Mar 07 2010

My Journey With Richard Dawkins

Published by under Opinion,The New Atheism,Themes

Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” hit the headlines a long time ago now and many more books aiming to show religion to be intellectually untenable have since arrived on the market. With tortoise-like slowness, I have been reflecting on the new atheism. I’d like to share my journey, indicating how various people have helped me on the way.

The God Delusion is of course a passionate attack on religion. Although I knew that the kind of religion he mainly had in mind was US Christian fundamentalism, I was wary, even rejecting, of the book. Just as, in a marriage breakup, one partner would not want to listen to a long harangue of abuse and criticism from the disillusioned other partner, so I didn’t really want to listen to Dawkins’ polemic. I suspected that it would be emotionally toxic. I suppose there might have been some anxiety that his comprehensive broadsides, coming as they do from someone highly intelligent, might undermine my beliefs or expose unacknowledged and dubious assumptions, but I honestly think that was a minor consideration.

So my first step was to look around for commentary. Madeleine Bunting‘s columns in the Guardian provided a refreshing and provocative counter-position: behind Dawkins’ polemic is frustration that religion has not disappeared yet and fear that atheist humanism has failed. Dawkins’ attack on religion is intellectually lazy; he hates religion too much to give it the serious examination that it deserves.

Michael Ruse has impeccable pro-evolution credentials. He has investigated the origins of the idea of evolution and explored why religious people were opposed to it. One of his most surprising discoveries was that Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, never referred to evolution in his medical school lectures. Evolution for Huxley was an optimistic philosophy for a new age, something to lecture on to working men’s clubs. Before evolution had a solid scientific basis, it served as a world-view, an optimistic, progressive one that was useful for countering the pessimistic official religion of the time, according to which sin was universal and only divine grace could save us. Ruse’s conclusion is that the conflict between the evolutionists and religion was never only a straight conflict between evidence-based science and blind faith: it was to a considerable extent a conflict between a humanistic ideology of progress and traditional religion.

Still, all this was skirting round Dawkins’ challenge. In an attempt to get closer to the scientific side of Dawkins, I obtained “Richard Dawkins. How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think” a collection of essays by scientists, writers, and philosophers. This helped provide some context for Dawkins’ contribution and a diversity of opinion on him. Pursuing this further, I bought a second-hand copy of “The Selfish Gene.” I still didn’t want to engage with “The God Delusion” but I was becoming more interested in his scientific writing, and many commentators who were critical of Dawkins on religion valued his communication skills very highly when it came to scientific themes.

I’ve now read part of The Selfish Gene and can say that he has produced a series of stunning expositions of modern evolutionary theory. Brilliant metaphors (for example, selfish gene, evolutionary arms race, climbing Mount Improbable) all with the aim of communicating this fundamental truth.

Now Dawkins is overwhelmed by the simplicity and the deep and fundamental truth of Darwinian natural selection. It is a revolution in biology akin to the Copernican revolution in cosmology. Just as the complex movements of the planets and stars are accounted for by Newton’s three laws of motion and these laws allow NASA to calculate what is needed to send a rocket to Mars, so evolution provides models for explaining many features of the enormous diversity and complexity of life.

To put it in language that Dawkins might not approve of, Darwinian natural selection is a revelation. It is sacred, unconditional truth that must not be adulterated. But what do we find in the US today? People are increasingly turning their back on evolution and sound science generally. And the reason for this?  Religion. Given this background, it is understandable that Dawkins would embark on a campaign against religion. That this is the background is very clear from Salon magazine’s interview with Dawkins, long before he wrote “The Selfish Gene:”

Interviewer: Still, so many people resist believing in evolution. Where does the resistance come from?

Dawkins: It comes, I’m sorry to say, from religion. And from bad religion. You won’t find any opposition to the idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians. It comes from an exceedingly retarded, primitive version of religion, which unfortunately is at present undergoing an epidemic in the United States. Not in Europe, not in Britain, but in the United States.

My American friends tell me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it’s slightly outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in.

But the broad direction of history is toward enlightenment, and so I think that what America is going through at the moment will prove to be a temporary reverse. I think there is great hope for the future. My advice would be, Don’t despair, these things pass.

So Dawkins has decided on an all-out attack. This might not be the best strategy, but you can understand why he is engaging in it. As a result, he ends up including us as part of the target. So a Sea of Faith type of religion (and even Buddhism) cops the flak that is mainly intended for US-style fundamentalist Christianity.

Dawkins attacks religion for the harm it has caused. Ultimately, he acknowledges that this might be one-sided, but then he withdraws to the bottom line, which is that religion is not true. Intellectual honesty and openness require us to reject all religion and superstition. For him, this is a more fundamental objection to religion than the moral harm done.  In this, by the way, he hears religious statements exclusively as would-be objective scientific hypotheses.

People in our local Christchurch Sea of Faith group have alerted me to other thinkers with a contribution to make. Ian Crumpton discovered the book “God and the New Atheism” by John Haught. It is encouraging to see a theologian engaging with the new atheism and coming up with a response that makes sense. Wendy Crossan-Botting discovered Stephen Rose, a neurobiologist who takes issue generally with Dawkins. His response to the intriguing closing words of (the first edition of) The Selfish Gene (“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”) was to ask who the “we” is that does the rebelling. Surely, it must be a “we” that has been created by those very genes to be capable of rebelling.

But it was John Gray (the Professor of European Thought, not the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” author of the same name) who impressed me most as a critic of Dawkins and the other new atheists.  Evolution (for example in mimicry) favours useful error. Why should an evolutionary biologist have something against religion, if it is a useful error? Religion can be regarded just as part of the way evolved life is; if religion confers some kind of advantage, evolution will tend to produce it. In other words, Dawkins’ opposition to religion doesn’t make sense on the basis of evolutionary biology. It comes from somewhere else, from a liberal humanism. Humanism and naturalism are, says Gray, two irreconcilable philosophies.

Darwin’s theory shows the truth of naturalism; we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on earth are the same. Yet, in an irony all the more exquisite because no one has noticed it, Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith that we can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth.

I found this insight into Dawkins liberating. But the result was not, as you might expect, that I dismissed Dawkins, but rather that I now understand and empathise with where he’s coming from. When he loses the air of infallibility that comes from claiming for his views all the authority of Science and Reason, he becomes human and I begin to feel warmly towards him.  He is just like me, on a journey, exploring the meaning of life and for us fragile, finite beings, there are no infallible, absolutely right views about that meaning.

I am left with the feeling that instead of arguing against Dawkins and defending religion against his attacks, we should be exploring the consequences of modern biology for our own view of the world. We should focus on the contribution he has made to the understanding of science, particularly evolution. The onus is on those of us who are influenced by religious traditions to articulate them in a way that disentangles religious affirmations from any scientific claims to know how the world is in itself.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “My Journey With Richard Dawkins”

  1.   Donald Feiston 18 Apr 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Hi Laurie,
    Thank you for this. I’ve been puzzled about the energy Dawkins has put into his attack on something apparently a long way from his core business – and in seeing him as a flesh and blood human being, you make sense of him in a way I find convincing.
    I’m sure there is a lot of work to be done [a lot of which may be uncomfortable] on an evolutionary approach to religious faith, and the institutions of religion.

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