The Greatest Show On Earth

My copy arrived yesterday, and here's what I think so far--this is a really yummy looking book. It has a black cover with silver butterflies that somehow pick up the colors of surrounding objects and shimmer. Inside, there are three sections of full-color, very intriguing animal photographs. Then there are immediately enticing charts and pictures sprinkled throughout the text. The font is unusually readable and the paper really nice. And then there are all the section titles that immediately leap out at you, bidding you to come on in, not just to learn but to be entertained. I shall probably just sit and pet the book for a while (because I'm busy with other things), but I couldn't resist a peek. Ah yes, there are going to be some polemical bits, and some jabs at creationists. That's all well and good, but must Dawkins really compare evolution-deniers to Holocaust-deniers? Isn't it vastly more pernicious to deny what happened to the six million, than to tell a silly story about the origin of species?

So, do you plan to read The Greatest Show on Earth? Or is Dawkins "too much"? That's what Karen Armstrong says (in so many words) in this interview ("The Changing Perception of God"). She was in my fair city a couple of days ago, being interviewed on the local PBS station. She talks about lots of things, but near the end about the new atheists. She complains, "There's an aggression there." Dawkins and Hitchens talk about "exterminating" and "expunging" religion, which she says is deplorable, given the events of the 20th century. She thinks they're bigots. Well, I loved Armstrong's book The Spiral Staircase so much that I'm as ready to listen to her as to Dawkins. So what I want to know is: where did she get those words? Have Dawkins or Hitchens actually used them? Does anyone know?


amos said...

I have not read the complete works or either Hitchens or Dawkins, but both are too politically correct and too sensible to use phrases like "exterminating" or "expunging religion". It doesn't ring true.

Anonymous said...

Well you've seen the 4 horsemen 2 hour dialog. Hitchens there expressly says two things:

1) There are religious fanatics in the middle east that he would like to see "exterminated." (If he doesn't say exterminated he says something that's a synomnym.

2) He enjoys debating religious people and he would be sad to see religion goes because he likes the debates.

So. Yes to exterminating SOME religious groups, no to "exterminating religion."

As for Dawkin's I have no idea. But I wouldn't be particularly suprised if "expunge" made it into one context or another.

I still maintain that we need to drop "religion" and just start talking about supernaturalism but I'm pretty sure no one is going to listen to me there.

Jean Kazez said...

I think the specific word "exterminate" would be a disaster because of its associations ("expunge" is less of a problem), so I wonder if it's really been used.

Yes, religion vs. supernaturalism is a nice distinction. I am attracted much more to religion than to supernaturalism. I'm afraid there's just nothing in the latter category, so there's nothing to be attracted to!

That was an amusing bit of "The 4 Horsemen" when Hitchens says he'd be sorry to see religion go--I think it probably isn't just because he'd miss having debates, but because religion is responsible for a lot of the world's cultural richness, and he's a guy who really appreciates cultural richness.

Faust said...

The word he uses is "extirpated" and then "refining methods of destroying them" and "them" refers in this context to Jihadists.

It's in the second hour of four horsmen around the 11:00 min mark.

His position on "cultural richness" is quite murky acutally. I thought he was not particularly well thought out in this section.

amos said...

As to comparing holocaust denial and evolution-denial, on a purely intellectual level, they both evince ignorance of basic facts. In the real world, holocaust denial is generally associated with neo-Nazism, so is seen as more dangerous, but one could imagine a holocaust-denier who also denies the French Revolution, the Renaissance, the existence of the Roman Empire, that is, someone who doesn't single out the holocaust to deny it, and that holocaust denier would not be dangerous, just ignorant. Perhaps Dawkins' comparison of holocaust denial with evolution denial shows a certain political naiveté, a political naiveté which has been commented on before in this blog.

Matti K. said...

"Isn't it vastly more pernicious to deny what happened to the six million, than to tell a silly story about the origin of species?"

Evolution and the Holocaust are both important historical events. Both are denied because they don't fit into the ideological framework of the deniers. I think the thought processes are quite similar.

I don't think Dawkins made an assessment which kind of denial is more harmful for the society.

So, please tell me the difference between "religion" and "supernaturalism". Is religion is a subset or supernaturalism? Organized supernaturalism?

Jean Kazez said...

Holocaust deniers are immoral, creationists aren't. Big difference. It's unfair to creationists to ignore the moral dimension and lump them together.

Religion is all the activities that surround the core belief in the supernatural--going to church, celebrating holidays, etc. You can participate in religion without belief in the supernatural and you can have belief in the supernatural without participating in a religion.

Faust said...

There are athropologists e.g. Durkheim and Geertz (and others) who have developed definitions of "religion" that are considerably more general than "belief in supernatural agencies."

Jean touches on some of the elements: Perfomative stuff like rituals. This is sometimes tacitly acknowledged by "new atheist critics" like Sam Harris when says things like: "North Korea is very similar in structure to a cargo cult," or when Dennet spends several pages hemming and hawing about how hard it is to define religion before finaly defining it as--you guessed it--belief in a supernatural agency.

The bottom line for me is that it is simply more accurate and quite a bit simpler to acknowledge that the PRIMARY target of recent atheist criticism is supernaturalism. All the stuff about leprachauns and faries and teapots etc basically comes down to the question: why should we organize our behavior around intentional objects which are essentialy equivalent to arbitrary fictions used to explain the structure of the universe. In terms of explanatory power they are are the same. Allah suffices just as well as Jahweh. This seems to me the important point.

"Religion" is an INCREDIBLY broad category and has been usefully used by thinkers such as Einstein (Dawkin's disagrees of course. I'll take my Einstein over Dawkins). Of course Einstein was NOT a supernaturalist.

Anyway there is plenty here to quibble about here but that's my point: why quibble about the dteails when you can have people like Mark Johnston finding common cause with the "undergraduate atheists" on the subject of supernaturalism. Lets form alliances that work. There are a lot more people that will sign on board a project that undermines supernaturalism than people that will sign on board to undermine something as broad as "religion."

Matti K. said...

I think bona fide Holocaust deniers are delusional. As with any deluded person, judging the level of their morality is much more difficult than judging their stupidity. I can much easier pass moral judgment on a Nazi who thinks it was a wonderful thing that Hitler killed those 6 million Jews.

I think bona fide creationists are delusional, too. Creationists tend to be Bible literalists, who believe in and love a God they "know" killed once the whole human population, with a few exceptions. They also believe in and approve the numerous God-driven atrocities of the Old Testament. When this kind of mentality is mainstream in a community, the results are not always benign.

Do you think it is unfair to call creationists delusional?

Here is how Wikipedia defines religion.


It speaks about a "system of human thought". You seemed to include into religion a lot of the social activities that occur in a society with a common religion.

amos said...

We had two (I'm not sure about the number) Holocaust deniers in one of Jean's posts in the TPM blog a while ago. They didn't seem so much delusional as evil and sadistic. Jean finally had to shut the post down.

amos said...

I met several Holocaust deniers online. They seem to take pleasure in denying the suffering of those who were exterminated in the Holocaust: they are perverse.
I have also run into a number of religious fundamentalists online, Christians, Jews and even a few Muslims. They are dogmatic and blind to evidence, but invariably polite and well-intentioned, often offering to pray for me.
I just don't see evolution deniers and Holocaust deniers as being in the same ethical league.

Jean Kazez said...

What Amos says. Holocaust deniers are actually trying to do a sort of violence to Jews by erasing the memory of what was done to them.

I think it's helpful to separate the supernatural beliefs at the core of religion from religion in the larger sense, which includes all sorts of activities. You can have one without the other, and it makes sense to evaluate these things separately.