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.
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).
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.