The trouble with atheists…

COMMENTATOR and (‘compassionate’?) humanist Malachi O’Doherty has found himself the target of Belfast’s ‘fundamentalist’ humanists and hardline atheists. O’Doherty has had the temerity to suggest that not only is Richard Dawkins “a prat”, but that

some religions are better than others; that there is diveristy and much to be fascinated by in the history of religion; that religion is human and that you can not be a humanist without caring to understand religious motivations – given that religion is not a fringe lunacy in human culture but has been, for probably ten thousand years and more, practically all of it.

O’Doherty’s refusal to be dismissive of believers and sneer at religion, and the lack of empathy in hardline humanism seems to have resulted in the new atheists’ loss of, he argues, their own humanity. In his signoff, O’Doherty calls for humility, not arrogance, in those who reject religion – “let’s give the fundamentalists a hard time and be wary of flattering them with imitation”.

  • RepublicanStones

    So while he wants the Dawkins crowd to rein in their arrogance, is his view that ‘some religions are better than others;’ not a wee bit arrogant in itself?
    Aside from that, his view that there is much to like in the diversity of religions the world has thrown up is one I would agree with and everyone needs a bit of opium from time to time.

    (Did I just agree with M O’D?)

  • Kathleen

    not a wee bit arrogant in itself?

    No way. They’ve completely misread and misunderstood the man. I bought his book, after his talk at Queens’ festival recently, but I haven’t read it yet, but from the conversation that was had – and the explanation that Malachi gave- his view is not only balanced, but the only balanced view I’ve heard.

    He looks at it from a uniquely Irish point of view and has the benefit of having once been on the inside. For a lot of people unless you’re a radical hardliner in your views then your views are not relevant and up for attack. It’s simply nonsense. Theres nothing wrong with a balanced view, and for anyone who knows where he is coming from a completely sensible view and one that any logical person can understand.

    If only he’d insult the old God squad, then everything would be ok, instead he called Dawkins’ a well deserved ‘prat’. Thats what they really object too.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I don’t think Dawkins is a prat. Hitchens, on the other hand, is a completely different matter.

    It’s a shame that people can get called arrogant for asserting the truth. I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to accept that the big bang theory is how the universe was created, but I don’t see any two ways around the reality that religions are made-up inventions of people who are generally considered to have a couple of screws loose. In the same vein, isn’t the attitude of Christians to religions such as Pastafarianism or (more seriously) Scientology arrogant ?

  • dunreavynomore

    On what grounds does he call Dawkins ‘a prat’?
    Personally I think Dawkins is a genius.

    Humanists have no trouble ‘understanding religious motivations’ and Dawkins himself devotes chapters to this point as well as to the lasting nature of religious belief.

    Dawkins even agrees that people get comfort from religion but points out that this does not make religion correct. Children get great comfort from Santa and the tooth fairy so they must be real, what?

    I don’t believe that Humanists, as such, sneer at religion, rather they explain why they don’t believe in it.
    did Malachi really say “there will be time enough to be logical when we really understand the Universe we live in.”? Good man Malachi, away with that silly old logic, bring out the omnium and the bicycle theory.

  • Driftwood

    Dawkins confronts the ‘fundamentalist’ tag on his website
    http://richarddawkins.net/article,3273,People-say-Im-strident,Decca-Aitkenhead-The-Guardian.
    He is bound to attract criticism for confronting a very real issue in modern society.
    Malachi sounds like he wants everybody to be his friend. A bit like the Texan in Catch-22 who everybody came to despise.

  • I have done a lot of attacking fundamentalists. I was doing it routinely on Talkback thirty years ago. I do seem to have to say it for the benefit of those who think I’m not bashing the churches as much as they do: Yahweh did not make the world, Jesus was not his son and did not rise from the dead, there is precious little survival of human consciousness after a bottle of whiskey so naturally there’s a lot less – nil – after the death of the body.

    Biblical literalists are simply people who can’t read. Creationists in our schools are a calamity.

    But do I have to repeat this every time I get into a discussion about religion?

    I trust people to notice that I am not an evangelical creationist and then I want to move the discussion onto religion as culture and as a human expression of need…

    because it is not enough to say that all religion is on a par with belief in Santa and that that kills the issue.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Malachi,

    I think the frustration that some of us have is to do with the need that we feel to define morality in terms of something other than a man in the sky giving orders to people about how to live their lives. Technology, education, and our improved = but obviously still extremely limited – understanding of the universe make religion an anachronism which causes more harm than good.

  • Comerade Stalin,

    The worst possible way to describe morality is in terms of a man in the sky giving orders or a system of reward and punishment. That isn’t morality at all, but obedience or pure materialism.

    The only morality that counts is a morality based on human empathy, doing right because you know how it would feel to have wrong done to you. But some religious traditions also understand this principle quite well.

  • Santa Claus

    Well I don’t know about others but I for one stopped believing years ago in the existence of Malachi O’Doherty, who is of course an entirely fictitious and ridiculous creation altogether.

  • Feartide

    Humans evolved to be malleable. Culture is the human evolutionary “killer app”. Religions, at least the successful ones, are co-evolved sets of memes that provide morals and other beneficial beliefs and techniques to the human race. Dawkins sees only bathwater and no baby. In that he is a religious bigot.

