Not Saussure

April 26, 2007

Why Richard Dawkins is irritating.

Filed under: Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 11:21 pm

Matt, at An Insomniac, has a thoughtful article lamenting the way atheists seem to be getting up people’s noses, rather. I very much agree with him — especially when he says,

the hostile tone adopted considerably weakens the arguments being made. Whatever you believe, starting off by telling those you want to convince that they’re dangerous idiots is not the way to go about things. It simply hardens people against you – as can be seen by the responses to columns written by the likes of Terry Sanderson or A. C. Grayling in the Guardian and elsewhere. They’re merely preaching to the choir, and are unlikely to have changed any minds by it.

I frequently wonder who these writers are trying to convince, because they’re clearly not trying to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with them. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy;

‘Only a brain-washed idiot could fail to realise that God is a delusion!’
‘Well, I believe in God, and I don’t consider myself a brain-washed idiot, so I don’t think I can agree with you there.’
‘See, I said you were brain-washed’.

Personally, I think it’s a bit of fruitless argument, since it’s more about ways of seeing the world than about a proposition that can be proved or disproved one way or the other. We can’t argue about whether a certain picture is beautiful or not in the same way we can determine whether it’s hanging in the National Gallery or The Louvre, but the fact that we can’t agree on its merits doesn’t mean we can’t have an interesting and useful discussion — which may well change the attitudes of one or the other — or both — of us, and it would be pointless to conduct the discussion in terms of ‘you’re an idiot because you don’t see things the way I do’. For an excellent example, to my mind, of a very good-natured and illuminating discussion between a convinced atheist and a convinced believer, one could do a lot worse than look at the debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan at BeliefNet. They neither of them, I think, started out under the illusion that the other would end up changing his mind, but it was still a worthwhile debate. And well done Sam Harris for choosing to debate not with a crackpot red-neck literalist who thinks the world was created a few thousand years ago but with an intelligent and thoughtful gay Catholic secularist like Andrew Sullivan.

This leads me to my main disagreement with Matt’s article. Matt wants to defend Richard Dawkins against the accusation he’s a fundamentalist atheist; he writes,

The attempt to suggest some kind of equivalence between the likes of Dawkins and religious fundamentalists – those who adhere rigidly to central dogma – is profoundly flawed. Evolutionary theory, or “Darwinism” as some like to call it, is – as with all scientific theories – is under a constant process of revision and alteration in light of increasing evidence. To see this you need only compare the version of evolution presented in Darwin’s work with that presented in that of Dawkins. The attempt by some to suggest an equivalence between the likes of Dawkins and religious extremists – such as the Taliban – is even more preposterous, as though oppression and violence can be compared to writing angry books. The term “Atheist Fundamentalist” cannot be defended on any real grounds.

I fear Matt rather misses the point of the gibe, though (and Sam Harris, I think, is happy to describe himself as a fundamentalist Atheist.

The point isn’t to do with Darwinism but, rather, is that Dawkins is like a mirror-image of the religious fundamentalists. Like them, he sees science and religion in deadly conflict; the only difference is which one he thinks is right. Stephen J Gould observed in Rocks of Ages, of the religious views of evolutionary biologists of his acquaintance,

Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid or, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs — and equally compatible with atheism

. He also makes the point in an essay available online, Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge, attacking

Phillip E. Johnson[, …] a law professor at Berkeley and “a philosophical theist and a Christian” who strongly believes in “a Creator who plays an active role in worldly affairs.”

who, he argues,

encapsulates his major insistence by writing: “In the broadest sense, a creationist is simply a person who believes that the world (and especially mankind) was designed, and exists for a purpose.” Darwinism, Johnson claims, inherently and explicitly denies such a belief and therefore constitutes a naturalistic philosophy intrinsically opposed to religion.But this is the oldest canard and non sequitur in the debater’s book. To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. If some of our crowd have made untoward statements claiming that Darwinism disproves God, then I will find Mrs. McInerney and have their knuckles rapped for it (as long as she can equally treat those members of our crowd who have argued that Darwinism must be God’s method of action). Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres (the moral realm, for example).

Forget philosophy for a moment; the simple empirics of the past hundred years should suffice. Darwin himself was agnostic (having lost his religious beliefs upon the tragic death of his favorite daughter), but the great American botanist Asa Gray, who favored natural selection and wrote a book entitled Darwiniana, was a devout Christian. Move forward 50 years: Charles D. Walcott, discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossils, was a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian, who believed that God had ordained natural selection to construct a history of life according to His plans and purposes. Move on another 50 years to the two greatest evolutionists of our generation: G. G. Simpson was a humanist agnostic. Theodosius Dobzhansky a believing Russian Orthodox. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.

