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On Dawkins: A response to Richard Dawkins and the Invisible Menace

Friday 27 August 2010, by Joe

**Written in response to Lobster’s article "Richard Dawkins and the Invisible Menace", following the screening of the TV documentary Faith School Menace.**

Wow, lobster, where to begin…?

You know, under normal circumstances, it’s a little rude to condemn one’s philosophical opponent for views and motivations you’ve largely intuited yourself. “Dawkins *intentionally* sets up a dangerous dichotomy”, “Dawkins *refuses* to engage with the dangers of scientific rationality”, “Perhaps Dawkins would argue…”, “Dawkins DOESN’T CARE ABOUT THE CHILDREN!”, and so on and so forth. Where are you getting all this stuff? Would it be a Fundamentally-Oppressive-White-Western-Male act for me to ask you for a little evidence to substantiate your claims? Do the man the honour of dealing with the arguments he actually presents. He is, after all, attempting a reasoned debate – why not respond in kind? As I’ve indicated previously, I think that the greatest stumbling block to the acceptance of postmodernist and post-colonialist philosophy into mainstream discourse is its characteristic prioritisation of ideological verve over intellectual rigour. ‘Resentment-fuelled gibberish’ is the stereotype that must be avoided if one actually cares about changing people’s minds. Otherwise you’re just blowing off steam and preaching to the converted in a way that discredits your arguments for anyone outside a particular cliquish corner of academia.

Let me just put aside the guffawing and the Nazi Germany parallels for one moment in order to identify exactly what your problems with the poor man are:

1 Richard Dawkins thinks that 21st century secular capitalism is without ideological bias. 2 Richard Dawkins fails to recognise that state schools ‘indoctrinate’ children with ideas about ‘individualism, private property, competition, gender, nationalism, work, economics, the state’. 3 Richard Dawkins thinks that evidence-based scientific rationality is without ideological bias 4 Richard Dawkins’s plea for scientific rationality is about the dominance of his worldview and not the well-being of children or society as a whole. 5 Richard Dawkins’s scientific rationality is characterised by the consumption of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and the desire to ‘extricate’ oneself from the wonders of the universe and the complex interactions between ‘humans, cells, landscapes, language, bacteria, galaxies, histories etc.’

Okay, points one and two. These are quite easily dealt with by pointing out thatDawkins has neither stated nor implied that he believes ‘21st century secular capitalism’ to be without ideological failings. To be honest, his first reaction would probably be to point out that there is no such thing! Europe is still very Christian in lots of ways, and are we to forget about the U.S. entirely? Putting that argument aside in order to talk about Dawkins’s *envisaged* secular society, moreover, all that we can reasonably infer from ’Faith Schools Menace’ is that he thinks it would be rather less prone to segregation and hopefully somewhat better equipped to make rational choices about its future. He’s not claiming that it would be a utopia – the end of all oppressive myths. Though surely even you must concede that the Abrahamic faiths have a lot to answer for in terms of the racist, sexist and nationalistic myths that so rightfully enrage you? Are you so suspicious of science that the enemy of your enemy becomes your friend?

As regards point three (the problems inherent within scientific rationality and evidence-based epistemologies), my consistent response to these kinds of arguments is to misquote Winston Churchill on democracy: ‘Scientific rationality is absolutely the worst kind of epistemology… until one considers all the alternatives’. Evidence can be interpreted in different ways. Money and power can influence the ‘truth’. The crudity of human language and mathematics may fail to do justice to a universe ultimately beyond our conception. Yadayadayada. I have some sympathy with all of those views, but that still doesn’t change the fact that the *only* epistemological alternative is to just *make shit up*. I’ll say that again because it is important: the only alternative to what can be induced from evidence and deduced by logic is idle speculation, fantasy or falsehood. Which is not to say that scientists have a monopoly on logic and evidence. I find it very ironic that you should – in typical postmodernist fashion – cede so much to scientists by condemning science, rationality and evidence as one. You and I both know that it is quite possible for a scientist to be wrong, but logic and evidence pretty much the only tools available if one wishes to call them up on it. Reducing the debate to questions of dominance (see point four) is needlessly provocative and fundamentally divisive. It’s very basic human psychology. Accuse a scientist of bigotry and they’ll call you an idiot. Ask them ‘are you aware of this contrary evidence?’ or ‘have you tried thinking about this problem in this way?’ and they’ll get into a debate with you – they love that stuff! It’s their passion and their job. I’m put in mind of E. O. Wilson – a wonderful scientist and a very elegant and charming writer. Here, read this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2001/feb/17/books.guardianreview57

In the 1970s he was at the centre of the furore concerning sociobiology and its supposedly right-wing bias. He had no such conscious prejudice and believed his position to be logically sound and fundamentally a-political. He refused to be swayed by an intense hate campaign (one protestor even tipped water over his head at a conference). He did, however, later revise (and publicly regret) his overly simplistic opinions about the role of women when someone showed him the evidence. Do I need to spell out the lesson there?

