Richard Dawkins: Blustering polemicist, bad philosopher, naked atheist emperor

Charlie Spiering reports for Crisis magazine about the Rally for Reason, which featured a bunch of people without ultimate purpose who randomly gathered to and emote and to talk, by complete chance, about their accidentally shared hatred of religion, which they insist, with great intensity, is beneath them and is not worthy of their attention—other than, of course, holding a six-hour rally:

But as gloomy rain clouds hung low over the Washington Monument, the rally quickly degenerated into open mockery of religion and people of faith.

“F— the motherf—-, f— the mother—- pope,” sang Musician Tim Minchin as he played profane songs on the piano for a laughing and cheering crowd.

Few religions remained unscathed while cruel spokesmen of reason roundly ridiculed Mormons, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims.

Perhaps some of the talented people involved thought it was a Rally for Ridicule and Rage? Apparently so:

But even the laughs turned into malaise as the event drew to a close. Famed atheist headliner Richard Dawkins labored through a speech that quickly grew bitter.

“Do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer, it turns into the body of Christ?” he said, ridiculing Catholics. “Are you seriously telling me you believe that?  Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?”

Hawkins challenged his fellow atheists to expose people who still cling to their faith in spite of their doubts.

“Mock them, ridicule them in public, don’t fall for the convention that we’re far to polite to talk about religion,” a frustrated Dawkins continued, “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.”

Mockery and ridicule aren’t, of course, owned and copyrighted by atheists; you’ll find plenty of Christians who are jerks, oafs, blockheads, fools, loons, and all-around louts. But I’ve never heard, say, the Pope or Billy Graham or some other significant, recognized leader of particular Christian churches or groups say, “Mock them, ridicule them in public” and so forth. But, really, is anyone that surprised? Dawkins might be a fine biologist, but when it comes to religion and philosophy, he’s not just the emperor without clothes, he’s the proverbial atheist without arguments—that is, real arguments. He has learned that mockery, ridicule, and contempt are the best tools for spreading the religion of anti-religion, since it distracts from all of the nagging questions and robust arguments that otherwise might have to be addressed. Dr. Edward Feser, himself once an atheist, has written:

Oddly, the rhetoric of the New Atheist writers—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens among the most prominent—sounds 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 about.

And, of course, Feser demonstrates this in detail in his challenging, sometimes caustic, and always rollicking book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. Another author who has taken Dawkins, specifically, to task (or to the philosophical wood shed, as it were) is the Thomist Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author of God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins. It is more pithy and less caustic than Feser’s excellent book, ideal for folks wanting a clear and relatively short guide to the main errors bandied about by Dawkins. I interviewed Fr. Crean back in 2008; here is part of that interview:

Ignatius Insight: Dawkins’ field of expertise is biology. How would you rate him as, first, a philosopher, and, secondly, as an apologist for atheism?

Fr. Crean: I do not think he is very interested in philosophy. He refers occasionally to Daniel Dennett, but that is about all. He seems to take materialism as self-evident, but he doesn’t make any serious effort to explain thought or free will. He refers at one point to St. Thomas’s “five ways”, but his discussion of them is extremely cursory, with major misunderstandings. There is no mention of Plato or Aristotle in his book. His impatience with “religion”is such that he is not really disposed to weigh carefully any arguments in its favor, which is obviously the very reverse of a philosophical frame of mind.

As an apologist for atheism he has some useful qualities, such as passion, a tone of conviction, a desire to make converts, ready invective and an apparent concern for the psychological (I almost said “spiritual”) welfare of those whom he is trying to convert. On the other hand his stridency must surely reduce his influence with some people, and his lapses of logic with others.

Ignatius Insight: Throughout God Is No Delusion you point out numerous errors of logic and fact in Dawkins’ work. In your opinion, what are some of the most egregious of those errors? Based on his book, what sort of research did Dawkins put into studying Christian history, theology, and philosophy?

Fr. Crean: I think one of his worst faults is the tendency to reason in a circle. For example, to explain why religion is so widespread even though in his opinion it is irrational, he says that it is evolutionarily useful. Why? Because it helps survival if, in general, one tends to adhere to the philosophy if life that one has once adopted. But the question at issue is precisely why so many people adopt theism as their philosophy of life, rather than atheism. So his explanation amounts to saying that theism is so widespread because so many people adopt it.

I suspect that he did very little research into Christian sources before writing his book. He quotes occasionally from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, which is of course available on the Internet. Sometimes his misunderstandings of it are quite funny, as when he quotes a passage in the entry on “Purgatory” called “proofs of Purgatory”, where the author has referred to the immemorial Christian custom of praying for the dead. Professor Dawkins seriously supposes that the author intended this as a ‘proof’ that would convince an atheist such as himself!

What is perhaps more surprising is that he has not done more research using anti-Christian sources. I should have expected that there would have been more about the Crusades, for example, or the Inquisition. But in fact he doesn’t seem to be very interested in history, any more than in philosophy.

You can also read an excerpt from the book, a selection that addresses the question, “Why, if religion is irrational and pernicious, is it so widespread?” It is an excellent example of how clear thinking and the application of philosophically-sound logic clears away the rhetorical smoke screens that Dawkins employs repeatedly, whether in books or (even more so) in public. Or, from Dr. Feser:

Richard Dawkins is equally adept at refuting straw men. In his bestselling The God Delusion, he takes Aquinas to task for resting his case for God’s existence on the assumption that “There must have been a time when no physical things existed”—even though Aquinas rather famously avoids making that assumption in arguing for God. (Aquinas’s view was instead that God must be keeping the world in existence here and now and at any moment at which the world exists, and that this would remain true even if it turned out that the world had no beginning.) Dawkins assures us that Aquinas gives “absolutely no reason” to think that a First Cause of the universe would have to be all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, etc.; in reality, Aquinas devoted hundreds of pages, across many works, to showing just this. Dawkins says that the fifth of Aquinas’s famous Five Ways is essentially the same as the “divine watchmaker” argument made famous by William Paley. In fact the arguments couldn’t be more different, and followers of Aquinas typically—and again, rather famously (at least for people who actually know something about these things)—reject Paley’s argument with as much scorn as evolutionists like Dawkins do.

And those are only (some of) the errors on pages 77–79.

You will find similar howlers throughout the works of the other New Atheists. Their grasp of the chief arguments for the existence of God and related matters is, in short, comparable to the scientific acumen of the college sophomore who thinks the lesson of Einstein’s revolution in physics is that “it’s all relative, man”—or that of the fundamentalist preacher of my opening example. It’s that bad.

Perhaps the most illuminating anecdote that I’ve read from those covering the Rally of Really Evolved Emoters was this, as reported by Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today:

Adam Savage, co-host of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel, said there really is someone who loves and protects him and watches over his actions — “It’s me!”

Imagine a world in which your existence and the existence of everyone and everything else is accidental and has no purpose. Imagine that you are the final arbiter of what is of any worth and meaning. Imagine that you have no need to answer to anyone else, and no reason to pursue a greater good—as what is “good” is what you decide is best for you alone. Imagine that death holds only cold, dark unconsciousness. Imagine that it is all about you, you, you. You have then imagined hell. But, hey, don’t let that reality dampen your rally.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.