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.