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10 October 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:31am

Richard Dawkins doesn’t deserve this fellow atheist’s smears

John Gray should attack his ideas, not his character.

By Jerry A Coyne

It’s not a good time to be Richard Dawkins, for he alone, like the scapegoat of Leviticus, must bear the brunt of everyone’s hatred of atheism. (Sam Harris sometimes serves as a backup goat.) Even though Dawkins has never proclaimed himself as any kind of atheist “leader”his eminence among nonbelievers is purely a byproduct of his books and talks – he is the poster child for atheism, and everyone who hates atheists, including some other atheists, comes down on him. I can’t count all the poorly founded attacks on the man, but one has just appeared that takes the cake.

John Gray is an English writer, philosopher, and an atheist who has it in for New Atheists. (I’ve previously analysed his missteps herehere, and here.) Gray seems to be one of those atheists who doesn’t like science, claims that its bad effects are as prominent as its good ones, and has a sneaking love of religion. But he’s never been as nasty as he is in his latest article in The New Republic, “The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins”. And it is nastiness with no apparent purpose other than to smear Dawkins, which Gray does by pretending to review Dawkins’s latest book: An Appetite for Wonder, the first volume of his autobiography.

It’s okay to slam a book if the ideas are bad, or its thesis is insupportable. I’m thinking here of the best critical review of a science book I’ve ever seen: Peter Medawar’s crushing review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in which Medawar fatally demolishes de Chardin’s gaseous lucubrations. But you won’t find Teilhard’s intellectual weakness in Dawkins’s book. If you’ve read it, as I have, you’ll find it a fairly workmanlike autobiography, dwelling mostly on the details of Dawkins’s life. There are a few bits about atheism (mostly about how Dawkins lost his faith, which appears to be a gradual process involving his exposure to Darwinism), but most of it is of the “I did this and then went here” variety. The best bits, for me, are at the end when Dawkins starts talking about science – it ends when he publishes The Selfish Gene, for a second volume is in the offingas science is what really gets Dawkins’s juices flowing, and he’s best when writing about that, or about atheism. One senses that he’s unenthusiastically recounting the details of his life as a kind of duty, perhaps goaded by an agent or publisher. 

Nevertheless, John Gray uses this lean framework to attack Dawkins’s character. Here are his tactics: 

1. Interpret innocuous statements about evolution as evidence of Dawkins’s arrogance and smugness. 

Gray writes:

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In what is meant to be a two-volume memoir, Dawkins cites the opening lines of the first chapter of the book that made him famous, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976: 

“Intelligent life on a planet comes of an age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.”

How does Gray parse this? Like so:

Several of the traits that Dawkins displays in his campaign against religion are on show here. There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do. The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theorythe best account we have so far of how life emerged and developedbut as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.

This resembles some religious exegesis in the ability to impute meaning to a statement in a way that tells us far more about the writer’s attitudes than about the real meaning of the passage.

At the end of Gray’s piece, he once again psychologizes his subject, saying that Dawkins wants to be the Charles Darwin of our time: 

We must await the second volume of his memoirs to discover how Dawkins envisions his future. But near the end of the present volume, an inadvertent remark hints at what he might want for himself. Darwin was “never Sir Charles,” he writes, “and what an amazing indictment of our honours system that is.” It is hard to resist the thought that the public recognition that in Britain is conferred by a knighthood is Dawkins’s secret dream. A life peerage would be even better. What could be more fitting for this tireless evangelist than to become the country’s officially appointed atheist, seated alongside the bishops in the House of Lords? He may lack their redeeming tolerance and display none of their sense of humor, but there cannot be any reasonable doubt that he belongs in the same profession.

