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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Richard Dawkins: devil’s advocate or phantom menace?


Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

I’ve just watched Richard Dawkins The God Delusion on the Mo’ Fo’ channel. Last week we had his Faith School Menace; he’s on a roll!

As a Christian in the liberal tradition I believe we need Dawkins. We may often accuse fundamentalists and biblical-literalists of shoddy thinking, but Dawkins is consistent in demanding reasoned answers for all of religion’s claims. In the same way that the traditional process of declaring a person a saint in Catholicism has used a devil’s advocate to ask hard questions to cut through the wishful thinking and groupthink, Dawkins, rather than being feared or scorned, should be appreciated as one who splashes some cold water on the face of sleep-walking religion.

I still have serious criticisms of Richard Dawkins’s approach. He has been accused of being aggressive, even evangelistic, in his atheism. Perhaps that’s why he filmed a filler for Mo’ Fo’ trying to cast himself as a gentle yet persistent seeker of truth. More thoroughgoing is the criticism that he is no philosopher. He is a clever man, an academic of great intellect and insight. However, what he is now discussing is not his field, and many people miss this fact. If an art historian were to muse on quantum physics on national telly, we would spot the problem immediately, but a zoologist and evolutionary biologist taking up philosophy does not seem odd at all. Perhaps it is the underpinning that philosophy gives to so much academic endeavour that convinces us that we know how to do it (after all, the scrolls we get say ‘Doctor of Philosophy’).

Dawkins arguments are often more from a rhetoric textbook than a philosophy one. He makes a number of variants on the strawman argument against God: making an image of God that is so unbelievable and unattractive that no one in their right mind would believe in the existence of God, and thus we believers are demonstrated not to be in our right minds (circular argument). Dawkins takes religious extremes and uses them as an argument against all religion (a bit like using death metal and gangsta rap to say that modern music is selfish and misanthropic). The documentaries show neatly edited conversations that make Dawkins’s point. Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, is interviewed at one point, and this decent theologian is made to look wishy-washy to make Dawkins’s point about the religiously liberal. Dawkins makes the distinction that fundamentalist Christians understand the entire Bible as divine directive, liberals pick and choose what to follow and believe. This is such a massive simplification though. We all understand Scripture through an interpretive lens, because total literalism is impossible to carry out effectively. As I’ve said before, religious liberalism is the belief that biblical interpretation has to be more than ‘God said it, I believe it, end of story’.

In his ‘Enemies of Reason’, Dawkins explores various superstitions and alternative medicines. Most of the superstitions are irrational, absurd or flim-flam. Fundamentally, I defend religion from being associated with superstitions, but it still happens. I am with Dawkins totally in his understanding of how alternative medicines heal with nice, attentive practitioners providing strong placebos, and that Charles Windsor’s lobby for this stuff on the NHS is sleazy and indefensible.

When it comes to theology, Dawkins misinterpretations are likewise prevalent. He tells us that original sin is some universal curse representative of divine/church misanthropy and that the atonement is the result of divine/church sadistic fantasy (well, maybe that’s how Mel Gibson sees it too!). There are some believers whose take on theology does sound a bit like this, but this isn’t what most of mean by these concepts. Typically, Dawkins would counter that to engage in theology would mean to think irrationally: it’s a cop out, a failure to engage philosophically and critically, in favour of lobbing rhetorical hand grenades.

Likewise on ‘faith schools’, Dawkins sits in his comfort zone, seeking out those schools that teach against evolution and scientific cosmology. Whereas most ‘faith schools’ teach the same science as other schools in this country. Unfortunately, Dawkins just tells us that these schools have to go without going into a detailed analysis of their history and function. I also believe that these schools (‘faith schools’ is a problem term, as it doesn’t exist in our education regulations) are problematic, and have discussed the problem previously.

All this said, I believe that Dawkins’s questioning is useful to help us tighten up the rational discourse of our religion, prevent us from shielding our belief behind sacred curtains, or claiming a unjustifiable privilege in our society. However, I think we can turn this one round. Most atheists are secular humanists, as that provides a reasonable moral framework for life (the grown-up take on ‘lifestyle’!). However, modern humanism owes a debt to existentialism, and there’s the danger that Dawkins’s focus on rationalism and the scientific method as the only way of understanding the universe not only ignores the sociology and psychology behind scientific thinking, but de-emphasizes the place human experience that should be central to secular humanism. I hope that secular humanists understand love in accordance with their experiences rather than a biological explanation. Thus, I would ask secular humanists to examine the importance of the human experience in their thought, for that’s the level we can start talking about what religion means.

Alicia has also written an article on Richard Dawkins’s recent TV appearances.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

2 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins: devil’s advocate or phantom menace?

  1. oh i love alternative medicines, they are usually effective but with lesser bad side effects compared to conventional medicatio :

    • Er, well, no. Conventional medicine provides therapies that are ‘usually effective’. It is tried and tested, rigorously and critically. There is a large variety of alternative and complementary medicines. None of these are verified by rigorous and critical scientific testing. They often don’t have side effects, which is nice, but is often due to their overall lack of any chemical effect. However, people find these alternatives comforting, and that can have a healing effect. As one who peddles such comfort, I am aware that this psychological effect can indeed be powerful.

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