Delusion delusion #2
We need to talk… about the charge of fundamentalism, explicit in McGrath’s subtitle.
Second in a series responding to Alister McGrath‘s The Dawkins delusion?: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine1
See also Delusion delusion #1
McGrath repeats the accusation a number of times inside the book, eg:
The total dogmatic conviction of correctness which pervades some sections of Western atheism today – wonderfully illustrated in The God Delusion – immediately aligns it with a religious fundamentalism which refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged… [My emphasis]
My trusty Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines fundamentalism like this:
The strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs or doctrines; esp. belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and literal acceptance of the creeds as fundamentals of Protestant Christianity.3
In the same interview we quoted from last time, Dawkins responds to the ‘atheist fundamentalist’ charge in these words:
“Fundamentalist” usually means, “goes by the book.” And so, a religious fundamentalist goes back to the fundamentals of The Bible or The Koran and says, “nothing can change.” Of course, that’s not the case with any scientist, and certainly not with me. So, I’m not a fundamentalist in that sense.4
You could shrug this off with a ‘well he would say that wouldn’t he?’ But there does seem to be something fundamentally (sorry) inaccurate about the ascription which Dawkins’ response and the dictionary definition both point to.
A fundamentalist takes something which has been stated – typically but not necessarily in writing – both as the literal truth, and also as something whose truth takes priority over any other approach to the truth. If apparent counter-evidence is found, the fundamentalist tests the evidence against the creed, rather than the other way round.
I doubt if I can expand on this any better than Dawkins himself does:
By contrast [with religious fundamentalism], what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence… Books about evolution are believed… because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn’t happen with holy books.
Philosophers, especially amateurs with a little philosophical learning, …may raise a tiresome red herring at this point: a scientist’s belief in evidence is itself a matter of fundamentalist faith. [But a]ll of us believe in evidence in our own lives, whatever we may profess with our amateur philosophical hats on…
…Maybe scientists are fundamentalist when it comes to defining in some abstract way what is meant by ‘truth’. But so is everybody else. I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere. We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to dispute it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that… [M]y belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming. [My emphasis]5
Dawkins makes similar points in the essay ‘What is true?’ (published in A devil’s chaplain). Here he defends confidence in evidence-based scientific truth against attacks from the perspective of cultural relativism, and against the argument that because science is intrinsically falsifiable, scientific knowledge can only consist of provisional hypotheses:
It is simply true that the Sun is hotter than the Earth, true that the desk on which I am writing is made of wood. These are not hypotheses awaiting falsification; not temporary approximations to an ever-elusive truth; not local truths that might be denied in another culture. …It is forever true that DNA is a double helix, true that if you and a chimpanzee (or an octopus or a kangaroo) trace your ancestors back far enough you will eventually hit a shared ancestor. …Strictly, the truth that there were no human beings in the Jurassic Period is still a conjecture, which could be refuted at any time by the discovery of a single fossil, authentically dated by a battery of radiometric methods… [But even] if they are nominally hypotheses on probation, these statements are true in exactly the same sense… as it is true that you have a head, and that my desk is wooden.6
But maybe counterarguments like these miss the point. McGrath is accusing Dawkins of being fundamentalist about atheism, not about science. What would be good is an explanation justifying the charge, because I am not yet sure McGrath provides one. As I work through the book I shall keep an eye out for a possible explanation, so I may not be able to settle the issue until I reach the end of this series.
Interestingly, in the Introduction at the beginning of the book we get something close to an acknowledgement that Dawkins is not a fundamentalist:
Dawkins and I… are both Oxford academics who love the natural sciences. Both of us believe passionately in evidence-based thinking, and are critical of those who hold passionate beliefs for inadequate reasons. We would both like to think that we would change our minds about God if the evidence demanded it. [My emphasis.]
