John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins

It’s not a good time to be Richard Dawkins, for he alone, like the scapegoat of Leviticus, must bear the brunt of everyone’s hatred of atheism. (Sam Harris sometimes serves as a backup goat.) Even though Dawkins has never proclaimed himself as any kind of atheist “leader”—his eminence among nonbelievers was purely a byproduct of his books and talks—he is the poster child for atheism, and everyone who hates atheists, including some other atheists, comes down on him. I don’t have either the time or interest to point out all the poorly founded attacks on the man, but one that has just appeared that, as we Americans say, “takes the cake.”

John Gray is an English writer, philosopher, and an atheist who hates New Atheists. I’ve analyzed his missteps before (see here, here, and here, for instance), and he seems to be one of those atheists who doesn’t like science, claims that its bad effects are as prominent as its good ones, and has a sneaking love of religion. But in his latest article he shows yet another side of his character: pure, unabashed nastiness. And it’s nastiness with no purpose other than to smear Dawkins, whom he clearly despises.  He does this by pretending to review Dawkins’s latest book—the first volume of his autobiography (An Appetite for Wonder)—but in reality levels smear after smear at Dawkins to no end except, like a spitting cobra, to spew venom.

Now it’s okay to slam a book if the ideas are bad, or its thesis is insupportable. I’m thinking here of the best critical review of a science book I’ve ever seen: Peter Medawar’s crushing review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in which Medawar fatally demolishes de Chardin’s gaseous lucubrations (free copy at link). But there’s not the same kind of stuff in Dawkins’s book. If you’ve read it, and I have, you’ll find it a fairly workmanlike autobiography, which dwells mostly on the details of Dawkins’s life.  There are a few bits about atheism (mostly about how Dawkins lost his faith, which appears to be a gradual process involving his learning about Darwinism), but most of it is of the “I did this and then went here” variety. The best bits, for me, are at the end when Dawkins starts talking about science—it ends when he publishes The Selfish Gene, as a second volume is in the offing—for science is what really gets Richard’s juices flowing, and he’s best when writing about that, or about atheism.  One senses that he’s unenthusiastically recounting the details of his life as a kind of duty, perhaps goaded by an agent or publisher.

Nevertheless, John Gray uses this lean framework to hang a bunch of slanders (yes, slanders) on Dawkins. You can find the bile in Gray’s review of the autobiography, “The closed mind of Richard Dawkins: How atheism is its own kind of narrow religion.” I’m sad to say that this longish hit-piece appeared in The New Republic, a magazine that I’ve written for frequently. It is a shameful piece that does no credit to the magazine.

So, something is wrong on the Internet. Let me summarize and comment on Gray’s diatribe as briefly as I can.  Here are his tactics:

1. Interpret innocuous statements about evolution as evidence of Dawkins’s arrogance and smugness.

This tactic occurs right at the beginning (Gray’s quotes are indented):

In what is meant to be a two-volume memoir, Dawkins cites the opening lines of the first chapter of the book that made him famous, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976:

“Intelligent life on a planet comes of an age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.”

How does Gray parse this? Like so:

Several of the traits that Dawkins displays in his campaign against religion are on show here. There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do. The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theorythe best account we have so far of how life emerged and developedbut as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.

Only someone with an agenda of hatred could write something like that.  In fact, let’s jump to the end of Gray’s piece, where he once again psychologizes Dawkins, saying that Richard wants to be the Charles Darwin of our time:

We must await the second volume of his memoirs to discover how Dawkins envisions his future. But near the end of the present volume, an inadvertent remark hints at what he might want for himself. Darwin was “never Sir Charles,” he writes, “and what an amazing indictment of our honours system that is.” It is hard to resist the thought that the public recognition that in Britain is conferred by a knighthood is Dawkins’s secret dream. A life peerage would be even better. What could be more fitting for this tireless evangelist than to become the country’s officially appointed atheist, seated alongside the bishops in the House of Lords? He may lack their redeeming tolerance and display none of their sense of humor, but there cannot be any reasonable doubt that he belongs in the same profession.

It is “hard to resist the thought that a knighthood is Dawkins secret dream” only if you’re carrying a burden of dislike for the man (I’m reminded of the story of the two monks). How dare Gray put stuff like this in a book review? It is pure, unfounded psychologizing. And yes, it’s unconscionable that Darwin was never knighted, but I’ve never seen any signs that Dawkins thinks he deserves a knighthood. And if you told him that he thought he should be as eminent as Darwin, Dawkins would just laugh at you, for he regards Darwin as the greatest biologist of the last two centuries, if not of all time. If one is psychologizing, one might as well speculate that Gray has an overarching hatred for atheists (in fact, one could say he has a self-hatred because he wants to believe but can’t), and takes it out on Dawkins. And perhaps Gray is jealous of Dawkin’s success. What’s good for the goose is good for the slanderer.

2. Dawkins had no interest in Africa, even though he was brought up there, and was in fact a British snob:

Unlike the best of the colonial administrators, some of whom were deeply versed in the languages and histories of the peoples they ruled, Dawkins displays no interest in the cultures of the African countries where he lived as a boy. It is the obedient devotion of those who served his family that has remained in his memory.

. . . The tone of indulgent superiority is telling. Dawkins is ready to smile on those he regards as beneath him as long as it is clear who is on top.

. . . As anyone who reads his sermons against religion can attest, his attitude towards believers is one of bullying and contempt reminiscent of the attitude of some of the more obtuse colonial missionaries towards those they aimed to convert.

Indeed, as did nearly all British colonials in Africa at that time, Dawkins lived a pretty privileged life compared to the locals. But what Gray gets from that description is not what I get, and I suggest you read the book and judge for himself.  The “bullying and contempt toward believers” stuff is simply nonsense; what Gray is describing is Dawkins’s passionate dislike for the perfidies of religion.  There is no “bullying and contempt” in the book (but again, read it for yourself). And, by the way, Red Strangers, by Elspeth Huxley—a novel about the Kikuyu of Africa written from their point of view, one that portrays Westerners as ultimately toxic—is one of Dawkins’s five favorite books, and he campaigned successfully to get it back into print, writing the introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition.

3. Dawkins’s conversion to atheism was mundane.

Nothing striking happened to convert Richard to nonbelief (unlike my own story, which was an instantaneous conversion involving a Beatles album); he gradually gave it up, probably influenced by Darwin.  Somehow Gray finds fault with this:

What is striking is the commonplace quality of Dawkins’s rebellion against religion. In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been rearedafter his conversion from theism, he “refused to kneel in chapel,” he writes proudlyhe was doing what tens of thousands of Britain’s young people did at the time. Compulsory religious instruction of the kind that exists in British schools, it has often been observed, creates a fertile environment for atheism. Dawkins’s career illustrates the soundness of this truism. If there is anything remarkable in his adolescent rebellion, it is that he has remained stuck in it. At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.

So what? Was he supposed to have an anti-road-to-Damascus moment, falling off his horse as the light of atheism reached him? And as for the “evangelical atheism” bit, it’s not only an oxymoron, but misleading.  Being passionate is not being “evangelical,” and it’s a deliberate slur to try to lump Dawkins with the religious people he opposes. At any rate, most of this has nothing to do with the book itself or its ideas; it’s a pure rant on Gray’s part.

4. Dawkins attacks a straw-God religion, for until fairly recently nobody believed in the literal truth of the Bible. 

Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally. Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story. Later, in the twelfth century, Maimonides took a similar view. It was only around the time of the Reformation that the idea that the story was a factual account of events became widely held. When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theoriesone primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true. In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.

Gray apparently doesn’t know beans about the history of theology. Even I, a lowly biologist, know that many of the “church fathers,” including Augustine and Aquinas, took the Genesis story literally (including Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden), although they said that after you accepted the historicity of these events, you could also read into them other lessons. And get your story straight, you faitheists! The usual line  (just as false) is that literalism began with the rise of Fundamentalism in the early twentieth century, while Gray says it began with the Reformation. Which is it? (It’s neither, of course.)

It’s time to dispel the stupid trope that nobody took Genesis literally until recent times. For millennia, theologians and believers have taken it as historical truth, and you don’t have to do much research to find that out. Millions still do, too, and these, as well as more “liberal” believers who still take parts of the Bible literally (or Muslims who do the same with the Qur’an), were the intended audience of The God Delusion. 

Gray then interpolates some confusing palaver about how “science may show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind” (note to Gray: it already has in many of us. Have you been to Scandinavia lately?), but then he goes on to play Alvin Plantinga:

5. Evolution (aka Dawkins) cannot explain why humans have true beliefs. 

If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. As he framed the problem in The Foundations of Belief in 1895, “We have not merely stumbled on truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.” Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. Similar arguments can be found in a number of contemporary philosophers, most notably Alvin Plantinga. Again, one does not need to accept Balfour’s theistic solution to see the force of his argument. A rigorously naturalistic account of the human mind entails a much more skeptical view of human knowledge than is commonly acknowledged.

This, of course, is Plantinga’s argument against naturalism, and why Dr. Alvin postulates that “true beliefs” must come from a sensus divinitatis installed in humans by God (the Christian God, of course). I can’t go into this in detail, but first of all, human beliefs aren’t all true. We believe in many things that are false, including the view that we’re smarter than we really are, that a tetherball severed from its rope will fly off in a spiral rather than a straight line, that we have libertarian free will, and so on. Science has been useful in correcting many of our false beliefs and our takes on reality (the sun doesn’t really “rise”, for instance). And, yes, in general we do perceive reality (at least on the human level) pretty accurately, but naturalism can explain that.  Natural selection would have molded our minds so we perceive reality largely as it really is, or to learn how it really is.  Accurate perception promotes survival and reproduction. We don’t need God to explain that. Finally, if we haven’t come to acquire fairly accurate knowledge of reality through naturalistic processes, Dr. Gray, what alternative do you suggest?

6. Dawkins isn’t much interested in, or knows much about, theology and the philosophy of science, and he doesn’t discuss them in the book.

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible.

Here Gray is criticizing Richard for not going into this in the first volume of his autobiography? Seriously? Again, Dawkins is attacked for what he left out, rather than what he put in, and what he left out isn’t relevant to this autobiography. Maybe it is to a discussion of the nature of science, but not this book.

And. . .

Unlike most of those who debated then [in Victorian times], Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism. His attack on religion has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxleydescribed by his contemporaries as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he was so fierce in his defense of evolutionblush scarlet with embarrassment.

Again, philosophy and theology aren’t even in the book. Gray’s captious remarks simply reflect Gray’s irritation of his having a hair up his fundament about Dawkins and atheism.  Yes, religion is a supernatural belief that is irrational, and Dawkins, in his other writings (NOT THIS BOOK) makes a good case we’d be better off without it.  The “crudity” of The God Delusion probably reflects Gray’s rancor motivated by a combination of jealousy for its success and its effectiveness. Had Dawkins written a dry tome contesting the arcane claims of people like David Bentley Hart, Alvin Plantinga, and Karen Armstrong, it would have been neither successful nor effective. But this is all beside the point, for Gray is simply ranting about Dawkins while ignoring the book, in which atheism plays a very minor role.

7. Dawkins is a “comic figure”.

It is in this bit (as well as in Gray’s invidious speculations about Dawkins’s desire for a knighthood) that Gray shows himself to be a petty, mean-spirited little man. Have a gander:

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignationa stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a kind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted pose of indignant rationality merely laughable. “I am not a good observer,” he writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beingshimself and others.

and, finally:

But Pascal’s wager was meant as a pedagogical device rather than a demonstrative argument, and he reached faith himself by way of skeptical doubt. In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.

I won’t dignify the first paragraph with a response, for Gray simply shows his nastiness here, as he has often before (see the links above). As for Dawkins’s “lack of skepticism,” that’s crazy. Dawkins’s atheism rests on skepticism—a skepticism that caused him to reject religion. And as for his certitude, Dawkins has said he’s not absolutely sure there’s no God, in contrast to the 54% of Americans who are absolutely certain there is a God.

This piece is odious, full of ad hominem remarks (that’s what you do when you lack a substantive argument), and, not least, is a tirade that almost completely ignores the book under review. John Gray is the intellectual’s version of Peter Hitchens and Andrew Brown: he has some academic credibility but is seething with bile against atheism. In fact, he’s far more arrogant and smug than is Dawkins.  Why that is, I don’t know. I’ll avoid psychologizing the man in the way he does to Dawkins.

___________

p.s. Reader Mark informs me that Gray has also just reviewed Karen Armstrong’s new book (the one on how religion never causes violence) at The New Statesman. Guess what kind of verdict he gave it? Go see for yourself.

