In praise of atheism

The anomaly of Richard Dawkins

Click HERE to read a review of The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins may be an emeritus (ie retired) fellow of New College, Oxford, and the University of Oxford’s former Professor for Public Understanding of Science, but all his energy these days seems to be devoted to the defence of what Engels called “metaphysical materialism”,

“. . . the mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them . . . the universe, willy-nilly, has to conform to a system of thought which itself is only the product of a definite stage of evolution of human thought . . .”

(Dialectics).

A reader’s letter in the socialist daily paper, the Morning Star, described Dawkins as “a defender of evolution and populariser of science”, and he certainly has a great deal to say about evolution, not all of it non-controversial.

His last published scientific paper was a response to the comments of three other biologists in 2004 to a paper he had contributed on “the extended phenotype” some years earlier. Since then he has published five popular science books, only one of which, in 2005, was devoted to a defence of evolution.

But why is such a defence necessary? True, the Christian right in USA denies the evidence that evolution is a biological fact, but this is part of a political agenda, not something most Christians are concerned about. How could they be, since the Biblical testimony of Genesis, chapter one, verses 20 to 27, follows the generally accepted evolutionary pattern of fish evolving into flesh and humanity arising out “the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind”?

The question is HOW did this happen? Biologists are not so united on this as Dawkins always maintains, since Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould offer a theory of punctuated equilibria to the world as an alternative to natural selection, which was Darwin’s (and is Dawkins’) preferred mechanism.

It is interesting that Eldredge and Gould were denounced as Marxists, since their theory accorded with the “negation of a negation” in materialist dialectics.

The problem with Dawkins’ atheism is that it does not actually abolish God; it puts man (the gender here is significant) in the place of a non-contingent reality over which, ultimately, man has no control.

This is demonstrated in Dawkins’ own writings. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins tells how he programmed a computer to “breed” meaningful phrases out of meaningless keystrokes typed by his 11-month-old daughter. In 11 seconds, his Pascal program turned the gibberish “Wdlmnt dtbkwirzrezlmqco p” into Hamlet’s “Methinks it is like a weasel”, thus proving, to his own satisfaction, that the famous monkey with a typewriter and infinite time could indeed produce the works of Shakespeare.

But far from disproving the existence of a motivating force, Dawkins’ experiment does the opposite, for without a programmer – himself – playing the part of God, there is no way his computer could have produced anything from the gibberish. Indeed, without the pre-defined code in the computer’s BIOS (basic input/output system) and the “ASCII” code, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, which translates keyboard switch pulses into alphanumeric characters on screen, so that ASCII code 65 (or on-off-off-off-off-off-on – 1000001 in binary) represents the letter “A” and 90 (binary 1011010) the letter “Z”, his daughter’s keyboard input would not have been even perceptible gibberish.

His experiments with computer-based biomorphs are even more critical to the point he is trying to make so assiduously, for he himself demonstrates that, in his God-like role, he not only programs the process in train, but he also intervenes to ensure that it develops in ways pleasing to him:

“You will notice that all the shapes are symmetrical about a left/right axis. This is a constraint that I imposed on the development procedure. I did it partly for aesthetic reasons; partly to economise on the number of genes necessary (if genes didn’t exert mirror–image effects on the two sides of the tree, we’d need separate genes for the left and the right sides); and partly because I was hoping to evolve animal-like shapes and most animal bodies are pretty symmetrical.”

(The Blind Watchmaker, p. 55)

In his attempt to explain the evolution of human characteristics, he wrote:

“We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.”

(The Selfish Gene, OUP, 1989, p.192)

He explains:

“There are . . . examples of cultural evolution in birds and monkeys, but these are just interesting oddities. It is our own species that really shows what cultural evolution can do. Language is only one example out of many. Fashions in dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology, all evolve in historical time in a way that looks like highly speeded up genetic evolution, but has really nothing to do with genetic evolution. . .

“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. . .

“Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate?”

Though he coined the “meme” neologism, which gave birth, briefly, to the pseudo-science of “memetics”, and also (also briefly) a neo-religion with its own schismatics, and he stumbled out of his study crying eureka at the discovery of something not lost, the concept of the evolution of thought is by no means new. Like M. Jourdain in Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, who discovered he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, memes – ideas – have been part of human psychic evolution as long as there have been humans.

