14 November 2006

Happy clappy evolutionism

Spot the difference: Richard Dawkins and Billy Graham

With the publication of his latest book, Professor Richard Dawkins's anti-Christian in-your-face rants are back in the media. Ever since reading The Selfish Gene years ago, I have been a fan of the book, but I wish Dawkins would stick to popularising evolutionary biology and stay out of cultural politics.

People who argue that Dawkins's case against religion is weak or over-emotive miss the point. He isn't trying to bring light to a controversial topic; he clearly wants to fan the flames of the culture war. That, by now, is a more surefire way for him to gain social status and make money through book sales, lecture tours etc. than trying to enhance his reputation as a biologist. Why else would he make inflammatory comments such as "Catholicism is more harmful to children than sexual abuse".

Okay, I am being provocative. I don’t know that Dawkins wants to aggravate the culture war, but I am sceptical of his image as a rational analyser, whose only concern is the prevention of anti-intellectual indoctrination. His style is not suggestive of objective, dispassionate debate. Dawkins proves that evolutionism (like humanism, socialism, feminism, etc) can become a religion, in terms of the usual behavioural symptoms.

The hypocrisy of people like Dawkins is to expect us to agree that Christianity is the worst culprit in the area of shoving opinions down other people's throats. Perhaps it’s different in America, but here in Britain I feel much more assailed by the arrogance of egalitarianism, PC and all the other beliefs of the ‘liberal’ cultural elite, who assume they’re in the right and deserve to be promoted in educational institutions, than I do by Christianity. Christian leaders don’t even believe themselves any more in the doctrine (e.g. God shouldn’t be “he”; let’s abolish limbo) let alone try to sell it to others.

Dawkins’s arguments against the existence of God are interesting, but not exactly intellectually scintillating, and certainly not deserving of a proselytising mission. (“Dawkins is brilliant but arrogant”, it is often said. This stuff is supposed to be brilliant? Please.) His claim he is promoting rationalism is exaggerated. He would do better to condemn dumbing down on television, which has a far worse effect on the quality of thinking than religious belief.

If you're going to complain about children being indoctrinated with phoney values, why not start with the left-inspired ideology taught in schools these days under banners such as "citizenship" and "ethics"? The reason Dawkins picks on religion is simple (and it’s this which undermines his claim to be acting as the champion of enlightenment): it is an easy target because it’s already fashionable to kick it. Its intellectual power — certainly in formerly Protestant countries other than the US — is minimal. I have a bit more sympathy with Daniel Dennett plugging the same line in the US, as Christianity actually has some cultural influence over there.

According to a recent article in Wired, Dawkins is interested in "the politics of persuading people". Why should such politics be a good thing? It implies you know the right answer, which is not what science should be about. That includes the theory of evolution itself which, while it has a lot going for it, also has some serious problems and may not be the last word on the issue.

According to the same article, the leader of the "brights" movement, whose virtues Dawkins extols, says that moderates (e.g. agnostics) "give a power base to extremists". That sounds to me like taking sides in a culture war — and forcing others to do so — not like promoting rational analysis.