Dawkins will have nothing of this; but look at his credal statement —

I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages (God Delusion, p 57)

Or look at his reaction to Freeman Dyson’s accepting the Templeton Prize and then saying he was a Christian who wasn’t particularly interested in the doctrine of the Trinity,

Isnt that just what any atheistic scientist would say, if he wanted to sound Christian? (God Delusion, p 152).

Intelligent, rational people who don’t agree with Dawkins (e.g. Gould) can’t mean what they say; if they don’t behave as Dawkin’s theory predicts — Dyson being a Christian, albeit one who’s not particularly interested in the doctrine of the Trinity — then there’s something wrong with them (they’re lying) rather than the theory. It’s not a very scientific way to look at things; if people don’t act as you predict they will, they must be deliberately trying to deceive people since your predictions can’t be wrong.

Or he just ignores the evidence; he dismisses

irritated theologians [who] will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally any more. But that is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist’s decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is ‘morality flying by the seat of its pants’, so is the other.

Well, quite simply, he’s historically utterly wrong, as anyone who knows anything about Catholic exegesis could have told him. Obviously Catholics aren’t supposed to pick and choose what they believe and how (that’s the literal meaning of heresy, by the way) but the idea that some bits of the Bible are supposed to be understood figuratively goes back to the very beginning of the Church. Certainly he could have doubtless found plenty to attack in Catholic interpretation of scripture, but writing a book attacking what you think Christians believe in and then just completely ignoring what a very large number of them have actually, as a matter of historical fact, believed for centuries — presumably because acknowleging this would render irrelevant his argument that a literal reading of The Bible is nonsensical — is pretty rum way of proceeding.

This is my real objection to Dawkins — he’s determined that science and religion have to be in conflict, and no evidence to the contrary will shift his faith in this proposition, any more than will it shake his faith in the proposition

I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca — or Chartres, York Minster, or Notre Dame

Presumably he’s never heard of The Cathedral of Christ The Saviour (he can’t possibly think Stalin was a religious man, can he?).

I anticipate an objection to my cheap point — which I fully accept it is — that Stalin didn’t order the demolition of the Cathedral just because he was an atheist but also because he was Communist and a thoroughly nasty piece of work, to boot. The atheism was a necessary, but hardly sufficient, precondition for his Communism (and I’m even prepared to accept that not many Communists want to demolish cathedrals, at least not any more). But that’s precisely the concession that Dawkins can’t, or won’t make. He writes in chapter 8 of The God Delusion that Islamic terrorists

are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.

Well, I agree — it’s just that it’s a very specific sort of faith, to my mind, that makes people do dreadful things, and not necessarily one you’ve been brought up in from the cradle — it’s someone’s unshakable faith that he’s right (not his beliefs so much as him) and that anyone who disagrees with him is not only completely wrong but that there’s something wrong with them that scares me, and that’s a faith that Richard Dawkins seems to exhibit. As Stephen J Gould put it, in a clear allusion to Dawkins,

Just as religion must bear the cross of its hard-liners. I have some scientific colleagues, including a few prominent enough to wield influence by their writings, who [say]: “C’mon, be honest; you know that religion is addle-pated, superstitious, old-fashioned b.s.; you’re only making those welcoming noises because religion is so powerful, and we need to be diplomatic in order to assure public support and funding for science.” I do not think that this attitude is common among scientists, but such a position fills me with dismay

It’s a position, though, that has some people thanking their Intelligent Designer for Richard Dawkins; as Madeleine Bunting explained in an unusually thoughtful article in The Guardian,

William Dembski (one of the leading lights of the US intelligent-design lobby) put it like this in an email to Dawkins: “I know that you personally don’t believe in God, but I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God’s greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement. So please, keep at it!”

Good reason, to my mind, to be irritated by Richard Dawkins.

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21 Comments »

  1. The point isn’t to do with Darwinism but, rather, is that Dawkins is like a mirror-image of the religious fundamentalists. Like them, he sees science and religion in deadly conflict; the only difference is which one he thinks is right.

    Perhaps. To an extent.

