Richard Dawkins Discovers His Ideal Idiom and Audience

Some writers struggle for years to achieve a proper harmony in their work between style and substance. For some, that precious concinnity remains elusive till the end. So it is always something of a happy surprise when an author discovers his or her ideal idiom in the twilight of a long career. In a sense, Richard Dawkins has always been a writer of books for children—or, at any rate, for readers with childish minds—but not until now, it seems, has it occurred to him to write explicitly as a children’s author. Tο this point, he has made a good living out of a relative paucity of gifts. As a third-tier zoologist, a popularizer of both scientific truths and pseudo-scientific speculations, and a tireless enemy of all religious beliefs (whether he understands them or not), he has gone far on an engagingly mediocre prose-style and an inflexible narrowness of mind. But, while his ambition has always been toward a certain intellectual gravity, even his putatively most serious (or most self-important) books have had an undeniably infantile quality about them. The Selfish Gene, for instance, was really little more than a cartoon of the molecular biology it pretended to explicate, a simplistic genetocentric reductionist fantasia so fraught with obvious logical errors and so prone to inadvertently and ineptly metaphysical claims that no truly mature mind could fail to recognize its fatuity. The God Delusion was, if anything, even more of a nursery entertainment: puerile rants, laboriously obvious jokes, winsomely preposterous conceptual confusions, a few dashes of naïve but honest indignation, attempts at philosophical reasoning so maladroit as to be touching in their guileless silliness. And I think it fair to say that nothing Dawkins has written for public consumption has lacked this element of beguiling absurdity—the delightful atmosphere of playtime on a long golden summer afternoon, alive with small figures shouting happily in shrill little voices and stumbling about in their parents’ clothing, acting out scenes from what they imagine to be the daily lives of adults. But the bewitching effect has also always been diluted by his unfortunate failure to embody his ideas in a form suitable to their triviality.

With Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, all of that has changed. The warm, languid sunlight of those idyllic revels positively spills across its pages. At last, Dawkins has found an authorial voice entirely adequate to his theme. And it is charming. Yes, of course, the confused and chaotic quality of his arguments remains a constant, and the basic conceptual mistakes have not altered appreciably since the earliest days of his polemics; but here it all comes across as the delightful babble of a toddler. “Do you believe in God?” he asks on the first page, tugging at your sleeve, eager to inform you of all the interesting things he has learned about religion this week. “Which god? Thousands of gods have been worshipped throughout the world, throughout history.” Do tell. And, in fact, tell he does, breathlessly emptying out his whole little hoard of knowledge about the local deities of ancient peoples. The sheer earnest impishness of his manner is almost enough to make you ignore his continued inability—despite decades of attempts by more refined logicians to explain his error to him—to distinguish between the mythic and devotional stories that peoples tell about their gods and the ontological and modal claims that the great monotheistic traditions of the “axial age” and after have made about God, or to grasp the qualitative conceptual gulf that separates them.

To a great degree, as it happens, the first half of the book consists in a long series of variations on just this fundamental incomprehension. Much of the information Dawkins imparts is accurate enough, moreover, with a few notable exceptions (for instance, he believes that the Orthodox and Roman churches actually split from one another over the filioque controversy, but that is a common enough misconception). And, to be fair, taken solely as a riposte to fundamentalist religion, it all has a certain force. Certainly, Dawkins cannot be gainsaid in pointing out that a purely literalist reading of Christian scripture is unsustainable. Of course, he lacks the sophistication to know which of his claims are really sound, which arguments solvent, which criticisms accurate, and so forth, and on the whole these pages read like a digest of material culled from atheist websites. I imagine, in fact, that this is where much of it comes from. So it is hardly surprising that he lazily adopts quite a few inane arguments along with the good ones, or that he assumes that fundamentalist literalism is the Christian norm. And obviously he is insensible to the amusing reality that most of the textual inconsistencies and historical dubia he cites were identified first by Christian scholars. But, again, whereas in the past these bumptious vacuities were annoying, here the effervescent banality of the prose renders it all somehow—how to say it?—renders it all somehow rather cute.

This is, after all, as much as one can ask. At this point in Dawkins’s career, no one could possibly want him to deviate from his accustomed channels. Taking all of his previous publications into account, it would probably be rather unsettling if he all at once began to exhibit philosophical gifts; it would seem eerily unnatural, like a kindergartener suddenly mastering quantum theory. And in this respect his new book does not disappoint. Despite decades of the best and most persistent efforts on the parts of his philosophically literate critics to disabuse him of his crudest conceptual errors and to rouse him from his dogmatic slumber, Dawkins has made not the slightest advance in dialectical subtlety. He is like a marvelously flawless diamond that the winds of time cannot blemish. When, for instance, he considers whether there is any proof of God’s “existence,” it is clear that he still cannot distinguish between the sort of empirical evidence that might confirm the existence of a certain kind of object in the physical world (say, a teapot in orbit, to use the example he borrows from Bertrand Russell) and the sort of logical and metaphysical “proofs” by which one might attempt to establish the reality of a transcendent God who is the source and ground of all existence as such. In fact, all the principal questions of classical metaphysics remain a terra incognita for him. He certainly appears, moreover, to be unconscious of the qualitative difference between specific religious dogmas (which are as a rule intelligible only within certain larger contexts of belief) and ontological or logical asseverations about God as such, or of why the rejection of the former should have no consequences for one’s view of the latter. And, in general, he reprises all his most familiar “philosophical” gestures. As he has before, for instance, he invokes Hume’s argument against the plausibility of miracles, in a sweetly oversimplified form, clearly unaware both of its irrelevance to most religious rationales for belief and of its own formidable internal contradictions. And so on. All of his reasoning is dreadful, of course. Even where he gets something right, it is clear that he has done so only by accident, and has reached his correct formulation for all the wrong reasons. Every argument is circular, or incoherent, or simply wrong—which, under normal circumstances, would quickly grow annoying. Once again, however, the book’s lispingly infantile prose makes it impossible for the reader not to feel indulgent. Rather than rebuke Dawkins for his vapidity, one almost wants to give him treats.

