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.”

0 Responses to “Richard Dawkins at UBC: Part Three, Dawkins as Mirror”

  1. kbartha

    Dawkins sounds so “reasonable” 🙂

    I’m glad you brought up an example like what if a few good shots were fired in Rwanda… now there’s a dialectical dialogue in the making… thesis, antithesis and a healthy tension… could I pull that trigger? and could I “live” with it?

    Lately, there is this godlike tone coming from the whole “new green earth created in our image” thing and the “global economic” implications of FED, World Bank, IMF, UN MDG’s… 150 bucks a barrel… and all these voices are gathering a similar tone and “agenda”.

    It’s creepy like oracles harping propagandic platitudes between heaven and earth, not “practically” helping anybody in any way… unless of course it’s “profitable” to sound like god (priestly and prophetic) on behalf of all the simple people who are soooo beyond God… highly educated disembodied gnostics… Eckart and Oprah may save us… or maybe not.

  2. Bennett

    I read Francis Schaeffer for the first time last year. His view of history made me try to think objectively (for a change) about how Christians ought to interact with culture. Our current situation indicates that the American Christian Culture has not found the proper balance. Instead of being in the world and not of it, we are in many ways of it and not in it. We’ve set up a parallel kingdom that is very similar to the pagan(?) world in devious ways. But we condemn the “outside” world for mere surface differences.

    I know that is a gross generalization and a purely subjective viewpoint no matter how accepted a viewpoint it is.

    The question I, and many others like me, want answered is the same question Schaeffer was asking in his work. How now shall we live? The answer is obvious, yet it seems unattainable. Live as Christ taught us to. We wish it was easier. I think though, that such a wish granted would turn to ash in our mouth.

    Stupid devil.

  3. Chris

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is of course a fundamental Humanist ethical principle found in the teaching of a great many religious and non-religious ethical traditions (from which I could quote at length). It is in no way the exclusive preserve of theistic Christianity but is a recognition by humans everywhere of what is involved in treating others well. Ethical and Humanist Vegetarians wish to extend that recognition to all non-human animals who have the capacity to suffer. We should have ‘compassion for all beings’ —- as the Buddha taught.


  4. Beth

    I appreciate how you’ve carefully examined and cogently explained Dawkins’ dubious techniques, but instead of letting us point the finger, sneer, and bask in our self-righteousness, you have pointed out the use of similar devices in Christian apologetics. It is sobering to look in Dawkins’ mirror. Thank you for keeping us humble!

  5. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for your encouragement, Beth.

    And as for Chris, please take a look at how I put things. I’m not claiming the Golden Rule as exclusively Christian (although, as one with a nodding acquaintance with world religions, I would suggest that it is not as widespread as you seem to indicate, but is interestingly only approximated in a number of other traditions and rarely duplicated).

    As for having compassion for all beings, no, I’m not a Buddhist. Some things warrant compassion, some don’t. And that’s what you think also, presumably: vegetarians don’t have compassion on what they eat, do they?

  6. Bruce

    I found both this and the previous post to be extremely interesting. It’s sad that people like Dawkins and Hitchens spew such vitriol and hold their opponents in such contempt, b/c the discussion is an interesting one that warrants both sides discussing the other side’s best points and most eloquent proponents. Dawkins and Hitchens don’t to that, but of course neither does the theist side, as a rule. Sigh.

  7. Chris

    “presumably: vegetarians don’t have compassion on what they eat, do they?”

    There are dfferent sorts of vegetarians. Ethical vegetarians DO have ‘compassion’ for the many sentient pain-suffering beings which others eat, which is one reason why we do not eat them! We do not have compassion for cabbages and carrots or potatoes and peas; as lacking nervious systems, brains and consciousness (as far as it is humanly possible to know)they do not have the capacity to suffer!

    I published an article for a magazine as a young student over half a century ago on the almost universal nature of the Golden Rule or Rule of Reciprocity —- it more than likely laid some of the foundation for my later belief that religious exclusivity and exclusion was responsible for much human generated suffering, a conviction which grows with the passing of time —-not least as a result of the ‘bearing false witness’ response of so many religionists to the case presented Dawkins and others.



Comments are closed.