The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins
The recent cancellation of a book event with Richard Dawkins by the radio station KPFA has caused reverberations around the world. KPFA cited offensive remarks Dawkins has made about Islam. Dawkins and his followers have claimed these were taken out of context and that he’s been equally critical of Christianity. What this controversy misses, however, is the far greater destructive force of other ideas Dawkins has promulgated over decades, which have helped form the foundation of a mainstream worldview that endorses gaping wealth inequalities and encourages the wanton destruction of the natural world.
Richard Dawkins is seen as a superhero by rationalist thinkers seeking to overturn the delusions of monotheistic thought, which have wreaked havoc on the experience of billions of people over the past two millennia. In a 2013 poll, the readers of a respected British magazine, Prospect, voted him as the world’s top thinker. His bestselling popularization of evolution, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, was recently named the most influential science book of all time in a Royal Society poll.
In fighting for science against religious superstition and climate deniers, Richard Dawkins deserves some of his popular acclaim. However, rational as they appear at first, Dawkins’ ideas are based on delusions of their own. The flaws implicit in his own belief system may be less obvious than those of monotheism, but they are at the root of much that is wrong in the current mainstream worldview. Important as it is to point out the dangerous delusions of monotheism, it is equally important not to replace one set of misconceptions with another.
In my book, The Patterning Instinct, I explored the underlying misconceptions that have led to our current crisis of civilization, and realized that Dawkins has been popularizing two of the most pernicious. One is the idea that all living organisms are controlled by selfish genes, and that humans, by implication, are innately selfish. Another is the notion that nature is nothing more than a very complicated machine. Both of these core ideas have been shown by countless scientists to be fundamentally wrong. Yet, partly because of the popularity of Dawkins’s own writing, they are widely taken on faith by the same intelligentsia that reject the fallacies of monotheism—and are used to justify some of our civilization’s most destructive behaviors.
The ‘Selfish Gene’ Is Bad Science and Bad Economics
Since Dawkins’s 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene, millions of people have come to understand evolution as the result of genes competing against other in a remorseless drive to replicate themselves. Ruthless competition is seen as the force that separates evolution’s winners from losers. Even altruism is interpreted as a sophisticated form of selfish behavior used by an organism to propagate its own genes more effectively. “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,” Dawkins suggests, “because we are born selfish.”
It’s a harsh story, and one that has become a bedrock of modern economics, which argues that human beings are motivated by their own self-interest, and their collective self-serving actions result in the best outcome for society. This has led to a commonly accepted pseudo-scientific rationalization for laissez-faire capitalism, using the misappropriated term “survival of the fittest” to justify ruthless exploitation of the poor by wealthy corporations.
It is, however, a story that has been shown in recent decades to be erroneous at each level of its narration. Dawkins’s idea of the “selfish gene,” while still holding currency in the popular imagination, has been extensively discredited as a simplistic interpretation of evolution. In its place, biologists have developed a far more sophisticated view of evolution as a series of complex, interlocking systems, where the gene, organism, community, species, and environment all interact with each other intricately over different time frames.
Rather than a battleground of “selfish genes” competing to outperform one another, modern biologists offer a new view of nature as a web of networked systems, dynamically optimizing at different levels of evolutionary selection. Ecosystems rely for their health on the tightly synchronized interaction of many different species. Trees in a forest have been discovered to communicate with each other in a complex network that maintains their collective health—sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.” And regarding our intrinsic human nature, a new generation of scientists has pointed to our ability to cooperate, rather than compete, as our defining characteristic.
As distinguished biologist Lynn Margulis put it, “Life did not take over the world by combat but by networking.” In direct contrast to the “selfish gene” rationalization of laissez-faire capitalism, the recognition that cooperative networking is an essential part of sustainable ecosystems can inspire new ways to structure technology and social organization for human flourishing.
The ‘Nature as A Machine’ Delusion
Ever since the 17th-century scientific revolution, the view of nature as a complicated machine, first proffered by Hobbes and Descartes, has spread worldwide, leading people to lose sight of it as a metaphor and wrongly believe that nature actually is a machine.
Richard Dawkins has been responsible for popularizing an updated version of this Cartesian myth, writing famously that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” adding: “That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.” Open any science magazine, and you’ll see genes described as programmers that “code” for certain traits, while the mind is discussed as “software” for the “hardware” of the body that is “wired” in certain ways. Thanks to Dawkins and his followers, this deluded view of nature as a machine has become ubiquitous, creating the moral sanction for corporations to treat the earth as a resource to plunder, beguiling techno-visionaries to seek immortality by downloading their minds, and inspiring technocrats to argue for solving climate change through geoengineering.
Biologists, however, identify principles intrinsic to life that categorically differentiate it from even the most complicated machine. Living organisms cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. A neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its computations: the information doesn’t exist separately from its material construction.
In recent decades, systems thinkers have transformed our understanding of life, showing it to be a self-organized, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth. Everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision.
