Commentary Magazine

Topic: Richard Dawkins

Humility as a Democratic Virtue

In the New Republic, John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, has written a withering review of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

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In the New Republic, John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, has written a withering review of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

Professor Gray, a self-professed atheist, criticizes his fellow atheist Dawkins for knowing “practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion.” His attack on religion “has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxley … blush scarlet with embarrassment.” But beyond that is Dawkins’s “tone of indulgent superiority.” He “shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings.” In comparison with Blaise Pascal, a man of relentless intellectual energy, “Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.” Dawkins is, according to Gray, a dogmatist whom he contrasts with Charles Darwin, who understood science was “a method of inquiry that enabled [Darwin] to edge tentatively and humbly toward truth.”

On this matter of humility, I’m reminded of what Benjamin Franklin, near the end of his life, said. Although having some concerns about the Constitution, Franklin sacrificed them for what he called “the public good.” In urging a unanimous vote approving the Constitution, he made this marvelous appeal: “On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility…”

Humility, it turns out, is quite an important, if underrated, democratic virtue.

Our system of government is based on the belief that no one has all the answers and so no one gets all of the power. Since none of us has the whole of truth, the question is how we can construct our lives in a way that moves us a bit closer to it. Part of the answer requires us to escape our political, philosophical and theological silos, at least now and then, in order to gain the perspective of others to help us see things to which we may be blind. Humility presupposes that there is collective wisdom and that we have something to learn from others, including from those with whom we might have fairly deep disagreements.

To be sure, I don’t expect mass conversions from one political faith to another. Rachel Maddow isn’t going to adopt the philosophy of Rush Limbaugh. Nor do I believe that the truth is always at the mid-point between opposing points of view. As a political/philosophical conservative and a Christian, I have made certain fundamental judgments about life, human nature, and reality. But what humility can do is create the conditions to better understand the values and premises that shape other people’s narrative, their worldview, their “script.”

A person who has made this point particularly well is the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. One of his gifts is the ability to explain the assumptions and belief systems of people who hold very different views. That doesn’t eliminate the differences; but what it can do is to help us better appreciate the factors that lead people to arrive at very different places and therefore keep us from demonizing one another. (For those who care about such things, partisan antipathy has risen quite dramatically in the last two decades. We’re more inclined than in the past to believe that our political opponents aren’t just wrong but malicious.)

Here’s another observation made by Professor Haidt worth considering: We often “sacralize” issues and even reason itself, to the point that it can become an obstacle to discerning truth. How? Because like lawyers preparing a legal brief, we employ reason to confirm bias. “The only cure for the confirmation bias,” Haidt says, “is other people. So if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.” In recounting his own professional experience, he says, “we end up being forced to work together, challenging each other’s confirmation biases, and truth emerges.” Professor Haidt goes on to say, “Wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

Humility properly understood, then, leaves us open to having our views scrutinized, refined, and enlarged. Call it the anti-Richard Dawkins approach to things: doubting our own infallibility, a bit of charity in our judgment toward others, a willingness to consider other points of view. These traits are easier to admire in others than to embrace ourselves. But they are ingredients of a healthy democratic culture and, based on those whom I most respect, elements to more fulfilling lives.

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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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