180 Comments

  1. Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Sub

  2. colnago80
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    There’s a “gentleman” calling himself Jonathan Gray who comments over at Ed Brayton’s blog on Freethought blogs. I suspect that it may be the same guy as John Gray. The reasoning of John Grey seems similar to that of Jonathan Grey. If so, it should be pointed out that Jonathan Gray is a Phalangist who is an admirer of the late and unlamented dictator of Spain Francisco Franco.

  3. Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    This sort of thing–and the English do it appallingly well–is ‘Hobbesian literary criticism:’ Ignore the book; impale the man. All in prose that is ‘nasty, brutish and long.’

    • Tim Harris
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      Well, I am English, and I don’t find this hatchet-job done ‘appallingly well’ at all. John Gray’s review is disgraceful. Medawar’s hatchet-job, though, is very well done.

      • Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        Emphasis on the ‘appallingly,’ Mr. Harris. I quite agree with your adjective ‘disgraceful.’ But where has there ever been grace in English ad hominem?

  4. J Smith
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    It’s hard to even understand exactly what he’s attacking about Dawkins. Add another to the growing list of atheist fleas to the religious ones. At least the religious ones put enough energy into writing book length tomes against Dawkins instead of the side swiping we seem to see characteristic of atheist ones. Collective jealousy is the only real motive I can surmise.

  5. Bill Gilliland
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    If you’re going to use the “someone is wrong on the internet” cartoon, shouldn’t you give credit where credit is due and link to the original source instead of some guy reposting it without attribution?

    • Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’ve fixed it.

      • s.k.graham
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        also it is “someone” — you wrote “something”… no one cares abou things… we only get upset when *someone* is wrong on the internet. 🙂

        • Ralph
          Posted October 5, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

          Things don’t upset people, people upset people?

          • Filippo
            Posted October 5, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

            Am I the only one here who yells at inanimate objects? 😉

            • microraptor
              Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

              I only do that when the inanimate object in question has just collided with my toe.

              Or the computer game is being blatantly unfair.

            • John Scanlon, FCD
              Posted October 10, 2014 at 6:44 am | Permalink

              When I get angry at inanimate objects, I swear at the Designer.

          • Bob
            Posted October 6, 2014 at 5:53 am | Permalink

            People upset themselves.
            We are responsible for our own reactions and choose to be offended or upset as a result of our prejudices.
            We can become angry, happy, scared or excited by external factors, but we choose how to deal with these feelings, which leads to our reactions.

    • Les
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      A friend has licence plate#XKCD386.

  6. gravityfly
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I read Gray’s review of Armstrong’s new book and, unsurprisingly, it’s an enthusiastic and positive review.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      And now it’s been re-posted on TNR!

  7. francis
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Humans believe for one reason….they want to live forever…

    • Kevin
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      Why doesn’t Gray focus on this? Instead he barks like a juvenile whose only criticisms are born of jealousy.

  8. aljoc
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Charles Darwin was also never knighted, and neither was James Clerk-Maxwell. Francis Crick and Michael Faraday were offered knighthoods but turned then down.

    After writing this wonderful letter to Prince Charles it would be very surprising if Richard is offered a knighthood!

    http://edge.org/3rd_culture/prince/prince_index.html

    • Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Keith Richards called Mick Jagger’s knighthood a “paltry honour,” and he’s right and not alone in his thinking. Who doesn’t get a knighthood is a big part of the critique.

      • Mal
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        and who does. There are still plenty of people who get knighted simply because they are occupying a particular job, and not even neccessarily doing well in it.

        • Chris
          Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          Honours are part of the package with certain very senior government or military jobs in the UK. Certain honours (peerages) also give voting rights in the UK’s upper house, and many senior politicians take these (although there are instances of particularly argumentative ones refusing the honour to remain eligible for the House of Commons).

          To be perfectly honest the list of people who have refused honours is somewhat more respectable than the list of those who have accepted!

    • Erp
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Giving knighthoods purely or mostly for science was extremely rare before the 20th century (Kelvin got his in 1866 more for engineering than science, Newton was knighted more for party politics, though Humphrey Davy was made a baronet in 1819). Faraday refused a knighthood; I suspect he was offered one in part because of Prince Albert’s interest in science (however, Albert died in 1861 before Darwin’s theory had really taken hold).

      Even today knighthoods are a bit rare; even a Nobel prize doesn’t guarantee one. Note btw that knighthoods and most other honors are under the control of the current government not under the monarch’s control so politics always has a role.

      • Phoebe
        Posted October 8, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        I’m not really sure that Richard Dawkins would want a British knighthood. Nowadays they seem to be given to whomever contributes enough to the political party in power rather than contributions to society or science.

        There are far more worthwhile awards that Dawkins deserves. He’s not a Tory toady and a corrupt old medal to say he is would be a bit of an insult. So this a Gray person is barking up the wrong tree with that one.

    • merilee
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Excellent letter to Prince Charles! I especially appreciate his paragraph on the GM fear-mongering.

    • thh1859
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      aljoc
      Thank you very much for the link to Dawkins’s letter to Prince Charles. I’ve rarely read anything that I so wholeheartedly agree with as much as that letter.

      He reiterates Huxley’s point that human ethics should, most decidedly, NOT be based on natural selection.

      (edited)
      “…we must beware of a very common misunderstanding of Darwinism. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. Much as we might like to believe otherwise, natural selection, favours short-term gain. No wonder T.H. Huxley founded his ethics on a repudiation of Darwinism [as a guide to social behaviour]. It is important for us to fight against the naturally selfish and exploitative tendencies of nature.”

  9. Albert
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Every whale has its lice.

  10. Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    What Beatles album killed PCC’s belief?

  11. Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Gray is a ‘progressive’ who denies the possibility of progress – even in theory.

    He’s one of the reasons I gave up on the ‘liberal’ press.

  12. Rob
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I don’t get this gripe about atheists lacking a sense of humor. Totally idiotic.

    Even if Dawkins did lack humor, what would it matter?

    What a petty and untrue criticism.

    • Chris
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      It’s irrelevant.

      I also wonder if Gray has watched that clip of Prof Dawkins reading his hate mail.

      • pv
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        I rather suspect too much of John Gray’s reading consists of Daily Mail headlines.

    • Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      And as everyone knows Karen Armstrong’s Mixed Nuts Improv Group is a fixture at The Laugh Factory.

  13. Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    A joke from Simon Singh:

    A university chancellor complains to the head of the physics department: ‘Why do physicists always need so much money for lab equipment? Why can’t you be like the mathematics department? Mathematicians only need money for pencils, paper and wastepaper baskets. Or even better, why can’t you be like the philosophy department? All they need is pencils and paper.’

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      I just came across that joke as well. I love it! That one summarizes my opinion of what is wrong with some (many?) branches of philosophy.

  14. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Throughout the whole piece there is this subtle theme of “Dawkins as snob”. You could almost do a Marxist literary analysis on it. I sometimes wonder if Richard draws extra ire simply because of his accent.

  15. DrDroid
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Wow, this is just really depressing following on the heels of the Affleck kerfuffle. I readily understand why fatheists of all persuasions would heap scorn on Dawkins and other Gnu Atheists. But why oh why have so many nominally non-religious, supposedly freethinking people joined the atheist-bashing craze? This is just a mystery I can’t really get my head around. (Yes, I know, for example, that many people don’t agree with Sam on gun control, but why the blanket hostility toward Gnus in general??)

    • Sastra
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Why the blanket hostility towards gnus? Because they’re telling religious people they’re wrong when they shouldn’t.

      It’s okay to tell the religious to stay out of politics or science, sure. But the ideal world is one where many faiths peacefully co-exist in mutual respect. Arguing about the truth of religious beliefs destroys our only chance for harmony — and it doesn’t matter whether this imposition comes from the religious fundamentalists or the atheist “fundamentalists.”

      Well, this is my guess at one reason. There are doubtless others.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        And isn’t it easier just to feign agreement with the religious? Everyone likes you then and we all “get along”. I even find myself thinking this sometimes when I know I’m going to have to disappoint someone and disagree with them.

      • TnkAgn
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        I’ve not known an atheist,gnu or otherwise,to tell a faitheist that they were wrong – unless bidden to. We leave the evangelizing to the religionists.

        I have, however, been known to challenge the young Mormon boys who appear at my door every so often to give me their addresses, so that I may come to their homes and promote my own world-view. It always results in a shortened visit.

        • DrDroid
          Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

          I have occasionally imagined handing them a copy of Letter To A Christian Nation in exchange for their pamphlet. :-))

        • Filippo
          Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          The JW’s have not come back since they knocked on our door – at THEIR convenience – and my dear wife arched her eyebrow at them.

      • DrDroid
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        “Why the blanket hostility towards gnus? Because they’re telling religious people they’re wrong when they shouldn’t.”

        Well why don’t they just SAY that?? At least it’s an honest answer and we can then argue about the best strategy for dealing with religions. But instead we get these dishonest character assassinations. Perhaps it’s not sufficient to not tell religious people they’re wrong, we can’t even hint at the possibility? In other words, stuff it and go back to silence of atheists in the days prior to 9/11?

        • pv
          Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

          Bertrand Russell was dead long before 9/11. I don’t recall silence being a characteristic he was ever famous for.
          I’ve certainly not ever been silent among my contemporaries – at least since 1964. So 9/11 isn’t really relevant as far as I can see.
          However, atheism isn’t a philosophy so doesn’t lend itself to evangelising. All an atheist can do is point out the flaws in the fiction that is religion.

          • DrDroid
            Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

            Hey it’s great that you have always been so outspoken, but for many years I think a lot of atheists just regarded the religious as cranks who could be annoying but safely ignored. That changed after 9/11, and I think I recall that RD and/or SH have even said as much. I think 9/11 was motivation for The End of Faith.

            • Sastra
              Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

              Yes; as Richard Dawkins put it “the gloves are off.”

      • Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Via Julian Baggini:

        The humanist philosopher Simon Blackburn recounts a wonderful anecdote told to him by a colleague about a high-powered interfaith panel discussion.

        Each speaker took turns to explain some key ideas of their faith – Buddhist, Hindu and so on – and the response from other panel members was always along the lines of: “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great.” The same response greeted the Catholic priest who talked of Christ and salvation, but instead of being pleased with their enthusiasm “he thumped the table and shouted: ‘No! It’s not a question of if it works for me! It’s the true word of the living God, and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to hell!’”

        “And they all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great.’”

        /@

    • Thanny
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      There’s a large and growing group of people who identify as “liberals”, who are, in fact, not liberal at all. I call them pseudo-liberals, because many of the positions they hold are those of true liberals, but they aren’t arrived at using liberal principles.

      Fundamentally, they are dogmatists.

      They adhere to a set of dogmas surrounding guns, sexism, racism, religion, colonialism, medicine, food, environmentalism, etc. They are generally incapable of rationally defending any of these positions, even when those positions have such a defense.

      And like true dogmatists, those who stray from the Truth are nasty, bad people. A favorite slur is “neo-con”, even when the person in question isn’t remotely conservative. I’ve seen both Sam Harris and Steven Pinker, each and unabashedly liberal person, called “neo-con” because they dared to disagree with pseudo-liberal dogma (guns and religion for Harris, nature vs nurture for Pinker).

      In conversation, you can identify such people by their inability to countenance the possibility that the dogma is wrong. In print, you need merely look for overt hostility towards those who don’t toe the line, as with Mr. Gray here. See also a number of people on a certain blog network with a stupendously ironic name.

    • Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Accommodationists do agree on gnu control!

      /@

    • Posted October 6, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      DrDroid asks: why the blanket hostility toward Gnus in general?

      Gnus originated by distinguishing themselves from non-gnu atheists via their hostility towards religion and anyone who defends religion. They even invented a new derogatory name ‘faithiests’ for atheists who didn’t agree with them. Is it really surprising that their hostility to everyone who disagreed with them was returned with hostility?

      • Posted October 6, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

        Sorry, but if you read “old atheists” like Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, or H. L. Mencken, you’ll see that, if anything, they were even more hostile toward religion than are the New Atheists–particularly Mencken and Ingersoll. So that “hostility” isn’t new at all. Further, do you really think that those people who attack New Atheists even know that the term “faitheists’ even exists? I highly doubt it.

        Seriously, I submit that you’re wrong, and that the hostility towards New Atheists comes now because they’re winning: there are more of us now than in the days of Russell, we have greater visibility, including the publication of some bestselling books, and the proportion of “nones” is increasing. The hostility comes, I think, because religion is losing, not because people like Dawkins and Harris are “hostile.” Passionate, maybe, and hostile to bad ideas, but not to humans.