This new conception of life leads us to recognize the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems, including humans. It offers us the underpinnings for a sustainable future where technology is used, not to ransack nature or re-engineer it, but to harmonize with it and thus make life more meaningful and enhance flourishing.
The Reductionist Myth and the False Choice It Offers Us
Richard Dawkins and his followers have been responsible for foisting a cruel myth on thinking people around the world: that if they reject the illusions of monotheism, their only serious alternative is to believe in a world that is harsh, selfish, and ultimately without meaning. Their ideas arise from a particular form of scientific thought known as reductionism, which holds that every aspect of our world, no matter how awe-inspiring, is “nothing but” the mechanical motion of particles acting predictably on each other.
In fact, recent findings in complexity theory and systems biology point the way to a new conception of a connected universe that is both scientifically rigorous and deeply meaningful. In this understanding, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. By emphasizing the underlying principles that apply to all living things, this understanding helps us realize our intrinsic interdependence with all of nature, and offers a philosophical basis for a future of sustainable flourishing. Rather than driven by selfish genes in an endless struggle, we are in fact part of a web of meaning linking humanity with the natural world.
The damage that Richard Dawkins has caused our global society goes far deeper than any hurtful comments he has made about Islam. As we face the gaping inequalities caused by uncontrolled capitalism, along with the looming threat of catastrophic climate change and other impending global crises, we must recognize the role that Dawkins’ ideas have played in forming the philosophical foundations of our unsustainable worldview.
Ultimately, the crucial issue is not about cancelling his appearance on a radio show but recognizing that, just as religion has caused millennia of suffering based on delusional ideas, Dawkins himself has created a new delusional framework offering a false rationale for an economic and technocratic system destroying human and natural flourishing. The choice is not between religion and science, as Dawkins and his followers suggest. The real choice is between a flawed worldview that leads inexorably to globally destructive behavior and one that recognizes life’s deep interconnectedness and humanity’s intrinsic responsibility within it.
Trash-talking celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins was back in the news recently when Berkeley public radio station KPFA cancelled a sponsored interview with him. The station pulled out of the event because of what it called Dawkins’ history of “hurtful” and “abusive” tweets and comments about Islam.
Critics of KPFA’s decision are calling this another example of politically correct snowflakes muffling any voice they find offensive.
Although I deplore their harsh language, I agree with those who regret the cancellation of Dawkins’ event, because I think it vital for a healthy society that a plurality of voices, even those we find offensive, be heard. One of the more distressing trends in American society today is the knee-jerk revilement, indulged in by both the right and the left, of dissenting voices.
Having said this, however, I also agree with KPFA: Dawkins’ remarks about religion, Christianity as well as Islam, have indeed been abusive, contributing to the coarsening and polarization of our culture. And lest you think, “Well, of course a priest would say that,” let me assure you that my objection has nothing to do with my faith and everything to do with my regard for reasoned and civil discourse.
When I say that Dawkins is abusive, I don’t simply mean that his harsh remarks about religion have hurt this or that person’s feelings. Feelings get hurt all the time in this world, a sad but inescapable fact. Better to grow a slightly thickened skin than to petulantly nurse an attitude of permanent grievance.
No, the damage Dawkins has done is cultural rather than personal. Dawkins has basement-lowered the tone of discourse when it comes to religion, thereby giving his adoring fan base permission to do likewise.
People who have read my books and articles know how greatly I admire and learn from atheists who do the hard work of familiarizing themselves with the religious beliefs to which they object so that they can offer rigorous arguments against them.
But Dawkins does neither. Instead, he gut-punches intelligence right out of the discussion.
To begin with, he demonstrates no real familiarity with scripture, instead cherry-picking passages from the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim holy texts that, because they’re ripped out of context, easily make religion look stupid and cruel.
A representatively screechy passage from his best-selling The God Delusion gives some idea of what I mean. The “God of the Old Testament,” Dawkins sputters, is “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
No one who’s actually taken the time to read the Wisdom books, prophets, or large sections of the Pentateuch could possibly write such nonsense. This is the sort of wild exaggeration you hear only from people with huge chips-on-their-shoulders.
Additionally, Dawkins trashes religious faith by inevitably conflating it with gullibility and superstition—it’s “weird,” “brainless,” “a crutch for consolation,” and a “cop-out.” These are soundbites that people who’ve never really bothered to listen to what serious students of religion say about faith typically toss around.
But it gets even sloppier. As an alternative to faith, Dawkins recommends reason. (Never mind that this is a tiresomely false dichotomy.) But he dubiously identifies reason with the scientific method, which he appears not to understand. Science’s methodology is specifically fitted to examine the physical world and generate hypotheses about it. As any good scientist will readily concede, science oversteps its mark and betrays its own methodology when it makes untestable metaphysical pronouncements. But Dawkins, in the name of science, does precisely this, claiming that science proves the through-and-through physical nature of reality—a metaphysical rather than scientific assertion.
