A response to my recent column on Dawkins

Quite often, I get letters regarding one point or another in my columns. Sometimes they are complimentary, while more often, they are not. Seldom, however, are they worth reprinting. I got a note today, however, that I thought was provocative enough to post here.  Below is this gentleman’s note to me, followed by my response.

More food for thought.  CDP

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Dear Mr Piatt, 

I am moved to respond to your recent column on Richard Dawkins primarily because of the last two paragraphs equating faith-based fundamentalism with rationalism.  Coincidentally, Dawkins has an article answering his critics in the October/November issue of Free Inquiry addressing  this tendency on the part of people of faith to believe that a dedication to reason is just another form of fundamentalist faith.  Here are the relevant passages:

It is all too easy to mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Fundamentalist Christians are passionately opposed to evolution, and I am passionately in favor of it. Passion for passion, we are evenly matched. And that, according to some, means we are equally fundamentalist. But, to borrow an aphorism whose source I am unable to pin down, when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal force, the truth does not necessarily lie midway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong. And that justifies passion on the other side.

Fundamentalists know what they believe, and they know nothing will change their minds. This quotation from a fundamentalist says it all “…if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.” It is impossible to overstress the difference between such a passionate commitment to biblical fundamentals and the true scientist’s equally passionate commitment to evidence. The fundamentalist proclaims that all the evidence in the universe would not change his mind. The true scientist, though, knows exactly what it would take to change his mind: evidence. As J.B.S. Haldane said when asked what evidence might contradict evolution, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” Let me coin my own opposite version of the fundamentalist’s manifesto. “If all the evidence in the universe turns in favor of creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediatel change my mind. As things stand , however, all available evidence (and there is a vast amount of it) favors evolution.” It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that I argue for evolution with a passion that matches the passion of those who argue against it. My passion is based on evidence. Theirs, flying in the face of evidence as it does, is truly fundamentalist.  

This ends the quotation. What follows are my own thoughts.

In the next to the last paragraph of your column you imply that the rationalist has some responsibility of proving the nonexistence of God. Not so. The burden of proof rests with the person making the assertion. It is not up to the rationalist to prove the nonexistence of a figment of the faithful’s imagination. You also imply that the rationalist cannot prove the nonexistence of God. Not so again. The more clearly defined a deity becomes the easier it is to disprove his existence. It is childishly easy to show that the God of the bible cannot possibly exist.

A final note. I encourage you to pick up a copy of the Free Inquiry mentioned above. At the end of the article quoted there is a passage from Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow   that is one of the most inspiring and uplifting statements on the human condition you will ever see.

Sincerely,    D.T.

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(My Reponse to him)

Dear DT:

Thanks for your response. I think, perhaps, that you perceived a couple of the points made in my article differently than I intended.

My comparison of Dawkins to fundamentalists was, in my mind, regarding their seemingly shared interest in eradicating the viewpoints of those other than those they themselves hold. I don’t begrudge Dawkins being a rationalist or an atheist. My concern with him in the public forum is that he prefers to erect barriers to discourse and draw lines, whereas Krauss is more content to use his own knowledge to help enrich others’ understanding.

One of my other concerns about Dawkins’ sentiments is that he holds little or no regard for someone who maintains a view that is not based upon reason. I respect that he holds to the process of reason as sufficient to explain all phenomena in the universe, and that to do otherwise is feeble-minded. I would argue, however, that reason, rather than being an inviolable, universal constant, actually is a construct of human consciousness, as is faith.

Further, to suggest that I claim Dawkins must prove the nonexistence of God would be off-base, I think. What I claim is that he cannot (not that he must or should) prove the nonexistence of God any more than someone can prove the existence of God. Aristotle was far wiser than Dawkins, I believe, when he drew limits around the capacity of reason. He claimed that there is no way to use reason to discuss or lay claim to what existed “before” the universe, as reason by its very nature is bound by the properties of time, motion and matter. Now, Thomas Aquinas used this as a springboard to fit faith into the gap left by Aristotle, which clearly was not Aristotle’s intent. However, he understood that reason had its own limits, a concession which might serve Dawkins well.

Just a few thoughts before my brain goes too soft for the day. Thanks again for your note, and thanks for reading my column, even if it presents a point of view with which we don’t agree.  Incidentally, I’ll look for a copy of Free Inquiry.

Thanks,

Christian

3 Responses to “A response to my recent column on Dawkins”

  1. mrbungle says:

    Hey dude,
    Thought I’d put 2 cents in on this as I’ve been reading Dawkins and Hitchens lately. I think any characterization of these guys as “militant” or “fundamentalist” is way off-base namecalling. They simply espouse a passionate, and reasoned argument that just because there are gaps in our scientific knowledge, and of course there are huge gaps, doesn’t necessarily mean that those gaps are taken up by a god, or in any way mean that there is, or needs to be, a god to fill in the gaps. As Carl Sagan has said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Theism certainly falls into an extraordinary claim. Deism and pantheism maybe slightly less, but still to say that because we don’t know something, that something must be god, does seem to many as short-sighted and juvenile. I have to strongly agree with the response letter to your column, for at least one main reason. As a rationalist, my beliefs do nothing to harm anyone. There have been zero rationalist genocides or crusades or jihads. A believer however, those who have faith (all faiths), are actively intent on converting me, or killing me, or disenfranchising me, or any form of minimizing my existence, and have been since the beginning of each religion, much, as Hitchens contends, as the totalitarians do or have done. Believers all tend to, at least eventually, demand adherence to their beliefs or else. Rationalists would love to live in a world where we could all get along, believers and non-believers, but believers ALWAYS end up trying to convert or erradicate. That is why there is such a passionate response nowadays. Rationalists are actively trying to prevent any more theocracy.
    Devin

  2. Nyneve says:

    This interchange is fascinating. Good stuff. I love intelligent men. (Too bad, I only find dumbasses to date, huh?)

  3. cpiatt says:

    Dev:

    Maybe a bit of clarification about what I see in Dawkins as fundamentalist would be helpful. While I don’t see someone’s belief in no divine being as fundamentalist, I do perceive Dawkins’ particular strain of atheism as such. This is mroe to do with the fact that he seems to maintain that his (atheist) point of view is the only true legitimate way of thinking, and he even goes on the “attack” against anyone who believes otherwise.

    The sort of resolute, immovable and frankly arrogant approach the the discussion is what I see as fundamentalist in Dwakins, just as I see in those theists/deists who behave in similar fashion. So I agree that a purely rational or secular-humanist approach to the universe is not inherently fundamentalist – but Dawkins most definitely is.

    As an example in contrast, while I consider myself a Christian, I also consider myself “agnostic,” which simply means I don’t know one way or the other about the existence of God. No one does, and anyone who claims with authority to know for sure that God does or does not exist is a fundamentalist, by my definition.

    I do a reasonable amount of work with local groups in pueblo, some of whom define themselves as secular humanists and atheists, but we respect one another’s views. Though their views are not mine, they’re not fundamentalists. but one can be as much of a militant, fundamentalist atheist as they can be militant, fundamentalist Christians.

    And yes, the whole idea of religiously-fueled wars is a long-tested argument, but I would suggest that it’s the broader canopy of ideology, religion included, that’s responsible for most war. Ultimately, too, though religion may be the cloak of justification for war, it’s generally greed, lust for power, etc. that are actually the prime motivators.

    If I can find the citation for the Scientific American piece that was the basis for this original column, I’ll send it along. It contrasts well the more conciliatory tone of one of Dawkins’ atheist peers, and his fundamentalist approach to rationalism.

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