On Reading Dawkins

I just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. On the whole, it wasn’t as bad as some responses have made it out to be, which is hardly surprising given the topic that he tackles. Much of the book was a disturbing tour through the dark side of religion, one that should disturb any religious person deeply. I would submit that many of the frenzied reacions to Dawkins and his ilk have come about from religious people who attempt to deny this dark side, preferring to indulge in utopian fantasies that the group that they happen to be a part of is perfect simply because they talk about high ideals. This is why I will continue to join Merold Westphal in calling for atheism for lent.

Dawkins could, however, be readily accused of the exact same thinking which he castigates. I will restrict myself to just one thought in this vein: Dawkins delights in mentioning all of myriad problems which religion regularly introduces into the world, but he neglects to extend the same critique to science in the slightest. There have been many horrors wrought on the world via scientific breakthroughs, but this does not mean that I think science should simply be dismissed, but this is the move that Dawkins consistently makes vis-à-vis religion. It is much more difficult to say a critical “no” and a critical “yes” to specific expressions of things within both science and religion, but Dawkins much prefers the ease of broad, sweeping strokes.

But the thing that most interested me was a little throwaway line in the midst of Dawkins criticizing an opponent for failing to understand the extent of natural selection’s vast explanatory powers. He says that “perhaps you need to be steeped in natural selection, immersed in it, before you can truly appreciate its power” (117). The interesting thing here is that Dawkins has admitted the power that traditions have to shape the way that we think, something with which I can only agree.

Dawkins is, in the end, inhabiting a tradition whose story says that religion should be passing away any day now, as science continues to move forward in unraveling the mysteries of the universe which we once relied upon religion to explain. The trouble (as Charles Taylor points out) is that this grand narrative has certainly has not come to pass, nor do I believe that it ever will. This provides a possible explanation for the seemingly confused anger that laces Dawkins’ rhetoric, since the persistence (and even increase) of religious belief and practice is something which he is at a loss to explain. This ironically means that he is inhabiting a world of a certain kind of traditioned faith which has no bearing on the world that really exists!

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