Saturday, October 16, 2004

Doubting Disbelief

Why is it that some religious people refuse to accept that atheists really don't believe in God? A common strategy for intellectually dishonest Creationists (and is there any other kind?) is to misrepresent various eminent evolutionists (e.g. Gould or Dennett) and try to claim them for their own side. Anthony Daniels (though not a Creationist, so far as I know) employs similar tactics in an otherwise decent review of Richard Dawkins' new book.

Consider the following extract:
Dawkins's obsession with proving that God does not exist makes me suspect that he cannot altogether disbelieve.

Why? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to instead 'suspect' that Dawkins believes that religious falsehoods are largely harmful to humanity? In fact, rather than relying on suspicions, wouldn't one do better to just ask Dawkins himself? (Quote: "I care about what's true, I care about evidence, I care about evidence as the reason for knowing what is true. It is true that I come across rather passionate sometimes - and that's because I am passionate about the truth.") But Daniels entirely disregards Dawkins' own stated motives, prefering to second-guess him through psychoanalysis, thereby getting to invent whatever nonsense he likes.

To highlight the invalid (indeed, bizarre) logic behind Daniels' claim, consider this analogous statement: "Martin Luther King's obsession with proving that blacks deserve the same civil rights as whites makes me suspect that he cannot altogether disbelieve the opposite." Isn't it absurd? Wouldn't you think that anyone saying such a thing must be a raving idiot? Yet Daniels is far from the only one to reason in such a manner about outspoken atheists.

Or consider the following:
When [Dawkins] writes at the end of his book, "My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world", he sounds not so very far removed from religion after all. Indeed, I half-expect a deathbed conversion in his case.

I'm astounded by Daniels' logic. Dawkins says that religion is too superficial to capture the genuine wonders of reality. He clearly feels awe. Hence he must be religious!

It's a bit scary to think that this guy is "a practising doctor". Just imagine him at work one day: "Disease X cannot explain symptoms Y. This patient has symptoms Y. So he must have disease X!"

To be fair, I expect that he is actually relying on a hidden/implied premise, a particularly nasty stereotype about atheists. Something along the lines of: "Atheists are all unimaginative, uncaring, cold and dull people; religion is the source of all awe and wonder in the world". So that would improve the logic at least, though at the cost of importing a blatantly false premise. It sure does expose Daniels' prejudices.

Like most evolutionists, Dawkins overestimates the human significance of the theory of evolution. Explaining how we have come to be what we are is not the same as telling us how we should live from now on - which is a question of some importance.

This section is extremely misleading. Dawkins has explicitly insisted that evolutionary processes should not be seen as the foundation for morality:
I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave... My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. (The Selfish Gene, p. 2-3).

So in this review Daniels misrepresents Dawkins, attempts to psychoanalyse him (with bizarre results), and assumes that because the awe of ignorance is often religiously inspired, so too must be the awe of knowledge.

Yet this is not an unusual article. The prejudices Daniels expresses are (un)reasonably commonplace - indeed, he might be more atheist-friendly than most. It's a worrying thought.


  1. An excellent critique of an execrable critic. 

    Posted by Mike S

  2. Heh, thanks. 

    Posted by Richard


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