Thursday, December 15, 2005

Secular fideism

I’ll be quoting and commenting on some excerpts of a recent interview with Richard Dawkins.

“I would want them to believe whatever evidence leads them to; I would want them to look at the evidence, judge it on its merits, not accept things because of internal revelation or faith, but purely on the basis of evidence.”

Now that’s a nice sounding bit of advice. There’s only one little problem, though; Richard Dawkins thinks the evidence leads to gradualism, but Stephen J. Gould thought it led to punctuated equilibrium, while Bill Dembski thinks it leads to intelligent design, and Kurt Wise thinks it leads to young-earth creationism. But other than that, thanks a bunch.

“Not everybody can evaluate all evidence; we can’t evaluate the evidence for quantum physics. So it does have to be a certain amount of taking things on trust. I have to take what physicists say on trust, for example, because I'm a biologist. But science [has] a system of appraisal, of peer review, so that I trust the physics community to get their act together in a way that I know from the inside.”

There’s some truth to all this, but it’s deeply misleading.

1.If most folks are incompetent to evaluate the scientific evidence for evolution, then why is Richard Dawkins churning out so many titles targeting the general public? Why is he trying to convince them that evolution is true if they should take it on faith?

Dawkins is a leading popularizer of evolution. Does he or does he not believe that the average reader is competent to form an educated opinion on the merits of evolution?

2.One can accept his premise, but draw a very different conclusion. If I’m incompetent to weigh the evidence for myself, then maybe I should reserve judgment. I wouldn’t either believe it or disbelieve it. Rather, I wouldn’t venture to form an opinion.

3.Peer review can be a quality control mechanism. But it can also be an enforcement mechanism to penalize rational dissent and reinforce a groupthink mentality.

“I wish people would put their trust in evidence, not in faith, revelation, tradition, or authority.”

A couple of basic problems here:

1.If most folks are incompetent to weigh the evidence for themselves, such that they need to take certain things on faith, then they are putting their trust, not in the evidence, but in scientific authority. So this is an appeal to faith--an argument from authority.

2.Dawkins is also assuming, without benefit of argument, that faith and reason are opposed, as though a Christian couldn’t possibly have a good reason for what he believes, as if all the evidence were on the side of secular science, and none on the side of the Christian faith.

“They need to understand what evolution is about. Many of them don’t…That is staggering ignorance of what evolutionary science is about; if they think that’s what evolutionists believe, no wonder they’re skeptical of it. How can a civilized country have adult people in positions of leadership who know so stunningly little about the leading biological concept?”

This allegation is interesting from several different angles:

1.The evolutionary establishment has had a chokehold on public and private education for decades. So why are so many people ignorant of evolution?

Or could it be that many of them knowingly reject evolution as a flawed theory?

2.Dawkins freely admits that evolution is a profoundly counterintuitive theory. That nature has the undeniable appearance of design. But that our sneaky genes have played a dirty trick on us by fostering the illusion of design.

Dawkins is also on record as saying that consciousness itself is illusory.

Now, when you can only salvage your theory by appealing to global illusions, by telling us that the evidence of natural design is a trick of the mind, and the mind itself is ultimately unreal, then is it any wonder that your theory strains rational credulity well past the breaking point?

3.I suspect that one reason many people don’t believe in evolution is that men like Dawkins refuse to expose their claims to an honest debate. Why does Dawkins retreat into the comfort zone of a softball interview?

Suppose that Dawkins were to challenge Dembski to a formal, public debate? Suppose that Dawkins were to trounce his opponent. That would be the end of the ID movement.

Let us take his advice. Let us accept the argument from authority. How can we put faith in evolution when a leading evolutionary scientist like Dawkins treats his theory as something so very vulnerable that he will only promote it from the safety of a keyboard or a sympathetic podium?

A lot of folks are taking their cue from the likes of Richard Dawkins. Watch what he does, and not what he says.

4.If the average student is incompetent to weigh the evidence for evolution, then why should it be part of the core curriculum, anyway?

5.Assuming, for the sake of argument, that many Christians evince a staggering ignorance of evolution, many Darwinians evidence a staggering ignorance of Christianity, as well as a staggering ignorance of the ID literature.

Dawkins betrays not the slightest evidence of having done any serious reading in Christian apologetics, natural theology, or philosophical theology. Dawkins betrays not the slightest evidence of having done any serious reading in the ID literature.

