More Enlightenmentmonging from Romana’s hubby
An analogy [one you’ll probably not find on this year’s SATs]:
The Enlightenment is to Richard Dawkins and his transatlantic conceited coterie of atheo-fundamentalist cocks [I do mean that in the sense of ‘being proud as a’ and not in the sense of ‘as rigid as a’ – although now that I think about it, that could just about work too], Hitchens, Harris, Amis and McEwan, as a plunger handle is to a racist frat-boy marine at Abu Ghraib: used the wrong way round and up the bums of Muslims. In other words, for a purpose entirely in opposition to that for which it was originally intended.
[Furthering the phallic allusion here for just one tendentious and possibly thoroughly supererogatory second longer – It is remarkable is it not, that once upon a time, middle-aged left-wing men with diminishing little-general capacities just bought lavishly redundantly fast Italian roadsters and a mistress younger than their daughter, but these days, it’s always the luckless Enlightenment that seems to get the blood coursing through the old soixant-huitard schlong. I say, a shot of that Robespierre must work monstrously better than those diamond-shaped blue pills.]
In the unwitting or witting service of imperialism and Islamophobia normally is the ill-fitting purpose for which he and others wield the Enlightenment. But he’s at it again, and this time that smug, expensively coiffed salt-and-pepper bouffant of an evolutionary biologist is using his Manichean ill-read caricature of the Enlightenment and reason for more – oh and I do hate this word, but there’s nothing else for it – classist motivations.
In his new two-part series, Enemies of Reason, in perhaps what is a correction to an oversight from his last series, The Root of All Evil, he is attacking new-age flim-flammery, not merely established religion. He aims to show how silly, silly, silly people are who believe in dowsing, alternative medicine, spiritualism, mediums, crystal balls, tarot cards, astrology and the rest of the panorama of such ‘free-thinking’ applesauce.
I say correction, as his last series had only aimed at converting everyone to atheism, while it is, sadly, more than entirely plausible, if irrational, to be both an atheist, or, more precisely, someone who puts down ‘secular’ or ‘no religion’ on census forms, and simultaneously believe that the planet Mercury has some passing influence on whether you’ll finally get that promotion to second-assistant fartcatcher to your department’s under-manager of company stationary monitoring, or that an ascending Venus means that you and everyone else born in the same month as you will find true, ineffably soul-nourishing love before week’s end. There is not a small number of people who don’t go to church these days, but an unhappily large percentage of them still believe in palm reading, Echinacea and homeopathy, hang tacky first-nations dreamcatchers off their porches, and would rather step out into a street full of traffic than walk under a ladder that mid-pavement was leant against a building. One might here repetitively reflect that it is not, as G.K. Chesterton apparently never did say, that when people leave the church they will believe in nothing, it is that they will believe in anything.
I have little quarrel with Dawkins’ understandable impatience with people’s belief in this bricolage of infantillist nonsense per se. I have no time for any of this bullshit myself when I encounter it amongst people I know. On Free Tibet marches I used to attend years ago, whatever the injustice of the Maoist occupation, I always cringed when the crowd launched into chants of ‘Long live the Dalai Lama’. Rather, the concern I have is the class frame that this inheritor of the Earldom of Lincoln uses to scaffold his prosecution.
It is quite striking how the accent of almost every single one of the objects of his scorn in the documentary, including even the rather bumbling astrologer for the Observer (I know! It passed me by too. I’d never even noticed that the Observer had an astrology column. That and the constipated Nick Cohen! That’s it, I’m switching to, er, wait, the Indy has one too, I’ll bet, doesn’t it?), are so very far from Dawkie’s studiously deathless yet chipmunkish RP. From the scouse aura-photographer and the pink-cardiganed psychic energy tutor to poor swishy Simon the mancunian tarot hustler who, to be honest, got rather rumbled by Dick, to Craig the spiritualist minister, to Ken the dousing Cornishman who refuses to admit his dousing skill doesn’t work when it’s disproven before his eyes. Isn’t he simple? Poor, deluded, unsophisticated Ken.
Yet the sceptic magician, Derren Brown, who, like Houdini once did, debunks spiritualists and is on Dawkins’ side, has only the lightest hint of regulation-meeja-personality Estuary, and only by his forward-mouthed U’s can you tell that Dawkins' other fellow rationalist in the film, the psychologist dousing-demystifier, Chris French, must have spent some time oop north before university. It’s been a long time since one could definitively tell a person’s class from her accent, but yet, there’s something there. Dawkins is schoolmaster, not academic here.
Dawkins, far from even having any empathy for these people, holds them in the utmost dersision. Worse still, he offers no explanation for this latter-day growth in superstition and belief in the supernatural. It simply is. ‘Reason has a battle on its hands.’ ‘Science is under attack.’ ‘[There is] an epidemic of irrational superstitious thinking.’
Rather than recognising the foolishness of their thinking but understanding and explaining where it might have come from, he all but calls them fools to their faces with his own sneering, taunting visage.
The closest he comes to a reason for this contagion of the cockamamie is his unsupported assertion that there is ‘a prejudice against science in schools’ and that university science departments are closing around the country. He also gives ‘postmodern relativism’ a bit of a short and ungratifying poking. However lamentable the state of science education may be, and however much postmodernism in its sundry flavours deserves a good, sharp wedgie, I’d like to offer a more quotidian explanation.
