• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Richard Dawkins at UBC: Part Three, Dawkins as Mirror

In this last post, I’d like to reflect on how Richard Dawkins unwittingly and certainly unwillingly helps the Christian Church, as well as the other theists he so energetically opposes.

In particular, he helps us by showing us how some of us sound to people such as he, as well as to others who also do not share our premises. I was struck as Dawkins spoke at how similar was his style to that of many Christian apologists and preachers I have encountered/endured through the years.

For instance, he presented major issues in a simplistic fashion only to dispatch them with breathtaking swiftness. Here’s one example.

Dawkins averred that theism is patently contradictory. A God who can see the future with certainty (because of omniscience) thus is powerless to do anything other than what he foresees himself doing, thus compromising his omnipotence. Voilà! Theism is incoherent!

Well, maybe. But a first-year theology or philosophy of religion class would be taught that omnipotence is correctly defined precisely against logical contradictions. God “can’t” make a square circle, for instance, because there is no such thing and by definition cannot be. And there are lots of other (non-)things God “cannot” do, such as “exist and not exist,” “be everywhere and nowhere,” and so on.

Among that set would be God foreseeing that he will do X and then his not doing X. There is no abrogation of God’s freedom here. God can do what he wants to do—that’s true freedom. And if he foresees himself doing what he wants to do, how is he any the less free when he actually does that particular thing?

I’d like to think that I have now answered this question to everyone’s satisfaction. But I know I haven’t. The debate continues in high-level philosophy over these long-standing issues.

So here’s a handy rule of thumb in intellectual disputation for Dawkins and for the rest of us: Any argument held by intelligent people is unlikely to be summed up accurately in a few sentences, much less adequately refuted in a few sentences.

Second, in his UBC talk Dawkins frequently traded in unexamined assumptions. For instance, he denounced religion as prompting people to kill, but he never paused to consider if there might be any instances in which killing might be a good thing. He got into trouble later with the vegetarians, as I mentioned in my last post, because he refuses to toe their line and promote their cause. So according to Dawkins some killing (of animals and vegetables for sustenance) is apparently not only okay, but a good thing.

Furthermore, he didn’t consider whether sending a few thousand troops into Rwanda, as Gen. Romeo Dallaire wanted us to do to prevent the killing of 800,000 people, might have been a good thing to do, presuming that those troops would almost certainly have killed at least a few miscreants.

No, Dawkins just played on the prejudice that “religion promotes killing.” And I’m afraid that that’s just the way theists sometimes play on assumptions in their own audiences, such as “atheists have no morality” or “belief in evolution means you disregard the Bible.”

So here’s another rule of thumb: Beware of sweeping generalizations about complex issues that might just be inadequate to the subject. (As A. N. Whitehead put it, “Seek simplicity—and distrust it.”)

Third, Dawkins played the “victim” card, claiming that atheistic scientists honest and true, such as himself, were being persecuted by a nasty religious resistance. (Indeed, one of his UBC emcees worried aloud that all right-thinking atheists such as himself and Professor Dawkins were under siege—an idea that struck me, listening to him in the grand hall of his employer, one of Canada’s best universities, as a ludicrous sort of paranoid wishful thinking.)

Theists play the same card, of course. Atheistic scientists have somehow ganged up with The Media, The Government, and other Monoliths to attack the true faith, making it impossible to stand for the good old verities anymore.

To be sure, it’s not as if everyone’s totally delusional in this weird mirroring of victimhood. Dawkins and Co. are indeed whacking away at theism and theists, and many theists have eagerly responded in kind. But for either side to claim victim status in a world in which people’s livelihoods and even lives are actually at stake because of what they believe seems grotesquely to lack a sense of proportion.

A third rule of thumb, then: Of course you have opponents, or you’re merely spouting truisms. Press on with a good argument, enjoying the freedom you have to do so (which many others lack), rather than indulging in a whine.

Fourth, Dawkins claimed certain virtues for himself and his kind: civility, reasonableness, open-mindedness, and the like. Then he proceeded to mock his intellectual opponents. In a display of impressive conceit, he projected photos of covers of books written to respond to his arguments, some of them written by his professional equals, and then referred to them as his “fleas,” himself clearly being the big dog in the metaphor.

So much for civility, reasonableness, and the rest. Much worse, however, was Dawkins going on (and on) to scorn religious people in general.

The lowest moment was simply astonishing for its symmetry with, of all things, Nazi propaganda. (I recognize that it is incendiary and perhaps even a cliché to associate one’s opponents with the Nazis, but hear me out on this one and see if the parallel seems fair to you, too.) Dawkins showed a news photo of a group of Hasidic Jews and then immediately cut to a photo of the Monty Python comedy troupe dressed as the moronic family of Gumbys.

As my jaw dropped, Dawkins then played to the titters in the crowd (some of which surely were simply nervous) by going back to the Hasidim photo and then forward to the Gumbys again, just in case anyone missed his point.

—Which was what? That Jews are stupid, or at least those from Eastern Europe (where the Hasidim used to be most populous)? He didn’t actually say what his point was, but I should think that the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith might find it worthwhile to inquire of him just what he does mean to say.

Oh, I wish I could say that we theists never resort to cheap insults such as that. But we have (think of the century-plus of cartoons depicting Darwin as a monkey) and we still do.

In sum, Dawkins indicts theists powerfully, but in a quite ironic way. His actual arguments may or may not be substantial—I don’t think they’re terribly difficult to counter, as lots of other writers have shown. But his style holds up a mirror to many of us theists in auditoriums, pulpits, classrooms, and living rooms across the world who attack our opponents in ways just as vicious and as hypocritical as anything Dawkins does.

So here’s one last rule of thumb I commend to Richard Dawkins as it has been commended to me and my kind by Someone we should listen to: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”