Friday, 22 October 2010

Dawkins on "what if you're wrong?"

There's a video I've come across a couple times now where Richard Dawkins, Britian's famous outspoken atheist, answers the question "what if you're wrong?" That is, what if he's wrong about atheism. You can watch it over here (apologies for any profanity or excessive stupidity in the comments section). In his response Dawkins makes a popular objection to the rationality of religious belief that is worth looking at.

Firstly I want to say that Dawkins got one thing right. It is possible that we're wrong about the non-existence of the flying spaghetti monster. It is possible that we're wrong about tons of stuff. That's because few items of our knowledge are logically necessary. Even your belief that you are reading a blog could be mistaken. It is logically possible that an alien is tapping into your brain causing you to think you're reading a blog when in fact you are not. But we generally don't worry about the things we could possibly be wrong about because we feel that while the possibility exists, it is quite unlikely for we have good reasons to believe what we do, and to doubt these things is not rationality but insanity. Had Dawkins left it at that he would have answered the question adequately. However he kept going and said some rather foolish things.

He presumes that his questioner was brought up in a Christian home, and that this is the reason for her Christian belief. Why does he assume that people only persist in religious beliefs because they are brought up with them? I'm a Christian and I was not brought up to believe the Bible or go to church. I was an agnostic and hostile to Christianity till I was 19. I know plenty of other people who are Christians from non-Christian backgrounds. Spend some time asking around in my church and you'll find these people. Has Dawkins not met any such Christians? Not only that, but talk to most any adult Christian who was brought up in a Christian home and they'll tell you of a time when they had to think through and choose the faith for themselves. Does he honestly think that people only continue to believe in Christianity based on the arbitrary conditions of their upbringing? As someone who has been involved with Christians at university for over three years, let me tell you, any students who do believe primarily because they were brought up to do so either quickly abandon those beliefs when they start their adult life at uni, or have a hard time of questioning after which they are usually far stronger, having really found the faith for themselves. Dawkins' views on this are so patently false that I wonder how Dawkins, who claims to be an authority on religion, can sincerely believe it. He can't have talked to many Christians.

Now if you're brought up in say, a Muslim country, are you more likely to believe in Islam than Christianity? Yes, probably. You'll probably have less access to Christian people and resources which might otherwise influence you. But if you believed in Islam in this scenario, would your beliefs necessarily be arbitrary? I see no reason to think so and certainly Dawkins hasn't provided one. Besides, what of Dawkins' own belief that religious choice is dependant upon upbringing? Is this belief not more likely to be held in modern pluralist Britain, than in a Muslim country? Undoubtedly. Does this alone make Dawkins' belief irrational? He would of course have to say no. Double standard much?

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