Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A mild defense of Dawkins

This is in response to Sackerson’s piece on Richard Dawkins. It is probably not my best work, given my lack of sleep.

I have read ‘The God Delusion’, and Anthony Flew’s review of it. Most of the former is concerned with the science of why religion appears to exist, based on the scientific evidence available. In his first major point, Flew chooses to focus on Dawkins’ discussion of Einstein, in which he says:

“But (I find it hard to write with restraint about this obscurantist refusal on the part of Dawkins) he makes no mention of Einstein’s most relevant report: namely, that the integrated complexity of the world of physics has led him to believe that there must be a Divine Intelligence behind it.”

The problem for Flew is that I have read Einstein’s writings and comments on the subject. The latter explicitly said that he did not believe in a deity, and that the most that could be said is to deify the structure of the Universe itself. This is not quite what Flew implies. The rest of his review does not address the science presented.

That being dealt with, I have far more interest in the reasons for the outspoken anti-religious tactics of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, P.Z. Myers and Christopher Hitchens.

It is my claim that they are a product of the current social forces.
Since I moved to the US in 1978, I have seen a rise in the loudness and power of the Religious Right, who have supplanted the fiscal conservatives as the core of the Republican Party. These people are not the pleasant vicars and church-goers of my youth. For my UK readers, I note that Ian Paisley was educated at Bob Jones University, a font of wisdom for the fundamentalist community. His style is representative of many in the movement.

This rise in power can be explained in part by the political and economic uncertainty from the gradual decline in the power of the US, and from the many scientific discoveries which show that emotionally-charged deeply-held beliefs (especially ‘no evolution’) are simply not supported by reality. As any psychologist will tell you, this conflict between the frontal lobe and amygdala results in anger, directed firmly at anyone who rejects their ‘correct’ beliefs. Some have coined this the Ameritaliban.

A few people, such as Pope John Paul II and Stephen Jay Gould, tried to make peace, by showing that religion and science could live in harmony. This has also been tried by the Templeton Foundation. These efforts were roundly rejected by the anti-science crowd, who continue to vilify the former two after death, and use every tactic possible to neuter science education and research.

Faced with a call of ‘no quarter’, is it any wonder that voices like these arose on the pro-science side?


Sackerson said...

Clearly the ideological environment in the USA is very different from that in the UK, and those over here who imagine that they are right-wing need people like you to explain what it's really like to debate religion, science, politics, education and even finance in America.

As I said in my piece, my beef is not about the theist issue but about Dawkins' approach. Despite his scientific achievements he appears very limited as a public advocate for his position and may have done rather more harm than good - I am sure you would do a far better job. He completely let himself in for Professor Flew's strictures.

I also continue to be concerned at the way that a chair was created specifically for Dawkins, and suspect that the officially stated aims of the position are not the real driver of how it is to be filled and fulfilled. Bias, deceit and subterfuge in academe run the danger of being seriously counter-productive.

Sackerson said...

Clarification: by "position" in para 2 I mean his philosophical position, whereas in para 3 I mean the Simonyi Professorship.

Paddington said...

Thank you for the compliments. As for Dawkins:

1. Setting up endowed chairs for particular individuals is not uncommon in academia.
2. He is always spot-on with the science.
3. His major failing is a lack of understanding that strong belief appears to be a matter of personality. Remove belief in God from such a person, and they will replace it with belief in something else, equally unsupported by data.

Sackerson said...

1. Leaves open the question of overt vs covert agenda in the Simonyi case and I'd like to know more.
2. Defer to you.
3. Not just personality, I think there's a strong cultural element when you contrast UK with US styles of discussion. Unless I just don't read enough UK message boards. And Dawkins appears to be a bit rigid himself, to judge by his behaviour, e.g. refusing to debate with an opponent and making the latter somehow responsible for mass murder.

Paddington said...

He's actually done many debates. However, when the opponent is a Young Earth Creationist, ot's a little difficult. They are famous for what is called the 'Gish gallop', spouting so many lies in a few minutes that the opponent can barely answer one in the time alloted. The major problem is that most answers in science are tentative, and require a lot of background to express clearly. That's why there are so few real science questions on trivia shows.

Sackerson said...

Why "Gish"?

Paddington said...

After Duane Gish, a famous YEC, who is well-known for the tactic. Even when publically corrected, he uses the same arguments at his next appearance.