    But I think that there’s a real difference between science and religion in that the former demands a questioning, sceptical approach if it’s to be done right. If Dawkins is any real kind of scientist then he’d have no choice but to abandon his support of evolutionary theory in light of new and comprehensive evidence against it. This, for me, prevents him from being a true fundamentalist. Scientific theories can never be proven correct after all, only false.

    The problem with Dawkins is that he’s too quick to resort to sweeping and unscientific generalisations. I’m pretty sure, given the summaries of ‘The God Delusion’ I’ve read, that he would be the first to admit that the ‘God Hypothesis’ can never be disproved, merely shown to be extremely unlikely – an ultimately agnostic position that fails to come across in most of his commentary on the subject.

    So while Dawkins can be extremely “irritating” in his polemics against the gods, I don’t think there’s an equivalence with those who insist that holy book X is the inerrant word of god and the only way to live.

    Comment by Matt M — April 27, 2007 @ 12:56 pm

  2. A well thought out and moderate piece. Not sure I understand why it is phrased in terms of an answer to Matt M, as he does not read the books he talks about (“the summaries of ‘The God Delusion’ I’ve read”), and is clearly ignorant of the sciences (“Scientific theories can never be proven correct after all, only false:” the circulation of the blood, and gravity, among many other theories, are positively proven).

    Comment by Luke — April 27, 2007 @ 2:43 pm

  3. Luke,

    Hi.

    he does not read the books he talks about

    No, but I’ve read other books and articles by Dawkins and so can make comments on his general stance.

    and is clearly ignorant of the sciences

    You may wish to look up the meaning of a) theory, and b) falsifiability

    Comment by Matt M — April 27, 2007 @ 3:43 pm

  4. “You may wish to look up…”
    You may wish to do just that. You’d learn falsifiability is a concept that was devised by Karl Popper, is particular to him, is not accepted by a great many scientists and philosophers of science and is therefore far from the only possible approaches to the sciences.

    If you are so well versed in theory then you may wish to tell us what you mean by that word and convince us we should adopt your… theory of theory, as opposed to, say, empirical evidence.

    And if you are as familiar with the writings of Richard Dawkins as you claim to be, you may wish to explain to us why we should take seriously his application of ethological concepts to genetics (as evidenced in his book on The Selfish Gene), or his reducing all religion and religious belief to a satire of the religion of uneducated people.

    Comment by Luke — April 27, 2007 @ 4:19 pm

  5. Dawkins is like a mirror-image of the religious fundamentalists

    Depends what you mean. In terms of his religious non-beliefs I don’t think there’s any comparison (admittedly I would say that, wouldn’t I).

    But in terms of the way he conducts himself, his absolute intolerance of other opinions, and his perpetual state of furiousness are quite reminiscent of fire and brimstone preachers I agree.

    Comment by Larry Teabag — April 27, 2007 @ 5:06 pm

  6. Luke,

    “If you are so well versed in theory…”

    A scientific theory is an attempt to explain observed phenomena and predict its future behaviour. They are often, to varying extents, speculative. Theories of gravity and evolution can only be complete once we have complete knowledge of the universe, so that we can be sure that nothing is being overlooked.

    You claim that the theory of gravity has been positively proven. Really? On a quantum level? Completely?

    “You’d learn falsifiability…”

    Is a crucial part of scientific method – nothing can really be established with absolute certainty.

    “you may wish to explain to us why we should take seriously his application of ethological concepts to genetics”

    Why? Does the question of whether behaviour can be effectively explained on the genetic level have some bearing on whether Dawkins can be considered a “fundamentalist” or not?

    “or his reducing all religion and religious belief to a satire of the religion of uneducated people”

    Why, given that this is the exact opposite of my position?

    Comment by Matt M — April 27, 2007 @ 5:35 pm

  7. Presumably he’s never heard of The Cathedral of Christ The Saviour (he can’t possibly think Stalin was a religious man, can he?).

    I _have_ heard this somewhere – that Stalin’s seminary experience prepared him for all of his destructive evil, whereas his years of reading socialist texts presumably did nothing; also that Stalin destroyed and repressed with a religious zeal that had nothing to do with atheism but was part of his Xtian upbringing. Straw man, yes ok, but I have heard it somewhere, just not sure where. Also there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that Stalin and the CPSU generally _did_ persecute people on the basis that they thought religion was rubbish and the people they persecuted didn’t – ie it wasn’t just good old fashioned anti-clericalism (hence the “freedom of antireligious propaganda” clause in the Soviet constitution (1936?))

