The Dawkins Doof

This little gem (ht Mockingbird) is an excerpt from philosopher John Gray’s scathing review of Richard Dawkins’ pretentious (did you honestly expect otherwise?) autobiography. Gray is hardly a poster boy for theism, but he’s no dummy, either, and thus instructively takes Dick Dawkins to task, Duck Hunt-style. Critical to the extreme of Dawkins’ high anthropology and deluded, supercilious, rationalism, Gray throws open the shutters and unleashes enlightening comic gold:

It is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mindhis own, at any rateto resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble…

What is striking is the commonplace quality of Dawkins’s rebellion against religion. In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been rearedafter his conversion from theism, he “refused to kneel in chapel,” he writes proudlyhe was doing what tens of thousands of Britain’s young people did at the time. Compulsory religious instruction of the kind that exists in British schools, it has often been observed, creates a fertile environment for atheism. Dawkins’s career illustrates the soundness of this truism. If there is anything remarkable in his adolescent rebellion, it is that he has remained stuck in it…

Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness. He tells us that “the Pauline belief that everybody is born in sin, inherited from Adam (whose embarrassing non-existence was unknown to St. Paul), is one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity.” It is true that the idea of original sin has become one with a morbid preoccupation with sexuality, which has been part of Christianity throughout much of its history. Even so, it is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact…

Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism. His attack on religion has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxleydescribed by his contemporaries as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he was so fierce in his defense of evolutionblush scarlet with embarrassment…

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignationa stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a kind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted pose of indignant rationality merely laughable. “I am not a good observer,” he writes modestly…

To suppose that science can liberate humankind from ignorance requires considerable credulity. We know how science has been used in the pastnot only to alleviate the human lot, but equally to serve tyranny and oppression. The notion that things might be fundamentally different in the future is an act of faithone as gratuitous as any of the claims of religion, if not more so. Consider Pascal. One of the founders of modern probability theory and the designer of the world’s first mass-transit system, he was far too intelligent to imagine that human reason could resolve perennial questions. His celebrated wager has always seemed to me a rather bad bet. Since we cannot know what gods there may be (if any), why stake our lives on pleasing one of them? But Pascal’s wager was meant as a pedagogical device rather than a demonstrative argument, and he reached faith himself by way of skeptical doubt. In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.

Oof! It’s always a little sad when someone degrades into a caricature of himself. I guess I could almost sympathize were Dawkins not such a pompous douche. And lest I sin by wallowing in the muck of triumphalist/theology of glory schadenfreude, I’ll move on.

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