Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Dawkins Condescension

This morning, I saw the following on twitter:

It’s one of those pictures of a notable person accompanied by one of their quotes, thereby lending the words a tremendous sense of import and idolising the figure who delivered them. Very rarely to either of those elements live up to the billing lent to them by this format.

This particular one was tweeted by a fan of Richard Dawkins to the man himself, who promptly and humbly retweeted it. What makes this activity particularly odd is that both follower and leader appear to think that they are highlighting something wonderfully insightful, but the extraordinary thing about the quotation is that the insight it contains is so blindingly obvious.

Frankly, what Dawkins has noticed here is just as perceptive as noting that English people tend to have eggs and bacon for breakfast whilst Americans have pancakes. Surely it is one of the most blatantly obvious facts about the world that different cultures have, over the course of the millenia, developed different responses to the various phenomena and challenges we face, whether that be the need for calories in the morning, or dealing with human spirituality and existentialism.

The discovery that there are different religions and that they tend to be tied to particular cultures is not revelatory at all. What is fascinating is that those religions have generated so much extraordinary work in art, literature and philosophy; that they have inspired such dedication; that great thinkers have found a lot of common ground between religions and have suggested what the phenomena of religious faith might actually be about beyond a relatively primitive belief in a bearded chap in the sky.

However, Dawkins has no interest in all of this. He finds it better to be smugly superior and dismissive, whilst being facile to boot. It’s not that he doesn’t have a point. Undoubtedly, he has a number of valid contributions to make, but you cannot be considered a genuinely valuable contributor to any debate unless you are willing to engage with all of it. Dawkins needs to arrest his condescension and begin to consider the possibility that the holders of religious faith may well have many valid points of their own, and that they are a great deal more intelligent than he cares to think.

1 comment:

  1. There is also a point where Dawkins' logic falls hopelessly to pieces. Indeed, the words he has chosen only serve to highlight the glaring hole in his argument. "If we'd been brought up in ancient Greece we'd all be worshipping Zeus and Apollo. If we had been born Vikings we would be worshipping Wotan and Thor," he tells us. It may have escaped Dawkins' attention but Hellenic Polytheism (worshipping the likes of Zeus and Apollo) is somewhat past its prime in Greece with around 13,000 adherents while Orthodox Christianity is the official state religion these days and followed by millions. The children of the Vikings (let's say the Danes for the sake of argument) are mostly Lutherans and today there are only about 500 registered heathens (0.01% of the population) belonging to the old Norse beliefs. The religiosity of people, families and nations does, in fact, evolve over time. People do adopt religions that are different tho those of their parents. One of the many remarkable things about religions is how they, like the animal kingdom, have undergone a process of natural selection whereby thousands have fallen by the wayside and a few have risen to the top. As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins might want to consider why some religions fail and others succeed and why it is that religions such as Christianity and Islam have grown from nothing to attract two and one billion followers respectively in the space of just 2,000 years. Mathematically, such growth for some religions and the near total disappearance of others must mean that more than just heredity (or as Dawkins puts it childhood indoctrination) is at play here. Faith perhaps?