The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins

The Virus of Faith: Contradictions etc

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The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil: 2 TV programmes
The God Delusion SummaryComment 1Comment 2
The Virus of Faith SummaryHistoricism 1Historicism 2Contradictions

This is the third page looking at Richard Dawkins's Protestant atheism in his recent TV programme, The Virus of Faith. Here we look at various contradictions, discrepancies etc of his argument.

On this page: Curry's Microsoft Analogy | Empathy |

1 Curry's Microsoft Analogy

Dawkins's contributor, Oliver Curry, claims that, as far as social instincts are concerned, the difference between chimps and humans is no great leap, no greater than the difference between MS-DOS and Windows 2000. This remark is worth some consideration.

First of all, it's difficult to understand in what sense the difference between MS-DOS and Windows 2000 can be regarded as no great leap. To start with, there must be in the order of, what, a 1000 times more code behind the later user interface than behind the earlier. That seems like a quantum difference in anybody's reckoning.

But in any case there certainly is a great leap between MS-DOS and Windows 2000 as far as the user is concerned. Thus the former is a matter of typing in from a limited number of command words and appropriate parameters at the command line of an otherwise blank screen: in order to achieve a limited number of results. You have to know what the command forms are before you can use them to perform tasks or activate applications: strictly one thing at a time. The latter is a matter of using a mouse to operate a Graphic User Interface, basically similar to the browser used to screen this page. Detailed prior knowledge is not required and various tasks and applications run at once.


Second, Curry perhaps has at the back of his mind an analogy between the way a computer works and the way the human brain works. At some basic level, there may be some kind of genuine analogy to be made. And when there is a deliberate effort to make computers simulate the operations of the brain, then there is obviously a built in analogy. But Curry's analogy is a different matter entirely.

If we accept Darwin, and here we do, then as Curry and Dawkins suggest, human social instincts must have their basis in the social instincts of our primate ancestors. What is more, we can gain some insights into the latter by observing the behaviour of today's primates, including chimpanzees.

However, we must bear in mind a fundamental difference between ourselves and our primate ancestors. With the help of our massive brain power, we enjoy an extremely large amount of discretion as to how we follow our social instincts.

Who can say how much of the massively increased sophistication of our morality, our guidelines for social behaviour, have been built into us genetically since humans became humans, probably extremely little if anything at all. Certainly it seems absolutely impossible that the genetic basis of our social instinsts has changed one iota since the agricultural revolution.

But the massively more sophisticated social guidelines we have needed must be stored somewhere and that somewhere must be what we call culture.

So it is misleading in the extreme for Curry to suggest that there is no great leap from chimps to humans in social instinct, even if there were none between MS-DOS and Windows 2000. For the instinctual basis of human morality is only a tiny part of the story.

Proximal and Distal

Third, Curry's analogy seems even more problematic if we understand social instincts in terms of this site's distinction between the proximal and the distal in human relationships. There certainly is a great leap between the two.

Proximal relationships are based on permanent proximity and require minimal mediation. Chimpanzee relationships, the expression of chimpanzee social instincts are of this kind. Distal relationships are of a totally different order and require culturally generated mediation.

Today's human relationships are becoming increasingly distalised, involving mediations that necessitate third party providers who make it possible for the friends to get together and whose motive is profit. Thus in Britain today, male friendships, and increasingly female ones, involve expensive sports and visits to bars.

This distalisation is even invading the family lives of ordinary people, with the massive increase in recent years of third party commercial child care. The current push in Britain for people to stay in work longer must strengthen the trend, with fewer grandmothers being available to care for their grandchildren while the mothers work. For more on distal childcare, see The perils of distal childcare


Fourth, we can see Curry's unwarranted analogy as feeding into the general scientism of Dawkins's two TV programmes, with scientism meaning here the use of scientific sounding chatter to give an impression of science where none is present.

As we point out elsewhere, ever since the c18th there has been science to religion crossover, with new religions using ideas inspired by contemporary science. In these TV programmes Dawkins carries on a parallel tradition, that of replacing God with Reason or Science. He uses a mystical notion of Science as a deus ex machina to explain what for him would be otherwise inexplicable: the yawning gap between the social instincts built into us by our selfish genes and the civilised values we see in operation today. It is a theme that will be developed on these pages.

