Saturday, March 30, 2019

Faithful and True; or, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

While I was working -- well, procrastinating -- on another, still unfinished post, I happened on this tweet:
I’m so glad you at least waited the customary 10 days after a massacre in a mosque to compare Islam to cancer.
It referred to this image:

And referred back to a previous tweet featuring Dawkins' letter to the editor of the London Times, denouncing Cambridge University's rescinding of a fellowship offered to Jordan Peterson, a well-known crank philosopher with arguably racist and sexist views.

I don't think it's accurate to say that Dawkins "compare[d] Islam to cancer."  He was attempting, with his customary tin ear, to draw an analogy.  True, the analogy depended on Islam being bad, but it's not exactly news that Dawkins is hostile to Islam.  Presumably, and I'll return to this, he is equally hostile to all other religions.  The point he was trying to make was something along the lines of "Hate the sin, love the sinner," which is no more convincing from him than it is from Christians.

Let me attempt to disentangle some of the threads of Stupid in Dawkins's tweet. First, bigotry does not necessarily refer to hostility to persons as opposed to their belief systems.  One can be bigoted toward belief systems too, for example by assuming that they are uniform and unchanging, and that all adherents share exactly the same implementations of their system of choice.  I reject Islam, as I reject all belief systems which claim the authority of a god to support their teachings and practices.  But I also recognize that its teachings are internally inconsistent, subject to many (including sectarian) interpretations, and that its adherents vary widely in their observances.  For simplicity's sake, consider the hijab, one of the practices that particularly exercises Dawkins: not all Muslim women wear it, and those who do vary widely in how much they feel God wants them to cover up.  I don't know Dawkins's opinion on this particular issue, but as I've said before, I object to secularist societies which ban the hijab as strongly as I object to societies which require it.  (Should I condemn secularism as a cancer because of its history of intolerance and oppression of, inter alia, women and homosexuals?  By Dawkins's logic, I should.)  A better analogy, though not useful for Dawkins's purposes, might be to "cellular growths" rather than cancer: some are benign, others malignant, some constitute more of a threat to the host than others.

Second, religion is not an "affliction."  Even if it were, we don't blame people with illnesses for their condition.  It is something that happens to them.  The whole point of the medical model is that the patient is a patient, not an agent, with respect to his or her disease.  We don't jail cancer patients, nor do we bomb hospitals to drive the cancer out of them.  Religion is a lifestyle choice, and it's appropriate to criticize morally the choices believers make, though not before we've examined our own.

Sometimes we bomb hospitals for the sheer hell of it, though.  I don't know the basis for Dawkins's claim that Muslims are the principal sufferers from Islam, but Christians and Jews have been doing their best to win that competition for centuries.  As Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody wants to get in on the act."  Perhaps Dawkins would acknowledge that Christians are the principal sufferers from Christianity, Jews the principal sufferers from Judaism, Hindus the principal sufferers from Hinduism, and so on, but such acknowledgement wouldn't play as well in a political context that demonizes Islam and Muslims while ignoring the religious component of Christian and Jewish and Hindu offenses.  Indeed, condemning the crimes of a Jewish state is a very serious thoughtcrime in Christian and secularist societies.

Third, and related: the first thing that occurred to me when I read Dawkins's remark about "homosexuals" was "Tell that to Alan Turing!"  Turing, you may recall, was forced by the State to take hormone "therapy" for the crime against Nature of having sex with other males.  Until the early twenty-first century, secularist science in the US was tolerant of secular attempts to "cure" homosexuals, decades after homosexuality was removed from the index of mental disorders and it was widely known that sexual orientation cannot be changed.  It's not clear to me why scientists changed their views on the status of male homosexuality; it doesn't seem to have been because of evidence, because whether a condition is an illness or not is not something that can be settled by evidence. And the whole edifice of psychiatry is of very dubious validity in general.  It reminds me of the way Bob Jones University, which insisted for decades on the Biblical doctrine of racial separation, suddenly awoke one day to discover that there was no such doctrine and they couldn't remember what it was supposed to be.

