Leah Libresco Reviews Dawkins’ An Appetite for Wonder

It’s a fine review.

What strikes me about it is that Libresco, who really does have an appetite for wonder, notices the curious fact of the contrast between Dawkins, who is startlingly un-self-reflective, and Richard Feynman, another atheist science popularizer who really did retain an appetite for wonder:

Part of critical thinking is storytelling, imagining and extending alternatives and noticing how your predictions clash or match with the world around you. Dawkins is adept at this process when it comes to his biology research, but not when reflecting on everyday life.

Ignorance is seldom willful, and understanding our own errors, even if we believe we’ve grown out of them, can help us lend a hand to a friend who is stuck, instead of simply being relieved we are no longer so gullible. But Dawkins does not seem as ready to use his own small errors as a lens on human thinking as he is to describe the mechanics of a duck’s drinking posture.

Moments of pure joy and wonder were what moved C. S. Lewis to believe there must be some kind of God that could fulfill this inborn longing. I am of a much less Franciscan temperament than Lewis, and I have seldom found my moments of joy in a landscape, English or otherwise.

Like Dawkins, I tend to find them in science, mathematics, and computer science—the moments where all your theorizing comes together and you have a sense of the delicate machinery whirring along beneath the world. Or, better yet, when your theory fails its test, and even an error is a piece of data, an invitation to keep looking and inquiring.

Mathematicians are often accused of being secret Platonists because they firmly believe that a proof will turn out to have some elegant form; that truth and beauty are yoked together. I’ve spent enough time in math departments to have acquired the same hope. When I look at the inelegant or ugly acts of cruelty, carelessness, or uncharity committed against me or by me, I try to keep prying them apart, trusting that there is some kind of misdirected love at their heart, and that it’s worth understanding what went awry and trying to fix it. Dawkins’ memoir seems to lack this expectation of the beauty of all mechanisms, including those of the human heart.

Another memoir from another well-known, atheistic popularizer of science could make a better claim on Dawkins’ title. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! , physicist Richard Feynman conveys an insatiable appetite for wonder, as lock-picking, spinning plates, bongos, and, of course, physics catch his attention and ours. Feynman shares his joy at being able to misunderstand the world well enough to make predictions, watch them fail, refine his understanding, and learn.

A reader looking for the making of a scientist would be better served by picking up Feynman’s book or Dawkins’ own writing on natural science like The Selfish Gene. In his memoir, Dawkins has too little curiosity about himself to stir the ­imagination.

One of the things that I note about people like Feynman (as, to honest, I noted about Leah when she was an atheist) is that there are atheists and there are atheists.  Feynman (like Libresco) was an atheist who was at home in his own skin.  He didn’t have something to prove against God.  He was not somebody on a crusade against God.  His life was not built on protest against God, with each waking moment spent strategizing how to score a rhetorical point against God and believers.  He was busy being for something, not against something.  Leah has always struck me as the same kind of personality.

Dawkins has always struck me as somebody whose intellectual gifts (which are prodigious and very impressively on display when he is really writing about something he knows and loves) are increasingly being vitiated by his consuming itch to score points against God.  One of the casualities of this is an autobiography that is more bent on reducing humans–including himself–to biological mechanisms than persons.  Feynman was happy to be a smart kid from New York who thought science was really cool, but who also enjoyed being a sort of raconteur who liked hanging around with people and didn’t feel as though the universe had anointed him to rid the world of the curse of religion.  Consequently, you never got the sense you get from Dawkins of his being hollowed-out–like a bore at a party who can only talk about the 9/11 Conspiracy.

This peculiar quality of a life organized around being against rather than being for is not, by any stretch something only atheists fall prey to.  I’ve known many a Christian who has fallen prey to it and indeed have felt the temptation myself many and many a day.  It is the curse that afflicts Reactionary Catholics and is, I suspect, something all humans struggle with  (except those blessed souls who have really made the heart level choice to pursue Light whoever they can).  I’ve met people from all walks of life and many different background, religious and non-religious, who fall on that spectrum.  I think everybody who seeks Light is, in some way or other, responding to the Holy Spirit, even if they don’t believe in Him.  Likewise, I think the most devout believer who relishes being against more than being for, who prefers cursing darkness to loving light, is in a spiritually perilous position.

