Monday, July 30, 2012

Thoughts On: Defensible Arrogance

I have mentioned before that I have a friend that is struggling to accept the fact that she is losing her faith, and so I suggested that she read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, a book I know has helped a lot of people in her same position. The other day she tells me that she is having a very hard time reading it, because despite the fact that she agrees with much of what he says, the arrogant tone with which he says it is putting her off. “There are millions of people around the world that have faith”, she told me, “are you saying that they are all stupid? Are you presuming that you are more intelligent than all of those people, that they have nothing worthwhile to contribute to the philosophical conversation, that you are smarter than all of them, simply because they believe?” Now I do not presume to speak for Richard Dawkins and I do not know how he would answer this specific question (though I am sure there are some videos of him responding to similar questions floating around, as he is often accused of this smugness), but there are a few points of contention that I would like to bring up.

First of all, I pointed out that The God Delusion is a book about the reasons why one should not believe, and that if there is a believer with something to offer they are by no means prohibited from putting forth an argument in contradiction to something in the book and hashing it out. Secondly I pointed out that the “smug” tone of the book would not be nearly so criticized if he was taking shots at Bigfoot believers, reptilian conspiracy theorists or AIDS denialists. She agreed with me on both points, but still maintained that the tone of the book is something that is unnecessary and off-putting.

I am not going to sit here and pretend that Richard Dawkins has no arrogant or smug bone in his body, that is not true and I am perfectly aware of it. I also realize that I was talking to someone that wont be derisive to anyone, not even the stupidest idea alive will make her snarky towards them, so this was not an issue of putting religion on a pedestal. However, here comes one of my extended analogies to address her initial question: there are millions of believers around the globe, are you saying that they are all stupid?

First of all, there mere presence of numbers of people that believe a certain thing is a terribly piss-poor reason to give credence to that particular idea or theory. The classic example is 1000 years ago the vast majority of the world believed that the Earth was flat, it does not mean that “there might be something to that” and it does not mean that everyone who thought that way was stupid: they just didn’t know any better.

To second that point, let’s say that I wrote a book similar to The God Delusion but about racism. I hate racism, I think it is an incredibly stupid belief system, and my frustration in having to deal with multiple racists throughout my career prompted me to write a particularly scathing book about all the reasons that I think the concept of racism is ridiculous, regardless of how mild or extreme, and that it should be renounced altogether. I truly believe that I am right and that the evidence backs me up, and I go on to cite all of the reasons why racism has had a terrible, poisonous influence on society as a whole, how it has impeded education and how the genetic variability within races is higher than the genetic variability between races and that thus annihilating the basis for racism.

You may come up to me then and rightly say hey, you realize that there are millions of racists around the world, and that they outnumber people that are not racist? (Not to suggest that all people are racist the way die hard Nazis are, which would be more analogous to the Westboro Baptists and Al Qaeda fundamentalists, but it is true that the majority of people around the world do have some prejudices based on race). Are you saying that those millions of people around the world, those who outnumber you, are all stupid, or bad people? The answer to that question is no.

There are plenty of stupid people around the world, and there are plenty of smart ones as well. There are stupid racists and smart racists, and then there are a bunch of people that are in the middle. There are plenty of people that do not have access to good education, have not heard the evidence against racism, and have never sat around to ponder the question because honestly they have more important things to worry about like how to feed themselves and their families. There are plenty of people that have never traveled outside of their town of birth, have never seen someone of a different race and are thus very understandably wary of the unknown. This does not mean that the people that fit this description are terrible people, or that they should be considered “just like the Nazis”. Many people of this description are very good people, they help out in their communities and are amazing, empathetic people. They do these things because they are good people, not because their racism towards other tribes or colors causes them to want to help out people of their own color and tribe.

There are also people that go on TV and spout hateful racism out to the masses, trying to convince as many people as possible to give them money, power and status. There are people that believe them, follow them and do unspeakable things in their name. Many times these people are intelligent, often times they are charlatans that do not believe their own hype, and sometimes they are stupid but possess a flair for rhetoric. I, as the author of this book, should be allowed to point this out for the awful, hurtful crap that it is, without having to constantly repeat “yes, I am aware that not all racists are like that!”. Also, the fact that a large portion of racist people do not harm others and are good people does not mean that I should not be allowed to attack the core principle of what they believe, or that I cannot express that I believe they would be even better off if they let go of their racism altogether and all of the fear, mistrust, anxiety and hate that comes with it.

At this point you might say that it is a false analogy, because racism is something that is undoubtedly hurtful to society, to which I say exactly! That is what many of these authors are saying about organized religion as well! Nowadays it’s OK to vilify racism and its loudest proponents, but even 150 years ago it most certainly was not. To even mildly suggest that maybe African Americans were also human beings, Like Harriet Beecher Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, got her the same kind of hate mail and death threats that many prominent atheists get today, including a package containing an African American’s severed ear. The two points are more similar than you may think.

Anyway, I suppose the main point is that yes, despite the arrogant undertone of the book, there are always going to be instances in which people will feel that an arrogant undertone is perfectly justified. The question in the end becomes, is it justified in this case? And if not, what is the real reason that it annoys you?

Is it really because you have a zero tolerance for smugness in any shape or  form and are never smug about anything yourself, or is it because some fragments of religion’s historical pedestal still remain in your mind?

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