Richard Dawkins is a remarkably intelligent and capable man. He is one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, and deservedly so, because unlike the tawdry and tiresome politicians who daily wear us out to no good end, he addresses things that matter, like the origins and progression of life, and the question of whether God exists. As I age, I find myself unable to muster anything like my youthful passion for matters political. Those things, and those people – well, they come and they go, and there is simply nothing new under the sun. By contrast, as I shuffle toward the great whatever, it seems increasingly to me that questions of the sort Dawkins raises seem the only ones genuinely worth bothering over.
But with age and experience has also come a certain humility. I concede my limitations. And I recognize yours . . . and ours, because they are all of a piece. And so, while Dawkins’ views exemplify a perspective that I find altogether disagreeable and destructive, I am perfectly willing to concede that they are serious. They are the product of a powerfully speculative intellect – and, given the nature of the subject matter, they cannot be proven, in any sense meaningful to science, wrong. Though they seem for a variety of reasons to be deeply incomplete and wrong-minded to me, his views are entitled to respect, and to respectful critique.
Why, then, can he and those like him not concede – in a fashion rooted in the same humility that governs his more responsible critics – anything like a similar respect for their opponents?
Dawkins has written a new book, which he has called “The God Delusion.” It has been the subject of a number of recent, and generally mixed, reviews. I’ll link to a few of them for a sense of scope: The New York Times; ; First Things (scroll down to the October 19 entry by Stephen Barr); and the London Review of Books. (The New Republic also recently published a particularly incisive review, though I believe it is subscription-only.) I have the book, and I am in mid-read. The substance of the thing is generally as described in the reviews, though, by way of summary here, Dawkins holds to the view that the logic of evolutionary biology conclusively disproves the existence of anything like the sort of God envisioned by traditional religions, most particularly Christianity. Dawkins’ evolutionary thesis is that belief in a traditional God is a sort of inherited weakness, a trait, expressed as a viral idea, that humanity has passed down in progressively weakening forms because it has served, at different times and in different ways, evolutionary ends. Dawkins regards this as a bad thing, but comforts himself with the belief that the engine of evolution is now working hard to cleanse humanity of this stain. The reviews do a better job of marshalling the many objections to this thesis than I could here.
What is of particular interest to me, though, is the extraordinary contempt that drips from Dawkins’ pages when he contemplates believers, current or historical, and even other “scientists” who admit the possibility of God. They are not his noble counterparts in a debate on the most important question man’s mind can entertain, and thus entitled to respect. They are fools. More than that, they are often malicious, black-hearted fools who are out to perpetuate fraud. The sooner the great purifying engine of natural selection weeds them out of our pool the better. Dawkins’ bilious indictment sweeps up virtually everyone who might, or has, entertained the notion of a God. They are, virtually without exception, either malevolent demagogues or useful idiots.
It is Dawkins’ open animosity and intellectual arrogance that I find astonishing. I understand Dawkins’ thesis. I find it unconvincing and unattractive in the extreme, but I understand it, and I can muster a grudging respect for it. But from the other side, Dawkins’ side, how can one simply backhand away 2,000 years (and more) of the most sophisticated and beautiful thought mankind has produced, and dismiss anyone in that great tradition, or anyone attracted to it, as either a shyster or a fool? How can someone like Dawkins – and those who rally behind his attacks – possibly presume to such arrogance? Where is their humility, their sense of their own fallibility and potential for error? Where is their sense of respect and mutual regard? Are these traits that have simply been selected out of the best and the brights? Are they anachronisms symptomatic of a now-outmoded and superseded way of being human, for which the Brave New Man, exemplified by Mr. Dawkins, simply has no continuing biological use? Is this the progressive's world of ideas?