It is “hard to resist the thought that a knighthood is Dawkins’s secret dream” only if you’re constantly carrying a burden of dislike for the man (I’m reminded of the story of the two monks). This is pure and invidious speculation on Gray’s part. And yes, it’s unconscionable that Darwin was never knighted, but I’ve never seen any signs that Dawkins thinks himself deserving of a knighthood. If you told him that he thought he should be as eminent as Darwin, Dawkins would just laugh at you, for he regards Darwin as the greatest biologist of the last two centuries, if not of all time. If one is psychologising, one might as well speculate that Gray simply has an overwhelming hatred for atheists (in fact, one could say he has a self-hatred because he seems to be an atheist who wants to believe but can’t), and takes that out on Dawkins.

2. Dawkins had no interest in Africa, even though he was brought up there, and was in fact a British snob.

Gray writes:

Unlike the best of the colonial administrators, some of whom were deeply versed in the languages and histories of the peoples they ruled, Dawkins displays no interest in the cultures of the African countries where he lived as a boy. It is the obedient devotion of those who served his family that has remained in his memory. 

. . . The tone of indulgent superiority is telling. Dawkins is ready to smile on those he regards as beneath him as long as it is clear who is on top.

. . . As anyone who reads his sermons against religion can attest, his attitude towards believers is one of bullying and contempt reminiscent of the attitude of some of the more obtuse colonial missionaries towards those they aimed to convert.

Indeed, as did nearly all British colonials in Africa at that time, Dawkins lived a highly privileged life compared to the locals. But what Gray gets from that description is not what I get, and I suggest you read the book and judge for yourself. The “bullying and contempt toward believers” stuff is simply nonsense; what Gray is describing is Dawkins’s passionate dislike for the perfidies of religion. There is no “bullying and contempt” in the book. And, by the way, Red Strangers, by Elspeth Huxleya novel about the Kikuyu of Africa written from their point of view, one that portrays Westerners as ultimately toxicis one of Dawkins’s five favorite books, and he campaigned successfully to get it back into print, writing the introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition.

3. Dawkins’s conversion to atheism was mundane.

Nothing striking happened to convert Richard to nonbelief (unlike my own story, which was an instantaneous conversion involving a Beatles album); he gradually gave it up, probably influenced by Darwin. Somehow Gray finds fault with this:

What is striking is the commonplace quality of Dawkins’s rebellion against religion. In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been rearedafter his conversion from theism, he “refused to kneel in chapel,” he writes proudlyhe was doing what tens of thousands of Britain’s young people did at the time. Compulsory religious instruction of the kind that exists in British schools, it has often been observed, creates a fertile environment for atheism. Dawkins’s career illustrates the soundness of this truism. If there is anything remarkable in his adolescent rebellion, it is that he has remained stuck in it. At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense. 

So what? Was Dawkins supposed to have an anti-road-to-Damascus moment, falling off his horse as the light of atheism reached him? And as for the “evangelical atheism” bit, it’s not only an oxymoron, but misleading. Being passionate about the bad effects of faith is not being “evangelical,” rather, it’s a deliberate slur to try to lump Dawkins with the religious people he opposes. 

4. Dawkins attacks a straw-God religion, for until fairly recently nobody believed in the literal truth of the Bible. 

Gray writes:

Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally. Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story. Later, in the twelfth century, Maimonides took a similar view. It was only around the time of the Reformation that the idea that the story was a factual account of events became widely held. When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theoriesone primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true. In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist. 

Even I, a lowly biologist, know that many of the “church fathers”, including Augustine and Aquinas, took the Genesis story literally (including Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden); only after you accepted the historicity of these events, they said, could you also read into them other meanings. And get your story straight, you faitheists! A common contention of liberal believers (just as false) is that literalism began with the rise of Fundamentalism in the early twentieth century, while Gray says it began with the Reformation. Which is it? (It’s neither, of course.)

It’s time to dispel the trope that nobody took Genesis literally until recent times. For millennia, theologians and believers have seen it as historical truth, and you don’t have to do much research to find that out. Millions still see Genesis as literal truth, and these people, as well as more “liberal” believers who cherry-pick parts of the Bible as real history (the crucifixion and Resurrection are examples) were the intended audience of The God Delusion.  

