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There is grandeur in this view of life…

When Kathleen met Richard #1

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I must confess my title is a bit misleading. In her Acknowledgements1 Kathleen Jones explicitly states:

I have never met Professor Richard Dawkins – and that is probably just as well, because we would have much to disagree about. 

Kathleen Jones

Kathleen Jones

So my title means ‘when Kathleen met Richard’ in the spiritual sense. (Of course they might have physically met by now and not told me.) 

First in a series responding to Kathleen Jones’s Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is wrong about God2


Four lines into her Preface it starts:

Religion – any kind of religion – is, [Dawkins maintains in The God Delusion], a massive delusion: ‘A persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence’ (p. 5). Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others are as deluded as Christians, their beliefs founded on lies and hypocrisy.

This isn’t actually what Dawkins says. He says that belief in a supernatural god is a delusion. There are religions like Buddhism and Confucianism which typically do not involve, or do not have to involve, belief in a supernatural god. Dawkins explicitly rules these out of his scope (p 373). And from my experience and reading it is possible to be, for example, a Jew and even a Christian without believing in a supernatural god. 

Kathleen Jones: Challenging Richard Dawkins

Kathleen Jones: Challenging Richard Dawkins

Jones also quotes him as imagining that in a world without religion 

…there would be no wars, …no terrorism, no massacres, no beheadings, no floggings and mutilations…

What he says is:

Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’…4

His examples are carefully chosen as ones involving religion or religious conflict or both. Is religion the sole cause of all of these? Possibly not. As Dawkins himself says in the paragraph immediately before:

Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything.5

But of the ten examples in the extract above, at least nine are so inextricably linked with religion that it is difficult to imagine how they would have taken place in the absence of religion. Yes of course it is possible that had there been no religion throughout world history there might have been equivalent or worse atrocities. But that is pure speculation, of no use to either side of the argument. 



9/11, 7/7 and the current rash of suicide bombers are all manifestations of militant Islamic fundamentalism. If Islam did not exist, there would be no Islamic fundamentalism – by definition. If there was no Islam and no Islamic fundamentalism, could 9/11 and 7/7 still have happened? The question is almost absurd. If there was no Islam, no Christianity, no Judaism etc, the whole of world history would have been different. In view of the direct link with Islamic fundamentalism it seems entirely reasonable to claim that religion was a significant cause of those first three items. 

Similarly, the Crusades, witch-hunts and the Gunpowder Plot all had explicitly religious motivations, and the partition of India was primarily a partition between Hindus and Muslims.

Would the Israeli/Palestinian conflict have happened if there were no religious differences between Israelis and Palestinians? Would there have been any anti-Semitism if there were no religious differences between Jews and the rest of European civilisation? If there were no religion would the Jews have been persecuted as ‘Christ-killers’? If there were no religion would Christ have been killed? If there were no religion would there have been a Christ? Would the Jews have kept themselves apart if there were no religious differences between themselves and their neighbours? If there had been no anti-Semitism would the Holocaust have happened? If the Holocaust hadn’t happened would the partition of Palestine have happened in 1947? These are not rhetorical questions, just attempts to illuminate the complexity of the conflicts, and the fact that religion is an inseparable and causal part of both the conflicts themselves and that complexity.

As for the Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, I am unqualified to judge. So I will give Kathleen Jones that one. Looks like Dawkins 9, Jones 1.

In view of this initial misrepresentation it is interesting that she claims how

his critique is so crude that it needs to be challenged bluntly, and without equivocation.

If it was as crude as she says she might have been better off quoting him more accurately.

Chapter 1: The world of Richard Dawkins

Chapter 1 also begins with a bang:

Richard Dawkins believes that human beings are unimportant – merely incidental to the process of biological evolution. …Individuals and animals have no lasting significance, and there is no purpose in human existence. [Emphasis added.] 

Richard Dawkins: The Sefish Gene

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

It’s easy to see where this comes from. The thesis of The Selfish Gene is that the gene is the unit of evolution: 

Individuals are not stable things – they are fleeting. … Genes, like diamonds, are forever.6

But what does Jones mean here by ‘unimportant’? If she means that Dawkins doesn’t think humans have the importance which might result from their having been specially created by God for a special purpose – well, obviously. Dawkins doesn’t think humans were specially created by God for a special purpose. But that doesn’t make them unimportant. What else could she have meant? He gives no reason to think his wife, daughter, friends and colleagues are unimportant, nor indeed people he doesn’t know.

What she could be referring to – but I’m speculating – is this: there is a possible view that the ‘natural world’ is somehow ontologically organised such that it consists of living individuals; and these living individuals – purely in the context of this natural world – have an ontological status somehow higher than other components of the natural world, for example parts of individuals. So for example a tree has an ontological status higher than one of its own leaves. A tree ‘has’ leaves for photosynthesis; but a leaf does not ‘have’ a tree.

Similarly in the case of humans. A person has feet for walking, but a foot does not ‘have’ a person. A woman has ovaries, womb and eggs for making new people; a man has sperm for fertilising eggs; but an egg does not have a woman and a spermatozoon does not have a man. It is almost the distinction between tool-user and tool: feet, ovaries, eggs, sperm – and therefore, by extension, chromosomes and genes – are almost ‘tools’ people use for specific purposes, except of course that a paradigmatic ‘tool’ (eg a hammer) is not typically part of the tool-user, whereas feet, ovaries, chromosomes and genes are.

The selfish gene idea turns this picture on its head:

Individuals are not stable things – they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside…7

If in the previous picture the gene was the tool of the individual, in the selfish gene vision the individual is the tool of the gene. Perhaps this is what Kathleen Jones means by ‘Richard Dawkins believes that human beings are unimportant’?

The problem though is that ‘believing human beings are unimportant’ is almost impossible to construe without a flavour of devaluation. If I think you are unimportant then I do not think much of you. I do not respect you. If I think people are unimportant then I do not respect people. I could be a misanthropist.

If I thought people were unimportant then I would probably revel in that ‘selfish gene’ vision, because it would cut people down to size, put them where they belong. It would be a vision of how I thought things ought to be, regardless of how things actually are. If Kathleen Jones thinks she can slide effortlessly from ‘Dawkins says people are the survival machines of their genes’ to ‘Dawkins thinks people are unimportant’ then she could perhaps be revealing herself as one of

those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case.8

I do not think ‘people are unimportant’ follows from ‘people are the survival machines of their genes’. I don’t think Richard thinks it does either. Does Kathleen think it does?

Next, a stretching exercise…


1 Kathleen Jones, Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is wrong about God, Canterbury Press Norwich, London, 2007.

2 Kathleen Jones, 2007: see 1 above.

3 Richard DawkinsThe God delusion, Bantam, 2006.

4 Richard Dawkins, 2006: see 3 above.

5 Richard Dawkins, 2006: see 3 above.

6 Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, OUP, 1976.

7 Richard Dawkins, 1976: see 6 above.

8 Richard Dawkins, 1976: see 6 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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