        • Posted October 6, 2014 at 7:23 am | Permalink

          That…and weren’t you the one to personally Coyne the term, “faithest”?

          b&

          • Posted October 6, 2014 at 7:25 am | Permalink

            No, someone else, whose name I can’t recall, entered it in a contest I had long ago for suggesting a name for atheists who are soft on faith. “Goddycoddler” came second, but seemed too pejorative.

        • Posted October 6, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

          I do think that beginning with Dawkins ‘The God Delusion’, the Gnu athiests were basically delineated from their contemporaries (Bertram Russell was fairly dated by the beginning of the 21st century.) by their hostility to religion and religious believers

          You may well be right that the hostility from religious believers is because they are winning. I have a harder time buying that as an explanation for why non-gnu atheists, such as John Gray, as so hostile.

          • DrDroid
            Posted October 6, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

            Yes I agree with your last paragraph. I have no trouble understanding why the religious would be hostile to the increasing visibility and success of the NAs. My original post asked:

            “But why oh why have so many nominally non-religious, supposedly freethinking people joined the atheist-bashing craze? This is just a mystery I can’t really get my head around.”

            That’s the thing I’m struggling to understand. Thanny points out that in some circles “liberalism” has hardened into a set of dogmas, which seems plausible based on my (limited) exposure to such people on the Internet. But then the question is: why did that happen?

            • Posted October 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

              Gnu’s – at the beginning anyway before the big rift between feminists and non-feminists developed – were quite hostile to non-believers that objected to their tactics. They referred to such non-believers as accomodationists or later as faitheists. They expressed their disdain for anyone who criticized Dawkins, Hitchens or any other outspoken atheists in strong and colorful language.

              Personally, I suspect this is the cause for the hostility in return from the non-gnu atheists. But I could be mistaken. Maybe they are just jealous of their success.

  16. Greg Esres
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    When I read the comments on that article the other day, they were almost uniformly against the author, which cheered me.

  17. Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    It sometimes feels like certain atheists treat believers like little children, with a ssssh! don’t ruin Santa Claus for them!

    That’s a far more insulting attitude than anything I’ve heard from RD about believers; he’s had plenty to say about beliefs, and plenty to say about peoples’ statements, but he has always seemed the highborn gentleman to me. People may bristle at being told they suffer from a delusion, sure, but it seems to me he offers that as a diagnosis and presents the cure – and also paints a picture of a lovely post-delusional experience.

    Clearly that is all wasted on self-important twits desperate for the approval of the faitheist crowd.

  18. Filippo
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    sub

  19. wonderer
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    “Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story.”

    I guess we are supposed to believe that Augustine and Philo were issuing warnings against taking Genesis literally, in an environment where nobody was taking Genesis literally? What Gray purports to be evidence supporting his point actually contradicts his point. (If one bothers to think about it for more than one second.)

    • Sastra
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Good point.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      Basically, the Christians back in Augustine days were selective allegorists and selective literalists. Augustine did not believe in a literal 7 days of creation (it conflicted with neo-Platonist philosophy) but he certainly did believe in a real literal Adam and Eve.

      Insistence on taking absolutely everything in the Bible literally does seem to originate with early 20th-century fundamentalism, but the 16th century Protestant reformers certainly gave literalism a big push, since they thought a lot of allegorical interpretations floating around were far-fetched and bizarre.

      Literalism exists on a sliding scale.

      Luther and Calvin were on opposite sides of the fence re a literal six days of creation.

    • Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Bingo.

      /@

  20. Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Wow.

    Just — I mean — that is — er….

    Wow.

    But let me tackle just this one small point:

    Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story.

    Gray is distorting Philo. Philo espoused a rather sophisticated cosmology in which Eden and Adam were really real and even still extant in one of the celestial spheres between the firmament and the ultimate realm of YHWH. The first Adam was the Logos, whom Philo also explicitly identified with the Risen Jesus Christ of Zachariah 6; this Adam was, like Paul’s Jesus, the firstfruits and the ideal archetype of the immortal soul, made directly in the image of the Most High God YHWH. The other Adam, again confirmed by Paul, was the one of the garden of Eden and an even more imperfect copy-of-a-copy, and it is from this other Adam which we gain our own archetype of the flesh. The job of the archangel of the Risen Christ Jesus is to salvifically raise incorruptible our spiritual bodies made in the image of the first Adam to one of the celestial realms amongst the planets that we might be amongst the eternal angels (the same beings known by the name, “demons,” by the Pagans, and coming in both good and evil versions in both) and therefore (literally physically) nearer to YHWH.

    Now, especially in a modern context of Newtonian, Relativistic, and Quantum Mechanics, one can argue about how much of this should be understood as “really” real or “merely” allegorical or the like…but it was all bog-standard cosmology of the day, and represented the best understanding available to these people of how the Universe actually functioned.

    Anyway, that’s obviously a bit off-topic…but, damn. Seriously, John? Like, what the fuck…?

    b&

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      I have not understood why seemingly smart people who are learned in religion and philosophy and history can be so oblivious about understanding people. Just the single fact that civilizations had invented new methods of engineering to build fantastic houses of worship is just one obvious clue that billions of people actually believe in magic and magic men who can rewrite laws of physics. Humans would not spend significant amounts of their GDP to do this and other monumental things (and barbaric things) b/c they want to pretend they live in Disney World.

      • Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        I think, unconsciously or cynically, it’s more a matter of the application of the Platonic rhetorical technique of forwarding a lie to further a more important truth.

        For “faithiests,” what matters is the ultimate and universal Capital-T-Truth of Love and Beauty and Harmony that pervades all religions if not the Universe itself — exactly the same position as in antiquity. And the various gods were created in large part as the means by which these principles could be understood by humans, and especially the unwashed masses.

        Plato would have argued that it’s perfectly valid to make up some fantasy about some schmuck getting himself crucified and then resurrected in a backwater of the Empire, and even to convince the hoi palloi that this is the literal Truth…so long as the story had a deeper truth (say, about the eternity of the soul and what to do now to secure favorable after-death accommodations). Ideally, one would eventually reveal the deeper truths to those ready to understand them, but the deception still serves its purpose in the mean time: people are convinced to live lives of righteousness and their souls are thusly saved. Even if only by mindlessly acting out the pantomime.

        What’s so upsetting to Gray and his ilk is that we’re not even buying into the bullshit of the Ultimate Truths, let alone this nonsense that the best way to tell truths is with lies. Not only are we not playing his game, we’re ruining his chances of playing the game with the rest of the unwashed masses…and then how are we ever to keep the rabble in check? We can’t trust them to think basic thoughts for themselves, after all.

        b&

        • Marella
          Posted October 8, 2014 at 12:09 am | Permalink

          I think faitheists are people who, while they can’t believe in gods themselves fear the collapse of civil society if others don’t believe. This is why they get so rancorous about those of us who try to deconvert the religious. The way they see it we are threatening the stability of society and need to be stopped at all costs. They are genuinely terrified. They subscribe to the idea that religion is the only thing stopping the poor from murdering the rich, and they feel that someone like Richard is a class traitor for explaining to the peasants that they’re being conned. The fact that we are winning just adds oil to the flames.

          • Posted October 8, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

            Exactly — and Plato would, I think, agree both with your analysis and the “solution” being pursued by the faithiests.

            Everything new is old again….

            b&

  21. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    The Peter Medawar review definitely could apply to to this hatchet job by John Gray. In that review is the wonderful line that Dawkins uses in The God Delusion:

    “Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.”

    • thh1859
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Classic! Thanks for the reminder.

  22. Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I am of an age (JAC is six years older) that I, trained as a scientist, know implicitly that is is absurd to think that Richard Dawkins wants to ‘be Charles Darwin’. Richard’s greatest fame, irrespective of his original scientific accomplishments, is as a popularizer and communicator of science. Absolutely no one trained as a scientist thinks that that role will win you the kind of recognition among scientists that Charles Darwin has. It isn’t possible that Richard Dawkins doesn’t know that. Science communicators have, I think, gained some prestige over the past decade or so, but they’re not the same category as a superstar science researchers.

    John Gray simply makes a fool of himself – like a child hurling insults at the playground – when he says “[t]here cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure…”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      I’m just a regular schmo and I know that. I think John Gray is being deliberately obtuse.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      “John Gray simply makes a fool of himself – like a child hurling insults at the playground – when he says “[t]here cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure…”

      ” . . . a child hurling insults . . . .”

      Yea, verily, something must be true merely and solely because someone SAYS so. Ha!

      I wish I could have had my current adult mindset about that as a child when dealing with playground insults hurled my way. It was liberating on that day as a young adult when I realized that my sense of self-worth did not depend on pleasing everyone on the bloody planet.

  23. sirgb
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Bare jealousy and Mr. Gray missed the whole point. Richard is a great scientist, and his books are brilliant collection in scientific literature. Just don’t let him interact with believers while he talks about God -at least not without an exorcist in close proximity.

  24. Sastra
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    What a target rich environment this nasty little review is! Jerry’s taken aim and fired off a whole barrel. I want to take a shot or two.

    In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.

    I don’t get this. In treating the fundamental basis of religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is engaging with the best arguments of religion’s proponents.

    What is this bizarre tendency to remove the supernatural from religion and demand that its critics address THAT part? It’s like taking the political platform out of the Republican Tea Party and insisting that the balloons and camaraderie and desire to be part of democracy ought to be the real focus of any critique.

    Sure there are many religions which don’t have a “Creator God.” I’m not sure this class includes ‘Christianity,’ though. And even the gods-who-do-not-create are in some sense very significant, important, and/or responsible for the state of things — assuming that they’re not the State of Things themselves, with mentality added.

    If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess.

    If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire ultimate knowledge of reality simply by consulting and relying on its own magical insights? None.

    Evolution doesn’t contradict a less-than-perfect capacity for learning reality which benefits from the gradual development of more objective checks-and-balances like science. Evolution contradicts the existence of a Perfect sensus divinitatis.

    What a bizarre review of an autobiography.

    • Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Sastra, I think you owe it to yourself to read Richard Carrier’s new book, On the Historicity of Jesus. Never mind (for the moment) the question of Jesus’s historicity; the first half of the book is devoted to a crash course on ancient cosmology…and that cosmology is essentially identical to your own characterization of the New Age cosmology, save the ancients had specific regions of the solar system for where all these things happen. Most of the stuff is familiar not only to me but to anybody with a decent liberal arts / general studies education and background…but Richard assembles it in a crystal-clear way that makes it obvious that they really did literally mean things we today just casually toss around as poetic metaphor.

      What brings this to mind with respect to your post is this:

      What is this bizarre tendency to remove the supernatural from religion and demand that its critics address THAT part? It’s like taking the political platform out of the Republican Tea Party and insisting that the balloons and camaraderie and desire to be part of democracy ought to be the real focus of any critique.

      What we today label the supernatural was, in antiquity, still the natural world, only it was physically above (geometrically superiorily positioned to) the Earth. The Aer extended to a sphere at the orbit of the Moon, with the firmament at or immediately beyond that position. There were further spheres beyond that, generally shepherded by the planets, with the Most High God residing in ultimate perfection in the farthest. Fallen angels literally did fall from higher to lower heavens, and the souls of the dead (generally good and evil both) really did ascend to physically reside in realms somewhere on or near the Moon or beyond.

      Nobody, not even the most fanatical of the religious, believes any of that today, of course. But they do still believe in all of it save for the physical location of the stage on which these events play out. The supernatural has been pushed from the natural realm physically superior to / geometrically above the Earth (as well as one ideally and morally more pure), to some vague state of existence that’s still as really real and ideally and morally superior. It’s all still going on just as it did two or even several or more millennia ago; the only difference is that we’re now not so certain about where, exactly, it’s taking place, or what path one would trace to follow from here to there. “Parallel universes” of Quantum Mechanics and Big Bang Cosmology are today’s popular hypotheses, even though the actual physics of neither theory permits anything remotely resembling the spiritual conception.

      And, then as now, the primary personal means of experiencing the supernatural realm and communing with its denizens is through both careful reading of those who went before (“scripture”) and, especially, personal revelation — what most of us today recognize as hallucinations, but which are still revered, even by such as Sam Harris, for the insights they might offer into the true nature of reality.

      You don’t need to imagine the reaction in antiquity to those who reject this physics outright; you can read it, and it’s no different from what we experience today.

