♦ Putting Dawkins in his place

I used to be very critical of Richard Dawkins. This was because of his book The Selfish Gene. I had never read it, of course, but there were all those magazine articles using the book to justify selfishness in people and to provide an ethical basis for a selfish society, for capitalism. These ideas, to me, were reactionary, anti-human. My mind was made up. Despite my interest in science I was not going to waste time reading a “reactionary” book which I knew I wouldn’t agree with.

That changed six months ago when I read The God Delusion. Mind you, because of my anti-Dawkins prejudice I almost didn’t, thinking it would be a waste of time. I am grateful I made the effort because I then found out my prejudice was baseless. The Selfish Gene was about genes, not about individual humans, other animals or society. Writers and others had taken the title of the book to justify their own political and economic agendas.

The God Delusion

I suspect there is a similar prejudice, particularly amongst religious people, against Dawkins because of The God Delusion. Although the book has received many favourable reviews a large proportion of reviewers are strongly critical. Much of the criticism is personal. Critics often accuse Dawkins of being arrogant (see A Servant’s Thoughts Blog for an interesting discussion of this). An editorial in a Sea of Faith Newsletter even described him as “Dawkins the Destroyer”.

The God Delusion provided me with a clear and enthusiastic exposition of atheist beliefs and discussion of the problems of faith-based belief, of religion. Like many atheists I welcomed this book because there is very little literature of this sort available. Until recently our beliefs have been ignored by publishers, booksellers and libraries.

Richard Dawkins is a very able populariser of science (particularly biological science) and the scientific method. He also provides an excellent example of the scientific process in that he uses reason, empirical evidence and logic. He never attacks his critics by stooping to the personal level. And that’s how things are in the scientific world. Scientists may disagree strongly about their pet theories, and have strong feelings about their opponents, but those difference are settled in open debate using reason, empirical evidence and the proposal of hypotheses to solve problems by experiment. A scientist who publicly described colleagues as “arrogant” or “destroyers” in an attempt to discredit their ideas would only discredit themselves. I can’t recall that happening once in my 40 years of research, although I was aware of strong feelings. (However, personal attacks aimed at discrediting our findings did come from commercial interests).

drunk

So, I find the personal labeling strange. However, I appreciate it probably arises from the attitude that we should treat religion with kid gloves. The sort of healthy, robust debate we see in issues of science, politics, sport, etc., are not acceptable, can in fact be offensive, with religion. People do seem to be defensive about religious beliefs, usually not wanting to see them challenged and not allowing themselves to be open to change in the way they may be about their other beliefs regarding scientific theories, sport teams or political parties. I guess this defensive attitude is why, in this area more than most, we tend to use information like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination.

Select your review?

I saw this attitude towards Dawkins’ book in a recent debate amongst siblings of a Catholic family I am related to. Two of them had read the book, thought it was great and described their own attitudes. Several others were strongly opposed to the book, disagreed with it completely, but had not read it – nor were they going to. Instead they were referring their errant siblings to selected reviews of the book. I can understand why that happens (as explained above I have also been guilty of this) but this is the way prejudice and uninformed criticism is perpetuated.

As an aside, isn’t this exactly what happened with Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men. Reviewers and others lined up according their political prejudices, often without reading the book. In the process they missed important information on how our political system and population are manipulated by powerful interest groups. This has happened with both the Labour and National Parties and is something we should all confront in the interests of preserving our democracy.

Does Dawkins lump all Christians together?

Bishop Richard Randerson and others charge Dawkins with making the mistake of lumping all Christians together and identifying them with fundamentalist views. They accuse him of knocking down a straw man. I think there is a misinterpretation here. In his Scientific American discussion with Lawrence Krauss (Can Science Speak to Faith?) Dawkins does differentiate between fundamentalist and other Christians, especially as he sees the former as impervious to evidence and reason whereas more moderate Christians can accept science and hopefully modify their beliefs because of this.

So I think these critics have set up their own straw man. Dawkins actual criticism referred to faith as a method of reaching understanding. People are taught from a young age to rely on faith in scriptures and the “word of God” as transmitted to them by religious leaders, rather than on reason and evidence. Such faith can give people justification for killing doctors, blowing up clinics and mosques, encouraging mass suicides or flying planes into buildings because it is “God’s will.” Dawkins charge, then, is that even moderate Christians are in effect supporting fundamentalism if they educate their children to accept faith, especially if they advocate faith as a substitute for rational and critical methods of reasoning.

I agree it would be wrong to lump moderate and fundamentalist Christians together. But I do think Dawkins has a point about faith, and the danger of teaching it to children.

17 responses to “♦ Putting Dawkins in his place

  1. I am so glad you went back and took a look at the “The Selfish Gene”.

    I recommend to you the following books:

    God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, by

    Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,
    by Daniel C. Dennett

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  2. oops. i screwed up the HTML. Sorry.

