Don't take this personally, but if you are an American adult there is a one in two chance that Richard Dawkins, a renowned professor of science at Oxford, thinks you are "ignorant, stupid or insane," unless you are "wicked." These are the adjectives Dawkins chooses to describe the roughly 100 million Americans adults who, if public opinion polls are right, believe Homo sapiens was created directly by God, rather than gradually by evolution. Ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked. Not much to choose from there!

Dangerous Ignorance

Religion has tormented or brainwashed sincere people into believing lies. By Richard Dawkins

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  • Finding God in Random Chance
    The author of "The Metaphysical Club" on Darwin's first readers The extremity of Dawkins's statement represents yet another indication that the debate between natural and supernatural explanations for existence is carried out at the level of nasty caricature. Science figures denounce the doubters of evolution as ignorant rubes or Elmer Gantrys; evangelicals denounce biologists as sinister brainwashers whose secret agenda is the destruction of faith. What ought to be a fascinating discourse--What made us? How? Why?--instead too often becomes an occasion for childish name-calling on both sides. Isn't there some way we can discuss God versus Darwin in civil tones?

    Yes, but first a few words on who Dawkins is. A zoologist by training, he has become to recent decades what Thomas Huxley was to the late decades of the 19th century, the most forceful public proponent of Darwin. Dawkins's 1986 small masterpiece "The Blind Watchmaker" spells out in detail the reasons why even something as astonishingly complex as the six-billion-point strand of human DNA could have gradually self-assembled without guidance. (A 1996 volume, "Climbing Mount Improbable," revisits the same argument adding details of recent research.) His 1976 book "The Selfish Gene" supposes that living things exist to support their genes, rather than vice versa. His most recent book, "Unweaving the Rainbow," argues that even if you believe there's no God, you can still look on creation with awe.

    Roughly since the mid-1970s, Dawkins has staked out hard-line positions against faith, belief in higher powers, and objections to natural selection theory. He devotes great energy to refuting claims of faults in evolutionary thinking, and especially to refuting creationism. Dawkins has declared existence to be "lacking all purpose," and the world "neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous." He says "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference." (The universe I observe pretty clearly contains both good and evil, but maybe Dawkins travels in different circles.) He has called religion "very boring and not worth talking about," but talks about it constantly, for instance in a 1992 speech titled "A Scientist's Case Against God."

    Impressed by Dawkins's ardor against creationism, the American software billionaire Charles Simonyi endowed a chair for him at Oxford in "public understanding of science." From his chair Dawkins regularly expounds against belief as "a scientist," though technically he's a professor of science, not a working scientist. One of the first things Dawkins did from his tenured position was lead a crusade against Cambridge University's plan to endow a chair in theology. Theology is all ridiculous superstition, Dawkins said, and unworthy of being dignified by study.

    Which brings us to the first problem with Dawkins's positions: he is arrogant. It's one thing to say that the other side is wrong--maybe there's no divine, believers may turn out wrong--and quite another to denounce the other side as ignorant, stupid, insane and so worthless its arguments should not even be heard. (Sorry, I left out wicked.) Saying the other side's argument should not be heard is at best plugging your fingers into your ears, at worst the instinct to suppress free thought; it's amazing to hear a tenured Oxford don essentially calling for intellectual restrictions.

    Dawkins complains in the article that so many people believe things about science that are off the wall--for example, that early humans co-existed with dinosaurs--because their science educations are poor. He'll get no argument from me on that. But I suspect one reason so many Americans have a poor understanding of evolutionary theory is that overbearing figures such as Dawkins talk down to them and act contemptuous of their religious beliefs. So people respond--perhaps quite rationally--by screening out the views of scientists whose motives they distrust. In this regard, it is telling that polls show Americans overwhelmingly accept many findings of modern research, such as the theories of relativity and of cosmic expansion. The scientists who favor these ideas generally aren't in the habit of mocking peoples' faiths, and so they are believed by the general public. If Dawkins's professional goal is "public understanding of science," he is a flop, seemingly trying his best to make worse what he is supposed to fix.

    These things said, let's focus for a moment on areas where Dawkins has strong points. The basic idea of evolution is, today, about as well established as the basic idea that the moon circles the Earth. Even Pope John Paul II has acknowledged that natural selection is "more than just a theory." There is a rich, close to overwhelming body of evidence that living things evolve in response to changes in their environments and to other forces: the extreme creationists who deny any kind of evolution at all really are flat-Earth types, and it is hard to find anything nice to say about their positions. Dawkins is right endlessly to call evolution an established fact.

    And there is haunting power to other of Dawkins's contentions, especially about human inability to comprehend the time-scale of evolution. Cells becoming animals becoming people seems incomprehensible without guidance, but then four billion years--roughly the length of time life has existed on Earth--seems incomprehensible, too. Perhaps over such a span, the complex really could arise on its own from the inanimate.

    But Dawkins is often guilty of sins of which he accuses others, including arguing against straw men and playing fast and loose with the flaws in his own ideas. In the "ignorance" article he declares, for example, that doctrinaire creationists "dominate the school boards in some states." Oh really? Which ones, exactly? Creationists did take over the Kansas State Board of Education and issue a non-binding recommendation against teaching some aspects of Darwinian thought. The recommendation was rejected by Kansas's Republican governor and ignored by all Kansas school districts, and the creationists were voted out last year. Today, every U.S. state requires basic instruction in the theory of evolution. By pretending otherwise, Dawkins tries to exaggerate his opponents' influence and cast them as a looming anti-intellectual menace.

    Dawkins, like others who want evolution to win on all counts, tends to glide past the little problem that Darwinian thinking cannot explain (and in Darwin's work itself, does not even try to explain) the origin of life. This is no small detail. I haven't the slightest doubt that evolutionary mechanics explain how eohippus became the modern horse, or how Homo hablis became Homo sapiens. But why was there eohippus or primitive humanity or any kind of life in the first place? Maybe the ultimate explanation is natural, but today biologists don't have much more than wild guesses, much less a solid theory.

    Dawkins uses sleight of hand when he tries to suggest that anyone who doubts any aspect of evolutionary thought, including the chance creation of life, is the sort of extremist who thinks all the different Galapagos finches came fully formed directly from the Garden of Eden. You can accept the basic notion of evolution and still have real questions about why the gift of life exists--witness Fred Hoyle, a highly accomplished modern scientist who did just that.

    Dawkins is guilty of a very human fault: insisting that people who don't agree with him are not just wrong but ignorant, stupid, three-headed, etc. This is painful, because it's just another force discouraging debate on the incredibly fascinating question of whether our origin is divine, spontaneous, or some combination of the two. It's hard to think of a topic that's more interesting to talk about, and there could be an engaging, ongoing discourse on this point among scientists, theologians, and others, if only the doctrinaire believers would stop denouncing the scientists and the doctrinaire scientists would stop denouncing the believers. In this, Dawkins, an extremely smart man with a great deal of interest to say, has managed to make himself part of the problem. But maybe I think that because I'm insane--or wicked.

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