The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins

The Virus of Faith: Historicism 2

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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 second of three pages looking at Richard Dawkins's Protestant atheism in his recent TV programme, The Virus of Faith.

On this page: Scientific Capitalism | The Noble Chimp | Durham's Law of Cooperation | Mindless Elitism as Atheist Bliss | An Echo of Moses | Crass Insensitivity | The Personal Level | Meaningless Choice |

The Historicism of Richard Dawkins 2: Scientific Capitalism

Darwinism has always been particularly open to historicist abuse. Thus fascism undoubtedly depended on an ideological matrix derived from the Social Darwinism of Darwin's successors to give credibility to ideas of genetically superior and inferior races and to justify exploitation, expropriation, enslavement and genocide: as the operation of natural selection.

Scientific Capitalism

The particular kind of political Darwinism which Dawkins subscribes to and which is generally known as social biology or evolutionary psychology must be seen as a contemporary attempt to harness Darwin for capitalism. On the analogy with the scientific socialism mentioned previously, we can more informatively call this line of thought scientific capitalism.

In the programme, Dawkins introduces his argument by encapsulating the so-called altruistic genes of our prehistoric ancestors as a matter of nurturing our family and doing deals with our peers, in other words in terms of life as Margaret Thatcher and her cohorts wanted us to see it.

It is impossible to see primate life in these terms and it is impossible to see contemporary human life in these terms, consequently it is impossible to see the intermediate stage of prehistoric human life in these terms either. The vital consideration that Dawkins is omitting is social hierarchy, which Margaret Thatcher herself got around by denying that society exists.

Primates do not have peers: they are in hierarchical groups that are organised to favour the higher above the lower. Socially speaking, we humans never have true peers either: the idea of the peer group is simply a consoling fiction. In every human social situation hierarchy appears sooner or later, with squabbling of varying intensities continuing till that happens.

Parity in human affairs is possible only to the extent that we consciously determine to transcend our primate inheritance and make special dispositions to create it at a cultural level: as in fact religions do when they declare all humans equal in the eyes of God.

The Noble Chimp

The political thrust of Dawkins's argument becomes even clearer when we get a brief evocation of chimpanzee social behaviour from Dawkins's London School of Economics based contributor, Oliver Curry. Like Dawkins, Curry fails to mention social hierarchy as such among chimpanzees. He merely points to competition for status among these animals, and in such a way as to make it seem as benign as possible: as if in Noble Chimp society every individual is a winner.

Curry first says that chimpanzees live in family groups and work together in groups. Then he says that these animals engage in competition for status, suggesting that they are particularly good at doing so through public service. Therefore, so his argument goes, their competition is not simply a matter of brute force [1] but also of good leadership and dispute settling skills.

This interpretation of chimpanzee social behaviour can be understood as nothing other than the projection back on to our primate ancestors of a benign, sanitised, propagandised understanding of today's capitalist society. In other words, Curry reads back into chimp behaviour a particular interpretation so as to justify today's political order as natural and inevitable in terms of Darwinian science. We are to understand that at the end of the day, competition in capitalist society is a matter of public service, that in spite of appearances competition is actually altruistic.

Durham's Law of Cooperation

Of course, along with his other distortions, just like Dawkins, Curry is omitting one vital consideration, in this case, that most chimps never get to become leaders. Statistically speaking it would be far more accurate to describe chimpanzee society not in terms of leadership, but of followership, of social subordination.

We should not take seriously those TV series that follow the lives of groups of social animals such as chimps. The leaders of these groups have the most interesting lives and they are ones featured. This gives the series the scientific value of some weekly magazine that follows the lives of celebrities.

After Curry has offered his extremely skewed interpretation of chimp society, Dawkins asks him for the principal reasons in evolutionary terms for cooperation and altruism. Curry replies that are frequently mutual benefits. However, he does not specify in any way what these mutual benefits might be.

We ought not to be surprised at this. For we must suppose that in any unregulated social hierarchy the benefits of cooperation accrue to those cooperating in proportion to their status within that hierarchy (Durham's Law of Cooperation). In other words, the few individuals at the top are mostly working for themselves and the survival of their genes, while the many individuals at the bottom are also working mainly for the few individuals at the top and for the survival of the top individuals genes rather than their own benefit.

Moreover, the larger the hierarchy, the less chance there is that the individuals at the bottom share genes with those at the top. So while lowly chimps will be to a significant extent working directly for their own genes when they cooperate with their social superiors, the same cannot be said for the people at the bottom of today's mass societies.

As the student poster had it in the Paris Events of 1968, conjugating the verb to cooperate: I cooperate … you cooperate, they profit.

Though Dawkins and Curry would not admit it, this is the logic we get when we insist that humans can be no more than Darwinian social animals. In order to have any measure of human equality, we have to transcend the natural order of things and say that humans are more than animals.    [Back to Summary]

Mindless Elitism as Atheist Bliss

Given the way Dawkins ignores the place of the follower majority at the start of his trajectory of human progress, we cannot be surprised at the same thing happening at the head. His evocation of atheist bliss at the conclusion of the TV programme can perhaps best be described as mindless elitism in the style of the alleged Marie-Antoinette remark, let them eat cake.

We start the final section of the programme with a short contribution from top posh novelist and Dawkins's fellow British Humanist Association vice-president, Ian McEwan, who is seen presumably in his posh home. McEwan rhapsodises over our curiosity about the world, our wonder at its loveliness.

