Thank You, Richard Dawkins

A few years ago, as a newbie assistant professor, I was visited in my office by an editor at The Free Press. He was basically trolling the corridors, looking for people who had interesting ideas for popular-science books. I said that I liked the idea of writing a book, but I didn’t really want to do a straight-up cosmology tome. I had a better idea: I could write a book explaining how, when you really think about things scientifically, you come to realize that God doesn’t exist. I even had a spiffy title picked out — God Remains Dead: Reason, Religion, and the Pointless Universe. It’s not any old book that manages to reference both Steven Weinberg and Friedrich Nietzsche right there on the cover. Box office, baby.

The editor was actually intrigued by the idea, and he took it back to his bosses. Ultimately, however, they decided not to offer me a contract, and I went on to write another book with more equations. (Now on sale at Amazon!)

All of which is to say: I totally could have been in on the ground floor of all this atheism chic. These days, between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a prominent publicly-outspoken atheist of one form or another. That could have been me, I tell you.

These guys have gotten a lot of attention — especially Dawkins, who was recently voted Person of the Year by at least one reputable organization. Of course, some of the attention has been negative, especially from folks who are unsympathetic to the notion of a harsh, materialistic, godless universe. But even among self-professed atheists and agnostics (not to mention your wishy-washy liberal religionists), some discomfort has been expressed over the tone of Dawkins’s approach. People have been known to call him arrogant. Even if you don’t believe in God, so the argument goes, it can be a bad strategy to be upfront and in-your-face in public about one’s atheism. People are very committed to their religious beliefs, and telling them that science proves them wrong will lead them away from science, not way from God. And if you must be a die-hard materialist, at least be polite about it and respect others’ beliefs — to be obnoxious and insulting is simply counterproductive. Apart from any deep issues of what we actually should believe, this is a separate matter of how we could best persuade others to agree with us.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that atheists shouldn’t be obnoxious and insulting; in fact, I think it’s a good strategy in all sorts of situations. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. But it does not follow that we should keep quiet about comforting illusions because those are the only things standing between the poor dears and overwhelming existential anxiety. If people ask whether, as scientists, we believe in God, we should respect them enough to tell the truth — whatever we think that is. That doesn’t mean we have to go door-to-door spreading the good word of the laws of nature. It just means that we should be honest about what we actually think, giving the best arguments we have for whatever that may be, and let people decide for themselves what to believe.

Arrogant or not, as a matter of fact Dawkins and company have done a great service to the cause of atheism: they have significantly shifted the Overton Window. That’s the notion, borrowed from public-policy debates, of the spectrum of “acceptable opinion” on an issue. At any given time, on any particular question, the public discourse will implicitly deem certain positions to be respectable and worthy of civilized debate, and other positions to be crazy and laughable. The crucial part of this idea is that the window can be shifted by vigorous advocacy of positions on one extreme. And that’s just what Dawkins has done.

Science Finds God In other words, by being arrogant and uncompromising in his atheism, Dawkins has done a tremendous amount to make the very concept of atheism a respectable part of the public debate, even if you find him personally obnoxious. Evidence: a few years ago, major newsmagazines (prompted in part by the efforts of the Templeton Foundation) were running cover stories with titles like Science Finds God (Newsweek, July 20, 1998). Pure moonshine, of course — come down where you will on the whole God debate, it remains pretty clear that science hasn’t found Him. But, within the range of acceptable public discourse, both science and God were considered to be undeniably good things — it wasn’t a stretch to put them together. God vs. Science? Nowadays, in contrast, we find cover stories with titles like God vs. Science (Time, Nov 13, 2006). You never would have seen such a story just a few years ago.

This is a huge step forward. Keep in mind, the typical American thinks of atheists as fundamentally untrustworthy people. A major network like CNN will think nothing of hosting a roundtable discussion on atheism and not asking any atheists to participate. But, unlike a short while ago, they will eventually be shamed into admitting that was a mistake, and make up for it by inviting some atheists to defend their ideas. Baby steps. Professional news anchors may still seem a little befuddled at the notion that a clean, articulate person may not believe in God. But at least that notion is getting a decent public hearing. Once people actually hear what atheists have to say, perhaps they will get the idea that one need not be an amoral baby-killer just because one doesn’t believe in God.

For that, Richard Dawkins, thank you.

