Defending Dawkins (2)

This is a further entry in a back-and-forth between me and bettynoirbettyblanc (henceforth “Betty”), on evolution and Richard Dawkins. It began in this post of hers, to which I responded here. She followed up with a response here. The following will make more sense if you have read those posts first.

Betty, I can certainly understand your dislike of Richard Dawkins. He often neglects to soften his critique of religious ideas (individually and collectively), and it is natural that many religious people feel that he misrepresents them. Some of their complaints – your complaints – are justified.

However, I feel that your response ignores or misses many of the key points I was trying to convey, and exaggerates Dawkins’ faults beyond reason.

First, I did not accuse you of denying evolution. You will notice, if you look again at my post, that I direct my criticisms on that point at creationists.The language of your original post leaves plenty of room for people to assume that you are more sympathetic to the creationist perspective than the scientific perspective, but I was (and continue to be) careful not to pigeonhole you unjustly.

You say “I would guard against listening to anyone who claims they are an expert on something just because they have a few ladybird guides on their shelf.” You certainly shouldn’t believe me, just because I’ve read some popular science books on evolution. Nor should you even take an expert’s opinion as incontrovertible fact. As I said:

These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don’t make arguments of the form “I believe this, and I’m and expert so just take my word for it.” They make arguments of the form “Here’s some evidence. Here’s why it supports evolution.” With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don’t trust them.

As for Dawkins’ “obsession” with religion – you make a valid point. Much of his online presence seems to be centred around religion. I offered a possible explanation, which is supported by an excerpt from Dawkins’ new book – an explanation which you seem to have ignored. I’ll reiterate it here, as I think it is important. Dawkins is a biologist, and studies evolution. One of the greatest forces opposing science education is the creationist movement, which undermines the teaching of evolution in schools. By far the most common motivation for this opposition is a particular literal take on the Abramic creation story. Thus, Dawkins is well-motivated to oppose this particular version of religion. He recognizes that it is not the whole of religion. Here are his own words (talking about his new book):

The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. The Greatest Show on Earth is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an anti-religious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution.

Note that he’s explicitly stepping out of his role as a critic of religion in this book.

In that same article (I encourage you to read it, so that you can see the context for yourself), Dawkins explains his use of the Holocaust-denier comparison – a comparison that you, Betty, seem particularly offended by. You ask, in your response post, “The Friendly Humanist says this [is] accurate, but says he would not use this analogy himself. Why not? Could it be that comparing creationists to Holocaust deniers is grossly offensive?”

First, you are right: the reason I would not use the analogy is because it is offensive. Holocaust-denial is associated with more than just a denial of historical facts; it is associated (rightly) with an evil political and social ideology. Here is what I said in defense of his analogy:

First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology.

A better analogy, which shares this important characteristic while not being so offensive, might be to moon-hoaxers – people who believe that humans have never stepped on the Moon, and that the Apollo landings were an elaborate deceit.

You also suggest that supporters of evolution harbour “smug assumptions which lurk not too far from the surface: ‘we are smart, they are not’ followed by ‘we are European and sophisticated, they are American and primitive’ or ‘we are Western and progressive, they are Middle Eastern or Oriental, and barbaric’.”

I can only respond that I have never come across this attitude, either explicitly or implicitly. As I said in my post, the biologists I’ve read point to the evidence, explain how it was interpreted, and draw their conclusions. The claim, then, is “we have followed the evidence, they have not”. Is this smug? Perhaps, but only to the extent that anyone is smug who defends one position based on the evidence, in the knowledge that some people sincerely hold another.

I realize that you are not interested in getting into a debate over evolution, and I don’t intend to engage you in one. I am not a biologist, after all, just a fan of science.

For all that I sometimes disagree with the tone (and occasionally the content) of his writings, I feel that you have misrepresented Dawkins in your posts, Betty. He is not a diplomat, but he is not the mean, attention-mongering anti-theist that you make him out to be. He works together with religious people on causes of common interest (as noted in the aforementioned excerpt from his new book). He acknowledges the literary value of the Bible (in The God Delusion). He objected to the title of his BBC documentary, The Root of all Evil, because he recognizes that religion is not the root of all evil.

Of course, he remains an atheist. He has reasons for his position, and he shares them in books and articles. He makes money from his writing. You are free to continue to dislike him for this or any reason. You are even free to be skeptical of evolution if you are so inclined. But I implore you, if you do read anything he writes, to do so with a more sympathetic eye. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He may disappoint you in places, but I think it will be far less frequently than you expect.

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