05 October 2007

Sympathy for the Devil's Chaplain (Part II)

Long before Richard Dawkins topped the charts with his recent entry into the folk-religion genre, he was reviled by Christian culture warriors as a Public Enemy, an ayatollah of atheism, the embodiment of the evil that ensnares all who embrace Darwin's Dangerous IdeaTM. His revivalistic fervor, combined with his, um, expertise in handling the media, makes him a near-perfect spokesperson for unbelief, and consequently he is credited with some now-famous pronouncements on subjects related to faith and science.

Now to be sure, some of Dawkins' more colorful and/or controversial statements are indefensible, and his fellow atheists at least occasionally point this out. (I do think that unbelievers should be more willing to disavow some of his truly sickening behavior, but if atheists asked me for quid pro quo, I'd need to blog 10 hours a day just on the subject of evangelical Christian misconduct.)

But this is the second of two articles in which I do penance for referring to the Devil's Chaplain as an 'idiot.' So I'm not going to catalog his misdeeds/misstatements. Instead, I'll to pick a few of his more famous sentences and explain why every Christian's favorite materialist mullah is often just being brutally frank.

First, let's acknowledge that sometimes Dawkins is misunderstood and/or misrepresented. The first few chapters of The Extended Phenotype, as I explained in my previous post, involve Dawkins' careful exposition of the ways in which his ideas had been misconstrued, sometimes wildly so. For a more recent example, consider the whole "brights" episode. In the summer of 2003, Dawkins and fellow atheist apostle Daniel Dennett launched a campaign (in the UK and USA) to get atheists more respect. They called on fellow unbelievers to adopt the label "bright," analogous to the label "gay" successfully adopted by homosexuals. Many Christians I know found this to be arrogant and offensive, mostly because they connected the dots and interpreted "bright" to be the opposite of "dumb" or "dim." Dennett has specifically disclaimed this intention (see also page 21 of Breaking the Spell), and I'm taking his word for it. So, let's not waste our time demonizing Dawkins for offhand comments that may not reflect what he really believes.

Here, then, are some of Dawkins' better-known remarks, and my comments.

1. "Undisguised clarity" or arrogance?

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).
--from a review of Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution, in the New York Times, 9 April 1989
Ah yes, this is, I think, The Mother of All Richard Dawkins Quotes. It's provided fodder for Christian critics of all stripes, essentially all of whom express indignation and outrage. I see two types of responses. One response is universal: everyone who attacks the statement says that it is arrogant or bullying. The other is specific to anti-evolution critics: they say (of course) that it is wrong. In this latter camp, we find young-earth creationists denouncing Dawkins with typical vitriol, but also "skeptics" like Alvin Plantinga, who insist that there can be reasoned doubt about evolutionary explanations.

On the first count, while I agree (as do other atheists) that Dawkins can be abrasive and insensitive, I am generally uninterested in controversies surrounding etiquette. There are, of course, appropriate and inappropriate ways to tell someone that they don't have a bloody clue what they're talking about, but I know just how hard it can be to remain patient while being regaled (for the umpteenth time) with all the stock objections to evolution. (My most recent little piece of hate mail came from a man who shamelessly confessed to having first learned all the biology he needed to know from a local weatherman. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.) Yes, there is probably a nice way to say "you're wrong about that," but (perhaps owing to my Scottish ancestry) I'd rather be clearly corrected than have to sit through all the fawning disclaimers.

I think Dawkins was trying to say "evolution is beyond a reasonable doubt" in a dramatic and attention-getting way. And he succeeded. Now, was he displaying arrogance or intolerance? I'm quite sensitive to this charge; it has been thrown at me by at least one evolution-bashing colleague. I do worry about being arrogant, at least because I'm not (usually) trying to be obnoxious. But, as Dawkins noted in a subsequent reflection on criticism of the quote in question: "undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance." Was he being over-the-top obnoxious? Intolerant? Insensitive? Well, let's have a look at a little of the context of the quote:
We are not talking about Darwin's particular theory of natural selection. It is still (just) possible for a biologist to doubt its importance, and a few claim to. No, we are here talking about the fact of evolution itself, a fact that is proved utterly beyond reasonable doubt. To claim equal time for creation science in biology classes is about as sensible as to claim equal time for the flat-earth theory in astronomy classes. Or, as someone has pointed out, you might as well claim equal time in sex education classes for the stork theory. It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).

