Richard Dawkins' Jewish Question

10/16/2007 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"A scientist looking at nonscientific problems,'' said the great
physicist Richard Feynman, "is just as dumb as the next guy.'' That's
not necessarily anyone else's concern -- unless the scientist in
question is claiming to speak, with scientific authority, for the rest of us.

A fresh case in point is this analysis by Oxford's Richard Dawkins, from
an interview published earlier this month in Britain's Guardian (see
the sixth paragraph). As part of his ongoing campaign to get "downtrodden,''
apologetic atheists stand up for themselves, Dawkins suggests that we
secular humanists emulate other minorities. For instance, the Jews:

"When you think about how fantastically successful the
Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told
-- religious Jews anyway -- than atheists and [yet they] more or less
monopolize American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if
atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world
would be a better place."

The historian David H. Fischer identified this kind of rhetoric as "the
fallacy of equivocation.'' That's where, he wrote, "a term is used in
two or more senses within a single argument, so that a conclusion
appears to follow when in fact it does not.'' Dawkins starts with the
"Jewish lobby'' (by which one presumes he means the pro-Israel lobby,
from his later reference to foreign policy). Then he says "they'' are
less numerous than atheists (so now the referent is not an office-full
of people, but rather, American Jews). Then he qualifies the term to
mean "religious Jews.'' We've gone from (1) AIPAC to (2) "the Jews''
to (3) Jews who believe in God and (4) Jews who follow traditional
practice. (The term "religious Jews'' could describe both types of
person, and there is no reason to think that everyone in category 4 is
also in category 3.)

In short, quite a muddle. I cannot tell who we secularists should be
trying to copy -- lobbyists, ethnically Jewish Americans, believers in a
deity or people who hold to traditional practice without reflecting on
ultimate questions. Only one thing is clear: By casually echoing the
rhetoric of anti-Semites, Dawkins has made a fool of himself and, by
extension, those of us for whom he claims to speak.

The interesting question is: Why? How could Dawkins, the holder of
Oxford's Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science,
miss the differences among the kinds of people he lumps together, both
in the Guardian interview and on the website? Those distinctions are
well-documented. Pro-Israel lobbyists get plenty of support in the US
from non-Jews (importantly including conservative evangelical
Christians). Meanwhile, plenty of Jews, in Israel and throughout the
world, do not support the goals of this lobby. Take a look here for an example. Then too, there
are religious Jews who most emphatically do not support the State of
Israel or its goals. Have a look here, for instance.

As it happens, the potency of pro-Israel lobbyists has been much in the
news lately, since John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt just
published a long-germinating book that analyzes the effect of the
lobby in the U.S. (You can read a shorter version of their arguments here. Briefly, they say lobbyists for Israel have been
highly successful in influencing government policy -- as have the
National Rifle Association or the AARP. Perhaps the controversy over
their book inspired Dawkins' remark.

But they don't say what Dawkins is saying. In fact, Mearsheimer,
offered a chance to say precisely what Dawkins claimed, instead
explained that this picture is not supported by his
and Walt's study. You can see him saying it here.

Anyone can get his facts wrong and later correct himself. But Dawkins'
confusion suggests a deeper problem -- a conceptual misunderstanding
about identity. That mistake may stem from his casting himself as a
leader of downtrodden atheists. In any event, it explains why his
movement is doomed.

The problem, briefly, is just this: Identity-based behavior is not a
unitary phenomenon. It comes in many forms. And what people do in one
mode does not predict what they will do in another. The forms overlap
(you can be at the same time a Dawkinsian secular humanist and a Jewish
person and an activist for Palestinian rights). We often use the same
language for the different types. All that makes the fallacy of
equivocation easy to commit. But it's still an error.

