The New York Times on Richard Dawkins’ [Dangerous?] Evangelical Atheism, Post Two

Last week, I commented on the New York Timesprofile of evolutionary biologist and vociferous atheist, Richard Dawkins.  Post One of this two-part series described (1) Dawkins’ views and (2) how the overheated antipathy and rhetoric of The God Delusion (2006) may reflect atheists’ marginalization in contemporary society—in itself a legitimate concern.  (See additionally my Scholarship Roundup post—Faith no More: the Moral Atheist—where I suggest that religion’s record of immorality, for many, makes atheism a moral choice, not a nihilistic one.)

In this post, I criticize Dawkins’ position as described in his NYT profile: first, for its logical inconsistency and stubborn ignorance of its subject matter; and second, for its divisive rhetoric that fails to recognize the commonalities between his chosen source of meaning and his targets’.

I. Dawkins: The Uninquisitive Critic

Dawkins’ ignorance of the faiths he dismisses is alarming.  As Terry Eagleton says in his marvelously scathing 2006 review of The God Delusion, Dawkins illustrates and purports to challenge no more than “vulgar caricatures of religio[n].”  Eagleton responds to this facile exercise by speculating, “What . . . are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus?  . . . Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope?  Has he even heard of them?”

Yet Dawkins readily, proudly, admits that the answer is no.  He scoffs at the suggestion that he study the history and intricacies of the faiths he rejects—study tantamount, in his view, to researching fairy tales.  In this way, Dawkins simply refuses to engage in his critics’ conversation.

But this tactic reveals the inconsistency in Dawkins’ attacks.  He characterizes religion as belief without inquiry, an impediment to the curious.  On the other hand, he glorifies critical attitudes.  For example, he is writing a series of children’s books designed “to raise questions[:]  Why is there a sun?  What is an earthquake?  What about rainbows?”

Yet, even as Dawkins faults faith’s perceived curiosity deficit, when it comes to religion, he abandons critical reasoning.  For example, the Vatican has accepted that Darwinian evolution is consistent with Catholicism, rejected intelligent design as scientifically and theologically unsound, and retreated entirely from geocentric astronomy (at a conference commemorating the 150th Anniversary of On the Origin of Species, Cardinal Levada, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated that the Catholic Church “does not stand in the way of scientific realities.”).  The Church of England, too, has acknowledged the validity and value of Darwin’s contribution to science.  Both institutions likely deserve criticism for their slow, sometimes reactionary responses to scientific developments.  But is it not incurious and uncritical for Dawkins to continue—despite these overt statements—to insist, as he does in his NYT profile, that religion is essentially incurious and uncritical?

Dawkins also reveals that he is plainly misinformed about the variety of the religious faiths he critiques—not a surprise, given his refusal even perfunctorily to study them.  As Eagleton puts it, “Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that” belief should be so unquestioning.  (As I have discussed, doubt has frequently driven theology:  For example, Job, a canonical text, challenges the nature of the Godhead for 42 chapters; and C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed chronicles the struggle to maintain faith amidst personal tragedy.)

II. Dawkins and the Discourse of Conflict

The danger of figures like Dawkins—and, of course, similarly dangerous figures in religion—is that he manufactures an apparently mortal conflict between faith and science.  In a world where the religious incinerate innocent civilians and atheist personality cults bring millions more to starvation, Dawkins would do well to temper his rhetoric.  With the aid of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (Notre Dame, 1981), we understand that these polarizing controversies are an inexorable feature of contemporary life (whose terrible results we daily encounter).  A brief discussion of MacIntyre’s characterization of current moral discourse demonstrates that all epistemological premises share a common logical failure; it also demonstrates that Dawkins’ own statements in the Times exemplify that failing.  A simple recognition of that fact might spur the kind of cross-perspective understanding that Professor Jason Rosenhouse attempts in his upcoming book Among the Creationists (Oxford, 2012) (see the Scholarship Roundup description here), even if no ultimate resolution of the intellectual conflict can be reached.

MacIntyre’s thesis in After Virtue is that contemporary discourse on questions of political and moral import is broken.  To illustrate, he posits three persons—one radical, one libertarian, and one conservative—debating abortion.  See id. at 6–8 (3d ed.).  MacIntyre asserts that, out of the contemporary mindset, this debate will never attain resolution, an interminability arising because “[f]rom our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do . . . argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion.”  Id. at 8.  Essentially, none of these debaters can rationally justify her premise to the other.

Moreover, this expressive terminus suggests the debaters are incapable of justifying their premises to themselves—what MacIntyre describes as “private arbitrariness” not subject to rational self-understanding.  See id.  So, from a premise, each may proceed to a problem’s solution, but no debater understands, in rationally or logically expressible terms, how she arrived at her premise in the first place; in fact, she arrived there arbitrarily—a point which MacIntyre expends the better part of a book on and which cannot be fully fleshed out here.

Dawkins displays this very arbitrariness in his NYT profile.  He exudes confidence—especially noticeable in his filmed interview.  There is no hint whatsoever that Dawkins questions his conclusion that religions are uncritical folktales and that science is, in fact, the best starting point for understanding the world.  He simply affixes the label, obviously true, to evolutionary biology.  Though I do not contest evolutionary biology’s validity, I challenge the conclusions about religion that Dawkins derives from his premise.

Dawkins piles on further paeans to science:  “I [was] inspired [by what] it could answer:  Why are we here?  What’s the nature of existence?  What’s it all about?  What’s the purpose of life?”  He recommends everyone gain at least a rudimentary understanding of science to become “a whole person,” to “understand why [one] exist[s] in the first place.”

But how scientific inquiry rather than religion leads to such answers, Dawkins does not say because, as MacIntyre has theorized, he cannot.  Like everyone else, Dawkins reaches the logical terminus of contemporary epistemological discourse.  His assurance that science can reveal the mysteries of existence while religion cannot lacks rational content.  MacIntyre would say that his assurance is a premise like any other: an arbitrary choice in a world of arbitrarily formed, cobbled together, and inexpressible premises.  See id. at 4.

This is not to say Dawkins’ choice of atheism grounded in evolutionary biology is a wrong premise.  What is wrong is Dawkins’ attitude of superiority:  In his view, he has chosen the only right premise and the religious have chosen the wrong one—so wrong a premise, in fact, that it is not even worth exploring.  But were he to bring MacIntyre’s thesis to the equation, he might, while maintaining his chosen premise, recognize the equal validity (or, perhaps, equal invalidity) of others’ choices.  This recognition would lead Dawkins away from the kind of vitriol and rhetoric that makes socio-political understandings so hard to reach in the world today.

Conclusion

My purpose here is to contend that all persons speaking in the public sphere should be wary of fomenting the conflicts whose danger we know all too well.  One must ask, before vilifying others’ strongly held beliefs, how they vary, or what commonality they share with one’s own—here, for example, Dawkins might find that theology, like science, thrives on critical thinking.  Moreover, one might discover that his premise shares the same failing as those it is his impulse to deride—in MacIntyrean terms, a common logical terminus.  Ultimately, greater curiosity with respect to the views one opposes and deeper self-reflection on the nature of one’s own views would make a more civil, thoughtful, and careful public debate about religion and atheism possible.

—DRS, CLR Fellow

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