Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Richard Dawkins: Darwin's Rottweiler Becomes Defensive

There are no atheists in fox holes, or so the saying has it. It's also been said that aging fosters a spiritual or religious awakening. Both statements are generally true. Fear, it seems, is the common impetus, and specifically fear born of a proximity to death. The magical hereafter offers solace when you realize your days, minutes or seconds are few. In some respects, belief in the "next world" is a sensible adaptation to the shock of mortality.

But I'm not yet 30 years of age. Neither am I one of the brave, foolhardy or impoverished soldiers serving in a war zone. Why, then, am I becoming increasingly open to the value of metaphysical phenomena? It wasn't so very long ago that I dismissed supernatural explanations as weak-minded silliness. A decade ago, I petulantly stomped around a college campus in combat boots, pierced and angry, all too eager to explain to any intellectual miscreants why their belief in a higher power was not only stupid, but also hypocritical and loathsome. Considering that attitude today, I wince.

Although I still reject the notion of a creative, interventionist God, I find naturalistic pantheism congruent with my thinking. My younger incarnation would have spurned my present worldview, as it marries the mystical to the material and scientific. (Indeed, naturalistic pantheism is often dismissed as "religion for scientists" or "atheism for nature lovers." Worse still, from the perspective of my anti-spiritual past, I tend increasingly toward panenthism.) Whatever atheistic inclination may remain in me, I am today considerably more skeptical of those voices that wholesale dismiss spirituality and, likewise, am more accepting of magic and hyper-perceptual experience.

Last week I listened to a radio interview with Richard Dawkins, a one-time hero of mine. Dawkins, a professor at Oxford University, is a renowned ethologist (a field I have a special affinity for), evolutionary biologist and writer. He was in New York, where the interview was recorded, to accept the Lewis Thomas Prize at Rockefeller University, an honor bestowed upon those scientists who have achieved significant literary accomplishments. His most widely celebrated (and first) book, "The Selfish Gene," caused a stir of controversy in the late seventies - among biologists and theologians alike - and Dawkins has since remained a lightning rod for atheism and evolutionary biology.

Last year he published "The God Delusion," a tirade against religion. The title of the book is inspired by Robert Pirsig's observation, "when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion." Although I continue to find some of Dawkin's arguments reasonable (even rewarding), his conclusions are as ill-formed and incomplete as those of the religious fundamentalists he most loathes. As the Publisher's Weekly reviewer writes, "for a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe."

My own spiritual "awakening" aside, I'm still adverse to the stridently religious. Like Dawkins, I believe religion is too often decorated tribalism; as such, it remains responsible for the lion's share of world conflict. Even the hope offered by miscegenation will crumble in the face of religion, as our xenophobic instincts would still find in the stripe of faith reasons to identify, persecute and condemn "the other." Furthermore, as we are witness to in Iraq, even invasion and occupation by an alien force fails to trump the hate instilled via sectarianism. Dawkins highlights the tribal element of religion and faith in one of his lectures.
"Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one."
From my mid-teens to mid-twenties, I frequently scribbled Dawkins' quotations in my journals and extensively annotated his books. His intelligence and wit, coupled with his supreme confidence in the promise of science, offered a beacon to which I was drawn. E.O. Wilson, the famed entomologist and another hero of mine, calls for rationalists to "light a brighter candle and chase back the darkness." Dawkins did just that. I adored him for it. In a nod to the man and his work, I continue to wear t-shirts and carry tote bags that read "Atheists for Jesus" or "Charles Darwin Has A Posse." These reflect elements of Dawkins' perspective that I still value. And like Dawkins I continue to label myself an atheist despite recognizing that the stance requires as much faith as a belief in God does. One can not disprove the existence of God any more readily than one can prove it; atheism and belief are therefore flip sides of the faith coin. (A previous post, "Atheists, Naturalists and Fundamentalists" offers a more complete consideration of this idea, as well as some insightful comments by readers.)

But perhaps, all these years later, I've become skeptical of the self-assured position, or rather I've become a traditional skeptic, an individual given to the belief that any and all knowledge is uncertain. As H.L. Mencken quipped, "We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine."

I assume that Dawkins would find my position untenable; he may even argue that it is nihilistic or defeatist in attitude. Furthermore, he would certainly dub my animist beliefs "supernaturalist obscurantism." I disagree, of course, but I wouldn't dare engage him in direct debate; Dawkins' stridency makes it difficult to spar with him. In fact, Dawkins was nicknamed "Darwin's Rottweiler" by Oxford theologian Alister McGrath. The moniker is apt; Dawkins is dogmatic to a fault.

During the call-in segment of the WNYC interview, Dawkins refused to consider a caller's assertion that the Big Bang is "in concept a kind of creation, and that much closer to the concept of a Creator - if not an anthropomorphic one." Why? The caller wasn't asserting that this creation was the event described in Genesis, just that the Big Bang itself, as a scientific theory, is a variety of creation. And so it is. But Dawkins played semantic games to avoid thoughtful consideration of the caller's point. "It's not a creation by an intelligence, it is something we don't understand. It's a coming-into-existence which physicists are now working on."

I'm troubled by his incomplete response for two reasons. Firstly, it ignores the necessity of a finite mind to locate a prime mover or impulse. Secondly (and particularly vexing), Dawkins is totally unwilling to allow for mystery. He admits that we don't understand what preceded or caused the Big Bang, yet rather than invest that void with magic or wonder, he turns it into dulled data; physicists are "working on" it, he tells the caller. But physics is a science of imagination; our finite minds must grasp at abstractions to explain the infinite universe and all its properties, most of which we are unable to sense, much less comprehend. At the very least Dawkins could have celebrated this artful thinking in the same way he does poetry, which he dubs "spiritual."

