Dawkins’ dilemmas

Melvin Tinker puts the work of evolutionary theorist and arch-atheist Richard Dawkins under the microscope.

A vicar was travelling on the train one day when a scientist happened to sit next to him. The scientist was an astronomer, and he smiled as he saw the vicar reading his Bible. He said, condescendingly, “I like to think that religion can be summed up by the words, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’”. The vicar, having discovered the scientist’s profession, replied, “Yes, and I like to think that astronomy can be summed up by the words, ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are’”.

That story illustrates the main issue Christians have with Richard Dawkins’s approach towards religion: far from being intellectually rigorous, the Oxford archatheist is not rigorous enough. In many ways his understanding of religion is about as shallow as our apocryphal astronomer. We might summarize his position towards religion in general and Christianity in particular in four statements:

  1. A Darwinian world view makes belief in God unnecessary: “Natural selection manages to explain how (organisms) came into being without there being any ultimate purpose …”1
  2. Religion makes assertions which are grounded in faith, which represents a retreat from a rigorous, evidence-based concern for truth: “[Faith] means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”.2 Elsewhere he says, “Faith is the great cop out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”3
  3. Religion offers an impoverished vision of the world: “The universe presented by organized religions is a poky little mediaeval universe …”4
  4. Religion leads to evil: Dawkins likens it to a malignant virus, infecting human minds. He dismisses all religious faith as “an indulgence of irrationality that is nourishing extremism, division and terror”.5

I want to begin by being overly generous to Professor Dawkins and granting, for the sake of argument, that, as a scientific explanation for the origin and development of species, Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct. However, even given this, much of what Dawkins proposes does not hold up to close scrutiny. He makes many assertions which are, ironically, more of a religious nature and have very little to do with science.

Here we must make an important distinction between science and scientism. Science is a particular approach to studying certain phenomenon (the hypotheticodeductive approach). Scientism is a wholesale philosophical movement which, as a matter of principle (not evidence), has no room for God or the transcendent.

What is interesting about Dawkins is not so much his atheism as his antitheism. In his 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Dawkins assured his youthful audience that, “Growing up in the universe … also means growing out of parochial and supernatural views of the universe … not copping out with superstitious ideas”.6 Yet Dawkins exhibits all the hallmarks of those forms of religion he so despises: vehemence, narrow-mindedness and intolerance. He is a ‘Fundamentalist’ of the scientistic kind.

Let us take a brief look at some of the main planks in his philosophical position.

Religion as a mental virus

Dawkins has suggested that religion is a mental virus, a false belief which infects your mind the way a virus infects your body.7 People don’t adopt a religion after carefully weighing the evidence; faith is ‘caught’ like an infection is caught, spreading from one person (for example, an evangelist) to another—especially in families.

To explain this, Dawkins developed a concept called ‘memes’. Memes are ideas or beliefs (tunes, fashions, designs) which are analogous to genes (hereditary material) in that they can replicate and spread, rapidly infecting people’s minds.8 It’s an interesting idea but it suffers from two flaws.

Firstly, it’s inaccurate: ideas are not transmitted like genes. Genes are passed on by DNA in chromosomes via sperm and egg, and they cannot be changed once reproduction is in full swing. This is not so with ideas: we absorb them in all sorts of ways, but we can assess and change them (even change our religion) as we go through life. You can’t change your genetic material.

Secondly, it is self-defeating. If there was a scientific meme, does that mean that everything scientists believe can be discarded by saying, “Well, you would think that. It’s your memes …”? Is Dawkins just an atheist because he caught the bug from Mr Smedly, his science teacher at school? Of course not. Even the idea of a meme is a result of a meme, and there it can just as easily be discarded. But how we come to belief is a separate question from whether or not it is true; the latter must be decided by examining the evidence.

Ontological reductionism

Dawkins also makes the logical blunder in thinking that because a thing can be explained in scientific terms, no other explanation is possible or necessary. He is an ontological reductionist. On what it means to be a human being, he says,

We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA … Flowers are for the same thing as everything else in the living kingdoms, for spreading ‘copy me’ programmes about, written in DNA language. That is EXACTLY what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.9

No self-respecting biologist would think of denying that biological organisms do pass on their DNA to their offspring. But what warrants the leap from that observed fact to the assertion that this is the sole reason for living? People exist for all sorts of reasons other than passing on their genetic material. Dawkins has fallen foul of the reductionist fallacy—that is, explaining the whole simply in terms of its constituent parts—and thus his description of what it means to be human is woefully inadequate. He is like the man who says that the sole reason for an orchestra’s existence is the production of sounds of varying wavelengths. This is certainly what happens when an orchestra plays, but it is not the only thing that happens, or the most meaningful description of what happens.

