I’m a bit slow on the uptake with this. Since – astoundingly – I don’t have much time for Richard Dawkins, I tend not to follow Dawkins-related controversies. I think the truth about Dawkins is pretty simple. He’s a popular scientist who has let it all go to his head and hence thinks he’s qualified to make pontifications on God, the Universe and everything, and that so long as he knows how to laugh, he has addressed all matters of religion.
What’s nice to see is that Fellow atheist – and actual philosopher – Michael Ruse has noticed this as well. In his review of Dawkins’ book A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, Ruse makes a number of pointed, scathing and perfectly accurate complaints. Here are some of my personal favourites:
However, I worry about the political consequences of Dawkins’s message. If Darwinism is a major contributor to nonbelief, then should Darwinism be taught in publicly funded U.S. schools? The Creationists say not. They argue that if the separation of Church and State keeps belief out of the schools, then it should likewise keep nonbelief out of the schools. There are issues to be grappled with here, and Dawkins does nothing to address them. Does Darwinism as such lead to nonbelief? It is true that Darwinism conflicts with the Book of Genesis taken literally, but at least since the time of Saint Augustine (400 A.D.) Christians have been interpreting the seven days of creation metaphorically.
I would like to see Dawkins take Christianity as seriously as he undoubtedly expects Christianity to take Darwinism. I would also like to see him spell out fully the arguments as to the incompatibility of science (Darwinism especially) and religion (Christianity especially). So long as his understanding of Christianity remains at the sophomoric level, Dawkins does not deserve full attention. It is all very well to sneer at Catholic beliefs about the Virgin Mary, but what reply does Dawkins have to the many theologians (like Jonathan Edwards) who have devoted huge amounts of effort to distinguishing between false beliefs and true ones? What reply does Dawkins have to the contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who argues that the belief that there are other minds and that others are not just unthinking robots requires a leap of faith akin to the Christian belief in the Deity? Edwards and Plantinga may be wrong, but Dawkins owes them some reply before he gives his cocky negative conclusions. Moreover, once he has proved the incompatibility of science and religion, I would like him to address the classroom issue. Would he keep evolution out of U.S. schools, and if not, what argument would he use? In one of these pieces, he complains that British A-level examination requirements necessitate coverage of so much other material that they exclude the proper teaching of evolution. What about the U.S. Constitution?
Finally, I don’t want to sound paranoid or insecure, but I do wish that he and other science writers would stop assuming that philosophical issues can be solved by talking in a brisk, confident voice. I have no more liking of cultural studies than Dawkins, and I loved his talk of “the low-grade intellectual poodling of pseudo-philosophical poseurs.” But this rhetoric is no substitute for hard analysis. Postmodernists claim that science, no less than religion and literature and philosophy, is infiltrated with culture. How does Dawkins respond to this charge, given the undoubted significance in science of metaphors that are based on the culture of the day? One would have thought that the author of The Selfish Gene would be sensitive to questions like these.
Dr Ruse was kind enough to let William Dembski reproduce an exchange that Ruse had with Daniel Dennett about the same issues. It’s more than worth the time to read it. Ruse is spot on at every level. Here’s a real Gem:
I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design – we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classrooms – what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues – neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas – it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims – more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.
After writing this, I’m off to track down Plantinga’s review of Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, which I’m told is not half bad (the review, that is).