If that gives you offense, I'm sorry. You are probably not stupid, insane or wicked; and ignorance is no crime in a country with strong local traditions of interference in the freedom of biology educators to teach the central theorem of their subject. I recently toured East Coast radio stations, doing phone-ins. I came away optimistic. I had expected hostile barracking from creationists with closed minds. Instead, what I found was genuine curiosity and honest interest. I got sincere questions from intelligent people who really wanted to know because they had literally no education in evolution.
--from a review of Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution, in the New York Times, 9 April 1989
When the quip is put back into its native habitat, I find it to be provocative but not inappropriate. It can be paraphrased, in my opinion, as follows: "If you claim to doubt evolution, then I'm quite sure this is because you don't know much about it. I can think of a few other reasons, but they're not nearly as likely, and some of them wouldn't reflect well on you." And I do think that the context makes clear that Dawkins is specifically addressing common descent.

Which brings us to the second response to the quote: that it is wrong, because there is plenty of room for reasonable doubt regarding common descent. In my view, common descent is indeed beyond a reasonable doubt. (If I felt like dealing with the different meanings of the word 'evolution,' I would have typed them here.) And so, like Dawkins, I think there are relatively few means by which one would arrive at rejection of common descent. Ignorance is by far the most commonly-traveled path. Stupidity sure isn't going to help. Insanity is not worth discussing. Wickedness...well, some people do seem to, um, prevaricate about evolutionary science, but come on: that's not what Dawkins was saying. He was saying this: if you doubt common descent, you either don't understand it, or you are refusing to understand it. And to Dawkins, this refusal to understand, this willful ignorance if you will, is insane, stupid, even wicked.

Now, it's important to note that Dawkins was referring to common ancestry in his comments. Many Christian critics imply that Dawkins was denouncing any and all skepticism of evolutionary theory. I think the fuller context of his remarks makes clear that this criticism is invalid.

But is ignorance really the only reason why a reasonably intelligent person might reject common ancestry? In his follow-up, Dawkins allows that his analysis may have been incomplete:
There is perhaps a fifth category, which may belong under 'insane' but which can be more sympathetically characterised by a word like tormented, bullied or brainwashed. Sincere people who are not ignorant, not stupid and not wicked, can be cruelly torn, almost in two, between the massive evidence of science on the one hand, and their understanding (or misunderstanding) of what their holy book tells them on the other. I think this is one of the truly bad things religion can do to a human mind. There is wickedness here, but it is the wickedness of the institution and what it does to a believing victim, not wickedness on the part of the victim himself.
It is here that I part with Dawkins, at least a little. I know people who doubt common descent (more specifically, universal common descent), not because they are ignorant of the data or of the explanation, but because they have an additional data set that needs to be taken into account. These folks understand the Bible to be making certain factual claims about the age of the earth or of the nature of the Fall. They know, full well, why scientists accept common descent as a scientific explanation, but are searching for a rival explanation that also enfolds the "biblical data." As I've written before, I think these people are mistaken about the "biblical data," but they are not torn, tormented, bullied, brainwashed. You can probably tell that I respect the ideas and work of these young-earth creationist theorists vastly more than those of the Intelligent Design movement. Similarly, I find Alvin Plantinga's (now dated) criticisms of evolutionary science to be embarrassingly weak (even in their time), but when he expresses doubts based on possible points of factual conflict with Christian belief (i.e., the assertion that humans were created "specially"), then his skepticism cannot be dismissed using Dawkins' rubric.

2. Darwin made me an atheist.
Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
-- from The Blind Watchmaker (1996 Edition), page 6
Plenty of Christians are convinced that evolution is a particularly sharp implement in the Devil's toolbox; some creationists seem convinced that the theory is at the root of every known evil. (Adam must be relieved.) Certainly many are quite sure that accepting evolution is a big step toward unbelief.