This entry was posted in Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

157 Responses to Thank You, Richard Dawkins

  1. Hello from (mostly) secular Britain, where you can hardly have a chat show without Richard Dawkins..

    … There is a strange puzzle here. If I did not know that the USA existed, the secular nature of the UK and most of Europe would seem natural. Obviously – one would think – as material comfort, political freedom, and understanding of nature increase, then fear, ignorance, and superstition gradually erode and people’s minds are liberated. But for a hundred years the USA has been the leader in comfort, freedom, and science …. People don’t need to think deep and decide religion is evil etc etc. I just don’t understand, why, as they sit watching TV after plenty of dinner, watching a Nature documentary, having just come back from voting, they don’t just find God .. well .. unnecessary ???

  2. BadAunt says:

    I don’t know if it’s just me, but I don’t find Dawkins’ manner arrogant at all. In fact the first time I heard his name mentioned that was included in the mention, as if it was the most important thing about him. So I clicked on the video link (can’t remember what it was, now) and waited for the arrogance. I couldn’t see it. He doesn’t seem arrogant to me.

    Is it only religious people who find him arrogant? Is it what he says rather than how he says it? Or… could it be the accent rather than the manner? Maybe people are intimidated by the accent.

    But I suspect that if his message was a religious one, religious people would be applauding him and would be terribly upset at anybody who called him ‘arrogant.’

    Generally, almost any preacher sounds more arrogant to me than Dawkins does. He doesn’t claim to know everything. Religious people insist that they know the mind of god, without any evidence at all, and moreover insist that you should believe them when they say that they ‘know’ something on the basis of faith. (Or on the basis of the Bible, since they believe it was divinely inspired. Same thing – there no evidence for either except what people say.) There is nothing humble about that.

    Dawkins strikes me as somebody who really wants to help people.

  3. Sourav says:

    The United States is obviously quite heterogeneous. But one large constituency is of people who go to church every Sunday (7AM during football season), actually drink Budweiser, and choose what college to attend by their success in sports.

    When your whole life is about belonging to and status in a community, nothing scares the piss out of you like the notion that it’s all meaningless and ephemeral. So there’s this myth of the “world’s greatest nation” born by the grace of God in the 18th century, founded upon the goodness of “freedom” granted by God to man, and you better damn stand up during the national anthem.

    My impression is that Europe, though secular and loosely federal, has this same theme drawn along national/ethnic borders. Many impoverished countries get a double-whammy of ethnocentrism and religiosity.

  4. Rob Beagrie says:

    I have to admit now to having more than occasionally referred to Richard Dawkins as arrogant, so I feel as if i ought to defend my views, even if I may have slightly different reasons.

    The reason I dislike Dawkins is not because he is so outspoken in his beliefs, after all, there are many far more outspoken proponents among religious circles. What I dislike is that he always represents this dichotomy between science and religion which is simply non-existant. Granted, one can not be a “true” scientist whilst also being a young earth creationist, but science cannot and will not “disprove god” in the widest terms.

    There are many notable scientists, both past and present, who have been able to reconcile their work with their religious beliefs and I disagree with Dawkins that confronting people with this “choice” between science and religion is a useful or appropriate method.

  5. fh says:

    I’m an atheist, I believe a rational view of the world leads one there. I will fight to utter boredom (but not further) the insane kinds of religion (creationism, but also just general insanity of comfort religion) that I see around me (that is, the UK).
    So would several religious people I know. Jesuits, and the like.

    What I want to say is that there are forms of religiosity which are (almost or mostly) rational and which do deserve our respect.

    My problem with Dawkins is that his attack is a blancket attack on religion instead of on irrationality.

    And thereby he positions himself in opposition to those who, while rational, consider themself religious.

    You are saying, it’s good to have somebody this extreme in the public discourse, there’s plenty of the other extreme, well true, we still need to make clear when we disagree though.

    Beyond that there is a more fundamental issue. To quote Nietzsche:

    “Suppose we want truth. Why should we not prefer untruth? And ignorance? Ignorance of the self?”

    “For us, the falsity of a judgment is no objection to that judgment—that’s where our new way of speaking sounds perhaps most strange. The question is the extent to which it makes demands on life, sustains life, maintains the species—perhaps even creates species.”

    – Beyond Good and Evil 1 On the Prejudices of Philosophers

    Inmore amicable language, what if humans are such that a certain level of comfort illusion is essential to our well being? On what ground then do we mandate truth over our humanity?
    In that case mandating truth would become irrational.

