Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dawkins & Grayling vs. Harries & Moore on whether Atheism is the new Fundamentalism

Talk about an all-star cast. This debate featured Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Richard Harries, and Charles Moore. Ok, so it's a 3/4 star cast, but still, that's a good panel.

Harries starts off for some reason by praising a certain flavor of atheism, one which in all my years of atheist activism I've yet to encounter in an actual living person, namely, the sort of nihilistic amoral atheism featured in works of fiction such as The Brothers Karamazov. Presumably, he does this so as to get the audience to think of unbelief as necessarily nihilistic and amoral. It is particularly ironic, then, when just a few moments later he criticizes atheists for "picking on the weakest points" of their opponents arguments. He closes by saying that the new atheism is too focused on an activist and interventionist god, unlike the god of the Anglicans who presumably hangs back and allows Engilshmen to run roughshod over indigeouns peoples in all corners of the globe. Okay, I'm paraphrasing just a bit on that last point.

Grayling leads off by noting that the new atheism came about in reaction to the rise of militant theism, both in terms of physical terrorist attacks and vituperative verbal attacks. He goes on to note that "atheist," like "afaeryist" or "apixieist" seems to load the dice by negating a particular view. He then makes an affirmative argument for secularism, which is essentially the view that religious groups should be given the same priviledges as other volutary organizations, no more or less. He closes with the absurdity of fundamentalist non-stamp-collecting, or fundamentalist non-doing-anything.

Moore leads off with a few harsh (dis)analogies, and goes on to draw a comparison between Iran's fundamentalism and that of Soviet Russia. I think this is an apt comparison, given the emphasis on conformity and thoughtcrime under both regimes, but it seems odd to compare either regime to the secular humanists there on the stage, all of whom line up firmly behind liberal democratic ideals such as religious tolerance and personal liberty.

Dawkins leads by doing what no one else has taken the opportunity to do yet in this debate: defining the terms of debate. Very good move, if you ask me. He characterizes fundamentalism in terms of two criteria: Authoritative scriptures and extremist actions. On both points, he points out the "new atheism" (for which he is a prominent spokesman) is clearly sorely lacking. The rest of his speech is similarly to the point and devastating.

While the IQ2 debates are typically lacking in rebuttals and cross-ex, they have one very useful feature, that is, polling the audience before and after. After the effective speeches of Grayling and Dawkins, I was not at all surprised to find that the audience was moved against the motion "Atheism is the new Fundamentalism" and presumably towards a more tolerant view of unbelief.

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