Saturday, December 3, 2011

Richard Dawkins

I like Richard Dawkins. I've read his book and ended up giving it 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon. I know a lot of people don't like him and think his attacks on religion are unsophisticated, but I've read attempted rebuttals to the New Atheists (by -- among others -- Mcgrath, Corlett, Eagleton, Peter Hitchens, and Haught) and I wasn't much impressed. I would recommend The God Delusion to some of my friends, but not to others, since it's very easy from a Jewish perspective to be dismissive of a book which is so aggressive and clearly doesn't focus too much on specifically Jewish matters. Still, I like his style and his book.

But anywho, I was doing research on something completely unrelated to this (Jonathan Sacks's tenure as Chief Rabbi) and randomly ran into Aish's attempted refutation of Dawkins. Thought I'd put my two cents down:

"The Atheist Crusade: A Jewish Rebuttal to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion"
by Sara Yoheved Rigler with Rabbi Moshe Zeldman
Rebbetzin Rigler's family had me and a friend over once, the family was very nice.

Many critics have pointed out that the appeal of these books is less in the soundness of their arguments than in the eloquence of their prose. As Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press wrote: "Hitchens has nothing new to say, although it must be acknowledged that he says it exceptionally well."

Five of the six books constituting the neo-atheist crusade can be dismissed as screeds...
What DeSilva wrote was, "This is, of course, a familiar argument. Hitchens has nothing new to say, although it must be acknowledged that he says it exceptionally well." If you read DeSilva's review, the point of this quoted excerpt in context had nothing to do with the soundness or perceived soundness of Hitchens' argument against God, but the staleness of the argument (others said it first!). I think most readers would assume from the Rigler/Zeldman piece that DeSilva thought the arguments were bad (and thus Rigler/Zeldman were misleading), but let's be dan lekav schus and assume they meant only that authors such as DeSilva thought the main appeal of Hitchens' book isn't the arguments, but the prose. That's accurate..


The venom of their invective against God and religious believers actually turns these proud rationalists into irrational hate-mongers. Witness Sam Harris's declaration in his book The End of Faith: "The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Obviously, such a diatribe does not merit a rational rebuttal.

Right out-of-context.

...The obvious rebuttal of Dawkins's allegation that religion causes terrorism, wars, crusades, inquisitions, jihad, etc. is a cursory look at the genocides of the 20th century. An estimated 80,000,000 human beings were murdered in the course of the 20th century (not including war casualties), and they were all murdered by atheists: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao.

...He then devotes seven pages to attempting to prove that Hitler was not an atheist but a Catholic. He sums up this section: "Stalin was probably an atheist and Hitler probably wasn't; but even if they were both atheists, the bottom line of the Stalin/Hitler debating point is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism."

If Dawkins had asked Stalin or Mao if they were motivated by their ideology, they would certainly have contended that all their policies derived directly from their Communist principles. Even today the Communist regime of China is cutting open live Falon Gong practitioners and removing their vital organs for sale on the lucrative organ transplant market. This atrocity is consistent with their atheistic ideology that regards human beings in exclusively economic terms and denies that human life is sacred because human beings were created "in the image of God." Since Communism is an inherently atheistic system that denies both God and the Divine soul, Dawkins's contention that atheists "don't do evil things in the name of atheism" is blatantly false.
I don't think the authors addressed Dawkins' point. The point is that fundamentalist ideology is the problem. I think our evolved senses of right and wrong, as well as the development of society, have led us to reject a lot of that old time religious dogma (I mean, do you know how our benevolent God and his rabbis used to punish people who thought out of line?* Much better than other cultures maybe, but oy vey! Der alter helm, my tuchass...). As Sam Harris notes, moderate religion is just religion which has been influenced by positive modern secular thought. And you think our antecedents were down with communism because they were atheists? Bertrand Russell: "In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed. The persecuting character of present day communism is exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier centuries." We are for making things work on this planet as best as possible. Because, frankly, we're all we got. Increasing human suffering...not so into that. Communism, Nazism: faith-based initiatives. The authors discuss the immoral worldview of atheism again in the last part of their review, but I won't rehash my arguments there.

