The myth of 'religion' and the tyranny of Dawkins’ discontinuous mind

By Timothy Fitzgerald
17 Feb 2012

In a New Statesman article entitled “The tyranny of the discontinuous mind”, and published at the turn of 2012, Richard Dawkins suggests how arbitrary our classificatory dividing lines are. Yet the substance of his arguments rests on precisely such a dividing line – the one between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ or, put in a different way, between ‘faith’ and ‘secular’ reason.

I wish to argue here that the heart of Dawkins’ untenable position is that he imposes on his readers the tyranny of his own absolutist distinction between scientific rationality and religious faith. When Dawkins criticises our “need for dividing lines, black-and-white answers and absolute definitions” he is not, it seems, including the dividing line which he draws between ‘religion’ and ‘science’, or between ‘faith’ and ‘politics’. In his writing it is an ‘either-or’ situation. Religious ideas about evolution might look scientific, but it is not ‘real science’. The Mullah might look like a ‘religious’ leader, but he is really a politician.

My contention is that the essentialized distinction between religion and secular reason deployed by Dawkins and fellow travellers such as Christopher Hitchens is thoroughly ideological, but its rhetorical deployment has created the delusion that it merely describes the way the world really is. Some thing or agent called ‘religion’, with its absurd metaphysical fantasies, interferes with nonreligious realities such as secular states and proper knowledge. But this narrative is itself a myth. Religion is in effect no different from a Platonic essence in Dawkins’ theories

Dawkins argues that an uncritical belief in metaphysical abstractions or Platonic essences [“…one of the most pernicious ideas in all history...”] can provide a fictitious ontological legitimation for racist categories, making the arbitrary and contingent appear fixed in the nature of things. This seems like a valid point. In a similar way feminists have persuasively shown that the typical deployment of gender categories legitimates male power at the expense of women by making gender inequality seem ‘natural’, in the nature of things.

Dawkins discusses the ideological imperatives that lie behind the classification of US leaders such as Colin Powell and Barak Obama as ‘black’, pointing out that such a loaded classification could never be neutral or merely descriptive. Yet unfortunately Dawkins’ arguments rest on a similar mythical dividing line represented by a series of either-or binaries: religion and nonreligion, the natural and the supernatural, faith and scientific knowledge, God and the world.

However, there is nothing given in perception and empirical observation that corresponds to any of these binary reifications. These are mutually parasitic reverse-images which, when studied in the multiple contexts of their actual uses, can easily be seen to have no clear dividing lines between them. There is no possible authoritative pronouncement about what does or ought to fall on either side of the binary apart from an arbitrary exercise of power.

The distinction between ‘religion’ and the nonreligious secular is itself a pure abstraction with no basis in empirical reality and very little meaningful content outside the shouting space of public rhetoric. When courts have to decide if a particular group is eligible to be classified as a religious charity the results are arbitrary. To take one example, the Church of Scientology is a religion in California but not in the UK. Both the respective courts which made these different decisions are classified as ‘secular’. But then why is the realization of justice in our lives, and the faith we have in the solemn procedures of the courts, not itself a form of religious practice? Does Dawkins really imagine that sharia law is essentially religious but the judicial system in the UK is essentially secular?

Religion as a malevolent agent stalking the peace-loving secular state

The religion which Dawkins attacks from his base in secular reason, and which he and Hitchens seem to imagine as a purposeful agent, is not a real target. But it is required so that the equally contentless idea of a nonreligious secular domain appears as something essentially different from religion in the way that paranoid fantasy is different from sober reality. Belief that there is something clearly distinct in the world called religion disguises the ideological commitments of the classifiers behind a façade of apparently neutral, objective description.

The ability to point at Muslims as religious fanatics is subtlety linked to a wider discourse in, for example, International Relations, that wherever we look religion stalks the globe like a malevolent agent intent on doing harm to the peace-loving and only reluctantly violent secular state. It provides an ideological legitimation for progress and the belief that ‘science’ and secular politics is what will save us. Science (and politics) is what religion is not, just as religion is what science is not. But this is to reify two domains which are both imaginary and to badly confuse the logic of the concepts one is deploying.

The religion about which Dawkins claims to be an expert does not actually stand for anything real in the world. It is a general category with a complex and contested history and I challenge him or anyone to come up with a satisfactory definition of what the term means. The religion which Dawkins and fellow traveller Hitchens despises is in effect no different from a Platonic essence in Dawkins’ theories, a Form which manifests in the different empirical ‘religions’ which he assumes without much thought are instantiations of religion itself. Dawkins’ notion of the relationship between religion and the religions is not much different from an incarnation or avatar theology.

