The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion: Comment 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 Protestant atheism in Richard Dawkins's recent TV programme, The God Delusion. Here we offer this site's understanding of the function of Creationism and comment on the Oxford professor's arguments concerning the Existence of God.

On this page:  Why CreationismA Morally Coherent WorldDurham's Law of CoherenceCreationismTeapot AnalogyOne God FurtherDawkins's Historicism


We shall develop the argument later, in relation to the Bertrand Russell teapot analogy, that people in groups and whole societies do not entertain an idea unless it has some kind of functional validity in terms of their group or society. In that perspective, understanding why creationism is entertained is a matter of understanding what value there is for Middle Americans in preferring an idea that flies in the face of the overwhelming intellectual evidence in favour of Darwinism.

And note that this is not simply a matter of preferring the authority of the Bible to that of science. If it served the needs of Evangelicals to adopt a symbolic interpretation of the Genesis creation story, they would do so.

One piece of evidence as to what is going on in Middle America was mentioned by Dawkins, but obviously not seen by him as in any way significant. This is the fact that Pastor Haggard's church caters comprehensively for the social needs of its 12,000 members with 1300 programmes of activities.

A morally coherent world

We must suppose that, in an American society characterised by extreme social and geographic mobility and by social isolation associated with, among other things, the motor car, people have turned to religion in order not so much to believe as to belong. At the same time, there are the issues of morality and social threat, seen most critically in the matter of drugs and associated crime: people have turned to religion in order to embrace moral certainties and gain some measure of hope in the possibility of a morally coherent world.

In the light of needs of this order, intellectual considerations are not important. It is undoubtedly the case that if Dawkins had taken the trouble to ask members of Haggard's congregation why they belonged, their answers would have focussed on those moral issues rather than on whether the world has existed for 10,000 years and not for 4½ billion or whatever the current scientific estimate is.

Durham's Law of Coherence

In the hierarchy of human needs, intellectual needs come bottom, vastly less important to most people than social and moral needs. In particular, in the actual lives of everybody apart from evolutionary scientists, the age of the world is of no practical significance whatsoever. People need to belong to a social network of others whose morality they feel confident about infinitely more than they need to have their facts straight about how the world began. Social and moral coherence is infinitely more important to people than intellectual coherence (Durham's Law of Coherence). [1]

It is remarkable that Dawkins does not seem to grasp this, seeing that it is explicable in evolutionary terms. The precedence of our needs corresponds to evolutionary precedence: our social needs as primates take precedence over our intellectual needs as humans. Our intellectual capabilities developed in the service of our needs as primates and we have to see them as continuing to operate that way.

It is in this light that we should understand the amount of intellectual effort currently being expended to undermine Darwinism and establish Intelligent Design. It is people defending a social and moral order that is fundamentally important to them.

Note that moral coherence is not something needed by other primates, but is necessary for humans in order to manage of the greatly increased autonomy of action that is part of our intellectual capabilities. We need morality in order to handle our greatly increased possibilities for damaging our social groups.

We shall return to these matters in part 3 of these comments.

For the present let's just note that it seems likely that people like Dawkins can pursue intellectual coherence only because they already have the luxury of a sufficient degree of social and moral coherence in their lives. It is indeed a feature of British atheist organisations that they make big deal out of the famous people in the academic, political and media worlds who support them: look at the websites.

The leading atheists are thus by definition insulated from kind of social and moral problems that beset ordinary people. They don't need to worry about what trouble their stupid neighbours are going to inflict on them next. They can take a lofty view because they are at the top of the social heap, in a world where things work for you, not against you. They live behind high walls and sophisticated security systems; their children go to nice schools where everything is under control; when they report something to the police, somebody comes round straight away.

In a nutshell, the privileged classes, including top atheists, have security systems and personnel to protect their interests, whereas ordinary people have to rely on the good behaviour of all those around them, which requires a simple, coherent moral order.

The situation is somewhat analogous to Ancient Athens, where the citizen minority developed a nice democracy for themselves, but were totally blind to the slaves on whom their society was totally dependent. We can certainly see more than a touch of Marie-Antoinette style let them eat cake incomprehension and sheer ignorance of the lives of ordinary people in Dawkins.


