Skip to content

Riding with Richard in the Land of Atheist Devotion

It’s Ash Wednesday, a day for sober reflection on, among other things, what it is to be a human being. And what better person to usher us into a conversation on this weighty and important matter than… Richard Dawkins. Wait, what? Richard Dawkins? As in the crusading evangelist for atheism? As in that famous biologist who holds any and all religious beliefs in utter contempt and never allows an opportunity to heap scorn upon supernatural belief to pass him by? As in the self-proclaimed champion of all things rational and scientific? That Richard Dawkins. Yes, that one.

According to Krish Kandiah, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science recently posted the image below on their Facebook page.

df

The photo isn’t terribly surprising to anyone who has observed Richard Dawkins’ trajectory over the past decade or so. Dawkins lives in an interesting and exotic land. It is a land where white knights in lab coats ride virtuously around the land bravely vanquishing the foes of darkness and religion (which are basically synonymous), spreading the gospel of science to the benighted masses who, once shown the crystalline delights of reason, gulp deep grateful draughts of Dawkins’s wisdom and clarity, overjoyed to have been liberated from the shackles of dogmatism and willful irrationality. Richard Dawkins would very much like for you to come live with him in this land, and to saddle up and join him on his heroic quest. But let’s take just a brief look at the landscape evoked by the photo above before we march off to battle, shall we? What do we see?

Well, what we see is not very pretty, truth be told. Anyone blessed with more than even a passing acquaintance with science or religion will recognize that the message in the photo is, to put things more politely than is probably warranted, utter nonsense (to say nothing of the shamefulness of using a small child to promote such woeful caricatures). We are used to Dawkins’s deliberate ignorance and misconstrual of religion by this point, not to mention the vitriol that usually accompanies it. He has certainly made a great deal of hay skewering religion over the last decade or so. But Dawkins seems to have outdone himself with this photo. He seems actually to have combined a laughable ignorance of both religion and science at the same time.

Let’s begin our tour of what science “tells” us in Dawkins-land. According to science, we are “full of wonder.” Um, no, no science doesn’t tell us this. Wonder is not a scientific category. Science observes that humans are complex beings with marvelously adapted capacities for a wide variety of behaviours. But it does not tell us that we are full of wonder or that we are inherently wonder-ful or that we should feel wonder or anything of the sort. “Wonder” is a thoroughly non-scientific, emotional, aesthetic, and human response to the picture that science plays a part in showing us. Strike one.

Science tells us that we are “smart.” Hmm. All of us? What about those who can’t understand science? What about—gasp!—religious people who are so obviously stupid and worthy of the contempt of freethinkers everywhere? And how would science go about telling us that we were smart, anyway? Even if we were to grant that science could communicate thus, would not the only conclusion available to us be that science tells us that we are adaptively successful? The overall picture of the world that Dawkins never tires of advocating insists that nature “cares” about only one thing: genetic survival. Not smartness. Strike two.

According to science, we are “great learners.” Sigh. See preceding paragraph. Strike three. But let’s keep playing, just for fun. How about we combine the last two, for the sake of brevity?

According to science we are “beautiful” and have “potential for greatness.” Yet again, these are not scientific categories and are not the kind of things that science could ever observe or discover, much less prove. These are profoundly subjective and evaluative judgments that we bring to the data science provides—judgments that are borne out of moral and metaphysical commitments that are embraced and assumed before we ever don our virtuous white lab coats and ride off to conquer ignorance and superstition.

It is here that Prof. Dawkins is most wildly inconsistent. On the one hand, he has insisted loudly and frequently to anyone who will listen that, at rock bottom, our universe is characterized by nothing more or less than “blind, pitiless indifference” to human concerns. There is no objective meaning or purpose to be found. Anywhere. Yet, on the other hand, the zeal that characterizes Dawkins’s moral, metaphysical, and aesthetic judgments—judgments that he expects, I assume, the rest of us to embrace as objectively true, judgments that reflect more than his own private preferences—is often truly breathtaking. The fit is, shall we say, a little off.

At the end of the day, what Dawkins has done with this charming little photo is take a bunch of things that he really likes and that really, really matter to him and rather arbitrarily claimed that they are the result of science. “Science,” for Dawkins, seems to mean something like “the narrative that I embrace to give my life meaning and purpose and to validate the things that I most cherish.” It matters not, apparently, that science is not, and never could be up to the challenge of providing the things that Dawkins so desperately wishes that it could.

(For a more coherent alternative to the chart being held by the unfortunate little girl in the photo, see the image closer to the bottom of Kandiah’s post.)

There is, in my opinion, no one better (or more fun to read!) than David Bentley Hart on the nature of current atheistic materialism. This quote from The Experience of God summarizes what seems to really be going on behind all of the bluster and bravado of many modern expressions of popular atheism:

Materialism is a conviction based not upon evidence or logic but upon what Carl Sagan (speaking of another kind of faith) called a “deep-seated need to believe.”  Considered purely as a rational philosophy, it has little to recommend it; but as an emotional sedative, what Czeslaw Milosz liked to call the opiate of unbelief, it offers a refuge from so many elaborate perplexities, so many arduous spiritual exertions, so many trying intellectual and moral problems, so many exhausting expressions of hope or fear, charity or remorse. In this sense, it should be classified as one of those religions of consolation whose purpose is not to engage the mind or will with the mysteries of being but merely to provide a palliative for existential grievances and private disappointments. Popular atheism is not a philosophy but a therapy.

