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Richard Dawkins at UBC: Part One, Dawkins as Rhetor

So someone at the University of British Columbia (UBC) decided it was a good idea to bring Richard Dawkins to campus to give a free public lecture. Fair enough. He’s an academic celebrity and there are precious few of those.

The two (two!) professors who introduced him, however, introduced him as someone who could impressively relate the humanities and the sciences. That claim deserves a little scrutiny.

Lots of people have analyzed and criticized Dawkins’s arguments over the years. Indeed, there are whole forests’ worth of books now in print responding to one or another of his anti-theism volumes. And who can count the number of phosphors employed similarly in the blogosphere?

What I will do over the next three posts is to offer what I hope will be some observations that complement these direct engagements with this ideas, and I will do so indeed from the perspective of the humanities.

Let’s begin with one of the most ancient of the liberal arts and consider Dawkins as Rhetor, as orator, as public speaker.

I was impressed with Dawkins’s poise, diction, and sense of comic timing. He is obviously good at this kind of thing and it was fun to see him do it.

I also enjoyed his crusade on behalf of truth: even if it offends people, even if it robs them of comfort or purpose in life if such is grounded on delusions. We evangelicals like to say similar things about the central importance of truth, and it was a little eerie, as well as gratifying, to see him press the same agenda on an audience that might prefer it if everyone just left everyone else alone to just seek Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, or at least Happiness, Comfort, and Purpose, in Their Own Way—as current cultural orthodoxy has it.

We evangelicals also like his emphasis upon evidence and argument. Vigorous apologetics might be out of style or even in bad taste in some circles, but not in ours. Bring it on! we say, and Dawkins seems glad to oblige.

Except he isn’t. Or, at least, he wasn’t today.

For instead of a sustained, well-evidenced argument, he resorted to a sort of drive-by shooting, a “Top Ten List of Things Atheists Detest about Monotheistic Belief.” Assisted by a clever PowerPoint presentation (although it was likely on Keynote: I stand with Dawkins as a fellow Macintosh user), he moved through a preposterously ambitious list of objections: religion causes violence, religion is unscientific, religion is irrational, religion is oppressive, religion hates women, religion prompts “speciesism,” and more. Little in the way of argument was offered, even less of evidence.

For example, Dawkins maintained that religion has prompted people to kill other people, while atheism has never done so. And he took about three minutes to make this rather sweeping point.

Strictly speaking this is correct: Not believing in God probably never roused anyone to go kill someone else.

But not believing in God, of course (of course, Professor Dawkins), means that one has relieved oneself of a significant restraint on all the other motives one might have for killing someone else: such time-honoured motives as land, power, wealth, ideology, and the like. And, indeed, that is precisely what we see in the bloody twentieth century: atheistic regimes claiming more lives than all previous regimes put together. So atheism is hardly off the hook when it comes to global violence.

Dawkins likes to say, and did say again, that religion is based on faith, while science is based on evidence. What Dawkins doesn’t say, and didn’t say again, is that faith is also based on evidence. So the parallel is simply false and he (and many others) needs to rethink the relationship of science and faith. (I have written a bit about faith and evidence in a trio of posts, starting here.)

Dawkins also chided Christians for the argument from design on the grounds that they misunderstand natural selection as mere chance, thus ridiculing Darwinism with Fred Hoyle’s famous analogy of the hurricane blowing through a junkyard and constructing an airliner thereby. There’s something valid to Dawkins’s reply. But it literally doesn’t begin to explain all of the “black boxes” of complex mechanisms in nature the intermediate phases of which can hardly be conceived to have accumulated merely via natural selection, as Michael Behe and others have shown. Dawkins doesn’t engage this serious, science-based argument, and instead contents himself with a quick thwack at stupid theists instead.

And that’s what most of the talk was: a smart atheist bashing dumb theists. Such an event is fun, perhaps—in the way that shooting fish in a barrel is fun for the uncompetitive and untalented—but it seems rather unworthy of the latest Great Champion of Freethinking Atheism.

I indulge in that bit of sarcasm to chide Dawkins on the other truly hypocritical dimension of his presentation. Not only did this tribune of reason and evidence offer precious little of either, but this defender of civil and forthright controversy resorted frequently to mere joking in place of argument. Indeed, in the most egregious part of his presentation, he played a video clip of a British comedian taking easy aim at touchy and violent Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

It’s not that either Dawkins or his comedic surrogate were all wrong. They scored some genuine points. It’s that the whole mode of engagement was not engagement at all, but rather simply a barrage of insults and reprimands.

And that’s the main point: Dawkins did not seriously advance a particular outlook, showing how it offered superior explanations for such vital matters as, say, love, altruism, morality, guilt, aspiration to life after death, or even the rational basis for science itself—all of which have indeed been explained and defended from various theistic standpoints. Instead, he merely took shots at other points of view from an assumed, but not demonstrated, height of moral and intellectual superiority.

So as I sat in UBC’s grand Chan Centre Theatre among hundreds of students and professors, I was embarrassed, I confess, to be a member of the UBC community: embarrassed at the fawning introductions by two professors who clearly could not distinguish between a legitimate philosophical argument and a mere tour de force; embarrassed that this excellent university had not invited any capable person to respond to his remarks in the spirit of proper intellectual exchange; and embarrassed to know for certain that there is no way these same university sponsors would endorse a similar talk by an eminent Christian scholar who offered an alternative point of view—not scientists such as Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, John Lennox, or Alister McGrath, let alone philosophers, theologians, or cultural historians (for in the apologetical combination of these disciplines is the true discourse of Richard Dawkins in this mode) such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Nancey Murphy, William Lane Craig, or Rodney Stark.

So it was a sorry spectacle indeed.

And that was the formal presentation. Things got much more interesting, however, in the question-and-answer period that followed. On that, my next post.


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