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 Post subject: Richard Dawkins: Fundamentalist, Extremist, and Hypocrite
PostPosted: Sun Jan 13, 2013 9:19 am 
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There's been a minor kafuffle in the news recently, because Peter Higgs (the physicist behind the "Higgs Boson" theory) has denounced Richard Dawkins' approach to religion as "embarrassing", and described Dawkins as "almost a fundamentalist".

Is "fundamentalist" a fair comment, or an unwarranted smear?

If we're going to have an argument over whether Dawkins qualifies as "fundamentalist", we'll need to pin down the meaning of that word. That might be rather difficult: "fundamentalism" used to refer to a movement which was a reaction to Modernist (or "liberal") theology, and simply reaffirmed traditional Christian doctrines such as the authority of scripture, and thus the historicity of the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection of Christ. These days it's more commonly used as a term of disparagement, suggesting that one holds irrational beliefs founded in spurious religious dogma, more or less. Trying to give it a precise definition might miss the point. Still, perhaps if we consider Dawkins' own use of the term, we might see whether he qualifies on that basis.

In response to the accusation, "you're as much a fundamentalist as those you criticise," Dawkins has publicly stated the following (in an article titled, "How dare you call me a fundamentalist", no less).

Richard Dawkins wrote:
No, please, do not mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Passion for passion, an evangelical Christian and I may be evenly matched. But we are not equally fundamentalist. The true scientist, however passionately he may "believe", in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will.

So for Dawkins, the key difference between a fundamentalist and someone who is merely passionate about his subject is that the fundamentalist will never change his mind. This is reminiscent of Churchill's aphorism regarding fanatics: "a fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." So, perhaps we can say that fanaticism is fundamentalism ("can't change his mind") plus intense passion ("won't change the subject").

I don't consider this a particularly appropriate use of the word "fundamentalist", but I'll work with it because I'm more interested in analysing whether Dawkins qualifies as a fundamentalist according to his own use of the word than I am in criticising the usage itself. Dawkins refutes the accusation that he is a fundamentalist in one stroke: his mind can be changed by evidence, therefore he is not a fundamentalist. Case closed.

There are two problems with this. The first is this: what could change his mind about what it would take to change his mind? The supremacy of "evidence" and "reason" is one of his major themes -- so pervasive as to make exhaustive citation impractical, but "Good and Bad Reasons for Believing" (A Devil's Chaplain, Ch.7) is a good example of a work dedicated to the theme. What would it take to change his mind about the status of those things? He's never suggested any alternatives, except to claim that they are inferior. As far as I can tell, this is a point on which he will not budge. It's a fundamental issue for him.

Thus, Richard Dawkins is fundamentalist in relation to his epistemological framework: he will not change his mind about the proper basis for knowledge, which is, loosely speaking, "evidence and reason", which he often uses interchangeably with "science". We might refer to his particular variety of fundamentalism as "scientific fundamentalism".

No doubt, most adherents of this creed would consider "scientific fundamentalism" to be a contradiction in terms, but its meaning is coherent and clear. Just as a Biblical fundamentalist considers the Bible to be the highest authority (on all matters of which it speaks), scientific fundamentalists have the same attitude towards science. In extreme cases, a fundamentalist considers his particular source of truth to be the highest authority on every subject. When applied to scientific fundamentalism, this doctrine is known as "the omnicompetence of science", or "scientism". Dawkins affirms that extreme position, saying, "if science has nothing to say, it's certain that no other discipline can say anything at all." (Growing Up in the Universe, 1991) Thus, we might legitimately describe him as a "scientific fundamentalist extremist".

There's an easily-anticipated response to this which I would like to address here. Let's imagine that someone leaps to Dawkins' defence and says, "but he would change his mind if there were any evidence that some other approach is better, so he's not a fundamentalist at all!" It sounds fair, but it's analogous to a Biblical fundamentalist who claims that he'd be prepared to change his mind about the Bible being the inerrant word of God, if only the Bible said so. After all, it's an attempt to say that Dawkins is not fundamentalist about evidence by appealing to his respect for evidence. It's not like Dawkins could be dissuaded from his current position by something other than evidence and reason, is it?