      …and, to your exact question: the “this bizarre tendency to remove the supernatural from religion” is exactly what Plato himself encouraged when he argued that lies may be profitably be used to guide the audience to higher truths. The old religions were created as exactly those sorts of lies; the gods didn’t really do what they did, but their actions were symbolic of the Platonically ideal (but still really real) things going on just outside the orbit of the Moon. The fallacious nature, along with the true meaning, was revealed to initiates of sufficient learning and sophistication, but it was good that the novices and general public truly believed in the literal (though known false to adepts) “truths” of the stories, for it got the masses to ape what was necessary, even if they lacked all true understanding.

      Today, those same stories of the gods are obviously proving a stumbling block to the acceptance of the same ancient Platonic ideals — even as they remain believed literal truth by so many. So, the intellectual descendants of Plato are continuing the tradition, and insisting that what matters isn’t the literal truth of the gods that people believe, but the ideals those gods represent. This, of course, is utter bollocks…but that’s a topic for another post….

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Sastra
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the book recommend; I’m waiting for the kindle. It’s kinda …. big. I did hear Carrier give a talk on this cosmology at the Atheist Alliance convention last summer, and spoke to him afterwards (ha, I suspected you’d been reading him when I read your comment at #20!)

        As for Plato, Plato at the Googleplex author Rebecca Goldstein also spoke at the same convention. My guess is that she’d say that Plato’s actual position was probably more nuanced than those who later interpreted/misinterpreted him. Figuring him out is not a slam dunk. He had a rampant tendency to play devil’s advocate. He was also a strong proponent of debating unquestioned sacred truths.

        • Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          That’s right — aren’t you the one who put me onto the path of Carrier (and Philo) identifying the Risen Jesus Christ in Zechariah 6 in the first place!?

          Thanks!

          You’re certainly right that Plato is a complex and often subtle figure…and that’s part of his problem. Much too Machiavellian for my tastes…and, yes, of course, I know that Machiavelli was reporting the weather and often advocating against Machiavellian behavior….

          b&

  25. camurgo
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Yes, a lot of people criticizes Dawkins as the “leader of atheism”, but it may well be that this is not how he sees himself. And the critics forget this. I hear this criticism so often that forget it myself.
    I think Gray is correct in saying that Dawkins should be more well-read in religion in general he seems to be.
    But I agree with you that a lot of that article was basically ad hominems. He’s angry at the man.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      “I think Gray is correct in saying that Dawkins should be more well-read in religion in general [than?] he seems to be.”

      How does one know when one is sufficiently well-read? By the approval of one such as the honorable Mr. Gray, or some priest or rabbi or mullah or “reverend”?

      On Professor Dawkins’s website is a section listing his “fleas,” which is worthy of a perusal.

      The case can be made that any one of us can be more well-read in any subject, no matter how otherwise well-ride one is. In your opinion, is Dr. C sufficiently well-read? Seems to me he is, based on what he’s told us.

      • Filippo
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        “Well-read,” not “well-ride,” though slogging through certain theological tomes no doubt is a hard ride, eh?

  26. Bill Davis
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I’m reminded of Terry Eagleton’s review of ‘The God Delusion’, which was a similar hatchet job and similarly indicative of an all-consuming jealousy (although at least Eagleton’s piece was well written and included some amusing one-liners – I suspect John Gray wishes he had written it). The three of them were academics at Oxford at the same time, and it seems that neither Eagleton nor Gray can stand it that Dawkins is the one who is publicly recognised for his work. They both transparently regard themselves as so much cleverer than Dawkins, and yet he will always be the only of them who has made a major contribution to his field (and, perhaps worse for their egos, he is also unquestionably the best prose stylist of the three – it’s one of the reasons his books do so well). John Gray is still banging on about new atheists being the new fundamentalists, who have replaced faith in god with an unshakable faith in human progress. It was ridiculous in ‘Straw Dogs’ (I always think ‘Straw Men’ would have been a more accurate title), and it’s still ridiculous (although it’s probably the only original thought he’s ever had, so I guess he has to keep recycling it).

  27. Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Terry Eagleton is no intellectual giant either but his review of Grey’s Straw Dogs shows how it’s done:

    Mixing nihilism and New Ageism in equal measure, Gray scoffs at the notion of progress for 150 pages before conceding that there is something to be said for anaesthetics. The enemy in his sights is not so much a Straw Dog as a Straw Man: the kind of starry-eyed rationalist who passed away with John Stuart Mill, but who he has to pretend still rules the world.

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/sep/07/highereducation.news2

  28. Ralph
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    [A bit long, but I just pulled out “Straw Dogs”, and scribbled this down for those who may not be familiar with Gray:]

    From a review by JG Ballard, on the cover of a book:
    “This powerful and brilliant book challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be human.”

    This might be appropriate for “The Selfish Gene”, but in fact the book is John Gray’s “Straw Dogs”.

    But there’s much more here than simple jealousy. Gray is painting Richard Dawkins as the embodiment of the straw man “scientific fundamentalist” in his philosophy.

    Gray’s book is worth reading, in part for the 5% worthwhile insight, but principally for the 95% that made me think carefully about how and why he is wrong.

    Most of the worthwhile insight is summed up by the wonderful quote from Monod that precedes the first chapter:
    “All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of manking desperately denying its contingency.”

    Gray notes that we easily forget that we too are animals, that our nature and our societies are not a blank slate. A worthwhile point, but he takes it to the preposterous extreme that “human progress” is based on a misconception that we are different from animals, and that true progress, in some sense (as opposed to
    superficial technological progress), is altogether impossible.

    He portrays humanism/rationalism (pretty much “scientism”) as having inherited the psychological mindset of Christianity: progress toward redemption/salvation. This is, again, an interesting insight. He quotes Monod again, who says it far better than Gray himself:

    “The liberal societies of the West still pay lip-service to, and present as a basis for morality, a disgusting farrago of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the ‘natural’ rights of man and utilitarian pragmatism…[Man] must at last awake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation… he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering and his crimes.”

    But once again, Gray takes this to preposterous extremes, first with the canard of equating religious and scientific fundamentalism completely:

    “…science alone has the power to silence heretics. Today it is the only institution that can claim authority. like the Church in the past, it has the power to destroy, or marginalize, independent thinkers. (Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians to Lovelock.) In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things….”

    And this is just embarrassingly fatuous:

    “By [Popper’s] standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence; only later did evidence become available that gave them crucial support. Applying Popper’s account of scientific method would have killed these theories at birth.”

    So the book then becomes a strange mish-mash of nihilism (true progess is ultimately impossible); almost po-mo anti-science “all scientific truth is relative/subjective”; and then (bizarrely) that Gaia will save us! I have no idea how he ends up in a love affair with Lovelock’s (largely wrong) Gaia theory, it seems an almighty non sequitur to the central thesis of his book.

    I was not inspired to familiarize myself with Gray’s other work. Reading “Straw Dogs” was interesting, but not in a good way.

    • Bill Davis
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Ralph, I think that’s a useful summary of ‘Straw Dogs’ (although more charitable than I’d be – my major reaction on finishing the book was how little original there was in it, and how little it made me think). And yes, Dawkins clearly represents the epitome of his ‘scientific fundamentalist’ fiction. It’s the intense nastiness of this review in particular that makes me think there is a degree of jealousy involved.

      • Ralph
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Straw Dogs did make we want to go and read Monod, which I never got around to. Useful reminder of that, at least.

    • drosera
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      “Straw Dogs”: the film was better than the book.

      • Ralph
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        I know you’re kidding, but the film name does, apparently, also derive from same passage in the Tao Te Ching.

        “Heaven and Earth are not partial. They do not kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them.”

        For Gray’s book, this makes sense, but I never really understood the relevance to the awful rape-porn / revenge fantasy film.

  29. Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I know I’ve said this before but it’s still true: you can be a mediocre scientist and still make a contribution to science, no matter how small; but you have to be a brilliant philosopher to make any contribution to philosophy at all.

    Gray isn’t on that list.

  30. Ralph
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I just perused John Gray’s Wiki entry, and it quote’s J.G.Ballard (who loved “Straw Dogs”) more extensively, including:

    “…the most exhilarating book I have read since Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene” ”

    Pretty funny, I wonder how Gray liked that compliment?

  31. Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Well, I read Gray’s article, and I must say I can’t think of a more pointless ‘book review’ I’ve ever encountered. A rigorous analysis of all the mis-statements, mis-representations and logical fallacies it presents could lead to a short book – indeed, possibly a textbook on how *not* to write an argument, for a composition course. All that can be said of it is that the sentences appear to be grammatically correct. Anyway, Jerry has gotten a good start on writing such a book here.

    Balfour? Plantinga? Really? Isn’t it clear that Gray is a closet believer?

  32. Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Now that you mention it I wonder why Dawkins hasn’t got a K. He deserves it more than many who have it.

  33. Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Well said. The review reads as a series of bilious eructations; I think it may be that Dawkins literally gives Gray indigestion! Perhaps we could stem this flow of nonsense with some Pepto-Bismol.

    If there is anything remarkable in his adolescent rebellion, it is that he has remained stuck in it

    This implication that atheism is simply a product of “adolescent rebellion” rather than serious reflection is commonplace. Yet if I ever query the childhood source of many a believer’s faith, nearly always born at a much younger age than teen, they cry “genetic fallacy!”. As if I, at the age of five, was aware of Maimonides’ cautions when being taught that Jesus wanted me for a sunbeam.

    • Ralph
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      A delightful last sentence, thank you.

  34. microraptor
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    If literal belief in the bible is some sort of new phenomenon, as Mr. Gray so asserts, why would anyone have tried to disprove it?

    • microraptor
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      And as a further question off that one, even if belief in the literal truth of the bible is a new phenomenon, why shouldn’t we disprove it now?

      • microraptor
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Just two questions that I’d like to see sophisticated theologists answer.

  35. Nell Whiteside
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Richard Dawkins has brought about a paradigm shift in many peoples’ lives, including mine. His writing is eloquent, funny, succinct and incredibly informative.

    IMHO these negative, anti-new-atheist bullies like John Gray demonstrate their inability to produce anything original or unique. Therefore they have to hitch a ride on Dawkins coat-tails. You’d think they would be grateful for their free rides – not scurrilous and nasty.

    Cheers to Prof.C.C. for your stalwart support of Dawkins and this fascinating website.

  36. Posted October 5, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Though I didn’t know who John Gray was until I read about him on the web pages of this site, I am not persuaded that he is an atheist.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      Professor Dawkins can add him to his “Fleas” section of his website.

  37. Derek Freyberg
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    A truly nasty piece of work by Gray.

    From the review of Gray’s “Straw Dogs” – “He has passed from Thatcherite zest to virulent misanthropy.” Sure looks like it with this piece.

    And from one of the comments on the review – “This reviewer should have stuck to reviewing Dawkins’ book rather than giving us his own faulty view of the nature of reality and the character deficiencies of Richard Dawkins.” Agreed.

    I’ll leave the science and religion to others – they seem to have been well covered above – and just speak to Gray’s criticism of Dawkins’s writing about his young life. Gray and I are the same age, a few years younger than Dawkins and a couple of years older than Prof. CC. Why Gray criticizes Dawkins’s writing about his early life in Africa, public school, and university absolutely escapes me – Dawkins is (and, more to the point, would have been even more so at the age he (Dawkins) is describing) a product of his upbringing. As a young man growing up in New Zealand, I knew children who had grown up in colonial environments, and surely Gray would have also when he grew up in England. Dawkins’s descriptions may be of something that is remote from what is “politically correct” today, but they ring true to me.

  38. Chukar
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Gray thinks that Biblical literalism is a product of the relatively recent rise of Christian Fundamentalism? Huh? Is it possible to be more than 100% wrong?

    There must be at least 100 million literalists in the U.S. today. “God Wrote It,” as the bumper sticker has it, was the default attitude towards the bible for two millennia. Disagree, and you might be burnt as a witch or heretic. There were certainly a few learned theologians who accepted significant portions as parable, myth, or good story-telling with a moral, containing a kernel of valuable truth. But you can’t generalize that attitude off to the vast majority of the Christian world, most of whom could not read. The passion plays and ‘stations of the cross’ of the middle ages were developed specifically for the illiterate masses as a way of passing on the story.

    In the Muslim world, stating a belief that the Koran is not the literal word of god can result in a speedy sentence of death. I wonder if Gray sees the one billion Muslims as overwhelmingly non-literalist?

    • Filippo
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      “In the Muslim world, stating a belief that the Koran is not the literal word of god can result in a speedy sentence of death. I wonder if Gray sees the one billion Muslims as overwhelmingly non-literalist?”

