Wednesday, November 12, 2014

it isn't only that john gray doesn't care for richard dawkins...,

newrepublic |  It is a different matter when those he sees as his intellectual underlingsreligious believers and any who stray from the strictest interpretation of Darwinismrefuse to follow his lead. Recalling his years at boarding school, Dawkins winces at the memory of the bullying suffered by a sensitive boy, “a precociously brilliant scholar” who was reduced to “a state of whimpering, abject horror” when he was stripped of his clothing and forced to take cold baths. Today, Dawkins is baffled by the fact that he didn’t feel sympathy for the boy. “I don’t recall feeling even secret pity for the victim of the bullying,” he writes. Dawkins’s bafflement at his lack of empathy suggests a deficiency in self-knowledge. 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.

Exactly how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar will probably never be known. From what he writes here, I doubt he knows himself. Still, there are a few clues. He began his pilgrimage to unbelief at the age of nine, when he learned from his mother “that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?” But he was not yet ready to embrace atheism, and curiously his teenage passion for Elvis Presley reinforced his vestigial Christianity. Listening to Elvis sing “I Believe,” Dawkins was amazed to discover that the rock star was religious. “I worshipped Elvis,” he recalls, “and I was a strong believer in a non-denominational creator god.” Dawkins confesses to being puzzled as to why he should have been so surprised that Elvis was religious: “He came from an uneducated working-class family in the American South. How could he not have been religious?” By the time he was sixteen, Dawkins had “shed my last vestige of theistic credulity.” As one might expect, the catalyst for his final conversion from theism was Darwinism. “I became increasingly aware that Darwinian evolution was a powerfully available alternative to my creator god as an explanation of the beauty and apparent design of life. ... It wasn’t long then before I became strongly and militantly atheistic.”

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.