TIA Tuesday: Dawkins on morality, theocracy, and psychological abuse.

Last time we saw how Vox Day tried to take a gross failure to understand Dawkins’s point and use it as ammunition against Dawkins. His succeeding two arguments are even more superficial and shoddy, to the point that one gets the impression he’s anxious to finish this part and get it over with as quickly as possible. He makes only passing references to “Dawkins said so-and-so,” and gives out isolated quotes, which in typical Vox fashion, he deals with by assuming that Dawkins must have meant whatever peculiar straw-man interpretation suits Vox’s purposes at the moment. But then we get to point number four and the much more interesting topic of morality. He begins, once again, with some slanted statistics.

It has been established that Christians give three times more to charity and are less criminal than the broad spectrum of atheists; experiments at the Economic Science Laboratory suggest that this might be because they believe that their actions are known to God. In variations on an envelope experiment designed to test random charity on the part of a subject who was given ten dollars as well as the opportunity to share it anonymously, the knowledge that the experimenter was watching increased the subject’s likelihood of giving by 142 percent and the amount given by 146 percent.

We’ve looked at Vox’s statistics before, and it’s no surprise that he brings up the same spurious interpretations he’s been using all along. “Correlation is not causation,” as they warn you in Statistics 101 in your freshman year. Even if we take Vox’s reported studies at face value, we don’t know whether religious people are more generous, or whether generous people, being more socially oriented, are more likely to attach themselves to peer groups like the Rotary Club, the Lions, or the local church. But we can see that his preferred interpretation—that people give more when they think they are being watched by God—is not really supported by the evidence. People give more when they’re being watched by someone they can see watching them. And that ain’t God, brother!

I’m not going to look too hard at these statistics, though, because regardless of whether the Christian God exists, Christian people do exist, and are indeed responsible for doing a number of good works, at least when they know they’re being watched by someone real. So let’s move on and see how Vox tries to wrestle with Dawkins’s views on morality.

Dawkins erroneously states that behaving in a traditionally moral manner in the absence of policing is somehow “more moral” than the very same behavior when it is witnessed. This confuses action with intent and reveals a basic misunderstanding of the nature of Christian morality.

Hmm, so Christian morality means you’re only refrain from sin when you think you’re going to get caught? That would certainly explain a number of newspaper headlines in the Religion section, but I don’t think that’s really what Christians have historically taught. In fact, when I was a Christian I was routinely taught that your true character was shown, not by how you behaved when people were watching, but by how you behaved when you believed yourself to be unobserved. This was particularly likely to be a theme when the sermon text was based on any verses containing the word “Pharisee.”

Seems to me that Dawkins is closer to traditional Christian morality than Vox is here, but let’s move on. Wait, what? Vox is done with this section already? Either he really is in a hurry to get this over with, or else Dawkins didn’t leave him much room to argue. Let’s go ahead and see how Vox reacts to Dawkins’s claim that America would become a “fascist” state if it were rebuilt to embody “God’s Law and the Ten Commandments.”

Dawkins claims that the goal to have a Christian nation built on God’s Law and the Ten Commandments “can only be called a Christian fascist state” and claims that it is “an almost exact mirror image” of an Islamic fascist state. This is preposterous on several levels….

Fascism is not merely a word that means “scary,” it is a specific historical ideology no less readily identifiable than Marxism or Communism. While there were avowedly fascist governments in the Christian nations of Italy and Austria, there is no such thing as Islamic fascism. Islamic fascism does not exist and it has never existed, either as a political ideology or a practical system of government. The concept is a meaningless term of propaganda used primarily by American neocons and third-rate political pundits seeking to stir up public support for the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism during the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion; it is already falling out of the political discourse.

Notice how Vox subtly shifts from “fascist,” an adjective meaning “of or like fascism,” to the noun “fascism,” which in one of its definitions does indeed have the specific technical meaning Vox ascribes to it. Dawkins compares a theocratic state to a fascist state based on common factors such as defining national identity in terms of some authoritarian standard like religion or ethnicity, and in order to make Dawkins work out to be wrong, Vox has to pull a word switch, substituting a technical term (noun) for Dawkins’s original comparison, and then claiming that Dawkins misapplied the noun.

Then again, even if Dawkins had used the noun, the experienced reader will recognize that Dawkins is making a comparison highlighting the objectionable characteristics of such a state. He’s not, as Vox would have it, claiming to have given it an expert classification based on its political and sociological taxonomy. But Vox needs to make his accusation and then quickly change the subject, because the last thing he needs at this point is to get into a discussion of how individual liberties in America would have to be curtailed or revoked in order to bring us all under someone’s interpretation of what God’s Law is. I’m not sure what church Vox goes to, but somehow I suspect he might feel differently about Dawkins’s assessment if it turned out that God’s Law meant America tithing to the Pope.

Naturally, Vox is outraged, in the following section, by Dawkins’s suggestion that being raised in a Catholic church is more damaging, psychologically, than being abused by the priest. I’ve got some sympathy for Vox here: in terms of the classical concept of psychological damage, sexual abuse is of course more damaging. I believe, though, that Dawkins is chiefly alluding to psychological harm of a sort that is not generally recognized as being real damage, namely, the crippling of the ability to distinguish between what actually is true, and what you only wish were true. To Dawkins, the fact that you believe in God, despite all the evidence, is a very serious and horrible form of damage in and of itself.

Vox, of course, wades off into more statistics and does his usual number waving, and indulges himself in a few tasteless jeers at what he sees as Dawkins’s presumably inferior parenting skills. (This is, after all, a book frankly and enthusiastically dedicated to ad hominem.) I won’t belabor the point, because it’s really all an exercise in semantics: Vox is going to use his definition of “psychological harm” as though it is the only possible definition, and a consideration of what Dawkins actually meant isn’t even going to enter into the picture.

My own personal assessment of Dawkins’s point is that it is not likely to sell well, because when someone suffers, and knows they are suffering, the harm is readily apparent. When someone is harmed, and the nature of the damage is such that it renders the victim insensitive to the suffering, then our dismay is less visceral. It’s not unlike drunkenness: the one who is very drunk does not feel as drunk as the one who is only slightly “buzzed.” We may be offended and repulsed that anyone would stun their own brains like that, but we don’t necessarily feel the same kind of empathetic suffering as when we see an abuse victim suffering bouts of suicidal depression. On a purely cerebral and moral basis, one might judge the harm to be nearly equal in both cases, but we feel more sympathy for the one whose suffering is obvious. So I can see where Dawkins is coming from, but I don’t expect much popular support for his opinions in this particular area.

And that about does it for this week. We’ll pick up in Chapter 8 again next Tuesday. See you there.

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