Monday, April 9, 2012

On Richard Dawkins

Walking through the National Mall two weeks ago, I was surprised to catch Bad Religion playing a set at the "Reason Rally", a "celebration of secular values" organized by a 501(c)(3) outfit called Reason Rally Coalition.  The headlining speaker at the event was evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins  Dawkins, the public face of what is often described - and what, I would argue based on his speech, is aptly called - "militant atheism".

The full text of Dawkins' speech at the rally can be found at The Daily Bluster.

In this post I want to analyze and critique passages form this speech that I find representative of certain problematic tendencies within atheist discourse in the industrialized West. These discursive tendencies are understandable, yet I argue that they need to be aggressively considered and addressed before the secularist political movement can come to maturation.  This discussion is not meant to be authoritative or particularly scholarly.  My goal is simply to voice a crucial perspective in an attempt to help construct the political movement as the greatest possible force for good that it can be.

Binary Logic in Atheist Discourse
Dawkins' rhetoric here, typical of his large body of work in atheist discourse, constructs a fundamental and insurmountable binary opposition between, one the one hand, the "science-reason-truth" complex and, on the other, the "religion-unreason-falsehood" complex.
"In a hundred years' time, it seems to me inconceivable that anybody could want to have a rally for reason. By that time, we will either have blown ourselves up or we'll have become so civilized that we no longer need it." (emphasis added)
 "Electromagnetic spectrum runs all the way from extremely long wave, radio-wave end of the spectrum to gamma waves on the very short-wave end of the spectrum. And visible light, that which we can see, is a tiny little sliver in the middle of that electromagnetic spectrum. Science has broadened out our perspective of that section to long-wave radio waves on the one hand and gamma rays on the other. I take that as being symbolic of what science does generally. It takes our little vision -- our little, parochial, small vision -- and broadens it out. And that is a magnificent vision for what science can do. Science makes us see what we couldn't see before. Religion does its best to snuff out even that light which we can see." (emphasis added)
I never did meet a binary opposition I liked.  But this is the heart of Dawkins' atheism: "science" and religion" are read as stable entities with fixed definitions (and fixed real-world effects) that are incompatible in essence.  The possible future scenarios envisioned in the first quote capture this binary opposition nicely.  On the one hand is salvation through modern science - the end-point of rational civilization in which the discourse of empiricist reason has finally triumphed, winning over or otherwise silencing all its opponents to become the basis of an idealized utopia.  The other option is not merely ruination, but final self-destruction at the hands of religion - of unreason - of falsehood.

Dawkins' envisionment of our possible future encapsulates his essentialist view of science so well because it clearly ties the well-being of the human race to the 'success or failure' of what Dawkins considers to be the 'essence of reason' - a 'civilizing force' that rights wrongs and universally improves conditions.  This envisionment does not take into account the wide multiplicity of ways in which forces of reason - the most important being science - alter the world.  Industrial pollution that affects only the poorest rural populations, nuclear proliferation, drone technology - for Dawkins, these examples do not fundamentally represent the essence of science, which is to do good.  No these phenomena would be seen as temporary perversions of science, bad apples that will sooner or later be fixed by true reason and brought back to the fold.

Science and Religion as Open-Ended Assemblages: What Do Science and Religion DO?
For my part, I advocate a non-essentialist view of both religion and science which acknowledges the historical and cultural contingency of their construction and of their real-world effects; which reads them not as necessarily opposed but as always already entangled with each other in uncountable places; and most importantly, as each doing a multiplicity of different kinds of work, without ever losing the potential to do other kinds of work.

Science and religion are open-ended assemblages of individuals (human and non-human), organizations, texts, instruments, populations, places, buildings, thought-concepts (ideologies), ....  The list doesn't end: it's open-ended.  What is science?  When one considers the huge multiplicity of ways that "science" is performed, one realizes that it can never be pinned down as a stable entity.  This realization is somewhat unnerving in the sense that we realize we aren't dealing with one "thing" that always necessarily "works in a certain way" - the  work science does is always up for grabs.  The same goes for religion, although the two are obviously not one and do not share the same structure.  But this is also a comforting realization in that we are never stuck with the temporal constructions of science and religion that we find: there is infinite possibility for rewiring to be done, for disparate elements to be connected by new practices, for energy to be rechanneled and desires reassessed, for old kinds of work to be replaced with new kinds - crucially, however, only by working authentically with what we already find, by maneuvering through and within preexisting systems and rules in order to eventually reformulate them.