Of course, none of this explains why Middle Americans have adopted creationism in particular as something they believe in. But isn't it partly a matter of historical contingency, with Christian fundamentalism as the incumbent religion of Middle America, its seeds already in the ground ready for rain and sun? Isn't it partly that when people felt critically the need for a social network and moral coherence, the evangelicals were there for them, with a simple message and an entrepreneurial style of religious organisation capable of responding. Creationism was part of the package, its intellectual limitations unimportant.

There is however something else to be considered. Middle Americans need to have some kind of explanation for the social and moral incoherence they find around them, but what possibilities are there. It cannot be capitalism that is to blame and it can no longer be communism, which makes evolutionism and its apparent dragging down of humanity to animal status a likely culprit.

In fact, in the TV programme Dawkins reports that Pastor Haggard (when he finally lost patience) had said to him You called my children animals.     [Back to Summary]


The last segment of Dawkins's TV programme starts with him cycling along a privileged, sun-lit, leafy street in Oxford and past a university building. In this segment the professor offers two arguments to the effect that it is reasonable not to believe in God. The first argument refers to science and the second to religion.

Teapot analogy:

In his first argument, Dawkins attempts to demonstrate that it is reasonable to be an atheist even though science cannot disprove the existence of God. To do this, he calls on Earl Russell's analogy of a society believing in a teapot that orbits the sun, too small to be detected scientifically. The idea is that there are all kinds of beliefs that can't be disproved by science, but that doesn't make them right.

The analogy is of value only for what it reveals of the Oxford professor and, incidently, of the aristocratic philosopher before him. For it suggests that belief in God and any other religious beliefs that arise are totally arbitrary: somebody comes up with a daft idea one day and somehow imposes it on everybody else.

Sunny, leafy academic Oxford seems an entirely appropriate setting such an analogy as the orbiting teapot to be proposed. A society that believes in an orbiting teapot may make sense in the ivory tower worlds of our private boarding school educated professor and the late noble lord. However, it doesn't in the real world.

Certainly, in the real world lone individuals are generating apparently daft ideas all the time and this must have been so ever since humans first became humans. But these ideas are accepted by other individuals, then groups and then by society as a whole only if they make sense in context: as having some value for the other individuals and groups and then for the whole society.

(Ideas are dropped in the same way. As long as an idea continues to make sense in terms of the society or group that embraces it, it will be retained, though isolated individuals will always question it.)

No society is going to invest resources in developing and maintaining a belief that has no value for it. Russell's scenario of a society coming up with a ridiculous idea, a china teapot undetectably orbiting the sun, then passing the idea on from generation to generation, including writing about it in holy books, is itself ridiculous.

Thus, though we may not believe in God ourselves we must accept that the people who do believe in God, do so for reasons that make sense not only to them as individuals, but also in terms of the life of their group or society as a whole.

Me clever, you stupid.

16-03-07: Dawkins repeats the teapot analogy argument in the God Delusion book, pp 54 and following, but does not develop it any further. Most importantly, he does not address the point made here, that beliefs like that in God always make sense in context. The approach of Dawkins and Russell before him, merely to dismiss such beliefs out of hand, rather than to try to understand them, is simply an attempt to demonstrate intellectual superiority. But then, that is what mainstream British atheism is actually all about: me clever, you stupid.     [Back to Summary]

One god further

Dawkins ends his programme with his one god further argument. As part of his attempt to demonstrate that it is reasonable to be an atheist even though science cannot disprove the existence of God, he suggests that people no longer believe in the old gods, such as Thor, and that atheists merely go one step more. The implied argument is presumably that just as it was reasonable with the advent of monotheism for people to give up the old pagan gods, so it is reasonable now, with the advent of Science, for people to go one step further and give up the One God.

This argument of Dawkins is not merely feeble but false. The step from polytheism to monotheism just is not comparable to the step from monotheism to atheism. In the first case you are going from one type of supernatural belief to another, but in the second case you are abandoning all belief in the supernatural. That's not a step, that's a quantum leap.