  6. Taurere says:

    I have always wondered, what has something being true (or false) has to do with believing in it?
    i.e. The action of believing in a statement to be true and well, the statement being true seem independent of each other. Why should anyone believe a statement to be true, when it is true?
    Because it is?

    I ask this questions independent of the necessity of human beings for the comfort illusion.

  7. PK says:

    “Arrogant” is the wrong word to describe Dawkins. Rather, I would call him “uncompromising”. This has the added benefit of being a more neutral adjective.

    Sourav, I like your explanation for the religiosity of the US vs Europe. It may well be true.

  8. Arun says:

    There are at least three positions one may take. To be specific, I’ll use Christianity.

    1. Christianity is true.
    2. Christianity is false.
    3. Christianity is a human tradition (or bundle of them) and asking whether they are true or false is a category mistake – like asking whether wearing trousers or wearing kilts is true or false.

    That it is proper to talk about the truth/falsity of Christianity is a claim made by Christianity. Dawkins (and Sean and Mark and all) concede that claim and decide on the side of falsity. In this, they are less atheistic than they might be – they at least concede the claim of Christians that their doctrine is true/false.

    A more thorough going atheism would hop off the platform of religion, and remind them they are making a category mistake when they talk of true/false.

    To me Dawkins is annoying because he is perpetuating the most fundamental claim of religion, namely, to be true/false. (God, angels, heaven, hell, etc. are secondary claims.) It is especially annoying because a study of human cultures will reveal that plenty of them realized the category mistake. Why can’t Dawkins realize that?

  9. Chris says:

    What I find “arrogant” about Dawkins’ atheism, and what I’ve criticized him for, is not that he’s outspoken — I’m actually glad that atheists now have visible spokespeople in America — but that Dawkins’ atheism is essentially sound-bite atheism. His CNN interview could have been given by a 15 year old, with his “why don’t you believe in Thor” argument. I suppose that’s how you sell books, and get on TV shows, but I find the philosophical and, quite frankly, scientific (as in the science of religion, culture, and learning, for example) naivete incredibly annoying, and I’d much rather atheists not end up giving arguments and speaking at a level indistinguishable from that of fundamentalist Christians. By the way, Harris is much worse, in this regard, than Dawkins, because in addition to the bad arguments and ignorance, Harris is simply immune to facts (about who commits suicide bombings, and why, e.g.).

  10. John Farrell says:

    Sean, I think your book would’ve been better.

    🙂

  11. JimV says:

    Bundles of tradition or comfort illusions that have attempted to stifle scientific inquiry throughout the ages and continue to do so today deserve to be challenged, and I am glad that Dawkins does so vigorously. In order to be shown arrogant, he will first have to be shown to be wrong.

    (He was in fact in error recently in regard to a petition he endorsed, and humbly acknowledged it.)

    “Why don’t you believe in God?/Why don’t you believe in Thor?” Not a bad answer for a five-minute interview in which long answers will be edited to simple sound-bites, and considering the audience. Trying to engage Paula Zahn in a philosophical inquiry on CNN would be like trying to teach an elephant to waltz.

  12. sirix says:

    I find statements about scientifically disproving existence of God almost as disturbing as “intelligent design” stuff.

    Religion and science are two things that are (or rather might be) absolutely disjoint. One is a matter of reasoning, discovery, etc and another is matter of personal choice of what to believe in.

    Accordingly, by the very definition of faith and science I find statement “(…) when you really think about things scientifically, you come to realize that God doesn’t exist” to be quite “unscientific”.

  13. MartinM says:

    Religion and science are two things that are (or rather might be) absolutely disjoint

    So if it were to be demonstrated that prayer to one particular deity worked consistently – regrowing amputated limbs, moving mountains, whatever – while prayer to all other deities resulted in immediate death of the…prayee? prayerer?…by lightning strike, what would you conclude?

    Of course, there’s always Clarke’s third law. But there we run the risk of retreating to the position that God and science are orthogonal only for some sufficiently rarefied God that almost no one actually gives a damn about.

  14. xantox says:

    Perfection is always inside of reality, and every road which can be traversed is inside of reality. Every attributes which one could be tempted to tack back apart from reality can always be said within reality. There is no need of finding external causes which would justify the internal order of the universe. So, the subtitution of epistemic knowledge with religious belief, similar to abandoning the road when one hardly has just crossed the first turning, should be considered a symptom of insanity.

