Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The delusions of Richard Dawkins

As one of the celebrity atheists, Richard Dawkins is no stranger to controversy.  For anyone whose certainties are not cast-iron, and who does not have the hide of a rhinoceros in terms of an ability to condemn everyone and everything that does not conform to a particular worldview, he may be an object of envy in his determination to promote a self-defined scientific rationalism as evidence of superiority to those who hold beliefs that differ from his own.

The latest outburst from the Dawkins camp came on Twitter over the weekend, in which he, by implication, called on the New Statesman to remove its political editor, Mehdi Hasan, for being a believing and practising Muslim.  Dawkins ridicules all manifestations of religious belief, and the latest example of his fundamentalist intolerance should not surprise those of us who increasingly subconsciously categorise him alongside such luminaries as David Icke, Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard.

Many commentators have observed that Dawkins is equally fundamentalist to the Islamist terrorists or the extreme evangelical Christians in the United States.  His defenders claim that his superiority emerges from not having an imaginary friend with which to justify his actions - a self-serving myth that he can use as an excuse both for his vituperative bile and for the condemnation that then follows, increasingly from those whose own views may accord with the Dawk's but whose messianic hubris does not extend to forcing them on everyone else.

Any educated, civilised position should be sceptical, tolerant and prepared to be altered.  This extends to people who follow religious beliefs, with any degree of enthusiasm, and those who follow none.  Where Dawkins fails dismally is in failing to recognise the paradox that he is creating an atheist paradigm in his own image - much as previous religious groups have developed their cult leaders.  This undermines his own ideology and his credibility as a spokesman for the anti-religious - as well as fanning abuse and invective against him.  It could be argued that he is putting himself in the classic position of the Christian martyrs under the Roman Empire, although the average hungry lion would regard him as a pretty poor lunch.

Were Dawkins able to descend from his pillar of rectitude, he might find much more agreement from religious adherents to some of his views on the corrosive impact of unfettered fundamentalism than he would either understand or welcome.  It's very difficult being homo superior in a world where different cultural, economic and social values exist, and where you want to impose your own set of values on the   remainder of the species.

Where the argument works most effectively is regarding the separation of religion and the state - and here it should be much easier to make common ground.  Citizenship implies obligations as well as rights, and a liberal society needs to based around the freedom of the individual - this includes the freedom to hold beliefs that are regarded as wrong-headed or less evolved.  What it also acknowledges is that there is a parallel obligation to protect one citizen from another's imposition of their mores, be they religious or based around other tribal identifiers such as football or anti-social behaviour.  A separation of the state to become the enabler and enforcer of human values is beneficial, and it also strengthens - through expressing basic rights - the ability to defend the fundamental basis of freedoms both positive and negative.

Dawkins's outbursts about "winged horses" and the visceral contempt for anyone who does not agree with both atheism and his interpretation thereof might fall foul of a genuinely liberal and tolerant society; there is too much running scared and too many issues buried deep in his unconscious to make it axiomatic that he is the good rationalist berating the rest of the world.  He is very good at handing out poison and ridicule, but hardly a paradigm for the virtues of hyper-scientific verity he expounds - the closest parallels for such a worldview are rooted far more in the bastardised Marxist totalitarianism that still clings on in North Korea than an informed, evidenced pluralism necessary in a world where dissent is tolerated if not encouraged.

There is a genuine debate on how both to protect the citizen and to promote tolerance and education - but the Dawkins approach does not pass muster.  Instead he appears to be retreating into self-parody, a figure of ridicule and derision - feeding his prophet/martyr illusion but doing nothing for the discussion as to how to contain fundamentalism and enable people of all beliefs and none to co-exist and co-operate.  More noble than pushing your belief in your own rightness and superiority, but much less vainglorious.  

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