Over two decades before he introduced the word “meme” into our vocabulary, in 1954, the International Folk Music Council adopted a definition, which almost anticipates Dawkins’ eureka moment:

“Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are:

(i)        continuity which links the present with the past;
(ii)      variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and
(iii)    selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.”

This is not so different from Dawkins’ recipe for a successful meme: “longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity”.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the slogan, “the medium is the message”, in his seminal work, Understanding Media; had Dawkins anticipated him, rather than writing more than a decade later, McLuhan might even have declared that “the medium is the memeage”, for at root Dawkins was exploring similar areas of thought.

Just as physical evolution can run into blind alleys whose survival seems not to fit into the doctrine of natural selection, memes (let us continue for the time being to continue to call them that) can have a negative effect on thought, as Adorno pointed out in his analysis of the misuse of language in totalitarian cultures like fascism and the mass medias:

“The general repetition of names for measures to be taken by the authorities makes them, so to speak, familiar, just as the brand name on everybody’s lips increased sales in the era of the free market. The blind and rapidly spreading repetition of words with special designations links advertising with the totalitarian watchword. The layer of experience which created the words for their speakers has been removed; in this swift appropriation language acquires the coldness which until now it had only on billboards and in the advertisement columns of newspapers. Innumerable people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand or employ only because they trigger off conditioned reflexes; in this sense, words are trade-marks which are finally all the more firmly linked to the things they denote, the less their linguistic sense is grasped.”

(The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, from Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, 1944)

Dawkins ascribes a similar negative role to belief in God:

“When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking – the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.”

This must be because, in evolutionary terms, we can measure the fitness of such an idea in terms of its reproductive success. But Dawkins shies away from such analysis like a frightened horse. He does not explain why the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam continue to be so attractive to huge swathes of humanity, despite worshipping a God who is

“. . . arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

How does he know this? Because the Bible tells him so. This world-wide best-seller may be regarded as a collection of memes, oral memories co-existing for thousands of years with the written scrolls which were destroyed during the sixth century BC Babylonian war, and reassembled after the return from exile in the form we know the Torah today. This explains the confused chronology, why, for instance, the commandment against adultery (a property violation) is ascribed to a time in the development of the Judaic family before the patriarchal system and its property relations of which the very idea of adultery is a part.

How do WE know this? Because the Bible tells us so. Despite its confused chronology, the development of the human family it describes was sufficiently clear to Lewis Henry Morgan, the American anthropologist whose Ancient Society analysed these ancient texts, and drew analogies with family structures in the world of his time, notably the Native American Iroquois and the Hawaiians, which Frederick Engels drew upon for his seminal The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (the omission of the last two subjects is a common error, but it is important to root what we see of the changes in family life to the establishment of property and the roots of today’s nation state).

According to the Bible (Genesis 1:29), Adam and Eve were hunter-gatherers, though there is nothing in the narrative to suggest they were animists; the surrounding population, with whom their descendants interbred (Genesis 6:1-2) probably were. To purloin Marx’s famous dictum (in Theses on Feuerbach), the function of animism was not to understand the world, but to change it, to help the gatherer find food, or to make the hunter more effective in seeking his prey.

Christopher Caudwell describes how this phenomenon mutated into the religious impulse:

“By thus projecting his self-feeling into outer reality, man also feels his way into it. True, he makes the environmental human, arbitrary, emotional. But as a result he also makes himself environmental. He comes from the transaction enriched with a knowledge of reality.

“He makes as it were a series of magic propositions about reality, a chain of wish-fulfilments. In acting according to these, he imperceptibly finds imposed on them, by interaction with reality, a real structure, a determined pattern. As a result of experience, his prayers for rain are made at the beginning of the rainy season, his fertility rites are performed in spring. He prays to the sun to rise at dawn and does not ask it to rise immediately after it has set. The inhabitants of desert lands do not pray for rain. Thus all his self-feeling, projected into outer reality, is organised by it, and what were at first all-powerful emotions, apparently dominating reality, become words emotionally charged, and yet organised and ‘influenced’ by reality, and, finally those become symbols (mathematics) which are like a transparent dress conforming to the shape of outer reality. All this has been achieved by his active interpenetration with reality.”