Of course, with the rise of neo-paganism, it is not even altogether true that people have given up the old gods. Now it does not seem feasible that Dawkins can be completely unaware of the existence of neo-pagans. So presumably, he is brushing them under the carpet because he regards them as some kind of negligible lunatic fringe for whom it is not worth spoiling his neat implied pattern of many gods to one God to none.

But aren't we in fact in a classic science situation here: the neat hypothesis that leaves out some anomolous evidence. If we omit evidence that doesn't fit, isn't it incumbent on us to explain why.

The view of this site is that we should be asking why some people have turned to Celtic mysticism, the Great Goddess or whatever. It just will not do to regard the resort to pagan religion as looniness; the people concerned must be seeking to answer some need they feel. Aren't they likely to be part of a trend, a trend that is giving us everything from feng shui religiosity to Christian fundamentalism.    [Back to Summary]

Dawkins's historicism

This site sees Dawkins's implied pattern of many gods, one God, no God as actually a particular expression of an underlying historicism, a version of the notion that history ought to be developing according to some progressive sequence of stages, typically three. In fact, Dawkins had suggested a historicist perspective at the start of the programme as well, when he remarked that the c21st ought to be an age of reason.

At one point in the programme, Dawkins says, I am a scientist and of course the whole thing is about the superiority of scientific thinking. But it's not science to suppose that the future should be rolling out in conformity with some simple preordained pattern, rather it's scientistic wishful thinking more in the vein of say Teilhard de Chardin or of Marx, with his so-called scientific socialism.

Dawkins's thinking here derives from a century or more ago, from that of atheists like the British armchair anthropologist, James Frazer, whose The Golden Bough (15 vols) is still today widely read in his 1922 abridged version. Frazer had a view of human cultural history as being composed of three stages: magic, religion and science. Dawkins's three implied stages of polytheism, monotheism, atheism are simply a particular reworking of that sort of pattern. [2]

Now whatever excuse Frazer might have had for looking forward at the start of the c20th to the triumph of some alleged scientific rationality is no longer available to Dawkins at the start of the c21st. One might have thought the latter would have learned something from the c20th, particularly from the horrors perpetrated by fascism and communism in pursuit of their own historicist doctrines: notably the Thousand Year Reich and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Significantly, the only awareness of c20th history shown by Dawkins in the entire TV programme apart from his Nazism smear is his discussion of the utterly marginal Catholic doctrine of the Assumption, promulgated in 1950, which we looked at earlier.    [Back to Summary]

Monotheism understood in its own terms

12-02-08: Again, for Dawkins to evoke a progression polytheism, monotheism, atheism is to understand monotheism in its own terms: as an advance on a polytheism lumped together with idolatry, superstition, magic. We should not be surprised that the God Delusion book was followed by Christian replies from Alister McGrath and others: he speaks their language.

Here we find no fundamental difference between monotheism and polytheism, superstition etc. [Back to Summary]


1 Atheism and immorality

Part of the issue is undoubtedly the association of evolutionary science with atheism, which in turn is associated with immorality in the religious mind. In the Jerusalem segment of Dawkins's programme, a Muslim fundamentalist says he hates atheists for their flexible moral standards. There can be no doubt that US fundamentalists view atheists in the same light. Of course, true to form, Dawkins totally ignores his Muslim interviewee's point, preferring his own agenda.

The association has recently been aired on Dawkins's own doorstep. Another Oxford professor, the Protestant theologian, Alister McGrath, is at pains to link atheism with moral laxity in his polemical history of atheism, The Twilight of Atheism, [2004], a work that obviously has an American readership very much in mind.

If Dawkins's aim is to promote atheism with the population at large, he would be better advised to address the issue of morality rather than to try scoring petty debating points based on science. [Back to Article]

2 Science as God

An important point of difference between Dawkins and Frazer is that the former seems to deify Science in much the same way that Marxism deified History. We shall explore the matter in Part 3 of these comments. [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