So, to be fair, if we let Dawkins off the charge of "fundamentalism" by appeal to his respect for evidence, we'd need to let Biblical fundamentalists off the hook when they appealed to scripture. Of course, their appeal to scripture is precisely what makes them fundamentalist in the first place, and Dawkins' exclusive appeal to (scientific) evidence is what puts him in the same category. The major difference is that scientific fundamentalists tend to be characterised by an extreme dislike for dogmatism, and believe themselves to be free of it. Nevertheless, they have their particular dogma in the form of "the scientific method", loosely speaking, and they consider it entirely proper to be uncompromisingly dogmatic about it.

The above is enough to establish that Dawkins can be justly considered a fundamentalist -- a "scientific fundamentalist", by his own use of those terms, even if he would not apply the phrase to himself -- but it raises another problem. After all, one might well ask, "what can one possibly base one's beliefs on except evidence and reason?" If evidence and reason is the only game in town, then perhaps we're all fundamentalists in the same way that Dawkins is, and if that's the case, the label "fundamentalist" bears no real significance.

Clearly, this can't be the case: Dawkins draws a distinction between good and bad reasons for believing: science is based on "good" reasons, and non-science is based on "bad" reasons. The problem is simply that he's being sloppy with his use of language again: in the same way that we need to consider what he means by "fundamentalist", exactly, we need to consider what he means by "evidence" and "reason". In general usage, "evidence" and "reason" are extremely broad categories, but there are many things that Dawkins chooses to disqualify from those categories. His scientific fundamentalism is quite particular in this regard, even if his use of broad, accommodating words like "evidence" and "reason" suggests otherwise.

Specifically, in Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, Dawkins expresses approval for observation, and for inferences drawn from multiple observations, but he expresses disapproval for "tradition", "authority", and "revelation". Observation and inference are interesting and tricky subjects in the philosophy of science, but for the purposes of this essay it will be more interesting to examine the "bad" reasons. Not only will this give us greater understanding of the central dogma of Dawkins' fundamentalism, but it will also show us that Dawkins frequently makes assertions which are "bad" by those very standards!

"Tradition" is Dawkins' first example of non-evidence -- a "bad" reason to believe something. Tradition is information which is handed down in either oral or written form, from one generation to the next, or preserved in books. This, at a stroke, invalidates all historical records of everything as a basis for belief. That's ridiculous, of course, but worse for Dawkins is that it invalidates his own essay, which was written as an open letter to his daughter. Thus, Good and Bad Reasons for Believing is, itself, an example of tradition, and as such it asserts that we should not believe it -- or, at the very least, that his daughter shouldn't. Dawkins is placed in the ironic position of asserting which reasons for belief are good and bad by using one he categorises as "bad".

Obviously, Dawkins has made a hasty generalisation with regards to tradition: something along the lines of, "some tradition is false, therefore all tradition is a bad basis for belief." Some science is rubbish too, but he reaches the conclusion that it is a good basis for belief nonetheless. Tradition is certainly no demonstration of reliability, but we can apply evidence and reason (in the broad sense) to it: we can cross-check historical accounts, or perform textual analysis to discern whether an account is intended to be literal or not, and so on. In the case of a philosophical tradition, such as the one Dawkins has invented in Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, we can perform critical analysis (and determine that it contradicts itself, or contains hasty generalisations), and judge its credibility accordingly.

The second "bad" reason is "authority". This means that you believe something because you have been instructed to do so by someone who, for whatever reason, can legitimately issue that sort of command. The pope is an obvious candidate, at least as regards Roman Catholics, but most of our education also comes from teachers and lecturers who dictate to us as authoritative experts of varying degrees. Dawkins recognises this, and so tries to distinguish between vacuous authority (where "because I say so" is the whole story), and justified authority (where the authority in question has proper experience with the evidence).

