I am a loyal fan of Richard Dawkins. As a Darwinian evolutionary biologist, his ideas are foremost among contemporary scholars in the discipline. In his 1976 masterpiece The Selfish Gene, he coined the word meme — which he used to represent the evolutionary spread of ideas and knowledge. Since then, the concept of the meme has gained universal adoption as a construct in human language and thought. Dawkins’ contributions to the growth of knowledge are immeasurable.
Dawkins also describes himself as an atheist, and can often be found debating and discussing in the company of other superb theological critics like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a quick YouTube search show how viral Dawkins’s work has become). Yet as much as I admire Dr. Dawkins (and I have for over two decades), I am somewhat put off by his approach to the criticism of toxic religious ideas. To me, he squarely embodies the dangers of militant atheism.
I am an agnostic-atheist — with heavy emphasis on the “agnostic” part. While I do not ally myself with logical positivism, my purview is deeply rooted in the scientific method — especially as it relies on falsification. If I had to sum it all up in a word, I would label myself a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic.
I question everything, and I am profoundly mortified by — and cautious about — ideas founded under the auspices of certainty or absolute truth. Dogmatism should be repulsive to science and all its proponents and adherents; it certainly is an anathema to me.
But that in no way precludes me from accepting that there are many aspects of our universe(s) science simply cannot yet explain. And that is why — despite the fact I do not believe in the God of Abraham (or any other widely accepted deity) — I remain open to religious, spiritual, and general metaphysical questions. I maintain that humanity is in its epistemological infancy — science has countless, unpredictable revelations to offer us. And I am not afraid to believe many of these revelations may (please note the emphasis) fall within the realm of current “spiritual” experiences — although I remain circumspect.
This is why I am so confounded by Richard Dawkins and his approach. He labels himself a “militant atheist,” and from what I can tell, this means he feels compelled to declare — with what appears to be absolute certainty — that no supreme deity exists. Further, after having watched countless hours of his debates, and having read nearly everything I can find about and by Professor Dawkins, I have come to the tentative conclusion that he believes the best approach to combating untenable theology is to viciously attack its opponents.
I say my conclusion is tentative because I may very well be wrong about this. Dr. Dawkins may not mean to come across as myopic and aggressive. But unfortunately — despite the fact that many of Dawkins’s opponents are deeply entrenched in untenable metaphysics, and indeed don’t seem well-educated at all — he does come across as petulant and irritable. To me, this is completely unnecessary. It also runs contrary to scientific skepticism; it’s true, we should maintain our convictions in the face of insurmountable evidence. I would never dispute that. But it is dangerous to hold those convictions while projecting — even unwittingly — that they are not falsifiable.
To illustrate my concern: contrast Professor Dawkins’s style with those of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — both of whom loathe organized religion with unwavering, unfettered exuberance. Both Harris and Hitchens almost unfailingly, meticulously expose the weaknesses in their opponents’ positions, but they do it with a flair and calmness that imparts near-absolute confidence. They convey their ideas without seeming dogmatic and closed to alternative possibilities science may yet be too embryonic to explain.
Dawkins, on the other hand, often appears frustrated and nonplussed. It causes me to question his confidence, and indeed, so many times I feel as though he fails to choose the best arguments — because he is so irritated in the moment.
Throughout human history, examples abound — thoroughly detailing the atrocities committed (even in the present) in accordance with the philosophies of intolerant, fascistic religions. I would be appalled if anyone took my criticism of Dr. Dawkins as some sort of defense of these vacuous and dangerous philosophies. I am deeply offended by the content of many documents purported to be presented to humanity by the omniscient and omnipotent hand of God — the tenets of which boldly advocate slavery, misogyny, genocide, theft, and homophobia. There is no moral or ethical justification for the barbarities that have occurred for thousands of years — and continue today — in the name of “God.”
Despite the fact we can easily identify horrific numinous dogmas — and we are obligated to resist and challenge them — that does not mean we should adopt imperious stances requiring the rejection of any and all spiritual, metaphysical possibilities. To do so would be to defy the very scientific principles that people Professor Dawkins (and I) have so ardently promoted and defended. This is why I believe we should remain agnostic in all spheres — but most importantly, science.
It may surprise you, but I spend most of my free time socially associating with religious people — mostly Christians. I am close to many of them… they are my friends. That is to say, I enjoy their company because of their minds and their perspectives. They teach me so much. But that shouldn’t be perceived as some sort of justification or apology on my part.
I could, I suppose, seek out other agnostics and atheists, but that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to me (and, rest assured, I have plenty of non-secular friends). I am a scientist and an adherent to the philosophies of Sir Karl Popper. As such, my primary obligation is to immerse myself in environments where the theories I hold can be scrutinized and subjected to rigorous falsifiability. Engendering that atmosphere requires a humble stance of neutrality and friendly skepticism.
And perhaps that is the most crucial point. I am convinced persuasion will rarely occur under conditions of aggression. And despite my deeply held convictions, I refuse to approach proponents of dangerous religious philosophies with hostility or animosity; to do so would be to adopt the very dogmatic and unyielding qualities I so resent from the those philosophies — the qualities which I find so harmful to the growth of human knowledge and progress.