Dawkins' statement, for example, invokes at least three different modes
of identity. First, there is identity based on a consciously chosen
belief. (You've thought about U.S. policy in the Middle East and come
to a conclusion about what you want the Government to do.) Second,
there is identity based on habit and upbringing. Maybe you don't believe
in God or approve of West Bank settlements, but you go to seder at your
grandparents (it's family, it's childhood, it's what "we'' do). Third
is identity based on a trait that is perceived to be involuntary, and
often thought to be inherited. You can decide to support Palestinian
rights or choose to go to the movies on Yom Kippur, but somehow, you
feel, you can't change where you come from.

Identities of the second type, like knowing yourself to be Irish or
Catholic or a Yankees fan or a hunter, come to you through early
experiences, where you're taken through the rites and patterns of life
that teach you "what we do'' and "who we are.'' Such identities are
learned by the body, in sights, smells, sounds and movements that arrive
before reason. The mode was well described by the philosopher Michael
Oakeshott, when he wrote:

We acquire habits of conduct, not by constructing a way of
living upon rules or precepts learned by heart and subsequently
practiced, but by living with people who habitually behave in a certain
manner: we acquire habits of conduct in the same way as we acquire our
native language.

This sort of identity is rather impervious to rational thought and
official declarations, and a good thing too. I, for one, am glad that
my sense of being American -- my sense that home is home -- does not
depend on the policies of the federal government.

Identities of the third type are imposed. They arise out of the
encounters you have with the rest of the world; encounters you cannot
refuse to see and cannot wish away. You can decide how to deal with
such an identity -- whether, for example, you want to be an out and
proud member of the GLBT community or a total closet case. But you
cannot decide to leave such an identity behind you. The rest of the
world won't allow it.

Now, atheism is an identity of the first type, the conscious, thought-
out sort. That is the point Dawkins makes when he says we should not
refer to a "Catholic child'' or a "Muslim child,'' because a child
can't decide what s/he thinks about the existence of God.

The problem, though, is that identities based on opinions feel
ephemeral, because opinions change all the time. With an identity based
only on opinion, you have two unattractive choices: (1) Admit that
tomorrow you could no longer belong to the tribe, because you might
change your mind; or (2) admit that in order to preserve tribal feeling,
you will have to behave as if your opinion is much more certain and
consistent than a normal thought.

This second choice is what Dawkins advocated, I think, when he wrote
this on his web site:

I admit, I sympathize with those skeptics on this site who
fear that we are engendering a quasi-religious conformity of our own.
Whether we like it or not, I'm afraid we have to swallow this small
amount of pride if we are to have an influence on the real world,
otherwise we'll never overcome the 'herding cats' problem.

But the problem with atheist solidarity (and the reason atheist groups
are comically riven by orthodoxies, inquisitions, purges and schisms) is
not that all members are nuanced, independent thinkers. It is that
atheism, unlike sexual orientation or religious upbringing or beloved
cultural tradition, is an easily-changed conviction, and everyone knows
it. Dawkins can't admit this because he wants to lead his people into
the Promised Land, and to do that he needs to have a people. He thinks
atheists just need to go slumming, and pretend for a bit to believe the
same thing. But identities that matter are not based on belief at all.

Most everyone knows this, and so very few people can take atheism
seriously as a basis for understanding "what kind of person I am.''
Instead, the identities that make people glad, mad, and weepy are those
about which people feel they have no choice: The identities they learn
at their parents' knees, the experiences imposed on them by the beliefs
of the neighbors. Not coincidentally, it is those identities that make
people cough up money to support effective lobbyists in Washington.
Identities like "hunter'' (National Rifle Association) and "gay
person'' (Human Rights Campaign) and "old person'' (American
Association of Retired Persons).

Could atheism be made then into such an identity? For
example, by atheist parents who raise atheist children with explicitly
atheist annual rituals and beloved cultural icons? (The standard
American Christmas is fairly secular but it pretends not to be, so it
wouldn't count.) Well, sure. You can make a convincing identity out of
anything, if you put generations of effort into it. And perhaps, with
his t-shirts, buttons,
instructions for holding meetings, this is what Richard Dawkins is
aiming at. In the meantime, though, he is fooling himself and making
the rest of us secularists look like idiots.