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  3. religionandatheism

    I’m afraid not everything you say is quite right: Firstly, there is an abundance of atheist literature available and Dawkins offers virtually nothing new in the God Delusion. Through the last 3 centuries great atheist writers have included: d’Holbach, Feuerbach, Marx, Bertrand Russell (who wrote the very readable Why I am not a Christian), A.J. Ayer (see his Language, Truth and Logic), Steven Weinberg, and more recently AC Grayling, Michael Martin & Ricki Monnier, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Danniel Dennet.
    It is also not true that Dawkins has not resorted to personal attacks on his critics. He is particularly vexed by one critic of his work, theologian Alister McGrath. In response to 2 books McGrath has published, The Dawkins Delusion and Dawkins’ God: Memes, Genes and the Meaning of Life, Dawkins had this to say: “Alister McGrath has now published two books with my name in the title. If I seem grumpy, could it be because a professor of theology is building a career riding on my back? It is tempting to quote Yates: “Was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?”” If Dawkins was interested in the strengths of arguments, why would he resort to insulting his critic and their motives rather than spending more time in debate with them. Note that Dawkins, particularly in his recent book as well as his two-part series The Root of All Evil, usually talks to extremists and fundamentalists, sometimes evangelicals, rather than moderate Christians and representatives of theology, philosophy or The Church. There are only a few exceptions to this.
    Note that I’m not defending theism here, only suggesting a few corrections on factual points raised in the above blog entry. If you’re interested to find out more about Dawkins and McGrath as well as other issues, both serious and light-hearted, surrounding the debate between belief and disbelief, please check out the following blog: http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com
    It is new, but is quickly growing. It does not argue for atheism or religion, but tries to consider and debate the issues at hand and provide links and information on the topic. It will be expanding in the near and long-term future as more people submit entries and leave comments. In a short time some articles will be appearing about Richard Dawkins and the arguments he makes specifically.

    AG, http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com

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  4. “Alister McGrath has now published two books with my name in the title. If I seem grumpy, could it be because a professor of theology is building a career riding on my back? It is tempting to quote Yates: “Was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?”” ”

    Sounds like a reasonable response to me. Just a human being expressing his grumpyness and his honest annoyance:

    (1) “Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life by Alister E. McGrath “, and then there is (2) “The Dawkins Delusion ?” by the same author.

    Note that Dawkins poses two questions, admits that he is grumpy, and is criticizing the career, not the man.

    They did debate:
    http://richarddawkins.net/article,777,Debate-between-Alister-McGrath-and-Peter-Atkins,AtheistDebateorg

    Here is one telling comment on the debate:

    “16. Comment #27097 by Janey on March 23, 2007 at 6:12 am

    Pretty much the standard Religion v Science debate with the Scientist standing firm, his feet entrenched in the concrete of reason and evidence while the Religious advocate dances gaily around him sprinkling theological contrivances and appealing to the audiences spiritual uncertainties to make his points.

    I partially agree with the comment that “The God Delusion” does not offer much of anything new in his arguments, except he is advocating that atheists in the U.S.A need to get out of the closet. It is timely because of the latests moves by the creationists pressing for teaching fairy dust sprinkling in sciece classes. I thought it was a great book. Sam Harris’s book on the End of Faith was good, as well as the two others I mentioned in my comments above.

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  5. Again, I screwed up the URL, that was the wrong debate, but is with Peter Atkins, a supporter of Dawkins. On Atkins website, there is a debate you can download, then there are these:

    http://theologica.blogspot.com/2007/03/mcgrath-vs-dawkins-online.html

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6474278760369344626

    http://richarddawkins.net/article,1212,Richard-Dawkins-and-Alister-McGrath,Root-of-All-Evil-Uncut-Interviews

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  6. religionandatheism

    I beg to differ. I’m not siding with either Dawkins or McGrath in the substance of their respective arguments, but the comment made by Dawkins towards McGrath compares McGrath to a flea, a parasite. That is an ad hominem attack (and essentially an insult).
    For other videos and audio podcast links of Dawkins, McGrath, Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and others, please browse http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com. Content is being added all the time!

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  7. FYI: The link above does not work, presumably because of the “.” at the end. I found the link by cutting and pasting all but the “.”

    I saw the discussion with Dawkins and McGrath just now and felt they were both very reasonable with one and other. Dawkins asked some very good questions and McGrath responded very eloquently, in my opinion.

    We will have to agree to disagree on the “flea” incident. I doubt McGrath is as concerned about it as you are. I am not convinced that McGrath took it as an insult, but I think there is some truth behind the metaphor. Using the term “grumpy” in the statement is an indication to me that he was not attempting to make the statement as a part of a formal debate. It was obvious to me that it is an emotional statement. He was telling the truth about how he feels about McGrath making money off of his career. At other times Dawkins and McGrath have both made positive and kind statements about each other.