The distinction between these two kinds of authority is based in the authority's grounds for asserting the claims in question. If the authority has scientific evidence to back the claims, then Dawkins is okay with it, and it's not really "authority", because the evidence is the real grounds for belief. On the other hand, if they don't have scientific evidence, then it's "authority" in his vacuous, pejorative sense.

The trouble with this is that it doesn't really contribute to the analysis: it's just a reiteration of his "science-based thinking good; everything else bad" central dogma, phrased for the case where the information is second-hand. After all, the only way to distinguish between the good and bad versions of authority is to determine whether the authority figure has a scientific basis for the assertion. Everything else is incidental. In other words, you need to take the authority figure out of the equation in order to evaluate it: never mind who said it; what evidence did they have?

We might question whether Dawkins himself qualifies as a good or bad authority. Clearly, there are areas in which he has top-tier scientific knowledge, but he rarely speaks on his core subject of ethology. There's plenty of science in his writings, to be sure, but it's also heavily loaded with philosophy and moral pronouncements (usually condemning religion, as in The God Delusion). Does he have the proper evidence to back up his claims, such that we should consider him an "authority" in the good sense, rather than the bad? That's one of the questions we are trying to address with this analysis.

The third and final "bad" reason to believe anything is "revelation". This relates to inner feeling, which he distinguishes quite clearly from external evidence, as in, "when religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling 'revelation'." Dawkins is quite adamant that feeling is always subordinate to external forms of evidence, allowing for no exceptions. Some folks might say, for example, that we need feelings to know things such as, "my wife loves me," but Dawkins won't have a bar of it: he claims that we can know that kind of thing though observation, and that is the proper way to do it.

Dawkins allows that "feelings are valuable in science", but "only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence." We commonly refer to such feelings as "intuition". Dawkins says that such intuitive hunches are "not a good reason for believing" in and of themselves, but that it is quite alright to guide one's research on the basis of such intuition. He stresses, however, that such feelings "are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence."

This is the point on which Dawkins most clearly fails to meet his own standards.

Substantial portions of The God Delusion, for example, invite the reader to form a non-rational judgement based on feelings. In some cases, this effect is produced through eloquently negative rhetoric, phrased as a matter-of-fact statement, such as in chapter five, where he speaks of "the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion." This is immediately followed by, "some educated individuals may have abandoned religion," which is an example of innuendo -- an attempt to make his readers associate better education with abandonment of religion, without all the fuss of evidence to show that such a correlation actually exists.

Shortly after that, he speaks of, "the semi-permanent state of morbid guilt suffered by a Roman Catholic possessed of normal human frailty and less than normal intelligence." More innuendo, and more matter-of-fact statements about the way things are, without a shred of supporting evidence. I could go on, but I'm sure you see the pattern by now. Dawkins perceives all things religious through a jaundiced eye, and that subjective report is what we receive, conspicuously unsupported by hard data, but phrased as though it were a direct observation nonetheless.

The latter chapters of The God Delusion, particularly chapter nine, are replete with examples of the horrors of religion, which are intended to evoke negative feelings towards that subject, and produce judgement based on those feelings. In anecdote after anecdote, Dawkins tries to inspire in his readers a sense of moral outrage at religion, but such feelings are not evidence by his standards. This isn't science: it's persuasion through emotional manipulation -- the sort of thing he condemns religions for doing.

There is no science of good and evil -- the study of morality is a branch of philosophy -- and yet he tries to amass evidence of the "evil" of religion, under the guise of "evidence and reason", while resting the entire case on his feelings and ours. Evidently, Dawkins wants it both ways: he wants to disqualify "revelation" as a basis for belief so as to cut off religious "evidence", and yet he's perfectly happy to rely on his own moral intuitions (and appeal to the emotions of his readers) as evidence for the evilness of religion. This is quite a glaring double-standard.

