Richard Dawkins and the Need for a New Science Populism

by Iain Ellis

11 January 2017

Now, more than ever, public intellectual scientists like Dawkins are needed to counter the forces of faith, fiction, and farce dominating our so-called “post-fact” society.
cover art

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science

Richard Dawkins

(Ecco (reprint))
US: Sep 2016

cover art

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins

(Mariner (reprint))
US: Jan 2008

With the publication of The God Delusion in 2006, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins thrust himself to the forefront of the modern atheist movement. That book has since sold over three million copies and been translated into 30 different languages. The Oxford University professor is the embodiment of the concept of the public intellectual, his activities on behalf of science and against religion including best-selling books, celebrated debates, and numerous appearances as either guest or host on myriad television programs. In his professional capacity, he served as Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford and has since promoted that mission via the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and its popular website. Few professors can boast a guest spot on The Simpsons; there, he appeared as a demon version of himself in Ned Flanders’ dream of hell in the 2013 episode, “Black Eyed, Please”. 

For Dawkins, science is not something to be confined to universities and laboratories, particularly when much of the work conducted there is dismissed or demeaned by the anti-science lobbies of the religious community. This concern, articulated in his recent memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), has prompted Dawkins to call for a broadening of the image of a scientist to one that can intersect with more accessible fields. His call for a “third culture” furthers Carl Sagan’s desire to articulate the “poetry” of science, to celebrate its awesome wonders as well as its evidentiary minutia (p.5). Writing and rhetoric need to be promoted, argues Dawkins, and wit needs to be central to both; scientists need to emerge from isolation, he posits, with genres such as science fiction literature integrated into science for a more populist presentation of the profession. 

For him, the days of just hunkering down to research while the political forces of religion infiltrate, occupy, and control the culture need to come to an end. In his 2002 TED Talk he calls for a “militant atheism” because “rocking the boat is just the right thing to do”.

Such militancy was not inherited from his parents, but from his own realization in his early teenage years that science and religion were incompatible. Previously, he had received a loosely Christian upbringing, though his parents encouraged their son to learn about natural sciences, particularly Darwin’s theory of evolution. Once removed from the religious teachings propagated by the Anglican schools he attended, Dawkins came to realize how vulnerable children can be to indoctrination processes; he has since prioritized children’s rights in his activism, using his position at Oxford to combat the onslaught of “anti-scientific fairytales” on young people, especially when conveyed in our public (and private) schools. Dawkins sees an insidious rhetorical component to such “child abuse”, and often voices his objection to our casual use of expressions such as “Muslim child” or “Christian child”, which presume that children do or should inherit their parents’ faith. He quips that we would never use the term “Marxist child” or “monetarist child” based on our parents’ political leanings, so why do we with religious ones? (Brief Candle in the Dark. p.431).

As long as religious groups persist in imposing their beliefs on our public institutions and thus on the citizens in our secular society, Dawkins considers himself at war. Particularly contemptible to him in this regard are creationists, the biologist’s primary antagonists. Their normalization of a supernatural and mythical belief system devoid of evidence is, he feels, corrosive to science itself, besides blinding people from discovering real explanations that are within their grasp.

Some have criticized Dawkins for lumping creationists in with the religious in general, suggesting that he singles out the easiest targets for his mocking condemnations. Asked why he doesn’t engage more serious and studied theologians, Dawkins is dismissive, responding, “I have tried but consistently failed to find anything in theology to be serious about” (p.177). No defense is necessary anyway, as the biologist regularly debates with the more senior and scholarly of theologians from various denominations.

Ironically, it is the “easy targets” he has chosen to avoid. Although he publicly conversed with some of the New Earth creationists during the ‘80s, Dawkins has since refused to give them the “oxygen of respectability” on the stage (p.244). He recalls talking about the issue with fellow atheist/scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, who persuaded him to stop debating creationists because, Gould suggested, they are not there to win the arguments, only to enjoy the apparition—or false equivalence—of credibility in having a chair on the same stage as a learned scientist. As theoretical biologist Robert May once quipped when faced with a similar invitation to debate a creationist, “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine” (p.244).

A (mis)conception about Dawkins, one often made against critical humorists in general, is that he is relentlessly angry, bitter, and mean-spirited. Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens have been caricatured similarly. In his memoir, Dawkins discusses the 20-plus books (“fleas”) written in response to The God Delusion. In The Dawkins Delusion, The Devil’s Delusion and God is No Delusion, their theology-driven authors spit venom back at their inspirational provocateur, calling him “shrill”, “savage”, and “strident” (p.173). For them, Dawkins’ “abuse” can hardly be called humor, and his blanket tone of mockery is counter-productive should his intent be to produce converts. The scientist sometimes tagged “Darwin’s Rottweiler” (an allusion to T.H. Huxley being called “Darwin’s Bulldog”) has even received similar complaints from within his own scientific community. Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss have both suggested that Dawkins’ “barbed” methods are ineffective, the techniques of a “right” fighter rather than of someone intending to influence and persuade (p.250). His often brutal satire does more harm than good, they argue. Atheist philosopher John Gray feels that Dawkins should act more like a scientist; humble and open-minded rather than arrogant and dismissive. Literary critic Terry Eagleton, likewise, regards his approach as displaying the same kind of zealotry as the fundamentalists he rails against.

