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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Nick Kristof's Column Today

I really respect Nicholas Kristof. He's done a ton to keep the tragic genocide in Darfur in the news, and he usually brings an interesting take on the more-frequently covered topics about which he writes. His writing on aid and Africa has made me more aware of the good work that some evangelical groups do there. More than once, such columns of his have reminded me that not all---perhaps few---evangelicals fit into the box of rabid, loud hate that has become so typical of the Axis of Intolerance that seems to have had such a strong grip on the Republican Party lo these last years.

One thing about such columns is they make you realize that intolerance for those whose leaders are loudly intolerant isn't a virtue. To that effect, I think Kristof has a point about the tone of recent secular attacks on religiosity as such. Kristof's column today focuses on and cricitizes Richard Dawkins's website Why Won't God Heal Amputees?:
That’s a snarky site that notes that while people regularly credit God for curing cancer or other ailments, amputees never seem to enjoy divine intervention.

“If God were answering the prayers of amputees to regenerate their lost limbs, we would be seeing amputated legs growing back every day,” the Web site declares, adding: “It would appear, to an unbiased observer, that God is singling out amputees and purposefully ignoring them.”

That site is part of an increasingly assertive, often obnoxious atheist offensive led in part by Professor Dawkins — the Oxford scientist who is author of the new best seller “The God Delusion.” It’s a militant, in-your-face brand of atheism that he and others are proselytizing for.
I confess to more than my share of off-the-cuff remarks that aren't entirely charitable to true-believers. Nonetheless, I strive to be more tolerant of people who are devoted to their faiths. Personally I think it's up to individuals to decide the ultimate truths to which they want to subscribe. I make this point because, while I haven't read Dawkins's book, I understand (from both Kristof's article and a friend who has read it) that much of his goal is to convince the faithful that they are wrong on empirical matters and thus should abandon faith. Hence Dawkins's website on amputees---which, based on a couple minutes of perusal, I think is considerably more thoughtful and earnest in its engaging of believers than Kristof gives him.

Personally I think Dawkins's point---that faith cannot be justified on empirical grounds---is neither surprising (I think that statement is either tautological or self-evident, in case there's a distinction between these two concepts) nor likely to convince many reflective theists. The fact that Dawkins has cleverly found an example that challenges---indeed, appears to negate---the literal text of the Bible doesn't really change this fact. There's such a thing as artistic license, and I'm guessing that many sincere theists see the literal quotes that Dawkins cites in that light.

Nonetheless, I'm glad that Dawkins is lodging this particular challenge. Worldwide, we're in the midst of ongoing attempts by religious fundamentalists to turn back the clock on liberal (that's "liberal" in the classical sense) rights. Here in the US, we've suffered through years of an ascendant religious right filled with intolerant, uncivil and---in at least some high-profile cases---hypocritical mullahs who think it's their business to tell the rest of us how to live. Inevitably their reasoning seems to come down to religious principles in general, with the Bible in particular often cited. If Dawkins's challenge forces at least some people to confront evident contradictions in the Bible's text, then so much the better.

Now, I haven't followed Dawkins's recent efforts, or those of his allies, enough to know whether Kristof is justified in referring to their tone and wording as constituting "irreligious intolerance". If so, I wish they'd not take that approach---both because it's intolerant and because it's unlikely to be very helpful.

But they have every right to make the arguments they're making, arguments that apparently need to be joined in a society where a Jew chosen to be the Democratic nominee for Vice President can earnestly and publicly say
As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose.
He also questioned the idea "that morality can be maintained without religion". (Kudos to the ADL for calling him out on this one; if memory serves, Lieberman later said he didn't mean to suggest he believed what he'd said.) And let's not forget Jerry Falwell's tour-de-force, so heartily joined by Pat Robertson.

Having said all that, I plead dumbfoundedness to this statement by Kristof:
Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let’s hope that the Atheist Left doesn’t revive them.
Huh? The Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars?

With anti-gay-marriage referenda passing in something like 7 states (though not in Arizona) this past election, with the attempts by the White House to direct federal funding to religious groups, with all the noxious stuff that the political representatives of the religious right say these days, where does Kristof get this idea? I know that there are some fringe folk on the "Christian Right" (Paul Weyrich is one, if memory serves) who have decided to drop the partisan-politics approach to the "culture war". But I don't think that means he/they are eschewing the "culture wars" in general.

Perhaps Kristof means that, since the Democrats took both houses of Congress, voters are currently less in the thrall of the "Christian Right". Well, if so, then he should recognize that the "retreat" isn't due to some self-reflective decision to stop with the intolerance. No, it's due to the fact that their ideas aren't all that popular.


Anonymous Nate said...

Professor Gelbach,
I think Dawkins's contributions to the discourse tend to be pretty harsh. He coined the term "faith-sufferer" for believers, to give one prominent example. I don't know if you saw it, but South Park's recent treatment of the whole situation was pretty good. Anyway, keep up the good work on the blog.

12/03/2006 11:35 PM  
Blogger Jonah B. Gelbach said...


"faith-sufferer" indeed is an intolerant and uncivil thing to call religious people. i missed that on dawkins's website, and i'm sorry that he uses that term. sadly i missed that south park episode.

thanks for your comment.


12/04/2006 1:53 PM  

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