I’ve said before that I don’t care for Gregg Easterbrook, and my views on Richard Dawkins’ latest book are amply documented as well. So what do you get when a very silly person reviews a flawed book about complex issues? Easterbrook’s review hits a few points that everyone seems to agree on – Dawkins is right that religion shouldn’t be treated as a genetic trait, Dawkins reduces the actual diversity of religious thought to a straw man, he ignores the good that has come from religion while excoriating it for all the ills its followers have wrought.
Along the way he mangles what Dawkins says. Easterbrook asks “If God does not exist, why should Dawkins object to others using whatever coping mechanism works for them?” Dawkins answered that question already, arguing that “the atheist view is … life-affirming and life-enhancing, while at the same time never being tainted with self-delusion, wishful thinking, or the whingeing self-pity of those who feel that life owes them something.” Easterbrook may disagree, or might feel that these are not the standards to be used in judging the matter, but he ought to at least acknowledge the attempt.
The bad part, oddly enough, comes in Easterbrook’s attempts at praising Dawkins.
He agrees that:
Teaching [children] religion as if its claims about the past were undisputed exploits the child’s unformed power of critical thinking, and lessens the value of any future spiritual beliefs. It’s ridiculous to teach children the story of the Loaves and Fishes, or any such item, as history, though it might be. Children should be taught, “This is what scripture says about our past, and whether this true is one of the big questions of life. You must decide for yourself whether you will believe these claims.”
This is certainly not how Dawkins would argue you should present the Bible, and it leads to a nonsensical view of the world in which empirical claims about history are left to someone’s personal opinion. A better way would be to present these matters as true in a literary sense. A metaphor or allegory can be factually false but illuminate fundamental truths. Obsessing about where the loaves of bread come from ignores the metaphoric impact of that passage in the same way that trying to figure out when exactly MacBeth ruled Scotland misses Shakespeare’s point.
Finally Easterbrook is wrong, wrong, wrong in arguing that “Dawkins greatly inflates the role of Christian fundamentalism in American life.” He offers as evidence:
Polls consistently show that two-thirds or more of Americans support women’s choice, oppose discrimination against homosexuals, believe in strict separation of church and state, and score highly on similar measures of tolerance. Dawkins thinks the fundamentalists in the United States have run amok–“Pat Robertson is entirely typical of those who today hold power and influence in the United States.” That’s an exaggerated view of the significance of Robertson and others of the same ilk. They aren’t running the country, though the British media may like to make it seem that way. Political Christian fundamentalism is just one factor in a big, complicated country where the main current of recent decades has been toward ever-more tolerance and diversity.
Robertson isn’t running the country, but George W. Bush is, and George W. Bush doesn’t listen to the 2/3 of the country who support a woman’s right to choose, nor to the majorities who back legal recognition of same sex relationships, nor the majorities who support federal funding for stem cell research. The fact that a majority of Americans doesn’t share the President’s views on important social policy is interesting, but does not refute the observation that religious authoritarians have tremendous influence over our political leaders.
It wasn’t for nothing that Bill Frist blocked stem cell legislation for years. He had no personal objections to the research, but he thought he might run for president, and he knew he needed the authoritarians behind him to win the South Carolina primaries. He also knew that there wasn’t an organized lobby in favor of that sort of research, or who generally favor setting policy on the basis of our shared views, not on sectarian differences. Those people might be more numerous, but they aren’t more influential.
My disagreement with Dawkins relates to what to do about that. Dawkins thinks the answer is to fight the religion of religious authoritarians. I think the answer is to oppose authoritarians, whatever their religious or irreligious views.