A friend of mine pointed out to me a photo circulating Facebook posted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation.
But this is a low blow from Richard Dawkins and here are five reasons why he (and his foundation) should know better.
1. Richard Dawkins is a very clever man.
You don’t get to do groundbreaking research in evolutionary genetics without a lot of sense. Dawkins should know the difference between a good argument that is backed up by evidence and simplistic conjecturing that is not based on good research. So the way Dawkins presents a simplistic view of faith and an optimistic view of science is disingenuous for a man of his academic credentials.
2. Straw man arguments don’t encourage respect.
Dawkins has picked a poor oversimplification of religion that misrepresents what most people of faith actually believe. It shows a lack of understanding to argue that religions claim all of these things about human beings- his polemic feels focussed on Christianity because Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism have a very different understanding of the human person.
Christianity teaches that human beings are both broken and beautiful, wonderfully and fearfully made yet still capable of great compassion and great sin because we have free will.
Dawkins himself has summarised a human person and therefore a child as being: Indeed this is how he explained humanity in his 1991 Royal Institute Children’s lectures:
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 objects’ sole reason for living…
[R. Dawkins, (1991) Christmas Lectures Study Guide, p. 21]
That does not sound like the way he describes human dignity in the cute photo. According to Dawkins a person’s value is based on their ability to reproduce. So he has created a straw man argument to make a polemical point. He is ranting rather than arguing.
If we want a rant rather than a conversation we could say:
But as we shall see this is not a helpful or accurate polarisation.
3. Richard Dawkins should know his philosophy of science
Richard Dawkins was University of Oxford‘s Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008. As I understand that role from one of my favourite universities this would involve encouraging the public to have a deeper and richer understanding of science. This image makes some big assumptions:
- there is a necessary conflict between science and faith (see here for recent survey in the States that showed that in the USA:
“2 million out of nearly 12 million scientists are evangelical Christians. If you were to bring all the evangelical scientists together, they could populate the city of Houston, Texas.”
- historically Christianity can be credited as being the basis for the rise of empirical science in the West. See for example R. G. Collingwood:
“The presuppositions that go to make up this Catholic faith, preserved for many centuries by the religious institutions of Christendom, have as a matter of historical fact been the main or fundamental presuppositions of natural science ever since.”
Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1940), p.227
- Dawkins assumes that science can provide a rational basis for:
beauty - if we took Dawkins DNA replication model at face value then beauty is just sexual attractiveness to encourage genetic replication.
wonder - this is from the same scientist that argued : ”The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” There’s not a lot of reason for wonder in a universe of blind pitiless indifference is there?
4. Using a child as a lobbying tool / prop dehumanises the child
The lovely little girl in the picture looks pretty oblivious to the debate on the placard she is holding, so she effectively becomes a tool in an argument. This depersonalises her which is an odd thing to do in a polemic about the harmful effects of faith on children.
5. There are better ways to have a conversation
I posted a few days ago about a conversation between the Christian believer Bear Grylls and the well known atheist Stephen Fry. For me this modelled how to have an adult conversation. Dear Richard Dawkins I’d love to see you have this kind of grown up conversation – I know you are capable of it.