Dawkins and Hitchens on…
Religious Child Abuse…
Religion’s Hostility to Science…
The Stupidity of Intelligent Design…
and The Ultimate Boeing 747…
Hitchens and Harris and Dawk,
Three mice ran up the clock,
They admired the gears,
Gave the main-spring three cheers,
While the Maker they heartily mocked.
(An Atheist Nursery Rhyme. Anon.)
Like their fellow humbug Scrooge, Dawkins and Hitchens are “men of business”, except that their business is cold, hard science. Science, however, like atheism itself, is another victim, in their view, of the lethal hostility and repression of the religious establishment. Every scientific discovery, every technological advance, from the wheel to the pill, has been made in the teeth of an ecclesiastical hierarchy determined to preserve its “monopoly”. For Dawkins and Hitchens, the man of science is a Promethean hero. Personally, I am disappointed that neither cites the myth of Prometheus’ theft of fire from heaven, for which Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock and dispatching the Olympian vulture to feast on his ever-regenerating liver. But then, Galileo’s heresy trial is so much better known.
Hitchens’ focus is on the science of medicine, whose cures he contrasts with the snake-oil merchandised by shamans and faith-healers. In a separate chapter, he enumerates the mortal threats to public health posed by religion: the vaginal mutilation of young girls on the Indian subcontinent; imams in Calcutta and Afghanistan, and witchdoctors in Africa, demonizing the polio vaccine; the Vatican’s preference for abstinence over condoms; the rabbis of an obscure Hasidic sect in Jerusalem who remove the foreskins of the infant penises they circumcise with their lips. (An unsavoury practice, to be sure. But given his denial of the link between AIDS and anal intercourse, Hitchens’ indignation over it seems somewhat selective). Such examples, indiscriminately culled as usual from the archives of cultural anthropology, prove to Hitchens that religion, jealous of its “monopoly”, is always “hostile” to medical science, and “is not just amoral but immoral”. The vestigial pre-historic and third-world barbarities that Hitchens catalogues might well, in another context, make the argument for the conversion of the world to Christianity. Indeed, the Vatican’s sin of opposing the distribution of condoms seems mild in comparison to the other more lurid examples, but that does not prevent Hitchens from inculpating the Catholic Church by association in a whole range of sadistic crimes against children: “if I were [guilty] of raping a child, or torturing a child, or infecting a child with venereal disease, or selling a child into sexual or any other kind of slavery…I would welcome death in any form that it might take.” I gather that the question mark at the end of his chapter title, “Is Religion Child Abuse?”, is rhetorical.
Both Hitchens and Dawkins demonstrate a touching solicitude for the welfare of children insofar as it is deliberately jeopardized by religion, a major theme of their books. The recent scandal in the Catholic Church makes religious “child abuse” all that much more topical, and therefore, irresistible to the writers of best-sellers. Naturally, in their discussion of this scandal, the homosexuality of the offending priests never comes up, since if it did, their horror and revulsion at the priests’ “alternative lifestyles” might implicate them in “homophobia”, than which, in the religion of progress, there is no greater sin.
One index of liberal intellectual conformity is the curious obsession with the story of Abraham and Isaac that Dawkins and Hitchens both exhibit. There are any number of other Old Testament loci that reveal the Hebrews’ tribal strongman Yahweh in an even more murderous light. But insofar as it illustrates the faithful’s sadistic penchant for “child abuse”, both Dawkins and Hitchens are especially wroth with him, and with the obedient Abraham, whose “voices” told him to take his son Isaac “on a long and cruel walk”. Once again, they write as if Abraham and Isaac were actual historical personalities, rather than characters in a didactic allegory intended to exemplify the theological doctrine of God’s mercy. (Even the literal point of the narrative is that Abraham didn’t “barbecue” Isaac, after all). The doctrine of divine mercy may be a naive rationalization and existentially false (and Yahweh may be the last biblical character one would choose to model it), but it’s equally naive to take offense at Abraham’s psychotic cruelty and affect solicitude for poor little traumatized-for-life Isaac, the prototypical victim of religious child abuse, when both, obviously, are literary fictions.