Point four (Dawkins wants to extricate himself from the wonders of the universe). If it wasn’t clear by now, I’m something of a fan of Dawkins. I don’t think his secular humanist campaign without fault – whilst his arguments about the non-reality of God and the burden of religion are spot on, he doesn’t do enough to recognise the positive aspects of faith nor ponder how a secular society might cater to the irrepressible religious need of our species (this is, by contrast, something E. O. Wilson does extremely well). As a science writer, however, I think Dawkins is probably unparalleled – witty, rigorous and fiercely intelligent. And unlike a lot of ‘clever’ thinkers, Dawkins is desperate to share that intelligence with the reader. He is a true public intellectual. Thanks to him, I know and understand things about the natural world that I never thought I would. I see things from a different angle. I’ve even been inspired to pursue a scientific education myself. And is for these reasons that I find your closing paragraph the most ill-informed and prejudice-laden part of your argument. I know for a fact that you have never read a Dawkins text – if you had, I don’t think you could possibly characterise his science as a retreat from the liveliness of the natural world, or claim that he is uninterested in tracing the ‘relations between humans, cells, landscapes, language, bacteria, galaxies etc’ – what else do you think science is all about? And how on earth do you suppose that we even know about cells, bacteria and galaxies if not for the patient efforts of scientists? These concepts were hard-won through the pursuit of logic and evidence by smart and dedicated people over the course of hundreds if not thousands of years, and I think they deserve better than to be reduced to pleasing imagery in any old ad hoc new-agey cosmology.

Going back to ’Faith Schools Menace’, I guess I ought to conclude by saying that I thought it was a pretty decent bit of work. Simplistic, yes, and faintly pompous in places (yes, Richard, we’re all quite convinced that you regularly enjoy the Bible’s poetry on your Sunday afternoon air balloon jaunts…) – but it was nevertheless engaging, well-argued and very important. As I say, Dawkins is a public intellectual, and - love him or loathe him - one ought nevertheless to congratulate him for attempting to bring a philosophical debate to a mass audience in a way that is politically relevant and accessible to all. I can’t think of anybody else in the UK that does this anymore. This is a great shame, and, I think, indicative of an impoverished intellectual culture. The debate could only be improved by someone to challenge him. Preferably someone capable of equally clear and cool-headed logical argument.

All the best, Joe

Forum posts

  • I nowhere in my argument advocated for religion. I argued against making insidious forms of oppression which are intentionally disguised, refuted and concealed even less visible. Religion may be ’the opiate of the masses’ but it’s fast becoming the opiate of liberal/left resistance in that it’s the villain that takes centre stage, concealing far more dangerous forces.

    Basically we disagree that ’made up shit’ is all there is. But that’s a different argument...

  • You write: "I think that the greatest stumbling block to the acceptance of postmodernist and post-colonialist philosophy into mainstream discourse is its characteristic prioritisation of ideological verve over intellectual rigour".

    You then write: "‘Resentment-fuelled gibberish’ is the stereotype that must be avoided if one actually cares about changing people’s minds".

    Hmmmm. Methinks you try too hard JG. You can take the boy out of Cardiff, but you cant take the Cardiff out of the boy.

    Woops. Careful, or soon the mask will slip.

  • ’He did, however, later revise (and publicly regret) his overly simplistic opinions about the role of women when someone showed him the evidence. Do I need to spell out the lesson there?’

    An open mind so long as there is evidence? Underneath this compressed anecdote it is not hard to imagine the exasperation and frustration anyone must have felt trying to convince Wilson to consider ’the role of women’ in another way, before ’someone showed him the evidence’.

    I am never convinced when people point to evidence of homosexuality in other species as evidence that homosexuality is not ’against nature’. I accept and appreciate the evidence, but to treat the initial claim ’homosexuality is against nature’ as a proposition to be proved or disproved is to conflate two incompatable discourses. My response would be, homosexuality IS against nature according to your belief system, but not according to mine. Neither of us can really provide evidence for our claims. Science would side with neither of us because our discourse is non-scientific. There is no reason it should. My point is that Wilson’s views on ’the role of women’ should have been open for debate before the evidence proved they were wrong.

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