Sunday, February 18, 2007


Dawkins on CNN

On January 31, 2007, CNN's Paula Zahn aired a segment about the intolerance faced by an atheist family. A transcript and links to the video are here . The story was discussed by the evening's panel: a journalism professor, a conservative columnist, and a sports writer. The panel had previously discussed Joe Biden's comments about Barak Obama, the politics of obesity, and racism in the NFL.

All the panelists agreed that "this is a Christian country", that freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion, and that "they should just shut up" and not try to impose their religious beliefs on others. Of course since this is a Christian country it's all right for them to impose their beliefs. Like putting "In God We Trust" on currency. It's a bit ironic that the sportswriter was the most insistent defender of religious freedom. We ought to expect better from a journalism professor.

The furor persuaded Zahn to tape a short interview with Richard Dawkins. It got delayed by the fuss over the death of Anna Nicole Smith, but finally got on the air. Transcript is here.

Dawkins's last answer, that this is the only life there is, so we should cherish it, is brilliant, but some of the other responses could, IMHO, be better. Herewith Zahn's questions and my fantasy answers:

ZAHN: But why do you think they are so remarkably intolerant of atheists?

WENDT: Psychologists and anthropologists have good evidence that one of the functions of religious belief, and especially ritual, is the strengthening of group solidarity. If you profess the same beliefs as everybody else, and especially if you make the same sacrifices of time and material goods, people take it as a sign that you are one of the group, that they can trust you. One of the features of American religion is that "people of faith" have weakened the criteria in such a way that almost any kind of Supreme Being can qualify someone as trustworthy. Of course atheists deny that any such being exists, so we are automatically untrustworthy, and thus are outsiders.

ZAHN: Certainly, you have encountered people, though, who are intimidated by your message, that, in some way, it puts perhaps their own faith in doubt?

WENDT: I should think you would want to doubt your faith. Do you actually want to risk believing things that aren't true?

This time, the panel after the interview included an atheist. Again, I wish she had given sharper answers. My suggestions:

ROBERTS: Do atheists bring this on themselves by going to Supreme Court with campaigns like trying to take the words "under God" out of the pledge, trying to take the words "In God we trust" off of the currency?

WENDT: I've never sued anybody. Are you willing to be lumped with Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions? I grant that that's extreme; but Christians get away with so much that it's hard to find an example that mainstream Christians would disavow.

Anyway, why do you want "In God we trust" on currency in the first place? Do you have to remind yourselves all the time that you are supposed to trust in God? You don't actually do it, you know. The book of Proverbs says "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding". But most Christians lean on their own understanding as hard as they possibly can, and trust in the Lord only for things they don't yet understand. If you really trusted in God you wouldn't need an army (remember the story of Gideon?), and you wouldn't need polio vaccine. When I was growing up, in the 1940s and '50s, there was a polio epidemic about every other summer. Pious parents would pray to God that he spare their child from this dread disease; if the child got the disease anyway, the parents were expected to consider it a test of their faith. Then Jonas Salk developed his vaccine; virtually everybody was vaccinated, and in a couple of years polio was no longer a problem in developed countries. Presumably God had to find a different way to test people's faith. Maybe that's why he keeps cancer around.

And people who withhold medical care from their children because "God will provide" are prosecuted for child abuse.

PETERSON: Then, where do you get your morals from? Christians get their morals from God, from the -- from the Bible, from God. Where do you get yours from?

WENDT: Morals are evolved into the human brain. The brain that survives best in a social setting is one that automatically knows that it gets along best by being nice to people. Brains don't naturally understand evolution well, but we have a need to identify an agent. We invent supernatural beings to fill our gaps. Humans don't get morals from God, we get gods from morals.


Of course all this is a bit too long for the brief window on TV. Thank god (so to speak) for blogs!

But maybe this is like trying to teach a pig to sing: It doesn't work, and it annoys the pig. It might not be a good idea to tell your boss that she is being irrational. Scott Atran advises

Do Not Shut Up In The Face Of Irrationality, But Know Who You Are Dealing With And Act Accordingly. Some religious people are irrational, as most us are in many situations in our lives, as when we fall in love, or hope beyond reason. Of course, you could be uncompromisingly rational and try whispering in your honey's ear: "Darling, you're the best combination of secondary sexual characteristics and mental processing that my fitness calculator has come up with so far." After you perform this pilot experiment and see how far you get, you may reconsider your approach. If you think that approach absurd to begin with, it is probably because you sincerely feel, and believe in, love.

Some religious people are very irrational and dangerous, but these are the people that I study and deal with on a personal level, trekking with mujahedin, interviewing jihadi leaders, and engaging suicide bombers directly. What I do believe is that the terms of engagement that Harris proposes for confronting irrationality generally would be deadly if applied to such cases.

The excerpt is from this discussion, which is well worth reading.


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