« re-enchanting the social world | Main | private ownership is alive and well »

August 31, 2011



I hesitated before posting this since it seems a little unkind for my first communication with you to be a long and critical comment, but I'm a great fan of your other writing and I intend this in the spirit of debate, rather than in the spirit of trolling.

I have to say I was unimpressed by that James Wood article. To me it seems that he repeatedly falls into exactly the same traps he accuses New Atheism of doing. I know the focus of the piece was on fiction as a medium for exploring ideas, but intellectually-blunt New-Atheism-bashing seemed to make up the majority of it and for this reason I found it difficult to finish.

Criticising NA for failing to appreciate the subtlety of shifting, non-propositional religious belief, Wood immediately paints NA as a monolithic force which is superficial, concerned only with a tiny subset of religion, and unable to see both sides. While there are surely individual "allies" of NA who are accurately described by this, by no means are all. I would cite Sam Harris as someone who, in public debates at least, displays a far more well-considered position than perhaps Dawkins does — he does not blanket disregard all but current scientific consensus, but rather says that inventing explanations for spiritual experiences is not the best way to understand them. A person is not the upmost authority on their own mind. A refreshingly non-arrogant sentiment! Also one which Dan Dennett (another example of a less-combative ally of NA) would agree with. Harris is also known for his criticism of the methods and insularity of NA, despite often being listed as one of the "four horsemen". And yet still remains a staunch atheist and enjoys robustly criticising religion as a political force. There are surely others even more reasonable than Harris. Wood, on the other hand, summarises Harris's book in a single, caricatured (and inaccurate) sentence and dismisses it as unworthy of closer examination. While Wood makes a couple of good points, he seems unwilling to attempt to engage with the subtleties of the NA side and doesn't even seems to grasp the motives of many of its subscribers — exactly what he criticises it for doing to religion. Though his greatest sin is claiming to understand NA based only on what its "leaders" say in public. This would be like claiming to understand Protestantism based only on what its leaders say, which would be absurd.

Your article here is much more well-considered but I still don't follow your argument. You seem to criticise Dawkins for failing to acknowledge the ever-shifting nature of scientific consensus, which is odd since this is something he repeatedly cites as one of the strengths of a scientific approach to understanding the world. Myself, I am not a great follower of Dawkins, but tend to agree with what I have heard him say about science. It also seems a little strange to claim that Dawkins doesn't trust the public with Enlightenment, given that he spends most of his time writing pop-sci books and making pop-atheism documentaries; but perhaps I misunderstand what you meant. To claim that Dawkins is blind to non-biological evolution is slightly bizarre, given that he's usually credited with inventing and popularising meme theory. While "memetics" might not be great science (yet), he's clearly at least aware of broader implications of Darwinian theory and the changing nature of ideas.

I also don't understand your term "new-biologism". A cursory read of that book review you linked to suggests that Brooks's book is indeed a bit strange, but this can't automatically extend to the "neuro-brigade", by which I assume you mean proponents of neuroscience as a useful tool in understanding psychology (?).

You are right to ridicule Brooks if he indeed claims that scientists anywhere think they've finally stumbled upon the truth of human nature through their MRIs. But this ought not to belittle the progress that neuroscience has indeed made over the last couple of decades in farthing out understanding of how the mind emerges from the brain. You ask whether scientists in 2100 will cite 2011 papers. The question should be, will scientists in 2021 be citing 2011 papers! The tools and methods of neuroscience are developing so fast that our understanding is progressing tangibly, year-by-year, at least in some areas.

There is definitely an evolution in science which makes any claims that it has reached "truth" ridiculous, as you say. But it a different kind of evolution to that of genes or language — it is a progressive evolution. Our instruments really are getting better. The scientific community really is getting better connected. Even through cultural evolution and paradigm shifts, our understanding and precision is improving. This is not to say that science is converging or culminating, but rejecting a scientific convergence on "truth" is no reason to overlook progress, achievement or understanding. In short, furthering science as a tool for understanding the world is a truly worthy goal.

Gene Callahan

Ah! Harris and Dennet are not QUITE as idiotic as Dawkins. That's good to know.

"But this ought not to belittle the progress that neuroscience has indeed made over the last couple of decades in farthing out understanding of how the mind emerges from the brain."

Which progress is absolutely zero!

Will Davies

Cai - thanks for your thoughts. I'm probably caricaturing Dawkins et al somewhat, and I'm not as familiar with their work as you are. So on that basis, I'm guilty of bad shouty blogging.

What will continue to frustrate me is the fact that Dawkins apparently has so little sympathy with the religious instinct. I liked James Wood's reference to practiced truths - the notion that 'now is the time when we face Mecca and pray'. What happens when Dawkins mourns? Does he bother?

Your reference to science 'improving' is fine, just as long as scientists are prepared to engage with non-scientists to discuss what this 'improvement' consists of. As you say, I guess Dawkins can't be faulted for putting himself out there in public; but he projects a sense that knowledge is fundamental, or it is nothing at all. Why not accept the frailty of scientific knowledge? Presumably because he's afraid that this will be exploited by fundamentalists. So then he's fighting certainty with certainty, as James Wood suggests.


