By Melanie Phillips
April 28, 2009
The most famous atheist in the world, biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, poses as the arch-apostle of reason, a scientist who stands for empirical truth in opposition to obscurantism and lies. What follows suggests that in fact he is sloppy and cavalier with both facts and reasoning to a disturbing degree.
I previously wrote about the remarkable debate (which can be seen at this website) between Dawkins and John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Fellow in the Philosophy of Science at Oxford. Lennox is the author of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? which demolishes Dawkins by showing not only that there is no inherent conflict between science and faith but that the argument for faith is now being bolstered enormously by the remarkable developments in science. Dawkins was on the back foot because Lennox was attacking him from his own platform of science. He was on safer ground only when, in a further debate between the two at Oxford’s Natural History Museum last October, he attacked Lennox for his Christian faith which he could more easily ridicule. But to Lennox’s core arguments, he seemed to me to have no convincing response.
In a lecture earlier this month to the American Atheists’ Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, Dawkins chose to attack Lennox (about 15 minutes into this video) from the safety of an unchallenged speaking spot in front of a sycophantic audience – but in a manner which inadvertently revealed rather more about himself than he bargained for. Describing Lennox belittlingly as a ‘Christian apologist’ and an ‘Irish mathematician’, he took a comment Lennox had made at a meeting two days after the Oxford debate and tried to debunk it by claiming that Lennox had misrepresented him.
Lennox had observed that, in the Oxford debate, Dawkins appeared to have made a stunning admission by saying that ‘a good case could be made for a deistic god’(a generalised kind of deity as opposed to the personalised God of the Bible). Lennox observed that acknowledgement of a deistic god was the position arrived at recently by the celebrated former atheist philosopher Anthony Flew; and that saying a good case could be made for such a god ‘knocked the heart out’ of Dawkins’s core contention that complex life forms had derived from simple ones.
In response, Dawkins tried to maintain that Lennox had grossly misrepresented him. Pointing out that he had gone on to say that he didn’t accept the deistic argument – which indeed he had said – he claimed that Lennox had selectively quoted him to give an entirely false impression. To make his point, he drew an analogy with the conceit, once employed by a particular astronomer, of ironically disdaining authoritative sources purely as a rhetorical device to underscore the truth of an argument. Just as it would be dishonest to treat such ironic disdain as if it was seriously meant, he said, so by analogy Lennox was being dishonest by treating Dawkins’s remark about deism as if it was seriously meant when in fact he had merely been
making the concession about deism to show up the fatuousness of his [Lennox’s] belief.
But it was Dawkins’ argument which was surely disingenuous. For he had said without any hint of irony, nor with any indication that this was not sincerely meant, that
...you can make a respectable case for deism – not a case that I would accept but I think it is a serious discussion that you could have.
It was certainly true that he used this ‘respectable case for deism’ to draw a sharp comparison with belief in Jesus, upon which he duly poured scorn. But to say as he did that he was only
making the concession about deism to show up the fatuousness of his belief
was very sharp verbal practice indeed. There was no suggestion at all that he did not mean what he said -- that a respectable scientific case could be made for deism. And so Lennox was entirely justified in expressing astonishment. For even though Dawkins went on to say he did not agree with this case, given his previous absolutism in stating that anything unsupported by evidence is superstitious mumbo-jumbo and that anyone who believes that matter must have had an original creator is a cretin, it should therefore follow that no respectable case could possibly be made for deism.
The fact that he said he thought it could was surely a startling development. And it was very interesting that he should feel so defensive about having said it that this was the one aspect of Lennox’s comprehensive attack on him that he singled out for refutation; and that he tried to do so moreover through disreputable means, by imputing dishonesty to Lennox when it was Dawkins who was employing dubious debating tactics.
Wait – worse was to come.
Dawkins had made much of the fact that Lennox didn’t acknowledge Dawkins’s disagreement with the argument for deism. Dawkins then went on to claim that Lennox – who had not made anything of this whole deism issue during the Oxford debate itself – had been subsequently put up to raising it by me. Yup, your humble blogger.
This was because I had attended that debate – and afterwards had written here of my amazement at hearing Dawkins say a case could be made for deism. This is what I actually wrote about the deism point:
This week’s debate, however, was different because from the off Dawkins moved it onto safer territory– and at the very beginning made a most startling admission. He said: ‘a serious case could be made for a deistic God’. This was surely remarkable. Here was the arch-apostle of atheism, whose whole case is based on the assertion that believing in a creator of the universe is no different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, saying that a serious case can be made for the idea that the universe was brought into being by some kind of purposeful force. A creator. True, he was not saying he was now a deist; on the contrary, he still didn't believe in such a purposeful founding intelligence, and he was certainly still saying that belief in the personal God of the Bible was just like believing in fairies. Nevertheless, to acknowledge that ‘a serious case could be made for a deistic god’ is to undermine his previous categorical assertion that...all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection...Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.