And I wonder every day where I am on that spectrum.

  • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

    In the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, it was interesting to note that it was Bill Nye who advocated a science of contemplation and wonder and Ken Ham who defined science in purely utilitarian terms. Ham had a laudable devotion to the gospel, but you did not hear notes of awe and desire in his arguments like you could hear in Nye’s.

    • Irenist

      Perhaps attitudes like Ham’s (or that of Dawkins as described here) are just a recurring “fundamentalist” personality type, regardless of the worldview to which it happens to be applied due to the accidents of a person’s intellectual formation.

      Similarly, someone like Leah Libresco has brought aspects of her temperament like her charity and her openness both to others’ views and to the wonder of the world with her into first atheism and then Catholicism.

      If these attitudes are at least somewhat innately dispositional, this might be a prompt to forgive the foibles of the fundamentalists: as C.S. Lewis discusses somewhere, God will judge us on how well we do *given our temperaments*. Maybe, just maybe, their public personae are the least fundamentalist Ham and Dawkins can manage, given their psychological equipment. (Or maybe not. Only God knows.)

      • The_Physeter

        Sounds reasonable. I would still prefer a “fundamentalist” like Dawkins, who encourages rational thinking and finding the truth, to one like Ham who preaches dogma that must be obeyed at any cost and forces it on children.

        • chezami

          Fundamentalists like you always point to fundamentalists like Ham as the rationale for worshipping, not using, the intellect.

          • Linebyline

            I think it’s time to retire that catchphrase, Mark. It was clever once or twice, but it’s become something of a stock response that you whip out any time an atheist says anything. It’s doing more harm than good at this point.

            I don’t like being condescended to by atheists who assume that I, as a person of faith, must be unwilling or unable to use my intellect. Per the Golden Rule, I propose we refrain from making that assumption about them.

            • http://thephyseter.wordpress.com The_Physeter

              I agree, I’m not even entirely sure what you mean by that catchphrase. “Worshiping, instead of using, the intellect”?
              By that, do you mean that the intellect is fallible? To use the intellect without worshiping it, do you mean that one should trust the intellect so far, but no further? Did you use your intellect to come to that conclusion? Or to decide how far you could trust it? Or do you contend that the limits of your intellect were taught to you by your “heart”, or by the church?
              What does it mean to worship the intellect? Do you suppose I pray to my intellect, or make sacrifices to it on an alter, or build churches and tell other people to call my intellect “god”? No? Do you mean that atheists overly rely on their intellect? It sounds like you mean that one should use one’s intellect, but not use it too much.
              In other words, you sound to me like a bishop who stands up and shouts, “Down! down! presumptuous human reason!”, precisely the thing that G.K. Chesterton said that bishops do not do.

              • Linebyline

                I don’t think it means literal worship, a la the golden calf. But it is a reference to idolatry in a looser sense, that is, taking something other than God and making it the highest good in one’s life. Many atheists do at least create the appearance of doing this with their own brains, or at least with reason generally. (Reason is, of course, a good thing, but it isn’t the good thing; c.f. Chesterton on the madman being the one who loses everything except his reason.)

                I don’t presume to put words in Mark’s mouth, but what I think he’s getting at is that some atheists go to great lengths to stress how reasonable they are, while not actually bothering to think through what anyone else says to them. Instead, they start with assumptions about others’ beliefs, then they use those assumptions as an excuse to assume that their opponents are either unwilling or unable to reason, and thus they choose to mock and belittle rather than arguing.

                What I think Mark is getting at is that Dawkins is perfectly reasonable when it comes to science, but not when the topic comes to religion. (I know little enough about Dawkins that I can’t say whether this assessment is accurate. For that matter, I should reiterate that I’m not positive that I’m reading Mark correctly.)

