Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

How dare you call me a fundamentalist

Extracted from:

The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins

Edited by Andy Ross

I wish to dissociate myself from your shrill, strident, intemperate, intolerant, ranting language.

Objectively judged, the language of The God Delusion is less shrill than we regularly hear from political commentators or from theatre, art, book or restaurant critics. The illusion of intemperance flows from the unspoken convention that faith is uniquely privileged.

You can't criticise religion without detailed study of learned books on theology.

I need engage only those few theologians who at least acknowledge the question, rather than blithely assuming God as a premise. Most Christians happily disavow Baal and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without reference to monographs of Baalian exegesis or Pastafarian theology.

You attack crude, rabble-rousing chancers rather than facing up to sophisticated theologians.

If subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that decent, understated religion is numerically negligible.

You're preaching to the choir. What's the point?

The nonbelieving choir is much bigger than people think, and it desperately needs encouragement to come out. Judging by the thanks that showered my North American book tour, my articulation of hitherto closeted thoughts is heard as a kind of liberation.

You're as much a fundamentalist as those you criticise.

No, please, do not mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will.

I'm an atheist, but people need religion.

What patronising condescension! I believe that, given proper encouragement to think, and given the best information available, people will courageously cast aside celestial comfort blankets and lead intellectually fulfilled, emotionally liberated lives.

True faith is greater than the ranters

William Rees-Mogg replies to Professor Richard Dawkins
The Times, May 14, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

I agree with Professor Dawkins, not to mention St Paul, in rejecting the argument that people should be allowed their religious comfort, even if it is not true.

However, there is one charge against Professor Dawkins on which his defence merely confirms his critics. It is said that he “often ignores the best of religion” and instead attacks what are called “crude rabble-rousing chancers” rather than facing up to sophisticated theologians.

Professor Dawkins’s reply makes a significant concession to his critics. He does not claim to have answered the argument for belief in God at its best. He maintains that “the melancholy truth is that decent, understated, religion is numerically negligible”, but that the world needs to face the fundamentalists.

He makes an assertion that the vast majority of religious believers are closer to the beliefs of American evangelists or of bloodthirsty Islamic terrorists than to quiet and rational religion. I believe it to be false. It is certainly false in England.

However, I object to Professor Dawkins’s methods of argument much more than to his assertions of fact, mistaken though I think them to be. Dawkins is a scientist, and a good one. He has been thoroughly trained in the scientific method. That requires him to examine conflicting theories in terms of their strongest arguments, not in terms of their weakest.

His tone is not like that of Charles Darwin himself; thoughtful, reflecting detailed observation, sensitive in the search for truth. It is more like that of Bishop Wilberforce in the Oxford debate of June 1860, in which the bishop attacked Darwinism.

Darwin's Angel

By Salley Vickers
The Times, September 1, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Darwin's Angel
An Angelic Response to the God Delusion
By John Cornwell

This book is a piece of sheer heaven. It is deliciously wise, witty and intellectually sharp.

John Cornwell’s mouthpiece is a likeable seraph. Cornwell clearly believes that angels are archetypal images that dramatise the invisible realities. As such, they can act as symbols for the formless elements of physics; but also for the creative imagination.

The seraph begins by politely nailing Dawkins’s first sleight of hand which bundles all religious belief and practice into one crude bag that supposedly equals fanaticism.

This is rather like suggesting that all science is dangerous because it has brought nuclear weapons; or that all education is mistaken because children have been whipped by so-called educators.

It is child’s play to denounce a subject by pointing to the myriad ways in which it may be misapplied. But it is faulty logic to conclude that this is necessarily the fault of the set of ideas being traduced.

Next the seraph gently takes Dawkins to task for his breezy disregard for serious theology. You cannot criticise a theory until you have made some proper attempt to come to grips with it.

His account of the Bible is equally undiscriminating. For a start, even the first readers of Genesis would have distinguished between the fact of fact and the fact of fiction, a distinction that escapes Dawkins.

Nor is the Bible “a book” but, as the affable seraph points out, a miscellany of stories, letters, polemic, histories, fables and certainly some great moral teachings.