(Further Studies in a Dying Culture, Monthly Review Press, New York,
1971 reprint of 1938 edition)

Dawkins does make a passing reference to a possible role for religion as

“. . . a mechanism for solidifying group identity, valuable for a pack-hunting species whose individuals rely on cooperation to catch large and fast prey.”

But if he had applied his biological expertise to the evolution of religion, he would not have committed the all too common error of using religion and belief in the supernatural as synonymous terms; the mimetic dances of pack-hunting proto-humans predated religion as a set of religious dogma by many millennia.

In his Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006, p.140) Daniel Dennett posits something he calls folk religion,

“…the sorts of religion that have no written creeds, no theologians, no hierarchies of officials. Before any of the great organized religions existed, there were folk religions, and these provided the cultural environment from which organized religions could emerge.”

But “written creeds, theologians, hierarchies of officials” are part and parcel of what is meant by religion, and calling pre-religious practices “folk” does not explain anything, but, rather, confuses the issue.

In an article, “New Atheism (and ‘New Humanism’)” published in the autumn 2008 issue of the journal, Religious Humanism, reprinted from the German journal, Aufklärung und Kritik, James Farmelant takes issue with Dennett’s concept of “folk” religion:

“The argument is along the following lines: Although it is not adaptive to shout at your automobile if it fails to start or to kick your computer if it freezes up, it is adaptive for, say, a hunter to think of his prey as actively planning to avoid his attentions. The intentional stance evolved because those species of animals that acquired it gained thereby some competitive advantages over other species that were their rivals or their predators.

“But the intentional stance, once acquired, can become hyperactivated. The anthropomorphizing of certain natural phenomena — for instance, regarding the sun and the stars as sentient, intelligent beings — is a ‘misfiring’ of this cognitive skill; and such misfirings might be responsible for the human tendency to posit mythical Beings as governing the world.”

Ideas (or memes) do not arise outside of history. They may seem to us as abstractions, but they have originated, been shared, borrowed, changed, misunderstood, and passed on by real human beings, evolving as the superstructures of society have evolved.

Dawkins appears unaware that even according to the Bible (Genesis 4:26), there was a time when human beings began “to call upon the name of the Lord”, suggesting that before that time they did not do so. His analysis is totally a-historical. He is seemingly unaware that our whole western principles of causality stem from the thoughts of the wandering tribes of Israel, who first put forward the concept that if you did A, then B would follow as a consequence. (This concept was very late appearing in Chinese philosophy, which is why Oriental causality was for so long synchronous rather than linear.)

As Emile Durkheim pointed out:

“There is no religion that is not a cosmology at the same time that it is a speculation upon divine things. If philosophy and the sciences were born of religion, it is because religion began by taking the place of the sciences and philosophy. But it has been less frequently noticed that religion has not confined itself to enriching the human intellect, formed beforehand, with a certain nunber of ideas ; it has contributed to forming the intellect itself. Men owe to it not only a good part of the substance of their knowledge, but also the form in which this knowledge has been elaborated.”

(The elementary forms of the religious life, a study in religious sociology, 1915)

Though he is a passionate advocate of Darwinian evolution, elevating it to the status of a secular religion, he seems reluctant to apply it to the development of human societies. And it is particularly surprising that he dismisses the theory of “group selection”, as advocated by V. C. Wynne-Edwards in Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962), and developed in Evolution Through Group Selection (Blackwell, 1986), since the group selection process, by which the survival of the group rather than the individual is determined, is totally in line with his meme theory.

What offends him, it seems, is the association of the moral concept of altruism with group selection, since, as he puts it in The Selfish Gene,

“Even in the group of altruists, there will almost certainly be a dissenting minority who refuse to make any sacrifice. It there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he, by definition, is more likely than they are to survive and have children. Each of these children will tend to inherit his selfish traits. After several generations of this natural selection, the ‘altruistic group’ will be over-run by selfish individuals, and will be indistinguishable from the selfish group.”

So speaks Darwinism as the theology of “devil take the hindmost” capitalism, which sees “survival of the fittest” as the consequence of Hobbes’ war of all against all.