      I wonder if he will be reviewing any Muslim-authored books anytime soon.

  39. thh1859
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Arrogant? Bullying?
    One of the friendliest interviews between an atheist and a believer.

    Dawkins Harries


    And… how DARE John Gray speak for Thomas Henry Huxley!

    • Posted October 5, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      I immediately thought of this one with a very sincere but incurious Christian who constantly tries to convert Dawkins to Christianity, while Dawkins calmly spends 45 minutes explaining and re-explaining the basics of evolution. I doubt John Gray would be so patient.

      • Filippo
        Posted October 5, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        If I correctly recall, this guy had had a recent tragedy in his life. I suspect that Dawkins was bending over backwards to be charitable and compassionate.

    • Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

      I see you are a fan of the famous agnostic.

  40. Posted October 5, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    The best thing I can think of to say to this nonsense is to quote from Hitchens’ last paragraph in his autobiography:

    It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them. After various past allegiances, I have come to believe that Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self-criticism. Membership in the skeptical faction or tendency is not at all a soft option. The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time.

  41. marvol19
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Gray got a chance at repeating this in the Guardian.

    Not only do they need to fill their quotient of weekly anti-Dawkins rants, but Gray is also exactly their type: self-loathing atheist, cosy with religion, denies human progress, self-proclaimed intellectual, popular with left-wing humanities graduates.

    Also, Gray pontificating on anyone’s sense of humour is beyond ironic. Has the man ever written anything funny? All I’ve ever read of him is dry, terse, angry and bitter.

  42. Posted October 5, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Leaving everything else aside, that’s a really odd, amateurish and incompetent piece of reviewing; I’m very surprised the New Republic editors let it through, filled as it is with obvious personal animus.

  43. Robert Gray
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I don’t support the Dawkins bashing but I do have to say he largely brings this upon himself with his own abrasive comments.

    • Marella
      Posted October 8, 2014 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      Such as?

  44. ubernez
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Is it only me – it seems quite clear that people like John Gray (and many others who have been identified on this site (blog/information superhighway nexus) are NOT atheists.
    They profess atheism, but always write about the virtues of religion. Surely it is obvious that this is just a sneaky back-door ruse allowing a seeming opponent the high ground of praise for the other, while in reality detailing the virtues of religion and the pettiness and squalor of atheism.
    If I had more time (or an invisible friend to help) I would be more specific with reference.
    But then I would have to read more of Gray, which is really just Black & White.
    Ugh.

  45. Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Gray:
    “Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism.”

    So? The sum total of my argument that you should eat food is that you’ll starve to death if you don’t. And that is a powerful argument. Arguments don’t depend on the number of pages it takes to paint them for potency.

    Also, “we will be better off without it” is a condensation (bordering on whitewashing) of a llllooootttt of atrocities.

  46. Pabs
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, it does seem like “lacking a sense of humor” has been popping up quite often lately as an intellectual criticism of the atheist breed. You could try to counter it by pointing out the silliness of being accused by the same ideological strains as both A) not being humorous enough and B) not being Nietszche-miserable enough: an appreciation of irony counts as a sense of humor, right?

    But more to the point, just what is the criticism supposed to mean? How should we best display a sense of humor when our primary role is to keep creationism out of science classes/theocracy out of the government/bigotry and harm out of social policy? Clearly, chuckling at some of the more absurd claims of some religious people (e.g. Jesus flying on rainbow horses, early humans riding on saddled triceratopses, etc.). We are motivated by things like the shooting of Malala Yousafzai – just how humorous should we be in response to that motivation?

    Look, I’m willing to learn from those who believe they have constructive criticism for me. If new atheism is just too humorless to… well, no one has yet explained why humor is so darned imperative for us… then I would welcome with open arms a comedy guide to direct us. The next time Salon or the Guardian is throwing chum in the water for the atheist-bashers, perhaps they could assign one the task of laying out such a guide. It’s only reasonable to ask, assuming their steady criticisms are indeed borne of good intentions.

  47. bytz
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know who “John Gray” is, so there is no reason that I would consider his opinions to worthwhile. I’ve read a couple of Dawkins’ books and as with all authors, I much prefer my own opinion to any reviewer’s.

    I suspect that both Gray and Dawkins are equally wrong in their viewpoint about an alien race, in that any alien race that found us, would probably be very different in their social behaviours and motivations, we simply have no idea about how intelligent live may have developed and what might be important to it, until we actually encounter it.

  48. Keith Cook
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    A knighthood? bloody bunch of marauding thugs from the middle ages. Richard Dawkins should never except one, although that would upset Grey even more and I’m for that.
    From reading, watching interviews and debates on YouTube of Richard Dawkins how Grey can deduce that crap about wanting to be Darwin is just laughable and a little pathetic.
    Jesus! I want to be Darwin.. my next T-shirt caption?

    • Ralph
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

      We already have the Four Horsemen metaphor going, so why not RD as the leader of the Knights Who Say Gnu?

  49. ubernez
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, RD is soooo humourless.
    How I pine for the laugh-a-minute pulpit sermons of my RC youth.
    “You are damned by the original sin of Adam and Eve” – cue laughter track.
    ‘They ate of the tree of knowledge (which g*d didn’t like, too much knowledge is bad), and then they were kicked out of Eden before they could eat of the other tree, you know, the one that would make them like gods (and He don’t want no rivals!)” – cue applause, close curtain, collect royalties.
    Double ugh.

  50. Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Gray, but I did read de Waal’s latest. There are apparently lots of atheists out there who believe that by resisting bigotry, we are being “dogmatic,” and transforming atheism into some kind of a fanatical religion. That schtick has been around for a long time. It doesn’t seem like reason even comes into the picture here. It’s more a case for the psychologists and anthropologists. In de Waal’s case, one can see in his book that he understands that, like Jews, blacks, and gays, atheists are a vulnerable to identification as an outgroup. He knows that, like the other groups, we’ve been subjected to vilification, discrimination, and bigotry. He knows that the only way those other groups have been able to fight back effectively is by pushing back in the same way that the “New Atheists” are doing now, and yet, somehow, when atheists push back, its “dogmatism.” We lack “compassion” if we point out to the true believers that their fanaticism is hurting themselves and the rest of us in the process. Pushing back against discrimination is apparently too undignified for atheists. I was not surprised to notice that, in a book full of that sort of “logic,” de Waal’s version of the “history” of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology was also pure fantasy. Gray is apparently just another manifestation of the same phenomenon.

    • ubernez
      Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, when women push back against entrenched oppression and misogyny, then they are nazi feminists.
      “Listen, you (woman, black, gay…) have been oppressed, but whoa there, don’t go gettin’ big ideas and getting vocal. We appreciate the little people and the downtrodden getting a voice, but just remember whose voice rules…” Hmmm, as per my last post, reminds me of g*d in Eden – A&E threatened to have their own voice (knowledge, no less!), and this was a bit threatening to the bearded one…

  51. Phillip Crews
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    When he used Arthur Balfour (!) to support an ad hominem diatribe, I was almost convinced that Gray was trying to write a satire of a parody of a review.

  52. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 6, 2014 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    Dreadful.

    To pick Gray apart is easy, but on the other hand he leaves too many targets. I’ll jump to something peripheral instead:

    Unlike most of those who debated then [in Victorian times], Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles.

    Well, yeah. Since the 20th century and statistics, measurement theory, the laws (“first principles”) of everyday physics, and the success of science, we can leave the crutch of philosophy behind. Science is self-sufficient today. (Which is something we should celebrate.)

    I think Gray shot himself in the foot there. What was he again? Oh, a “writer, philosopher, and an atheist who hates New Atheists.”

  53. Posted October 6, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    If there’s once sentence which contains a more serious indictment of Dawkins’ autobiography than anything that John Gray has written, it is this one:

    One senses that he’s unenthusiastically recounting the details of his life as a kind of duty, perhaps goaded by an agent or publisher.

    That’s a real killer of a review of the book, and demolishes it in far fewer words than there are in Gray’s review.

    However, there are two or three things that need to be said about Gray’s review. It may be true that one of Dawkins’ favourite books is one about the toxic effects of colonialism on the Kikuyu, but if he doesn’t mention this in his autobiography, then surely Gray’s critique of the young Dawkins’ sense of privilege and superiority (which came, no doubt, very naturally) is justified.

    The second point to make is about Gray’s atheist bashing. It’s not so much atheist bashing, as raising a question about the ability of reason to solve our problems. This says nothing about the fact that science has provided us with knowledge that no other method of enquiry has done, so pointing out that confidence in reason alone, as has become common amongst new atheists is perhaps premature. It is just that faith in reason’s ability to solve our social, political, and economic problems is (according to Gray) misplaced, and he thinks (as I do) that that is a characteristic of contemporary new atheism.

    For example, in your response to his BBC Point of View piece you quote Gray to this effect:

    Speaking as an atheist myself, I can’t help smiling when I hear religion being mocked in this way. Looking at the world as it has been and continues to be at the present time, it’s belief in human reason that’s childish. Religious faith is based on accepting that we know very little of God. But we know a great deal about human beings, and one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals. Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God.

    In response to this you say:

    Such a statement borders on insanity. For we have ample demonstration that using reason has told us truths about the universe. How do we know? Because reason works.

    But this is to miss the point of Gray’s concern altogether. His does not make the claim that science doesn’t work. He’s not talking about science, but about faith in reason itself. Of course science works, and Gray knows that as well as anyone, but its working, while providing many benefits, has created as many problems as it has solved. What Gray is saying is that reason does not necessarily work well when dealing with much larger problems, like excessive population, environmental degradation, inequality and injustice, and so on. That’s where Gray’s questioning of reason comes in. Putting faith in reason, when it comes to these “global” problems (‘global’ in both senses, as pertaining to the planet, and including large populations and their social, economic and political instabilities and crises), Gray says, is making a bigger leap of faith than people make when they accept religious forms of life and associated ways of believing. That is a constant theme in Gray’s books, and it is not an unreasonable position to take. He thinks that Dawkins betrays a rather simplistic belief in the power of reason, when what we perhaps need to heed more closely is the wisdom of the ages passed down by our spiritual traditions. He may be wrong, but it is not an unreasonable thing to believe.

    A third point I’d like to add to this regards literalism. Yes, Augustine and others certainly read scripture, from time to time, in overtly literal ways. They also cautioned people about the fallacies that could derive from such uses of scripture. However, for Augustine, believing in the young age of the earth, or an original couple from which humanity descended was not at all obviously unreasonable, given what was known at the time, so his literalism is much different than the literalism of those who have access to more reliable information. And this kind of literalism/fundamentalism only arose after the growth of science and scientific ways of knowing. So there are different forms of literalism and different stages of it. Earlier literalism may have been wrong, but not obviously foolish. Contemporary literalism is contemptible.

    Since it was raised in the last comment, I cannot forbear mentioning Dawkins’ apparent lack of interest in the nature of scientific knowing. Unlike Larrson, I think it is quite clear that philosophical study of science is not a crutch. Indeed, without it, it would be hard to say what it is that scientific justification consists in. It is far less straightforward than practicing scientists apparently believe. For example, take the example of evolution. Jerry says, with some justification, that (so far) evolution has met all the tests which have been thrown at it. So far so good. But of course, that could have been said about Newtonian physics as well. It met the tests, and was widely believed, in the 18th century, to be the final word on the physics of motion. However, we now know that it was not so, since complications were discovered which had to be solved by departing significantly from the Newtonian paradigm. For all we know, the same thing could well happen to evolutionary biology. At the moment, there is no way to tell. If there were, we would already be onto the next stage of the development of biology. That is why Gray questions Dawkins’ scepticism. Certainly, he is sceptical regarding religion, but does he carry the same scepticism into his dealings with science? I think Gray believes that he doesn’t, and that he should, because it is, in fact, a vital aspect of science, and its justification. Science is not self-sufficient, and will never be.

    • Xray
      Posted October 6, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Eric, your comment is long and hits many topics, but let me address only your last point, because it is one that many educated non-scientists make, and quite unfairly. To wit, “you scientists think you’re so smart, but you were wrong about Newtonian physics.” Well, physicists weren’t really wrong, simply incomplete. Newton’s physics still works perfectly well in almost all cases; it is only at the very highest velocities and the largest scales that it was found wanting. Similarly, I’m convinced, with evolution. Sure, all the various limbs and branches of evolutionary history will be much revised, and mechanisms (genetic drift) will be added to Darwin’s natural selection. But in its grossest outlines, it will surely stand. I cannot for one minute seriously believe there will someday be that rabbit fossil found in the Cambrian. Dawkins surely thinks likewise. You claim he is therefore insufficiently skeptical of science. I think not. Dawkins is well aware that biology will evolve, but we have made progress these last 150 years, it is real progress, and much of it will endure. That is distasteful to Gray. But it is true.

