Overrated: Richard Dawkins

Dissecting the reputation of a Pooterish atheist with a selfish, perhaps genetic, need to be noticed

Faith Overrated

In April 2010, Richard Dawkins announced an initiative to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested when the Pontiff made an official visit to Britain in the autumn, the ostensible reason being his involvement in the Catholic clergy abuse crisis. Benedict was 83 and in ill-health at the time, caused in part by the campaign against him by some Vatican insiders precisely because he was proactive in exposing and punishing abusers. It was one of the factors that led to his resignation three years later.

It’s an intensely revealing insight into the mind and manners of Richard Dawkins, and one far more accurate than the first volume of his autobiography. An Appetite For Wonder (Bantam Press) reads as though it were written by an extremely angry Charles Pooter, unaware that misplaced hubris is hilarious. But Dawkins is not a nobody and nor, of course, was Pope Benedict. Both surely knew that the abuse horror involved at most 3 per cent of the clergy, that the vast majority of cases were in the past, that abuse rates were far higher in public education or organised sport, and that an arrest was impossible and had been suggested merely for publicity.

There we have it: publicity built on a deeply flawed premise. Dawkins does have this selfish, perhaps genetic, need to be noticed. When the cuttings file diminishes, he makes another outlandish statement or growling comment, often suburban and ill-informed. The Benedict incident also showed Dawkins as a man happy to silence those with whom he disagrees, as his atheist followers — and they often act in a cult-like manner — demonstrate on a regular basis.

Benedict seldom responds to attacks, but just recently, in a letter to a more respectful Italian atheist, he explained that “an important function of theology is that of maintaining religion connected to reason and reason to religion. Both functions are of vital importance for humanity. Besides, science fiction exists in the sphere of many sciences . . . Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is a classic example of science fiction.” I bet Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford reacted generously and calmly to that dig from the pope.

The overrated tag is a vital one to understand in this case. As an evolutionary biologist Dawkins is considered by his peers as a sound and, at one time at least, a cutting-edge academic. To question that would be foolish. In recent years, however, his academic reputation has declined, which is not something he discusses in his memoirs or elsewhere. Frankly, he would be largely anonymous, and neither underrated nor overrated, if it were not for his ostentatious atheism, and in that field he has never been considered sound and certainly not cutting-edge. 

Back in 2006, Terry Eagleton began his review of The God Delusion in the London Review of Books: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

Eagleton is right. Dawkins is aggressively eloquent, utterly confident and dismissively sweeping in his attacks on God and faith, but he is never profound or genuinely compelling. Bertrand Russell was deeper, H.G. Wells was more populist, even silly old Stephen Fry is funnier. Dawkins insists on the same attacks on the same straw men of religion, and he is extremely selective about whom he will engage in debate: he has refused public arguments with those he considers “unqualified” — a grotesquely snobbish euphemism and excuse. There are several North American Christian apologists who would be delighted to take on Dawkins, if only given the opportunity.

The philosopher and former atheist Edward Feser wrote: “Oddly, the rhetoric of the New Atheist writers — Richard Dawkins among the most prominent — sounds much more like that of a fundamentalist preacher than like anything I read during my atheist days. Like the preacher, they are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch their opponents with a sarcastic quip or two. And, like the preacher, they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking about.”

At the Rally for Reason in 2012, after that terribly brave performer Tim Minchin had repeatedly sung, “Fuck the Motherfucking Pope”, Dawkins told the hysterical crowd, “Mock them, ridicule them in public, don’t fall for the convention that we’re far too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe, which need to be substantiated. They should be challenged and ridiculed with contempt.”

Too polite to talk about religion! Where has Dawkins been, where does he live? It has been open season on Christianity for almost a generation now, and the last acceptable prejudice in so-called polite society is anti-Catholicism. Dawkins’s greatest achievement is Dawkins. He has closed rather than opened the debate around faith and reason, and made life far more difficult for informed believers as well as informed sceptics. What will St Peter will say at the Pearly Gates, if indeed he knows who Dawkins is?