“It’s certainly hard to know what to make of it. I think it’s a betrayal of science. I think they have a religious agenda which, for reasons best known to themselves, they elevate above science.”

Notice the moralistic tone. This from a man who dismisses the mind as illusory. Just what is Dawkins justification for secular ethics, anyway?

“If it’s true that it causes people to feel despair, that’s tough. It’s still the truth. The universe doesn’t owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn’t owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it’s true, it’s true, and you'd better live with it.”

“Well, of course it is. Wouldn’t it be lovely to believe in an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, can give you advice? Of course it’s satisfying, if you can believe it. But who wants to believe a lie?”

Assuming, for the sake of argument, the truth of the premise, how does the conclusion thereby follow?

If the universe doesn’t owe us anything, then we don’t owe the universe anything in return. In that case, why shouldn’t we prefer a beautiful illusion to a terrible truth?

“However, I don’t think it should make one feel depressed. I don’t feel depressed. I feel elated. My book, ‘Unweaving the Rainbow,’ is an attempt to elevate science to the level of poetry and to show how one can be—in a funny sort of way—rather spiritual about science. Not in a supernatural sense, but there are uplifting mysteries to be solved. The contemplation of the size and scale of the universe, of the depth of geological time, of the complexity of life--these all, to me, have an inspirational quality. It makes my life worthwhile to study them.”

“I think there is something glorious in the universe, in contemplating the Milky Way galaxy, in contemplating the fact that this is only one in billions of galaxies, contemplating the fact that at the beginning of the 21st century, humanity really has gone a very long way toward understanding the universe in which we live and the life form of which we are a part. I find that a truly inspirational thought.”

There is, of course, a Christian explanation for that: “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork” (Ps 19:1).

“Yes, because it doesn’t explain where the designer comes from. If they’re going to emphasize the statistical improbability of biological organs—"these are so complicated, how could they have evolved?"--well, if they’re so complicated, how could they possibly have been designed? Because the designer would have to be even more complicated.”

Is this supposed to be his trump card against the teleological argument? If so, it’s a remarkably fallacious objection.

It’s true that invoking God generates a new set of questions. But an answer to one set of questions is not necessarily a wrong answer because it fails to answer another set of questions.

Explaining that Richard Dawkins wrote “Unweaving the Rainbow” doesn’t explain where Richard Dawkins came from. And the writer is more complicated than his writing.

So is it fallacious to infer that “Unweaving the Rainbow” came from the pen of Richard Dawkins unless we can explain where Richard Dawkins came from? And does the fact that Richard Dawkins is more complicated than a book of his thereby generate a vicious regress?

“In fact, any respectable theologian of the Catholic or Anglican or any other sensible church believes in evolution.”

This is more of his trademark question-begging.

“Obviously, there are other things having nothing to do with science—music, poetry, sex, love. These are all things that make life, to me, extremely worth living.”

An odd statement from a materialist. Isn’t everything ultimately reducible to physics?

“Then there's the added fact that it is the only life we’re ever going to get. Don’t kid yourself that you’re going to live again after you’re dead; you’re not. Make the most of the one life you’ve got. Live it to the full…Don’t imagine for one second you’re going to paradise. You’re not. You’re going to rot in the ground.”

This exordium is only appealing to the living, and not, unfortunately, to the dead. Once you’re dead, and that’s the end of the line, then it’s of no concern of yours how much you got out of life.

“I would never wish to disabuse or disillusion somebody who believed that. I care about what’s true for myself, but I don’t want to go around telling people who are afraid of dying that their hopes are unreal.”

So it is okay to believe a pleasing lie after all?

Due to common grace, Dawkins has a few remnants of humanity left in him. A residual morality and decency. But this is wholly at odds with his icy creed.


  1. fa,skontej ei=nai sofoi. evmwra,nqhsan
    (actually, that's supposed to be Romans 1:22 in Greek).
    I think that Richard Dawkins is suppressing the fact that he's really a butterfly dreaming that he's Richard Dawkins.

  2. “It’s certainly hard to know what to make of it. I think it’s a betrayal of science. I think they have a religious agenda which, for reasons best known to themselves, they elevate above science.”

    You know, I find this a bit strange. It's certainly hard what to make of it. I think it's a betrayal of religion. I think Dawkins has a scientific agenda which, for reasons best known to him, he elevates above religion.

  3. Richard Dawkins and William Dembski have been in private correspondence in the past, and Dawkins refuses to debate Dembski.

    Jason Engwer
    New Testament Research Ministries