Anyone objectively interested in the phenomenology of religion must find it unfortunate that the examples Hitchens collects arouse only his ghoulish polemical imagination. Genuine scholars of the history of religious ideas have studied ancient rites of initiation and sacrifice (most of which turn out to be mimetic, rather than actual – the legend of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac being the dim recollection of just such an initiation rite) for the light that they shed on the universal human preoccupation with the theme of death and rebirth, an inherited psychic factor (an “archetype”, as Jung calls it) that, along with innumerable other mythological symbols and complexes, continues to erupt into consciousness from the nascency of the race in a thousand ways. But for Hitchens and Dawkins, they are merely dull proofs that religion can be dangerous to one’s health. In their anti-theist histories of medicine, Dawkins and Hitchens seem to have overlooked the fact that, long before the secular welfare state, it was principally the churches and convents that operated the hospitals upon whom the sick and the poor depended for their lives. Nor has medical “science” been much more salubrious than religion in its impact upon public health. In the late eighteenth century, during that golden age in which science and reason had supposedly emancipated themselves from religious quackery, physicians were still letting blood, blistering skin, sniffing stools, and diagnosing disease as an imbalance of the humours. The history of science, like the history of any human activity or department of knowledge, can be relied upon to furnish its share of lethal follies, quite without the contribution of God or his monopolistic ministers.
The opposition between religion and science has been a longstanding trope of anti-Christian polemic, and by the time that Dawkins and Hitchens joined the Church of Atheistic Reason, it was already a hallowed article of faith. The idea took root in the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century and is now dismissed by historians of science as “the conflict myth”. In reality, science and religion have only rarely been at mutual enmity, nor have the attitudes of theists and rationalists been as irreconcilable as Dawkins and Hitchens pretend; on the contrary, the Rational Science to which its atheistic hagiographers intone hymns of praise as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, arose – and could only have arisen – in the Graeco-Christian West.
In classical antiquity the rudiments of astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics, and biology were discovered by natural philosophers (Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes, Pliny) whose rational investigations merely ratified their belief in the existence of a divine Principle of Order. In the Christian Middle Ages, the most brilliant natural scientists (Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon) were monks, bishops, doctors of the Church, saints, or combinations thereof, whose discoveries were made with the imprimatur and under the patronage of the Papacy. The Church’s sponsorship, and religion’s inspiration, of science hardly diminished in the humanistic Renaissance. While Galileo was shamefully persecuted by the Inquisition, and the works of Copernicus were intermittently placed on the Index, the latter were first published with the wholehearted approbation of Pope Clement VII. Kepler records that he was led to his three laws of planetary motion by the mystical doctrines of Christian Neoplatonism, and throughout his career he extolled the rational order of the universe as a manifestation of the intelligent Being of God. In England, Francis Bacon was an uncontroversially orthodox member of the Established Church, and Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, wrote a series of religious treatises asserting the essential congruity between the new scientific method and the Christian faith. In his Naturalis Principia Mathematica, there is no doubt that Newton infers the existence of God from the rational laws that govern the universe, while acknowledging divine transcendence, omnipotence, and perfection. And far from being the free-thinking, rationalist, anti-religious sceptic that Dawkins and Hitchens envisage, for Descartes the first “clear and distinct idea” that the thinking ego knows outside of its own existence is the idea of God, an idea that is unaccountable except on the assumption that God exists.
These lacunae aside, the least that one should expect from the arguments of our authors (men of reason and logic) is that they should be free of internal contradictions. Yet, as one of the fathers of modern science, Newton invariably appears on the anti-religious honour role, while as a believer in God, he is ridiculed by Hitchens as a “spiritualist and alchemist of a particularly laughable kind”. Hitchens never deigns to wonder how a mind so credulous of religious flim-flam could achieve such scientific lucidity.
Dawkins himself enumerates a list of modern (i.e., post-Darwinian) eminences of science who simultaneously credited the fables of Christianity: Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin; and in the twentieth century: Francis Collins, Peacocke, Stannard, and Polkinghorne. Of the latter three, Dawkins “remains baffled…by their belief in the details of the Christian religion”, but adds, with a wink of innuendo, that they all “either won the Templeton Prize or are on the Templeton Board of Trustees” (see below). Similarly, Dawkins concedes that the father of Genetics, Gregor Mendel, was an Augustinian monk, but then explains: “but that was in the nineteenth century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue his science. For him it was the equivalent of a research grant.” Really? So much, then, for the supposed hostility of the Church toward independent scientific inquiry.
Dawkins might have gone on to name other modern scientists – the originator of the Big Bang theory, for example: a Belgian priest – who, far from regarding their religion as an impediment to science, saw in its symbols and doctrines the types and shadows that pointed the way to their own proofs and theories. It is a measure of their polemical desperation that both Dawkins and Hitchens devote significant sections of their books to disproving the common opinion that Einstein believed in God, arguing that he was merely a Deist or Pantheist – as if Deism or Pantheism were purely scientific, extra-religious categories of thought.