Worse, by supposing an essential difference between religious faith and secular reason, secular science itself inevitably acquires an essence of its own, to distinguish it not only from religion but also from things that may look like science but are not real science.

Dawkins writes as though the natural world is available for empirical inspection, while the supernatural is a purely imaginary domain. But which world of nature is available for empirical observation? Where would you point if you wanted to show someone nature? ‘Nature’ has no clear referent. Terms like world and nature are general categories and if you eliminate the terms that give them a meaningful context there is no way any human can observe ’a world’ or ‘nature’. God might be able to see a world, I don’t know. But Dawkins and I most certainly can’t. And the interesting thing is that Dawkins’ category of nature and world is parasitic on a discourse about God and the supernatural.

Just as the idea of ‘atheism’ is dependent for its intelligibility on the idea of ‘theism’, so also his claims about the essential difference between faith and empirical reason is essentially no different from an anti-theological metaphysics. Religion is Dawkins’ target because he needs it for self-definition. Dawkins is confusing his own subjective emotional needs for objectivity.

Dawkins needs a historical perspective

Dawkins works with a series of essentializing binary oppositions which are at the heart of his whole argument about the irrationality of religion and the rationality of secular science. In this he is not original, but on the contrary is blindly reproducing the framework of liberal capitalist ideology which underlies western public rhetoric and foreign policy since its birth during the era of colonialism.

The essentialized distinction between religion and nonreligious secular domains such as science or politics seems to have been invented in the late 17th century within the combined contexts of Nonconformity and colonial interests, but has taken on the unquestioned appearance of inevitability. A series of other binaries step in as equivalences: the natural and the supernatural, spirit and matter, faith and knowledge, God and the world. One side of all these binary essentializations is rational and real; the other side is unreal and deluded. But this itself is as much a delusion as ‘the God delusion’.

Despite the argument that biological evolution has no direction, concepts like religion, secular, science, politics and the state are impregnated with ideological nuances which Dawkins seems unaware of. For example, as far as I can see, the earliest consistent usage of the term ‘politics’ as a domain separated from another domain called ‘religion’ dates to the late 17th century. The reified opposition between religious and secular domains arose historically out of an Enlightenment myth of human progress from the darkness of religion and superstition into the light of scientific reason. And his unexamined presuppositions are not essentially different from the dubious secularization arguments that legitimate the social sciences. The latter have acted as ideological agencies which transformed the meaning of ‘society’ from identifiable relationships between specific people (‘I was honoured to be in the society of the King and many eminent philosophers at Christmas’; or, at a more generalized level “I am a member of the Royal Society”) to the globalised metaphysical abstraction ‘societies’ which are in principle countable and measurable like organisms. This is the world of abstractions in which we all feel intuitively compelled to think today.

Of course, without general categories we could not think at all. But there are relative degrees of disinterestedness and neutrality in the way we classify our world. The binaries that appear throughout Dawkins’ preaching against ‘religion’ and ‘superstition’ may use old words but the classificatory deployment – and therefore the meaning – is modern. They form a semantic configuration of categories which is profoundly different from late medieval and early modern meanings, and different again from the many complex collective representations of non-European peoples.

Dawkins writes and speaks as though ‘religion’ and its binary opposite the ‘nonreligious secular’ is an intuitive universal, applicable to all languages, peoples and power formations at all periods of history. That those people did not realize that they were in the grip of religious illusion is irrelevant. Now that Dawkins and others have finally attained the truly rational and the really real, they are in a position to make judgements about the predicament that the deluded are not yet ready to understand.

Cranes and sky-hooks

On the one hand, according to Dawkins, evolution proceeds through the on-going construction of cranes rather than by way of metaphysical sky-hooks; yet the idea that ‘religion’ (irrational faith) is something essentially different from ‘science’ (rational knowledge) derives from an enlightenment discourse on the progressive advancement of humankind from lower to higher stages.