I emphasize the idea of "work done" by these entities because as I see it, at the end of the day work is what we are concerned with.  Science and religion are not performed without the impetus given to them by the desire (but whose desire?  Ah, there's the rub...) for specific work.  This work could be the implementation of a more cost-efficient energy source; the destruction of weeds in an agricultural crop; the elimination of enemy combatants in a less dangerous manner; the social cohesion of a certain community; the imparting of hope into a populace; the supplication of God.

In order to problematize Dawkins' conception of the phenomena, I'm strategically invoking a radically different perspective in which "science" and "religion" are seen as arbitrary categories into which we segment the vast, infinitely differentiated but inextricably interconnected net-work being performed by human and non-human agents across space and time.  This is not to say that speaking of science and religion is meaningless - our language-culture imparts such discussion with unavoidable meaning - nor that it is useless.  Of course, the act of "calling-Science" which is performed whenever we see, for example, a man in a white coat pour the contents of one beaker into another beaker, is an incredibly useful act.  And of course, I don't refute the immense amount of beneficial work that the various assemblages (of assemblages of assemblages...) that we call science have done.  My point in calling attention to the open-endedness of science and religion - their quality of being always up for grabs in terms of what they consist of and what kinds of work they do - is to try to undermine the view that they are always necessarily opposite, foiling each other, incompatible, at war.

Viewed from this perspective (for which I am indebted to Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia), we can see both science and religion as fields of potential work, as forces that are already constantly interacting in complex and unpredictable ways according to micropolitics of a particular place and historical moment.  This perspective allows us to see through the dominant atheist narrative in which science always does good and religion always does harm to the more nuanced and realistic perception that both entities can potentially do both.  What I'm leading up to is the point that in order for the secular movement of reason and science that Dawkins represents to have the best possible real impact on the world - assuming that it does indeed have aspirations beyond merely chalking up points in intellectual debates - the many and varied interactions between the assemblages of science and religion need to be paid attention to and constantly tweaked through a sensitized approach.  The insistence that science and religion are now and forever fundamentally opposed and incompatible damages the potential that both these practices have to "do good".

What Do We Want To Do?
Dawkins', and the militant atheist movement he speaks to and for, has so far had a fairly limited conversation with religion.  Mostly, this has centered on debates about faith and belief.  The critique I offer is based on the assumption that Dawkins' rhetoric, as a strategic practice, is meant to produce tangible benefits in the real world; of course, it is entirely possible (indeed, it would explain much) that all he really wants is the simple satisfaction of attacking faith in a supreme being whenever possible - in which case this critique is moot.  Of course, without the underlying goal of producing tangible social benefit, Dawkins and his followers are simply another group of zealots out to collect as many converts as possible - even if their particular belief holds up a little better in the light of postmodern day than the alternatives.  But I am assuming this is not the case; that the "Reason" this respected scientist says things like the following, from the rally speech, is that he thinks that by doing so he will produce some tangible good in the world:
So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: "I don't believe you. I don't believe you until you tell me do you really believe -- for example, if they say they are Catholic -- do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?" Mock them! Ridicule them! In public! 
Don't fall for the convention that we're all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt. (emphasis added)
The problem with Dawkins' tactics is that religion is much more than faith and belief, just as science is more than the natural laws it discovers.  As I have struggled to explain, religion is most usefully conceptualized as an assemblage, an open-ended machine that operates through the connections between a multiplicity of different parts: individuals, organizations, places, populations, texts, politics.  No matter how strenuously or effectively one attacks a specific religious belief, the interaction is still inauthetic, pretending to be a triumph of reason over religion when in reality it is merely the triumph of one ideology over another (or, more accurately, merely one brain over another, at a specific place and instant in time).

Why do I say that atheist attacks on "religion" are inauthentic?  Because they don't make a serious attempt to interact with the reality of religion as it exists in the material world, to come to terms with it, to find solutions to real problems.  Much to the contrary, these attacks undermine possibilities for beneficial cooperation between various points on the secular-nonsecular spectrum (spectrum, not binary!).  What the industrialized West refers to as "religion" is intimately, inextricably, tied up with the culture and identity of a huge swath of human population.  It is both fallacious and, more importantly, harmful to see religion as a foreign or external entity that, some time in the distant or not so distant past, hijacked pre-existing cultures for dubious purposes.  Instead, we must recognize the instances when a religious practice is the outgrowth of expression of a culture, when religious practice is more an involvement in the social language of a place and people than in some intellectual "belief".  This allows recognize the times when by arrogantly insisting that science and reason can have no parliament with a certain religion, we risk being interpreted as saying that science and reason can have no place in the associated culture.