Perhaps, then, it should not be condemned for its philosophical deficiencies, or even treated as an intellectual posture of any kind, but recognized as a form of simple devotion, all the more endearing for its mixture of tender awkwardness and charming pomposity. Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness, and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as not more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised on a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. What are scientific categories according to you? Science is a rigorous method through which we ask questions and figure out the answer. Science does indeed inspire wonder, and an appreciation for beauty. But science does not place human beings at the center of the universe. We are merely a scant occurrence in the context of something much grander than us, much grander than even the planet Earth.

    Furthermore, your argument is even less compelling because you never address the religious side of her card. How do you explain that away? Does the Christian religion not teach that you are broken and sinful and weak and dumb and nothing?

    Look, I’m a relativist and thus can appreciate religion. I’m not a fan of Dawkins or his brand of iconoclast atheism. But this post is very narrow, and relies on false premises from the get-go.

    Your argument would be stronger if you reframed it to go after sexism and gender bias in science. But no, because that is much much worse in the domains of religion. Hmm…look, you got nothing.

    March 7, 2014
    • Science is about observation and description. It describes what is the case, not how we ought to interpret what is the case. It is perfectly possible (and appropriate, in my view!) to look at the world that science shows us with wonder, but this is not a necessary interpretation nor is it the only interpretation. Some look at the pain, waste, predation, and suffering revealed by, say, evolutionary biology and respond with horror and/or revulsion not wonder (Charles Darwin, among others, has voiced this response). Science does not tell us that we must appreciate beauty or wonder or learning any other thing—how could it? It gives us a bunch of raw data. Science tells us that human beings are matter in motion, nothing more. Our responses to and interpretations of this data—whether they are aesthetic, moral, metaphysical, whatever— come from somewhere else.

      Re: the religious side of the little girl’s card, well I would simply say that this is a straw man. Have a look at the alternative chart in the link I provided above—it would be a start to what I think “religion” tells us about human beings (bearing in mind that it is problematic to speak of “religion” as a generic category, no matter how frequently this is done in popular discourse. A Christian anthropology would have significant differences from, say, a Buddhist one). Indeed, I would quite happily and enthusiastically affirm each and every one of the statements on the right of Dawkins’s photograph for religious reasons. But science cannot tell me (or Richard Dawkins) these things. These judgments have a different source.

      Your argument would be stronger if you reframed it to go after sexism and gender bias in science. But no, because that is much much worse in the domains of religion. Hmm…look, you got nothing.

      I’m not sure how this is relevant to the post—I wasn’t looking to make some kind of generic argument “against science.” I am quite glad for science and for scientists and happy for all they teach us about the world we are a part of (whatever their gender). Does “religion” have an unpleasant history with respect to gender and sexism? Of course. So do many other human institutions past and present. One of the things that Christianity teaches me is that human beings are capable both of great good and great evil. Observation of the world tragically bears this out quite richly.

      March 7, 2014
  2. Robert Dotchin #

    Full of wonder = wonderful. Yes, I agree; children are wonderful. They are the future.
    Smart, intelligent. Children definitely have the edge when it comes to learning; their formative years are amazing, compared to later in life. We then have to work hard to learn.
    A great learner; that was covered by the last remark.
    Beautiful really is science, as it makes others like us, which goes along way in keeping the human race going. That’s putting it in very simplistic terms.
    Potential for greatness? I don’t see a problem there, either. Children have great potential. Nature gives us the building blocks; it’s up to us to do something wonderful with them.

    March 7, 2014
    • I absolutely agree with everything you’ve written here, Robert. 100%

      March 7, 2014
  3. Bryan Lewis #

    Thank you, mtthwgrvnnthr! Said what I was thinking with more nuance (and with less vitriol) than I could posssibly muster. Well put.

    He basically has a case of log-in-eye syndrome. In particular, the message on the left is too disturbing (and demonstrably true) for him to accept and acknowledge, so he attacks whether or not children can be wonderful.

    March 7, 2014
    • Bryan, I would simply encourage you to read the post again—perhaps a bit more slowly this time. I would be glad for you to show me where, precisely, I “attacked whether or not children can be wonderful.

      March 7, 2014
  4. Bryan Lewis #

    My apologies, I’m not the best at composing my sentences (hence my thanks to mtthwgrvnnthr) and my absurdum wasn’t clear. I’m more referring to the reasons you are criticizing Column B as a whole.

    First, we are in agreement that this was in poor taste by Dawkins. Not the message, but the use of a child. Children should never be used as props in adult discourse. Second, he’s clearly made a technical error, which while relatively minor, frames things in such a way that it has become your focus of criticism instead of the point of his message.