5. Evolution (aka Dawkins) cannot explain why humans have true beliefs. 

Gray writes:

If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. As he framed the problem in The Foundations of Belief in 1895, “We have not merely stumbled on truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.” Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. Similar arguments can be found in a number of contemporary philosophers, most notably Alvin Plantinga. Again, one does not need to accept Balfour’s theistic solution to see the force of his argument. A rigorously naturalistic account of the human mind entails a much more skeptical view of human knowledge than is commonly acknowledged.

This, of course, is Plantinga’s argument against naturalism, and why he postulates that “true beliefs” must come from a sensus divinitatis installed in humans by God (the Christian God, of course). First of all, human beliefs aren’t all true. We believe in many things that are false, including the view that we’re smarter than we really are, that a tetherball severed from its rope will fly off in a spiral rather than a straight line, that we have libertarian free will, and so on. Science has been useful in correcting many of our false beliefs and our mistaken views of reality (the sun doesn’t really “rise”, for instance). But, yes, in general we do perceive reality (at least on the human level) pretty accurately, and naturalism can explain that. Natural selection would have molded our minds so we perceive reality largely as it really is, or to learn how it really is. When a large predator was around, our ancestors who failed to perceive it as dangerous didn’t leave any descendants. Accurate perception promotes survival and reproduction. We don’t need God to explain that. Finally, if we haven’t come to acquire fairly accurate knowledge of reality through naturalistic processes, what alternative does Gray suggest? 

6. Dawkins isn’t much interested in, or knows much about, theology and the philosophy of science, and he doesn’t discuss them in the book.

Gray writes:

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. 

Again, Dawkins is attacked for what he left out, rather than what he put in, and what he left out isn’t relevant to this autobiography. Maybe it is to a discussion of the nature of science, but not this book. 

Gray continues:

Unlike most of those who debated then [in Victorian times], Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism. His attack on religion has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxleydescribed by his contemporaries as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he was so fierce in his defense of evolutionblush scarlet with embarrassment. 

Again, philosophy and theology aren’t even in Dawkins’s book. Gray’s captious remarks simply reflect his irritation at his having a hair up his fundament about Dawkins and atheism. Yes, religion is a supernatural belief that is irrational, and Dawkins, in his other writings, makes a good case that we’d be better off without it. That case goes far beyond the mere assertion that religion is irrational and dangerous. As for the “crudity” of The God Delusion, had Dawkins written a dry tome contesting the arcane claims of people like David Bentley Hart, Alvin Plantinga, and Karen Armstrong, it would have been neither successful nor effective. 

7. Dawkins is a “comic figure”.

It is in this bit (as well as in Gray’s speculations about Dawkins’s desire for a knighthood) that Gray is at his most mean-spirited.

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignation – a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a kind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted pose of indignant rationality merely laughable. “I am not a good observer,” he writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beingshimself and others. 

And, finally:

But Pascal’s wager was meant as a pedagogical device rather than a demonstrative argument, and he reached faith himself by way of skeptical doubt. In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude. 

Really? Dawkins has a “lack of skepticism”? His atheism rests on skepticisma skepticism that caused him to reject religion on the grounds of “no evidence”. And as for his certitude, Dawkins has said he’s not absolutely sure there’s no God, in contrast to the 54 percent of Americans who are absolutely certain there is a God.

John Gray’s article is rife with ad hominem remarks and almost completely ignores the book under review. He is the intellectual’s version of Peter Hitchens and Andrew Brown: a credible academic who is seething with bile against atheism. In fact, Gray comes off as more smug and arrogant than the very man he’s criticising for those flaws. Why that is, I don’t know. I’ll avoid psychologising Gray in the way he does to Dawkins.

A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue, and is republished here from

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. He is the author of Why Evolution is True and the forthcoming Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.

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