“Dawkins in Denial”

“Dawkins in Denial” October 24, 2022


The Blind Bookmaker
Richard Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008
(Photograph by Shane Pope via Wikimedia Commons)


We flew this evening from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta, and from Atlanta to Richmond, Virginia.  It’s a matter of some satisfaction to me that there is now a temple in each of these cities — long dedicated and operating in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale and, in Richmond, very near to completion and dedication.


While in the air, I began to read a book by one Terry Higham, “a research-minded Catholic layman” who is based in the United Kingdom, titled The God Debate: Dawkins in Denial: Christian Guide Through an Atheist Wilderness.  I wasn’t expecting much — I knew nothing about either the book or its author, although I had, it seems, loaded it onto my iPad at some indeterminate point in the past — but I’ve rather liked it thus far.  Higham is obviously bright and quite well read.  And, candidly, I enjoy critiques of Richard Dawkins, who doesn’t present quite the hilarious target that the late Christopher Hitchens did, but who nevertheless positively demands contradiction.


Higham quotes a famously biting comment on Dawkins from Terry Eagleton, the English Marxist literary theorist, critic, and public intellectual, currently affiliated with the University of Lancaster after long teaching stints at Oxford University and Manchester University:


Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. . . .  critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.


Re-reading Eagleton’s comment, I can’t help but think of this blog’s most prolific resident atheist.  And Higham agrees with Eagleton’s view of Dawkins:


I believe that what follows will vindicate this review and highlight Dawkins’ reliance on fallacy (assuming in a premise the very thing he has to prove), assumption (implying knowledge he lacks), error (assertions that proper research would have told him were false), and his favoured weapon of mockery (a device that can back-fire when the mocker’s own ignorance and bias are exposed). . . . 
It will be a recurring theme of this book that Dawkins’ “passionate commitment to evidence” vanishes like snow on a summer’s day whenever evidence is produced that challenges his atheist world-view. However impressive the evidence, mocking generalisation and incredulous dismissal seem to be his knee-jerk reactions to every claim that God, or some agency of the supernatural universe that theists believe he has also created, has intervened in a tangible way in the physical universe.


Higham also cites (and criticizes) a very forthright statement that I myself have quoted multiple times here, from a vocal advocate of the naturalistic worldview.  In his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Sir Francis Crick (1916-2004), co-discoverer with James Watson of the double helix structure of DNA, declared his thorough-going naturalism and reductionism very clearly:


A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them.

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’


Back to Higham:


In his book One World, physicist John Polkinghorne describes Crick’s reductionist thesis as:” . . . ultimately suicidal. If Crick’s thesis is true we could never know it. For, not only does it relegate our experience of beauty, moral obligation, and religious encounter to the epiphenomenal scrapheap, it also destroys rationality. Thought is replaced by electro-chemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen. . . . The very assertions of the reductionist himself are nothing but blips in the neural network of his brain. The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly, that cannot be right and none of us believes it to be so.  There is a patent contradiction running through all attempts, however sophisticated they may appear, to derive rationality from irrationality.”
[Oxford mathematician John] Lennox quotes a similar line of reasoning from C. S. Lewis: “If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us–like the colour of our hair. If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our conviction that Nature is uniform. It can be trusted only if quite a different metaphysic is true. If the deepest thing in reality, the Fact which is the source of all other facthood, is a thing in some degree like ourselves–if it is a Rational Spirit and we derive our rational spirituality from It–then indeed our convictions can be trusted.


I close with another quotation that seemed an uncannily apt description of the approach cultivated here by this blog’s resident atheist:


In his brief engagement with miracles, Dawkins asserts as if self-evidently true that New Testament miracles such as the virgin birth, the raising of Lazarus, and the resurrection of Jesus could only be verified by scientific method. Despite the fact that, in oral or written form, human testimony is the kind of evidence that permeates and shapes our lives, dominates our law courts, and gives us access to the history of our race, Dawkins seems to dismiss it when it comes to reporting miracles, thereby seeking to set the evidential bar too high for advocates of such miracles to clear.


Posted from Richmond, Virginia


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