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Submitted by Clive on Mon, 25/01/2010 - 08:52

First - this is precisely the discussion I was raising, so thanks. On Dawkins - I think you're partly right (and it was the point I made about Dawkins in my original comment - that he is 'sniffy'; he is, also, far too dismissive of the positive contribution religious people can make). It's true, in a sense, that Dawkins isn't attempting to 'argue with the religious'; his book, for instance, is a polemic. And there is often some sneering (Daniel Dennett, who's on the same wavelength, tried to get atheists to refer to themselves as 'brights', meaning the opposite of 'stupids').

But as I say, I think it's important not to confuse matters of style and attitude with the actual argument. I don't know if you saw Howard Jacobson's thing last night, but it's full of this stuff about how, say, Genesis is intended only as a story, not intended to 'work' in the same territory as science, etc; how atheists are just as fundamentalist as religious bigots; Mary Midgely said that science is as fundamentalist as religion only not as 'nutritious', you don't watch King Lear and ask if King Lear really existed, and so on. And this seems to me just preposterous. King Lear is obviously not making the same kind of truth claim as Genesis, and there is a straightforward answer to the question 'did King Lear exist?', which is 'no'.

Merely story, myth, metaphor, or whatever, the Bible and other religious texts make a certain kind of truth claim, at least about the existence of a supernatural creator. (You can make a version of the deist argument - as an Anglican vicar did in the programme: the universe and the laws of nature are such that carbon-based life can exist, which might suggest intelligence... But even if it does, how do you get from there to the God of the Bible, never mind the Anglican church?)

It is reasonable, it seems to me, to contest these truth claims. And part of 'arguing with the religious' has to be precisely contesting them. You can, and should, try to address religious arguments at their strongest, not sneer, etc - and be more aware than Dawkins is of the social roots of religious belief. But you still have to actually argue with them. (And on that level it seems to me Dawkins' stuff can be very useful). That's how it seems to me, I think.

Of course many people, not just socialists but scientists (like the Anglican vicar in last night's programme) can hold in their heads both a materialist worldview and a belief in God. That's a separate issue as to whether these worldviews are actually intellectually compatible.

(Btw, Dawkins doesn't say there's something wrong with people's brains if they believe in God, in a medical sense. He thinks they're wrong and 'deluded', but just in the sense of being wrong. He's talked about religion as a 'virus', but that's linked to his theory of 'memes' - which seems to me wrong and misleading. But again he's not actually saying there's something wrong with people's brains.)

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