10/24/2006 11:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Contrarianism on Dawkins and Obama: or, God and Man at HuffPo

It's time to be a contrarian on two subjects that have been receiving more than their due share of adulation here at the Huffington Post - Richard Dawkins and Barack Obama.

Dawkins doesn't strike me as an enlightened thinker, but as a highly emotional activist for a subgenre of atheism that seems increasingly dedicated to promoting an atmosphere of hostility and intolerance. The flashes of brilliance in his early books have given way to increasing shrillness and ever-weaker arguments. Anyone who thinks this summary of Dawkins' critics is accurate should read Terry Eagleton's piece in the London Review of Books.

Writes Eagleton:

"Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass. The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals."

Eagleton, a onetime socialist firebrand turned highly-respected academic, nails the key weak points in the arguments put forth by the Dawkins faction (a subset of nonbelievers I call "the evangelical atheists"). I would summarize those weaknesses as follows:

* They mistake intense emotion and their own deep conviction for a logically-structured argument.
* They steadfastly refuse to examine or acknowledge any sociological data or other works that might undermine their cherished preconceptions, e.g. that all religious people view the world the same way.
* Theirs is a profoundly "faith-based initiative" - based on the belief that wars would stop and people would love each other if all religion ended. Nice idea; no proof.
* They actively encourage "intolerance" for all religious beliefs - not an admirable point of view, by most post-Enlightenment standards.
* Their a priori conviction that they're smarter than their "opponents" leads to some sloppy scholarship - as if they can just phone in their argument and have it accepted on the basis of biography alone.

As Eagleton writes, "... they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be."

I would add that some of Dawkins' American followers (like Sam Harris) also have the nasty habit of picking on Muslims, already a persecuted minority in this country, hoping to capitalize on anti-Islamic bigotry and fears to gain new followers. That's neither an admirable deed nor a pretty sight.

Eagleton adds:

"Now it may well be that (traditional Christianity) is no more plausible than the tooth fairy. Most reasoning people these days will see excellent grounds to reject it. But critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. "

I'm pleased to say that my last post on atheism drew several emails from atheists around the country pointedly disavowing the Dawkins/Harris faction and condemning their self-described attitude of "no tolerance" for faith in any form. Let's hope others do so, too. Atheists have a tough enough time in this country without being associated with intolerance in any form.

Speaking of God makes a nice transition to Barack Obama, the most vocal God-loving Democrat among leading contenders. He's been receiving a lot of love over the last couple of days, here and elsewhere. Eric Alterman, who I respect, is one of those speaking very favorably of Obama (although he won't say why, exactly; he just says he's "for real" in public and in private. More, please.)

I'm not anti-Obama, but I have been somewhat disappointed by his public posture since hitting Washington. I understand politics is the art of the possible, but I felt he could and should have made stronger statements about the war and other critical issues when he first came to town. I still feel that way. Like many, I was disappointed by his votes early on to confirm Condi Rice and against credit rates caps. It seemed that he was consciously trying to craft an image of moderation, at the price of standing up on some critical issues.

After reading Joe Klein's profile in TIME (which is surprisingly good given Klein's instinct for occasional mudslinging and prevarication), I'm not so sure. Compromise, second-guessing, and self-doubt may be essential parts of the Obama character. That makes him a more intriguing and challenging personality, one I'd like to know better. I'm not sure it makes him a better prospective President, though.

I think Ezra Klein gets him just right. It's almost as if Obama wants to become a symbol, a glyph, a blank space into which every voter can project his own hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

The risk for the Senator from Illinois is this: there's a very subtle difference between an blank space and an empty suit. Doubt and second-guessing can be virtues if they keep you from making bull-headed mistakes. But they can also be impediments to the exercise of true political courage.

That's the tightrope he'll have to navigate for this strategy to be successful. Brains, look, and charisma are terrific - but leaders have to lead. The public can turn quickly against a politician it deems to be overly calculating.

He's unquestionably an intriguing guy, and history will tell whether his instinct for compromise is a virtue or a vice. The times that try men's souls aren't usually the best historical moments for a Hamlet-like disposition - and we've been living in times like that lately.

On the other hand (more than one of us can have a Hamlet streak) - the nation may someday be in desperate need of some healing after years of division. Obama's talent for viewing a situation from multiple perspectives may yet find its historical moment. I'm just not sure it's here ... at least yet.

As the believers say, more will be revealed.

A Night Light