This drives Dawkins into some astonishing flights of fancy. He explains the behaviour of the “stotting” antelope, which leaps up in the face of a predator attack, allowing the rest of the herd to escape:

“. . it is primarily selected as a signal to the predator. Translated roughly into English it means: ‘Look how high I can jump, I am obviously such a fit and healthy gazelle, you can’t catch me, you would be much wiser to try and catch my neighbour who is not jumping so high!’ In less anthropomorphic terms, genes for jumping high and ostentatiously are unlikely to be eaten by predators because predators tend to choose prey who look easy to catch. In particular, many mammal predators are known to go for the old and the unhealthy. An individual who jumps high is advertising, in an exaggerated way, the fact that he is neither old nor unhealthy. According to this theory, the display is far from altruistic. If anything it is selfish, since its object is to persuade the predator to chase somebody else. In a way there is a competition to see who can jump the highest, the loser being the one chosen by the predator.”

But the antelope’s leaping is neither altruistic nor selfish, for these are human judgements, the product of millennia of social evolution; it is instinctual behaviour, blind to our classifications. But our judgements are themselves the products of social evolution, hard to explain in terms of the survival of the fittest. Why, for instance, did prisoners in the Nazi death camps sometimes take the place of others on the way to the gas chambers, almost as if they did not realize that their actions merely postponed the deaths of those whose places they took? And how did such counter-intuitive behaviours develop?

Dawkins, and the rest of the social Darwinists, do not apply their Darwinism to these phenomena. He writes:

“Perhaps one reason for the great appeal of the group-selection theory is that it is thoroughly in tune with the moral and political ideals that most of us share. We may frequently behave selfishly as individuals, but in our more idealistic moments we honour and admire those who put the welfare of others first.”

Yes, and it is rejected because it does not accord with the “no such thing as society” philosophy that Dawkins appears to subscribe to, when he observes that

“Curiously, peace-time appeals for individuals to make some small sacrifice in the rate at which they increase their standard of living seem to be less effective than war-time appeals for individuals to lay down their lives.”

But those who are refusing to carry the burden of capitalism’s ongoing crisis by making “some small sacrifice in the rate at which they increase their standard of living” are acting in accordance with the same principles which led millions to lay down their lives in the struggle against fascism; human beings are a collaborative species, but solidarity against the predators among us is a collaborative survival technique evolved and developed from the needs of the communities of proto-humans who had to work together as pack animals when they were forced (probably by ecological catastrophe) to descend from the trees into the hostile environments of the African savannahs.

Indeed, he suggests that

“An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.”

Is not this what he decries as altruism?

In October, 2012, Dawkins produced a series of three popular science programmes on Channel 4 TV under the general title of Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, in which he asked, rhetorically, “what happens when we leave religion behind?” (And if we are leaving religion behind, he might well have asked but didn’t, how has our species evolved to the point where this might be the case? But then, the assertion that we are leaving religion behind is presented as a given, for which no proof is necessary. It is, if you will, the opening statement in a Euclidean theorem upon which all that follows depends.)

In the first programme, he aimed to prove that moralistic behavior is not religious, by talking to a zoo keeper about monkeys who appeared to demonstrate all the features of the modern nuclear family. But in this sequence, he appears to have parked his evolutionary beliefs at the door of the studio. There are a number of problems with drawing such an analogy.

  1. Human beings have not evolved from any existing primate species. We share common ancestors with the Hylobatidae (gibbon) family and the Ponginae (orangutans). The extinct hominid species, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, is older than the human–chimpanzee divergence (estimated at 6.3 to 5.4 million years ago), though our relationship with this fossil is not certain. Anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens in the Middle Paleolithic, some 200,000 years ago.
  2. Though no human beings today are descended from any existing primate genera, it is legitimate to draw analogies with other primates, if they inhabit an ecological or societal environment from which such analogies may be drawn. For instance, the Cercopithecidae (or long-tailed) gibbons of south Saharan Africa, the area where the earliest proto-humans are believed to have arisen. (See “Social Behaviour of Baboons and Early Man” in Social Life of Early Man, Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, 1961.) Richard Dawkins’ monkeys are in no way analogous to any known early hominids.
  3. The “nuclear” family, centred on a pair of adults and their children, is a comparatively modern development, emerging in Western Europe in the 17th Century, though the description dates back to Malinowski in 1913, who maintained that the nuclear family must be universal because it filled a basic biological need; no culture could survive unless the birth of children was linked to both the father and the mother in a legally-based parenthood. But the true nuclear family was preceded by the consanguineous or extended family, itself the result of several thousand years of societal development.