I believe Dawkins remains a man fueled by wonder. I just wish he wouldn't be so damned defensive about it. It would be much easier for me to continue holding him in high regard if he made room for a little old-fashioned skepticism and focused on the virtues of what he does believe, rather than the failures of that which he doesn't.

Photo credit: Image of Dawkins ripped from San Francisco Gate website


bioephemera said...

I think that to be fair to Dawkins (although I agree with you in almost every respect) he is probably hypersensitive to being trapped, either deliberately or inadvertantly, into a sound byte that could be used to undermine his message. Admitting that the Big Bang is a "creation" - whether or not he feels it is, and semantics aside - could be such a mis-step, given his current notoriety.

Stephen Jay Gould, a staunch believer in evolution if ever there was one, was annoyed as heck that the religious wingnuts turned his thoughtful questions about the mechanisms of evolution into a questioning of the viability of the entire theory of evolution. Given Gould's huge canon, it's not hard to find quotes that can be taken out of context to contradict his own views. Dawkins may have had that in mind. (I wrote a whole post about this once, but wordpress ate it).

That said, I understand where you are coming from. There is a sense of wonder about nature which may approach the spiritual. It's why my friends tell me to go running outside before I make any important decisions. Today was pouring rain and hail, and I found myself on an unfamiliar trail soaked and covered in mud, but I still was able to tap into a calming, reassuring sense of my place in the immense and intricate worldthat informed a big decision about the next year of my life. I wouldn't call it pantheism exactly, but I think it's what is meant by people describing pantheism. And I think Dawkins feels it - even if he plays it way down in his current dogfight.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yeah, I agree. Or at least I hope you're right.

Dawkins' stridency just doesn't appeal to me in the way it once did. He is doing what he can to avoid the pitfalls of this sort of celebrity (or infamy), but in doing so he has turned faith, in all of its myriad manifestations, into something of a straw man. That makes him another sort of target for those that would waggle unforgiving fingers.

He's in an impossible position, really, and generally he handles himself well enough, but I find the approach of E.O. Wilson and other, more tempered figures in the field more to my liking. They're arguing the same points - sometimes quite repetitively - but they tend to frame the argument in a positive light.

Dawkins aside, I hope your "big decision" will work out well. Mud always helps put things in perspective. ;)

Tree said...

Hmmmm...spirituality and religion are two completely different "things." Dawkins is a douche...sorry but I gotta say that. Other than that, I'm too tired and have too many dirty dishes to write an intelligent, thought provoking comment here ;-)

Enjoy your journey, HH.

Tony F said...

"Spiritual Awakening"??? Oh dear, another one lost to fanciful 'moonshine' and superstition. Dawkins would weep.

Hungry Hyaena said...


While I agree with you, I think many people that reject religion have a problem with the word "spiritual," as it has been co-opted by fundamentalists and new-age flakes. Further, today, it's almost exclusively used by those folks most focused on individuality and self-improvement. Self-improvement, of course, ain't a bad thing, but it's one more strike for the word.

So I think we - those of us who are neither religious nor new-agey (not that you are one of this group; I don't know you and I don't mean to presume) - need to reclaim the word. After all, one of the oldest definitions of the word revolves around the "incorporeal," or substance not of the body. I interpret that to include extrasensory experience and even the most rigid scientist will tell you that other species have different senses whether honed, as with a bat's echolocation, or evolved, as with a snake's Jacobson's organ. Hell, physicists argue that dark matter passes through us, unfelt, all the time. If that ain't spiritual I don't know what is! I don't think Dawkins is a douche. He's simply too strident for most to bear.

At any rate, enjoy your journey, too.

Tony F:

Well, I suppose that depends on what you qualify as fanciful "moonshine." If animism at the biological level - that my body will be taken by the humus and, in a satisfying twist on Einstein's E=MC2, the energy will be converted and used by other life-forms - is considered superstition, then I'm guilty as charged.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose, but it's clear to me that the hard-and-fast rules of Enlightenment knowledge, while integral to Western society and, now, the global economy, are also responsible for our increasing distance from Nature and the present risk of imbalance and natural catastrophe. Of course, all these problems are rooted in population, as a small global population of any species, no matter how destructive, will have less influence.

Whatever, though, Tony, humanity will be dead before we have time to figure our shit out, anyway. Dem's the breaks. But, until that asteroid hits or the bomb drops or the epidemic spreads, why not strive for a moral balance of scientific dreaming and *cough* spiritual rationalism.

NOON said...

I just wanted to comment on your carrying of a tote bag - doing it is bad enough, but to advertise it to the world is embarrassing even for me. I mean, tote bag? Kudos on the thoughtful blog nod, though.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Oh, I'm advertising, baby. F*ckin' tote bags rock!

The best part is when I'm on the subway or in the grocery store and I see a tote bag compatriot. I always smile and nod at them 'cuz, you see, we're better than everyone else. ;)

Yeah, there is something a little annoying about tote bag tribalism and I've had to get used to the "man bag" comments, but, hey, canvas is better than plastic (or paper), and they're super hip once the vege juice stains the material.

the expat/pissedpoet said...

I too have a problem with the big bang. I calm myself with the thought that was actually the fart of a rather large dog. And as usual the naked ape got the spelling arse about.

J. K. Jones said...

Dawkins’ denials of the traditional arguments for God’s existence are forced and temporary. His book, The God Delusion, fails to overthrow those arguments.

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