Karl Marx, perhaps the most noted of all noted atheists, gave a generation of American anti-communists a gift with which to beat domestic left-wingers – with his epigram describing ‘religion [a]s the opiate of the masses’. Throughout the cold war, this, from his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, was considered the most arrogant of phrases and perhaps more of a reason to condemn socialism than any conclusions or prescriptions in the rest of his egalitarian philosophy. The emphasis was always on the ‘godless’ part of the ‘godless commie bastard’ felicitation. But in fact, the rarely printed complete quotation, far from arrogant, is full of empathy and at the same time offers a clear, obvious explanation as to why people believe in religion, or in this case, new-age mumbo-jumbo:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
It is the wretched condition of the world that gives rise to these uninflatable spiritual life-preservers that people cling to.
People have believed and continue to believe in superstition, whether of the established religious or new-age category not simply as Dawkins imagines because it offers an (incorrect) explanation of where the universe comes from and gives hope that we live on after we die, but also because life as a peasant, or industrial worker in earlier times, and in latter days a shelf-stacker at Wal-Mart or an at-any-moment-outsourced call-centre worker, is so fraught with hardness, with precarity, with loss, unfairness and poverty, that religion offers a meaning, a structure, a reassurance that things will be better after we die, that no matter what, someone loves me. However lonely I may be, there’s always somebody on my side. That if I believe hard enough, and pray enough, maybe I will get that job promotion. The false hope that comes from today’s Mystic Megs is no different.
I don’t know if anyone’s done any studies of this sort of thing, but it would be interesting to find out how many prayers or questions of tarot readers, ask not about healing or romance, but about personal economic matters – jobs, bills, credit cards, debt, mortgage payments, car loans, will there be enough money to pay for the kids’ Christmas presents? When despairing people go to these charlatans, it is more in search for hope in a world that offers none than anything.
Richard Dawkins’ father was a colonial officer in Malawi, at the time Nyasaland. The family is listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry as the ‘Dawkins of Over Norton’. He is married to the Honourable Sarah Ward, daughter of the Seventh Viscount Bangor, George Plantagenet, descendant of the 1st Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV [and, yes, spods, also the second Romana on Doctor Who]. How very clever he was to have been born into and married into such families who could deliver the likes of him unto Oxford, and not some undereducated line of Cornish tin miners.
I should say here that it is not I who is saying that superstition is the province of the working classes, and atheism the realm of the well-off and educated, but Dawkins himself.
In 2002, Dawkins gave a talk, ‘An Atheist’s Call to Arms’ at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, which describes itself onanistically as ‘an invitation-only event where the world's leading thinkers and doers gather to find inspiration’. Another World Economic Forum-style circle jerk, in non-PR-speak, in other words. Some of the sort of people who attend TED may well be galacticos of the academy (who won’t be so poorly compensated in any case), but for the most part they are the unforgivably rich.
The talk was much of the usual, unobjectionable bigging up of atheism Dawkins is good at, although unknowingly, his shirt collar was caught underneath his blazer lapel the whole time. Oh the shame of such a boner in such august company. At one point, he asked:
Is there any correlation positive or negative between intelligence and tendency to be religious? … A recent article by Paul G. Bell in the Mensa magazine…[shows that from] 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief and one’s intelligence or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. That is, the higher one’s intelligence or educational level, the less one is likely to be religious…There are people in this audience easily capable of financing a massive research survey to settle the question.
A couple of times he hinted to his bloatedly moneyed audience that the battle against religion would be financially costly, and then he came out and just said it. He begged for money from them:
This is an elite audience…I suspect a fair number of [you] despise religion as much as I do… And if you’re one of them, I’m asking you to stop being polite and come out and say so. And if you happen to be rich, give some thought about ways in which you might make a difference. The religious lobby in this country is massively financed by foundations such as the Templeton Foundation and the Discovery Institute. We need an anti-Templeton.
In a world in which there was less imperialism, less poverty, less competition, more social solidarity – in a more just world – there would be less need for religious fundamentalism and new age mumbo-jumbo.
Yet ironically, it is these captains of industry to whom Dawkins attends, fellates, cap in hand, begging them to fund his ‘militant atheism’ movement, the very commanding heights whose capitalist methods are responsible for the poverty, social dislocation, and imperial drive for war that incubate the despair that produces the wounds to which religion and new-age obscurantism are salve and balm.
In a further irony, as literary critic Terry Eagleton noted in the London Review of Books, that when Dawkins in his writing is not thoroughly ignorant of moderate theologians who see no conflict between faith and reason, is so baffled by them that he simply dismisses them, unable to fathom what he could utter to gainsay a word of their perspectives. For Dawkins, there is only athieism on the one hand and theism that is by definition fundamentalism on the other. There is no middle ground.
Yet it is these very non-fundamentalist religionists, those liberation theologians, liberal Anglicans, Catholic Workers, the architects of Jubilee 2000, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Tariq Ramadan, the Unitarians, the Quakers, the United Church of Canada, the Jesuit Sandinista ministers who chose the revolution over the church whose faith inspires or inspired them to fight poverty, oppression, war and colonialism, whose work actually helps build the world without injustice, without despair that builds the hope in the hearts of men and women that actually diminishes the need for superstition.
Indeed, if we follow this logic, then the Sermon on the Mount, of all things, or rather an adherence to its prescriptions of solidarity, is more likely to deliver the rationalist culture that Dawkins hopes for than a legion of Dawkinses.
Dawkins’ explanation for superstition is all opiate of the masses and no heart in a heartless world.