                I’m sure you’ve noticed this behavior is not unique to atheists. Heck, I’ve been guilty of it myself at times. It’s just especially annoying (to me, at least) coming from atheists because of the emphasis they normally put on being rational.

                I guess the bottom line is that presuming a lack of reasonableness on the part of one’s opponents is always a bad idea, regardless of who’s doing it.

        • Irenist

          I’d prefer to avoid fundamentalism entirely, thanks.

        • Linebyline

          Careful with that “forces it on children” bit; that’s exactly the rationale that creationists use to try to kick evolution out of schools.

  • http://www.2catholicmen.blogspot.com/ Ben @ 2CM

    I think someone being hollowed-out, or not comfortable in their own skin, can be described as “the weak eye”. We’re all born with a secular eye and a spiritual eye. What happens if we have one weak eye? There is lack of focus; we cannot see reality clearly. Things don’t make sense. This can explain how those who are highly educated in secular things can lack spiritual common sense. We can even be educated out of our faith as the secular eye gets stronger and stronger, while the spiritual eye is ignored and grows weaker and weaker (no exercise).

    Once we find that reality seems unclear, what can we do to maintain focus? We can either exercise the weak eye and build its strength or close it entirely and forget it. If we see only with the secular eye, we lose our depth perception. It’s a sad thing.

    • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

      Could you elaborate on what that exercise entails? I deconverted because I was exercising and still lost my “depth perception” as you put it. I just want to confirm that I didn’t miss anything.

      • chezami

        You do get, don’t you, that showing up to feign questions is pretty much what I’m talking about? You have no actual interest. You’re just here to throw pebbles at the zoo animals. It makes you look small, like Dawkins.

        • Irenist

          Unless you wave your arms over your head Kermit the Frog-style while you rant. Then it increases your apparent size.

      • http://www.2catholicmen.blogspot.com/ Ben @ 2CM

        I can at least speak for myself or for anyone interested.
        - prayer everyday
        - scripture everyday
        - reading spiritual books often
        - frequent reception of sacraments, especially confession
        - helping others often (ministry)
        - spiritual direction (although I don’t have a director)

        MOST IMPORTANT- Control the “good eye”. Fasting and other disciplines of self-denial is a way to temporarily cover our secular eye which gives the spiritual eye more exercise by default.
        Peace.

        Forgot one more thing. Read Mark’s stuff!

        • Irenist

          Ben, this list is really great. I’m copying and pasting it for my own use. Thanks!

          • http://www.2catholicmen.blogspot.com/ Ben @ 2CM

            Cool! Thank you.

      • Irenist

        Davis,
        If I may ask:
        What did you deconvert to? Agnosticism? “Weak” atheism? “Strong” atheism? Something else?

  • dasrach

    Your penultimate paragraph basically sums up why I gave up debating abortion with friends on Facebook for Lent last year. It was such a breath of fresh air that, like so many other good Lenten devotions, I made it permanent (except for a handful of friends who I knew were interested in civil exchanges of ideas rather than smackdowns). I don’t know if I was just at risk of reducing Catholicism to being against abortion, or if I was already there, but constantly dwelling on the next snarky point to make to pro-choice friends was drawing me further down a very ugly rabbit hole.

    This isn’t to say that I’m not still pro-life (I am very much so) or that I don’t think we need to evangelize to pro-choice friends (of course I do). But for me personally, when I do it on the Internet and have literally hours to stew over my planned response to their imagined reply before they get around to actually posting the reply, and then I see that it doesn’t line up to what I had planned and I have to spend even more hours stewing . . . ugh. It was poison.

