Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Richard Dawkins Interview in the Houston Chronicle

On Sunday, Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle sat down with Richard Dawkins. Given the stridency with which Dawkins has attacked religious belief and championed evolutionary theory, the results were a bit surprising (to me at least). First the non-surprising part:

Q. Are you surprised that, in the 21st century, we're still debating evolution in the public square?

A. Yes, I'm very surprised. I'm not quite sure why of all the sciences, it is evolution that should be singled out for this remarkable treatment. Amateurs who know nothing of science don't attempt to dictate what goes into chemistry or physics textbooks, as far as I am aware. But in the case of my own subject, biology, it's a free-for-all where anyone can say what they think as a personal opinion. These are not matters of personal opinion, these are matters of fact. And matters of fact are determined by the evidence. And it is the evidence that should define what goes into textbooks.

I had this discussion with my pastor way back when. I asked him, “Don't you think it is odd that every other major science discipline has figured out how the world works but biologists have gotten it completely wrong?” He admitted that this was puzzling and worthy of consideration. Unfortunately, it is also behind the many “academic freedom” bills that have littered state legislatures in the past few years, since the Dover decision. While there is lip service to the idea that all scientific disciplines should be examined for their strengths and weaknesses, no one seriously doubts that the entire thrust of these bills is aimed solely at evolution.

Dawkins does say something somewhat startling, though. When asked:
Q. From your perspective is there any credible evidence for the existence of a God?
He replies:
A. No, not to my mind. But I think it's a respectable thing to have an argument about. It's something we can have an intelligent argument in which intelligent people can make points on both sides.
This strikes me as being a bit of a lurch from his “Age of Reason” program in which he castigated parents for imparting religious values to their children. If the religious people are “intelligent” people, why can they not pass on these values to their children?

A bit later, however, Dawkins reminds us that a good evolutionary biologist can be a very bad sociologist. The question posed is this:
Q. Do you fear the United States is on its way to becoming a theocracy?
Unaccountably, Dawkins answers the question thus:
A. I think that when George W. Bush was president it was starting to look that way. I was of course hugely encouraged by the election of Barack Obama, so I don't think the United States is on its way to becoming a theocracy. But it's something we need to watch. I think there are countries in the world that are theocracies, and they're terrible, terrible examples. Looking at Saudi Arabia, we really, really don't want my part of the world or your part of the world to go anywhere near that.
This is patent nonsense. The United States has never even come close to a theocracy, nor will it ever come close. He comments that during George Bush, it was "starting to look that way." No it wasn't. It was during the presidency of George Bush, for example, that anti-Christmas campaigns got going in earnest. There were no freedoms curtailed, there was no religious dictate from on high. There was nothing. One of the people who commented on the story also wrote:
It's hard to take seriously anything else the guy says when he says something that dumb. I'd love to know what Bush policy he's referring to. Is he talking about Bush's faith based initiative program? If so, he doesn't know his facts since Obama has continued the program.
Like I said, great evolutionary biologist, mediocre theologian and sociologist at best. Read both the interview and the comments, if you have time.

Now playing: Mike Oldfield - To France
via FoxyTunes


  1. You had me until: It was during the presidency of George Bush, for example, that anti-Christmas campaigns got going in earnest.

    You're right that religious freedom hasn't been under serious, far-reaching threat in modern times (though we can qualify that, saying that many fundamentalist groups are working hard to erode religious freedom to whatever extent they can, and have had some progress around the edges).

    But the anti-Christmas campaigns started by Bill O'Reilly and other culture-warriors are hardly an example of a rising secularism. If anything, they represented a provocation meant to erode religious freedom. The only way that you could consider them as examples of a move away from theocracy is if you failed to recognize that they were a provocation on the part of the right and believed the spin that there was some kind of "war on Christmas".

  2. There were no freedoms curtailed, there was no religious dictate from on high. There was nothing.

    I'd say that perspective is a little naive. W. was his father's liaison to the religious right back in the late 80's and early 90's. No group supported him more vociferously than conservative Christians, even when almost everyone else was sick of him. One of his (advisers') re-election strategies was getting gay marriage propositions on state ballots to increase voter turn-out among evangelicals and social conservatives.

    Now, did anything W. did bring us into (or to the brink of) theocracy. Certainly not. But he definitely appealed to the voting bloc that would like to see such a development. And naturally, he had to throw them some bones along the way.

  3. AMW, Yes but appealing to a voting block and enacting legislation in favor of that block are two very different things. Even the Christian right got sick of him when he wouldn't support their policies. It is not a matter of being naive. I am perfectly aware that the Christian right supported him to the hilt. It was a bit of a shock to them when they found out he couldn't do the things they wanted him to.

    My point is that what Dawkins said was ridiculous. There is no way that the constitution as written and interpreted, would ever produce a nation anything like a theocracy. In fact, that is exactly what the framers did not want.

  4. There is no way that the constitution as written and interpreted, would ever produce a nation anything like a theocracy.

    True. But neither the language nor the interpretation of the constitution is set in stone. The constitution as written doesn't change very often, but it can still change pretty dramatically. Women's right to vote, imposition of prohibition, imposition of the bill of rights on the states, etc. Those are all pretty big changes, and at one point in time, each was probably unthinkable.

    More worrying (to me) is interpretation. As written, the constitution prohibits the federal government from doing a lot of things. But as interpreted, the interstate commerce clause allows it to skirt those prohibitions.

    Certainly, Dawkins' statement is alarmist. The U.S. wasn't going to turn into Saudi-style theocracy under W. But at the margins, I'd say some things got more theocratic during his administration.

  5. Interesting. What I saw during the Bush administration was the continued isolation of the evangelical movement (how's that for an oxymoron?) from the social and scientific spheres of society. This was really brought home by this year's incident involving Bruce Waltke of RTS, who remarked that if the evangelical community didn't face up to the evidence of evolution, they would be seen as a cult (ya think?) and not taken seriously. What was the response? RTS fired him.

    I think that the this rise in isolationism coincided with the Bush years and it is quite possible he and his advisors gave the modern evangelical movement the cover to do this. Haven't examined that one yet.