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  8. “16. Comment #27097 by Janey on March 23, 2007 at 6:12 am

    Pretty much the standard Religion v Science debate with the Scientist standing firm, his feet entrenched in the concrete of reason and evidence while the Religious advocate dances gaily around him sprinkling theological contrivances and appealing to the audiences spiritual uncertainties to make his points.

    well said! hooray for Reason

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  9. Pingback: Do you believe in a god? « Open Parachute

  10. “I used to be very critical of Richard Dawkins. This was because of his book The Selfish Gene. I had never read it, of course, but there were all those magazine articles using the book to justify selfishness in people and to provide an ethical basis for a selfish society, for capitalism. These ideas, to me, were reactionary, anti-human.”

    Those people either never read that book or have trouble understanding what they read, or just out to bash Dawkins. Of course, a gene cannot be selfish. The term “selfish” was used by Dawkins to distinguish the “genes-eye-view” from the point-of-view of the individual, group, or species selection.

    From the “point-of-view” of the gene, we are survival machines for our genes.

    If anything, Dawkins goes out on a limb to promote what amounts to Euro-British liberalism in that book. He talks a great deal distinguishing what he means. In most of his books, he mentions “Here is where my critiques s will take what I am saying out of context.”

    Personally, I am a fan of free market of ideas, goods and services which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the books written by Richard Dawkins. I do not have to agree politically with him on issues like Federal Funding for Science and Education (as opposed to letting the states and the people do it – to follow the contract we have here in the USA – according to the Constitution).

    Also, keep in mind that authors do not alwats have control over the titles of all of their books or their TV shows. For example, Dawkins has repeatedly mentioned that his BBC show “Root of All Evil” was not his choice. It was a marketing gimmick.

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  11. I do not have to agree politically with him on issues like Federal Funding for Science and Education (as opposed to letting the states and the people do it – to follow the contract we have here in the USA – according to the Constitution).

    My understanding is the motivation behind the federal-level efforts are to counter that if “left to the people”, some individuals have too much power to push a personal (religious) agenda. Some individual Republicians are fine examples, as are some local pastors or evangelists.

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  12. So the above comment indicates an agreemnent, more or less, toward the political Dawkins. That is fine. The question is who gets to decide? The mob that is active and supports paying for projects utilizing the profits of hard working and productive people. Typically, these people work for the government and support the continuation of the the transfer from the productive, by the the non-productive, to the non-productive. These same people support the war machine by utilizing mob vote.

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  13. My opinion wasn’t based on anything that Dawkins said. I can’t really make sense of what you’re trying to say (see below), but get a feeling that you’re missing my key point, that it’s to avoid the control “accidentally” (or otherwise) falling too much in the hands of a few with an agenda. There are excellent examples of this in a particular Republican trying to foist creationism in teaching by rigging the system. If control came from a federal level, it’d be harder for people like that to push their personal agenda on others.

    No offence intended, but your post reads as having no meaning, the sort of empty rhetoric I hear from politicians! What “mob”, what “people”, etc., nothing is stated explicitly so I actually have little idea of what you are really trying to say. (Just kidding, it reminds me of politicians stating things in a way that they can later move to whatever meaning they want, but being deliberating non-specific.)

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  14. I was drawn to the article, but captivated by the dialog: thank you. I personally find that Dawkins, who I used to admire, has become a parody of the prejudice which he rejects. I am actually running a group about prejudice and have cited this topic and article in a blog posting at http://thegraceofguilt.ning.com/profiles/blogs/the-natural-history-of

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  15. Pingback: Richard Dawkins – wrong again! « Open Parachute

  16. Ricardo Newbery

    @Gareth

    Not really sure what was the point of the ‘prejudice’ blog post you linked to.

    The post failed to describe exactly what about Dawkins makes you believe that he has become “a parody of prejudice which he rejects”.

    The bit about Dawkins being qualified to answer “how” versus “why” questions just sound absurd to me without more elaboration. Science can indeed answer questions of “why” things happen the way they happen but like all such questions (including “how” questions), they can be terribly useless if used recursively. Every answer to the question of “why” can be met with yet another “why” question until you reach the limits of either current knowledge or ultimately those of the universe itself. Science doesn’t claim that it can answer *all* questions about the nature of the universe, just those that can actually be answered.

    The “why” meme seems suspiciously like it involves a presupposition that a god exists or that the universe has a purpose to it (which amounts to the same thing). This, of course, is nothing more than the classic fallacy of begging the question.

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  17. I read ‘The God Delusion’. Personally, I thought it was boring. It was essentially a pep-talk for schoolyard atheists, so it didn’t even bother me, since ranting is pretty much white-noise to me by now.
    If it was supposed to be educational, then it sucked since it’s full of douchey crap and bad ‘research’ if randomly offered opinions can count as such.
    But if it was just supposed to be a pat on the shoulder for atheism, then I guess it worked fine. There’s no reason why Dawkins can’t blog in book-form if he wants to. Just not sure why he’s still taken seriously by anyone over 16. I’m not being antagonistic, that’s just my honest opinion. I can only assume it’s because he’s fairly well-spoken and knows how to echo all the things atheists want to be said, and want to be true so they can be said.

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