In general, Dawkins and Hitchens betray an egregious ignorance of the most basic facts of the history of Western civilization and thought. Like Newton, Socrates is a culture hero for those who wish to extol rational science as the great deliverer of mankind from its long religious night; inevitably, Hitchens depicts him as an atheistic martyr. Unfortunately, the most cursory acquaintance with Plato’s dialogues not only reveals that Socrates was an unquestioning believer in an eternal God who created and sustains the universe with his goodness and justice, but also the exponent of the most esoteric speculations about the celestial pre-existence of souls, their transmigration through plant, beast, and astral forms, the purgation of their sins in the afterlife, and their final, beatific reunion with God in the Other World. (Rather worse for Hitchens’ Christianity-is-the-cause-of-our-“sexual-repression” thesis, on the subject of the temptations of the flesh and the world, Socrates makes Paul sound like a Middle Eastern Hugh Heffner.)
Hitchens is, moreover, still retailing the shopworn nineteenth-century historical myth of a “benighted Christian Europe” that did not arise from its Dark Age slumber until the works of Aristotle were re-introduced in the twelfth century:
When they got hold of the material and reluctantly conceded that there had been intelligent discussion of ethics and morality before the supposed advent of Jesus, they tried their hardest to square the circle. We have nothing much to learn from what they thought, but a great deal to learn from how they thought.
Hitchens simply has a lot to learn, including that it is not a good idea to advertise one’s ignorance with such conspicuous and self-congratulatory pride. The doctrines of Aristotle were never “lost”; they were the subject, for example, of numerous treatises written by Boethius, a “Dark Age” philosopher and theologian whose works inspired Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and everyone else down to the time of Pope. Early and medieval Christians were so well aware that there had been “intelligent discussions”, not only of ethics but also of cosmology and theology, before Christ, that they revered – to offer only a partial list – Homer, Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Statius, and Macrobius, all of whom were perennially invoked as auctores and inspired rafts of learned commentaries that, cumulatively, constituted a body of exegesis as important as that which attached to Scripture.
While the Church has traditionally fostered rational inquiry (to the extent that reason is exalted as the second person of the Trinity), scientists have never been above the uncritical certitudes and sectarian zeal that Dawkins and Hitchens impute exclusively to the adherents of organized religion. As a celebrated biologist, Dawkins in particular affects to write about faith from the superior perspective of objectivity and reason. Yet it is obvious that he is both personally and passionately invested in the theory of evolution, and defends its postulates with a nervous conviction that equals that of any Bible-belt creationist. Evolution, he chides, is a “fact”, and it explains everything. With the same righteousness with which the current orthodoxy (a.k.a. “consensus”) on global warming has been preached and defended against “deniers” (a term of opprobrium that, ironically enough, was first used by early Christian heresiologists to describe the infidels who denied the divinity of Christ), Dawkins attacks the motives of any amongst his fellow scientists who dares to question the smallest article of Darwinian Truth, or consider that the facts of science might be reconcilable with the existence of a Creator.
Dawkins devotes much of one long chapter and scores of pages throughout his book to compiling what can only be described as a scientific blacklist. Biologists or astrophysicists who are concomitantly receptive to the arguments of intelligent design, Dawkins calls “appeasers”. They belong, he charges, to the “Neville Chamberlain School” of science. In giving aid and comfort to the enemy, they must have ulterior motives: to propitiate grant-giving governmental agencies who have to answer to their “ignorant and prejudiced” Christian constituents, or to win lucrative prizes offered to researchers sympathetic to religion by the Templeton Foundation. The aforementioned Peacocke, Stannard, and Polkinghorne (whose names sound like those of “the senior partners in a firm of Dickensian lawyers”), along with Freeman Dyson and unnamed others, have taken the “Faustian road to a future Templeton Prize”. When the late Stephen Jay Gould argues that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” (i.e., that science has nothing to say about the ultimate questions of which religion treats), Dawkins accuses him of being an astronomical Uncle Tom who “bend[s] over backwards to be nice to an unworthy but powerful opponent”. The only motive Dawkins can’t imagine is that a genuine scientist might actually disagree with him. In a calumny that is scurrilous even by his own modest standards of truthfulness and decorum, Dawkins accuses Richard Swinburne, professor of religion and science at Oxford, of trying to “justify the Holocaust” – thereby bravely denouncing another sort of “denier” – when Swinburne was merely attempting to reconcile the enormity of human evil with the existence of a benevolent God. Had Dawkins read Jung, rather than merely mined him for cheap satirical asides, he might have recognized in his own Darwinist certitudes and determination to crush dissent the “absolutist” attitude of the prophet of a modern religion.
