Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Belief in Belief

I am listening to Penn (of Penn and Teller) interviewing Richard Dawkins as I type. Dawkins just used the phrase, quoting Dennet, “belief in belief” to describe the tone of many of the reviewers of his new book The God Delusion.

Belief in belief

That’s marvellous!

I have been keeping track of reviews (I have a half-finished blog that reviews the reviews) and I have been deeply saddened by the many that take a tone of “while I personally don’t believe I don’t think you should criticize other people’s beliefs”. In particular, the review in the New York Times was particularly sickening.

What Dawkins brings to this approach is a couple of fresh arguments — no mean achievement, considering how thoroughly these issues have been debated over the centuries — and a great deal of passion. The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy. Dawkins fans accustomed to his elegant prose might be surprised to come across such vulgarisms as “sucking up to God” and “Nur Nurny Nur Nur” (here the author, in a dubious polemical ploy, is imagining his theological adversary as a snotty playground brat).

I haven’t read the book yet (I ordered it form Amazon two weeks ago but I am still waiting) but, as I understand it, Dawkins has two aims with this book.

  1. To persuade believers that they are wrong
  2. To persuade atheists to stand up and be proud of their beliefs

Goal #1 is just plain misguided – but maybe Dawkins knows that and has some master plan that involves having people think its goal #1 even though it is not. Goal #2 is a worthy one though.

“mainstream opinion” in america is that atheists are crackpots and should be treated as such. I suspect (and Richard just said in the interview that he suspects) that a majority of well-educated people in america are atheist, or at least agnostic, but, because there is such a climate of distrust of atheists, they remain in the closet. So when a reviewer in the New York Times, or a reporter on NPR talks about The God Delusion they are careful to distance themselves from atheism because, to acknowledge having a naturalistic outlook, free from supernatural or mystical beliefs, is still a career-limiting move in most of america.

Many of my friends and family still have a lingering respect for the religion of their childhood – a belief in belief – which is itself worthy of respect. But the people in the media who disparage atheism while secretly not believing themselves…they remind me of the closet gays in the republican party who champion anti-gay legislation.

Much of The Brights propaganda is self-consciously modelled after the gay movement of forty years ago. The word bright itself is an attempt to hijack a positive word in the same way that gay no longer means what it used to mean. Maybe atheists should go one step further and try a little outing.


8 responses to Belief in Belief

Kevin October 26, 2006

I should add that I don’t really believe atheists should be outed. I think the practice of outing – even of gay republicans pushing anti-gay legislation in congress – is reprehensible.

[fixed typo – ed]

Matt October 27, 2006

>to acknowledge having a naturalistic outlook, free from supernatural or mystical beliefs, is still a career-limiting move in most of america.

I think this overstates the case, except in the most literal sense (*may* be problematic for those seeking to be CEO, etc).

>“mainstream opinion” in america is that atheists are crackpots

I don’t think that’s it. Mainstream opinion is that Scientologists are crackpots, atheists are morally flawed or worthy of pity.

Kevin October 27, 2006

> Mainstream opinion is that […] atheists are morally flawed or worthy of pity.

Thanks – that’s what I meant. I would agree with the Christianists that people who are morally flawed should not be given positions of responsibility.

I quote George Bush the Elder:

Sherman: What will you do to win the votes of the Americans who are atheists?

Bush: I guess I’m pretty weak in the atheist community. Faith in God is important to me.

Sherman: Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?

Bush: No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.


Dawkins’ Goal #2 would have people with a naturalistic worldview stand up and be counted. I think the final count would shock the likes of George HW Bush and they would be less likely to dismiss such a large proportion of the voting public.

Julio October 27, 2006

In social situations, if religion is brought up, and I’m asked what my religion is, I say “I don’t have one, I’m an atheist”

When the same occurs at work (it happens less, but it still does), I say “I don’t have a religion, I don’t believe in god”. Notice how I avoided the a-word.

I never, ever, say that I’m a bright. I feel that it would be saying that I’m gay, and I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

Kevin October 27, 2006

I don’t say I am an atheist either.

I say “I am a Bright. I believe there is a natural explanation for everything.”

I try to accentuate the positive aspects of my beliefs rather than the negative aspects of my disbelief. What kind of loser doesn’t believe in things? 😉

Julio October 27, 2006

> I don’t say I am an atheist either.

I do use the word, just not at work where I’m not interested in getting into big debates. Also, “atheists” are the least trusted group of people by a majority of Americans, and I like people to trust me in work situations 🙂

“Birght” is so fruity though. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

> What kind of loser doesn’t believe in things?

I had this really tough “electricity theory” teacher. He was not only interested in making sure you knew what you were talking about, he also wanted to make sure you knew how to present it, that you could talk about it.

Whenever he’d ask you a question (oral exams only) and you would start your answer with “I believe that…” he would stop you right away. “Sir, you’re an engineer, engineers don’t believe, they think!” And you’d better get it right, he was not fooling around, he’d flunk you..I believe..er…think.

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