Therefore, it is perfectly respectable to “pick and choose” when reading the Bible, something that Dawkins takes Christians to task for. For the ancients, a history would be a mixture of reportage, received wisdom, narrative and story.

The life of Jesus is told in a series of stories to convey the essence of a life that was demonstrably an influential one and continues to be so. Just as Jesus told stories to get across his points, the Gospellers told stories about him.

But what is most worrying in the Dawkins ideology, as the gracefully admonishing seraph points out, is the violently biased language in a book that claims to reveal the deleterious effects of bias. Dawkins uses the image of a virus and employs a Darwinian model to explain how cultural ideas spread.

If only Professor Dawkins would remember that Socrates was deemed the wisest of men because he “knew that he didn’t know”. Those who think that not knowing is safer and more attractive than its opposite should treat themselves to this elegant little book.

The Truth in Religion

By John Polkinghorne
Times Literary Supplement, October 31, 2007

Darwin's Angel
An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion
By John Cornwell

In God We Doubt
Confessions of a Failed Atheist
By John Humphrys

Religious belief is currently under heavy fire. The two books under review aim to make a more temperate contribution to the debate.

John Cornwell has hit on the amusing conceit of writing in the persona of Richard Dawkins’s guardian angel. The book’s tone is gently ironic and its style that of modest discussion. Cornwell points out that Dawkins makes no serious attempt to engage with the academic discussion of religious thought and practice. Theologians have wrestled with how human language can attempt to speak about the nature of God, emphatically rejecting the idea that the deity is simply an invisible object among the other objects of the world.

John Humphrys is respectful of religious belief. His approach is that of one who remains open and questioning. Humphrys takes very seriously the human experience of conscience, urging us to do some things and to refuse to do others. Evolutionary thinking offers us some partial understanding of this, with its concepts of kin altruism and reciprocal altruism. Humphrys sees ethical intuition as the signal of a transcendent dimension in life, which he values but does not know how to explain from an atheist point of view.

Both Dawkins and Humphrys rightly engage with the challenge to theism that is represented by the existence of a world claimed to be the creation of a good and powerful God, but which nevertheless contains so much evil and suffering. Science shows that natural processes are inextricably entangled with each other. The integrity of creation is a kind of package deal. Only a world with sufficient reliability for deeds to have foreseeable consequences could be one in which moral responsibility was exercised.

Fundamental to the discussion is the relationship between faith and reason. Religious faith is not a matter of the unquestioning acceptance of unmotivated belief. Faith is a commitment to a form of motivated belief, differing only from scientific reason in the nature of the subject of that belief and the kind of motivations appropriate to it. Science achieves its success by the modesty of its ambition, only considering impersonal experience open to repetition at will. The concept of reality offered by scientism is that of a world of metastable, replicating and information-processing systems, but it has no persons in it.

No progress will be made in the debate about religious belief unless participants are prepared to recognize that the issue of truth is as important to religion as it is to science.

AR (2007) I like the idea of angels as symbols of the formless elements of physics, somewhere in the mathematical murk of the stringscape. Angels as avatars of our own souls, conceived as loopy swirls in a hyperspace beyond our present scientific imagination, fly way above the Darwinian jungle or the primordial soup of the macromolecular gene pool.

Happy Newton Day!

By Richard Dawkins
New Statesman, December 13, 2007

December 25th is a date to celebrate not because it is the disputed birthday of the "son of God" but because it is the actual birthday of one of the world's greatest men.

A charismatic wandering preacher called Jesus probably was executed during the Roman occupation, but nobody takes seriously the legend that he was born in December. Late Christian tradition simply attached Jesus's birth to a long-established and convenient winter solstice festival.

December 25th is the birthday of one of the truly great men ever to walk the earth, Sir Isaac Newton. His achievements might justly be celebrated from one end of the universe to the other.

AR This is such a poor joke, it's not even worth a smiley.

On September 30, 2007, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens sat down for a first-of-its-kind, unmoderated 2-hour discussion, convened by RDFRS and filmed by Josh Timonen. All four authors have received a large amount of media attention for their writings against religion. In this conversation the group trades stories of the public's reaction to their recent books, their unexpected successes, criticisms and common misrepresentations. They discuss the tough questions about religion that face the world today, and propose new strategies for going forward.