On women, the record of the "hard sciences" is comparable to that of "religion."  Not only were women regarded by (male, of course) scientists as a lesser breed than men, almost a separate species, but their health issues were largely dismissed.  I've pointed out before that militantly anti-religious scientists are terrible on issues like rape, which they seem incapable of understanding.  But male scientists, not only those of a certain age, still resist with great fierceness allowing women into the labs.  True, this guy is Not All Male Scientists, but he doesn't stand alone, and it's significant that a highly respected newspaper gave him a platform.  And as someone else pointed out, this scientist's claim that "it's not as if they ... build walls to keep women out," is false.  But maybe I should just conclude that scientists are the principal sufferers from science?  If that were so, I might have more sympathy for Dawkins, but it's not so.  Two words: eugenic sterilization.

Perhaps the worst error in Dawkins's analogy between religion and disease is that it's based on the assumption that religion is an external entity, like a radioactive virus, an "affliction" from which human beings "suffer."  Religion is, as an atheist like Dawkins ought to know, a human invention.  If a religion upholds male supremacy, even if all religions uphold male supremacy, a rational thinker should ask why they do so -- especially since Science also does so.  The conviction of female inferiority and the consequent belief that they should live under male tutelage (aka patriarchy) is plastic -- societies, including Muslims ones, vary widely and within themselves on how far women are disadvantaged -- but it's remarkably tenacious.  If it's a precept of many religions, including Science, it must be because male human beings put it there.  This presumption generalizes.

Recently I acquired a copy of a book I've wanted for a long time, a photographic essay about the Naked Festivals in Japan.  It includes some quasi-ethnographic articles about the history and rationale of these festivals, which prompted me to wonder why people decided that the gods wanted young men to strip to loincloths (or less, sometimes) and mass together for a giant game of Keep Away involving various sacred objects.  The visual appeal of such a rite is obvious to a pervert like me, but to the gods...?  At around the same time I saw some discussion of Roman Catholic High Mass.  We know more about the history of this rite rendering service to Yahweh and his Only Begotten Son, but again, people simply invented it in all its complex spectacle or music, costume, scent, and so on.  If one is an atheist, one can hardly claim that it is an expressive of, or compliant, with God's will.  It should be obvious to an atheist (though surprisingly often it's not) that none of the many religious rites or doctrines are the will of any god.  They are the will of the people who perform them.  In many cases, as with the Naked Festival, they are not imposed from above, let alone from outside, but are welcomed by the participants and observers, who not only enjoy the sight of massed naked men in the streets but are deeply moved and edified by it.  Blaming any human practice or belief on "religion" is an act of extreme intellectual and often moral laziness.

One more point, which actually was my starting point for this post.  Someone else commented on this thread:
Dawkins converts more atheists to agnostics than he turns away from faith altogether. Arrogant, dickish, islamophobic. Who would want to co-sign that unless you were one or more of those to begin with?
This annoyed me. I replied:
Any atheist who changes their opinion on atheism because Dawkins is an asshole is a sheep. Certainly can't claim to be an independent thinker. I'm an atheist on the merits, not because of who else is an atheist. If that's your approach, I wouldn't want to co-sign with you either.
Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think that the truth or falsehood of a claim about the world has anything to do with the personality of the person who makes the claim.  His or her personality may be relevant if he or she tries to make it so, but that can be a distraction, and certainly is here.  I've criticized philosophers before who complained that the New Atheists come across as unpleasant.  (Don't forget that Dawkins himself notoriously whined about the "inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley's assault" in her review of The Selfish Gene.  "I deplore bad manners as much as anyone...", he complained dishonestly, and also claimed falsely that Midgley hadn't read the the book before she reviewed it.  But all of this only influenced my opinion of Richard Dawkins, not of atheism.

And why, now that I think about it, would Dawkins's obnoxiousness make people abandon atheism for agnosticism?  Is there any actual evidence for the claim anyway?  Someone, I think, doesn't know what these terms mean.  But there's a lot of that going around.