Furthermore, to say that religion is evil because religious people have committed heinous acts in the name of religion is like saying medicine is evil because Dr. Josef Mengele committed heinous acts against the subjects of his Auschwitz experiments in the name of medical research. One can take any constructive enterprise and use it for destructive purposes. This offers no grounds for condemning the enterprise itself.
I think Dawkins made an actual case and didn't just say, "Look here! People have done evil things! Therefore religion is evil!" I think he was saying that the problem is that telling a kid that you can believe things with lack of evidence is an open invitation to extremism. (I'm not sure he and Harris are right about this. John Haught, in a book I otherwise wasn't much impressed with, makes the metaphor of religion as sex and problematic religion as sex abuse. Unlike Haught, I don't believe in religion, but maybe in our modern bedeved society, some people need a bit of social engineering via some light religion in order to keep them in line; perhaps people can't handle the truth. I don't like that argument -- I don't like the idea of social engineering in general -- but I don't think I can refute it straight up).

One of the many distortions in which all the neo-atheist books abound is that they rant about the evil byproducts of religion without ever mentioning religion's benefits to every society throughout history. As Theodore Dalrymple observes: "The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy."

Dalrymple gives as examples the Cathedral of Chartres and the Saint Matthew Passion.
See here. But I can hear that maybe in a Hegelian sense, religion was a good thing. Like I noted above, maybe some people still need some liberal religion.

Judaism can point to its legacy of Western values. As Ken Spiro demonstrates in his book
WorldPerfect, Judaism has given the world its core values: respect for human life, peace, justice, equality before the law, education, and social responsibility.
Would take too long.

...Just open a page of the Talmud, read Maimonides, or spend one hour learning in a yeshiva, and you will experience Judaism's rigorous argumentation to discern the truth...
Right, and it's great that they use Socratic dialogue. It does help the mind. But they're not empiricists, so they can't help but suspend their critical faculties when it comes to a bunch of things (evolution, the Bible's authorship...). They lose their openness to facts and the ability to change their mind based on information.

A biologist, not a philosopher, Dawkins simply fails to understand the depth of argument of philosophy, and is too arrogant to admit when he's out of his element. The problem of "First Cause" is the knock-out argument against which Dawkins has no defense.
No it isn't and repeating the book's points would be superfluous. I could refer you back to the book, but see also here and here. But okay, I particularly like Hitchens' approach to this argument (most recently used in his debate with Dembski). Even if you feel that you have to believe there's something out there, it still doesn't get you to Judaism or, in fact, to the concept of a Benevolent Anything.

Even if Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, could prove that human beings evolved out of some primordial soup...
This is what I was talking about when I said that they're not empiricists.

Dawkins's insistence that religion and science contradict each other dismisses with an imperious sweep of the hand an entire body of work written by respected scientists who show that science in fact corroborates the Genesis narrative...
He does mention Collins and discusses others, particularly during his discussion of the anthropic principle. He sees their views as implausible.
...Dawkins is, in fact, surprisingly tolerant of the sexual abuse of children.
I'm not sure if "tolerant" is the word I'd use, but I didn't like his discussion of either. I thought his language was too nuanced.

[In other news: New Random-Video-of-the-Whenever-I-Feel-Like-It at the bottom of the sidebar. Also, a friend-of-the-blog is putting the finishing touches on his own demolishing of the Kuzari Principle. This is great! So I changed my mind, I won't be writing my own refutation of Kuzari, instead I'm endorsing his. I've been pleading with him to release it as soon as he gets a chance and he seems to be just about finished.]

