Dear Dr. Dawkins,
first of I must thank you. Due to your inspiring work, ‘The God Delusion’, I have officially changed my Facebook religion from ‘Zen agnostic’ to ‘Zen atheist’. But I felt that, despite the fact that you’re unlikely to get this message through the deluge of messages you probably receive, I should write to you and try and explain the basis behind one of the criticisms that is frequently levelled against you: that you are insensitive.
Now it is quite possible that in the years since you wrote the book that you have already figured out for yourself from whence this attack hails and that my efforts are unnecessary. But on the off chance that this has not occurred I hope that you will take these ideas under advisement.
I don’t know if you have ever done the Myers Briggs type indicator (MBTI), but I can highly recommend it as a personal growth experience. One of the distinctions that the indicator makes is between ‘Ts’, rational people, and ‘F’s, feeling people.
For the purposes of this letter the primary difference between these two groups is that the one prefers rationality over emotions and the other does the opposite. Both of them can be rational and both of them can consider the emotions of others but each group regards the one as being more important than the other.
I think we can all agree that you, like me, are a rational person, a ‘T’ if you will, and while this is certainly of great benefit in your chosen career I believe it may have damaged the reception of some of your work. For example, there is a part in your book where you state, in essence, that people should not be unhappy when they are going to die because there is no rational reason for them to be unhappy. I believe that in this you are falling into a classic rationalist trap. You believe that being rational about things can somehow override people’s emotions. In this you are mistaken, and I believe that it is this mistake that has led to many people throwing out your work on the grounds that it is insensitive.
I believe that we can agree that thoughts and feelings impact on each other, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the person and the situation. There may be no rational reason to be sad when one’s dog dies, after all one can simply buy another, but this knowledge does nothing to change the reality of the sadness or fear. In fact being told that one’s feelings are irrational can, in many cases, make one’s emotional pain far worse.
The fact that this behaviour is completely irrational is actually irrelevant. The emotional pain being felt by the person is real, and it would be foolish to deny its reality.
A fanatic who believes that god wants them to murder doctors who perform abortions may be completely irrational, but that doesn’t mean they won’t kill you, and telling them, at gun point, that they are behaving irrationally will surely only make things worse.
The importance of emotions must not be underestimated.
By the same token the emotional pain being experienced by those whose identification with religion has been challenged is quite real. Irrational, but real. Simply condemning it as irrational and going about one’s business is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it is tactless. The irrationality of the fear or pain does nothing to alleviate its severity. The belief may be false but the pain is quite real. Secondly, making a person feel stupid for believing something simply makes them feel as if they are personally under attack, and makes it less likely that the meaning behind your message will be understood and accepted.
All I am trying to say is that feelings are also important. In fact I’m not sure what would be worse: a world bubbling over with thoughtless emotion or a world blasted white with cold rationality. We need a balance between the two, we really do.
I am in no way saying that your message is incorrect. The consoling effect of religion does nothing to counter balance its negative impact. All I’m saying is that if you want to win these people over you need to provide emotional reasons to change, as well as rational ones.
To disregard the importance of feelings is to disregard their power.
As a side note I must also mention that you were wrong when you said that no war has ever been fought in the name of atheism. Setting aside the Cold War as a mixed case there are still plenty of conflicts being fought by your own supporters. Yes indeed, thanks to the miracle of the Internet it is now possible for people to first learn of your teachings and then to mindlessly identify with them, thus attaining the same level of fury usually reserved for religious fundamentalists.
This is in no way your fault and it is a matter of opinion whether the battles being fought on the Internet justify being called a ‘war’. But I’d like to talk about the phenomenon anyway.
The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, whose ideas can, I feel, be appreciated from a secular point of view, posits the theory that the greatest motivator in human society is ego. He suggests that people are constantly looking for something greater than themselves with which to identify with. In this way they can convince themselves that they are part of something larger, and thus boost their egos and allay the fear of death.
I think that this is one of the most accurate statements about human psychology than I’ve ever heard (and I’m a psychologist). The implication for the understanding of religion is obvious. One of the things that attracts people to religion is that it actively encourages them to identify with it. It is one of the greatest ego boosts of all time. After all, it tells people that they are a part of the biggest thing that can possibly be imagined. So you can add that to your list of reasons why people don’t want to give up their religion.
Unfortunately, some people are just as likely to identify with your ideas as with the religion. Once again the relative accuracy of the two schools of thought doesn’t enter into it. All that matters to the person is whether or not their ego is being supported and “belief” in your teachings provides a wonderful ego boost because it allows people to feel that they are more intelligent than other people.
It is alright to be smarter than other people, but it is not alright to think that you are smarter than other people. It is from this egoic source that the most aggressive statements about your beliefs arise, whether they be for you or against you.
It is my belief that this is also one of the reasons why the character assassination that has been carried out against you has been so successful: some of your supporters are just plain mad, and highly aggressive too. Perhaps they believe that it helps your cause for them to write homo-erotic “fanfic” with Jesus and Mohammed as the protagonists. I must forcefully, and bemusedly, disagree.
In any event thank you again for writing that book. It really has opened my eyes, and changed my life for the better.
Titanium Teddy Bear.
The fact that this letter has ostensibly been written by a fictional metallic bear may cause you to doubt its sincerity. Do not. For personal reasons it is important that my private and public lives are kept separate. To this end I find it practical to use an easily mocked, yet distinctive, pseudonym.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]