In the central chapters of their books, both Dawkins and Hitchens profess to refute the traditional arguments for the existence of God (the ontological, cosmological, and argument from design), and to show that Darwinian natural selection either disproves the God hypothesis or renders it superfluous and therefore vulnerable to Occam’s razor. To Dawkins, the medieval proofs are simply “vacuous” and risible. He dismisses Anselm’s ontological argument as “infantile”, and to illustrate its infantilism, “translates” it for us into the “appropriate language of the playground”. What follows is an imagined debate between two children which begins with “Bet I can prove God exists–Bet you can’t” and ends with “Nur Nurny Nur Nur. All atheists are fools”. I’ve already mentioned Dawkins’ own curious penchant for linguistic infantilism, so one ought not be surprised that an Oxford professor should want to write lines of dialogue for children in a schoolyard. Plato, of course, put arguments into the mouths of his philosophical antagonists for Socrates to demolish, but at least the interlocutors of the Platonic dialogues were the leading thinkers of their day.
In any case, it is interesting that while Dawkins parodies Anselm’s syllogism and dismisses it as “dialectical prestidigitation”, he doesn’t anywhere expose the fallacy in its logic, even as he expresses his bewilderment that so great a thinker as Bertrand Russell (“no fool”) could have been taken in by it. Conveniently, Dawkins prefers to spar with old Anselm than to get into the ring with more contemporary and sophisticated exponents of the ontological argument. Or rather, as I should say, he prefers to make fun of it by reproducing half a dozen “hilarious” sproofs (if I may be allowed my own neologism, a la Dawkins) he found on the Internet (godlessgeeks.com, to be exact), such as the “Argument from Non-belief: The majority of the world’s population are non-believers in Christianity. This is just what Satan intended. Therefore God exists.”
The “central argument of [Dawkins’] book” (to which Hitchens pays full-throated tribute in his own) is that
A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything [that complex] would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape.
Thus the God hypothesis is “very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability”: a Creator, being necessarily more complex than his creation, is necessarily more improbable.
Dawkins’ thereby refutes “the creationists’ favourite argument”: that the universe is so complex as to make it infinitely improbable that it could have been assembled by chance. His own favourite “creationist” straw man is the thought experiment of Fred Hoyle, who posited that the probability of life originating on earth is equivalent to that of a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard and having the good fortune to thereby assemble a Boeing 747. Dawkins triumphantly turns the argument on its stupid head: God is “The Ultimate Boeing 747”. Not only must God be logically more complex than the universe he has created; but consider that, as the faithful claim for him, he is capable of monitoring the movements and thoughts of all his creatures, and answering their prayers, a feat beyond the wildest dreams of our most powerful supercomputer. “Such complexity…Such bandwith!”, as Dawkins mockingly exclaims.
The improbable complexity of life on earth has come about, as Dawkins never tires of saying, neither by chance nor intelligent design, but through the painstaking and aeons-long process of evolutionary natural selection. Thus, for “creationists”, natural selection ought to be a “consciousness-raiser”, on the model of feminism, which finally dragged male consciousness kicking and screaming to a higher alertness to the sensitivities of women, who have had to endure such exclusionary terms as the “Rights of Man” and “history”:
Feminism shows us the power of consciousness-raising, and I want to borrow the technique for natural selection. Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance.
I needn’t belabour the point that Dawkins’ invocation of the example of feminist consciousness-raising is unfortunate for any scientist who wishes to be seen as having risen above the irrational passions of fundamentalist ideology or religion. In any case, Dawkins does not demonstrate why a theory that explains the trajectory of life from the simple to the complex should be transferable from the sphere of biology to that of physics or cosmology. In physics, as I understand it, the law of entropy suggests that the universe is continually devolving from states of order to disorder; accordingly, if you insist on explaining its present condition in terms of an antecedent one, you are obliged to explain the simple and probable in terms of the complex and improbable. It is hardly obvious which paradigm is more apposite to the ultimate question of the creation of the cosmos itself, and it is only after that question is finally settled that we will be able to decide between the theological definition of the Creator as irreducibly simple and Dawkins’ definition of him as improbably complex (the “ultimate 747”).