    If religion did not exist then it would have to be invented. Science can provide no ethics. You cannot derive an ought from an is. If Dawkins wants people’s ideas to conform to a big bang creation myth (note that the word “myth” does not denote untruth) and to evolution by natural selection universally then he should address himself to destroying religion’s strengths and not just it’s weaknesses. For example a humanistic “crusade” against the increased rates of crime, broken homes, mental illnesses due to desocialisation and alienation that have followed in the wake of secularisation. A basis for ethics with a communal and not just laissez faire individualist game theory over-simplification.

    Science cannot do that, and I doubt that more wisdom can be produced from men analytically deriving ethics than can be produced from the memetic survival of the fittest that has formed our present world religions. Religions were not designed to be accounts of creation or science manuals. That some of them stray on sciences territory may be of great interest to Dawkins, but if he seeks to criticise them outside science’s territory then he needs to have a replacement. Otherwise he is nothing much greater intellectually than a typical troll on the internet.

    Humanism offers no solution. At best it tries to derive morality from human nature. But human nature is both good and evil (or in rough scientific terms includes both altruism and psychopathy), and part of it is that humans are designed to learn morality and values from the society around them. Therefore no complete morality can be derived from human nature alone. The hard part is where that which is right is beyond rational justification. A lot of morality is like that. Just as we cannot explain how many biological functions evolved but that they “just work”, the major religions have many values and ethics that also “just work” but cannot be explained rationally.

  • Dave

    Good post, Feartide. Religion is designed to rescue the human race from human nature, whereas the more deluded use circular logic to see human nature as rescuing said race from religion. There is no rational basis for love or for one parent to see its offspring as more precious than the offspring of another. Given the choice, a parent will sacrifice 10,000 other offspring rather than sacrifice its own – so don’t rely on such human nature as the basis of a morality. We all know that if we paid taxation at double the current rate that we could prevent thousands of children from dying terrible deaths in third world countries as well as improving the lives of others, but none of us have any intention of ever doing so. Dawkins approves if he can find a gene or an evolutionary dynamic to explain irrational behaviour, but that ‘scientific’ process doesn’t make the behaviour any less rational. Human beings are not rational, nor or they kind.

  • Dave

    or = are

  • Dave

    ..any less [b]ir[/b]rational.

    *gives up*

  • Comrade Stalin

    There is no rational basis for love or for one parent to see its offspring as more precious than the offspring of another.

    I don’t agree, but at any rate, how do you know ?

  • Plastic Paddy

    What about non-dogmatic belief systems – take Tibetan Buddhism for one – don’t they offer all the moral benefits of religion without the sort of insanity that Malachi felt obliged to renounce above?

  • Plastic Paddy

    By the way, very good posts Feartide and Dave, and whoever Santa Claus is above – that was hilarious.

  • Eddie

    Me? I recommend Unitarianism (We have a few churches here)

    No ranting, no raving, no fundamentalism. Just a nice balanced type of Christian Humanism. (Of course, this previous sentence could start a row over the Trinity etc – don’t bother; life’s too short for pinhead dancing; see the broader picture, please)

  • Alternativevoice

    The problem with dawkins is he only attacks Christians not Jews or Islam which is far worse than Christianity.

    He also seems to be marketing his book at gays, tgoing to great lenghts to say the Bible is homophobic.

  • slarti

    Clearly though Alternativevoice you’ve never read his book (I take that it’s The God Delusion you’re showing your ignorance about here) or much more of him.

  • Malachi

    As a believer in God I find myself in almost full agreement with Malachi.

    I think we’ll find that God is much more likeable than the person the Old Testament Christians describe. I think we might relate to him (I prefer her) better if we think of them as a New Testament person.

  • Feartide is right in that those of us who see morality as only conceivably grounded in human nature (other than in the ultimate truth of either religious traditions or rationalist ones) are challenged to explain how humanity can include psychopathy or, for instance, paedophilia.
    That suggests that there is a right nature and wrong nature, that the pscyhopath is not ‘naturally’ himself but is a damaged person.
    That leads me to a liberal understanding of how we shoudl respond to crime, for instance. In stead of asking how thoroughly we can punish a young killer, for instance, we should ask what response will have the better chance of bring him (usually him) to a better, more natural state.

    Not an easy argument to advance very assertively but the only one we are actually left with, I think.

    And that is what humanists should be concerned with, developing our understanding of humanity and nature. In that job, writers like Stephen Pinker are far more interesting that Dawkins, who threw away his own argument anyway when he explained human beneficence as a product of a faulty gene rather than of natural selection.

  • Alternativevoice

    Slarti

    I’ve the God delusion in front of me and it doesn’t mention Mohammed or the Torrah and only mentions the Koran 3 times.

  • slarti

    You must have a Reader’s Digest edited version then.

  • zoonpol

    Does that make Sir Jonathan Miller, CBE a part as well?