Curry's cyberbabble helps create the illusion that real science is being talked in these programmes.    [Back to Summary]

2 Empathy

At the very end of the programme, Dawkins's contributor and fellow vice-president of the British Humanist Association, the novelist Ian McEwan, rhapsodises in an access of atheist spirituality over what he calls the gift of empathy:

this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own.

McEwan declares that it is the building block of our moral system.

Dawkins comments that he agrees profoundly. Indeed, he has referred to empathy himself, just a little earlier, making it part of our genetic inheritance as social animals. You have to laugh.

At a personal level, [1] Dawkins has demonstrated a little empathy in the course of the programme: possibly. He has labelled the Protestant schoolteacher, Adrian Hawkes, as a well-meaning man and he has said of the American anti-abortionist, Michael Bray, that he quite liked him, considered him sincere and not really an evil man.

But then, this was Dawkins in remarks made after the particular interviews. Maybe he was not showing empathy at all, but rather judging his interviewees with patronising condescension, as if they were contestants in a talent show.

Whatever empathy Dawkins might display in the programme for the individuals he interviews does not extend to religious believers more generally. He speaks of them as having minds locked in a permanent state of infancy and implies that they are diseased, as contagious carriers of the religion virus, uncivilised, as believers in the Bible, with its poisonous morality, crazy, as believers in St Paul's barking mad doctrine of atonement.

We may recall that in the first programme, Dawkins smeared American fundamentalists as Christian fascists, linking the megachurch he visited to a Nazi Nuremburg rally. This gives us leave to suggest in turn that the kind of hysterical abuse Dawkins heaps on religion in this second programme is reminiscent of that the fascists directed against Jews and communists.

Scientific Objectivity

But far more important than that, we have to see any claims Dawkins may have to scientific objectivity are quite bogus in so far as they relate to religion. In the second programme, as in the first, Dawkins introduces himself as a scientist. As far as the study of the fruitfly or whatever is concerned, he may indeed be a scientist, but his approach to the study of humans is a different matter entirely.

Clearly, we have to recognise that total objectivity is unrealisable in any sort of study. Nevertheless, a large measure is possible, even when it is human beings that are under the microscope.

This is where empathy comes in: in the study of humans as humans, objectivity involves as much empathy as the scientifically intentioned observer can muster. Thus in seeking to understand religious behaviour, you need to bear in mind that religious believers are people too and, in McEwan's words,

have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own.

Regarding them the way Dawkins does in the programme, as infantile, diseased, uncivilised, crazy, is not science at all.    [Back to Summary]


1 No Marxism here

October 2007: At the time of writing, the text from here to the end of the page has been pasted into a posting on an Australian website preceded by the following:

For a marxist analysis of the televised version of the God Delusion (i.e. the Root of all evil) follow the link below

On another of the Dawkins pages, discussing his scientism, I say:

We may bear in mind at this point that science-talk has been used in all sorts of new belief systems since the c18th to claim that they were not belief systems at all, but scientific truth. Such a one was Marxism, aka scientific socialism, another form of historicism.

I'd hardly be making remarks like that if I was a marxist.

Indeed, the term historicism as I use it - belief that there is some kind of inevitability about history - derives from Karl Popper's The Poverty of Historicism, a work of anti-marxist intent.

Of course, the Marxist idea of the inevitable advent of some kind of communist utopia has been totally discredited by events. The Early Christians got round the same problem, the failure of their predicted utopia to arise, by moving it out of the natural world into the supernatural.

That leaves liberal beliefs in the inevitability of human progress, such as in the pseudo-scientific version of Dawkins. This has not been discredited so far by events, but it's early days. It is not merely that we cannot predict what particular path human progress is going to take. Despite the claims of people like Dawkins that they have access to a higher rationality, we have no rational basis for assuming that further progress of any kind is somehow inevitable. It is entirely possible that we are in for some kind Mad Max distopia: to give an Australian example.     [Back to Article]


(c) John C Durham, 2006

The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil: 2 TV programmes
The God Delusion SummaryComment 1Comment 2
The Virus of Faith SummaryHistoricism 1Historicism 2Contradictions