Above all, Darwinian evolution cannot even purport to answer the question that vexes the theological and scientific mind alike: Why does the universe exist, and how has it come into existence, in the first place? A theory that posits the evolution of life from the simple to the complex cannot trace the evolution of something from nothing. The transition from nothing to something is not amenable to conceptions of Darwinian gradualism; the universe cannot be (to invoke the human biological parallel) “a little bit pregnant”. Who or what created the matter from which, by “natural” combination or selection, the present cosmos has evolved? If matter is eternal, as the ancients believed, who or what fertilized the cosmic womb?
As H. Allen Orr has pointed out in his devastating 2007 review in the New York Review of Books (not exactly an organ of right-wing Christian fundamentalism), Dawkins is “not very good at reasoning philosophically”, in part because “he has a preordained set of conclusions at which he’s determined to arrive”. This explains why he uses “any argument, however feeble, that seems to get him there”, and judges its merits on the basis of how quickly and painlessly it conveys him to his destination. His unseemly reliance on the Internet may be accounted for in this way, although I see it more generally as indicative of a combination of intellectual laziness and undergraduate amateurism.
Orr is less charitable. He notes that Dawkins is merciless in deriding the traditional proofs for God as “infantile”, “dubious”, and “perniciously misleading”, but asserts that his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument is “unanswerable”. “So why, you might wonder, is a clever philosophical argument for God subject to withering criticism while one against God gets a free pass and is deemed devastating?” Where is Dawkins’ usual skepticism when it comes to his own feats of “dialectical prestidigitation”? Orr points out two fundamental problems with Dawkins’ argument that “one needn’t be a creationist to note”. First, no scientific hypothesis can stand on its aprioristic reasoning alone; it needs to be ratified by data. Second, the fact that scientists find a hypothesis question-begging (as when Dawkins asks, “Who designed the designer?”) does not preclude its veracity. “It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging that may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question-begging?”
It is especially hypocritical of Dawkins and Hitchens that, possessing no empirical data that proves the “evolution” of matter and the cosmos by natural selection, they demand such data from those who profess “the stupid notion of intelligent design”, as Hitchens calls it. This, for our authors, is the most damning indictment of religion: that its incorporeal postulates have not been demonstrated empirically. One wonders if that is really the best they can do. Surely the fact that science cannot detect something hardly proves its non-existence. Until relatively recently in the history of mankind (not to say of the universe), we lacked the means by which to measure the force of gravity. From the age of the Pre-Socratics, philosophers, theologians, and mythological poets alike inferred ts existence from its effects, even if their mysterious cause could not yet be perceived or quantified by the experimental method. Gravity existed all the same, and only a simpleton would now say that it was a “myth” until the epiphanic moment when it was rationally explained by Newton.
Can anyone predict with certainty that in some future decade, century, or millennium science will not finally possess the instruments sensitive enough to observe and measure such equally ineffable phenomena as God, spirit, or soul? When critics of religion such as Dawkins declare their pessimism about such a possibility, they demonstrate an odd lack of confidence in the very science in which they otherwise invest so much hope and trust. Or rather, they betray the odd certitude that only phenomena that can be observed by the senses can be real. Odd, in part, because for at least two millennia before the dawn of modern Empiricism, philosophers insisted on quite the reverse. With Relativity, String Theory, Sub-Atomic Physics, and neurological researches into the mind-body continuum, scientists have already moved beyond the empiricist hypothesis and the reassuring materialist certitudes that it temporarily provided. The universal pre-modern world-view that prevailed from Pythagoras to Pico, and which credited only incorporeal entities as ultimately “real” and “true”, may have been narrow and one-sided, but science seems to be retrogressing in its direction with each new “advance”.
To recall Orr’s phrase, the entire debate may well be “question-begging”. One wonders how many Christians or adherents of any other religion were first converted by the dessicated scholasticism that begets such arguments as those of Anselm or Aquinas, and how many will be un-converted by Darwinian natural selection. In spite of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ absurdly reductive theories about the origins of religion–whether the result of “cargo cults” or Dawkins’ virus-like “memes” that multiply by infecting the credulous brains of children–, its existence and perdurance are themselves immutable facts of the human psyche, and wholly un-deluded responses to man’s everyday experience of a non-corporeal dimension of reality (from dreams, to thoughts themselves, to literature, to art, to the very world of philosophical ideas in which Dawkins and Hitchens live).