The Religion section of HuffPo is still carping on Dawkins for not quite remembering the exact title of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In a dire piece called “Religious self-definition a major issue in Dawkins’s poor debate performance“, Christopher Lane, an English professor at Northwestern University here in Chicago, calls out Dawkins not just for forgetfulness, but for arrogance.
Not that many people off-the-cuff would likely recall the full title of Darwin’s book, including its contentious subtitle: “or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” But it is surprising that Dawkins, of all people, would forget the part of the title that captures Darwin’s key argument, his emphasis on “natural selection.”. . .
. . . Even Dawkins’s supporters winced online over the awkward, unforgettable moment on digital radio, especially when he invoked “God” in struggling to remember the title to Darwin’s book. Granted not in a devout way, but it’s not quite the word you expect to hear from the man who gave us “The God Delusion” or who regularly calls believers “faith-heads.”
Oh for crying out loud; it’s as if he thinks Dawkins doesn’t understand natural selection (which was, by the way, the subject of most of his famous books). And is there anyone in the English-speaking world, atheist or not, who doesn’t use the word “god” in vain? Have you no sense of decency, Dr. Lane, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
You can see how that could quickly become contentious, not least with Dawkins seeming to set himself up as judge and juror over who gets to call themselves devout at all. . .
Umm. . . I don’t think Richard, Paula Kirby, and the Ipsos MORI polling organization were trying to determine who gets to call themselves devout. What they showed, indubitably, is that those who call themselves devout, or whom others call devout, don’t share many of the traits we associate with devotion.
Lane goes on:
While Dawkins wrestles with the fall-out from that fumble, he might venture to revisit Darwin’s “Autobiography,” including the famous passages where Darwin writes eloquently, with great humility, about his own blind spots. It’s also the place, we should note, where Darwin talks about the “beauty” of “New Testament morality,” even as he adds that “its perfection,” for him at least, “depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.”
“I cannot presume to throw the least light on such abstruse problems” as the “First Cause,” Darwin writes late in life, including whether the evolution of humanity was “the result of blind chance or necessity…. The mystery of the beginnings of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”
It’s all about the “humility” again, isn’t it? Well, if you read the God Delusion you’ll see that Dawkins doesn’t declare that there isn’t any god; he just assertions, correctly, that there is no evidence for one and that he’s a 6.5 on the 7 scale in which 7 corresponds to “I am absolutely certain there is no God.” That’s the proper amount of humility for a scientist who sees no evidence for sky fairies. And, by the way, “the mystery of the beginnings of all things” is, I think, soluble by us: Darwin had no inkling about The Big Bang or advances in cosmology to come.
Lane simply doesn’t understand how a scientist judges the “God hypothesis,” and yes, it is indeed an empirical hypothesis, so long as you believe in a God who either interacts with the world or did so in the past. The proper position is to reject that hypothesis as being unsupported by evidence—indeed, negated by counterevidence, like the existence of evil and the fact that the universe is headed for extinction.
Dawkins, of course, is far from content about others adopting such positions — he’s strongly implied that that they’re tantamount to “wishy-washy fence-sitting.” The problem is, he then assumes a position of certainty from which to judge and alas sneer at everyone else further along the continuum. It’s a deeply unattractive position, not least because it’s wholly unconducive to the aims of genuine secularism, for which liberty of belief, including for religious self-definition, is actually — and very properly — considered a key principle.
It is no more “fence-sitting” to have a provisional view of God than to have a provisional view of homeopathy, garden fairies, or astrology. And yes, secularism does mandate liberty of belief, but, crucially, insists that beliefs be supported by reason, and that no belief is exempt from criticism.
I’m not sure what Lane is on about here, except that he almost wholly neglects the certainty and dogma that afflicts the religious, who have no doubt that there is a God, that they know his nature, and that they will inflict their god-derived morals on the rest of the world. Why is Lane banging on about Dawkins’s supposed dogmatism when he’s fighting the ultimate dogmatism: the certainty that fairy tales are not only true, but that their lesson must be inflicted on the rest of us? The reason, of course, is that Lane has belief in belief.
Curiously, Lane touts a Guardian piece by Julian Baggini on the supposed dangers of creeping secularism in British life. It’s a pretty reasonable piece except for Baggini’s ending, which Lane cites:
But as Julian Baggini correctly pointed out in The Guardian, after Dawkins’s disastrous interview, “allowing the free expression and discussion of religion is as much a non-negotiable tenet of secularism as maintaining the neutrality of the core institutions of civil society. It may be unfair to criticise secularists for being ‘militant’ or ‘aggressive,’ but we are often ham-fisted and heavy-handed. If secularism has come to be seen as the enemy of the religious when it should be its best friend, then we secularists must share at least some of the blame.”
No, I don’t think we are often ham-fisted. Dawkins is firm but not ham-fisted (unless you see his inability to produce the full title of Darwin’s book as “ham-fisted!”). Most of the New Atheist leaders are not only eloquent, but effective. And yes, some of us may be “heavy-handed”, but what else should we be if we are trying to excise the cancer of faith from society? If there’s anything we should have learned by now, being deferential to the faithful has no effect on eliminating religion.
And why on earth should secularism be the best friend of religion? It is, and should be, its worst enemy. Religion and secularism can’t be friends any more than can rationalism and superstition, for that’s the difference between the “magisteria”. I’m wondering if Baggini misspoke here.
By all means let religion be freely discussed in the public sphere, but by no means should it be free from the kind of strong criticism it deserves. It is not only unfounded superstition, but superstition that has, in the main, bad consequences.