Dawkins then takes up this theme himself, as he walks through an idyllic mountainscape in perfect weather. The location is probably in the Rocky Mountains, presumably near Colorado Springs, where part of the first programme was set.

Dawkins tells us that the here and now is inspirational, with nature exciting our curiosity and science revealing the true majesty of our world. This world should be enough for us; indeed we must count ourselves extremely fortunate to be alive at all. End of programme.

An Echo of Moses

Such communing with a Nature revealed by Science must be understood as Dawkins's and, beyond him, the British atheist establishment's substitute for Protestant interiority, for communing with the God revealed by the Bible

Earlier in the programme, Dawkins had condemned Moses as part of his attack on the Bible, but the sight of the professor picking his solitary way through a sub desert Rockies mountainscape is reminiscent of nothing so much as some Protestant image of the biblical prophet ascending to the high places of Mount Sinai to commune with his God, Jehovah.

We have to view Dawkins as forever echoing Protestantism even as he condemns it, revealing an atheism that exists only in terms of the prior monotheism, the way a black mass exists only in terms of the mass proper. [Back to Summary]

Crass Insensitivity

In their atheist contemplativeness, Dawkins and McEwan are ignoring their position at the top of the social hierarchy, at the visible tip of the iceberg of humanity. For it to be possible for the one to be wandering through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the other to be sitting in his posh home, there must a whole host of lesser mortals at various levels of humanity, cooperating away for less and less benefit the lower they are. Atheist bliss as evoked is for the tiny top fraction of humanity that has the wherewithal to attain it.

Obviously the sensitivity to the world these two individuals express does not extend to the actual lives of the vast majority of the human population. Dawkins's evocation of a Rocky Mountains atheist heaven has not a human in sight, apart from the professor himself, not even any evident signs of human presence. Dawkins's two programmes had shown plenty of scenes of teeming humanity earlier, at Lourdes, at Colorado Springs, at Jerusalem and so on, but always to condemn, to say how stupid and misguided religious believers are: with the implication, compared to Dawkins himself.

The McEwan evocation at least showed a mother and infant, but they were not in any way typical. From the way she talked to her small child, the mother was very articulate and middle class, making them a Madonna and Child of the elect of British Humanist heaven.

The crass insensivity of this final section of Dawkins's second programme has to be seen as amounting to just another variation on the usual historicist theme of heaven for that part of humanity we identify with, that community of believers, that master race or whatever, and to hell with the rest.

The Personal Level

A final element in the Dawkins historicist pattern is the understanding offered of how the message works at the personal level: how the intrusive evil operates on the individual, how it is driven out thanks to the messianic leader, how a regenerate life is achieved. What is the Dawkins equivalent of say the American fundamentalist three moments, i.e. being born to sin, accepting Jesus as your personal saviour, being a born again Christian?

A large chunk of the TV programme is about how children are infected by Dawkins's virus of religion. It is a matter of indoctrination by parents and in our country today by sectarian education. Dawkins attacks in particular the insinuation of creationism and other Biblical material into the teaching of science and the use of the fear of hell to capture impressionable minds.

Dawkins has a lot less to say about the cure. His basic position is that thanks to Darwin's science and to their own reasoning power normal people grow out of religion as part of the process of growing up. People who do not grow out of religion remain infantile, sick, uncivilised, crazy.

Meaningless Choice

A telling minute or two in the programme is the contribution of Jill Mytton, a psychologist who specialises in counselling young people suffering from the effects of hellfire religion. She argues that children need to be presented with different points of view and then allowed to decide for themselves. This is psychobabble derived from the consumer capitalist or market model of life as a supermarket shopping experience: in reality, a life full of choices, but each so limited in scope as to be almost devoid of meaning.

You have to ask how the Mytton recommendation could be implemented in practice. Just what are those areas of life about which children would be offered choices, by their parents or by their teachers. For example, how on earth could evolutionism and creationism be taught in parallel, in such a way that children had a free choice.

In practice, the choices put before children could not be about anything more meaningful than choosing which of the brands of detergent you want from the range your supermarket finds it profitable to offer you.

Indeed, in the end, it looks as though the higher plane of existence that people acceed to when they attain Darwinian rationality is about exercising capitalist choices with a mind freed from the constraints imposed by religion. How can there be any more breadth of choice of what to believe under scientific capitalism than there is under religion.    [Back to Summary]


1 Brute Force

Curry's use of the term brute force is misleading in the extreme. First, the term is applied basically to humans to suggest animal strength. So saying chimps use brute force is to suggest they behave like humans. This is unacceptable in a description of the sort of animal behaviour that human behaviour allegedly derives from.

Second, brute force suggests the kind of behaviour seen in say Indian elephants heaving tree trunks in forestry operations or, more to the point, male herbivores competing by pushing at each other head on, the loser giving up and trotting off once pushed back. A TV show seen during the writing of this piece suggests that chimpanzee competitive aggression is nothing like that: viciousness and cunning are more their style. A group of younger male chimps gang up on the leader of their troupe when he shows weakness and drive him out into exile in the jungle.

Of course, as well as demonstrating the aggressive style of chimps, this example also showed their cooperative style: not quite the benign image Curry is trying to sell!     [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