Ironically, since Dawkins draws direct comparison between an unrelated monkey genus and modern humans, his position is analogous to that of so-called Christian fundamentalists, who maintain that evolution did not take place, and that even Adam was created with a belly button. To Dawkins, it appears that evolution stopped when we came down out of the trees and became the earliest hominidae.

The analogy with modern gibbons shows something different, since while something similar to their social behaviour can be seen in so-called “primitive” humans (who, we must never forget, are the result of the same 200,000 years of development as modern, “civilized” man), the gibbon “family” – if we can even use the term in their context – is quite dissimilar from the modern nuclear version.

In The Ghost Dance – the origins of religion (George Allen & Unwin, 1972), Professor Weston La Barre observes:

“Baboons have distinct food-based territoriality and are organized around a serial dominance-hierarchy of adult males. One should not, however, anthropomorphically imagine a baboon potentate and feudal subservients, for near co-dominance of males occurs; and, indeed, the relatively stable dominance hierarchy itself serves to minimize inter-male aggression by substituting dominance-communication for active fighting among adult males, which would certainly tend to reduce the number of necessary troop-protectors. . .

“Certainly the oestrous female, with her highly coloured and tumescent sexual skin, is a positive stimulus to sexuality, and at such times consort pairs may be temporarily formed, with very little fighting over females in oestrous. The muting of inter-male fighting within the troop is evidently adaptive to the necessity of having enough males in the troop to protect it. . .

“Biologically, baboon aggression is best directed outward, towards predators and towards other baboon troops that might compete for the same limited food supply, rather than inward within the troop.

“A baboon mother with a newborn infant is the object of much interest on the part of other adult females, and adult males have an interested concern for the safety of all juvenile animals in the troop. After the short suckling period, a baboon mother almost never gives any kind of food to her infant. In fact, mothers have repeatedly been observed to grab food from their young and otherwise to treat them roughly.”

This last is significant, not in analogy with modern women, but in distinction from them, demonstrating that the so-called maternal instinct is by no means innate in the female psyche, but something that has evolved over the aeons.

(We shall return to the behaviour of gibbon females in a separate study of the roots of paganism, and whether there was a matriarchal stage in the development of the family, as Lewis Henry Morgan, Friedrich Engels, and others maintained.)

Let us examine in more detail one of Richard Dawkins’ most recent publications.

The God delusion – a review

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant polemicist but a poor logician. Or rather, the logic he uses is of a previous era, before Einstein and quantum theory had displaced the mechanical certainties of Newton.

He is what Friedrich Engels described as a “metaphysical atheist”. “All the advances of natural science,” said Engels, ” . . . served them only as new proofs against the existence of a creator of the world; and, indeed, they did not in the least make it their business to develop the theory any further.”

Actually, Dawkins’ ranting style places him much earlier. He comes on like an Old Testament prophet, with the important difference that unlike them, he ascribes all the ills of the world to belief, rather than unbelief.

He seems to have groomed himself as successor to T.H. Huxley’s title as “Darwin’s bulldog”, but even Huxley’s teeth are not sharp enough for him; he complains at Huxley’s description of himself as an agnostic, rather than an atheist, though he acknowledges Huxley didn’t mean what we mean by the term.

The first chapter of Dawkins’ latest rant proudly proclaims him to be a “deeply religious unbeliever”, which is an unusual acceptance of the uncomfortable truth that his particular brand of evangelical atheism is basically religious.

And here we encounter the basic problem in his argument: he treats religion and belief in God synonymous terms. Not only is the one quite distinct from the other, but theistic faith and religious belief are sometimes antagonistic to each other.

He appears to accept that there are non-theistic religions (eg Buddhism or Confucianism) somewhat reluctantly: “. . . there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.” (p. 38)

He doesn’t like Buddhism much, though. In his notes he says: “Just as Christianity is sometimes thought to be a nicer, gentler religion than Islam” (he doesn’t say by whom) “Buddhism is often cracked up to be the nicest of all. But the doctrine of demotion on the reincarnation ladder because of sins in a past life is pretty unpleasant.”