      • Posted October 6, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Well said. Professor CC approves of this comment.

      • Chukar
        Posted October 6, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        “Dawkins is well aware that biology will evolve, but we have made progress these last 150 years.”

        Yes, we have. The wonderful thing about science (scientists, really) is that when it is proven wrong, or incomplete, it is science itself (or scientists) that develop the proof. Unlike theology or any other purported method of “knowing,” it is self-correcting. It really is, and always has been, the only game in town.

      • Posted October 6, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Fair enough Xray, but of course I wasn’t making the elementary mistake that you think I was making, so your Xray vision can only see so far. I did not say that Newton was wrong, but he was working, as Kuhn pointed out, with a different paradigm. He wasn’t simply incomplete. He needed a new perspective. And remember how Einstein insisted until the end that God does not play dice with the universe. So paradigms are relatively stable perspectives, which are in turn overturned by later discoveries. And that shift in paradigms is not just a correction of mistakes; it is an adding of a completely new dimension to our knowledge of reality. Science is not so much self-correcting as self-creating, as scientists see entirely new ways of seeing reality.

        I think the first time that I became aware of what I would call a lack of appropriate scepticism in Dawkins’ approach was when he wanted something like an axiom for evolutionary theory, and came up with the word ‘theorum’. Remember? And I think it is this sense of having achieved a final product that Gray is concerned about. Of course, biology, and evolutionary biology has itself evolved. All you have to do is read Darwin’s Origin and Dawkins’ Selfish Gene. But there is a sense here that the structure of biology is therefore fixed for all time. But we simply don’t know that. We don’t even know (though we may believe firmly that they will) that scientists in the future will be talking about evolution, and not some other transformational process.

        Of course, Newton was not wrong, no more than Thales was wrong (at least he was on the right track, of realising that things were composed of basic substances); Thales only saw a small part of the picture, as Newton saw a bigger part, though still small. But what an important part he did not see! And Einstein, too, who simply could not abide the idea that there was uncertainty in the universe.

        The point is that so far as we know this process of succeeding paradigms (not just the evolution of theories) will continue, so that, if humanity were to survive another ten thousand years, people might well look back at the 21st century and speak of the primitive theories they worked with back then, and how little they knew, just as we look back at Anaximander and Empedocles and Thales (3000 years ago at most), and wonder at the tiny chink they made in the dark curtain surrounding us — all those things that we do not yet know. Prof CC may not approve of this comment, but that is the level of scepticism that is necessary in facing the future.

  54. Posted October 6, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Sorry, failed to close some blockquotes.

  55. Posted October 6, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Since this comment was all messed up because of unclosed blockquotes, I have decided to post it again. I hope it doesn’t cause confusion. It is also slightly amended (thought I might as well, if I’m reposting it). Of course, Jerry, you can delete this (as well as the first) if you think they are inappropriate.

    If there’s once sentence in your post which contains a more serious indictment of Dawkins’ autobiography than anything that John Gray has written, it is this one:

    One senses that he’s unenthusiastically recounting the details of his life as a kind of duty, perhaps goaded by an agent or publisher.

    That’s a real killer of a review of the book, and demolishes it in far fewer words than there are in Gray’s review.

    However, there are two or three things that need to be said about Gray’s review. It may be true that one of Dawkins’ favourite books is one about the toxic effects of colonialism on the Kikuyu, but if he doesn’t mention this in his autobiography, then surely Gray’s critique of the young Dawkins’ sense of privilege and superiority (which came, no doubt, very naturally) is justified. Besides the same patrician attitude is made plain in Dawkins’ comment about his lack of empathy for a bullied fellow student, which is hard to understand.

    The second point to make is about Gray’s atheist bashing. It’s not so much atheist bashing, as raising a question about the ability of reason to solve our problems. This says nothing about the fact that science has provided us with knowledge that no other method of enquiry has done, so pointing out that confidence in reason alone, as has become common amongst new atheists, is in fact atheist bashing, at least until Gray’s concern is dealt with, is perhaps premature. It is just that faith in reason’s ability to solve our social, political, and economic problems is (according to Gray) misplaced, and he thinks (as I do) that that is a characteristic of contemporary new atheism. The point is very carefully stated in the contrast Gray makes between Keynes and Russell.

    And then he emphaises the point in the following quotation which you take from the BBC Point of View piece:

    Speaking as an atheist myself, I can’t help smiling when I hear religion being mocked in this way. Looking at the world as it has been and continues to be at the present time, it’s belief in human reason that’s childish. Religious faith is based on accepting that we know very little of God. But we know a great deal about human beings, and one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals. Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God.

    In response to this you say:

    Such a statement borders on insanity. For we have ample demonstration that using reason has told us truths about the universe. How do we know? Because reason works.

    But this is to miss the point of Gray’s concern altogether. His does not make the claim that science doesn’t work. He’s not talking about science, but about faith in reason itself as a general solution to our problems. Of course science works, and Gray knows that as well as anyone, but its working, while providing many benefits, has created as many problems as it has solved. You can’t simply say, with Bertrand Russell, that the solution to our irrationality is to be rational. That’s a bit like saying that communism has never been tried, or that the evils resulting from Christianity are simply a failure to apply Christian principles.

    The point that Gray is making is that reason does not necessarily work well when dealing with much larger problems, like excessive population, environmental degradation, inequality and injustice, and so on. We’re all irrational to a certain (perhaps a great) extent, and speaking about correcting things by being rational is just whistling Dixie. That’s where Gray’s questioning of reason comes in. Putting faith in reason, when it comes to these “global” problems (‘global’ in both senses, as pertaining to the planet, and including large populations and their social, economic and political instabilities and crises), Gray says, is making a bigger leap of faith than people make when they accept religious forms of life and associated ways of believing. That is a constant theme in Gray’s books, and it is not an unreasonable position to take. He thinks that Dawkins betrays a rather simplistic belief in the power of reason, when what we perhaps need to heed more closely is the wisdom of the ages passed down by our “spiritual” traditions. He may be wrong, but it is not an unreasonable thing to believe.

    A third point I’d like to add to this regards literalism. Yes, Augustine and others certainly read scripture, from time to time, in overtly literal ways. They also cautioned people about the fallacies that could derive from such uses of scripture. However, for Augustine, believing in the young age of the earth, or an original couple from which humanity descended was not at all obviously unreasonable, given what was known at the time, so his literalism is much different than the literalism of those who have access to more reliable information. And this kind of literalism/fundamentalism only arose after the growth of science and scientific ways of knowing. So there are different forms of literalism and different stages of it. Earlier literalism may have been wrong, but not obviously foolish. Contemporary literalism is contemptible.

    Since it was raised in the last comment, I cannot forbear mentioning Dawkins’ apparent lack of interest in the nature of scientific knowing. Unlike Larrson, I think it is quite clear that philosophical study of science is not a crutch. Indeed, without it, it would be hard to say what it is that scientific justification consists in. It is far less straightforward than practicing scientists apparently believe. For example, take the example of evolution. Jerry says, with some justification, that (so far) evolution has met all the tests which have been thrown at it. So far so good. But of course, that could have been said about Newtonian physics as well. It met the tests, and was widely believed, in the 18th century, to be the final word on the physics of motion. However, we now know that it was not so, since complications were discovered which had to be solved by departing significantly from the Newtonian paradigm. For all we know, the same thing could well happen to evolutionary biology. At the moment, there is no way to tell. If there were, we would already be onto the next stage of the development of biology. That is why Gray questions Dawkins’ scepticism. Certainly, he is sceptical regarding religion, but does he carry the same scepticism into his dealings with science? I think Gray believes that he doesn’t, and that he should, because it is, in fact, a vital aspect of science, and its justification. Science is not self-sufficient, and will never be.

    • Posted October 6, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      “the ability of reason to solve our problems”

      Please prpose a better way …

      • Posted October 6, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        I don’t have a better way, if what you mean is a way that is sure to succeed. And that’s Gray’s point, I think. We are the products of evolution, and reason is only one aspect of our adaptive, coping mechanisms. The point that Gray is making is that if you think you do have a surefire way of settling human problems, what you have is a form of utopianism, and it is almost sure to fail, because other aspects of the human will intervene to make it unworkable.

        One of these features of the human that seems ineradicable is our tendency towards violence and destruction. It’s easy to say that all of that violence and destruction is simply a spinoff of religion, but it is by no means clear that this is so. Indeed, we have used our reason in the last few centuries to improve a million-fold our ability to encompass our destruction, not only by means of advanced weapons systems, but by the rapacious way that science and technology together (and it is impossible to separate them — that’s one aspect of our nature) have enabled us to despoil the planet. And there is no sign that we can apply our reason to create an economic system that will not continue to use up resources at an increasingly destructive pace, or prevent the inevitable outcome of this in warfare over space and resources.

        The Middle East has been one of the foci of war for over a hundred years now, because of its valuable oil reserves. But as we use fossil fuels, we are warming the planet, and changing weather patterns around the world. Part of the problem in Syria is the increasing drought and consequent lack of water for agriculture, with the resulting breakdown of civil order that ensues. This is only the beginning of struggles that will encompass us worldwide. Can we apply our reason to stop this? It is not clear that we can. I would like to think that there are rational solutions to our problems, but I think we are simply too human for that, and only a part of us is rational, and that rationality has led us to the point where the earth cannot bear a continually growing human population and its demand for resources without destroying the biosphere upon which we depend for survival.

        This, I think, is the point that Gray is making, and it is one of the reasons he is so critical of Dawkins, because Dawkins shows no sign of being aware of the cul de sac created by the development of science. Certainly, there are wonderful things that science has produced, but it has produced monsters too, and one of the monsters is the creation of a consumer society that shows no sign of reducing its demands for new gadgets and marvels, all of which eat up more resources and cause more pollution. As the sea acidifies, for example, through various aspects of our industrialised, high consumption culture, it will gradually die, and as it dies, so too will the ecosystems on the land as well. Is there a rational way to stop this process? Can we stop the conflicts that will inevitably emerge from this process? It is not obvious to me that we can, which is why I share some of Gray’s pessimism about the capabilities of human reason to achieve ends that we so badly need to achieve. Besides an appetite for wonder, we need to have something which allows us to sense impending environmental and social catastrophe, and this is something which we apparently do not have.

        • Posted October 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          I don’t have a better way, if what you mean is a way that is sure to succeed.

          No, what we mean is another way that’s more likely to produce reliable results.

          We’re not promising perfection — far from it. In fact, we can guarantee failure, and even provide good estimates at how often and how badly!

          We’re just running the numbers and placing our bets in the best way we know how.

          Either you can run the numbers, yourself, and bet wisely…or you can always bet on your hunches or your lucky numbers or whatever and be pretty much guaranteed to get your clock cleaned.

          That, in a nutshell, is the difference between science and all other “ways of knowing.”

          b&

          • Posted October 6, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            My point, Ben, is that, run the numbers as you will, the kind of thing that is going on in Syria, or in the Ukraine, or in central Africa, will still go on. And no amount of running the numbers is going to make a big change to the way that human beings deal with each other. We will still be as covetous, grasping, and destructive as we are now. And don’t forget, many of the problems we have right now, we have reasoned our way into them. Science is not a bystander in the process of destruction, but an active participant. Perhaps there is a wisdom that is needed in addition to running the numbers.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted October 6, 2014 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

              Well said, Eric. I have been busy, and so have only just come across your good and searching comment. I must say, I do wish that you had written a review of Dawkins’s book rather than Gray. The trouble with Gray’s disgraceful assault was that its malice and intemperateness obscured any serious points he was trying to make. Gray was responsible neither with respect to the book (and man) being reviewed, nor with respect to his own ideas.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 6, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

                I also recall the biologist Robert Trivers, in The Folly of Fools, remarking that the cheerleaders for our supposedly impending enlightened & un-religious future are likely to have an unpleasant surprise, and find themselves having to dance to the tunes of the religious. I think that what principally annoys me about the those who pride themselves on rationality alone is what comes across as a lack of feeling for history and its importance and a naivety where the political is concerned.

              • Posted October 6, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

                I must say, I do wish that you had written a review of Dawkins’s book rather than Gray.