The book’s second half, I should note, is somewhat more substantial. At least, it is more informative, being something of a child’s guide to basic evolutionary and organic biology. Rhetorically, however, it is just as insipid as what precedes it, inasmuch as the premise subtending it is that theological statements about God as creator and biological statements about life processes are all situated on the same explanatory level and hence constitute rival narratives of the same natural events. Here, as elsewhere, years of exposure to philosophical correctives have left no mark on Dawkins’s mind. He still cannot grasp that, logically speaking, whatever might account for the existence of causality as such cannot itself be a contingent cause among other causes. Thus, for instance, he seems to think that his discussion of embryology precludes the “alternative” claim that God is life’s creator. This is a curious sort of confusion, of course, since Dawkins must realize that most religious people do in fact believe in embryos, and even in ova and spermatozoa, and that they have no difficulty at all in affirming that nature—created though it be—consists in a large variety of natural processes. But, in another sense, no confusion is more typical of the man’s thinking than this one: this total inability, that is, to grasp that what the great theistic creeds mean by “creation” is qualitatively irreducible to any kind of physical causation, or transition between physical states. And its persistence is almost heroic. A man of lesser resolve might by now have relented just a little bit before the onslaught of philosophical scorn Dawkins has attracted over the years and, if nothing else, conceded that he might not fully understand what distinguishes ontological contingency from physical causation. Not Dawkins. For him still, no less than in his salad days, evolutionary science and the doctrine of creation from nothingness represent antithetical causal proposals regarding a single object. And so, once again, he feels it worthwhile to struggle at length against arguments for design in nature of the sort Deists and Intelligent Design theorists promote, even though such arguments are no real part of any major creed’s understanding of creation, and are irrelevant to the issue of creation as such in any event.

I suppose I should mention—though it probably does not need saying—that Dawkins has also gotten no better at distinguishing between the literal and the metaphorical even in his own language, or between empirical facts and speculative fictions. In a sense, much of his public career has been erected on a deep foundation of just such confusions. He may say now, for instance, that he regrets his earlier talk of “selfish genes”; but, take away the ludicrous fantasy of tiny unseen replicators occultly guiding the course of all life, constructing organisms as “robots” whose only purpose is to act as vehicles for those replicators, and then endowing those robots with the illusion of free will and moral sentiments, and so forth, and nothing really remains of the book that first made him famous. Then again, to take another example, there could scarcely be a more ridiculous burlesque of empirical science than the concept of “memes”: free-floating fragments of intentionality magically capable of subsisting apart from and in some sense logically prior to the intentional subjectivity they shape and populate; and yet Dawkins to this day still speaks as if those invisible little sprites—whose nature cannot be clearly defined, whose activities cannot be directly observed, and whose existence is as immune to proof as it is to logical plausibility—were real objects of scientific scrutiny. So it is scarcely surprising that Dawkins is insensible as well to the thoroughly metaphorical and obscure nature of, say, talk of genetic “information,” or that his whole understanding of all physical phenomena depends upon a logically impossible model of irreducible physical emergence. And then . . .

Well, really, perhaps none of this matters very much. Readers with serious minds took leave of Dawkins years ago. The chief lesson of this book may be that it is foolish to resent a childish mind for thinking childishly, especially when—however belatedly—it has learned to express itself in the sort of enchantingly childish voice that suits it best.

One cannot, alas, remain an infant forever; we must all sooner or later put away childish things; toy-land, toy-land, once you pass its portals . . . (and so on). In the end, if we want to think deeply about ultimate questions, Dawkins is not the man for us. We all have to outgrow him and his kind and all that they represent. Happily, the buoyant callowness of his most recent book invites us to do just that. In a sense, it gives expression to a degree of self-awareness on Dawkins’s part that has never been conspicuous in his work in the past, and of which he had seemed until now incapable. It suggests that, at some level, he has learned to recognize his ideas as essentially idle diversions for unformed minds—something on the order of a birthday-party clowns or miniature ponies or balloon-animals—and in this way it gives us license to ignore him with more geniality than we might otherwise have been able to manage. He means well, after all; he simply is not—and never will be—a thinker for adults. So, though outgrow him we must, we need not do so with rancor or disdain. We can even, if we wish, pause one last time before departing the nursery to appreciate his awkward but earnest ingenuousness, smile at his artless games and rambling stories, and perhaps fondly pat him on the head. In that sense, this book is a gift.

Featured Image: Mary Cassat, Children Playing in Sand, 1884; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is author of more than a dozen books and roughly 750 articles. He is the author of Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest. He is exceedingly fond of dogs.

Read more by David Bentley Hart