Liberal Rabbi David Wolpe, who with fellow rabbi Bradley Artson was roundly trounced in a debate with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens over the existence of an afterlife, is butthurt at Prospect Magazine‘s naming of Richard Dawkins as the “world’ leading intellectual.” To redress his grievance, Wolpe has a piece in this week’s PuffHo questioning Prospect’s decision: “Is Richard Dawkins really the world’s leading intellectual?“ As Wolpe notes, “If Dawkins is indeed our best, the life of the mind is in a precarious state.”
What’s Wolpe’s beef? Here’s why, he says, Dawkins doesn’t qualify:
- Historical ignorance. Wolpe argues that, contra Dawkins, Hitler really was more evil than Caligula, and then faults Dawkins for a few other statements:
“Of course, this historical misfire comes from the same book, ‘The God Delusion,”‘that insists, “I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca — or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame.” As Alistair McGrath points out, that would surprise anyone who is aware of the fact that the explicitly atheistic Soviet regime destroyed the vast majority of churches (and priests) between 1918-1941. The Tamil Tigers (again, atheistic, and the inventors of suicide vests) leveled countless Buddhist sites of worship.
Well, maybe there are one or two atheists who would bulldoze Chartres right now, but Dawkins is right in the main. I doubt that a single one of my readers would want to see those cathedrals destroyed. For crying out loud, it’s this kind of nitpicking that Wolpe uses to denigrate Dawkins’s historical sense? What about all the things about history Dawkins got unequivocally right, like the evils committed in the name of faith?
- Intellectual narrowness. Again, Wolpe picks a couple of quotes out of Dawkins’s oeuvre to discredit him completely. As he writes, “Dawkins exhibits none of an intellectual’s characteristic ability to understand the second side of the argument. He not only discounts religious argument, he is unable to believe in the integrity and sincerity of those scientists who disagree with him. Referring to a fundamentalist who gave up science because he could not reconcile the two [Kurt Wise], Dawkins suggests that he be given the Templeton prize (a prize for scientists who make spiritual contributions) because He might be the first really sincere recipient.’. . . The inability to credit your opponent’s arguments or intentions is not a mark intellectual distinction.”
Actually, I think it’s pretty clear that Dawkins thinks that many religious people are sincere, especially those who commit evil in the name of their faith. As for not “understanding the second side of the argument,” I’m not sure what the good rabbi means. I can understand why religious people make some of the arguments they do (brainwashing, wish-thinking, and so on), and parse those arguments so that I understand them (“yes, I understand you think the world was created 10,000 years ago”), but taking most religious arguments as seriously as one takes a credible idea, like that of sexual selection? I don’t think so. In fact, in The God Delusion Dawkins does take on board many arguments for God and uses intellectual tools to dismantle them (e.g., the Cosmological and Ontological arguments and so on). The influence of that book rests, in fact, precisely on taking the arguments for religion seriously and then dismantling them.
- Moral obtuseness. Ah, yes: the old “child abuse” statement that has furnished fodder for many of the faithful:
“To write, as Dawkins has, not only that religion is a form of child abuse but indeed may be more damaging than actual sexual abuse, is closer to raving than to reason: ‘Priestly groping of child bodies is disgusting. But it may be less harmful in the long run than priestly subversion of child minds.’ Puerile swipes at the religion of a billion people are beneath any intellectual, much less a ‘leading’ one.”
Wolpe then points out the many good things that religious people do. But it’s hardly a “puerile swipe” to consider many forms of religious indoctrination as child abuse. I know several Catholics who, even past the age of 30, have been scarred for life by the guilt instilled in them by nuns and priests, and we all know how madrasas deform young and impressionable minds.
Nothing angers religious people more than the accusation that religious indoctrination can be seen as child abuse. And yet that accusation is often completely accurate. People like Wolpe don’t like to think of themselves, or their coreligionists, as abusive, but of course some of Wolpe’s fellow Jews regularly snip off the tips of children’s penises—with their teeth!—and turn their daughters into second-class citizens, forced to take ritual baths of “purification” after menstruating.
Yes, surely some religious people do good, and sometimes in the name of religion, but many of those people would have done good even if no religion existed, not to mention the fact that many religious “charities” are vehicles to proselytize.
Wolpe notes this: “Central to the evaluation of an intellectual’s integrity is whether they are arguing with the best in the opposing position.” But what, exactly, does he mean by the “best” in the religious position? The best deeds of religious people? The most “sophisticated” theological thought? Given the absence of evidence for God, there is no “best” religious argument; there are only better or worse behaviors. And behaviors in modern societies that are largely free of religion, like those of Scandinavia, aren’t palpably worse (and probably better) than those of religious societies like the U.S. In terms of the group morality inspired by religion, I’d say that for most faiths it’s worse than secular humanism.
Wolpe then contrasts Dawkins’s “obstuse” atheism with that of Michael Shermer:
“Thoughtful atheism is an important contribution to the debate. Far more credible is the conclusion of an ideological confederate of Dawkins, editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer: ‘However for every one of these grand tragedies there are a thousand acts of personal kindness that go unreported. … Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.’”
Indeed, for even Hitler built the Autobahn! The question isn’t whether there may be some people inspired to do good by faith, but whether the tenets of that faith, without which it would inspire no behaviors, are true. And it is here that Dawkins has made his mark, for by his writings, eloquence, and dogged, science-inspired questioning, he has rammed home a central tenet of New Atheism: religion depends on empirical statements about the universe, and without those statements religion crumbles. God is a hypothesis, and a bad one.
In fact, the Prospect Magazine criteria have been widely misinterpreted. The magazine wasn’t trying to find the world’s leading intellectual of the decade, or of our time, but those intellectuals who had the biggest influence over the past year. As Prospect notes:
The panelists who drew up the longlist of 65 gave credit for the currency of candidates’ work—their influence over the past 12 months and their continuing significance for this year’s biggest questions.
By those lights, Dawkins surely qualifies. He has, along with the other prominent New Atheists, made nonbelief respectable again, and an intellectually solid position. He has inspired thousands of secret nonbelievers to make their voices heard, thereby hastening the end of the world’s last great superstition. That certainly makes him one of the world’s most influential intellectuals.
And I’ll tell you who is not one of the world’s great intellectuals: the credulous faithhead Rabbi David Wolpe, mewling and puking before a nonexistent Yahweh.