                I second that. I do disagree with Eric on some things (he confuses science with technology in a glib way that irks, despite having been Corrected By Moi), but even his comments here on a bl*g display a great deal more reasoned thought than Gray’s published onslaught. The latter is a shoddy and obnoxious apology for a book review; as noted above, I’m surprised Gray’s editors let it through.

              • Posted October 7, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

                Realthog. I do not think you can justly accuse me of confusing science and technology, although I very often include them in the same statement. It is, after all, very difficult to keep them separate, since one of the main aims of science is to enable us to control our environment. Knowledge, as they say, is power. Business does not fund university science out of the goodness of its heart, but because the discoveries of scientists working at the pointy end of research in university research facilities, provide payback in terms of discoveries that can be turned to industrial use. The power that science thus provides has been raised to the nth degree over the last four hundred years, so that now we are in danger of destroying the earth upon which we depend for life. One of the greatest extinctions since the Cambrian extinction is now underway, and it is largely due to the use of scientific discovery to control our environment. It is a dangerous illusion to suppose that science and technology are not closely associated, and together have wreaked havoc on the foundations of life on earth.

              • Posted October 7, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

                * since one of the main aims of science is to enable us to control our environment *

                No, not really. /The/ main aim is to /understand/ our environment.

                Yes, that does allow us to better control – and exploit – our environment. But those have been human aims since prehistory.

                Laying the blame for planetary rapine at the foot of science just because science has enabled people to do bad things more efficiently is meretricious.

                The fact is that it is science that tells us that we are damaging the planet. And it science that provides ways of limiting if not undoing that damage.

                But it is anti-scientific thinking – motivated by politics or religion or what ever else – that is obstructing attempts to do so.

                /@

              • Filippo
                Posted October 7, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                I’m glad to see that you finally mentioned (unless I missed it in one of your earlier posts) “Business.”

                You’ve mentioned a few scientific discoveries and associated technological developments and applications (e.g. nuclear weapons)which would have been better left undiscovered and applied. Aren’t venture capitalists and their ilk not as much if not more to blame than their STEM hand maidens?

                Are there any discoveries in response to which you wish more technological development and application had been made? For instance, cancer, Ebola, Alzheimer’s, cattle feed lot-facilitated antibiotic resistance? Third world diseases in response to which pharmaceutical private corporate tyrannies can’t be bothered to invest in vaccines because there’s not sufficient money in it, whereas there’s apparently sufficient money in Levitra and Cialis to “raise” the ethically high-minded expectations of investors? Do I correctly recall that obstreperous religioso preacher-types in the late 18th century condemned the likes of smallpox vaccinations because they allegedly interfered with the actions of the Creator, Divine Providence, Author of the Universe?

                You earlier mentioned “consumerism.” Is that Science’s fault? Where do Science and scientists/engineers/technologists encourage that as compared to profit-maximizing-obsessed venture capitalist- and Americans for Prosperity-types?

                Which brings to mind your earlier comment, if I correctly recall it, when taking science to task for overpopulation. Is that because of the 60’s scientific “Green Revolution”? I can see that, I suppose. Should Science have forborn from that? Surely it’s not because of scientific birth control research and development, eh? Why not make mention of humanity’s generally undisciplined desire to copulate and (accidently and carelessly and ignorantly) conceive? Why is that not as much or more the fault of corporatistas and politicos and religiosos?

              • Posted October 7, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                Ant, that is too, too simplistic. From the very start, even with the knowledge of astronomy, the aim was to control the world, for, after all, in those early days, the knowledge of the heavens was sought because it was believed that the stars ruled our destinies. Thales, too, showed very early, the usefulness of science, by predicting a bumper crop of olives, and buying up all the oil presses, and making a mint. The idea of the pure scientist is, of course, not a myth, but science has always worked in close conjunction with environmental control, and had it not been, it is very unlikely that people would have troubled so much to plumb the mysteries of the world around them. By demystifying the world, science also made control of the environment, without treading on sacred ground, increasingly possible.

                Think of the use of early science: the discovery of alloys to make bronze swords, for example, the discovery of steel, as opposed to iron weapons, the harnessing of the power of fire (for which Prometheus was tormented by the gods), the discovery of how to make steel weapons by repeatedly bonding layers of steel together to make a blade that would retain its sharpness, the discovery of the arch. There is scarcely anything here where science and technology are easily distinguishable. Recall the Turing machine, and its importance in decrypting the Enigma code. Certainly, mathematicians discover new mathematics which is then immediately adaptable to technological uses. The Royal Navy’s “scientific” expeditions, were also devoted to charting the oceans for military use, and the discovery of new lands for mercantile purposes, the production of new sources of wealth, and their protection. I am not denying the scientific aim to discover more and more about the earth and the universe. The purest sciences we have are probably physics, mathematics and astronomy/cosmology. But as we know, even these are harnessed to our technological purposes, weapons systems and platforms, satellites, communications, optics, cryptology, etc.

              • Posted October 7, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

                Ant, that is too, too simplistic. From the very start, even with the knowledge of astronomy, the aim was to control the world, for, after all, in those early days, the knowledge of the heavens was sought because it was believed that the stars ruled our destinies.

                Eric, the aim of all life, by your standards, would be to control the world. Blaming science for our failure to wisely manage our own populations hardly seems fair — especially since the only effective means of doing so have been the fruits of the same science you demonstrate such disdain for.

                b&

              • Posted October 7, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

                I add this as a separate note, Ant, because it simply cries out for it.

                Laying the blame for planetary rapine at the foot of science just because science has enabled people to do bad things more efficiently is meretricious.

                The fact is that it is science that tells us that we are damaging the planet. And it science that provides ways of limiting if not undoing that damage.

                There is nothing meretricious about it at all, and I am astounded that you should suggest such a thing. We are human beings, a few genes away from chimps, as Hitchens used to say, and it shows. So, if we discover something about our environment that gives us power over it, it will be used, period, and the harm that it does is not really something that scientists take into consideration.

                We live in a competitive environment, not unlike the lions and tigers, antelopes and deer. What makes us stronger and gives us an advantage will be used for that purpose. Science tells us that. The harm to the environment does not come into it, and it is very unlikely that science itself can bring a halt to the harm that is being done. Indeed, the fact that science has demystified the world, disenchanted it, if you like, makes it much more likely that we will harm it. Science has been able to show us what is wrong. We know about global warming, though it is widely doubted, and very little is being done about it. The UC Berkeley News Center. under the heading “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived”“Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived” , reports that

                With the steep decline in populations of many animal species, from frogs and fish to tigers, some scientists have warned that Earth is on the brink of a mass extinction like those that occurred only five times before during the past 540 million years.

                And that was three years ago! This process may soon be irreversible. Not long ago I suggested, in a comment on this website, that wilderness has a value of its own, without regard to its human use. The suggestion was sneered at. And yet, if we do not accord such value to wilderness, and natural environment as purely natural environment, and put it out of the reach of human use, we are liable to destroy the ecosystems upon which we rely. There is nothing meretricious about warning of a danger which may already be too late to avoid. It is the bland assumption that science can or will deal with it that is truly meretricious, because there is no sign whatever that this is being done to any significant degree.

                The have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jermiah 6.14)

              • Posted October 7, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                So, if we discover something about our environment that gives us power over it, it will be used, period, and the harm that it does is not really something that scientists take into consideration.

                You know something we’ve discovered about our environment? That we’ve discovered through scientific inquiry?

                That our environment has limits to its carrying capacity, and that we’re exceeding them and setting ourselves up for environmental collapse.

                You know what the “alternative ways of knowing” thinks of the environment? “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” And, “And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.” And, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”

                One of these things does not belong.

                b&

              • Posted October 7, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

                Oh, what rot, Eric! You might as well blame curlers for all the stabbings ever committed.

                And are you really suggesting that scientists should rein their areas of inquiry because of the possibility that their discoveries might be put to ill use?

                /@

              • Posted October 8, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

                Oh, Ant (and Ben). What rot! I didn’t say that science does not provide knowledge about the world. I did not say that science has not discovered the harm that we are doing to the planet. All I said was that excessive faith in science is as unreasonable as religious faith. We are humans, genetically close to gorillas and chimps, and it shows, so our use of science, despite its wonders, is going to be harmful, since knowledge gives us power, and we will use it for that purpose. If we discover something with destructive potential, it will be used for that purpose, as well as for good. And that is because we are human beings who are given to self-deception and have clearly evolved to be competitive with and even harmful to each other. The mindless faith in science that so many new atheists display is truly astonishing, as though science will be our salvation. I don’t expect salvation from any source, and certainly not from science.

                You ask me what I would put in its place. In response to that I would echo Tim Harris, and suggest that we show more respect for history, and the wisdom of the ages, much of which is not composed of cherry-picked verses like “be fruitful and multiply,” but acknowledges human beings as not only interested in scientific understanding of the world, but personal understanding of the human condition. Much religion (and theology) has been devoted to such understanding, and some of it has been harnessed by humanists. It is going to take this kind of wisdom, in understanding what it means to be human, what our capacities are, how we can interpret our lives (and it does not need to be in supernatural terms, since even many theologians have moved on to godless ways of understanding their religious commitments) so that we not only value life, but commit our lives to a deeply ethical view of our relationships with each other and the environment in which we find ourselves. But the apotheosis of science — important as science is — must stop. It’s much more like religion that you seem to acknowledge, and has the same dangers as religion. Besides that it is simplistic and irrational, and leaves out so much of what we might know about ourselves that its near deification is not only look ridiculous, but has become a danger to us. Scientists have to start taking responsibility for what their discoveries can do to the world. There are some things that it would be better not to know, and some things it would be better not to invent, but science and industry have created such a bond that it is hard to see this happening. And that means, as Gray keeps repeating, that the human world doesn’t stand much of a chance of survival.

              • Posted October 8, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

                Oh, Ant (and Ben). What rot! I didn’t say that science does not provide knowledge about the world. I did not say that science has not discovered the harm that we are doing to the planet. All I said was that excessive faith in science is as unreasonable as religious faith.

                The question still remains not whether science is perfect, but what else is better. And more to the point how you know that it’s better.

                Either you have rationally analyzed evidence that something is better, or you’re just pulling it out of your ass. But rational analysis of evidence is science…

                …that is, just as Relativistic Mechanics reduces to Newtonian Mechanics at human scales any replacement for science is going to have to reduce to science at familiar scales. It’s going to have to beat science at its own game.

                Your faithiesm is, emphatically evidentially, an abject failure in that regard.

                b&

              • Posted October 8, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

                * All I said was that excessive faith in science is as unreasonable as religious faith. *

                No, that is not *all* that you said. You seemed hell-bent on demonising science!

                * personal understanding of the human condition *

                But what should that be informed by, if not our scientific understanding of what it is to be human and of our status in the universe?

                * There are some things that it would be better not to know *

                But who is to say what? You? Would you have stopped, for example, Haber’s work because it was used to further Germany’s chemical warfare capabilities during WWI — and thus condemned billions of people to starvation after WWII for want of nitrogen fertilisers?

                /@

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 8, 2014 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

                Of course, you might, Ant, look into what nitrogen fertilisers wrought in Bali in the Green Revolution (see Stephen Lancing’s books), or the effect they have had and are having on insect populations – Dave Goulson in his good books on bumble-bees goes into this… Then there are those wonderfully effective nicotine-based insecticides that have brought about the collapse of honey-bee populations. Whether or not one should have stopped Haber’s work – well, if Haber knew that his work was going to assist the Nazi war effort, then I think that he, as a responsible human being, should have found ways, as Heisenberg seems to have done with respect to harnessing nuclear energy, to ensure that his work did not help the Nazis, perhaps by procrastinating until they were no longer in power. More than one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project rightly felt guilty at their involvement (I recall that one dropped out on grounds of conscience- good for him!). Then there were Harry Harlow’s delightful experiments, which nobody stopped, and the experiments conducted on Chinese prisoners by a Japanese medical unit, whose findings were taken by the Americans and whose members ended up heading hospital deparments back in Japan..Science does not simply exist in some pure academic space beyond the world, but has a history and is necessarily involved in the broader history of nations and humankind. I don’t share Eric’s more extreme views about science, nor (pace Ben’s latest uncomprehending imputation, which clearly derives from the callow Manichaeism I have been criticising) am I asserting that there is some method or whatever for understanding the world that is superior to science. I would say, however, that there is a great deal of practical knowledge which does not rise to scientific status, which may often be erroneous or not entirely correct, and on which our lives depend. The historian Tony Judt pointed out that the lack of practical knowledge, practical understanding and feeling for public affairs among certain academics rendered their often well-intentioned interventions in public affairs pointless. And a month or so ago, Andrew Sullivan quoted a well-known American scientist with an Indian name (as I recall), who happened to be conservative politically, remarking that certain scientists assumed from their expertise in their own fields that they were in a position to pontificate about how to put things right where ‘easier’ (those are my scare quotes) matters such as politics were concerned. That is all for now. I must work.