Dawkins may vehemently deny that evolutionary biology is akin to the myth of human evolution from lower to higher stages; yet though he has ostensibly dropped the purposive element of the myth, he has uncritically incorporated some of its fundamental mythemes. He has uncritically adopted a version of secularization which portrays the light of science as a doctrine of salvation by secular reason, leading us out of the darkness of religious stupidity. And this self-serving ideology, heavily inflected with liberal Protestant supremacy, legitimized tutelage of non-European peoples by colonial civil servants, politicians, missionaries, and capitalists. Of course, Dawkins denies purpose or direction in evolution. Yet in his own evangelical texts, Dawkins is actually setting up the metaphysical parameters which he claims to want to expose as hollow.

What does ‘religion’ mean?

Since the Reformation the Anglophone term ‘religion’ (presumably much like the term in German, Dutch and French) usually meant Christian truth as distinct from pagan falsehood, and this distinction in turn was as much about dominant claims to Christian civility and rationality as it was about abstract theological disputes concerning ‘God’. Christian preachers have often been as concerned with whether women of a certain class have the right to wear large hats as they have been about the correct articulation of the Trinity. Protestant missionaries have been as concerned that the savage natives live in ‘proper’ houses and speak a proper language as they have been about defining the complex (and some would say polytheistic) Trinitarian and Incarnational doctrine which supposedly defines the nature of God for such Christians. Evangelical Christians today construct their own missions of conversion on the basis of this opposition between civility and barbarity.

Religion in this more historically specific sense was not an object in the world to be researched, described and compared alongside other so-called ‘religions’, but the truth about the world, including the proper or improper disciplines of civility. In this older discourse there cannot be more than one ‘religion’.

But the historically more recent modern discourse on ‘religion’ – and ‘religions’ in the plural – has been reified and universalised as a generic category, lacking clearly specific content, opposed to the equally modern generic category the nonreligious secular. Terms which still have specifically Christian meanings in some contexts are being deployed by Dawkins (and many others) as though they are neutral, descriptive and self-evident.

Part of a wider ideological discourse

The mythemes embedded in Dawkins’ arguments for the supremacy of something called nonreligious secular science over another unanalysed abstraction called ‘religion’ are part of a much wider contemporary discourse which is being reproduced in one way or another by academics, politicians, media commentators, by courts of law, by constitutions and the general public. This discourse is now so dominant that to challenge its basic categories appears counter-intuitive and even eccentric.

This appearance of inevitability has been powerfully strengthened by its internalization and reproduction by leading members of those institutions typically classified as ‘religious’ themselves. A good case in point is the invention of ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ as a religion, and the relatively recent adoption of this global discourse by the Dalai Lama. Yet the news agencies report that the Chinese and the Americans differ absolutely on whether or not the Dalai Lama is a real religious leader who can safely visit Taiwan, or a political leader hiding behind the cloak of religion and therefore an agent of mischief.

The success of Dawkins’ arguments depends on turning a blind eye to the historically contextualized, constructed and contested features of such powerful categories, and to the wider but not so obvious interests which they serve.

What is it that makes African witchcraft beliefs, Japanese public street festivals, Theravada meditation, Scientology, the Indian caste system, devotion to Elvis Presley, water divining, yoga, the Aboriginal Dreamtime, Catholic monastic communities, and Calvinist attitudes to work and productivity ‘religious’ or ‘religion’ according to very widespread contemporary usage? And why, given this eclectic bunch, should we exclude devotion to capital, private property, the accumulation of money, or the ultimate act of self-sacrifice for the glory of the nation state?

Why do we lump together such a vast spectrum of human practices globally into this simplistic either-or binary opposition: it is either religion or it is science? It is either ‘religious’ or it is ‘nonreligious’? It is either religion or it is politics? It is either spiritual or material? These are the mythemes of modern ideology which Dawkins innocently spins, imagining he is telling it ‘like it is’.

The very idea of ‘religions’ in the plural suggests the sharing of a common essence ‘religion’. But that in turn implies that the ‘nonreligious’ also has an essential dividing boundary. The reifications that Dawkins’ has unconsciously adopted (though he certainly didn’t originate them) are the mythemes on which his essentializing discourse depends and which are being reproduced by a whole range of agencies including the State and its educational and legal systems.

Dawkins is ideological state apparatus. His arguments against the irrationality of something called ‘religion’ do not only and heroically reproduce that abstract and invented object, but simultaneously reconstruct the equally mythical secular basis of his own rational superiority.

Reference: Richard Dawkins, “The tyranny of the discontinuous mind”, New Statesman, 19 December 2011 – 1 January 2012]

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© Timothy Fitzgerald is Reader in Languages, Cultures and Religions at the University of Stirling. His work, background and publications history are summarised here.


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