  • Linebyline

    Oh? Really? you don’t know where you are on that spectrum? Well, I’d be happy to tell you. In extremely explicit detail. Let me know when you’ve got a few hours. ;)

    It’s easier to be against something. It’s easier to poke holes in something. To tell you why you’re wrong. I sometimes wonder if that’s why Catholics put such an emphasis on apologetics, or why so many fans of science are debunkers, why critics so often go for the snarky negative review. Even when you really want to, it’s hard to focus on what’s good. So we do our best to illustrate it by contrast, like drawing the sun in black pencil on white paper, and then we run the risk of focusing on the darkness instead.

    Actually, your closing line makes me wonder something else, too: Jesus warns us to mind the beams in our own eyes before worrying ourselves with the specks in others’, but at the same time admonishing the sinner is a work of mercy. Do you think admonishing the sinner–in charity, of course–is so important exactly because we’re so bad at seeing the beams in our own eyes? “Dude, you’ve got a speck there, but first can you give me a hand with this beam?”

    • chezami

      Heh! Take a number. I have lots of people who hate my living guts (all in profound Christian charity) and who ache to tell me everything they loathe about me, again and again, and again.

      • Linebyline

        Best to let it roll off your back, I think. In my allegedly-humble opinion, you’re at your best when you don’t let it get to you, and focus on the truth and the beauty instead.

        And when you figure out how to do that, let me know. I could use some pointers. Meanwhile I’ll be over here being cynical.

  • Jennifer Allen

    “He who demolishes old error opens the way to discovery of new truth.” Dawkins performs an immensely valuable service.

    • chezami

      Dawkins demolishes nothing. He is astonishingly ignorant and shallow when he is not talking in the narrow confines of his training. Stop worshipping your intellect and attempt to use it.

      • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

        Can we avoid the ad-hominem? I can’t possibly imagine why you would consider Dawkins ignorant and shallow. He may be specialized in a scientific field and isn’t particularly gifted at theology but that doesn’t make him ignorant or shallow. And he does demolish things. His discoveries in the fields of biology are amazing and enlightening. And though you may disregard the implications of his (and other biologists) discoveries about human nature, he does provide another step stone on the path to the discovery of new truth.

        • chezami

          Yes. It does make him ignorant and shallow when he opts to spend so much time outside he field pontificating on matters he can’t be bothered to learn about.

          • Nordog6561

            >>Yes. It does make him ignorant and shallow when he opts to spend so much time outside he field pontificating on matters he can’t be bothered to learn about.<<

            That is kind of an important point, isn't it.

      • James

        Childish ad-hominem attacks such as this don’t bolster your case. You seem to exemplify the very same qualities that you criticize

        • chezami

          You don’t seem to have the slightest idea what “ad hominem” means.

  • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

    Can you elaborate on the jump from, poor storyteller to “uncomfortable in his own skin” as you indicate Dawkins is? As far as I can tell, being against religion (Dawkins can’t be against something he doesn’t believe in) or not expressing wonder to a degree one might expect from a book title is poor evidence that Dawkins is somehow uncomfortable in his own skin. Many folks are forced into a position to be against something simply because that something is encroaching on their lives. If I am against Mormons knocking on my door to convert me, does that make me uncomfortable in my skin? It just appears to be a strange equivalence that you draw.

    • chezami

      There is a fidgety need in Dawkins to perpetually score points against his chosen enemy, coupled with an peculiar inability to look at himself that is the mark of a shallow little man who is not at home with himself. Much like his little cult of personality among the reddit.atheists. Feynman, in constrast, did not come off like a popinjay with something to prove. A much jollier man.

      • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

        Ha, he does tend to have an interesting following lol. But it is hard to take you seriously though on the point scoring comment when you yourself seem unable to shake off the opportunity to take pot shots and those you disagree with Mr/Ms “Stop worshipping your intellect and attempt to use it”?
        And I still maintain his discourse and lack of attention in theological matters aren’t reasons to consider him a hollow or little man. That is not something you or anyone has a right to attribute to him or those who agree with him.

        I do agree that Feynman was much more pleasant in public however… :)

        • chezami

          Dude. Nobody asked either of your to come here and ask your fake, uninterested-in-answers questions. Stop acting small and you will not be treated as such.


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