              • Posted October 9, 2014 at 5:28 am | Permalink

                Frist an apology; I was conflating Haber’s pre-WWI Nobel-prize-winning work on ammonia with his later work on chlorine. But ammonia was important to the manufacture of explosives, as week as fertilisers; and, similarly, chlorine has benevolent uses, apart from chemical warfare.

                Well, Haber did not help the Nazis. Not only was he a Jew, but the Nazis were a generation later. Perhaps you were thinking of the corporation he founded, which later produced Zyklon B (but even that was useful as an insecticide).

                You might still have wished that Haber behaved differently, but perhaps he hoped his efforts would ensure a quick victory for Germany. A similar case could be made for the atomic bomb; that, however horrific the effects on Japan, it brought a swift end to the hostilities, with net fewer casualties.

                The problems in Bali are not clear cut; the use of new fertilisers has had a net benefit in terms of agriculture, in concert with a return to good land/water management practices. The damage to the coral reefs is still lamentable, of course.

                But problems such as these are often less to to with science as such, and more to intense commercialisation.

                Bringing up neonicotinoid insecticides seems a non sequitur regarding Haber. But of course it was scientific investigation that led to an understanding of their role in honey-bee colony collapse disorder and consequent restrictions and bans in many countries — but not yet the US: Political and commercial obstacles again.

                That scientists are human and might have inflated opinions of their own worth in now way invalidates science as a supremely useful tool. But political naiveté amongst some scientists should not be taken as an excuse to denigrate science’s potential contribution to politics.

                While a great deal of practical knowledge does not rise to “scientific” status, you have been a reader a here long enough to know that science is often shorthand for taking a sceptical, fact-based and reasoned approach to problem solving. Our knowledge is often erroneous or not entirely correct, and that is one reason for wrong decision making. But we can only correct and improve our knowledge by taking that (broadly) scientific approach.

                And we should certainly take exception to (political) decision making which ignores or repudiates (broadly) scientific knowledge.

                /@

              • Filippo
                Posted October 9, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

                Concur.

                Also, I seriously doubt that scientists are among (per Lawrence Krauss) the approx. 50% of Amuricun adults who have missed the following question in each of the last several National Science Foundation American adult science literacy surveys:

                “T or F: The Earth goes around the sun and takes a year to do it.”

              • Posted October 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

                Every time I hear that statistic, I find myself sincerely hoping that these people are just having brain farts and confusing days and years, or are overthinking the question, or some variation on that theme.

                And then I realize that, even if so, it probably still doesn’t make any difference….

                b&

              • Filippo
                Posted October 10, 2014 at 3:02 am | Permalink

                Krauss himself, upon becoming aware of the 50% rate, which per him has held fast during the last several surveys, wondered if it were a “trick” question. But it seems to be a model of communicative clarity, unlike certain sacred texts putatively requiring learned “interpretation.”

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 8, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

                I should also add that as the examples of nitrogen fertiliser and nicotine-based insecticides show, the effects of our actions are never wholly predictable and often quite unpredictable – this is precisely what makes taking political decisions so difficult a matter. What seems on the face of it desirable may bring about wholly undesirable effects. It is also why there can be no ‘science’ of history – in the sense of discovering ‘laws’ in accordance with which history inexorable unfolds, and why the work of Arnold Toynbee, for example, has fallen into deserved oblivion.

              • Posted October 9, 2014 at 5:36 am | Permalink

                Well, quite. I suppose one might describe politics as the art of making decisions with incomplete data. But per mi last point there should be a willingness to amend those decisions in the light of new or amended knowledge. But this is not always the case; for ex., neonicotinoids have been banned in the EU, but not yet in the US.

                /@

              • Posted October 9, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

                Again, you’re the only one erecting a straw man of claims of perfection from science. Once you’re done giving it a good thrashing, perhaps you’d care to indicate what you’d replace it with…?

                b&

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 8, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

                And Eric is absolutely correct to say that science as an institution gets the funding it does, from government and business, to a considerable degree because of the benefits, particularly where national power, defence and profit are concerned, it is expected to bring, although there is also, thank Whatever, a lingering respect for disinterested research that plays a part. At the beginning of modern science, Francis Bacon, certainly, had no sentimental illusions about the relationship between scientific knowledge, technical prowess and brute power.

            • Posted October 6, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

              My point, Ben, is that, run the numbers as you will, the kind of thing that is going on in Syria, or in the Ukraine, or in central Africa, will still go on.

              It certainly will if we reject reason in favor of hunches or textual analysis of faery tales or interpretations of dreams and hallucinations.

              Our only hope there, or anywhere else, is to make careful and unbiased observations and rationally analyze them to form models of what’s going on so we might tweak those models to try to find options for what we can do in the real non-model world that might help. And that’s science.

              Religion, the best example of “another way of knowing,” it must be noted, is both spark and fuel for the fires raging there….

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 6, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

                Religion is far from being the only spark and fuel, as, really, Ben, you should be very well aware. There has been, in the Middle East, a complete breakdown of political order (not that the political orders in question were attractive ones), due in considerable part to the Iraq war and the irresponsibility and stupidity of the US government where dealing with the aftermath of the invasion was concerned; and when you have such a breakdown of political order, the kind of bloody chaos that is happening now usually, if not invariably, ensues. History is full of it. Yes, of course, religion plays a large part in this, but it is foolish, ignorant, short-sighted and, I would say, unscientific, to pretend that other extremely important factors do not play a part. I must say I have been shocked by what seems to me to be an attitude among some gnu atheists (in whose ranks I do not altogether include you) that we can forget all history, including extremely recent history, and blame everything on the incorrigibility of religious believers – an attitude that is accompanied by a sort of self-righteous blindness.
                As for your ‘models’ and your ‘tweakings’, and the delightfully detached standpoint from which they are made – I honestly find them risible. I am reminded of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. There are a number of very good reasons – among them being, of course, religion and the instability that Islam in particular fosters – why such a situation has come about, and we should be attending to those, and simply and superficially complaining about religion.

              • Posted October 7, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

                As for your ‘models’ and your ‘tweakings’, and the delightfully detached standpoint from which they are made – I honestly find them risible.

                …and yet, that’s exactly what you’ve done here, but badly. You’ve made a model of me that mirrors not reality but your own caricature of a Neronian tyrant. How you came up with your model I have no clue, for it’s based on neither evidence nor logic.

                Had you based your own model on both evidence and logic, you’d have realized that we all make mental models of reality, and always do so. The only question is how you build them: with evidence and reason, or wishful thinking and obedience to authority and hallucination?

                Try the latter for a chance. It might not be as instantly gratifying, but it saves you much more pain in the long run.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 7, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

                I was not suggesting that you are a Neronian tyrant, Ben. I was remarking on your political naivety, what seems to be your lack of knowledge of history and anthropology(or at least a lack of respect for them, or a refusal to draw lessons from the knowledge that you do possess), and the futility of your tidy imaginings about science where political breakdown and chaos is concerned. The reasons for the mess in the Middle East are not wholly unclear, after all, and a number of people have used ‘evidence and logic’ to discern them, including, people, I imagine, who are actually suffering there – there are, after all, intelligent and educated people in the the Middle East who think about the predicament of their countries.

              • Posted October 8, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

                The reasons for the mess in the Middle East are not wholly unclear

                Even if I grant you that despite a distinct lack of consensus, at least amongst policymakers, I think even you’d agree that the solutions are far from clear.

                And thus the question instantly arises: how is one to plot the least-worst path forward? Based on a rational analysis of objective observation, or on personal intuition and / or scriptural analysis and / or interpretation of dreams and hallucination…?

                b&

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 8, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

                Yes, the solutions are far from clear. I’m glad that there is some sort of realisation of that. It may well be that there is no satisfactory solution, however many models and ‘tweakings’ one indulges in. There is a long tradition of rational thought about politics (try the Greeks or the Chinese), and a recognition on the part of many that there can be no innocent politics. Human reality is, alas, a very complex thing. I certainly don’t agree with all that Eric says, but he deserves respect for drawing attention to this complexity, the complexity of our motives, the history and personal experience that informs those motives and eschewing the sort of near infantile Manichaeism whereby on one side there is what is claimed to be science, and on the other side apparently only things like ‘wishful thinking and obedience to authority and hallucinations’. Things really are more complicated, as a small amount of attention to one’s personal life would show.

              • Posted October 8, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

                I certainly don’t agree with all that Eric says, but he deserves respect for drawing attention to this complexity, the complexity of our motives, the history and personal experience that informs those motives and eschewing the sort of near infantile Manichaeism whereby on one side there is what is claimed to be science, and on the other side apparently only things like ‘wishful thinking and obedience to authority and hallucinations’. Things really are more complicated

                My feelings too. I’d love to actually sit down and argue about this stuff with Eric in a different, less heated forum. What Eric’s comments make me do is re-evaluate my own preconceptions; I may conclude that yes, just as I thought, Eric was wrong . . . but enough times he’s right, and even when he’s not the self-critical exercise is worth it.

                That said, he’s still got things confused when he claims pure and applied science are the same thing. Spaghetti and bolognese sauce are inextricably intertwined, but no one would say they were actually the same thing. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find much of a carbon footprint or any great motivation to control in an endeavor like the Hubble telescope; cosmology as a whole is, I think, a powerful counterexample to the notion that science is necessarily motivated by the desire to gain power, because in practical terms it’s useless.

                (Yes, I know: I too could argue in the pub for cosmology’s practical usefulness, but let’s not go down that boring road.)

                *user braces himself for smartaleck smackdown from various site regulars*

              • Posted October 9, 2014 at 2:09 am | Permalink

                Well, I don’t disagree with all that Eric says, but I think much is obfuscated by his Promethean rhetoric.

                “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” — Victor Frankenstein, _Frankenstein_

                /@

              • Posted October 8, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

                You know, you could instantly convince me you’re right simply by identifying what it is that you consider is superior to science. Don’t bother identifying its flaws and shortcomings; nobody’s claiming perfection or even anything vaguely resembling perfection. Just tell us what you think we should be replacing science with.

                Until you do that, all you offer is sound and fury, signifying….

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Tim Harris
              Posted October 9, 2014 at 12:33 am | Permalink

              And yet another addition (sorry): as the case of J.B.S. Haldane shows, great intelligence and scientific expertise do not render people immune from making fools of themselves where political matters are concerned. Haldane was an ardent supporter of Stalin, even weaselling out of giving genuine support to his friend, the geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, when Vavilov was put on trial because of his disagreement with Lysenko. Haldane did leave the British Communist Party around 1950, but to the end of his life regarded Stalin as a great man who did what had to be done. The composer Shostakovich or novelist Mikhail Bulgakov or Nadezdka Mandelstam (the poet Osip Mandelstam’s wife) could, being not illogical people and having experienced the evidence at first hand, have told him otherwise, but they were of course artists, and since Haldane was so dogmatic politically that he felt unable to stand up for Vavilov, one suspects he would not have listened to them.
              I must say that, Haldane aside, I haven’t noticed any greater political understanding of things among scientists than among the intelligent members of other professions.

  56. Posted October 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Like you said, Jerry: What is any of thast doing in a book review?!

    This nonsense?:

    “His default mode is one of rational indignation—a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a kind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s.”

    Clearly this guy never watched Dawkins tangling with Xian creationist Wendy Wright.

    • Posted October 6, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Well, of course, that is true — and it was a wonderful performance! — I’d have been tearing my hair out by the roots after the first five minutes! — but if you think of it, Dawkins’ schoolmasterly response is an aspect of the patrician pose. It’s shown as much in unflappability as in hauteur and condescension.

  57. Tim Harris
    Posted October 6, 2014 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    ‘…instead of simply and superficially complaining about religion and dreaming unrealistically about the wonderful world that science is bringing us.’

    That is how the last phrase should read.

  58. Posted October 8, 2014 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    New republic – bad judgement. Gray – bitter and bigoted, can’t help himself.

  59. Posted October 10, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    You are being somewhat generous in labelling Gray’s attacks as ad hominems. Some of them are verging on plain insults.

  60. Filippo
    Posted November 7, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Your personal opinion is congenially and respectfully noted.


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