This is a follow up to my last post, which you should look at the comments on for some good comments by Wes. I’ve now read the part in Armstrong where she addresses Dawkins directly (from p. 304 of “The Case for God”):
For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.” Having set up this definition of God as Supernatural Designer, Dawkins only has to point out that there is in fact no design in nature in order to demolish it. But he is mistaken to assume that this is “the way people have generally understood the term” God.
In discussing Sam Harris, she says:
Like Dawkins and Hitchens, he defines faith as “belief without evidence,” an attitude that he regards as morally reprehensible. It is not surprising, perhaps, that he should confuse “faith” with “belief” (meaning the intellectual acceptance of a proposition) because the two have become unfortunately fused in modern consciousness.
I will concede the historical point to Armstrong and respect theistic leaning folks with subtle and well thought out belief systems. She mentions Heidegger-influenced recent theologians like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann as people whose views are totally untouched by new atheist critiques, and one of those guys might make for a good podcast episode. As a non-political thinker, I like to dig into views to try them on and see what can be got out of them.
What I’m churning about politically is this dispute re. whether what Dawkins and Harris are criticizing represents “the way people have generally understood” religion, or more relevantly, the way people generally understand it now. Dawkins is trying to get intelligent, moderate non-philosophers to challenge their religious sentiments and political deference towards religious sentiment. This is all in keeping with the Socratic project. His targets are real, and highly influential.
But aren’t the new atheists intolerant fundamentalists themselves who are not self-reflective enough to see that their belief in science and reason is itself a form of faith?
First, I don’t think trying to be “reasonable” in the wide sense involves a dogmatic assertion. Reason is far from perfect, but it seems to be all we’ve got. Adherence to scientific method a provisional hypothesis to me, and when it doesn’t work (as with the mind/body problem), then this is a challenge to cobble together something else (phenomenology was one strategy here). Also, while don’t think we can dogmatically and globally assert (per the logical positivists, and Quine, and Dawkins) that any question whose possibilities for real verification you can’t envisage isn’t a meaningful question, I’m willing to entertain that possibility for many individual questions that resist answers, and philosophy has thrown away many of these questions in its history (e.g. “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”).
Second, “intolerance” here needs to be cashed out in practical terms. Dawkins just means that people having discussions or making legal challenges shouldn’t just defer to someone’s unjustified opinion based on its being a religious belief. This is about intellectual practices, like the discussions re. the need for politically correct speech or about what constitutes the “reasonable center” in political dialogue. There’s no advocacy of violence here, or of denying religious people political rights. (Though this gets complicated; if we change the tax status of churches to put them in line with other non-profits, that would certainly be taken as a political attack on religion.)
Attacking religious extremist movements just makes them more extreme, however, and attacking moderate positions puts off potential allies against extremism, so isn’t this “political” speech self-defeating? Well, what I’ve been characterizing as political speech here invariably bleeds into the rest of philosophy: you’ve got to call it like you see it.