 All around the world, in countless different places and in countless different ways, work is being performed by the various assemblages that constitute "religion", many of which have only a faint or indirect link to the material fact of the belief-thought that Dawkins attacks.  Of course, I have no problem admitting that in many, many cases, this "work" is misguided, dubious, problematic, and needs to be ended.  A single, relatively cut-and-dry example is the recent instance in Gambia of "witch doctors" abducting and detaining villagers, forcing them to drink "potions" that caused diarrhea and vomiting.  But this is an incomplete picture.  As real-world entities, science and reason, too, have problematic histories of work done.  Science gives us (Westerners with access to good health care) advanced medical technology, but it also gave the ecosystems and populations of Vietnam napalm and Agent Orange.  It gives us cheap energy - and it gives mountaintop-removal to the poor of Appalachia.

Dawkins' presents a vision of reason that is monolithic and fixed.  But the reality is that what is reaosnable is always up for grabs, and secular movements need to recognize instructive instances where the problems of constantly deferring to "reason" show themselves.  For example, who is we're trying to help?  One reasonable answer would be "the human race".  So, what, then, we slash and burn the forests, empty the earth of oil?  Is it reasonable for us (indeed, who are we?) to make sacrifices in order to protect our resources for future generations of humans?  For future generations of other living beings? Is it reasonable to decide to preserve endangered species such as the Western Gray Wolf which reduce economic productivity by eating livestock?  If the pertinent question is, indeed, "what do we want to do", then the reaosnable answer is always up for grabs because "reason" is a practice that always starts with the assumption of premises that can be disputed.

From one perspective of reason, the answer to these questions is the affirmative; from other, equally valid perspectives, it isn't.  Since reason and science appear to reveal to us a world without objective values, questions of what we value cannot be escaped.  Reason isn't totalizing or totalizable.  Religion, as it is currently formulated, is not be the ideal assemblage to step into this gap and help us figure out what our values are; but then, it is already doing exactly that all over the world.  The machinic assemblage that is religion will not be prevented from doing work all over Earth in any foreseeable future - work of defining and informing cultures and reactions to other cultures; work of distributing economic benefits, work of education, and many other kinds of work.

Dawkins' response to this material, and the response of so many militant secularists, is summed up brilliantly by his injunction to "Mock them!  Ridicule them!  In public! ... if necessary".  This is the attitude of one who has chosen to deal with, make contact with, and converse with his own intellectual concept of what religion is ("religion makes specific claims about the universe", its essence is belief) rather than the living, breathing reality of "religion" and its various structures of power.

I propose that secularists in the sciences, humanities, and avoid producing and reproducing constructed conceptualizations of religion and reason in which the two are naturally and inescapably opposed and cannot productively work together for the greatest possible good (whatever we decide that is).  Dawkins' approach only makes sense if we decide that the greatest possible good simply consists in assuring that as many people do not believe in God as possible.  This is the approach of a zealot and fundamentalist.  I propose instead a consistent practice of sensitization (what is going on, what do we want to do, and how is the best way to try and do it?) rather than the de-sensitization of Dawkins' rhetoric ("Mock! Ridicule!").  My reading, and rewriting, of reason and religion is heavily indebted to the "rhizomatic" theoretical framework of Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus.  However, I stress that this issue is crucially practical and immanently important.  The effects of the relationship between reason, science, religion, and belief (to name a few actors) is already happening, already doing work.  All we have is our choice of re-producing it, so it is time the secular movement grew up and started thinking about the work it is doing.


