As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist nightclubs; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for organising a gay rally; and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti's tragedy must be payback for human 'sin'.I often get the feeling Dawkins rather likes people like Pat Robertson for saying what they think loudly and brutally, a kindred spirit. His real target is the 'nice, middle-of-the-road' religious type who disowns the frothing fundamentalists while at the same time supporting what he believes to be equally nonsensical propositions about 'creation groaning under the weight of sin', and a 'god-man' having to atone for it by letting himself be tortured and executed.
No one does righteous indignation quite like Dawkins:
Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for "sin" - or suffering as "atonement" for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre.Magnificent stuff. I wouldn't express myself in this way, but I agree with a lot of what Dawkins says about religion. So much of it is mad, incomprehensible or of doubtful value. Yet he and some other militant atheists share a curious literal mindedness with the fundamentalists, each looking to scientific facts or the scriptures as a source of absolute truth and certainty.
Those like me who don't follow any particular creed have to rely far more on an inner moral intuition to guide us about what is right and wrong, as of course atheists and humanists themselves do. If we read religious literature at all we pick and choose, taking inspiration from what makes sense and discarding the obviously obsolete or nonsensical. Interestingly, and whether or not you take them seriously, this is exactly what channelled 'spirit teachers' say we should do.
And yes, this relativist approach is adopted - necessarily - by 'nice middle of the road' theologians and clergymen. At my local church I've frequently listened to some blood-curdling passage being read from the Bible - eg. Abraham setting out to slaughter his son at God's command - and then heard the vicar, a kindly decent man, and equally aghast, devote his sermon to explaining why it's not really like that, and why, on the whole, we should not pay too much attention to that sort of thing. Yet at the same time he accepts as gospel a lot of propositions, mostly dreamed up by Paul, Augustine and various committees, that I have difficulties with.
My sense about why religion is important is informed largely by religious and paranormal experience, of the kind that critics like Dawkins think is obvious spurious, on the grounds that what goes on in our heads is a matter of chemical reactions - nothing more. That's the big conclusion of Darwinism, and it doesn't surprise me that he hammers on at it. For instance I recall he says somewhere in The God Delusion that no one should attach any significance to mystical experience who has 'the slightest understanding of the powerful workings of the human mind'.
Unlike Dawkins, I want to know why the mind behaves in the way that it sometimes does. That seems like a scientific attitude, and I believe my approach to religion to be empirical, as his is.
I accept that paranormal experience has not been proved in any formal scientific sense, but I think the evidence, both anecdotal and experimental, is pretty persuasive of a process that cannot be explained in terms of current scientific understanding. I also think it poses a serious challenge to the idea that what we call the mind is merely brain activity and nothing more. Why do people have near-death and mystical experiences? Sceptics can find flaws in the 'proofs' offered by paranormalists, but there's no convincing explanation - Sue Blackmore's efforts notwithstanding - of how such a curiously structured set of imagery, sensation and experience can occur so widely, leaving people with the conviction of having experienced God.What does surprise me is that the challenge is not recognised, and that it plays almost no part at all in the debate about religion. That's one reason why the literature of parapsychology deserves to be better known and understood.