On Monday, September 19, the New York Times profiled the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in the lengthy Profiles in Science: A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy. (The Times’ online edition also features a filmed interview.) Though it is beyond this author’s expertise to assess the claim, many regard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) as groundbreaking in its field.
Recently, however, Dawkins has become notorious for the strident atheism he articulated in The God Delusion (2006), an international best seller. The God Delusion argues that religious faith is not only irrational but socially dangerous. The NYT profile, though published in the Science Section, devotes substantial page-space to Dawkins’ perspectives on religion.
This Commentary will proceed in two posts. Post One will characterize Dawkins’ atheistic perspectives—as he relates them in his NYT profile—and contend that (1) atheism’s stance is not without justification and (2) neither is atheists’ sense of defensiveness, which is probably the basis for Dawkins’ popularity. Yet, despite my sympathy for nonreligious persons and respect for their beliefs, Dawkins’ vitriol and its underlying critical method are fundamentally defective. Forthcoming, Post Two will critique Dawkins’ unabashed prejudice toward religious devotion from two perspectives: (1) Terry Eagleton’s criticism that Dawkins lacks basic understanding of the variety and fullness of religious belief and (2) Alasdair MacIntyre’s theory that contemporary moral discourse in the socio-political sphere is broken to the point of interminability, a failing Dawkins exemplifies.
I. Dawkins on Dawkins
First, Dawkins perceives religion as fundamentally uncritical. He characterizes religion as conditioned incuriosity, a belief that persons should “be satisfied with nonanswers.” With seeming inconsistency, however, Dawkins dismisses the suggestion that he actually study the faiths he categorically derides. Dawkins compares such research to studying fairy tales. (Though I venture that studying fairy tales might be a very useful way to discover who we are and why we are here.)
Second, Dawkins dismisses the idea that theology’s basic questions—Who are we? Why are we here? Is there something greater than us?—can be equated with evolutionary biology’s inquiries: critical examinations of human and other species’ origins, ancestry, and development. And yet again, Dawkins’ description of his first encounters with evolutionary biology hints at further intellectual inconsistency: “I became inspired not so much by the natural history [of evolutionary biology] as by the deep questions [it answered]: Why are we here? What’s the nature of existence? . . . What’s the purpose of life?” Dawkins recommends that all people—businessmen, bus drivers, “surfing instructors”—obtain basic scientific understanding because, “You are not a whole person unless you read enough science, look at science documentaries, to understand why you exist in the first place.”
II. Sympathy for Atheism
I suggest some (fairly obvious) reasons to sympathize with atheists’ viewpoint. First, contemporary, historical, and ancient human action clearly demonstrates that religion has impelled—or played a role in—some of mankind’s worst conduct. I name just three instances: the Inquisition and expulsion of Jews from Spain in the fifteenth century by Ferdinand and Isabelle; the cyclical murders of Protestants and Catholics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England; and, of recent memory, the culture wars that have virtually paralyzed American politics—manifested, for example, in President George W. Bush’s continuously professing his faith in Christ while haplessly leading two third-world nations into brutal conflicts that continue to this day to spawn further sectarian violence. (As I write, Iraq Body Count estimates that between 102,629 and 112,161 civilians have died in Iraq since 2003 as a result of our invasion (note, IBQ has an ongoing tally). Other estimates run higher than 600,000.) One could name such examples indefinitely. It is no surprise, then, that persons should opt against observance for the simple reason that religion has so often been an immoral force; for these individuals, nonreligion may actually be the moral choice: not morality’s abandonment, but its embrace.
Second, the nonreligious are also a relatively ill-treated minority in contemporary American society. In the United States, they make up sixteen percent of the population, yet only one percent of Congress’ membership. And politicians seem to have little compunction targeting the nonreligious with contempt. Mitt Romney’s 2007 Republican primary speech, Faith in America, provides an example. Even David Brooks, NYT‘s token conservative, characterized the speech’s thrust in these terms: “[T]he religious have a common enemy: the counter-religion of secularism.” He criticized this notion, stating that the only casualty of this “supposed war” is national community. For Brooks, Romney’s speech exemplified the view that persons of faith are part of that community, while persons without faith are not—“There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious.” Thus, many nonreligious persons—Americans of genuine moral conviction—may be fully justified in feeling that they are the victims of American religious intolerance: vilified as “un-American,” amoral outsiders.
In this sense, to identify as an atheist in America is to be in the position of a minority, viewed askance—as immoral—without justification, and labeled, essentially, as an outsider by politicians hoping to score cheap political points. And so, atheists’ feeling of defensiveness deserves sympathy; and, I suggest, that defensiveness is the impetus for Dawkins’ more extreme form of counter-attack and the popularity it has achieved. Nevertheless, Dawkins’ complete rejection of religiosity has serious flaws—flaws that I will explore in Post Two.
Please keep an eye out for Post Two in the coming days, where I will continue my discussion of Dawkins’ Times’ profile and present two critiques of his perspectives on religious faith.
DRS, CLR Fellow