Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dawkins and Robinson: An Unequal Contest

I have not commented on the debate - if that is what it is - about Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion for the simple reason that I haven't read it. What I have just read, however, is Marilynne Robinson's essay on Dawkins entitled Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins in Harper's. It's here, but, again, I think you may have to pay. Robinson is a) one of the greatest writers of our time and b) a Christian, a congregationalist to be exact. Obviously, I can't comment on the quality of the Dawkins book, but I can now say he has been responsible for a great work. Robinson's essay is coruscating, a supreme product of the high end of the hatchet job market and a wonderful example of the revenge of genius on, if not mediocrity, then certainly ill-informed prejudice. I wouldn't dare to attempt to summarise it here except to say that it defines exactly a phenomenon I have often observed - Dawkins' deep irrationality. Make your day, read it.
PS: Gordon, see comments, has found a link where you can read the Robinson without subscribing - here.


  1. Unfortunately I can't get to read it but Dawkins' position strikes me as that of a note within a symphony screaming, "Where is this composer, I see no sign of him."

  2. It appears that you can read the Marilynne Robinson review, without charge, here:


    Curious reasoning there Andrew. If you're going to extrapolate from the human world to the non-human natural world, why would you restrict your attention to things such as symphonies? If I look at the human world around me, I see, for example, computers which have been created by teams of designers, and I see, for example, cars, which have also been created by teams of people. If I was going to extrapolate from this to the entire natural universe, I would therefore infer that the universe has been created by a team of designers; in other words, I would reach a polytheistic conclusion. But, strangely, you don't reach this conclusion, which might suggest that you have a pre-existing conviction in the existence of a single god, and you are looking for some sort of post-hoc way of rationalising this. It's just a bit silly, really, isn't it?

  3. I will take your word for it. Sounds intriguing.

    I'm quarter the way through The God Delusion. Although interesting and informative, I found the Preface alone to be ironically 'preachy'! I'm not sure if this is a clever pun or whether Atheism really is the new religion? Enjoyable nonetheless.

  4. In giving an analogy, Gordon, one restricts oneslf to the analogy one is making. Would you ask an artist who showed you a painting why he restricted himself to painting that particular painting, thereby excluding all the other paintings he might have made instead? Monotheism or polytheism here seems beside the point- the point being the composition being a manifestation of intelligence. As an aside does the existence of nine Beethoven symphonies suggest nine separate composers? The note within a symphony seems particularly apt as the intelligence which composed the symphony pervades the entire creation, is of the composition and yet independent of it. The note is an aspect of this intelligence but within the universe of the symphony the composer doesn't have tangible presence unlike the notes. Hence the creation of materialism- the notes or individual consciousnesses insist that theirs is the only reality and the composer a figment of the imagination. However the order of their universe whould make the existence of the composer all too obvious, and materialism should melt into the reality that all is consciousness.

  5. The point I was making is that the argument from design, (which often invokes analogies of symphonies and composers, watches and watchmakers), is typically used to justify belief in the existence of a monotheistic god, whereas most of the cultural artefacts we experience (films, cars, computers etc) are designed by teams of people, therefore the argument from design should really be used to argue for the existence of a pantheon of gods: a god of the sea, a god of sky, a god of the sun etc. If you're not concerned about the polytheistic/monotheistic distinction Andrew, then fair enough.

    Note that one might accuse an 'intelligent design' theist of being analogous to a leaf in an oak tree, which refuses to accept that the oak tree has grown from an acorn, and insists instead that the complexity of the oak tree is such that it could only have been created in toto by an intelligent designer, or indeed, by a team of designers...

  6. I better mention though, Gordon, I'm not at all interested really in Intelligent Design, but my real interest lies in the possibility of the note of my symphony gaining enlightnement by submission to his real nature as being intrinsically at one with the symphony and its creator. It is his clinging to the illusory and self-created idea of his separate identity where the problem lies.

  7. I've always felt Dawkins to be a veiled zealot, promoting his New Religion (the religion of science) under the disguise of anti-religion. Dawkins' is a stance based on faith, and it ultimately a religious one.

    When I was a typesetter, in the dim past, I used to work on the monthly newsletter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in Madison, WI. These were former evangelical Christians who had become atheists, and were doing a lot of cultural work, including fighting a lot of legal battles trying to preserve the separation of church and state. What was so ironic (and it was an irony they did not seem to understand themselves) was that they used the exact same style of delivery and tone as your average bible-thumping fundamentalist, but their message was the exact opposite one.

    There is no fanatic like the truly-converted, no matter what the doctrine. Makes one want to go back and re-read Eric Hoffers' insightful book "The True Believer."

    Dawkins is very much a true believer. My biggest concern in all this is that Dawkins goes so far that he plays into his enemies' hands.

    For example, I am all for the teaching of comparative religion in schools, as Dawkins suggests. But while he thinks that will naturally lead to atheism on the part of the students, I am more likely to believe that students will discover the many things in common that many of the world's great religions have to teach, and end up affirming faith (albeit ecumenical rather than sectarian).

  8. I 'll add my thanks for the link. The Robinson essay is one of the best - and most sizzling - I've read in a long time. But I wouldn't expect any less from her.

