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recently interviewed American atheist leader David Silverman on my
television show. He became a legend in his own lunchtime recently when
his organization’s booth was first accepted and then rejected by CPAC,
the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. It’s a
grand collection of right-of-center activists, authors, and politicians,
and all sorts of groups and causes have booths and displays. There are,
of course, atheists at the conference and there is a strong secular
tradition within libertarian conservatism.
Silverman’s problem was
that his group had purchased enormous billboards labeling all religions
a scam. He is evidently not an atheist conservative looking to build bridges with Christian conservatives but a rather aggressive God-hater
full of the usual disdain for, and ignorance of, religious faith.
brings me to an equally aggressive but more intelligent atheist who is
seldom out of the news: Richard Dawkins. In April of 2010, Dawkins
announced an initiative to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested when the
pontiff made an official visit to Great Britain later that year; the
ostensible reason was Benedict's alleged involvement in the Catholic
clergy abuse crisis. Benedict was then 83 years old and in poor health.
His already difficult job was made even more challenging, it seems,
because of a campaign against him by some Vatican insiders precisely
because he was so active in exposing and punishing abusers. It appears
this was very likely one of the factors that led to his resignation
three years later.
Dawkin's publicity stunt provides a most
revealing insight into the mind and manners of the evolutionary
biologist turned atheist celebrity. It certainly provides more insight
into the man than does the first volume of his autobiography, An Appetite For Wonder, which
appeared last year to far too much acclaim and approval. It often reads
as though the author were an extremely agitated caricature, unaware
that misplaced hubris is hilarious. Yet Dawkins is not merely some
boiling obsessive searching for attention but a genuinely influential
thinker and author. He’s not a fool and he surely knew that the abuse
horror in the Catholic Church involved, at most, 3% of clergy, that the
vast majority of cases were of the past, that abuse rates are far higher
in public schools, and that an arrest of the pope was impossible.
arrest, of course, had been suggested merely for publicity. And it was
publicity built on a deeply flawed premise. Perhaps Dawkins does have
this selfish, genetic need to be noticed (yes, the pun is intentional).
Whenever the cuttings file diminishes, he can be counted on to make
another outlandish statement or growling comment, often ill-informed or
simply annoying, such as his recent attempt at schoolboy-ish, smutty
poetry (described by the fawning Independent
as “An innuendo-filled poem of magnificently smutty genetic
proportions...”). It’s as regular as clockwork and just as repetitive
and boring. The Benedict incident also showed Dawkins as a man supremely
comfortable with silencing those with whom he disagrees, as his atheist
followersand they often act in a cult-like mannerdemonstrate on a
Benedict seldom responded to attacks when he was
Pope, but did so last year, after his resignation, in a letter to a more
respectful Italian atheist. The pope emeritus explained:
important function of theology is to keep religion tied to reason and
reason to religion. Both roles are of essential importance for humanity.
In my dialogue with [atheist philosopher Jürgen] Habermas, I have shown
that there are pathologies of religion and no less dangerous
pathologies of reason. They both need each other, and keeping them
constantly connected is an important task of theology.
fiction exists, however, in the context of many sciences. … Even within
the theory of evolution, a great style of science fiction exists.
Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene is a classic example of science fiction.
Exactly, and well said. I bet Dawkins reacted generously and calmly to that one
has to be realized here is that the man is extraordinarily overrated
and seldom questioned by a generally bovine media. As an evolutionary
biologist, Dawkins is considered by his peers as a sound and, at one
time at least, a cutting-edge academic. To question that would be
fatuous. In recent years, however, his academic work and reputation had
declined, which is not something he discusses in his memoirs or
elsewhere. Frankly, he would be largely anonymous outside of his rather
limited field if it were not for his ostentatious atheism, and in that
field he has never been considered sound and certainly not cutting edge.
Back in 2006, Terry Eagleton began his review of The God Delusion in The London Review of Books with the statement: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”
Eagleton is absolutely right. Dawkins is aggressively eloquent, utterly
confident, and dismissively sweeping in his attacks on God and faith,
but he is never profound or genuinely compelling. Bertrand Russell was
deeper, H.G. Wells was more populisteven silly old Stephen Fry is
funnier. Dawkins insists on the same attacks on the same straw men of
religion, and he is extremely selective in whom he will debate, having
refused public arguments with those he considers “unqualified”a
grotesquely snobbish euphemism and excuse. There are several North
American Christian apologists who would be delighted to take on Dawkins,
if only given the opportunity.
The noted philosopher and former atheist Dr. Edward Feser, author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, wrote
that, “Oddly, the rhetoric of the New Atheist writersRichard Dawkins
among the most prominentsounds much more like that of a fundamentalist
preacher than like anything I read during my atheist days. Like the
preacher, they are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch
their opponents with a sarcastic quip or two. And, like the preacher,
they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking
At the Rally for Reason in 2012, after that terribly brave
Australian performer Tim Minchin had repeatedly sung, “F*** the
Motherf****** Pope”, Dawkins told the hysterical crowd, “Mock them,
ridicule them in public, don’t fall for the convention that we’re far
too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table.
Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the
universe, which need to be substantiated. They should be challenged and
ridiculed with contempt.”
There was something almost fascistic
about this and worryingly oppressive. Also, utterly absurd. Too polite
to talk about religion! Where has Dawkins been; in what world does he
live? It’s been open season on Christianity for almost a generation now,
and the last acceptable prejudice in so-called polite society is
anti-Catholicism. Dawkins’ greatest achievement, in the end, is Dawkins.
He has closed rather than opened the debate around faith and reason,
and made life far more difficult for informed believers as well as
informed skeptics. But closing the debate is sadly typical now within
many atheist circles. Rather than listening and speaking so many
atheists want to silence and shout. “Can you hear us God?” Yes, He can.
As for Professor Dawkins, he doesn’t seem to care, and would never even
want a booth at CPAC!