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What Dalrymple Doesn't See
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Here's a new piece by self-described atheist Theodore Dalrymple called "What the New Atheists Don’t See". It's got some problems.

First he talks about Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell:

For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false.

Well, Dalrymple is right that if Dennett is essentially making the argument "We believe in religion because of our evolutionary history, and thus it is false", but I don't remember Dennett saying that. I believe his argument is more along the lines of: "Let's try to understand our tendencies to accept certain beliefs based on our evolutionary history". As Carl Sagan pointed out in The Demon-Haunted World, we are predisposed to try to find cause-and-effect relationships and to discern patterns in the world. This has obvious survival advantages, but it can also lead to illusory beliefs, seeing faces or other patterns where they do not exist, and falsely attributing causality for things like rain or the failure of crops to unseen forces. Just because we have this tendency, it doesn't mean a particular belief is necessarily true or false. But it's good to keep in the back of our mind when evaluating our beliefs. All beliefs should be subject to intense scrutiny and evaluation based on the evidence for or against them.

So when Dalrymple says:

At any rate, it ill behooves Dennett to condescend to those poor primitives who still have a religious or providential view of the world: a view that, at base, is no more refutable than Dennett’s metaphysical faith in evolution.

He's just being silly. This is the old chestnut of trying to equate belief in scientific theories with belief in religious ideas. I'm not sure Dalrymple really thinks this, or if he's imprinting it on Dennett...either way it's dumb.

He gives only short paragraphs, in which he quote-mines Dawkins and Harris and dismisses them just as quickly.

I find it hard to believe that an atheist wrote these words:

To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

Well, what do we consider to be humanity's "monuments, achievements, and legacy"? What are those things we value now and find value in the past? And then ask yourself, were they accomplished because of religion, or in spite of it?

He also talks about a world without religion as a world empty of purpose. Sheesh. If he really thinks there can be no purpose or direction or meaning to life without religion, what gets this guy out of bed in the morning?

Sounds like he needs to convert. I certainly don't want him on my side.

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