    This is a really good post, NS, and it compliments Matt’s equally good post very well indeed.

    Splendid chaps, both of you.

    Comment by Tin Drummer — April 27, 2007 @ 6:36 pm

  8. NS, I sniff quote-mining: “I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages (God Delusion, p 57)”

    You might have gone on to include the rest of the passage, no?

    Comment by Geoff Coupe — April 29, 2007 @ 5:39 pm

  9. Matt,

    “A scientific theory is an attempt to explain observed phenomena and predict its future behavior.”
    This amateurish definition does not solve the question of whether theories can be proven, or must be falsified.

    “You claim that the theory of gravity has been positively proven. Really? On a quantum level?”
    Do you really want to get into wave mechanics? Be that as it may, the inapplicability of Newton’s laws to the infinitely small does not erase their validity for the observable universe; and their validity was definively confirmed by the Nasa lunar programs: as the calculations of Nasa engineers were based on the laws of gravity, and if Newton was wrong, the space capsules would not have reached their intended destination.

    Falsifiability “is a crucial part of scientific method.”
    Is it a crucial part of scientific method and rational discourse that you make such dogmatically unsubstantiated assertions?

    “Why? Does the question of whether behavior can be effectivaly explained on the genetic level have some bearing on whether Dawkins can be considered a “fundamentalist” or not?”
    It has much bearing on whether or not you are competent to discuss an author you have not read. Wikipedia summaries just wont do, at least not with serious people.

    “Why, given that this is the exact opposite of my position?’
    We weren’t discussiing your position. We were discussing Richard Dawkins’. We might resume this talk, once you’ve outgrown your self-centered immaturity, as well as read the authors under discussion.

    Comment by Luke — April 30, 2007 @ 12:38 am

  10. There’s something pleasing about having a Matthew and a Luke battling it out on an entry about ‘the God delusion’. ;-)

    Comment by thesamovar — April 30, 2007 @ 2:49 am

  11. Except it’s the ‘science delusion’ they’re bickering about.

    Comment by Timothy — April 30, 2007 @ 5:27 am

  12. Luke,

    “the inapplicability of Newton’s laws to the infinitely small does not erase their validity for the observable universe”

    There’s a difference between something working and being “positively proven” – the fact remains that scientific theories will be modified in light of new data. Unless you can say that no new data concerning gravity will ever be found, the theory can never be regarded as conclusively true.

    It’s this openness to revision that marks good science out from religious dogma, which often seeks to adapt new data to pre-existing conceptions.

    In light of new evidence, Dawkins, as a scientist, would have little choice but to change his ideas accordingly.

    “It has much bearing on whether or not you are competent to discuss an author you have not read. Wikipedia summaries just wont do, at least not with serious people.”

    Or pompous people.

    Is there a specific part of my argument that you disagree with? Do you disagree that religious fundamentalists are best defined by their rigid, unbending adherence to certain ideas? Do you disagree that good science is open to revision in light of new evidence? Do you disagree that Dawkins holds to this view?

    Comment by Matt M — April 30, 2007 @ 1:55 pm

  13. it is not my habit to agree or disagree with people who make dogmatic and definitive assertions regarding subjects they have not studied deeply. Wikipedia simply is not a serious reference.

    Comment by Luke — May 2, 2007 @ 4:49 am

  14. Dogmatic affirmations, on a tone of authority, on subjects he has not studied carefully: this immature young man, Matt Murrell, is beginning to sound like the notorious Robert_15, from the openDemocracy discussion forums.

    But then, it is not by watching inane TV shows, that one develops an ability to discuss philosophy.

    he, he…

    Comment by Billy Coconut — May 2, 2007 @ 9:01 am

  15. it is not my habit to agree or disagree with people who make dogmatic and definitive assertions regarding subjects they have not studied deeply.

    Oh well.

