Commentary Magazine


Topic: atheism

RE: The Nasty, Brutish World of Richard Dawkins

I certainly agree that with Pete that Richard Dawkins’s advice on aborting a Down syndrome fetus was somewhere beyond morally obtuse, and he fully deserves the blowback he’s gotten for it.

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I certainly agree that with Pete that Richard Dawkins’s advice on aborting a Down syndrome fetus was somewhere beyond morally obtuse, and he fully deserves the blowback he’s gotten for it.

I also find puzzling that someone who prides himself on his devotion to science should be an avowed, indeed noisy atheist. Atheism, after all, is as much a religion as any other in that it is a belief system that can’t be tested, which is the definition of religion. You can no more prove the nonexistence of God than you can prove His existence. Of course, Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, has sold more than 2 million copies and been translated into 31 languages, so perhaps it was a commercial decision to be an atheist.

I suspect Dawkins might be getting grumpy in his old age (he’s 73), an age when hugely gifted people sometimes begin to become more and more extreme in their views. About ten years ago, Dawkins wrote a fascinating book called The Ancestor’s Tale. It was a history of life on earth, but one that went backwards in time, not forward. It was sort of a paleontologist’s version of Merrily We Roll Along, a Kaufmann and Hart play (and Sondheim musical) where each succeeding scene is set earlier in time. It’s an idea that didn’t work for Kaufmann and Hart, or Sondheim, but it works splendidly for Dawkins. But there was one thing very odd about it. Every hundred pages or so, Dawkins would throw in a completely gratuitous insult

to George W. Bush. In 2004, such insults were a dime a dozen, but it was startling, to say the least, to find one in the middle of a discussion of the Cambrian explosion or the Permian extinction.

But that said, Dawkins is a great scientist and an even better science writer. His gift for making complex subjects and subtle arguments accessible to the intelligent layman is second to none. The book that brought him to fame, The Selfish Gene, has been in print of almost forty years. It is one of those rare books that has you saying, “Ah, now I understand,” on almost every page.

So Dawkins, I think, is just further proof that we are all human, both sublime and ridiculous.

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The Nasty, Brutish World of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, a prominent atheist, and a moral fool.

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Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, a prominent atheist, and a moral fool.

I say that in part (but only in part) because a woman seeking advice from him via Twitter confessed that she wouldn’t know what to do if she were pregnant with a child with Down syndrome. “Real ethical dilemma,” she wrote. But not for Dr. Dawkins. He tweeted this back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Now that is a revealing adjective, isn’t it? Note what Dr. Dawkins isn’t saying. He didn’t say (as he later claims, when clumsily and misleadingly trying to clean up his mess) that he was merely recommending that the woman abort the child. Nor did he say it’s a morally complicated decision that should evoke sympathy. Or that it’s an agonizing matter she should, say, pray over.

No siree. From his Moral Mt. Olympus Dr. Dawkins decrees that parents who decide to give birth to, and unconditionally love, a Down syndrome child are committing a moral wrong, a moral evil.

Which raises some questions: Having given birth to a Down syndrome child, what should happen to that child? Under the theory that it’s better late than never, should the infant’s life be terminated post-birth since it was immoral to allow him to be born in the first place? If not, why not? On what basis does Dawkins decide people have moral worth? What’s the intelligence quotient that allows one to be welcomed in life rather than terminated? What other imperfections morally compel us to abort a child? And why stop there? What physical and mental imperfections should be eliminated by society in order to help us meet the ethical standards of Richard Dawkins? (Those standards, for the unaware, include a defense of “mild pedophilia”.)

Dr. Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand that Down syndrome children can live rewarding lives and can themselves touch the hearts and souls of others; and that there are parents of Down syndrome children who come to see the extra chromosome as not only associated with delays and impairments but also sweetness, joy, wonder, patience, and love.

For Dawkins, human dignity is not intrinsic; people’s worth is judged on whether or not they have 46 (thumbs up) or 47 (thumbs down) chromosomes. If children have intellectual disabilities or developmental delays–if they have flattened facial features, short necks, small heads–then off with their head. Or, to be more precise, suck out their brains, which collapses their skulls. In the nasty, brutish world of Richard Dawkins, this is what the mother and father of a Down syndrome child are morally obligated to do.

