Two Media Related Polemics on Religion

Goto Section II, A critique of Dawkins' view on agnosticism.

I. Commentary on the Documentary "Jesus Camp":

If ever there was a frightening documentary which fills me with fear for the future this would be it. In this rather even handed documentary we delve into the practices that Evangelical Christians bring to bear on their children, turning them into little hyper-religious time bombs. While most children are busy playing in the dirt (as they should be), these poor children are being indoctrinated in abrasive fundamentalist and political principles, such as creationism, "anti-global warming", and the pro-life ethos. We see how their parents deprive them of all semblance of childhood, and instead instill a vaguely creepy religious fervor upon them, for the pure sake of "winning" some delusional "War".

Slightly tangentially there is a severe ethical problem behind this view of their children. They acknowledge using their children (or indoctrinating) towards their (the parents) ends. This is in violation with Kant's second formulation (or the "humanity formulation") of the Categorical Imperative:

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means." *
Treating humans as means essentially depersonifies them, and removes their autonomy. It turns people into mere objects, or tokens to be utilized for someone else's purpose, eliminating their self-sovereignty and agency.

Actually the Christians portrayed in this movie use martial terminology over and over, going so far as painting their children's faces in camouflage, and referring to themselves as "warriors", or an army. Who the enemy is, is ambiguous, but I'm guessing that it is everyone who isn't them, and by them I do not mean the pious, or even the Christians, but just their little extremist sect. This means that as far as their concerned the rest of humanity is their enemy. I am sure that I am not the only person to see the problem with this view. Ominously their views are not purely religious, it also is strangely politicized, early in the movie when on the parents is seen indoctrinating their child against the belief in global warming. How global warming is a religious belief eludes me, but I'm guessing it has to do with the single most fearsome aspect of these fundamentalists that I will speak on a little later.

Unlike the early Christians this is a fully totalitarian sect, they can be heard in the film to talk against democracy since it allows atheists (meaning even Christians who are not Evangelical) to vote. In the same scene as above their is an insidious aside, one that is easy to miss, saying that evolution should not be taught in schools, period, contrary to the front that they present saying that both "intelligent design" and evolution should be taught as rival theories.† All of this points to the fact that they have no qualms of elimination all dissenting opinions that differ from their own. Oddly for such a blindly patriotic group, this is essentially anti-American, especially from a group that all but idolizes the current American president for his perceived theocratic tendencies (which are, incidentally, hardly evident in practice). Politically this group also supports Israel and some of their more dubious actions for the sole reason that it will bring about the end of the world, how the end of the world can be seen as a positive goal I will leave to the reader. Evangelical Christians fulfill the definition of "fascists" with rather eerie, and ominous, exactitude. To call this sect a future threat to the freedoms granted by secular government would be an understatement.

The dangers presented by fundamentalists can be traced to three related features of their collective psyche. The first is a biproduct of all forms of extreme idealism, the misguided premise that you "know better" than the unenlightened masses, and thus have some right to dictate your version of reality to them, at the cost of their ability to judge for themselves, generally this is a road that leads only to atrocity. Any action perpetrated by fundamentalists (of any class, not just religious), is seen by the perpetrator as ultimately good, this greatly inhibits the ethical scope of potential actions, since idealists are always right, and doing good, in their own eyes. Doubt and introspection is immoral, and a breach of whatever ultimate purpose the fundamentalist subscribes to, thus unthinking action is acceptable, and encouraged. Again, like the use of children as future "warriors", this using other as a means, and not as their own ends, dehumanizing the very people that are being misguidedly "helped".

The second problem is the classic sociological principle of in groups and out groups, where every clique in society always values external forces as a threat, or enemy. This causes groups to feel almost paranoiac illusionary persecution ("our way of life is threatened"), and allows the group to lash out at any perceived threat to group cohesion as a mechanism towards a delusional feeling of self-defense. Once again we have a fallacious rational towards the ends of negatively effecting others.

The third feature is the most problematic, and can be seen in the apocalyptic Zionism of the Evangelical right, the fact that the after-life is a more desirable place than the here and now. In the light of some future paradise the physical and immediate world dims in importance, as do all of the living beings who currently inhabit it. Why worry about long term temporal problems when some glowing heaven awaits us? This view allows unparalleled opportunities towards purely self-serving actions and egotism. The rest of the world can be damned (and is, in there view), they are the chosen. This also plays into the first feature of their flawed consciousness, any action intended to "save" the heathens is appropriate and ultimately good, no matter that immediate suffering involved, since this world is less real than the potential one awaiting all who subscribe to whatever particular religion the fundamentalist follows (this is true mainly in the big three monotheisms, mainly Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, though).

On a more flippant note, it is a necessary fact that all death-centric religions have a built in safety valve: religious tenets against suicide. Being that the after-life is more desirable than the world the rest of us inhabit, it is not inconceivable that all of the followers would gleefully kill themselves to ignore all of the beautiful banalities that we are forced to endure in the mortal here and now. Sadly, even if this ban on suicide was lifted, many would stay around gleefully meddling with the affairs of others in the name of "saving" them, whether they want this or not.

Sadly, this is a rapidly growing 25% of the American population, a portion of the population with an unhealthy over abundance of political influence, and the gumption to use it for the harm of the rest of us who do not belong to their clique. This is further evidence to why we should shore up our educational system (sadly not for the benefit of their, mostly home schooled, children, who I fear are doomed). The only way to combat this militant extremist threat is to breed a competing cadre of children with a rational mindset, and an appropriate skeptical tool-kit. We also need an insurgence of secularists, to secure the protections from religious tyranny that the constitutional framers built into the grounding of America. Perhaps the rest of our political differences should fall by the wayside while we protect our very right to dissent in the first place. If worse comes to worse we can bask in the potential of America's influence waning, to protect the rest of the world from more harm and death caused by religious extremists, and their genocidal feelings of self-righteousness.

II. A Preliminary Critique of Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion":

While it can generally be seen as bad form to critique a portion of a book that one has not read in its entirety, I feel is appropriate due to its fit with the previous section on fundamental Christianity. Please bear with me, and feel free to ignore this, or correct me on any misperceptions I have due to my incomplete knowledge of the contents of Dawkins book. This (hopefully) small critique will mostly reflect an objection to two sections of the second chapter, "The Poverty of Agnosticism" and "NOMA" (On Stephen J. Gould's idea of "magesterium").

First off I level the same problems that is encountered on Daniel Dennett's like minded book, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon", which I covered and reviewed earlier. In both books science is assumed to be able to be capable of fully comprehending existence as a whole. This is quite an assumption, even from a wholly naturalistic stance, thanks to the infinite complexity of the subject under study, and the inductive nature of our basis of understanding the natural world. More philosophically we have no tool to judge the potential completeness of any coherent logical system (such a science), there is no tool that can recursively analyze sciences current, or potential, completeness. Yes, science is the best tool we have for understanding the world, but this does not make it the perfect tool. Also science is completely aloof on questions of "meaning", while showing its remarkable ability to answer the "how" and "why" of existence.

The greatest checks to any scientific theory is observation (empiricism), and predictability. But of late science, in general, and physics in particular, have been denying even these two checks for theoretical validity. This can be seen Leonard Susskind's book "The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design", where the author (an eminent physicist) proposes that empirical observation and theoretical predictability should not be necessary conditions to theoretical, or scientific, understanding. He opts, instead, for mere systematic, or theoretical, coherence, as a judge for validity. This is a weakness, since there is no guarantee that ungrounded theories accurately reflect the actual state of nature. Basically he puts modern science in the same shoes as the metaphysicians of old, denigrating scientists to mathematicians and the modern incarnation of monadologists. This is troublesome if we wish to claim the ascendancy of science.

Also his comparison of God (or your diving reality of choosing) to rather inane entities such as the tooth fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is fallacious and rather loaded. Neither of these fictions have the same weight of inherent incomprehensibility as any accepted deity. The idea of God, as a definition is innately ambiguous, and unprovable. Critiquing a deity whose vary definition can be defined as alogical is rather absurd. God is, as conceived by believers, outside of logic. This view, again, is based on a shaky assumption that logic is all-containing, that everything can be understood by it. I also fail to see how we can positively say that the universe would be different depending on the existence of god, or his nonexistence. With a highly interventionist deity this might be a sensible conclusion, but with a more passive "deist" deity this becomes more dubious, this flaw might be do to some misunderstanding on my part since he does hint at deeper enlightenment further on.

Let me be frank, I am not defending religion of any stripe. Taking the opposite view of Dawkins' I use the fundamental unprovability of deity as a sign of it's ultimate nonexistence. Armed with the philosopher Karl Popper's weapon of empirical falsifiability, used against God's built in ambiguity, I can stand solidly in practical atheist, or at least very strong agnosticism. God, as hypothesis, can not be disproved, or tested, which is a strong strike against it's relevance. God is a null set, and thus it's existence or lack there of is irrelevant in a physical sense, we must only worry about it's psychic reality (as a guide for it's followers actions, see above).

I have two other problems with the ideologies of both Dawkin's and Dennett, the two largest popularizers of atheism. The first is the perceived necessary connection between scientism (a quasi-religious faith in the universal power of science and rationalism, and the view that science can ultimately answer everything), and atheism. This, as I've encountered, is a common item of dogmatic groupthink in the contemporary atheism movement (as typified by the "Brights" movement), which serves to limit acceptance by more skeptical people.‡ Also both Dennett and Dawkins are basically the atheist equivalent of the force they will to combat, fundamentalists. So much is their fervor against the threat of religion (perceived, and real, as above), that they risk becoming what they fear. Both of them cross into the territory of evangelical atheists.


* Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, sec. 419, available from Project Gutenberg.

† I've touched on this issue previously, and sadly in terms that would obviously always be rejected by Christian extremists.

‡ This does not keep me from being a somewhat reluctant member, though this problem can be seen in this post to their forums.

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Anonymous said...

I just happened to step onto this site in a random search for Heidegger's existential phenomenology. I started looking at some of your posts and I think your writing is very good, in terms of ease in which concepts are explained. I don't necessarily agree with your conclusions nor your perspectives on religion, but you have some terrific insights. Have you ever read Warranted Christian Belief, by Plantinga? I think you'd rather enjoy it. Take care.

Omestes said...

Thanks for the compliment! I'd prefer informed disagreement over ignorant agreement any day.

I'll look up the book and add it to my list. Thanks for the recommendation.