Dawkins is also a master of outrageously unjustified moral claims about religion: religious education, he says, is child abuse, religion is responsible for most terrorism (a claim, by the way, that’s time and again proved to be not at all self-evident), and faith makes people “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked.”
Finally, he’s less familiar than a first-year college student with centuries-old philosophical analyses, pro and con, of religious claims. Consequently, he misunderstands and misrepresents pro-God arguments from thinkers like Anselm or Thomas Aquinas and then, quite predictably, tilts at windmills in responding to them.
The long and short of it is that when it comes to religion, Dawkins is a master of distortion, straw-manning, snarky one-lining, and sloppiness. Rage rather than reason guides his pen. Like a white-knuckled driver seething with road rage, this makes him a high risk.
A few years ago, when Dawkins and his fellow “Horsemen” were galloping roughshod over civil and cogent discussions of religion, I became so disgusted that I wrote a book, Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed, in which I tried to show that belief and disbelief are a lot more complex than Dawkins allowed. As a professor of philosophy for over three decades, I felt obliged to offer an alternative to his sloppy polemics. I did this not because I’m a religious skeptic, but because I value rational argumentation.
Back then, I merely considered Dawkins a parvenu and a nuisance. But over the past few perilous months, with the rise of an “alternative” facts and “fake news” ethos in which truth is ignored and bluster reigns supreme, I’ve changed my mind. I now think Dawkins and his ilk are downright dangerous—not because they say nasty things about religion, but because they feed, in their own small way, our increasingly toxic culture of vituperation, distrust, and ignorance.
Voices like Dawkins’ oughtn’t to be silenced, as KPFA chose to do. But they definitely need to be called out and challenged.
Yesterday I reported on a HuffPo hit piece about Richard Dawkins by an academic and Catholic priest named Kerry Walters. I sent the links to Richard, who of course is used to this kind of thing, but wanted to set the record straight about some of Walters’ misrepresentations of his words (Dawkins pulls no punches, calling them “lies”). Richard’s response, which I publish with permission, is below (indented):
There’s not much left of Kerry Walters by the time Jerry Coyne has finished dealing with him. I would add only this.
Walters wrote the following. “Dawkins is also a master of outrageously unjustified moral claims about religion: religious education, he says, is child abuse, religion is responsible for most terrorism (a claim, by the way, that’s time and again proved to be not at all self-evident), and faith makes people “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked.” I’ll take his three allegations in order.
First, far from saying religious education is child abuse, I have been a strong and frequent advocate of religious education. I’ve repeated, to the point of tedium, that children need to be taught about religion so they can understand history, current affairs and art. More particularly, I have advocated education in the King James Bible, without which you can’t take your allusions in English literature.
I am opposed to indoctrination in just one particular faith, such as is done in British state-supported faith schools of many denominations. However, I don’t think I’ve ever called even that “child abuse.” What I have called child abuse, and do so again without apology, is terrifying children with threats of hell, and labelling children with the faith of their parents: “You are a Catholic child” or “You are a Muslim child” etc. I have ridiculed this practice by comparing it with “You are an existentialist child” or “You are a logical positivist child” or “You are a Gramscian Marxist child”. I have said that the very phrase “Catholic child” should sound as aversive as fingernails on a blackboard. The proper phrase is “child of Catholic parents.”
Second, the claim that religion is responsible for most terrorism. I agree that it is not self-evident and I have never said it was. I do think an extremely strong case can be made for it, and that is all I have ever said or implied.
But it is Walters’ third allegation that disturbs me most because it is a damaging lie. How could I possibly have said “faith makes people ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked”? To do so would be to insult such respected friends as the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. If Kerry Walters had read more carefully, he would have noticed this: I wasn’t talking about people of faith but people who don’t believe in evolution! Here are my exact words, in a book review in the New York Times. “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” I was careful to add that ignorance is by far the most likely cause of non-belief in evolution. We are all ignorant of many things. I am ignorant of baseball and Polynesian nose flutes. In the time of Martin Luther, the Catholic church regarded ignorance of the Bible as a positive virtue. Though neither a virtue nor bliss, ignorance is no crime. In the light of that and the proven fact of evolution, “Anti-evolutionists are ignorant, stupid or insane” becomes not an insult but a simple statement of fact. An evolution-accepting Catholic like Walters cannot logically deny it.
I have paid Walters the compliment of assuming that he accepts the fact of evolution. Yet his garbling of my statement — missing what, for him as a Catholic, ought to be the massive distinction between people of faith on the one hand and fundamentalist creationists on the other — might be revealing if not positively damning.
Anyway what he wrote is a damaging lie against me. I believe it is customary for a lie that is damaging to elicit a public apology. No doubt it will be forthcoming and I shall accept it graciously.
I’ll put a link to this post on the HuffPo site, and we’ll see about that apology. . .