In any case, to the small extent that his anecdotes and inflammatory rhetoric can be called "evidence" at all -- by any standards, let alone his own -- it is a distinctly selective set of evidence. Presumably, the scientific approach involves collecting all the available evidence, and analysing it for implications (drawing inferences). Instead, Dawkins takes a lawyerly approach to the argument in The God Delusion, amassing "evidence" against all things religious, and presenting only that evidence in a case against religion.

Lawyers aren't in the job of getting to the truth: they are in the job of persuading others that their position is the true one. They start from a position (pro or con) and work back towards the evidence. Scientists are supposed to work the other way: from evidence to truth. Dawkins himself has compared lawyers unfavourably to scientists, like so.

Richard Dawkins wrote:
There are other professions (no need to mention lawyers specifically) in which falsifying evidence or at least twisting it is precisely what people are paid for and get brownie points for doing.

-- "Is Science a Religion?",The Humanist, January/February 1997

Incidentally, the article quoted above concludes with a reiteration of his contrast between, "a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation."

So, to review, Dawkins bases much of his case in The God Delusion on arguments from subjective feeling -- personal revalation as to what is good and what is bad. He conveys much of that argument through rhetoric: language intended to inspire similar emotions in the reader. And lastly, to the small extent that it's not an argument from personal feeling, it conveys a conspicuously biased set of data, from which one can not draw proper scientific inferences. This is the pattern of a prosecuting lawyer, not a scientist in search of truth. We ought to reject the relevant chapters of The God Delusion, as it offers us only bad reasons to believe it, by Dawkins' own standards.

This is a serious accusation of inconsistency against Dawkins, so let us conduct one more analysis, in greater detail and narrower scope, just to be sure that things are as bad as they seem. Specifically, let us examine his claim that it is psychologically more damaging for a child to believe in the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal torment in hell than it is for that child to suffer "mild" sexual abuse. Let us see whether this is backed by observation and inference, or whether his reasons are "bad" by his own standards.

Dawkins' interest in the doctrine of hell goes back a long way: he mentions it in chapter eleven of his first book, The Selfish Gene, where he calls it, "a particularly nasty technique of persuasion, causing great psychological anguish throughout the middle ages and even today." In a 2002 article called Religion's Real Child Abuse (Free Inquiry, Volume 22, No. 4), he describes the threat of hell as worse than sexual abuse, saying, "the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is." The theme is repeated in chapter nine of The God Delusion, as follows.

Richard Dawkins wrote:
Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place. It was an off-the-cuff remark made in the heat of the moment, and I was surprised that it earned a round of enthusiastic applause from that Irish audience (composed, admittedly, of Dublin intellectuals and presumably not representative of the country at large). But I was reminded of the incident later when I received a letter from an American woman in her forties who had been brought up Roman Catholic. At the age of seven, she told me, two unpleasant things had happened to her. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And, around the same time, a little schoolfriend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a Protestant. Or so my correspondent had been led to believe by the then official doctrine of her parents’ church. Her view as a mature adult was that, of these two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the one physical and the other mental, the second was by far the worst.

This is not an exhaustive list of citations where Dawkins refers to the doctrine of hell as psychologically abusive; it is just a representative sample, with The God Delusion being the best-known instance. In a recent interview on Al Jazeera television, Dawkins was challenged on this point, with particular reference to The God Delusion. The interviewer points out that, "one letter from one woman in America isn't really a basis to extrapolate and make such a sweeping conclusion." Dawkins agrees, and explains himself as follows.

Richard Dawkins wrote:
That is, of course, true. And I'm not basing it on that. It seems to me that -- that telling children, such that they really, really believe, that people who sin are going to go to hell and roast forever -- forever -- that your skin grows again when it peels off with burning -- it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse, that will give more nightmares, that will give more genuine distress, because they really believe it. If they don't believe it, it's not a problem, of course.

