I’ve been fairly negative about the way that Richard Dawkins approaches the relationship between science, atheism and theism. Rather than just being negative, I’d like to offer a positive defense of my view on the issue.
Two years ago, when Thoughts from Kansas was an unknown hovel by the side of the information superhighway, we dedicated a lot of time to Kris Kobach. Kobach was running against Dennis Moore in the Kansas 3rd District. He was then employed by an anti-immigration outfit that was suing the state of Kansas on behalf of people from out of state who felt that they deserved in-state tuition if the state allowed anyone who graduated from a Kansas high school after living in the state for 2 years to get in-state tuition, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.
In digging into the group’s background, and into the background of donors to Kobach’s campaign, it became clear that he was being funded by the leaders of the Dominionist movement. These were people who want to see the Constitution replaced by the Ten Commandments; they are the closest thing we have to an American Taliban. One major Kobach backer had helped create the militia movement of the ’90s in hopes of reproducing the death squads that rampaged in Guatemala and the Philippines.
It wasn’t Kris Kobach’s Christianity that I objected to, it was this authoritarian vision of politics. It happens that the movement aimed to replace the Constitution with religious law, but I would have objected equally to any attempt to impose that sort of totalitarian law. Opposition to Kobach came from religious people as well as the secular Brights Enlightenists.
My interest in that issue, and my research on it, was aided immensely by Dave Neiwert’s books and blog. Neiwert focuses on the Dominionists, but also on their comrades in arms from groups like the Aryan Nations and so-called Christian Identity. The latter may have “Christian” in the name, but bears no resemblance any Christian church in its practices or ideology – it’s racism dressed up as religion. What unites these movements, and what makes them deserving of scrutiny, is that they are fighting (in some cases literally) to impose their authoritarian vision on us all. They are not united by religion.
In my experience, I found that the notion that these people were simply ignorant didn’t jibe with reality. Any number of them, actually, have very detailed and thoroughly thought-out universes that provide them with rationales for their beliefs. What was lacking was a basic Human Decency gear that they seem not have been born with.
To me, that’s the fight. When Dennis Moore won, I didn’t have to wait long for the creationist Board of Education (backed by some of the very same people who funded Kobach) to start trying to impose their religious beliefs on science classes. And again, the issue isn’t the religion behind the actions, it’s the authoritarianism. Carol Rupe voted against the bogus science standards, but still asserts her belief in a divine Creator. The difference between her and the people I’ve worked so hard to oust from office is not her theological view, it’s her political views – views about the appropriate role of the government.
As the example of the Aryan Nations demonstrates, this attitude is not restricted to religious matters. Fascism may have historically prospered by parasitizing religious faith, but that doesn’t mean we should focus on religion instead of fascism.
Examples of this dynamic abound. Billmon’s examination of the Mark Halperin affair gives yet another eerie example. Halperin, ABC News’ political director, has been on a tear lately, trying to convince as many people as possible that he isn’t a liberal. He appeared on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program to defend himself, but even after abasing himself before his right-wing overlord, he could not have his self-perceived sin absolved.
As Billmon observes, the issue is Treason in the Blood, and the Stalinist mentality behind Hewitt’s inquisition. Billmon concludes:
All of this simply reinforces my long-standing belief that there are basic totalitarian personality types, and that these types are essentially the same across societies and ideologies — e.g. if Joseph McCarthy had been Russian he would have been an Andrei Vishinsky (Stalin’s chief prosecutor) and if Vishinsky had been born an American he would have been a Joe McCarthy. From what we know of the aides who ran Nixon’s White House, it certainly seems like the only differences separating some of them from the ones who ran Hitler’s Reich Chancellery were the external limits imposed by law, custom and social habit — all of which are currently being eroded away by Nixon’s political and spiritual heirs.
I think that’s basically correct. There are people who, by virtue of their childhood or genetics or whatever, are susceptible to authoritarian leaders, and others who are susceptible to becoming those authoritarian leaders. Give them a religious background, and they will follow or become religious zealots. But McCarthy’s success (like that of “Signing Statement” W) should remind us that authoritarianism need not be religious.
This is why I think Dawkins is wrong to argue that the real war is not against creationism in the schools, but against religion per se. He refers to people who insist that science should only be applied to matters that science can address as “the Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists.” On page 66 he writes:
A possible ulterior motive for those scientists who insist on NOMA – the invulnerability to science of the God Hypothesis – is a peculiarly American political agenda, provoked by the threat of populist creationism.
He then develops an analogy to World War II in which he is Winston Churchill (or possibly Patton, champing at the bit to push through the German lines and on into the Soviet allies), and these lily-livered hypocrites with their “ulterior motives” and “superficial appeal” are Neville Chamberlain, seeking appeasement with the evil forces of religion.
I see it differently. I don’t see myself in a fight like the fight against fascism, I see myself fighting against fascism, and against totalitarianism more generally. In the book and in an interview with Salon.com, Dawkins has said “If you think the war is between supernaturalism and naturalism, then the war over the teaching of evolution is just one skirmish, just one battle, in the war.”
I don’t think that’s the war. I don’t find that war interesting intellectually or philosophically.
And that’s why I see myself like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group of American volunteers who trained and fought against the fascists in the Spanish Revolution. Had more people joined that cause, Franco’s fascism might have been beaten back, blocking a key supporter of fascism in Italy and Germany. Had the Abraham Lincoln Brigade gotten more support, we might have prevented the second World War entirely.
In my view, Dawkins is not Churchill, standing boldly against Hitler (while himself appeasing Franco). He is Condoleeza Rice drafting plans for a world in which China will be America’s greatest threat, all the while ignoring warnings that a group called al Qaeda is gearing up for a major attack within the next year.
We should fight totalitarianism of any stripe, and in Dave Neiwert’s words above, work to promote Human Decency.