Actually, the idea that actions have consequences (unpleasant as it may seem) is unusual in Oriental philosophy; it is itself a consequence of the causality inherent in the Judaeo-Christian Ten Commandments, which are thus at the base of all Western science.

He makes no reference to the Alcoholics Anonymous programme, which is non-religious though God-based. Also ignored is the greatest atheistic belief system of the 20th Century, Marxism-Leninism, effectively the secular religion of the Soviet Union. Marx’s single entry in The God Delusion is a reference to Hitler’s drawing an analogy between Marx and St Paul. It would be interesting to read this in the original, but Hitler’s Table Talk is not in Dawkins’ bibliography.

What Hitler actually said can be found on the Internet:

”Didn’t the world see, carried on right into the Middle Ages, the same old system of martyrs, tortures, faggots? Of old, it was in the name of Christianity. To-day, it’s in the name of Bolshevism.

“Yesterday, the instigator was Saul: the instigator to-day, Mardochai.

“Saul has changed into St. Paul, and Mardochai into Karl Marx. By exterminating this pest, we shall do humanity a service of which our soldiers can have no idea. [pp 76 – 79]

Hitler thus acknowledges that “Christian theology is the grandmother of Bolshevism” (Oswald Spengler), and that Christian theistic belief and Marxist atheism have much in common.

Dawkins’ refusal to acknowledge that Marx has anything to say on this issue is understandable, because Marx’s Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Law, from which comes the much-quoted “religion is the opium of the people” (which Marx may have stolen from the socialist clergyman and author of The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley) in its 440 words provides a much more sophisticated critique of religion than is provided in Dawkins’ 406 pages. He does not refer to Kautsky’s neo-Marxist Origins of Christianity, nor the “God seekers” and “God builders” in the early days of the Russian Revolution, whose doctrines seduced Maxim Gorky for a time (much to Lenin’s disgust), not to Hegel or Dühring, nor to Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (which provided a psycho-analytic – though to my mind erroneous – explanation for what he regarded as a mistaken belief system), nor to Jung’s disagreement with Freud (though Jung’s declaration that “I do not believe, I know” is quoted, but with no attribution of the source – it was in a TV interview towards the end of his life, as a quick Google search on the words will show).

Neither existentialism (which can be Christian – Kierkegaard – or atheistic – Sartre or Camus) or liberation theology (there’s mention of a book by an unChristian “Christian” Ann Coulter, Godless – The Church of Liberation, which is quoted as urging that “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”, not the kind of liberation advocated by the Second Vatican Council).

Indeed, despite its academic pretensions, this is a very poorly documented book. The bibliography is sketchy, sources for quotations are not attributed, and the quotations are very selective, as we have seen. He expends a lot of energy attacking the so-called “young creationists”, which is actually a modern Christian heresy, thought up by a Seventh Day Adventist preacher called George McCready Price, whose The New Biology (1923) preached a static world created in six solar days, in which the evidence of the rock strata was explained by Noah’s flood, and in which the history of the universe can be numbered in thousands rather than thousands of millions of years.

In this, he followed earlier attempts to rationalise a literalist reading of the Bible with observable biological facts, such as Philip Gosse’s 1857 book, Omphalos, which aimed to prove that God had created fossils and placed them in the geological strata (it was not explained why he would have done this), that Adam was created with a navel, and that creation took place 4004 years before the birth of Christ. Charles Kingsley objected:

“What rational man, who knows even a little of geology, will not be tempted to say, ‘If Scripture can only be vindicated by such an outrage to common sense and fact, then I will give up Scripture, and stand by common sense’?”

Dawkins makes much of the terrible consequences of religious belief, and of course here he is right. All belief systems have had terrible consequences, because all belief systems are basically religious, in that they postulate a hypothesis, and refuse to modify it if data comes along which do not support it. Roman Catholicism gave us the Inquisition, Protestantism gave us the gynocide of the witch-hunts (based largely on Martin Luther’s mistranslation of the Bible’s Exodus 22-18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, which in the original kashaph is non-gender specific, but Luther gave it the feminine gender). But Marxism-Leninism gave us the Moscow trials and Pol Pot, and Darwinism gave us eugenics and the Nazi death camps.