    This, however is not an argument against religion, but merely a way of properly recognizing its own domain. The proper domain of religion is unattackable by rational arguments, and few positivist critics of religions like Dawkins or Russell ever bother to approach it. They attack mostly the preceding symptoms, in order to exorcise its effects as in a theraputical ritual, which is useful only for who is already suffering of said epistemological illness.

    The domain of religion is the one where one does not intend any more to talk about such or such road and to find their qualities, structures, or causes. The language switches necessarily in the metaphorical, to symbolize the fact that one is located outside of facts and attempting to refer to what is unexplainable. The religious experience is the expression of the conscience of an irreducible ignorance, i.e. it appears by the sudden consideration of reality as a point of an iceberg, where the submerged part, to which we are linked (re-ligo), is much more than a still unknown or inaccessible reality: it is not reality and cannot be thought by nobody and by nothing. It is more than unknown, as it is completely senseless to even consider to know it or to think it, or to list its attributes.

    In that, deep understanding of reality by science does not alter the religious domain (which proceeds from an irreducible feeling of ignorance and is set apart from any epistemic knowledge), but can help to become aware of an “epistemic boundary”. The religious experience can occur from epistemic facts (eg. by seeing a lighting or considering the order of the stars, etc), but that is just a translation, a metaphor, which shall never contradict epistemic knowledge. Thus the dogma could never be opposed to experimental truth.

    As a summary, if the religious domain can occur improperly as a manifestation of ignorance, it properly relates to ignorance of what is not a road which could be traversed by science or experiment, so that it occurs properly as the experience of a fundamental tension between speakable and unspeakable.

  15. Larry Moran says:

    Excellent post Sean. I’m telling everyone I know to read it, especially the appeasers.

    Rob Beagrie writes,

    There are many notable scientists, both past and present, who have been able to reconcile their work with their religious beliefs ….

    The key word here is “reconcile.” Religious scientists have to work hard at rationalizing their religious beliefs with their science. There’s a very good reason why they find this so difficult.

  16. MartinM says:

    The language switches necessarily in the metaphorical, to symbolize the fact that one is located outside of facts and attempting to refer to what is unexplainable

    You mean…gibberish?

  17. Walt says:

    Rob and sirix: I have basically the same position as you do, but think about the Overton Window. Our opinion was the very limit of what was publicly acceptable for an atheist to say (I’m not saying you are atheists). Sean’s position (which I don’t agree with) was out of bounds, while any pro-religious comment was in bounds. That clearly is an unjust situation. While I don’t agree with Dawkins, he’s as entitled to be on TV as the one million TV preachers that each have their own channel on my cable package.

  18. Menestrel says:

    As far as I know, the only viable way to be an amoral baby killer is to be religious. I’ll say this loud and clear, the most corrupted people I’ve known are, at the same time, the most religious. (The converse, however, is not true.)

  19. Chris says:

    Larry,

    Most scientists I know who are religious — almost exclusively Christian and Jewish — have not found reconciling science, including their own practice of it (and some of them are quite successful as scientists), with their religion. Perhaps they’re missing the good reasons that you, Dawkins, and perhaps Sean believe make this necessarily difficult, but as I’ve yet to see such reasons explicitly discussed, I’m going to remain skeptical about their existence.

    To say more, as far as I can tell, Dawkins and others make four points about the difficulty in reconciling science and religion. First, science is evidence-based, while religion is not. Some, including Dawkins claim that science is reason-based and religion is not, but this is empirically false (the rationalist tradition of which Dawkins is certainly a part began as a religious one!). It is true that science is evidence-based, and at least at its core, religion is not. But this has been recognized for centuries by the religious, and they’ve had no trouble arguing (successfully or unsuccessfully, depending on your starting premises) that this is not a problem for religion. Some (say, Kierkegaard) have even argued that this makes religion more important.

    The second is that science makes religion unnecessary. If you can explain the origins of the universe in general, and life (including human life) scientifically, the old myths about how these things came to be become superfluous at best. This is true, of course, if you are religious specifically because you believe the creation stories of your religion are literally true. However, I think most religious scientists (and perhaps most religious people in general, even if they believe that the creation stories of their religions are literally true) are religious for other reasons. In fact, most religious people I know, scientists or not, treat the creation stories of their religions as non-literal. They have no problem reconciling naturalistic explanations of the origin of the natural universe and life with their religion (e.g., there are always why questions that science is unequipped to answer).