  • zoonpol

    Make that a prat …

  • OC

    ‘That’s how they end up with nonsense like Christopher Hitchens’ claim that a revulsion at menstrual fluid is part of all religion. It isn’t. For all we know there are Irish presbyterians who drink the stuff – it’s just not something they talk about.’ – M O’Doherty

    Forget about being a prat. How about disgusting degenerate.

  • Henry94

    malachi

    The only morality that counts is a morality based on human empathy, doing right because you know how it would feel to have wrong done to you.

    As Fr. Dougal MaGuire would put it, that’s the part I have trouble with. Even with the threat of eternal damnation it has been impossible to eliminate exploitation and cruelty from human behaviour. The idea that we can have a morality based on what appears obvious to one of the only generations in history to live in absolute comfort (in one part of the world) is wishful thinking.

    I also think the idea that Christians in the western word are believers in the sense atheists seem to understand the term is the great misunderstanding of the age and I think you grasped that.

  • Comrade Stalin

    A few people have said “good post” to feartide, but I can find some very nasty undertones and revisionist tendancies in his contribution here.

    Humans evolved to be malleable. Culture is the human evolutionary “killer app”. Religions, at least the successful ones, are co-evolved sets of memes that provide morals and other beneficial beliefs and techniques to the human race.

    On the contrary, large-scale organized religions are mired in corruption, deceit, and evil acts, and they are only the ones that we know about. The moral compass of the Catholic Church was decidedly cloudy during WW2 for example, and priests and religious ministers gave sermons to German soldiers ahead of their invasions, exhorting the rightness of what they were doing. And there is the little role that the RC church played in Hitler’s ascent to power in the first place. Fast forward more recently and you have the efforts to interfere in popular culture, describing music as “ungodly”, the horrific and evil treatment of mothers who have children out of wedlock, and more recently the systematic and very deliberate cover-ups of priests with a history of committing sexual offences of one kind or another.

    I’m afraid I can’t accept that religions bathe humanity in some kind of ethereal godly glow. I have no problem with oft-quoted parts of the Christian message concerning compassion, charity, putting oneself before others, tolerance, and so on, that stuff’s all great. The RC church concerns itself with a great deal more than merely promoting these ideals.

    Dawkins sees only bathwater and no baby. In that he is a religious bigot.

    When it comes to religion, everyone is bigoted in one way or another.

    If religion did not exist then it would have to be invented.

    Why ?

    Science can provide no ethics.

    It’s not the role of science to provide ethics. That comes from other places, like philosophy. And many of the best contributors to philosophy, like Karl Popper for example, were atheists.

    Given your point of view, though, where do you think ethics comes from ? And don’t tell me they were handed down from the sky on stone tablets.

    You cannot derive an ought from an is. If Dawkins wants people’s ideas to conform to a big bang creation myth (note that the word “myth” does not denote untruth)

    It’s not a myth, as observations appear to confirm it, although they do not conclusively prove it.

    and to evolution by natural selection universally then he should address himself to destroying religion’s strengths and not just it’s weaknesses. For example a humanistic “crusade” against the increased rates of crime, broken homes, mental illnesses due to desocialisation and alienation that have followed in the wake of secularisation. A basis for ethics with a communal and not just laissez faire individualist game theory over-simplification.

    This paragraph essentially amounts to an argument for a system of social control by religion; a return to the quasi-totalitarian days where the largely ill-educated population were kept under control by the superstition fed to them from the local pulpit.

    Secularisation has arisen because people have become more educated, more questioning, and increasingly less willing to accept made-up dogma from the pulpit as a result. Moreover, major recent scandals concerning the activities of the church, the very clear fact that churches act to preserve themir own existence ahead of the common good, and better access by ordinary people to the history of the church’s hypocritical activities, make the automatic acceptance of their role as a moral watchman almost impossible.

    The enduring memory of schools run by religions for a lot of people is systematic physical abuse by stern men of the cloth. There are more stories than can be counted about the Christian Brothers and their penchant to beat the fuck out of people for the smallest of reasons. People have enough wit these days to be able to contrast these actions with the teachings that the same men claim to espouse. That’s where secularization comes from; it’s a reaction to the evil and hypocrisy spread by some quarters of religious organizations.

    Science cannot do that, and I doubt that more wisdom can be produced from men analytically deriving ethics than can be produced from the memetic survival of the fittest that has formed our present world religions.

    That’s fine. So can you please explain how the way that religions derive ethics – ie totalitarian individuals with a couple of screws clearly loose writing them down and then ascribing them to an imaginary invisible man in the sky – is a better way to do it ?

    That some [religions] stray on sciences territory may be of great interest to Dawkins,

    Stray ? There are branches of religion that launch full-scale attacks on it and attempt to block it from even being taught. That’s more than “stray”.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Malachi,

    “That leads me to a liberal understanding of how we shoudl respond to crime, for instance. In stead of asking how thoroughly we can punish a young killer, for instance, we should ask what response will have the better chance of bring him (usually him) to a better, more natural state.”

    Without a basis for right and wrong ie religion why would you try? “Better, more natural state” is without meaning as it’s only a point of view – probably the majority view, but that doesn’t matter for natural selection. If there’s no god what’s wrong with killing? Without god, “killing” is to “not killing” as left is to right or +1 to -1.