What Nonsense Dawkins Talks


We should congratulate Richard Dawkins on the publication of his autobiographical An Appetite For Wonder.   His unmatched ability to communicate science to the public, his great love of nature and, above all, the sincerity and passion with which he pursues his atheist agenda make him one of the most remarkable men of the age.   It is extraordinary, therefore, that when it comes to religion he appears to lose all ability to reason coherently, especially as he seems to know so little about it.  As Terry Eagleton said, Dawkins on religion is like somebody condemning the whole of evolutionary biology on the basis of having read The Observer’s Book of British Birds.                                                          


According to Dawkins religion is a virus of the mind.  As viruses exploit the copying machinery of cells in order to spread themselves, so religions use the copying facility of the brain in order to infect yet more victims.  Daniel Dennett, varying the metaphor, compares religion to one of those parasitic worms that invade the brains of ants, causing the ant to repeat irrational behaviours such as running up and down a grass blade, just as religions causes people to go on repeating absurd rituals.  What ingenious literary tropes these are.  Is there any rational argument here?  It is a substitute of rhetorical abuse for reasoning and should bring cheer to the hearts of believers.  For what do people do when they haven’t got rational arguments?  They resort to abuse.


The God Delusion is full of nonsense.  Dawkins thinks that believers believe that a God somewhere far beyond the sky made the world as a watchmaker makes a watch.  This may have been what Paley thought, it is not what Catholic theology, of which Dawkins seems to be entirely innocent, thinks.   Catholics believe that God is not outside but deeply within the universe.  ‘God is within the universe and that innermostly’ wrote Aquinas.  The metaphor is not that of making a watch but more like that of creating a painting.  We rightly say ‘that’s a Picasso’ for there is a sense in which Picasso is in his painting, but is not, nevertheless, identical with it.   You could even say, as some mystics have, that the material universe is God’s body.  Why is the universe so beautiful?  No answer, as far as I can see, from Dawkins.   ‘Beauty is of no importance’ he says on page 257 of  Climbing Mount Improbable.  Oh yes, why is that?   Dawkins constantly does this.  He argues in a circle by defining anything that might call his argument into question as of no importance and then says  ‘it’s of no importance’.  ‘It’s beautiful’ says Brian Cox staring out moodily at the universe.   Just why would that be Brian?   


Dawkins’ only interest in the Bible in The God Delusion seems to be hunting out episodes in the Old Testament where God is behaving badly.  Actually there are some other bits of the Bible where s(h)e behaves rather well, but Dawkins only seems interested in horror stories.  He seems to have no idea that the Bible  is a document about moral evolution, and it faithfully records what mankind thought about God at a primitive stage.  No competent biblical exegete would think that the depiction of God in Genesis is anything but a highly mythologized early human fiction.  It is as if Dawkins himseIf is a biblical fundamentalist, except in reverse.  Every word is literally true, except in his case false.   Isaiah?  Hosea?  Job?  The Song of Songs?  As a great lover of the 1611 King James’ Bible he should know better.    Can we assume that Dawkins is not a subscriber  to Revue Biblique   and Vetus Testamentum?                                                                                                         


He is horrified by what he takes to be the Christian theology of the Redemption.  According to Dawkins, Christians believe that God was so angry with mankind’s sin that only the torture and horrible death of his own son could appease this divine monster’s rage.  But this is not what Christians believe.   Through his passion and resurrection Christ takes not only the whole of humanity but everything else too  (the creation is groaning as it waits for its release, says St Paul) into God.  You might think that is nonsense.  But at least it is not the nonsense that The God Delusion, that well named text, thinks it is.  It’s nothing to do with appeasing divine justice.  Is Dawkins well acquainted with the patristic theology of the early centuries of the Church?   A course of dogmatic theology is strongly recommended with particular emphasis on the biblical notion of transitus.                                              


With the decline of religion and the rise of science, he notes with approval, the moral zeitgeist is improving.  There would be moral outrage today, he thinks, if somebody extinguished the dodo.   Hasn’t he heard that according to many scientists we are well on the way to extinguishing half the species that exist by 2050, a calamity, a cosmic crime indeed,  in which we are all, to varying extents, complicit?   Why is so great a scientist and such a lover of organic life not striving might and main to preserve what is left of it, instead of banging on and on about religion?  