    The third is a version of the second. It says that science directly contradicts religious teachings. Again, this is only true if you accept literal interpretations of a few passages of scripture, and since I doubt most religious science do, this is not a problem.

    The fourth is one that I’ve only seen Dawkins use recently, but which I’ve heard for years from others (in fact, it’s one of the more prominent atheistic, scientistic arguments of the 20th century). It says science works, while religion and metaphysics in general do not. In one sense, this is true. Science has been spectacularly successful at explaining the natural world, leading to the production of increasingly sophisticated technology. Religion and metaphysics were never going to do that, and I think every religious scientist is completely aware of that. Setting aside the philosophical, moral, and social problems that go hand in hand with this sort of pragmatic argument for the truth of science, and for the elimination of religion and metaphysics, the argument only extends so far. Since the purpose of religion has never been to produce better technologies, and since its purposes go beyond the mere explanation of the natural world in formal, mathematical terms, this argument has little impact on the status of religious beliefs. In fact, it leaves huge openings for religion, because religion has always been, and continues to have pragmatic uses that science doesn’t and will never have. Of course, pragmatic arguments for religion also have philosophical, moral, and social problems, but that’s why very few people (with the exception of some anti-positivists in the middle of the 20th century) have used pragmatic arguments to justify religion.

    So again, I’m skeptical about the existence of any reason to believe that the reconciliation of science and religion, in a person’s personal beliefs, is all that difficult. Perhaps you can spell them out for me, Larry.

  20. Vince says:

    “I had a better idea: I could write a book explaining how, when you really think about things scientifically, you come to realize that God doesn’t exist. ”

    Uh oh. I still haven’t come to that conclusion, even after thinking about science and God for many years! I’m so scared! What’s wrong with me?! 🙁

  21. Sean says:

    I’m somewhat sympathetic to Chris’s “soundbite atheism” criticism of Dawkins. (And it’s a great phrase, although I’m hopeful that “atheism chic” will catch on.) And I’ve tried to be much more careful myself, e.g. here and here.

    But my specific point here was, regardless of one’s view of Dawkins’s level of philosophical sophistication, at the rhetorical level he has scored a great success, by moving atheism into (or at least toward) the realm of acceptable public discourse. Contrary to worries that his tone was offputting and would actually make atheists look bad, I think the net effect has been positive.

  22. I also agree with the notion that its not religion as a construct that’s hindering us, it’s irrationality calling itself religion and getting away with it. I grew up religious (liberally so) and my dad’s worked in interfaith contexts all his life – doing really good work for the poor, hungry, and sick worldwide. Religion ins’t that bad if its talking about hope and human dignity and equality and sacrifice for good… it’s when it starts making specious claims about the world and unjust demands and “ethics” based on its own personal (and most often ridiculous) science.

    Science and religion aren’t the same. They can co-mingle and exist together, but one of them has got to give a little… and its got to be religion, cause science has standards, not just stories.

    Check out Dawkin’s on Point of Inquiry (http://www.pointofinquiry.org/), a podcast on which he often speaks.

  23. Moshe says:

    Great point, and it applies more generally, it is the same mechanism that makes John McCain, say, suddenly a moderate. Two cheers then to Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader and friends…

  24. Chris says:

    Sean, with your last point (about the rhetorical victory), I agree 100%. However, now that the victory has been achieved, I think it’s time for more thoughtful atheists to take the microphone. That’s the only way we can have a lasting impact on society, beyond pissing Christians off and fueling their irrational persecution complex. I only wish I knew of some who had Dawkins’ verbal skill.

  25. adam says:

    Dawkins is very good at expressing his point of view. I find his manner somewhat irritating, but that is perhaps just me.

    However, I don’t really understand why people with particular religious beliefs (including atheism) would want to express them without being asked, or to convert people to their way of thinking. I have never really understoood missionary zeal of any sort. Religious beliefs (including the belief that all religious beliefs are wrong) seem to me to better situated on the inside. Like intestines, in that regard.

    To be clear, I don’t care if people want to spread their Truth, I just don’t understand why they’d want to. Most of the time, I am not sure that it makes a great deal of difference if they do or not, either.