Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s most recognizable and influential intellectual figures. His books on evolutionary theory and modern science have sold millions of copies, and he is one of the most quotable thinkers in modern science. Of course, he is also one of the most aggressive secularists of the age–and that’s what makes him an important focus of Christian interest.
Now serving as the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya where his father was a farmer involved in the colonial service. As a young boy, Dawkins moved with his parents to England, where he was educated in that country’s elite system of boarding schools and universities. He eventually graduated with a degree in zoology from Balliol College, Oxford, and then earned a masters degree and the doctorate from Oxford University. His rise to public prominence came as he served as a lecturer in zoology at Oxford University from 1970-1990. His 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, became one of the most influential scientific texts of modern times. Dawkins argued that the fundamental unit of natural selection was not the individual but genes. In effect, Dawkins redefined evolutionary theory by suggesting that the “selfish gene” was the basic engine of evolutionary development–explaining how various “survival machines” perpetuate species and evolutionary development.
A succession of other best-selling popular books defending evolution gave Dawkins and his ideas even wider influence and greater popularity. By the time he assumed his endowed chair at Oxford University in 1995, Dawkins was one of the most oft-quoted figures in modern science.
What makes Dawkins of particular interest to Christians is his aggressive and undisguised secularism. Dawkins is a committed atheist–an atheist with the zeal to convince those who believe of the error of their ways. As a public figure, Dawkins is almost unchallenged as a proponent of an aggressive secularist agenda. In one sense, he simply says out loud what others are undoubtedly thinking. His aggressiveness and abrasiveness have now prompted some of his fellow defenders of evolution to wonder if he is doing their cause more harm than good.
The September 2005 issue of Discover magazine features an article that raises this very question. In “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” author Stephen S. Hall suggests that Dawkins is simply “far too fierce.”
Given contemporary debates over evolutionary theory and intelligent design, and given the reality that much of this debate is directed towards a public audience, both sides understand that much is at stake in the terms and character of the public debate. This explains why many of Dawkins’ colleagues are now concerned about his approach.
In his article, Hall attempts to present Dawkins in the best possible light. He is introduced as being “unfailingly gracious” in person, “a constrained version of the witty, expansive, passionate, and intellectually provocative persona that animates the pages of his books.” Hall also suggests that Dawkins is a gifted writer and wordsmith who gives dedicated attention to “the precise manner in which he builds an argument, organizes an essay, or demolishes the wobbly logic of a rival in debate.”
Nevertheless, “There is nothing affected or dainty or quaint about the way Dawkins communicates science.” Indeed, “An unabashed atheist and avidly polemical public intellectual, he has employed a scorched-earth vocabulary to take on religion, the evangelical right, Muslim fundamentalism, parochial education, and the faith-based political philosophy of George W. Bush.” That’s quite a considerable agenda, but no one can doubt that Richard Dawkins gives himself fully to this intellectual combat.
It was Oxford theologian Alister McGrath who first identified Dawkins as “Darwin’s Rottweiler.” The label has stuck because Dawkins plays the part so well.
Dawkins admits that he just may be “a bit of a loose canon.” In reality, that is a significant understatement. Nevertheless, the very force and caustic quality of Dawkins’ arguments help to frame the limited intellectual alternatives that are presented in the conflict between Christianity and evolutionary theory.
Put simply, Dawkins is absolutely convinced that the theory of evolution spells the doom of all belief in God. Even if he reserves his greatest energy for attacking conservative Christians, he clearly has no respect for more liberal Christians who claim to be able to reconcile evolution and belief in God. “What I can’t understand is why we are expected to show respect for good scientists, even great scientists, who at the same time believe in a god who does things like listen to our prayers, forgive our sins, perform cheap miracles which go against, presumably, everything that the God of the physicists, the Divine Cosmologist, set up when he set up his great laws of nature,” Dawkins explains. “So I don’t understand a scientist who says ‘I’m a Roman Catholic’ or ‘I’m a Baptist.’”
Last October, Dawkins participated in a meeting sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities. As a participant on a panel dealing with spirituality and science, Dawkins drew clear and unmistakable boundaries between science and theism. The only spirituality Dawkins can respect is a science-based spirituality that simply recognizes the wonder of the universe and the imponderables of its complexity. Dawkins associates this kind of spirituality with Albert Einstein, and he argued that this science-based form of spirituality is not “somehow less than supernatural religion.”