    Comment by Matt M — May 2, 2007 @ 1:55 pm

  16. Hi, Matt, Billy, Luke and Tim. Now the reason I came to your site is that an important message has been sent down , just like a News Update. The message is for you. Please read and pass it along. I have a message to tell you about Revelation. The message is from God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost respectively. Sent in the Spring of 2006. It is about the meaning of First is Last and Last is First. The message is this: In the morning I go to Heaven. In the afternoon I live my life. In the evening I die, death. What does this mean? In other words this means Birth is Last and Last is Birth. To understand this don’t think from point A to point B. Think of this as a continous circle of life. Birth, Life, Death, Birth. God also said that Judgment will be before Birth in Heaven. AS birth on Earth is painful so will birth in Heaven. It is possible that this message was delivered by one of God’s Angels. Yes, God has recently made contact and he sent a messenger. Spread this message along, just like a chain letter. Tell two people. Oh, one more thing of interest. Did you know that Mike Douglas died on his Birthday. Melanie Steffen

    Comment by Melanie Steffen — July 29, 2007 @ 6:48 pm

  17. Like you, I’m blown away by the attack mentality of today’s atheists – the sheer meanness many display. I call them the next generation of atheist.

    The first generation of atheists had a different tone. They came in the wake of Darwin’s theory, and the floodgates really opened wide following the bloodbath of WWI, seeing how clergy on both sides eagerly urged their parishioners to maim and kill each other. Atheism’s initial surge was a “sad” surge. Mournful. They despaired of God’s existence but they weren’t happy with their conclusion. They knew they were giving up on the hopes and dreams of mankind from time immortal, that this life, so fraught with hardship and suffering, wasn’t all there is. And, they realized, the death of faith had a deleterious effect even on this life.

    For example, H.G. Wells, who turned atheist over time, observed: “The Darwinian movement took formal Christianity unawares, suddenly. . . . The new biological science was bringing nothing constructive as yet to replace the old moral stand-bys. A real de-moralization ensued.” Then, connecting that attitude with an increased appetite for war, he continued: “Prevalent peoples at the close of the nineteenth century believed that they prevailed by virtue of the Struggle for Existence, in which the strong and cunning get the better of the weak and confiding. . . . Man, they decided, is a social animal like the Indian hunting dog . . . so it seemed right to them that the big dogs of the human pack should bully and subdue.” [Outline of History]

    They concluded God was dead. They didn’t disagree with their own conclusion, but they were saddened by it. They knew they had lost a lot.

    Not so atheist’s Next Generation! They gleefully saw off the branch upon which they sit. Our 70-90 years, with nothingness beyond, seems to them a great bargain. It’s as if one learns that he is sentenced to death row with no possibility of pardon and leaps for joy over the news.

    For example, H.G. Wells, who turned atheist over time, observed: “The Darwinian movement took formal Christianity unawares, suddenly. . . . The new biological science was bringing nothing constructive as yet to replace the old moral stand-bys. A real de-moralization ensued.” Then, connecting that attitude with an increased appetite for war, he continued: “Prevalent peoples at the close of the nineteenth century believed that they prevailed by virtue of the Struggle for Existence, in which the strong and cunning get the better of the weak and confiding. . . . Man, they decided, is a social animal like the Indian hunting dog . . . so it seemed right to them that the big dogs of the human pack should bully and subdue.” [Outline of History]

    They concluded God was dead. They didn’t disagree with their own conclusion, but they were saddened by it. They knew they had lost a lot.

    Not so atheist’s Next Generation! They gleefully saw off the branch upon which they sit, in return for the ecstasy of no one telling them what to do! Our 70-80 years, with nothingness looming beyond, seems to them a great bargain. No matter if it ends in the nursing home with someone changing our Depends three times a day! In his time, Ronald Reagan was, arguably, the world’s most influential person. Ten years later he didn’t know who he was. Does this faze the “next generation?” Not a bit! For the first time in human history, relative comfort and ease is possible for most of us, provided we play our cards right and aren’t terribly unlucky. We can have fine homes, fine cars, cool technology. And that’s good enough for them! What could God possibly add to that?

    Comment by tom sheepandgoats — December 19, 2007 @ 10:05 pm

  18. Oops. Sorry. What a mess. Clean that comment up, will you?

    Comment by tom sheepandgoats — December 20, 2007 @ 6:49 pm

  19. He is arogant and irritating he struts around like some pompious peacock thinking he is the smartists man on earth when he instead is ignorant and pathetic

    Comment by SPURWING PLOVER — March 14, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

  20. ^That would have meant a lot more if you had used proper grammar and spelling in that comment.

    Comment by TheBoredProle — October 12, 2011 @ 2:09 am

  21. Only a fool brainwashed by secular BS education would believe in atheism!

    Comment by Ayatollah Richard Dawkins! — May 11, 2012 @ 7:29 am


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