And that's what Richard Dawkins thinks, right? Well, maybe, but here's that quote in its complete context:
...what Hume did was criticize the logic of using apparent design in nature as positive evidence for the existence of a God. He did not offer any alternative explanation for apparent design, but left the question open. An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: 'I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.' I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
-- from The Blind Watchmaker (1996 Edition), page 6 (italics in original)
In other words, Darwin provided a natural explanation for a previously-unexplained set of observations -- granted, a vast and overwhelmingly impressive set of observations -- namely, "endless forms most beautiful" in living creations. But really, that's all Darwin did, and I think that's all Dawkins is saying here. This matters to atheists, I presume, because unexplained stuff (of any kind) makes them uncomfortable. Providing a natural explanation for anything -- comets, hurricanes, pleasure, pain, neuronal development -- makes the world a little more comfy for an atheist. And that makes sense to me. As Alvin Plantinga puts it: "...evolution serves to answer what would otherwise be a crushing objection to naturalism."

I think Dawkins is surely right about all this, but I think it's a mistake for Christians to overemphasize his otherwise indisputable assertion. First of all, while scientific explanations might make it easier for an atheist to sleep, they ought not affect the slumber of a believer, unless that believer, like Dawkins, has anchored her/his belief in natural phenomena that can't be explained. I reject the notion of God as an Explanation, and I'm distressed by the impression that so many of my fellow Christians feel so compelled to find unexplained phenomena, so as to label them "God's work." Second of all, I think it's a dangerous thing to suggest that people become atheists because of a scientific theory. Maybe that's because, as a Reformed Christian, I don't think it's nearly that easy to separate someone from the love of Christ. And finally, I am uncomfortable with the notion, upon which whole ministries seem to be based, that scientific explanations (or lack thereof) are strongly linked to belief. Doesn't Hebrews 11:3 say something different?

3. Believing without evidence?

Richard Dawkins, the scientist's scientist, actually confessed that he has religious belief -- in evolution. He said that he would believe it even if it were unsupported by evidence. No, really:
Even if there were no actual evidence in favour of the Darwinian theory (there is, of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

Even if the evidence did not favour it [evolution], it would still be the best theory available!
-- from The Blind Watchmaker (1996 Edition), pages 287 & 317 (italics in original)
Oh, the fun that ID people have had with these. Outside the intended context, it does look like Dawkins is advocating "blind faith" in evolutionary theory, as though he embraces the theory only to escape the clutches of a loathed rival. Whether or not Dawkins sees evolution that way, the quotes above are not what they seem, and in fact they are assertions with which I handily agree.

Let's take the second quote and put it back into the paragraph from which it was excerpted:
The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity. Even if the evidence did not favour it, it would still be the best theory available! In fact the evidence does favour it. But that is another story.
-- from The Blind Watchmaker (1996 Edition), page 317 (italics in original)
Here Dawkins is doing something that I tried to do in my first post on this blog: he is separating the evidence for evolution from the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. Notice that he didn't write, "Even if the evidence contradicted it..." In fact, Dawkins loves to relate the response of J.B.S. Haldane to the question of whether and how evolution could be falsified: "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian." It's really not reasonable at all to suggest that Dawkins is claiming that one ought to accept evolution in spite of the evidence, and the rest of the chapter ("Doomed rivals") from which the quotes are taken makes this quite clear.

What Dawkins is saying, I think, can be paraphrased like so: "We ought to prefer evolutionary theory over its rivals, whether or not there is more evidence in favor of evolution, because the theory is the only one that provides a compelling natural explanation for biological complexity." You don't need to be an atheist, or a "Darwinian fundamentalist," or wicked or insane, to agree. You need only be a person who prefers natural explanations for the natural world, a person who thinks that the formation of the wonders of God's biological creation can be understood by some of those very wonders.

Okay, I'm done with my penance. Back to the Journal Clubs; I have a backlog of articles worthy of our attention.

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