Christians should pay close attention to Dawkins at this point. Dawkins warns that when many scientists speak of God, they are actually speaking of nothing more than a scientific sense of wonder.
Dawkins has made this argument over and over again. Writing in Forbes ASAP magazinein 1999, Dawkins addressed the question of a convergence between science and religion. “There are modern scientists whose words sound religious but whose beliefs, on close examination, turn out to be identical to those of other scientists who call themselves atheists,” he asserted. He pointed to a book by scientist Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature, and rightly observed that Goodenough has evidently redefined the terms of the sacred. Even though she claimed the book was about religion, and even as theologians endorse the book on its back cover, Dawkins observed: “Yet, by the book’s own account, Goodenough does not believe in any sort of supreme being, does not believe in any sort of life after death. By any normal understanding of the English language, she is no more religious than I am.”
As Dawkins continued: “If you count Einstein and [Stephen] Hawking as religious, if you allow the cosmic awe of Goodenough, [Paul] Davies, [Carl] Sagan and me as true religion, then religion and science have indeed merged, especially when you factor in such atheistic priests as Don Cupitt and many university chaplains. But if the term religion is allowed such a flabbily elastic definition, what word is left for conventional religion, religion as the ordinary person in the pew or on the prayer mat understands it today–indeed, as any intellectual would have understood it in previous centuries, when intellectuals were religious like everybody else?”
That kind of candor is what makes Dawkins’ colleagues so uncomfortable. At the New York Symposium, Dawkins went on the attack, criticizing Brown University professor Ken Miller for claiming to believe in evolutionary theory and in God. The exchange was so heated that the gathered scientists–more accustomed to low-key debate, found themselves aghast. As Hall observed, “The other thing that struck me was the tone of the debate–Dawkins, and his undeniably civil manner, was so aggressive, so relentless, and so pitiless towards his intellectual adversaries that it almost detracted from the quality of his argument.”
Hall’s concern is not that Dawkins might be wrong–he seems to agree that Dawkins is fundamentally correct. Instead, Hall reflects a growing discomfort among scientists that Dawkins and his aggressive approach are making the case for evolution harder to defend in the marketplace of ideas. “You can be the world’s greatest apostle of scientific rationalism,” Hall warns, “but if you come across as a Rottweiler, Darwin’s or anybody else’s, when you enter that marketplace, it’s very hard to make the sale.”
Hall certainly makes a fascinating point. During the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, Dawkins joined with several other liberal British intellectuals in writing a famous series of letters to voters in Clark County, Ohio. Understood as a key swing county in the election, the British newspaper The Guardian suggested that British citizens should write letters to Clark County residents urging them to vote for John Kerry. Dawkins gladly participated in the project, writing the Ohioans in a tone that was caustic and condescending. He warned that if George Bush was reelected President of the United States, “that would be the time for Americans traveling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent.” He referred to the American President as “an amiable idiot” and worse. “An idiot he may be,” Dawkins asserted, “but he is also sly, mendacious, and vindictive.”
The end result? Clark County, Ohio became the only county in that state that, having voted for Al Gore in the 2000 election, switched to Bush in 2004.
Time will tell if Dawkins has a similar long-term impact on the debate over evolution. Nevertheless, Christians should note with care that Dawkins makes a point on which serious Christians and evolutionary theorists can agree–that the conflict between the worldview of Christianity and the worldview of evolutionary naturalism represents a clash between mutually exclusive understandings of reality. As Hall suggests, this “may be the ultimate culture war of our time, because it underlines fundamental and mutually exclusive visions of the path toward truth.”
For this reason, Richard Dawkins deserves Christian interest and intellectual engagement. In the person of this Oxford professor, Christians face an intellectual foe who is far more honest, if also more aggressive, than his ideological colleagues. We are indeed engaged in a battle of ideas, and the outcome of this intellectual struggle will bring incalculable cultural consequences. In these strange and confusing times, Christians would do well to think seriously about the arguments offered by one of the world’s most honest atheists.