In our neighborhood there’s a young man with Down syndrome whom we often see running. My 10-year-old son and I have several times talked about him and how we admire him. Just the other week David asked me what the person’s condition was, and I explained to him what Down syndrome is. We spoke a bit about how a person’s worth isn’t based on intellectual abilities; it’s based on being a child of God. And that character matters more than intelligence.

Last night, after reading the comments by Dawkins, I asked my son what in particular he liked about this fellow. He replied, “I like that he’s so dedicated even though he has a sickness [Down syndrome].” He added, “I like that he’s so dedicated when so many other people who don’t have Down syndrome aren’t that way.” And then he added, “He’s kind of inspiring.”

Indeed he is. That person’s life has as much meaning as does Richard Dawkins’s. I would also wager a good deal of money that if he isn’t the intellectual equal of Dawkins, he is morally superior to him. And I for one would much rather have the young man with Down syndrome in my neighborhood than Richard Dawkins.

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Nietzsche vs. Intrinsic Human Worth

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, whose book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas was reviewed in COMMENTARY, published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly on how Friedrich Nietzsche was embraced by Americans eager to see in him a reflection of their own image. In summarizing the German philosopher’s views, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes:

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do… this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.

While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.

From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.

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Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, whose book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas was reviewed in COMMENTARY, published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly on how Friedrich Nietzsche was embraced by Americans eager to see in him a reflection of their own image. In summarizing the German philosopher’s views, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes:

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do… this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.

While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.

From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.

Nietzsche was right to wonder, and Ranter-Rosenhagen’s work raises an old and enduring set of questions. Is there such a thing as a universal moral law, truths that are objective and permanent rather than subjective and contingent, ethical codes that are anchored in God rather than human choice, human desires, and human invention?

During the years, I’ve asked friends of mine, including several very intelligent and well-read atheists, the grounds on which a person who doesn’t believe in God makes the case for inherent human dignity. Absent a Creator, what is the argument against capriciousness, injustice, and tyranny? How does one create a system of justice and make the case against, say, slavery, if you begin with two propositions: one, the universe was created by chance; and two, it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”?

To press the point a bit further, why would a materialist or a relativist have any confidence that their beliefs are (a) rooted in anything permanent and (b) applied to themselves and to others? It’s not obvious what the response is to a Nietzschean who says, “Your belief is fine for you, but it is simply non-binding on me. God is dead – and I choose to follow the Will to Power. You may not agree, but there is no philosophical or moral ground on which you can make your stand.”

Steve Hayner, president of Columbia Theological Seminary, once told me something that adds an important layer to this discussion. We believe we have worth because we are created in God’s image, he said. But even more basic is the declaration that we have value simply because God values us. Gold is valuable because someone values it, not because there is something about gold that is intrinsically of worth.

Sure, gold is aesthetically beautiful and has particular physical qualities which set it apart (it is highly conductive, non-corroding, et cetera). But gold would not be valuable if it were not thought to be so by someone. In this case, value is attributive. Similarly, human beings are of worth simply because we are valued by God. Indeed, God demonstrated the value of humanity by His continuing involvement with us.

It is the attributive quality of worth which underlies Christian and Jewish anthropology. Comparative worth opens the door to an economic or utilitarian assessment of the value of an individual. Intrinsic worth may also be open to some debate. But attributive worth, according to Hayner, is not derived from culture or circumstances. Here, worth comes from the understanding that all people are precious in God’s sight.

It’s still unclear to me, then, on what basis we can argue that people can have intrinsic or attributive worth if we deny God and transcendent truth. I’m not claiming it can’t be done; I’m simply asking what a non-theistic moral code would be grounded in. Those who embrace atheism/anti-theism and the philosophy of Nietzsche would do well to understand, as he did, just how ugly and terrifying a world after moral absolutes would be.

It turns out taking a hammer to God doesn’t damage Him; but it does damage us.

 

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