Reductionists also tend to be determinists, and Dawkins is no exception. The business of looking at life solely through scientific lenses is not just an attempt to naively explain everything, but to explain everything away. So Dawkins denies the existence of moral evil:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference … DNA neither knows nor cares. And we dance to its music.10

The logical upshot of this is that the Yorkshire Ripper danced to the music of his DNA.

A ‘religious’ feel

The real irony is that Dawkins’s writings have a certain ‘religious’ feel to them, employing the language of myth to convey his ideas the way that many religions have done. Though he claims his world view has arisen from hard-nosed observation of so-called facts, he cheats by using the language of persons and purpose to describe things which, by his own reckoning, are impersonal and meaningless. See if you can spot his semantic sleight-of-hand:

Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world … I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness … their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence … [the gene] does not grow senile … It leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death. The genes are the immortals … By dictating the way survival machines and their nervous systems are built, genes exert ultimate power over behaviour.11

The term, ‘selfishness’, is a moral category, normally applied to persons who act in ways they should not. Yet here it is inappropriately applied to particles of protein and DNA. They are described as leaping “from body to body” like microscopic supermen. They are likened to “Chicago gangsters”, as if they were Al Capone and the Mob. They are spoken of as “immortals”, a term which has a decidedly religious ring to it.

None of this makes sense strictly within Dawkins’s world view. Yet if Dawkins stuck to purely scientific descriptions, his writings would not hold any attraction. But, as the philosopher Mary Midgely points out, to speak of genes as being selfish is as nonsensical as speaking of atoms as being jealous.12 Using pseudo-religious terms puts Dawkins’s beliefs on the same level as the pagans who spoke of Mars as the god of war, or Pluto as the god of death, but what he has, in effect, constructed is another religion in which the powers of deity have been ascribed to molecules.

Religion as harmful?

What are we to make of Dawkins’s sweeping claims that religion is harmful? Firstly, it is difficult to see where he derives his notion of ‘harmful’. He makes a value judgement that extremism and terror are ‘bad’ things, but bad for whom? Not for the terrorists who get their way and pass on their genes. If we live in an impersonal universe where one day we will all perish, who is to say that extremism is a ‘bad’ thing? Dawkins’s preferences are hardly a sufficient basis for making his assertions.

Secondly, Dawkins needs to be more precise when talking about ‘religion’. He lumps all religions together, not bothering to differentiate between them. It’s as intellectually irresponsible as lumping all animals together and saying that what goes for elephants must go for ants. Each religion must be viewed on its own terms: Incan child sacrifice should not be placed on the same level as Christian self-sacrifice, which led to the formation of hospitals and universities, the freeing of slaves, and the rise of modern science.

When Professor Dawkins makes such sweeping assertions about Christianity being based upon ‘bad faith’ or ‘blind faith’, a certain phrase comes to mind—something about “People living in glass houses …”


1 Keith Ward, Turn of the Tide: Christian belief in Britain today, BBC, London, 1986, pp. 28-29.

2 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989, p. 198.

3 Richard Dawkins, ‘Lions Ten, Christians Nil’, The Nullifidian, Vol. 1, No. 8, 1994.

4 Richard Dawkins, ‘A Survival Machine’ in The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, ed. John Brockman, Touchstone, New York, 1996, p. 85.

5 Richard Dawkins, The Root of All Evil, television program, Channel 4, London, January 2000.

6 ‘Growing Up in the Universe’, The Royal Institution of Great Britain Christmas Lectures, 1991.

7 Richard Dawkins, ‘Viruses of the Mind’, Free Inquiry, Summer 1993. Online: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/98.

8 The Selfish Gene, p. 192.

9 From ‘The Ultraviolet Garden’, lecture no. 4 of ‘Growing Up in the Universe’.

10 Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Science Masters Series, BasicBooks, 1995, p. 133.

11 The Selfish Gene, p. 2, 20, 34 and 60.

12 Mary Midgley, ‘Genes and Juggling’, Philosophy, 54, 1979, pp. 39-58.

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