Thus the inquisitors who used the threat of torture to force Galileo to recant, thus the Soviet ideologues who starved Mendelian biologists to death, the management of Popular Science who fired a member of staff because he doubted the total truth of Darwinism. Only the first of these claimed a theistic religion, but all of them behaved like religious dogmatists.

Dawkins’ problem, of course, is that if he accepts that not all religions are God-based, it then allows the received dogma of natural selection to be examined critically. Every time he mentions Darwin or evolution, there is an implicit genuflection, as if it would be heretical to accept even the possibility that anyone after Darwin could have anything useful to say about possible amendments or addenda to Darwin’s basic thesis (despite the fact that Darwin rushed into print before he had worked it out fully, in order to beat Alfred Russel Wallace to the punch; Wallace had already published his paper, On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species, followed in 1858 with On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type, which he sent to Darwin for his comments).

Darwin’s dictum that natura non facit saltum (nature does not make jumps) is parroted by most evolutionists today, including self-confessed Marxists, despite the fact that it contradicts one of the basic tenets of dialectical materialism. If the theory of natural selection were true, then as Darwin admitted, “the number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth [must] be truly enormous”. But, as Huxley noted:

“Isn’t it striking, what clear boundaries there are between natural groups, with no transitional forms?”

“Why then,”

Darwin asked himself,

“is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the fossil record.”

(It is notable that the first edition of Origin of Species, which contains this admission, omitted from the second and subsequent editions, has itself been omitted from the “exhaustive” Internet-based collection of Darwin’s writings.)

These imperfections in Darwin’s theory do not invalidate natural selection, and a number of contemporary evolutionists have addressed themselves to these problems. But Dawkins is not among their number, for his adherence to natural selection is religious. It must be absorbed whole, with no reservations. This is typical of religious dogma.

The problem with Dawkins’ atheism is that it does not actually abolish God; it puts man (the gender here is significant) in the place of an non-contingent reality over which, ultimately, man has no control.

It is not surprising that he does not consider Clausius’ second law of thermodynamics, that

“The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum. . . It is impossible for a self-acting machine, unaided by any external agency, to convey heat from one body to another at a higher temperature”,

which Engels said must be wrong, since it suggested there must have been a Creator. But if Dawkins had at least acknowledged this problem, he could then have solved the equation which baffled Engels, which may be found in chaos theory.

Dawkins is cross with Stephen Hawking for saying:

“. . . if we do discover a complete theory . . . we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.”

But such sloppy terminology, surprising in any scientist, is common among the breed, except they usually substitute “nature” or indeed “evolution”, in place of that dreaded acronym.

A popular science article a few years ago, seeking the reason why 1.11 boys are born for every single girl, explained:

“Nature has good reason why more boys are born than girls. They are more prone to life-threatening genetic damage and are more likely to have a fatal accident in childhood. Thus, by the time children reach puberty there are equal numbers of boys and girls.”

(Guardian Health, July 27, 1990)

If the word “nature” is not a synonym for God in this, it is difficult to know what it means.

The search for self-sufficient causes, begun with such enthusiasm by the mechanistic materialists of the eighteenth century, is no closer to eliminating outside influences than at the time of La Mettrie, who wrote in his significantly entitled work, Man the Machine:

“All the functions, which I have ascribed to this machine, naturally proceed from the organisation of its several parts no more and no less than the movements of a clock or other automaton proceed from the disposition of its screws and wheels, so that it is quite unnecessary to suppose in this machine, ie man, any kind of soul, any special cause of movement and life, other than its blood and the forces within it that are stimulated by warmth.”

His great contemporary, Denis Diderot, added:

“We are instruments dowered with feeling and memory. . . Between you and the animals the difference is only in organisation.”

It is notable that both La Mettrie and Diderot used transitive expressions, all of which demand a subject: “dowered” . . . “organisation”; but they both attempt to deny that any outside force does the dowering, does the organising, be it a person or thing.

There have been some good books attempting to dispose of the “God” hypothesis, going back to Pierre La Place (1749-1827), who replied when Napoleon complained there was no reference to a Creator in his Mécanique céleste, he replied: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse.” (“I had no need of this hypothesis.”)

This is not such a book.

November 6, 2006

Books on Amazon UK by Richard Dawkins

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