What these critics miss in Dawkins’ rhetoric is the humor at play, dry or harshly satirical though it may sometimes be. Satire, inevitably, is a dangerous terrain, one littered with potential landmines when considering purpose and effect. It’s also, however, a powerful, shocking, and insurrectionary tool in the hands of its masters. One only has to consider the works of Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and George Carlin to see that. For Dawkins, the issue of humor style has been one he has reflected upon over the years. In his memoir, he promises to “take to heart” (p.263) the criticisms of Tyson and others while defending his rhetoric on tactical grounds. “I hope I never stoop to gratuitous personal insults, but I do think humorous or satirical ridicule can be an effective weapon,” he reasons, adding, but “it must hit its target accurately” (p.432).

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Defending The God Delusion against charges that it’s little more than an angry screed, its author states, “I like to think it’s a humorous and humane book”. Yes, “some of the humor is satire, even ridicule”, but it does not constitute “hate speech” (p.421). When Dawkins comically outlined why he considers the god of the Old Testament to be “arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction”, (p.249), he curiously received charges of anti-Semitism. Flabbergasted by such feedback, the author defended his provocative prose as “good-natured satire” and “legitimate satire” (p.432). One defender of The God Delusion and celebrator of the joys of its humor is Sally Gaminara, its editor. On first reading the manuscript, she recalls, “I… hadn’t bargained for the wonderful humour in it. I expected to smile a little, but not laugh out loud again and again” (p.173).

Judging by the international success of the book, many share Gaminara’s sentiments, though whether such wit speaks mainly to the “choir” or not is a lingering point of debate. Perhaps more pertinent is why such aggressive satire, a style common to most of the New Atheist writers, has struck such a responsive chord in the new century. Philosophically, New Atheism is similar to that espoused by “old” schoolers like Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll, but it arrives with a more irreverent tone and controversial content.  Few card-carrying left wingers would risk the potential backlash and charge of Islamophobia that might come from pointing out that Jews (mostly secular ones) have won 20 percent of all Nobel Prizes with only one-percent of the world’s population, while Muslims, once the purveyors of Ancient Greek learning, have since taken an intellectually backwards path. “What went wrong?” Dawkins asks provocatively (p.15). Few, too, would respond to an audience question about the benefits of scientific procedure by responding, “If you base medicine on science you cure people… bitches!” Even fewer would couch their distinction between atheism and agnosticism in the following way: “I am agnostic to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden” (The God Delusion. London: Bantam Books, 2006. p.74).

As severe as Dawkins’ wit can be, he commands the range of a professional comedian. His memoir abounds with amusing anecdotes peppered with comical asides, such as the one about the time he interviewed (the soon-to-be disgraced) Reverend Ted Haggard for the TV program, Root of All Evil. Before he and his camera crew were ultimately chased off of Haggard’s church grounds, the host reflected upon the “obedience” service he had just listened to inside, telling the preacher that it was like “a Nuremberg Rally of which Dr. Goebbels might have been proud”, then, on observing Haggard’s reaction, added, “He seemed mildly flattered” (p.218).

Dawkins is also adept at the pointed quip, combining wit and wisdom into choice nuggets. In this one, he manages to mock god-belief, organized religion, and the behavior of religious believers all in one line: “The creator of the universe went to great trouble to create the foreskin. Then insisted that you cut it off. Makes sense”.  And regarding the much-maligned tag of being called an “atheist”, Dawkins explains that we are all atheists about whatever God has gone before, “some of us just go one god further” (The God Delusion. p.19).

As I write, the Trump camp is in the process of activating its “draining the swamp” campaign promise by filling up its cabinet with appointees drawn from the most rancid backwaters of the Republican party. Many of these extreme (alt) right figures once enjoyed previous public lives by riding the coat-tails of the Evangelical Christian movement as it propelled George W. Bush first into office, then into two “faith-based initiatives” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among them is the nominee for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier and Flat Earther who has previously sued the EPA on two occasions. George Orwell could not have created such a character, one with, as Tessa Stuart recently remarked, such “utter contempt for the agency [he’s] been selected to head and the people [the] agency was built to serve”. 

Betsy Devos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, intends to “advance God’s kingdom” by using school vouchers as a back-handed means of getting more children into private religious schools. Her diagnosis of our public school problems is apparently that there is insufficient religion in the curriculum. Tom Price is perhaps the most worrying selection of Trump’s “Evangelical deplorables”.  His nomination for Health Secretary comes with a resume that boasts his affiliation with the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that believes vaccines cause autism, that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that Obama may have won the presidency by hypnotizing voters. The AAPS has also stated that it is “evil” for doctors to participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Now, more than ever, science is needed to counter the forces of faith, fiction, and farce dominating our so-called “post-fact” society. But science cannot prevail if its voices of reason do not echo out from the laboratories; if its charismatic leaders do not bring their wit and wisdom into the media and onto the public stage; science cannot prevail unless scientists follow in the footsteps of Richard Dawkins and his like, such as those in The Union of Concerned Scientists, ready to wage battle against the swamp dwellers that threaten our future civilization and very existence.

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