    It seems his inaccurate labeling of Column B as “According to Science I am” is what you guys are stuck on, and that misses the whole point (or you see the point, and don’t want to go there.)

    We are in agreement that Science has nothing official to say about an individual child’s personality or potential (at least not in the context it is presented here) and I doubt very highly that Dawkins would defend such a claim either.

    The point I believe Dawkins was making is not what science says children are, he’s trying to draw focus to the fact that there are children raised all over the world having Column A drilled into their heads daily from parents, teachers, and priests from day 1. The torment these children suffer both in childhood, and adulthood has been studied and well documented by the psychiatric community for decades. If you think indoctrinating children with the content of Column A isn’t child abuse then I can only assume you haven’t been in one of these households to witness how extreme some sects and parents can be.

    And while you and I will agree that these parents/priests/teachers are wrong to treat their kids that way, they are, in fact, justified by church dogma.

    “But we have better messages!” you’ll say, and point me to KrishK’s funny little response (http://www.krishk.com/index.php/2014/03/5-reasons-why-richard-dawkins-should-know-better/).

    While on the surface they appear to be, these are really not better messages. Dig deeper and they come with strings attached that rely on the recipient buying in to Column A.

    March 7, 2014
    • I don’t think Dawkins’s error was either “minor” or “technical.” I think it is an error that is pervasive throughout his writings and it serves as the basis for both his worldview in general and for his antipathy toward religion. He consistently goes far beyond what science as a discipline is capable of saying and into the realm of metaphysics, morality, and aesthetics while continuing to say that his views are based on science alone. They are not, and he, as a scientist should both know this and be prepared to admit when he has wandered from science to philosophy.

      It seems his inaccurate labeling of Column B as “According to Science I am” is what you guys are stuck on, and that misses the whole point (or you see the point, and don’t want to go there.)

      Well, again, I think this is, in fact, the point. It was, at any rate, the point of the post. You say Dawkins would not defend the claim that science tells us we are all of the wonderful things that he likes? I beg to differ. I have read or seen him make similar claims in public talks on a number of different occasions. Of course, he also says that we are robots driven by our genes in a world devoid of meaning (objective truth, for example… or beauty… or wonder… or goodness). As I said in the post, he is very inconsistent on this matter.

      The point I believe Dawkins was making is not what science says children are, he’s trying to draw focus to the fact that there are children raised all over the world having Column A drilled into their heads daily from parents, teachers, and priests from day 1. The torment these children suffer both in childhood, and adulthood has been studied and well documented by the psychiatric community for decades. If you think indoctrinating children with the content of Column A isn’t child abuse then I can only assume you haven’t been in one of these households to witness how extreme some sects and parents can be.

      I think that the cases where this happens are deplorable and worthy of condemnation. There are other stories, too. Stories of “religious” parents teaching their kids to be open to wonder and discovery and exploration, of teaching their children that they have immeasurable value and worth. It’s important to remember these stories, too. You say column A is enforced by church dogma? Perhaps some churches. Certainly no church I have ever been a part of has taught me that I am “nothing.” Indeed, that conclusion would be a far easier one to reach based on the raw data of science than any religion I can think of.

      Finally, you say that Krish Kandiah’s response is “funny.” Which aspects of his two columns (Christianity or science), specifically, do you feel that he gets wrong?

      March 7, 2014
  5. mike #

    I’m not an Atheist, and for many valid reasons I try not to use the descriptor “Christian” very often even though I am a believer, with that said, I honestly was a little disappointed after reading this post which seemed to me to be reactive and antagonistic (not that the Dawkins piece wasn’t also), It’s just that I’ve come to expect more from this Blog.
    Atheist’s have a Right to believe what they want without having to contend with angry Christians who are evidently out looking for an opportunity to practice Apologetics(argue), the same can be said of the Atheist camp as well. The general public is sick and tired of this juvenile Love/Hate relationship.

    It’s interesting that Science is being brought to the forefront of this debate, as if it could convincingly prove or disprove a Creator without an inkling of Confirmation Bias.

    The featured picture was a stroke of genius in my opinion, children have been “used” for decades by clever Marketer’s.. Christian and non-Christian alike, I’m surprised they didn’t chose a fetus though.

    March 7, 2014
    • I’m sorry you didn’t care for this Mike. All I will say in response is that I’m not “angry” at atheists or anything like that, nor am I trying deny anyone their right to believe what they want. Far from it. This is simply a plea for some consistency.

      Dawkins (and others) regularly heap scorn upon religious people for their irrationality, for believing in things that can’t be “proved” by science, etc. I would like to see a bit more honesty in acknowledging that all of us are in the realm of believing things for reasons that can’t be proved by observing and analyzing the material world. All of our worldviews are based upon assumptions and convictions that cannot be proven. I think our public discourse is at risk of growing quite thoroughly degraded if/when we allow statements and assumptions like the ones the Dawkins foundation regularly promotes (“Religion tells us that we are nothing; science tells us that we are wonderful”) to go unchallenged.

      March 7, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 2014 in Review | Rumblings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: