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Through a Glass, Darkly

Michael Ruse

A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Richard Dawkins. viii + 263 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2003. $24.

Richard Dawkins once called me a "creep." He did so very publicly but meant no personal offense, and I took none: We were, and still are, friends. The cause of his ire—his anguish, even—was that, in the course of a public discussion, I was defending a position I did not truly hold. We philosophers are always doing this; it's a version of the reductio ad absurdum argument. We do so partly to stimulate debate (especially in the classroom), partly to see how far a position can be pushed before it collapses (and why the collapse), and partly (let us be frank) out of sheer bloody-mindedness, because we like to rile the opposition.

Dawkins, however, has the moral purity—some would say the moral rigidity—of the evangelical Christian or the committed feminist. Not even for the sake of argument can he endorse something that he thinks false. To do so is not just mistaken, he feels; in some deep sense, it is wrong. Life is serious, and there are evils to be fought. There must be no compromise or equivocation, even for pedagogical reasons. As the Quakers say, "Let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay."

All of this comes through very strongly in Dawkins's new book, A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. At one level, to be candid, it is not much of a book. It is a collection of what one might charitably call literary ephemera: not real articles, or chapters, but bits and pieces—reviews, introductions to the books of others, eulogies, items in the popular press, and so forth. The pieces were written that way and read that way. They are good for the moment, but hardly worth laying down for the future. How often has one had a wonderful, local wine in a little restaurant in Spain or Italy, and on bringing a bottle home been amazed at how thin and sour it tastes when served up proudly to one's friends? It is much this way with the contents of A Devil's Chaplain.

On another level, however, Dawkins's collection is really interesting and does raise absolutely crucial issues. 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.

The collection has seven sections. The first, Science and Sensibility, ranges from an open letter to Tony Blair about science, genetics and ethics to a savage attack on cultural studies and postmodernism. The second, Light Will Be Thrown, takes its title from Charles Darwin's comment in On the Origin of Species about the pertinence of his theory to our species, and the section is anchored by an introduction written for a new edition of Darwin's Descent of Man. The third, The Infected Mind, offers no prizes for discerning whose mind is infected (too many are) and with what (religion). The fourth, They Told Me, Heraclitus, contains eulogies for the science-fiction writer Douglas Adams and the evolutionist William D. Hamilton. Dawkins also puts the boot into purveyors of alternative medicines. In the fifth, Even the Ranks of Tuscany, Dawkins spends a lot of time quarreling with the late Stephen Jay Gould, who was unwise enough to suggest that there is a place for both science and religion. The sixth, There Is All Africa and Her Progenies in Us, tells of Africa, the birthplace of Richard Dawkins. Finally, in the seventh, A Prayer for my Daughter, the author instructs his child not to believe in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

I find myself of two minds about all of this. I welcome that the world of nonbelief has such a vigorous champion. These days, in the United States particularly, atheism does not have a very good press. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out recently, a politician today could never be publicly rude about blacks or Jews or women or the handicapped, but nonbelievers are fair game. The fact that Thomas Jefferson, who used to scoff at the Trinity, could never become president today is considered of no importance. Jesus is our favorite philosopher, and that is that.

Also, I myself share just about every bit of Dawkins's nonbelief. I too think that the Assumption of the Virgin is fiction. More than this, I too feel that religion can be a force for positive evil. The happenings in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston prove that. One of Dawkins's pieces tells of a televised discussion of cloning he took part in, which included prominent religious leaders, one of whom refused to shake hands with the women in the studio in case they were menstruating. His behavior was disgusting.

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.

I love Dawkins's books. They always make me mad and make me want to respond. What more could an author ask?

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