In Oxford on Tuesday night, however, virtually the first thing he said was that a serious case could be made for believing that it could. Anthony Flew, the celebrated philosopher and former high priest of atheism, spectacularly changed his mind and concluded -- as set out in his book There Is A God -- that life had indeed been created by a governing and purposeful intelligence, a change of mind that occurred because he followed where the scientific evidence led him. The conversion of Flew, whose book contains a cutting critique of Dawkins’s thinking, has been dismissed with unbridled scorn by Dawkins – who now says there is a serious case for the position that Flew now adopts! ...Afterwards, I asked Dawkins whether he had indeed changed his position and become more open to ideas which lay outside the scientific paradigm. He vehemently denied this and expressed horror that he might have given this impression.
You will see from this that I acknowledged loud and clear that Dawkins had said he did not agree with the case for deism – the very thing Dawkins was accusing Lennox, and therefore by extension myself, of not doing.
But now look at the text that Dawkins proceeded to put up on the screen (about 25 minutes in), saying that this was what I had written in the Spectator and in which I had grossly misrepresented what he had said:
Arch-atheist Richard Dawkins is an evolutionist. But many are now asking whether the dyed-in-the-wool critic of religion may be, well, evolving in his views about God. You see, in a recent debate with theist and Christian John Lennox, he let slip what many would regard as a major blooper: he actually admitted that there might be a case for theism of sorts. This was a worldview change of seismic proportions. It was a most remarkable turnaround. For someone who had spent over five decades championing the atheist cause to all of a sudden renounce it was an incredible achievement.
I read this with astonishment. For these were not my words at all. I had not written them in the Spectator or anywhere else.
They were written in fact by a blogger called Bill Muehlenberg at his Culture Watch site. Muehlenberg, who had read what I had written about the Oxford debate, was himself passing comment upon it. Those were the words Dawkins falsely ascribed to me, reading them out to smirks and guffaws at my expense – and accusing me thereby of distorting what he had said! He thus held me up to ridicule and accused me of lying -- at a public meeting recorded on video which, as you can see, incited hateful comments on the thread below it – on the basis of someone else’s words altogether.
Dawkins then went on to quote some of what I had actually written in my own blog entry, as follows:
Even more jaw-droppingly, Dawkins told me that, rather than believing in God, he was more receptive to the theory that life on earth had indeed been created by a governing intelligence – but one which had resided on another planet. Leave aside the question of where that extra-terrestrial intelligence had itself come from, is it not remarkable that the arch-apostle of reason finds the concept of God more unlikely as an explanation of the universe than the existence and plenipotentiary power of extra-terrestrial little green men?
This passage had been quoted on the Muehlenberg blog – suggesting that what Dawkins had done was carelessly to run together Muehlenberg’s remarks with my own quoted comments. What remarkable sloppiness. And what arrogance. Richard Dawkins, FRS, FRSL, the former Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, whose website advertises ‘clear thinking’ and who poses as the indefatiguable champion of intellectual integrity, can’t even be bothered to check that he is actually quoting the person he thinks he is quoting -- even while attacking her for dishonesty.
Wait – there was worse still. For the next slide he put up, immediately after -- this time -- correctly quoting my words, read:
Lying for Jesus.
Lying for Jesus! Oh dear oh dear. Not only did Dawkins falsely accuse me of distorting his position, but he accused me of doing so because he assumed I was a Christian. Five minutes’ research maximum would have told him that I am a Jew. Either he thought that all the stuff written on Culture Watch by Bill Muehlenberg, who appears to be a devout Christian, was written by me; or he assumed that, since John Lennox is a Christian, anyone who supports John Lennox must also be a Christian. Either way, the man who has made a global reputation out of scorning anyone who makes an assumption not grounded in empirical evidence has assumed to be true something that can easily be ascertained to be totally false – thus suggesting that the mind that is so addled by prejudice it cannot deal with demonstrable reality is none other than his own.
Finally, he rounded off this jeering display of intellectual sloppiness, error, ignorance and prejudice with a piece of spite. Telling his American audience that they wouldn’t have heard of Melanie Phillips, he informed them that she was
infamous as one of the most bigoted and unpleasant journalists in the whole of Britain.
When someone resorts to such gratuitous insults you know they know they have lost the argument. Indeed, Dawkins’s whole presentation in Atlanta surely betrayed unconsciously a note of desperation. For the effort he expended on attempting to rubbish both the deism point and my mockery of him for appearing to believe that ‘little green men’ were a more plausible explanation for the origin of matter than God suggested that this had really got under his skin.
The way he chose to defend himself, through insults and sneers which tried to cover his tracks as he attempted to retreat from what he had said, furthermore merely emphasised his notable reluctance to address the many arguments of substance against his pseudo-scientific attack on religion which were made by John Lennox on the grounds of scientific reason and accuracy – arguments which Dawkins most tellingly chose to ignore altogether. Instead, he went for what he thought were the soft targets -- a credulous Irish Christian and a ‘dreadful woman’ journalist – and substituted smears and jeers for proper debate.
Unfortunately, he fell flat on his face. From this attempt to tarnish his opponents with the charge of dishonesty, we learn instead that for Richard Dawkins truth is a delusion. Who other than the similarly deluded can ever take him seriously again?