by Tenzan Eaghll
Dear Richard Dawkins,
Would you please, for the love of all things intellectual and academic, read a book on the study of religion, preferably one by Jonathan Z. Smith, and a book from the continental philosophical tradition, in order to inform yourself on how culture, language, and materiality construct human subjectivity. I am sorry to be so confrontational, but I cannot stand another one of your mindless attacks upon “religion,” not to mention another one of your essentializations of cultural difference. When you essentialize religion by referring to it as a particular thing that exists out there in the real world, independent of cultural difference, you not only hypostasize the very thing you wish to challenge, but demonstrate your complete ignorance of the philosophical critique of religion that has been occurring for the past three hundred years, from Kant to Derrida.
For instance, when you, or anyone from the “Dawkins camp”, such as Lawrence Krauss or Timothy Havener, suggest that religion is the cause of slavery, colonialism, and ignorance you merely appropriate the language of fundamentalists as the norm and suggest that religion is a thing that functions in a particular way. If you were to inform yourself of the theoretical developments in the academic study of religion, you would learn that religion is not a thing, but a complex confluence of political, economic, historical, and cultural forces, and that you cannot attack it by blaming it for our modern social ills. Indeed, you would learn that by claiming religion is responsible for our social ills, or cultural ignorance, you merely re-appropriate the essentialism of the “religious,” and validate their rhetoric. This line of attack not only supports the modern misunderstanding of how religion influences society, but sidetracks the analysis of the various political, economic, historical, and cultural forces that are essentialized as religion, and which, if properly analyzed, could help alleviate the societal conflicts that propagate themselves under its name.
Moreover, I believe that if you were to read a book on continental philosophy, you would learn that, by proposing the certainty of sense as the proper alternative to cultural delusion, you are propagating the popular, yet false, dichotomy between nature and culture. Additionally, you would learn that all discourse, even scientific discourse, is caught in a historical context, and that if we want to change a dominant discourse, such as theology, we need to deconstruct its essentialist claims, not reify it as an actual entity that functions in determinant ways. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you would learn that language is the inescapable horizon of all human interaction, and that to increase the amount of justice and free inquiry in society we need to pay attention to the particularity of all language and meaning.
Now, just to be clear, let me state that I, and most of the thinkers in my field, are in agreement with the general aim of The Richard Dawkins Foundation. We too want to challenge the false claims of fundamentalists and are opposed to unscientific narratives such as creationism, the belief in the soul, and any sort of cultural relativism that pretends scripture and science are equivalent. Indeed, for the most part, scholars in the humanities are atheists, or at the very least agnostic. (I could cite numerous studies which demonstrate that “religion” is more prevalent in the sciences than in the humanities, but since these studies are often based upon essentialized definitions, and add little to the conversation, I will avoid the temptation) However, I, as well as many of my colleagues, cannot simply stand by and watch you propagate an unnecessary binary between religion and science, which is overly simplistic, historically false, and contributes nothing to our cultural understanding of how religion operates in society. It is not sufficient to simply attack religion, as if it were a definite thing with definite properties; rather, what we must do is challenge the essentialist claims that are made in the name of religion by pointing out that it is not a thing, but a complex confluence of various social factors.
My hope is that, by reading a little theory, you will learn to use your cultural capital more wisely. You and your peers have a chance to improve the public discourse on religion by bringing some of the complexity that informs your scientific analysis to your analysis of culture. Scientists such as yourself and Lawrence Krauss have published brilliant works based upon years of data analysis and mathematical development; however, your criticism of religion is at a grade five reading level. For instance, in A Universe From Nothing Krauss presents advanced cosmological theories to a lay audience in an accessible format. His analysis of quantum electrodynamics lays out very clearly how the world is infinitely more complex than the “common sense” perspective. However, his critique of religion simultaneously reinforces that common sense perspective and undercuts the intellectual purchase of his scientific analysis. In short, his refined cosmological analysis is undercut by a very crude understanding of culture. If you and Dr. Krauss would just match, even in the slightest degree, your scientific analysis with an analysis of language and history, you could actually say something of relevance about religion, instead of just reiterating cultural reifications.
I think we can help each other out as we move forward. The existing antagonism between philosophy and science is unnecessary. Both scientific analysis and continental philosophy contribute to the deconstruction of cultural hypostatization. But we should not deceive ourselves into believing that we can wipe clear the mirror of cultural reflections that inculcate our symbolic world. The reformation of cultural forms and paradigms that limit free inquiry is an infinite task, and not simply a matter of overcoming religion. At some points, it is even necessary to overcome certain forms and paradigms of “science”… perhaps even yours.
Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.