Dawkins has completely misunderstood Aquinas’s argument from design.  He thinks that Aquinas’s question  is ‘how can we explain the complexity of the creatures we see around us?’   That was Paley’s question.   Aquinas’s is quite different.  It is ‘how can we explain apparently intelligently purposeful  behaviour in creatures that are not intelligently purposeful?’  His answer is that intelligent purpose is conferred on them by a directing agent who is himself intelligent, as an arrow is fired by an archer.   Now we know about genes the question has become a very sharp one.  Even Dawkins uses ‘the language of purpose’.   How does he solve the problem of agency in genes?  No problem.  You simply rewrite purpose as “purpose”.  That was easy wasn’t it?  Could this be merely semantic evasion, and his assurances that when he writes purposeful what he actually means is purposeless, close to literal nonsense?                                                                           


Aquinas’s explanation, that there is a cosmic intelligence, not somewhere far beyond the sky but deep in the universe, infusing purpose and meaning into the creatures within it, is not refuted (for the only God Dawkins knows is He beyond the sky) but not even considered.   There is nothing in science that contradicts the idea that there is a cosmic intelligence, far far below all those hadrons and leptons, deep in the universe.  Can you even have an intelligible universe that is not an expression of an intelligence?  ‘What is most incomprehensible about the universe is that it is comprehensible’ wrote Einstein.  Even more fantastic than  “purposeful” genes, is Dawkins’ invention of memes.  Ideas that could not possibly be themselves rational and willful, as it were rationally and willfully manipulate minds that actually are.  Any evidence for this?  Has anybody seen a meme?  The religious meme deviously teams up with the fear of hell meme (how medieval allegory would have admired these personifications) in order to terrify its victim into religious belief.   This is a fantasy that makes the myths of primitive tribes look like physics.   Personally I have never met a Catholic who is frightened of going to hell.  Of course there were cases in the past of nuns, in particular, terrifying children with fear of hell.    But that rarely happens today, and it is a false logic to always take aberrations for norms.  Could it be that the fear of hell meme is teaming up in a kind of reverse feint with the Darwinian meme to lure its unsuspecting victim into atheism?  What a cad.


According to Dawkins religious believers, not wishing it to rain on the day of the church garden party, ask a little man inside their head to stop it raining.  Has he ever read St John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart or The Cloud of Unknowing or the Upanishads or the Sufi mystics?   Has he ever practised contemplative prayer?   Can we really say that all those Hindu mystics who have been claiming to have experienced advaita, the absorption of the individual into being itself, were all charlatans, or were all suffering from disturbances of the temporal lobe in their brains?   How could we possible know, and how could Dawkins know?  Even I, with my pathetic little twenty minutes prayer a day, am enthralled by the experience of contemplation.                                                                                              


Anyone who thinks, perhaps wrongly for who knows what really goes on inside human beings,  that they have experienced the fire of God’s love in their heart, would not say to Dawkins ‘give me proof that my experiences are false,’ but ‘go away, this is too wonderful, too compelling’.  Is there not something distasteful, clumsily indelicate, grotesquely elephantine,  about disparaging something which is so meaningful to so many, when you yourself know so little about it, and produce no evidence at all from personal experience?  Dawkins does this the whole time, taking the worst excesses of religion, for alas there are boneheaded religious fundamentalists, and there are simple souls who pray that it won’t rain for the church garden party (a pious lunacy in which they are all too often encouraged by the clergy I regret to say) and then condemning the whole of religion on this basis.   We are back to The Observer’s Book of British Birds.


Religion does not use the rationality of the brain to spread nonsense, but the Dawkinsian atheists themselves often use religion to do that very thing.   Daniel Dennett writes the ferociously reductive Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and reduces everything to mindless algorithms, but then when we turn to the index we find twenty three references to Mother Nature.   Dawkins has all the blinkered fervour of the religious fundamentalists he condemns, and, indeed, his evangelizing atheism is not a scientific proposition but a belief system, a kind of religion in reverse.  He exploits mankind’s evolved need for religion to induce irreligious belief.  In his introduction to Susan Blackmore’s  The Meme Machine he notes with satisfaction that,  on the worldwide web on 29th August 1998,  in comparison with  memes such as  catastrophe theory (1472), studmuffin (776) and wannabee (2650), the meme of the meme itself was mentioned 5042 times.   Could we find a better example of a virus invading brains and using not hymns and catechisms but books and the web to spread itself?   How has Dawkins got away with it?  It is one of the mysteries of the age.


Thomas Jackson is author of Darwin’s Error: the Poet Who Died and Richard Dawkins is  Wrong About God Because S(h)e Doesn’t Exist. 


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