Thanks for this post and two interesting replies.
Having read a lot of Dawkins and met him once, at a dinner where he morphed from a fascinating and charming guest to snarling ranter the moment religious faith was mentioned, I think I have some sense of what his problem is. He simply cannot conceive of any path to knowledge that is not based on Western science; and he sees all other modes of human knowledge as failed attempts to do what only Western science can do. So he persists in seeing religious believers as people who bafflingly prefer pre-scientific explanations of phenomena to the scientific ones we now have. Why can't these irrationalists move on? As Terry Eagleton puts it, this is a category error on a par with claiming that thanks to the invention of the electric toaster, we can forget about Chekhov. Karen Armstrong has patiently explained that much (most?) religion is not about constructing a pseudo-scientific account of phenomena but a set of practices, hopes and relationships that make sense of the world - not scientific sense, but moral and relational sense. Dawkins, rightly exulting in the advances that only scientific method can bring, assumes that it is the only method of exploring the world that makes any sense. To make this worldview work, he has to find a way to dismiss all non-scientific ideas as unfit to rub shoulders with scientific ones. To do this, he and NA thinkers such as Dan Dennett have settled on memetics, the theory that ides replicate like genes and 'infect' available brains. This is laughably weak: there is no evidence for memes, no account of how they latch on to brain matter, and no means of distinguishing scientific memes from all the rest. Darwinism in this theory is just another memetic replicator, but Dawkins needs it to be the Truth.What distinguishes true memes from false, and what enables them to transcend the rest of memetics? If he is not careful, Dawkins will end up appealing to a transcendent source of reason, which might look uncomfortably like God.

Dick Pountain

It seems to me the nub of this argument is about realism v idealism rather than atheism v religion. Dawkins, Harris and co tend toward realism which means dismissing or diminishing the importance of imagination and imagined objects (thoug actually in the last chapter of the God Delusion Dawkins is far from dogmatic on this point).

Imagined objects - like "God", "nation" or "race" can and do act upon the real world once they inhabit and motivate many minds, even though they have no real existence in the world of matter.

The only philosopher to satisfactorily handle this topic in modern times was George Santayana, but his work has been ignored until quite recently, (when I see some signs of a revival).


Good point, Will. The more I think about it, the more I have, even as a person heavily involved in atheist communities in the past, found Dawkins to be proactively dismissive of things which shouldn't concern him, such as personal religious practice. Perhaps he has his own reasons for this, but it doesn't seem very helpful in encouraging people to listen to him without raised hackles. Though I'm sure that Dawkins, like atheists everywhere, mourn as the religious do. If anything, seeing death as it "really is", rather than just a temporary separation of souls, could even leave him with a deeper bereavement than the "gone to a better place" faithful. But of course I can't pretend to know how others feel.

Another point I think is relevant to two common criticisms of NA; that it equates religion with Fundamentalist Christianity, and that science is portrayed as more "true" than it ought to be. I think both of these have a common root.

Much of the NA "movement" originated in America, where Christianity is much more a potent political force than in the UK (where I live). Rich evangelists and their vast flocks try to control how medicine is practiced, how children are taught in science class and how politics is conducted.

The points you rightly make about the epistemological frailty of science are absolutely true, and important to discuss and acknowledge. However, especially in the case of the American Christian Right's efforts to control how science is taught, the arguments they use sound like yours, but are based on absolute ignorance and are highly politically motivated. With the hot-topic of evolution, for example, a televanglist may say "even scientists must admit that evolution is just a theory", but they'd never say "even scientists must admit that gravity is just a theory". Your arguments (correctly) demonstrate that scientific "theories" must be treated as less than "truths", but equally apply to all theories. The Christian Right use similar-sounding arguments in propaganda and to, famously, teach (deeply unscientific) creationism alongside evolution in schools. The reason they do this can only be because they have a political interest in discrediting evolution, but not the theories that keep their TV satellites in orbit. Their actions indicate that they have no knowledge or understanding of Hume, Popper and Kuhn, but just want to further their political agenda. NA, which is often motivated by a desire to keep religion out of politics, healthcare and education, does often swing too far the other way and often paints science as concrete when it shouldn't. While this is not completely intellectually honest and rubs those of us who understand the wrong way, I think it is at least explained by allies of NA being brought down to the level of creationists. I agree with you 100% that it ought to be beholden to scientists to discuss issues of the philosophy of science with the public, if nothing else than for the benefit of public understanding. What you might not know is that when this has happened in America, clips of scientists have been taken out of context and distributed the heads of megachurches as part of their propaganda, motivating the flock to write to their congresspeople - hardly an atmosphere of open dialogue! Fighting certainty with certainty is not clever, and I think it's intellectually indefensible, but I think it is better explained by politics than ignorance.

Harris actually makes many of the same points you do, and has even publicly argued for an end to organised New Atheism. That didn't make him popular, I'm sure you can imagine! I realise probably I'm coming across as a bit of a Sam Harris fan here. Though he's definitely one of the neuro-brigade ;)


If I've understood you correctly - which I dare say I haven't - you're saying that Dawkins' position to what he understands the 'Enlightenment' to be is akin to those religious believers who see the revelation of their God to be an essentially finished work, and as such something that can be contained within a single text? Priests flourish in such an intellectual environment. Is this what you were getting at?


Well put. There is another, gentle but brilliant rebuttal of the anti-god botherers (Dawkins/Dennett/Hitchens) in Ferdinand Mount's book Full Circle - worth a read.

I tend to view it much of this through Popper's open society & its enemies lenses. Dawkins, sadly, seems to be increasingly an enemy of open society.

The comments to this entry are closed.