Monday, August 24, 2009

Dawkins Calls for the Priest

The Times is serialising some extracts from Richard Dawkins new book 'the Greatest Show on Earth', starting today. In it, Dawkins claims science teachers face a 'dire' plight, with a rising number of children, and parents, refusing to accept evolution, and persecuting science teachers who expound it. He compares this with historians trying to teach 20th century history to Holocaust deniers - which makes a good headline, but I'm pretty uncomfortable with anyone who uses the Holocaust to make a point in an argument.

The main body of the piece is a plea to church leaders (not quite sure why it's just church leaders, I didn't realise all Muslims were 100% behind Darwin on this one) who have accepted evolutionary theory and integrated it into their faith. Here's a bit of it:

To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed!

If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely “symbolic” meaning, perhaps something to do with “original sin”, or the virtues of innocence. They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically? Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess? In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused.

Think about it, Bishop. Be careful, Vicar. You are playing with dynamite, fooling around with a misunderstanding that’s waiting to happen — one might even say almost bound to happen if not forestalled. Shouldn’t you take greater care, when speaking in public, to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay? Lest ye fall into condemnation, shouldn’t you be going out of your way to counter that already extremely widespread popular misunderstanding and lend active and enthusiastic support to scientists and science teachers? The history-deniers themselves are among those who I am trying to reach. But, perhaps more importantly, I aspire to arm those who are not history-deniers but know some — perhaps members of their own family or church — and find themselves inadequately prepared to argue the case.

1. It's quite possible to make moral or theological points about things without having to say whether they really happened or not - many great novels and works of literature do this. You wouldn't come on stage at the end of Les Miserables and say 'now don't forget everyone, this is all fiction, just a story made up by Dumas, and none of it really happened.'

2. I love the line about 'uneducated' churchgoers. That's a fine commentary on our schools system, unless Dawkins is proposing that the church play a greater role in education? Thought not.

3. I'm not sure it's the place of church leaders to go 'out of your way' to argue for evolution over against creationism. For one thing, there are a lot of other things going on in the real world, and this comes some way down the list of concerns. Secondly, we're not preaching on Genesis 1-3 every other month. I'll happily say from the pulpit (though I'd rather be at ground level) that Genesis is more of a theological document than a historical one, but it's not as though I'll get the chance to go into all of that in fine detail. People can think for themselves.

4. I wonder if that second paragraph has ever happened in reality, or whether it's a figment of Dawkins imagination. If his argument is based on facts, we should know. If it's based on fictions, then we should know. We should be told whether this blithe and withering clergyman ever existed, even as he is used to make a moral point.

5. It's quite amusing, that having systematiclly abused and ridiculed religious people for years, Dawkins is now trying to co-opt us. I'm not sure how he can argue that a) evolution disproves the existence of God and b) people who believe in God should be defending evolution. Huh? That's like asking Flintoff to bowl for the Aussies.

Further reading
Is Richard Dawkins a stage magician? (Uncommon Descent)
'The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist' (Thinking matters)


  1. Dan Brown was condemned from all sides for not making it explicit that some of what he wrote in The Da Vinci Code was not factually true - in what everyone agreed was a novel, a genre of fiction!

  2. "systematiclly abused and ridiculed religious people" - sounds like fiction too?

    Dawkins and many other atheists like me openly criticise religion because religion impacts our lives in so many unwanted ways. However, I like to think that generally we make arguments that are well thought through and hopefully rational; actually a lot of these arguments are not new at all but simply repackaged for our times.

    But is this really "abuse" in your mind? This comment seems like an exaggeration. Perhaps I am being pedantic about the use of language to make a point, or am I missing something?

  3. I'd fully expect atheists to criticise religion, but Dawkins is pretty insulting towards religious people too. He holds that folk who believe in God are delusional, and that people who raise their children to believe in God are committing a form of child abuse.

    There's a few examples on, e.g.
    "Religious people split into three main groups when faced with science. I shall label them the "know-nothings", the "know-alls", and the "no-contests"" I've not followed Dawkins career with minute detail, but what I have seen demonstrates a patronising tone and fundamental lack of respect towards people of faith. Some of us perhaps merit that, some don't.

  4. David, I wouldn't defend everything that Dawkins says by any means, he can be a pendant at times. I suspect he often positions his comments and uses particular words to provoke a reaction, he is in the book selling business after all!

    I think it's seldom reported but a lot of the "new atheist" reaction (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett etc.) is as a result of a backlash against a rising tide of religiosity and fundamentalism, particularly in the USA and the Islamic world over the last few years (Bush, 9/11, 7/7 et al). When viewed in that context it perhaps makes more sense and plays back as a less aggressive tone and more of an alarmed one.

    I think you would agree the subject of religion is a very important one to most people, but can be extremely polarising; in society today the vast majority of traffic is one way, i.e. from the established religions to everyone else. Being an Atheist and a scientist myself I can experience a lot of Dawkins frustrations; I love to debate religion and theology in the context of science but unfortunately all to often find attitudes based on ignorance and condescention in the theistic camp, its a shame because we miss an opportunity to learn something IMO.