  1. Jimi,
    This is a really interesting and well written article. While I agree with a lot of your basic premise, that much of the work of atheists is misguided and counterproductive, I think that several of the points that you make are off base.
    First I’m going to take issue with your assertion that “science and religion are open-ended assemblages of individuals (human and non-human), organizations, texts, instruments, populations, places, buildings, thought-concepts (ideologies), .... The list doesn't end: it's open-ended.” You ask “What is science? When one considers the huge multiplicity of ways that "science" is performed, one realizes that it can never be pinned down as a stable entity.” I’m going to ask you what an open-ended assemblage is. I tend to be extremely wary of descriptions that can mean anything. I gain no knowledge about science by thinking about it as “an open ended assemblage”. By saying that science is an open-assemblage, you do not define science. The thing is however, science is extremely well defined. For the purposes of the rest of this response, I will define science as indentifying an area of the universe about which one is confused ( and using testable, specific and reproducible procedures to produce an answer which is non mysterious ( If you read more on that site you will gain a better explanation of why calling science an open-ended assemblage is simply false.
    I’m also going to question the purpose of pointing out the bad effects of science. You point out that science has bad effects, but this should be obvious to any reasonable person. You won’t find many people that say that science is purely a force for good, but you will find many educated people saying that as a whole, the human benefits from science have outweighed its costs. And not just by a little bit, but by a staggering amount. I’ve suggested it to you before, but I really think that you should read The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. If you don’t have time to read a whole book on the subject, at least watch this Ted Talk The evidence seems to point fairly overwhelmingly in the direction that science has been a positive force for humanity. Yes, science has positive and negative aspects, but so does just about everything that can possibly happen. Just because science is not a perfect way to improve the human condition does not mean that it isn’t far and away the best method of doing so.

    Jason (this is part one it wont let me do it as one comment)

  2. Part 2

    I haven’t touched on religion at all yet, but I’m getting there. The problems with science, such as pollution are well known and being worked on by scientists. They realize that this is an issue, and are taking steps to prevent these issues. No pollution and very little violence was ever done “in the name of science”. The negative effects of science tend to be unfortunate externalities which scientists do their best to curtail. Contrast that to religion, where horrors such as the crusades and modern injustices such as the attempts to block gay marriage are done with religion at the forefront. While some religious people might say that these people were not truly religious, that their religion was not really responsible for these acts, they are falling victim to the no true Scotsman fallacy ( So even though both science and religion have had negative consequences, those from scientists are recognized, being dealt with, and do not stem from the core goals of science, while the negative aspects of religion seem to often come from the very core of what makes people religious (disclaimer: this is mostly about unreasonable religious people. I don’t feel like defining that right now but you know what I’m talking about.)
    You also claim that atheists believe that religion evolved separately from culture. While I am not extremely well versed in atheist readings, I can say that for myself that that is not true. I believe that religion was a central reason for humanity beginning to civilize and form culture at all. Without religion, I am not entirely sure that society could have developed. Just as I am not entirely sure that society could have developed without absolute monarchs. Yet the time when absolute monarchs were a benefit to society has passed. In my opinion, organized religion for the most part has passed its useful time as well.
    I know that you are going to say that science and religion are not incompatible, and I agree with you to a point. However, looking at the current state of American politics, and at the Church’s historical opposition to progress, I think that realistically we need to admit that science and religion, for whatever reason, are not compatible for many people. I know you said you don’t like binary oppositions, but the fact of the matter is that the radical right has made this a binary opposition. The increasing radicalization of America, exemplified by the Tea Party, has shown that a moderate and free thinking religious base is unlikely to appear any time soon.
    So where does this leave us? I agree with you that Dawkins goes too far in saying that people of faith need to be mocked. Mocking religion will accomplish nothing more than widening the gap between religious and non-religious people. I will also admit that on the personal level, religion provides much hope and comfort to many people, and I have no interest in taking that away. However, religion can no longer be accepted in any way as a method of formulating policy or regulating science. I can agree with you that religion is an assemblage, of which the negative aspects focused on by many atheists are but one small part. However, that small part is the part which is dominating the large scale influence of religion on the world. I can think of countless kind, genuine, intelligent religious people who are doing their best to improve the world. I cannot think of one time that religion in the political discourse has done any bit of positivity. So I think we should focus on keeping religion where its strengths are not only large, but immense. Strengths like community, charity and friendship. I have seen these strengths first hand. I admire them. But recognizing these strengths does not take away from the immense harm to humanity and to the planet if we allow religion to rule over science and the public discourse.

  3. I would say in response that I don't agree with the premises of your argument that I fall victim to a no true Scotsman fallacy. The Scotsman is a social construction like religion, but the fact of his more specifically territorialized and localized name, the existence of what a Scotsman is simpler to "define" than a term like "religion", "reason," "science". HOWEVER, even the term "Scotsman" doesn't hold up to a deconstructive view: consider harmful microbes that accompany (immune) people to a new place where there is little immunity. If this person is a "Scotsman" who carries the germs, he doesn't kill anyone. The microbes, a different species and different "indivudal [population]"s have actually killed the people. So does a true Scotsman do such a thing? It depends if you consider the microbes "Scottish".

    Similarly, your argument for the knowing but strategic enunciation of a constructed religion-science binary in regards to US politics seems valid. However, the situation is different around the world. For example, in post-Revolutionary Egypt today, a huge swath of the population supports the Muslim Brotherhood. The population as a whole is deeply embroiled, obviously, in a dominant culture of politicized Islam that pervades an enormous part of the globe. The party itself has a mixed record of conforming to what you and I would consider "political correctness". On the one hand, they claimL:

    ""We believe that the political reform is the true and natural gateway for all other kinds of reform. We have announced our acceptance of democracy that acknowledges political pluralism, the peaceful rotation of power and the fact that the nation is the source of all powers. As we see it, political reform includes the termination of the state of emergency, restoring public freedoms, including the right to establish political parties, whatever their tendencies may be, and the freedom of the press, freedom of criticism and thought, freedom of peaceful demonstrations, freedom of assembly, etc. It also includes the dismantling of all exceptional courts and the annulment of all exceptional laws, establishing the independence of the judiciary, enabling the judiciary to fully and truly supervise general elections so as to ensure that they authentically express people's will, removing all obstacles that restrict the functioning of civil society organizations, etc."

    On the other hand, though, they do not support a hypothetical woman or Coptic (Christian) president. But my point, and I think it is a crucial one, is that Dawkins' mistake is to reduce "the Muslim Brotherhood" to essentially an apparatus of Islam - which he identifies as certain "specific claims about the universe", in this case, for example, beliefs embodied by the Quran.

    But we also have to consider ways that Arab and Egyptian identities involve a language-culture-system that is inextricably bound up with "Islam" - in ways that range from the terrible to the tolerable. In many ways, despite its opposed status towards more liberal political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood can be seen as doing a great amount of beneficial work in Egypt. I'm not saying the situation is ideal, but I think you can see that in this micropolitical case we see "religion" that's not really religion - its a political party in a brand-new political system particular to contemporary Egypt.

  4. It has a platform - some planks are better than others, like many political parties would seem to you and me across the globe. But, crucially, its ability to tap into an extant public identity has allowed it at least to be one voice for important political programmes like free speech, rotation of power, etc. Obama's wise decision to recently host representatives of this party represents the kind of approach I'm calling for - rather than pushing them away as though they disappear when we close our eyes because they are a "fundamentalist religious entity", they are treated with authenticity, respect, and subsequently, hopefully, at least to some extent "brought into the fold", or brought more into whatever fold we want. Can the Muslim Brotherhood become a powerful ally with liberal political parties for higher-quality education, or public infrastructure? What about for economic stateship like tax reform? My point is that in many manifestations "religion" both requires and deserves to be shaken hands with. A fundamental binary does not serve this purpose.

  5. A assemblage refers to a philosophical concept coined by Deleuze and Guattari. It is a machine that is made up of smaller parts, which are themselves made up of smaller parts. Different parts have different desires and kinds of desires, and their interaction in part determines the contours of the machine. Other contours are formed by other apparatuses and assmeblages: "the state", the "the social", the environment. They are not entirely material nor apbstract, and they exist as a set of relations between objects, subjects, produced images, and reproduced images.

    A human being is a good example. Physically, the body is made up of cells with specific genes; but, we also depend for life on a greater number of cells that dont't share our DNA at all - microbes in our digestive tract, mainly. It also has a personality, which exists on a more abstract plane but nonetheless is no less real in its workings than the "body". Relationships to other being, and relationships to the environment are also included in a such a being, but an assmblage isnt necessarily just a being. Populations are assemblages of individuals, but also of environments, cultures, and other agents such as certain plants (staple crops?).

  6. first of all, the no true Scotsman example was being aimed at a hypothetical person defending religions extremities, not you as you did not defend them.

    Secondly, I agree with much of what you said in your comment. However, the original post was much more about science and religion not being definable and therefore being mutually comparable. This is one place where there is a fairly binary opposition. If you believe in creationism, you don't believe in evolution. If you believe gays deserve to burn in hell, you don't believe in equality.

    That's why I made the point about the good parts of religion. I agree that religion must, and should, be worked with in some cases. However, in the areas of science, education and equal rights, the religious aspects can not be allowed to carry weight in the interest of pacifying them. I am not saying that they should be mocked. I am not saying that there can't be compromises outside of these areas. But within them, giving ground to religious influences can only end poorly.