Probably just what Dawkins would also say, except of course ‘I would like to think I would change my mind’ is not quite the same as ‘I would change my mind’. Remember that Dawkins is not claiming to know of evidence that God (ie the supernatural God of the ‘God hypothesis’) does not exist, just that there is insufficient evidence to justify a claim that God does exist; that the ‘God hypothesis’ is not the explanation it is claimed to be; and that, on the basis of the evidence, ‘there almost certainly is no God’.7
But perhaps we can use these statements which are ‘simply true’ as a test case to flesh out the charge of fundamentalism. Dawkins draws a parallel between evidence-based scientific knowledge (DNA is a double helix; humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor; no human beings in the Jurassic Period) and publically observable truths of experience (you have a head; my desk is made of wood). For the sake of argument we can assume that McGrath would agree with all five of these statements.
But Dawkins is also claiming that a further statement ‘there almost certainly is no (supernatural) God’ is not only true, but is true on the basis of the available evidence just like the other five statements. McGrath would presumably disagree with some or all of this.
It could be that Dawkins is right on both counts and McGrath is wrong to disagree. In that case the charge of fundamentalism would fail. (It is not fundamentalist to claim that DNA is a double helix or that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor – or at least McGrath would not say it is.)
Or it could be that Dawkins is right that the statement ‘there almost certainly is no (supernatural) God’ stands or falls on the basis of the available evidence, but he is wrong about the evidence or in his arguments from the evidence. In that case again Dawkins could only be fairly described as fundamentalist if every other scientist who happened to believe something which turned out to be false could also be described as fundamentalist.
In the context of this test case I think Dawkins can only be fairly described as fundamentalist if he is wrong in believing that the statement ‘there almost certainly is no (supernatural) God’ stands or falls on the basis of the available evidence, like any other scientific hypothesis. The fundamentalism would therefore be a kind of blindness, in that he would be failing to see that the statement is not that kind of statement – failing to see the true nature of the statement.
Although the dictionary definition quoted above makes no reference to it, we could possibly make a case that fundamentalism entails a kind of ‘blindness’. The religious fundamentalist is blind to the broader context; and/or the possibility that texts of any kind are open to multiple interpretations; and/or the fact that texts can be written, copied, translated and edited for all sorts of reasons and motives and against all sorts of standards; etc. (The ‘blindness’ could of course be completely deliberate. A proud and self-confessed religious fundamentalist could claim that the broader context and all the possible features of written texts are just irrelevant to the sacred truth of this one particular text.)
The charge could therefore be that Dawkins is fundamentalist in being blind to the possibility that a statement about the existence of a (supernatural) God is anything other than an evidence-based, falsifiable ‘scientific’ proposition. ‘Scientific’ here means scientific in a broad sense which would include historical statements and statements of everyday observation. For Dawkins to be ‘fundamentalist’ in this sense he would have to be both wrong in his classification of statements about God, and also stubbornly resistant (indeed blind) to any proof that he is wrong.
McGrath gives us a telling comparison with Stephen Jay Gould. McGrath describes Gould as an atheist, but as one who
was absolutely clear that the natural sciences – including evolutionary theory – were consistent with both atheism and conventional religious belief.
Whereas Gould at least tries to weigh up the evidence, Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking.
The clear implication is that Gould, unlike Dawkins, is innocent of ‘atheist fundamentalism’. This could be for two reasons. First: Gould thinks that science is consistent with both atheism and ‘conventional religious belief’. (For the purposes of this comparison we need to assume that ‘conventional religious belief’ equals, or at least includes, belief in a supernatural God, as that is Dawkins’ explicit scope). Second: Gould weighs up the evidence rather than indulging in hellfire preaching, turbocharged rhetoric, selective manipulation of facts and the like.
Now if Dawkins thinks science (or at least some science) is inconsistent with conventional religious belief (= belief in a supernatural God) and Gould does not, that in itself does not make Dawkins a fundamentalist. After all, Dawkins could be right and Gould could be wrong.
So, for now, the ‘atheist fundamentalist’ charge seems to come down to this. According to McGrath, Dawkins wrongly classifies statements about God, and he is also stubbornly resistant (blind) to any proof that he is wrong. And he behaves like a fundamentalist evangelist (hellfire preaching, turbocharged rhetoric, selective manipulation of facts).
We will need to bear this proposed explanation in mind as we work through the book, to assess for ourselves whether the charge stands. But first some baby steps…
1 Alister McGrath (with Joanna Collicutt McGrath), The Dawkins delusion?: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, SPCK, London, 2007.
3 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Fifth edition, OUP, 2002.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.