Guest Post: A Response to Christian Blogger Rachel Held

by Laura

The following is a guest post from Steve, whose previous contribution can be found here…

I am assuming you’ve seen this?

Well, needless to say, I have a response. See below:

In her piece for CNN, Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans notes with disdain a recent comment made by Richard Dawkins that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” On the basis of this remark, having stated that she’d resisted the temptation to join fellow Christians to use his remark as “an opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism,” Evans instead proposed the following cease-fire terms between atheists and Christians: “So, atheists, I say we make a deal: How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?”

To be a fair deal, it must benefit both sides. This deal is not fair. Richard Dawkins’ statement about the paucity of major Islamic academic achievement since the Middle Ages is accurate, if arguable. Pat Robertson’s statement, for example, that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment on the people of New Orleans for its sins was callous, calculating religious demagoguery, not to mention insensitive in the extreme.

Dawkins’ statement rests upon a premise that the pervasive influence of 11th Century Muslim theologian Al Ghazali essentially ended a period of open and free scientific inquiry in the Islamic world. Al Ghazali’s influence arguably rendered Islam absent from scientific pursuits ever since his theology’s ascendency in Islam. In recognizing the paucity of Muslim Nobel Prize winners, Dawkins was merely noting that Islam’s hostile stance toward free, skeptical inquiry had stunted Muslim contributions to academia. When one considers the vast contributions made by Muslims (particularly in astronomy and mathematics) in the 300 years prior to Al Ghazali’s scholarship taking hold and the almost complete lack of new scientific thought to emerge from Islamic scholars since then, Dawkins’ point should have been well taken. That it was not may owe more to the maladaptive tendency amongst many Western social and religious moderates to apologize for Islam’s myriad transgressions as either, 1) a bulwark against criticism of their own similar religious convictions, 2) a healthy, yet unstated fear of the potential consequences of criticizing Islam, or, 3) an excuse to attribute all such perceived negative Islamic tendencies to invidious Western colonialism.

Pat Robertson’s blaming Godless sinners for the path of Hurricane Katrina derives from no similar scholarship or erudition. Robertson chose to use the tragic path of a natural storm as a means to further his narrow and divisive view of Christianity. While Dawkins’ is often accused of insensitivity toward his opponents, his stance is plainly against only those who would stifle free and rational inquiry or abet and apologize for such curtailments. As odious as Evans and other Christians may find Dawkins, I am not inclined to trade the voice of a genuine intellectual titan espousing rational criticisms on the perils of religion for that of a crackpot religious zealot with negligible intellectual or scholarly faculties merely because they both appear to equally offend those opposed to their viewpoints. Conflating the inherent value of Dawkins’ and Robertson’s statements on the basis of the outcry from those offended by their respective remarks presents false dichotomy. To adopt an inflammatory analogy (pardon the pun), conflating Dawkins’ and Robertsons’ statements presuppose that the combustible nature of religious debate renders all methods of ignition equal, regardless of whether rhetorical accelerants are used.

Does this mean I turn a deaf ear to the harms caused by insensitive remarks, whether intentional or not? Of course not. And insofar as Dawkins has demonstrated insensitivity towards those who are merely the victims of circumstance (and I am not aware of any such instances), he should apologize. But there is a vast gulf (again, forgive the pun) between blaming people unfortunate enough to live in the path of a Hurricane for their role in invoking God’s wrath upon them and simply stating the consequences of hundreds of years of Islamic hostility toward the free and open study of the natural world through science. In fact, given that Islamic religious belief since Al Ghazali has mostly maintained his mandate to eschew examination of natural phenomena outside of the limited requirements of the Koran, it’s as if those who take offense to Dawkins are in essence saying “how dare you denigrate the academic and scientific output of people who’ve decided to stifle their academic and scientific output in the name of Islam!” To introduce another crude analogy, if someone were to openly state his or her non-belief in the Theory of Gravitation, I’d hope you’d forgive my insensitivity if I occasioned that person’s unfortunate death plummeting from a cliff as a cautionary tale against failing to maintain a proper respect for the laws of physics. Facts can be notoriously insensitive, especially when they refute one’s chosen belief at the rate of 9.82 meters per second squared.

Unlike the apprehension of facts, the adoption of a belief is a choice. So is the endeavor to comprehend, appreciate, and further the accumulated knowledge of science. History has noted that the rejection of rational inquiry in a society has attended far greater evils than a mere tongue lashing from Richard Dawkins. In fact, I’d posit that it was precisely the barbed criticisms by individuals like Dawkins throughout history that have prompted the kinds of changes that allow not only scientific discovery, but also the conditions necessary to engage in debates like this one without fear or coercion. It is equally easy to find figures throughout history like Robertson, uttering similarly savage statements; the words drowned out by only the din of the atrocities being committed in their accord. I’m afraid I can’t equate a voice for free and open inquiry and debate with a vessel for unlettered, vile, superstitious, Bronze Age invective bent on the subjugation and oppression of anyone with differing beliefs.

So, no. I’ll keep Mr. Dawkins and his sharp tongue, thank you. I’ll also refrain taking any further shots at Pat Robertson. I request nothing in exchange: granting myself leave to ignore Pat Roberton’s delusional ravings is compensation enough. However, that Evans sees her trade proposal as fair and equitable may speak to just how little genuine respect even moderate Christians have toward their legitimate critics, to scientific scholarship, and toward the value of intellect and knowledge. But then, in my experience as an atheist, fair-dealing in arguments with religious opponents has always been a rare exception to the rule.