Historian Richard Weikart's new book, The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, is an important study of the erosion of the most basic values in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West. Many things are striking about Weikart's powerful treatment of his subject, but I noted, in particular, his discussion of some statements from atheist biologist Richard Dawkins. These statements have a curious, persistent, and revealing inconsistency to them.
Here is Weikart, for example, on a 2007 interview with Dawkins:
[C]onsider how Richard Dawkins responded when Larry Taunton asked in an interview if his rejection of external moral standards meant that Islamic extremists might not be wrong. Dawkins replied, "What's to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn't right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question." Taunton admitted that he was stupefied by Dawkins's answer -- as he should have been. Anyone who thinks that making a moral judgment about Hitler is difficult has lost their moral compass completely and has no business pontificating about any moral issue (or proclaiming that he has discovered the "root of all evil" -- which is what he called religion, of course). (p. 80)
So Dawkins thinks we can't rationally criticize Hitler's actions. Compare that with his Afterword to a 2007 book, What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Dawkins wrote there: "Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular." The moral monster Dawkins referred to was Adolf Hitler. So which is it? On the one hand Dawkins (like all the rational and informed people I know) considers Hitler a moral monster. On the other hand, he proclaims that we can't rationally criticize Hitler's genocidal racism.
There's more. In a chapter titled "My Genes Made Me Do It," Weikart explores the attack on the belief in human free will from scientists such as Dawkins. Criminals are not responsible for their actions, Dawkins has argued. Why? Because they are like "defective machines" -- victims of defective genes and/or a defective environment. Weikart notes Dawkins's use of the term "defective." How could it be consistent for an atheist like Dawkins to use a word like that?
[It] implies that somewhere there is a standard by which to measure human behavior, such as murder or rape. However, Dawkins's worldview does not have any moral resources to establish any standard or provide any valuations, so I am mystified about why he would call such behavior "defective." Human behavior can only be defective if it is not fulfilling its purpose (for which it was created). Even though Dawkins strenuously and repeatedly denies that humans (or anything in the cosmos) have any purpose or meaning, he smuggles purpose back into his worldview to avoid the dehumanizing consequences of his philosophy. Fortunately, he rightly recognizes that murder and rape are contrary to the way things should be. However, his commitment to materialism drives him to deny that there is any "way things should be." (p. 95)
Weikart returns once more to Dawkins's inconsistent proclamations:
Where did Dawkins get the idea that cooperation, unselfishness, and generosity are morally superior to selfishness and cutthroat competition? Why does he favor the welfare state helping the poor and disadvantaged, rather than letting them starve? He admits that these moral precepts do not come from nature. Where then did he get these extra-natural (dare I say, supernatural?) moral standards that he encourages us to uphold and teach? They certainly did not arise from his own worldview, which denies the existence of any extra-natural morality. (p. 115)
Weikart catches many other scientists and materialist philosophers in similar instances of self-contradiction. These include a few who are no longer alive, but who have many intellectual descendants today: August Comte (p. 30-32), Charles Darwin (p. 54-55), and Bertrand Russell (p. 37-41). The living self-contradicting thinkers canvassed in Weikart's book include (besides Dawkins) Lawrence Krauss (p. 43-44), Jerry Coyne (p. 84-87), Stephen Pinker (p. 89-93), and E. O. Wilson (p. 112). Weikart is respectful of his intellectual opponents, while documenting their contradictions with precision and wit.
Someone might object to his analysis of the historical and contemporary inhumane implications of naturalistic evolutionary theory, asking, "So what? If unguided evolution really explains the origins of biological complexity, then you simply bite the bullet and accept all the unsavory implications." To this objection, there are two responses. The first is in Weikart's book: Note all the contradictory and self-defeating positions articulated by many of the most influential naturalistic thinkers. There is not one "bullet" to bite, but a staggering and stupefying diversity of them! Surely this tells us something significant about the soundness of evolution theory itself.
The second response, of course, is to keep up with the latest debates about evolution and intelligent design. If you missed it, go back and study Dawkins's recent indirect exchange with Stephen Meyer. See here and here for responses from Meyer and Paul Nelson respectively. Dawkins was coming to the defense of his fellow atheist Lawrence Krauss, who after facing Meyer in debate, needed a helping hand.
There is, alas, precious little scientific substance to Krauss's and Dawkins's opposition to intelligent design and or their arguments for unguided evolution. This takes us back to Weikart's book. Don't miss his well-argued critique of both Krauss and Dawkins. Dr. Weikart shows how some of the scientific debate over Darwinism and human nature can be traced back to faulty philosophical foundations, and why all this matters for the future of humanity.
I have read several other books by Weikart and found them all well documented and readable. The same is true of this new book. In fact it is even more readable because it is aimed at a more popular audience. As a historian and philosopher of science who regularly interacts with college students in my classrooms (including on the issues in Weikart's book), I can attest to the cogency of the argument in The Death of Humanity and its cultural urgency.