So Dawkins isn't basing his claim on the anecdotal evidence of one letter from America -- and clearly this is true, because he had already made the claim to an appreciative audience in Dublin before he received the supporting anecdote from the American woman. Instead, he's basing it on his intuition. In other words, he has no actual scientific evidence -- not even a cherry-picked reference to a published paper -- but only an appeal to personal revelation in the form of intuition. This runs precisely contrary to Dawkins' own instructions in Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, where he says that intuitions are fine as a means to prompt research activity, but "not worth anything until they are supported by evidence."

Reactions to reports of this interview were quite strong: the general public, apparently, do not share Dawkins' intuitions on the relative severity of sexual abuse and the doctrine of hell. Dawkins was somewhat taken aback by the reaction, since it's nothing he hasn't been saying for years, and he wrote some clarifying remarks, which included the following statement.

Richard Dawkins wrote:
Anecdotes and plausibility arguments, however, need to be backed up by systematic research, and I would be interested to hear from psychologists whether there is real evidence bearing on the question.

So, to be absolutely clear, Dawkins can offer nothing more than a plausibility argument from his own intuition, and doesn't even know whether there is any "real evidence" to back up his intuitions. Furthermore, he's not even going to seek out supporting evidence (in the manner of a lawyer) this time: he's hoping that the scientists in the audience will get back to him on the matter. So now he's behaving like a lazy lawyer.

Incidentally, why did it take so long for people to notice the Emperor's lack of clothes in this case? Some folks call him out all the time on his inconsistencies -- I make a minor hobby of it -- but people like me are easily identified as his ideological opponents, and generally dismissed a priori by his admirers as religious and therefore irrational. But why didn't his fellow scientists call him out for his poor science? I'm not the first to ask this question. Do other scientists feel that the risk of attracting Dawkins' ire is not worth it, given the likely lack of reward? Probably. Bear in mind that most scientists do not share the intensity of Dawkins' passion for science, because they do not share his fundamentalist extremism on the subject. Most scientists can have a passion for science without fusing it into the inextricable bundle of scientism, militant atheism, and Darwin-fanboyism which are the hallmarks of Dawkins' ideology. Dawkins' passion for science is amplified many-fold by the ideological framework he uses it to support: there's a lot riding on his characterisation of "science" and "religion" being true, and he won't concede ground easily.

In summary, the "evidence" for Dawkins' serious and oft-repeated assertion that "teaching children the doctrine of hell is worse than sexual abuse," amounts to nothing more than, "it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse" -- i.e. a personal revelation on his part. To make matters worse, he's been pronouncing it like he's an authority on the subject (even though he never had any real evidence, as we now see), and promoting a tradition of it in his writings and speeches to admiring followers. In other words, Dawkins has believed this serious accusation for a bad reason, and then asked -- nay, insisted -- that other people believe it also, for equally bad reasons. And when I say "bad reason", I mean bad by his own standards.

In conclusion, not only is Dawkins a fundamentalist (according to his own use of the word), and an extremist (because he considers science to be the final arbiter of everything which can possibly be decided), but he's also a hypocrite, because his behaviour is wildly inconsistent with his own fundamental doctrines. In his defence, however, he appears to be an oblivious hypocrite, rather than a disingenuous one: he doesn't seem to notice his own glaring inconsistency. On the contrary, he operates under the persistent delusion that he is a paragon of rational thought -- a suitable keynote speaker at a Rally for Reason, for example. Up until now, this air of confidence seems to have been sufficient to keep the Dawkins-sceptics in check. Perhaps the Al Jazeera interview has provided the unvarnished glimpse of reality we needed to make Dawkins face up to his hypocrisy -- but I doubt it.

In any case, it's clear that Higgs was being very polite in his assessment of Dawkins.

The Famous Brett Watson --

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