  9. Just finished the book - not one of his best - patchily brilliant but rather dull and incoherent in many places. I think he's past it. However, Robinson's piece was just complete drivel - how could you possibly think it had any merit? She clearly has no particular understanding of science and tries to draw unfounded intellectual and moral equivalences between it and religion.

    Dawkins big problem is that he completely mis-understands humans and their need for irrational beliefs. Most humans are probably too stupid to understand (rational) science to any significant extent and are therefore happier with the less challenging (irrational) faith based systems. And provided the religion is adequately enlightened it should be a mostly benign influence on people's lives. Neutering of global religious excesses is a far more sensible (and achievable) approach than trying to eriadicate the disease entirely.

  10. The notion of a composer and symphony is also infinitely more elegant and satisfying than the mechanism, dualism and materialism inherent in the notion of a watchmaker God. Even the phrase Intelligent Design is dead and depressing, and this idea of a God separate from his creation a horrible and ultimately schizophrenic one. Which of course leads to all kind of schizophrenic ideological stances on behalf of its believers. The symphony on the other hand exists as the natural outpourings of the composer's mind, and exists simultaneously in the mind of the perceiver which owes its existence to the symphony which it perceives.

  11. Bryan

    I would like to think that you have now read Dawkins' latest work as it would otherwise seem rather unfair to declare it 'not about science at all, but about his faith: atheism' in your recent Sunday Times article. However, if you have read it you must have read a different version to me (or perhaps you just skim read the bits that don't fit in with your religious beliefs ie. all of it).

    I must have completely missed the bits about science being 'an impregnable and rather cantankerous fortress of certainty'. The version i read was different in that it explicitly stated that science does not have all the answers, and that as new evidence and theories are revealed our opinions will change to reflect this. If god appears from behind a cloud tomorrow and is conclusively shown to be real i will change my athiestic opinion at once.

    The only certainty stated is that science has the potential to provide the answers - the fact that there are (very many) things that we do not know does not mean these things are unknowable. I personally do not understand the technicalities of how this blog is coded and displayed on the web, but at the same time i do not think there is any mysterious force at work.

    I would also have to disagree with your point that these 'hard certainties' produced a decline in 'wonder' in science. The actual facts about science are far more exciting and interesting than the alternative - saying 'god did it now stop asking questions'. You quote Planet Earth as a good testament to wonder, and no-one could argue with that. Unless i've been watching a different version of that too though, then i don't see how this is anything but support for Dawkins et al. Planet Earth shows in fantastic detail some of the amazing and wondrous things that occur on our planet. It does not shy away from saying, when necessary, that we do not understand a particular behaviour. It never implies though that the reasons for such behaviour are mysterious and unknowable - that we should just call it a mystery and not try and find out why it occurs.

    You criticise Dawkins for having a loathing of religion, caused by his preference for wanting evidence before believing in something. I would suggest that you have a loathing of Dawkins because he does not share your opinion on spirituality.

  12. Art Durkee writes: "Dawkins' is a stance based on faith, and it ultimately a religious one."

    This tired old saw does not stand a moment's scrutiny, Art. Dawkins insists on propositions being supported by publicly available *evidence* -- the precise opposite of the faith-based mindset, which originates in personal revelation and, once established, is kept alive by appeals to authority. "Authority" has no place in science: only the evidence matters, which is why science is self-correcting in a way that religion never can be. It's a shame to see you repeating this third-hand fallacy rather than engaging with what Dawkins actually says.

    And a shame more generally to see so many people here being happy to have their view of Dawkins pre-digested by such a mendacious "reviewer" as Marilynne Robinson. For anyone with the intellectual courage to do so, I suggest that they actually read The God Delusion before taking Robinson's misrepresentations and logical mis-steps on board. Not enough space here to do justice to them, but if anyone's interested, Earl Doherty does so thoroughly here: http://home.ca.inter.net/~oblio/AORComment17.htm

    Some people here also seem to need a refresher on some basic scientific concepts: for those who think metaphors about symphonies might actually tell them something true about the existence of a creator, rather than merely about their aesthetic attraction to metaphors, try reading "The Blind Watchmaker"; those who seem to think awe at the majesty of the universe somehow necessitates a religious outlook should try reading "Unweaving the Rainbow". And for those who think Dawkins isn't somehow a real scientist, try reading "The Extended Phenotype". There's a lot of smug ignorance on display here; try informing yourselves.

  13. All of Jonathan Dore's comments deserve a response, but I will confine myself mainly to a few. One of the annoying aspects of the the 'Dawkins strategy' referred to again and again by others is the idea that the only valid way of looking at the world is the scientific way. Dawkins is a very illuminating scientist. Anyone, theologians included, can benefit from reading the books Dore refers to - as I, a theologian, am doing. I have read 'The God Delusion' a number of times.
    But please avoid the imperialistic attitude. There is room for a variety of approaches to understanding this wonderful world of ours. I find the contempt displayed against the religious viewpoint by Dawkins and by so many on the main Dawkins website so wasteful, to say the least.
    Finally, good science is impressive, but the role of authority in controlling scientists and thereby truth, at times in the past, is well documented - even if Dawkins tries to rubbish this view. As a theologian I regard Dore's stereotype of the believer just that - a limited, fixed view, which does not do justice to the many men and women of faith who have bravely challenged authority.