A couple of years ago I attended a lecture by Richard Dawkins while he was doing the promotion circuit for The Magic of Reality, a book intended for children to help them overcome the mythological beauty of religious narrative. The lecture went well; the college loved him and he had no problem soliciting loud and long applause. He performed his usual schtick, a volley of one liners and anecdotes meant to portray religious people as stupid and dangerous. It wasn’t a particularly memorable two hours (I wrote a handful of notes, which I cannot find or remember), but it was Dawkins in his element: Surrounded by the American academy, with its Pavlovian anticipation of delicious put downs and tasty zingers.
It’s more than a little ironic, then, to watch the blogosphere’s recent hammering of him. Currently he’s getting an earful for saying that it would be “immoral” not to abort an unborn child diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. Last month he was taken to task by feminists for tweeting that some kinds of rape were “worse” than others and that those who were offended by such sentiments needed to “learn how to think.”
There’s an interesting dynamic that happens whenever Dawkins is accused in mass media of xenophobia, sexism or pure trollery. His fans, who have devoured and regurgitated his many arguments about the cruelty and backwardness of religious ethics, take to the front lines to defend him, arguing that the problem is not that Dawkins’s views are offensive but that those offended at his views are being irrational. In other words, using Dawkins’s own standards against him is de facto impossible, since rationality always demands what he happens to say.
What does that sound like? Andrew Brown says it sounds like a cult:
[Dawkins’s] website suggests that donations of up to $500,000 a year will be accepted for the privilege of eating with him once a year: at this level of contribution you become a member of something called ‘The Magic of Reality Circle’. I don’t think any irony is intended.
At this point it is obvious to everyone except the participants that what we have here is a religion without the good bits.
Last year he tweeted a recommendation of comments collected by one of his followers at a book signing in the US. Among them were: ‘You’ve changed the very way I understand reality. Thank you Professor’; ‘You’ve changed my life and my entire world. I cannot thank you enough’; ‘I owe you life. I am so grateful. Your books have helped me so much. Thank you’; ‘I am unbelievably grateful for all you’ve done for me. You helped me out of delusion’; ‘Thank you thank you thank you thank you Professor Dawkins. You saved my life’; and, bathetically, ‘I came all the way from Canada to see you tonight.’ With this kind of incense blown at him, it’s no wonder he is bewildered by criticism.
Brown isn’t alone. Three years ago prominent atheist biologist Michael Ruse wrote an article called “Why Richard Dawkins’ Humanists Remind Me of a Religion.” Ruse blasted Dawkins and others within New Atheism for waging war not just on religion but on fellow atheists unwilling to demand that non-scientism be purged from the academy and the culture. Ruse also accused Dawkins of just about the worst thing a person like Dawkins can be accused of–sounding religious. “In the caricaturing of “faith” as murderous fundamentalism, one hears echoes of the bloody and interminable Reformation squabbles between Protestants and Catholics,” Ruse writes. Ouch.
In 2011 Dawkins (finally) responded to those who wanted to see a debate between him and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, a research professor at Biola University who debated the late Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins’s opening paragraph is encyclopedic in the way it summarizes his attitude towards any and all not in his pantheon:
Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of William Lane Craig. He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either. Perhaps he is a “theologian”. For some years now, Craig has been increasingly importunate in his efforts to cajole, harass or defame me into a debate with him. I have consistently refused, in the spirit, if not the letter, of a famous retort by the then president of the Royal Society: “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine”.
Dawkins argued that since Craig did not do enough (apparently) to communicate moral disapproval of the biblical Israelite war against the Canaanites, debating him would be giving platform to genocide. “Would you shake hands with a man like that,” Dawkins asks.
Here we see a major factor in what looks like Dawkins’s imminent decline. Dawkins has a great deal of respected academic work in the field of evolutionary biology. He doesn’t have to debate Ken Ham or Michael Behe in order to legitimize his platform; he has years of peer-reviewed and tenured work that speaks for him. The problem is that philosophy–which has dominated Dawkins’s attention the last several years–is not biology. Dawkins sees, as most advocates of scientism do, a complete continuity between knowledge of biological processes and understanding of philosophical and religious concepts. Dawkins postures himself as an expert on religion because he’s an expert on evolution. The two are the same to him, with the latter offering explanations for the unfortunate existence of the former. But just because they are the same to him doesn’t mean they are the same. Dawkins is neither an expert on religion nor philosophy. Some Christian philosophers accused Dawkins of knowing this and declining the debate so as to not look foolish. That wasn’t correct, though. Dawkins really does believe he is as qualified to speak on religion as anyone. No suprise that his followers mimic this self-deception.
Neither is Dawkins an ethicist or New Testament scholar, and so his argument that Craig’s understanding of the biblical narrative in Judges renders him unfit for a public platform is comically arrogant. It’s sort of like your auto mechanic lecturing you on environmental issues, assuming he is qualified to do so because he spends so much time working on the parts that leave carbon footprints. Likewise, when Dawkins argues that it is wrong to give life to an unborn child with Downs, he unintentionally exposes the moral thiness of scientism. It’s easy to get speaking invitations for your idea that we don’t need religion since science tells us what is good and bad; you’re not gonna be as charming when you practically apply those principles. People want science as their moral guide until it calls them sinners for loving their disabled child.
This is a familiar element to a cult of personality: A conviction that the Personality is all-knowing. Dawkins’s followers will defend whatever he writes (barring, presumably, a religious conversation) because he is a hero of rationality. At this point it doesn’t matter what he says, only that he says something. My father taught me that something was only worth what people were willing to pay for it. Dawkins charges ridiculous sums for the blessing of his presence because there are those who are willing to buy it. Those silly people obviously don’t realize that moral acidity can be found in cheaper venues. YouTube’s commenting feature is free, after all.
Cults of personality usually develop as broader influence shrinks. If that’s true in this instance, the Richard Dawkins period is in its twilight. That’s good news not just for Christian communicators but also for atheist ones too. Dawkins’ proclivity to offend even progressive circles is not productive to New Atheism, which relies quite a bit on the support of an anti-theistic culture within academia. Such culture should seek to rid itself of those who make very public moral fools of themselves. The ageless conversation between naturalism and religion will be much better off when Richard Dawkins is a distant memory, a memetic memorial to an entertaining and useless brand of cultishness.