The Bill Muehlenberg Trophy: Rachael Kohn’s war on "atheistic scientists"

21 05 2007

This morning my girlfriend, who teaches in an Anglican high school, received an email being passed around the offices of several religious schools in the Perth metro area entitled “Antidote to Root of All Evil.”

The antidote in question is a critique of Richard DawkinsRoot of All Evil by Rachael Kohn in the SMH, which very quickly (and very disappointingly) descends into an anti-atheist, anti-science rant.

Kohn takes issue with the comparison Dawkins apparently draws between Ted Haggard’s Pentecostal megachurch brand of worship and Nazi rallies.

To the scientist Dawkins, a room full of people waving their hands and singing “Praise Jesus” is evil because it is irrational. By definition, believers obedient to a God which cannot be proved to exist, and whose dictums are based on mythical stories that have no basis in fact, are as dangerous as the Brownshirts.

Dawkins is not accusing Haggard and his followers of being Brownshirts, of course. What he is doing is pointing out what megachurch Christianity and Nazi rallies have in common: unquestioning dogmatism–the sheer absence of critical and reflective thinking that is the hallmark of every kind of fundamentalism–be it religious or ideological.

So when Kohn argues that “what Dawkins failed to acknowledge in his encounter with Haggard is that the Nazi program of eugenics and extermination was not dictated by an unseen god,” she is missing Dawkins’ point entirely.

But there is more in this that should put the scientist masquerading as a moral philosopher on guard. Nazism’s propaganda was written with the help of a legion of scholars from the hard and soft sciences, from anthropologists, philologists, psychologists and economists to biologists, zoologists and doctors.

So what? No-one is claiming that scientists are incapable of folly, ignorance or despicable behaviour; nor is anyone suggesting that the fruits of scientific research cannot be put to heinous uses. Certainly Dawkins is advancing neither proposition in Root of All Evil. The important distinction for him is not between scientists and believers (how could it be–many scientists are believers), but rather between science and faith. He is pitting the fallibilism and skepticism of science against the parochialism and dogmatism of faith, and what he’s suggesting is that Nazism and megachurch fundamentalism both exhibit the latter characteristics. Hence, the comparison holds.

The Nazi example is not unique but was repeated elsewhere, such as in Stalinist Eastern Europe and Mao’s China. It is no doubt occurring in Iran, where dissidence is virtually impossible. The point is not the political ideology, but the readiness of “rational” scientific types to help mad regimes to deliver untold suffering to millions.

Kohn is contradicting herself here. If dissidence is virtually impossible in these regimes–it will be as impossible for “rational scientific types” as for anyone else–whether we’re talking about China, Eastern Europe or Iran. In any case, the point is the political ideology–and the fact that the Stalinism and Maoism that held sway in Eastern Europe and China respectively have far more in common with religious fundamentalism (of both the Islamic and the Christian kind) than they do with the tradition of freethinking and skepticism embraced by many atheists.

But no rant is complete without a strawman argument:

The trouble with the present flight from religion to the welcoming embrace of atheistic scientists and philosophers is that they offer precious little more than a new conviction that religion is the cause of evil in the world. In other words, these scientists deliver a message akin to that of the fire-and-brimstone preachers who bellowed about the dangers of sin, only they warn from their secular pulpits of the dangers of religion.

No, Rachael: if atheists and scientists (who may or may not be atheists, but don’t let that stop Kohn throwing us all into the same box) have a message to deliver, it is that the benefits to humankind of reason and critical-reflective (as opposed to dogmatic and parochial) thinking are manifold and demonstrable. Every advance we have made towards liberty and democracy–be it racial equality, gay rights, women’s rights, etc.–has been made in spite of the vehement opposition religious traditionalists. It is the latter, and not freethinkers, who have held us back every time–and Kohn may want to take a few minutes out from her thoughtless science-bashing to give that some thought.

Kohn closes with an attack on Michael Onfray’s The Atheist Manifesto. I haven’t read the book myself, but apparently it entails a Marxist critique of religion. Why this should in and of itself be a problem Kohn doesn’t deign to inform us–I guess the sheer mention of Marx is supposed to set off a big red flashing light in our heads and send our critical faculties into meltdown as we search under our beds with a flashlight. (Lazy argument being another hallmark of the rant.) She complains that Onfray presents a “comic-book” view of religion–in a piece that itself presents a comic-book view of science and nonbelief. She complains that “Onfray does not accept the sociological truth that religion has not only accommodated the laws and ethos of a democratic state but in a pervasive way supports it.” Supports it? In what sense? It is the religious who oppose the full enfranchisement of the gay and lesbian community. It is the religious who want to dictate to women what they should do with their own bodies. It is the religious who (as this article demonstrates) regularly attack science when its discoveries come into conflict with theological presuppositions. It is the religious who want tear down the wall of separation between church and state–even though, ironically, it is the existence of such a wall that guarantees religious freedom. How exactly does any of this support democracy?

Kohn’s closing line is priceless:

If Germany in 1933 had been invaded by people in prayer singing “Praise Jesus” instead of Nazis in jackboots it would not have presided over the worst mass killing in history.

Bullshit. People in prayer singing “Praise Jesus” lynched African-Americans in their thousands in the Deep South. People in prayer singing “Praise Jesus” have blown up abortion clinics and murdered their staff. People in prayer singing “Praise Jesus” abused children under their power while other people in prayer singing “Praise Jesus” covered for them. And Rachael: people in prayer singing “Praise Jesus” were complicit in the Nazi extermination of millions of undesirables.

Cross-posted at Punditocracy Watch




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