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The delusions of Richard Dawkins

IN JANUARY 2007 I moved from Australia to Oxford to take up a Chair in Science and Religion.

When I explain to people over here what I do, the conversation takes a fairly predictable course: ‘Science and religion? – uhmm, that’s an interesting combination’ or, ‘science and religion – how do they go together?’.

In short, I encounter the kind of puzzlement that I might have expected had I said that I was a Professor of ‘philosophy and sheep-dip’, an antipodean academic specialty that readers of a certain age will no doubt recognise.

I usually respond to this bewilderment by mumbling something about being a historian, and deliver a brief and now well-rehearsed speech about how science and religion have had quite intimate and generally positive interactions throughout history.

Almost invariably the conversation next turns to Richard Dawkins. ‘Have you met Dawkins, yet?’ Or, ‘What are you going to do about Dawkins?’

Richard Dawkins, as many of you will know, is an evolutionary biologist who writes books on popular science. His official position here at Oxford is the ‘Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science’.

In the past few years Dawkins has become a vocal and increasingly shrill critic of religion, apparently believing that attacking religion assists the public in their understand of science.

His efforts to discredit religion reached their zenith with the publication last year of The God Delusion, which appeared with an accompanying Channel 4 television series called The Root of all Evil (and no, it’s not money). The book has since become a New York Times best seller, and both it and the television series have generated lively discussion.

The God Delusion sets out a two-pronged attack on religion.

First Dawkins attempts to show the irrationality of religious belief by attacking some of the standard philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

Unfortunately, Dawkins has blundered into a field he knows very little about. He misunderstands the logic of the arguments and how they function in a religious context. His own naïve and plodding counter-arguments would make a philosophy undergraduate cringe, and a number of reviewers have mercifully dispatched them (the arguments, not the undergraduates).

Philosopher and self professed ‘hard line Darwinian’ Michael Ruse has remarked that Dawkins’ efforts make him ’embarrassed to be an atheist’.

The second theme of the book is that religious folk– ­’faith-heads’, as Dawkins fondly calls them– are not only irrational, but plain dangerous. To support this proposition, Dawkins has compiled a catalogue of rabid fundamentalists and religious fanatics. These figures are presumed to be representative of the whole of the religious enterprise.

Here our author betrays a curious inability to distinguish between the suicide bomber and Mother Teresa.

The book contains more factual and logical blunders than can be dealt with here. However, it has two general weaknesses that are worth highlighting. First, the case presented violates a standard principle of academic debate– that the most powerful critiques are those that succeed against the strongest version of the opponent’s position.

Dawkins has simply not bothered to familiarise himself with the vast literature on philosophy of religion and science and religion. He has not taken on the most sophisticated representatives of the religious viewpoint. Instead, he finds himself a few easy targets and scores cheap points.

On the same theme, as we have seen, his exemplars of religion are an assortment of religious extremists whom few persons of faith would recognise as fellow travellers.

Dawkins has nothing to say, for example, about William Wilberforce, whose religious convictions motivated his mission to abolish the slave trade, or Bishop Desmond Tutu who campaigned against apartheid, or, for that matter, the millions of ordinary people who act charitably and seek to do justice out of a sense of religious calling.

The second general weakness of the book is that Dawkins persists with a quaint and erroneous nineteenth-century view of the relation between science and religion that historians of science now routinely refer to as ‘the conflict myth’.
In reality, science and religion were rarely at odds in the past.

Indeed, the science which Dawkins lauds as the only rational approach to reality originated in the Christian West. Its seventeenth-century founders– Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton– were possessed of deep religious convictions and their scientific endeavours were grounded in religious presuppositions about the ultimate intelligibility of the natural world.

Another instance of Dawkins’ old-fashioned nineteenth-century perspective is his blind faith in atheistic humanism. ‘If only we did not believe in God, the world would be a wonderful place’, is his simplistic nostrum. (John Lennon said it much better in Imagine.) This is just wishful thinking.

Perhaps it was a credible position before two World Wars, the horrors of Nazism, and the purges of Stalin and Mao.
These human catastrophes can hardly be attributed to religion.

Neither do they provide much comfort to those, who like Dawkins, seem to think that atheism is a panacea for the world’s problems.

Yet in all this, it is worth conceding that religious individuals can be deluded and that there are wicked and corrupt manifestations of religion.

But this is hardly new. Warnings about the dangers of perverted religion have been a central aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition from its beginning.

Witness the attacks in the Hebrew bible on false gods and idolatry; the prophets’ condemnation of religious ceremony divorced from social justice; Jesus’ denunciation of pharisaic hypocrisy.

Consider, too, the religious reformations of the sixteenth century; scientist-theologian Blaise Pascal’s dismissal of the over-rationalised ‘proofs’ for God’s existence; the critiques of state religion mounted by Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard; and the contention of neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth that all human religion is ‘unbelief’.

Beyond this, in the Christian tradition we also find a sobering account of human nature that provides an explanation of why good things are easily perverted.

This view is consistent with both the dismal record of human history and with the existence of depraved forms of religion.
Thus while it accords with the unfortunate examples that fill the pages of Dawkins’ book, it is fundamentally at odds with his wide-eyed optimism and his atheistic and rationalist prescriptions.

Yes, Professor Dawkins, religion can go horribly wrong. But we didn’t need a dogmatic diatribe from you to tell us that.

Peter Harrison is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford