The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins

The Virus of Faith: Historicism 1

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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 first of the pages looking at Richard Dawkins's Protestant atheism in his recent TV programme, The Virus of Faith. Here we start to explore the Oxford professor's historicism as revealed in the programme.

On this page: The Christian Model | Earthbound Historicisms | Racist Historicisms | Dawkins's Historicism | Protestant Historicism | Rationalist Historicism | Primal Human Authenticity | Religion as the Intrusive Evil | Science | Darwin, the Unwitting Messiah |

The Historicism of Richard Dawkins 1: Religion as the Intrusive Evil

There were in Richard Dawkins's first programme, The God Delusion, as we saw, signs of historicist tendencies: his reference to an upcoming Age of Reason and his historical pattern, polytheism, monotheism, atheism. In the second programme, The Virus of Faith, our suspicions are fully confirmed. Dawkins is indeed a historicist.

Here we look at some classic historicist doctrines and show how very comparable is that of Dawkins as revealed in The Virus of Faith. We find in particular that Dawkins is about offering a scientific rationale of capitalist society.

Historicist doctrines generally follow the same kind of pattern. They point to how appallingly bad the present is, but promise an idyllic future based on regaining some kind of original paradise, lost in some kind of fall. Both the fall and current misery are attributed to one particular intrusive evil. Regaining paradise is a matter of accepting the leadership of a messiah figure, who has identified the evil and who has the power to destroy it. Individuals who accept will be transformed personally and will become part of a collective paradise renewed.

The very language used here - paradise, fall, messiah - is derived from the example of Christian religion and the other Western historicisms are undoubtedly transformations of the Christian model. Dawkins himself, of course, had a Christian background and education.

The Christian Model

In the Christian model, the original paradise was the Biblical Garden of Eden and the fall was caused by a single evil, the original sin of our ultimate ancestors, Adam and Eve, succumbing to the Devil's temptation. This fall not only caused God to cast our first parents out of paradise but has also given us this present world full of sin. The idyllic future is basically heaven and the key is simply accepting the salvation that Christ, the Messiah, offers us.

It would seem that, when Christianity was first promulgated around 2000 years ago, after the death of Jesus, the end of the world was expected imminently. In that scenario, Christian historicism was doubtless understood at a social level. It would not have been about entering into a personal relationship with God, but rather about individuals who accepted the message joining the community of believers which would very soon be in some kind of paradise en masse.

The idea of entering into a personal relationship with God, the kind of thing Protestants refer to as interiority, and then going to heaven as an individual after a natural death must be a later rationalisation. When the end of the world failed to materialise as expected, a whole new understanding of what following Jesus meant had to be developed: it is an example of what individuals and organisations in general have to do in order to survive when their original raison d'être becomes obsolete.

At any rate, we find later Christian historicism operating on two levels, the social and the personal. On the one hand, there is humanity as a whole condemned to present misery on account of original sin, but with the community of true believers capable of heaven thanks to Jesus Christ. On the other hand, there is the individual dragged down by a personal inheritance of original sin, but who can attain heaven personally by accepting true religion on a personal basis.

Earthbound Historicisms

The original Christians thought of their expected future paradise not as some kind of supernatural heaven existing outside of time and space, but as their own real world radically transformed. [1] The idea of departing to a supernatural heaven must have been part of the rationalisation that was necessary when the end of the world did not happen. That original Christian expectation of an earthbound paradise resurfaces in various guises in the later historicisms, with their promises of a better world for whoever their messages target.

As an initial example of the earthbound historicisms, we can mention the feminist versions, in which the original paradise was an alleged matriarchal stage in the development of human society, the evil insertion was patriarchy, still the basic cause of all our ills, and the promised future paradise regained is a return to matriarchy.

Racist Historicisms

The same underlying pattern is seen in the likewise earthbound racist historicisms. These versions obviously see the whole thing in terms of whatever racial group the proponents identify with. Original paradise is some supposed glorious golden age in the alleged race's past history. Fall, the loss of greatness, is explained as a matter of the loss of racial purity through the infiltration of inferior races; the present problems of the alleged racial group are likewise the result of the presence of the inferior races. The key to paradise regained, to ushering in a new golden age, is the mighty leader, who identifies the problem as the polluting inferior race and who will ensure its elimination.

Obviously, the most virulent form of racist historicism we know is Nazism, with its claim that the problems of interwar Germany were the result of communism and capitalism, both of these the work of an alleged inferior race, the Jews. The Messiah in this case was of course Hitler, who mythologised a glorious Germanic past and promised a Thousand Year Reich, to be assured through the extermination of all Jews.

Note that, though this is often overlooked, the various fascisms included a pitch at the personal level, comparable to the Christian message of personal dedication to Christ. For the fascisms had a New Man concept in which surrender to the will of the Great Leader meant personal transformation to some higher level of being.

Dawkins's Historicism

Now it is impossible to see the views of Dawkins, as presented in the TV programme, otherwise than as yet another variation on the historicist theme. We find an initial idealised state, an evil intrusion, a present dreadful state caused by the intrusion, the promise of a future idealised state assured by the elimination of the intrusion. There is a glorious leader and even a sort of New Man. The message is pitched both at the level of humanity and at that of the individual.

Dawkins's message is basically that we are social animals on an evolutionary trajectory to ever more rational and therefore higher moral standards, but that the process has been derailed somewhere along the line by the appearance of religion. It had looked until recently as though we were shaking off religion and entering an Age of Reason. But now, with the rise of religious fundamentalism, there is a relapse which accounts for the world's present troubles. Nevertheless, thanks to the enlightenment Science brings, we can root out religion and get back on track.

Protestant Historicism

The Dawkins historicist variant of a trajectory from a primitive idealised state to a later higher one being knocked off course by religion derives from a particular Protestant historicism within the overall Christian pattern. This is the idea that the original Christianity of the New Testament has been corrupted by Catholicism but brought back on course by Protestantism, thanks to a messiah figure, Martin Luther.

In this context, we need to bear in mind that there is a very important sense in which religion [2] has been a dirty word for Protestants. It has stood for all those aspects of Catholic Christianity which they rejected at the Reformation: idolatry, superstition, tradition, hierarchy, authoritarianism, mumbo-jumbo, whatever. For more on this, see Protestant Minimalism and also The Sacred in English Religion.

Overall, what Dawkins has done is generalise on the Protestant historicism. In his basic scheme, primitive Christianity has been replaced by a primal human state, Catholicism as bad religion has been replaced by religion in general and the Protestant Reformation by the Scientific Revolution, by the discovery of evolution by natural selection in particular. The Protestant Age is of course replaced by the Age of Science and Reason.

Rationalist Historicism

This Dawkins scheme contrasts markedly with that of a leading rationalist of a century ago, James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough. The armchair anthropologist saw human advance in terms of our growing understanding of the world. This gave him three phases of progress: magic, religion and science. In Dawkins's TV programme, human progress is moral and driven by evolutionary forces.

In the Dawkins scheme, religion is no longer a phase in human cultural evolution, it is an alien disruption of the proper trajectory of human development. There is an an initial state of primal human authenticity in which our ancestors lived in accord with what we might call evolutionary morality, an intermediate phase when religion has put us off course and a final state when religion has been extirpated and we are once more moving forward in accord with evolutionary morality.

Primal Human Authenticity

Let's look a bit more closely at the elements of Dawkins's historicism, starting with primal human authenticity.

With the help of his contributor, Oliver Curry, Dawkins evokes protomorality in chimps, with the suggestion that the similar social behaviour of our primate ancestors was the basis for our own moral sense. The implication is surely that, given that our primate ancestors' social behaviour was determined by natural selection, so too was the morality of our human ancestors till religion popped up and introduced distortions.

Certainly, Dawkins speaks of altruistic genes and of a Darwinian explanation for our moral sense. Note that it is not clear whether he thinks genetic change continued or not once humans became humans. If genetic change continued, then our moral superiority over primates would come from our superior brains working with our superior morality genetics. But if genetic change did not continue, then our moral superiority would come from our superior brains working with merely primate strength morality genetics.

Religion as the Intrusive Evil

At any rate, what is perfectly clear is that for Dawkins religion was not a natural phenomenon of human development as Frazer had supposed it to be: and as we must imagine Dawkins considers science to be. Instead, he labels religion a virus, making it an extraneous, parasitical blight.

Given that Dawkins understands religion this way, describing it as a contagion passed on from generation to generation, responsible for the world's ills, then it most evidently is the intrusive evil of the historicist pattern, an equivalent of the original sin of Christianity and of the polluting inferior race of fascism and the like.

But how he can imagine this really to be the case is impossible to understand. If religion was not generated by a humanity going about its natural business, then how on earth did it come into existence.


To put the question another way, what is there about religion as opposed to, in particular, science, that makes the former a virus of humanity and the latter an essential feature of human culture now. Dawkins does not say.

It would seem to be Science with a big s that in Dawkins's historicist scheme of things offers the promise of paradise regained, in this instance getting humanity back on the track of authentic human moral progress from which which religion has derailed it. For Science it is which generates evidence, which in turn proves the falsehood of religion: in some sort of process of antibody creation.

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.

What Dawkins is offering is not science but just another belief system presented as science. The consideration that he is himself a scientist in some particular field of science is neither here nor there.

Darwin, the Unwitting Messiah

Early in the programme the North London rabbi, tongue in cheek, calls Dawkins the new Messiah. Now there is certainly a messiah component in Dawkins's historicism, an equivalent of Martin Luther, but it's actually an unwitting Charles Darwin. Darwin himself was not a historicist: our Oxford professor makes use of him for his own historicist ends, projecting Darwinian science on to a scheme of things that is ironically religious in origin.

This piece continues as The Historicism of Richard Dawkins 2: Scientific Capitalism.


1 The End of the World

See Norman Cohn: Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come [2nd edn 2001] ch 11, The Jesus Sect.     [Back to Article]

2 Religion

This attitude to religion is crucial because it has shaped the way religion in general is understood in our Anglo-Saxon culture. In fact, it has worked out that religion proper in our culture is the part of Catholicism which Protestantism acknowledged, basically God and the Bible, with all the rest being brushed under the carpet.

Thus when our scholars study other religions, they do so largely in terms of God and holy texts. For tribal religion that became essentially a matter of gods and myths, with the rest approached confusedly in sterile controversies over magic, taboo, ritual etc. Not surprisingly, discussion of the origins of religion became no more than discussion of the origins of belief in supernatural beings.

Clearly, it is with that kind of baggage in his head that we need to understand Dawkins. For example, there is a sense in which the first of the two TV programmes is about disposing of God (the stuff about the existence of God) and the second one is about disposing of the Bible (the nastiness of Bible morality): as if disposing of those two disposes of religion altogether.

Here's Dawkins's contributor and fellow British Humanist Association vice president, Ian McEwan, speaking at the end of the programme:

And if you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began or what the relationship is between this sky god and you, it does curtail your curiosity ...

Sacred text and sky god and you: the same Protestant minimalist understanding of religion as Dawkins's own.     [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