Richard Dawkins and His Selfish Meme

By Pat Shipman
New York Sun, April 23, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Proclaimed brilliant for its portrayal of the "gene's-eye view" of evolution, Dawkins's book inverted the focus of natural selection, from Darwin's weight on species to Dawkins's emphasis on the gene itself.

Dawkins argued that the crux of natural selection is whether a particular gene — not an individual or a group of individuals — replicates itself in future generations. Those genes that are not replicated into the future have failed at evolution, and those that produce many copies of themselves have succeeded.

In Dawkins's view, the organisms containing those genes are merely "lumbering robots" or "survival machines" that house and carry genetic information. The implication is that selfishness pays off, and altruism does not.

Some predicted that this book would be the death knell of the idea of group selection. Has the book in fact killed off group selection ideas?

Group selection and kin selection are not dead. In 2007, David Sloan Wilson, professor at Binghampton University, and E.O. Wilson (no relation), a professor emeritus at Harvard University and a Pulitzer Prize winner, proclaimed that Dawkins had celebrated the death of group selection prematurely.

The pair asserted persuasively that altruism and cooperation can be adaptive if they are directed toward relatives who share a suite of one's genes (kin selection) or if relationships can be established within a group in which cooperation is rewarded with future reciprocity.

Further, when competition between groups is more significant than that within a group, natural selection can operate on multiple levels, from gene to kin group to species and perhaps beyond. The evolutionary disadvantage to the individual must be weighed against the evolutionary advantage to its larger group (kin, population, or even species). Since altruistic behaviors do occur, evolution must operate at both the higher (between-group) as well as the lower (within-group) level.

This multilevel view of evolution accords well with a concept espoused by the late John Maynard Smith, formerly an emeritus professor of the University of Sussex, and Eörs Szathmáry, professor at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. The pair suggested that evolutionary history is marked by major transitions that correspond to successively more complex levels of organization.

A favorite example of such a transition is the development of eusociality, the most extreme instance of group selection, on which E.O. Wilson is one of the world's experts. Eusocial species (termites, ants, wasps, naked mole rats, and others) live in large colonies in which many individuals forego reproduction to assist a single queen. Wilson's classic 1975 book Sociobiology attributed eusociality to the close genetic relationship along the colony members.

Wilson now suggests that eusocial behavior evolves in rare species that have the flexibility to be reproductive or not, and that live in circumstances inhibiting the dispersal of nests. Once forced to live together rather than founding new colonies, species preadapted to cooperation successfully adopt eusociality precisely because it is evolutionarily advantageous.

A quip sometimes called Orgel's Second Rule is "Evolution is cleverer than you are." Evolution is apparently cleverer than Richard Dawkins, because kin and group selection do exist — and pay off. However, an essential aspect of being a scientist is to test your theories against new data, and Dawkins's selfish-gene concept spurred a great deal of hard thought and data collection that have been used to test his hypothesis.

Because his works are so lucid and so stunning, Dawkins's ideas have assumed a life of their own. His powerful metaphor of the inherent selfishness of the gene was misunderstood by many and often taken deeply to heart. The picture of evolution offered by Dawkins, which many found bleak, also contributed to the growth and stridency of the intelligent design movement to undercut the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Unfortunately, his warnings against taking moral and ethical lessons from scientific findings were not universally heeded. The benefit to science of his selfish gene meme in triggering a new understanding of the magnificent complexity of evolutionary processes must be weighed against the harm the book has done.

AR  (2008) Multilevel group selection sounds convincing to me. Among such groups in Homo sapiens are the fertility cults associated with the Abrahamic God (the god of our fathers — Goof). All life is genocentric — Dawkins. Human life celebrates its genocentricity in fertility cults that drive their followers to go forth and multiply. Such behavior is inexplicable from the standpoint of the rational individualist. A proof that humans are genocentric is their devotion to goofy cults. This deserves a slogan — Goof is great and Dawkins is his prophet!