If anyone wears the mantle of leadership in the New Atheist movement, Richard Dawkins is that man. An accomplished author and speaker, Dawkins has done more than anyone to popularize atheism as a valid alternative to religion.
But the manner in which Dawkins attacks religion and promotes his brand of atheism has been an embarrassment to a good many of his fellow atheists, including John Gray, whose review of Dawkins’ recently released memoir, An Appetite for Wonder: The Makings of a Scientist, is quite critical of the champion’s evangelistic certitude.
Gray notes the fatal flaw in Dawkins’ unwavering commitment to scientific rationalism as the ultimate and only answer to all mankind’s problems:
Science may give us the unvarnished truth—or some of it—about our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals. Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it. On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores.
Gray reaches back over a century to a critique of evolution offered by the British statesman Arthur Balfour. Though an atheist himself, Gray acknowledges the strength of Balfour’s argument:
If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. . . . Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. . . . One does not need to accept Balfour’s theistic solution to see the force of his argument. A rigorously naturalistic account of the human mind entails a much more skeptical view of human knowledge than is commonly acknowledged.
In other words, the very rationalism by which Dawkins invalidates religion as a legitimate approach to life likewise invalidates Dawkins’ own naturalism. What makes one valid and the other invalid?
The answer: Because Dawkins says so. Which renders him no different from the fundamentalist religionists he so abhors. Gray concludes:
To suppose that science can liberate humankind from ignorance requires considerable credulity. We know how science has been used in the past—not only to alleviate the human lot, but equally to serve tyranny and oppression. The notion that things might be fundamentally different in the future is an act of faith—one as gratuitous as any of the claims of religion, if not more so.
The debate between theism and atheism is welcome and necessary. But both sides need to approach the discussion with a generous dose of humility, recognizing that none of us have all the answers. Dawkins’ pretentiousness does not serve his side well.