October 30, 2003


Through a Glass, Darkly: a review of A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Richard Dawkins (Michael Ruse, American Scientist)

In recent years, his attention has swung from writing about science for a popular audience to waging an all-out attack on Christianity. In the name of Darwinism, he has become the scourge of the religious, the atheist's answer to Billy Graham. At every opportunity, he preaches the hard truth-there is no God, religion is superstition, and Darwin proves just this. Essentially, what ties this volume together is the crusade of nonbelief, for just about every piece carries this same message. [...]

However, I worry about the political consequences of Dawkins's message. If Darwinism is a major contributor to nonbelief, then should Darwinism be taught in publicly funded U.S. schools? The Creationists say not. They argue that if the separation of Church and State keeps belief out of the schools, then it should likewise keep nonbelief out of the schools. There are issues
to be grappled with here, and Dawkins does nothing to address them. Does Darwinism as such lead to nonbelief? It is true that Darwinism conflicts with the Book of Genesis taken literally, but at least since the time of Saint Augustine (400 A.D.) Christians have been interpreting the seven days of creation metaphorically.

I would like to see Dawkins take Christianity as seriously as he undoubtedly expects Christianity to take Darwinism. I would also like to see him spell out fully the arguments as to the incompatibility of science (Darwinism especially) and religion (Christianity especially). So long as his understanding of Christianity remains at the sophomoric level, Dawkins does not deserve full attention. It is all very well to sneer at Catholic beliefs about the Virgin Mary, but what reply does Dawkins have to the many theologians (like Jonathan Edwards) who have devoted huge amounts of effort to distinguishing between false beliefs and true ones? What reply does
Dawkins have to the contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who argues that the belief that there are other minds and that others are not just unthinking robots requires a leap of faith akin to the Christian belief in the Deity? Edwards and Plantinga may be wrong, but Dawkins owes them some reply before he gives his cocky negative conclusions. Moreover, once he has proved the incompatibility of science and religion, I would like him to address the classroom issue. Would he keep evolution out of U.S. schools, and if not, what argument would he use? In one of these pieces, he complains that British A-level examination requirements necessitate coverage of so much other material that they exclude the proper teaching of evolution. What about the U.S. Constitution?

Finally, I don't want to sound paranoid or insecure, but I do wish that he and other science writers would cease assuming that philosophical issues can be solved by talking in a brisk, confident voice. I have no more liking of cultural studies than Dawkins, and I loved his talk of "the low-grade
intellectual poodling of pseudo-philosophical poseurs." But this rhetoric is no substitute for hard analysis. Postmodernists claim that science, no less than religion and literature and philosophy, is infiltrated with culture. How does Dawkins respond to this charge, given the undoubted significance in science of metaphors that are based on the culture of the day? One would have thought that the author of The Selfish Gene would be sensitive to questions like these.

There is more. I agree fully with Dawkins when he writes that

Modern physics teaches us that there is more to truth than meets the eye; or than meets the all too limited human mind, evolved as it was to cope with medium-sized objects moving at medium speeds through medium distances in Africa.

But how then does Dawkins respond to the obvious retort of the religious, who have always stressed mystery? Some of the fundamental problems of philosophy are no closer to being solved today than they were at the time of the Greeks: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is this something not something else? What is mind, and are we unique? Perhaps one agrees that traditional religions-Christianity specifically-do not offer the full answers. But what is to stop a nonbeliever like myself from saying that the Christians are asking important questions and that they are right to have a little humility before the unknown? As Saint Paul said: "Now we see through a glass, darkly." That apparently includes Richard Dawkins.

Mr. Ruse's bewilderment answers itself: no one who has rejected God and placed his entire faith in religion can acknowledge that he's taken a leap, or else his whole worldview falls apart. He doesn't respond to awkward questions because he has no intelligent responses to make. Atheists of Mr. Dawkins's bent have to believe that the religionists' glass is dark, but the rationalists' glass is clear, and that requires one to ignore such fundamental issues as where the glass came from and why the view through any glass should be trusted; where the observer came from and why his observations should be trusted; etc. But, as Mr. Ruse notes, Judeo-Christianity has been wrestling with such issues for thousands of years and so finds them less threatening than science, which has been thoroughly disappointed in its ambition to answer them and now finds itself incapable of justifying its claims to primacy in the face of this abject failure. So folk like Mr. Dawkins just begin at a point after their faith entered the equation and then ignore all that has come before. It makes them ludicrous, but touchingly so.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 30, 2003 10:17 PM

There's a legitimate reason to doubt that Darwin would have welcomed Dawkins as his bulldog. He did welcome Huxley, even when Huxley's defenses did not seem exactly the same to Darwin as Darwin's original statements.

I know you want to adopt Dawkins as the arch-Darwinist, Orrin, but he is to real Darwinism more or less as Jim Bakker was to Christianity.

So making fun of Dawkins does not get you much furtherer.

Ruse, a professional philosopher and author of some thoughtful books about Darwinism, ought not to have been caught in this mistake.

That philosophy cannot answer the question, why is what is not what it isn't, does not bother materialists, who are humble people. Whether what is was created or just found alongside the road is of no consequence. We have to deal with it, either way, like the weather, and it does no good to complain that the Universe is overmysterious. You cannot have another one. No do-overs.

If a question has been asked for 2,500 years without an answer, it might be that it was not carefully constructed in the first place.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 31, 2003 12:32 AM

Or an indication that we are only at the very beginning of the knowledge curve, rather than towards the end as science asserts. Your description of science reminds one of the opening of 2001, where the monkeys start using bones as tools and weapons and believe they've invented.

Posted by: OJ at October 31, 2003 7:27 AM

I was going to say what Harry said, but take longer to do it nowhere near as well.

I found the question of teaching evolution schools perplexing. We teach evolution, and the heliocentric solar system, in science classes for one reason only: because, at the moment, they provide the best material theories for the phenomena within their purview.

Whether, and to how great an extent, those theories collide with some competing supernatural explanation is utterly irrelevant to the theories' correctness.

Or would you rather we continued to teach geocentric celestial mechanics because the other kind collided with received theological wisdom?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 31, 2003 7:28 AM


Physics, for the most part, is science. Evolution is a mere faith.

But kids should be taught the most popular current theories and their criticisms, classic and current.

Posted by: OJ at October 31, 2003 8:04 AM

"But it moves."

You have placed yourself in the position of the Jesuit astronomer who declined to observe the moons of Jupiter because his religion assured him they were not there.

An odd position for an admirer of "The Night eh Bed Fell" to take.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 31, 2003 1:27 PM


I believe speciation has occurred (the moons are there). I deny that your explanation is superior to that of the whackiest Creationist. I think we just have no clue yet how it happens. But if every word Darwin ever spoke is true I see no way in which it contradicts Judeo-Christian Creation. Both, after all, explain themselves metaphorically.

Posted by: OJ at October 31, 2003 2:41 PM


Science makes absolutely no such assertion about the state of our knowledge with respect to some learning curve.

Or at least not that I know of. Do you have the citation?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 1, 2003 5:08 AM


If you believe that we are at the beginning of learning about the Universe, (as I do), why are you a fan of Fukuyama ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 2, 2003 7:26 AM

God is big. We're little.

Posted by: oj at November 2, 2003 8:20 AM

Great. One science popularizing book.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 2, 2003 8:10 PM
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