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.

8 comments:

Colm said...

I agree with a lot of what you wrote here but not much as it concerns Dawkins and The God Delusion which I have read from front to back.

I agree about alot of the points about PC stuff being looney left stuff but your critical comments on Dawkins are misgiuded and poorly thought out.

He is doing a great job of raising an important issue and to question his motives is cheapand plain wrong. Religion is indeed every bit as pernicious as he asserts.

It is the very hocus pocus of it that has alllowed it have such an insidious influence on people.

Colm said...

The Mediocrisy book looks very interesting and I imagine I would agree with a lot within it.

Fabian Tassano said...

Thanks for your comment. Perhaps religion is more often pernicious than not, but what about the alternatives? In the absence of a belief system involving a god, you are likely to get a belief system involving society, such as collectivism or technocracy. Dogmatic beliefs, used to persecute other people, do not depend on the concept of God. By now religion (well, Christianity anyway) is a countervailing influence against other evils. Without Catholicism in Poland, for example, we might never have seen the end of communism. By attacking Christianity in the UK, Dawkins is implicitly giving support to other forces e.g. state authoritarianism. It is his intolerance therefore, rather than agnosticism, which is more likely to "give a power base to extremists". The extremists in the UK are not Christians, and it is Christianity rather than other religions which will be affected by his critique.

The Emerson Avenger said...

Well said Fabian,

Indeed Richard Dawkins is something of an extremist himself although he would probably be loathe to admit this.

:Dogmatic beliefs, used to persecute other people, do not depend on the concept of God.

Indeed Dawkins own dogmatic beliefs could be used to persecute people. He pretends to be tolerant while practicing obvious intolerance and even outright anti-religious bigotry. Richard Dawkins likes to say "power corrupts". I can't help but wonder to what extent he would try to forcefully impose his anti-religious beliefs on people if he had the power to do so. . . I expect that Richard Dawkins would have done quite nicely in Stalinist Russia.

:By now religion (well, Christianity anyway) is a countervailing influence against other evils. Without Catholicism in Poland, for example, we might never have seen the end of communism.

This may well be true but religion, including Christianity, is in fact responsible for a fair bit of the evil in the world. Religion does need to be held accountable when it participates in evil or turns a blind eye to it.

:By attacking Christianity in the UK, Dawkins is implicitly giving support to other forces e.g. state authoritarianism.

As I suggested above I could see Richard Dawkins actively supporting state authoritarianism if that state authoritarianism was aligned with his anti-religious dogmatism as it was in the former U.S.S.R. and currently is in North Korea etc.

:It is his intolerance therefore, rather than agnosticism, which is more likely to "give a power base to extremists".

Indeed Richard Dawkins can be properly described as an "evangelical" fundamentalist atheist and his anti-religious intolerance is an attempt to empower like-minded anti-religious extremists. I dare say that Richard Dawkins is the very model of a modern Unitarian! ;-) Well at least the dogmatically anti-religious fundamentalist atheist breed of "Humansist" Unitarians anyway.

:The extremists in the UK are not Christians, and it is Christianity rather than other religions which will be affected by his critique.

Well Islam will not come out of it unscathed, nor will neo-Paganism really. Richard Dawkins paints with a very broad brush although he obviously targets the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths for his harshest criticism.

Tony F said...

Spot the diffence between Richard Dawkins and Billy Graham - are you kidding me? Dawkins is 100% right while Graham is 100% deluded. In fact, they are polar opposites. You make the common judgemental mistake in thinking that in any particular arguement involving two extreme opinions, the truth must necessarily lie somewhere in the middle... in fact, one side might be the right one.

Fabian Tassano said...

I think you’re missing the point. Yes, one side might be “right”. I suppose if one could define “God” (no one bothers much, and Dawkins certainly doesn’t) one could debate whether “God” exists, though typically such arguments come out pretty tedious. There isn’t really any evidence one way or the other.

If someone wanted to make money writing a book proclaiming in a shouty fashion: “God exists”, I’d normally say good luck. Ditto for “God doesn’t exist”. My point about Dawkins is that, as a respectable biologist, he should think twice before stooping to this.

And there are two elements of phoneyness here. First, The God Delusion is talked about as if it’s on a par with Dawkins’s rigorous intellectual analysis of evolutionary issues. Which it isn’t.(Cf.similar problems I have with Richard Layard’s Happiness.) The quality of argument in the book is pretty poor in my opinion.

Second, it’s packaged as being radical and countertrend, when it’s just playing in with fashionable anti-Christian ideology. No light, just some more heat. To add to an already inflamed situation in which a lot of Christians (in the UK at least) feel they are unfairly maligned. Not really in the spirit of dispassioned debate. Dawkins is on a mission (he has said so himself); there's your parallel with Graham.

not_saussure said...

Two salient points of similarity, I think, between Dr Graham and Professor Dawkins are the specific one that they are only really interested in a pretty extreme form of 'Bible Protestantism' -- whatever they disagree about, Dawkins and Billy Graham are at one in discounting the view of most mainstream Christian churches that much of the Bible isn't supposed to be read literally -- and in being that bothered about what people actually believe.

To many people -- well, to me, but I suspect to many others -- Professor Dawkins' obsession with what people believe, as opposed to how they behave (faith vs works, in a way) seems as eccentric and, in its benign form, as ill-mannered, as some people's habit of knocking on your front door to ask if you've been saved or not.

People less benign than Dr Graham or Professor Dawkins who're so concerned as those gents about others' beliefs (whether religous or political) do, of course, have a track record of, when they get the chance, knocking on folks' doors at rather less civilised hours to conduct their inquiries. They know the Truth, you see, and it's very important to them that Error is extirpated.

The Prince of Truth said...

Fabian, the fact is is that the arguments for God's existence are crude and unsatisfactory. First, if you mean God as in the Abrahamic god of the 3 religions, then it's even worse, because the Problem of Evil at once comes in. How can a reasonable person support a "benevolent" God not intervening to stop the worst atrocities committed against innocents? It just isn't worth it and honest to promise salvation in the future. Not to mention sacrificing others so we can have "virtue" and "goodness."

Second, the First Cause argument is terrible. How can you have something from nothing? And if you can, why does it have to be called God? It could very well be just the big bang. God explains nothing about why anything should exist, he is merely another anthropomorphic being in the infinite blackness of meaningless space.

It turns out Fabian that although Dawkins is benign, he's much smarter and realistic and correct than Graham. The Problem of Evil really stabs religion in the heart, and so far dishonest priests and theologians have not solved it adequately, nor will they ever.

Also, if there's only 1 god according to the monotheists, which one is it? Yahweh, God, Allah? There can only be one, so which one is it?

The only God I can imagine is that of an indifferent Deist, and that's not really impressive or useful either.