Sunday, 16 December 2007

dawkins vs god - the latest score

Richard Dawkins has long been a popular science writer, but has achieved a greater level of public recognition through his book, The God Delusion. He has stated that his aim in writing the book is to lead readers to disbelief in any god.

I'm not sure how well he's succeeded in that, but he's certainly generated loads of reaction, both positive and negative - newspaper articles, interviews, a zillion blogs, and several books in reply. I have referred to Alister McGrath's two books previously, and now another book has been published: Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell from Cambridge University.

I have not read either Dawkins' book nor Cornwell's, but I am interested here more in the public reaction and debate.

When confronted with a wide range of strongly-held opinions, I usually downplay the views of those at either end of the debate (we all know what militant atheists and fundamentalist christians will think about Dawkins and his critics), and look for fair-minded people closer to the centre, or people who are willing to criticise their own viewpoint or see merit in the opposition.

Thus it is easy to find strong atheist criticism of Cornwell (they think he's too cute by half, playing the man and not the ball, misrepresents Dawkins, or simply presents weak arguments) - these Amazon reviews, these comments on the Richard Dawkins website and this blog contain some of this. But is not so easy finding christian supporters, perhaps because Cornwell is more of an agnostic or liberal Catholic rather than an evangelical christian.

But, although there are those who are underwhelmed by or have mixed feelings about Cornwell's book, most of those closer to the middle, including journalists, and fair-minded atheists and theists, seem to be fairly consistent in their support of Cornwell's critique of Dawkins. The following seem to be the main criticisms (Wikipedia provides a useful summary of Cornwell's points):

  • Dawkins tends to judge all theists using the worst excesses and extremes he can find, which is not what we should expect from a world class scientist.
  • He tends to blame religion for all of the world's ills, when studies show that many apparently religious conflicts and acts of terrorism are in fact motivated by national and racial issues.
  • Dawkins' understanding of philosophy, theology and sociology seem to be at a very low undergraduate level at best, leading him to miss or distort much of the evidence and to propose ideas that have been shown to be incorrect.
  • Dawkins uses extreme, almost fanatical language himself, leaving scientific objectivity far behind, and verging on promoting hate and derision towards believers, who he presents as, in a sense, diseased and delusional.

These criticisms echo comments by many thoughtful people, including even some of Dawkins' fellow atheists:

Dawkins has not, of course, been silent, and his responses include this response to Cornwell's book, this reply to David Sloane Wilson, and this general reflection. He has argued that it is not necessary to be well-read in theology because that is the study of something non-existent.

So what's the score?

It seems that Dawkins has succeeded in putting "strong atheism" well into the public consciousness, in providing reluctant cultural christians with support for their move into more overt disbelief, and stirred up the believers. Few people are convinced by rational argument to change their beliefs (just ask christian evangelists and apologists), but he may also have succeeded in promoting a more subtle change in our culture, strengthening the irreligious prevailing view.

On the other hand, the responses from McGrath, Cornwell and others are also likely to strengthen the conviction of many believers, and Dawkins' own belligerence seems to be a turn-off for many agnostics, in this age of postmodern tolerance.

I think the militant atheism wars have a good way to run yet, and it's probably too soon to call, but I'm guessing he will have had some small wins in the short term, but may prove a bit of a storm in a teacup in the longer term.

Read a summary of the current state of play in the atheism vs theism war from the Australian newspaper.

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