is some sort of slippery slope to some kind of existential sadness or immorality, which is simply wrong.

  4. santitafarella says:

    J.J.:

    Refer me to a book or make an argument that supports your assertion that Nietzsche’s conclusion about what the death of God means is wrong.

    As an agnostic, by the way, I think that there is also such a thing as religious nihilism—so I’m not picking on atheists per se. I think that religious nihilists are people who believe that God can behave like a devil and still be “moral” (because he makes the rules). I think that religious nihilism also comes into play when you say that this world is shit and that the other world justifies killing and being indifferent to what happens in this one. Also, when a religious person treats the suffering in this world as a “comma” or stepping stone necessary to arriving at a better world—I think this is nihilistic as well. I think these are all forms of religious nihilism.

    I really think that, ultimately, with or without God, moral justification is problematic, and that nihilism is what we are always fighting against or sublimating—whether as atheists, agnostics, or theists.

    What I like about Nietzsche is his honesty about this—and his willingness to look at it and draw out its implications.

    —Santi

  5. Matt says:

    I would argue that atheism doesn’t have the potential for reductio ad absurdum in the same way that religion does, because atheism isn’t a positive statement about the nature of things. Rather, it’s a rejection of one particular statement about the nature of things.
    Therefore to argue that this leads to *any* specific conclusion (such as nihilism) is simply fallacious, and any such argument is really driven by the particular worldview of the arguer.
    So Dawkins isn’t “in the grip of reductio ad absurdum”. He’s just pointing out that Robertson is in its grip, and in doing so Dawkins is pointing out the inherent absurdity of the religious worldview.
    This isn’t to challenge believers to be more fundamentalist, but to highlight the fact that a religious worldview isn’t necessarily worthy of automatic respect, as it so often receives.

    • andrewclunn says:

      It’s true that Atheism doesn’t lead to any specific claims, just as Theism doesn’t lead to any specific claims. but particular religions do and particular secular philosophies do. Dawkins is not simply, ‘an atheist’ he makes value judgments that clearly make him a secular humanist. So he is completely capable of being guilty of reductio ad absurdum. It’s simply that he’s not always willing to admit his premises. It’s true that Robertson is and as such his world view can be criticized. Since Dawkins isn’t though he’s hardly the man to tell Christians what ‘true’ Christianity must be.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    I agree with you that nobody is immune from the temptations of reductio ad absurdums. You see them in my posts all the time!

    —Santi : )

  7. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    Richard Dawkins has spent his whole adult life trying to remind us all that we live in a contingent and evolving universe—but when it comes to religion he is suddenly the crassest essentialist, siding with Pat Robertson, and saying that Robertson alone is the true representative of Christianity on earth (when it comes to Haiti).

    You’ve got to admit that’s a bit funny. Dawkins, in his effort to score a point against religion, is willing to follow it’s implications to the reductio ad absurdum of Pat Robertson—and Dawkins doesn’t even seem to notice that by doing so he has abandoned the idea that all phenomena—including religion—are contingent, and that things change over time.

    That’s what I mean by saying that Dawkins is in the grip of a reductio ad absurdum. He’s essentializing religion in a way that makes Robertson the necessary (rather than contingent) representative of it.

    I myself prefer Robert Wright’s book, The Evolution of God, as a more sensible way to think about and approach religion. For Wright, religion is a contradictory, contingent, and ever evolving phenomenon. A Chick tract and Reinhold Niebuhr are just two of its surprising and curious manifestations.

    Dawkins is boxing with fundamentalism in a way that he seems to be internalizing some of its most absurd premises.

    Dawkins, by the way, is engaging in the exact same move that Christian fundamentalists do with Muslims. Christian fundamentalists quote the Quran at Muslims and say things like this: “Here’s what it means, and to be a true Muslim you must take this or that verse to some reductio ad absurdum that confirms the worst thing that I imagine about you. If you don’t do this then you are not really reading or understanding how to practice your own faith, as I do.”

    —Santi

  8. Matt says:

    Santi,
    You’re missing Dawkins’ point.
    He would absolutely agree with you that religion is contingent.
    But the point he’s making is that the vast majority of religious practitioners *don’t* agree with this.
    You can have “sensible ways to talk about religion” all you like, but the fact remains that there are far more young-earth creationists than there are people who would appreciate the subtleties of Wright.
    I’d love to live in a world where Chick tracts and Reinhold Niebuhr are “surprising and curious” manifestations, but we don’t. We live in a world where someone like Sarah Palin can get within a breath of the US presidency on the back of people who think Chick tracts are the next best thing to scripture.
    Dawkins is addressing this particular consequence of religious belief by pointing out its inherent illogicality.
    It doesn’t matter that it’s not a *necessary* consequence of religion.

  9. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    I can’t really argue with your point—I basically agree. You can see by my last couple of blog posts at this site that I’m arguing with my own local “Sarah Palin” fundamentalist brigade. And to the degree that Dawkins makes life intellectually uncomfortable for fundamentalists, I’m more for him than against him.

    —Santi

    • andrewclunn says:

      Really santitafarella? Darn, and I thought we were actually going to agree on a topic this time. What Matt said implies that if something is statistically true, then it is okay to stereotype. Perhaps I should start saying that all atheists are communists or socialists (if most of them are, therefore I should conclude that ALL of them are.) Perhaps I should start believing that all black people are poor, simply because the majority of them are.

      If I can’t have the maturity to say that such a broad term as Christian can’t and shouldn’t be defined by one individual to represent all those individuals then I’ve missed out on a very important lesson in life. I disagree with Pat Robertson because of what he said.

      I don’t need to try to use it as a platform to attack all Christianity. That’s a straw man. If I want to attack only the fundamentalist Christians that agree with him, then attacking his statements and his beliefs alone should be sufficient to do so. Label driven, line in the sand, bigotry won’t convince anyone of anything.

  10. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    Actually, when you put it the way that you did, I agree with you too. But I think that the thrust of Matt’s point is that fundamentalism is a real problem, and in the contingencies of our historic moment (circa 2010) it dominates the religious field, and so it’s a little indulgent of me to split hairs with Dawkins and insist on noticing that Christianity also produces Reinhold Niebuhr. In an ideal world, I want to treat everyone as individuals, and avoid prejudicial generalizations, and that’s what I’m working toward in the way I talk about religion. I think that Matt is simply pointing out that to do that is to self-blind oneself from the dominant thrust of a real and present social threat that should be pushed back against vigorously. Like you, I think that can be done by making distinctions. If I’m criticizing fundamentalists, I’m criticizing fundamentalists, not religion or Christianity or Islam generally.

    In Ayn Rand’s book, For the New Intellectual, her lead essay is titled, “Atilla and the Witch Doctor.” If you’ve never read it, and you have that book, I’d be curious what you think of it. When I was a teen fundamentalist, that essay had a huge impact on me. I’m so thankful for Rand’s bluntness in that essay, and it sounds very much like Dawkins. It was enormously refreshing. It helped “break a spell” for me. She overgeneralizes about the nature of religion, but as a fundamentalist reading it, she woke me up. I think that’s how Dawkins arguably functions when he’s encountered by some fundamentalists: the overgeneralizations actually hit their target IF you are reading Dawkins and you are a fundamentalist (but those are big ifs). For everyone else, he seems to be shooting fish in a barrel and overgeneralizing.

    —Santi

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