*Gershon Hundert's Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the 18th Century: A Geneology of Modernity:

In larger communities, there would be several cohorts of judges, who would hear cases of varying degrees of seriousness. For the most part, these were civil cases, but in criminal matters, a number of sanctions were available to the courts. The most common of these was a fine, but the removal of the right of residence was available for the punishment of deviance or crime. Other sanctions included lashes, imprisonment, and being chained in the kune, or kuna, which consisted of an iron collar for the neck and leg irons, placed in the vestibule of the synagogue. This sort of shaming was deemed an extreme punishment, worse than lashes, which were often administered away from the public's gaze in the kahal offices.

h/t Tom. You're the best!
Update: They also used to have people lie on the floor and the congregation would trample over them. IIUC, it was this which demoralized Uriel da Costa before he committed suicide.


  1. > One of the many distortions in which all the neo-atheist books abound is that they rant about the evil byproducts of religion without ever mentioning religion's benefits to every society throughout history.… To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy."
    Dalrymple gives as examples the Cathedral of Chartres and the Saint Matthew Passion.

    So they approve of Catholicism? What out polytheistic religions, like those of the Egyptians and the Greeks, which left monuments like the pyramids and the Parthenon? Judaism has no problem condemning the evils of idol worship, while completely ignoring the religiously-motivated achievements of idolatrous cultures.

    I think they may be right that religion has done more good than bad. Religion is extremely useful. But the argument that religion is ok because it produces art is a bad one.

    It’s also interesting how when defending religion people are willing to make common cause with those that they would normally regard as religious enemies.

  2. I hope your buddy's Kuzari refutation includes a false nationally-commemorated myth that your buddy can prove people actually believed in (not a collection of ancient novels that no one believed).

  3. Also, is it asking to too much to require the myth to enunciate the number of people who "saw" the miracle? Or are we required to assume that whenever "our ancestors saw a miracle," we must assume that they meant "MILLIONS of our ancestors saw a miracle."

    Also, is it asking too much to require the myth to be hallucination-proof?

  4. Regarding the response to Dawkins' book, most of Dawkins' book isn't relevant to Judaism (e.g., he neither deals with Kuzari argument, nor the accurate prophesies of the Torah).

    One part of the book - that the Torah is immoral - does presents a serious case against Judaism. I was hoping that the response would focus on that part of the book. Instead, it doesn't deal with it at all.

    They main way to deal with the "immorality" of the Torah, I think, is to show that the Oral Tradition shows that the Torah is much more moral than a literal reading would make it appear.

  5. K, btw, I added an update to the end of the post.
    Update: They also used to have people lie on the floor and the congregation would trample over them. IIUC, it was this which demoralized Uriel da Costa before he committed suicide.

    It’s also interesting how when defending religion people are willing to make common cause with those that they would normally regard as religious enemies.
    Jews of course can justify this by pointing to Rambam's bit about how Christianity and Islam are steps in the right direction. But I agree with you; it is interesting they make common cause with religions they otherwise might regard as laughable. I think it shows that while religion may be flexing its muscles, it also in some sense is on the defensive.

    Thank you for your cogent comments. I know you're itching to shmooze about the Kuzari Principle and trust me, I am too, but my friend-of-the-blog really hits the ball out of the park, so I want to wait til he puts the piece in reshus harabim...I've been a nudnik enough though, he's gotten my message.

    As for the morality of Judaism, the question is what interpretations are endorsed by Judaism. For example, Meishiv Davar 4.35 (excuse me for putting this up in Hebrew, in exception to my normal rule...but I don't rely on myself for translations):

    וקנין אשה לאיש בעניני אישות, הוא מועיל לא מבעיא לדעת הרמב"ם שאסור לבעול פנויה, אפילו לדעת
    החולקים אינו אלא רשות, אבל אינה מחויבת להזקק לו ואם הוא מאנסה ח"ו חייב לשלם בושת ופגם, והרי
    הוא כגזלן וכאשר יקום איש על רעהו והכהו, משא"כ אשה שהיא קנויה לו היא מחויבת להזקק בכל עת
    שירצה ואם אינה מזדקקת לו ברצון יכול לכופה כמו שהאדון כופה שפחתו לעשות מלאכתו וכ"ז הם דברים
    ברורים ואין כדאי להפוך עוד בזה

  6. I've had some email/discussion board exchanges on the Richard Dawkins site. Professor Dawkins has, on occasion, answered some of my questions. I think he presents arguments that any believer needs to deal with.

  7. As a Christian of 25 years and an atheist for the most recent 20 years, I'd like to propose a solution similar to what the Society for Humanistic Judaism has come up with.

    They have jettisoned belief in the supernatural while keeping the history, holidays, stories, ethics and morals of Jewish tradition. They view the stories as a history of the Jewish people, their triumphs and failures.

    Now, not many peoples have the kind of cultural ties to their religion that Jews do. Nonetheless, I think they are on the right track and are of model of where we should all be heading.

  8. Bpelta. Yes I am itching to see his response to the Kuzari argument. I hope it isn't random philosiphy about the mechanics of the proof (there may be an underlying flaw in the argument, but I don't find them to be that compelling).

    I hope he provides real cases. Furthermore, I have noticed that when people respond to the Kuzari argument they present, for example, ten false-myth. Why do they provide 10 when one false-myth should be able to do the job? Because they themselves understand that each one of them simply cannot hold a candle to the Torah's history. They therefore present ten and hope that the unsophisticated reader fails to realize that Ten times zero is zero.

  9. Historically, Atheism was not particularly popular. However, once it did become popular, atheists became the most genocidal SOB's to walk the face of the planet.


  10. But they were also totalitarian fascists with ideologies which made their leaders into gods. We're not. We're skeptics. I think there's a tremendous nafka mina there.

    Incidentally, you sound like you have an ideological problem with historical acts of genocide, but the Torah itself condones genocide in the mitzvahs related to Amalek.

  11. When they killed out Amalek, they were doing it because they KNEW that God commanded them to kill out Amalek. I am stunned that you compare that to Nazism.

    The main problem with the New Atheism is its popularity. Atheism is inherently depressing. There is no hope for an afterlife, and no real purpose in life, and that's hard for humans to swallow. So what keeps them going? What gives them their happiness?

    I think it's that fact that they "know" that everyone else is living their lives for falseness; and they are confident that everyone else is wrong. It is very satisfying when you KNOW WITH ABSOLUTE CERTIANTY that 99.9% of people are living their lives for a false cause.

    However, now that atheism is becoming so popular their whole happiness no longer exists. EVERYONE ELSE IS ATHEISTS SO WHAT'S THE POINT ALREADY!? I think that the worst thing that ever happened to the atheistic community is the fact that they gained so many numbers (I will explain in later post why atheists, specifically, are extremely confident in their beliefs, and it has nothing to do with evidence.)

  12. It is very satisfying when you KNOW WITH ABSOLUTE CERTIANTY that 99.9% of people are living their lives for a false cause.
    Yes, I used to think that way when I was frum. Gives a reason to be lazy about gemara and do kiruv instead.

    ...their whole happiness no longer exists.
    I can't speak for other atheists, not knowing as many as you apparently do ("everyone" is an atheist, which doesn't jive with my experience; moreover, you've done a psychoanalysis of the atheist community. Shtark), but I have friends and family and that's enough for me.

  13. Rigler is tragically deluded at best, mentally ill at worst. I read one of her Aish articles years ago; that was enough. I wouldn't bother with anything she has to say.

    I know the MO rabbi and rebbetzen who "were mekarev" her. They've only tried kiruv twice; once with me, once with Rigler. I became an apikorus, she a raging fundamentalist (although, to be fair to them, I'm quite certain she was already unbalanced when they got her).

    In any case, I've told them to stay away from kiruv. They're obviously no good at it.

    And I agree with you about the afterlife, although rather than this life being enough, its already too much. In any case, I have no desire to exist forever. I'm glad to see abele's comment, though. My Lubavitcher nephew keeps telling me most frum Jews aren't in it for the eternal reward, and I keep telling him he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. I'd show him abele's comment if I hadn't given up on him.

    Baruch, why is the post dated 12/2011, yet all of the comments are dated 12/2010? I noticed the same thing in your Kuzari post.