CRF Blog

The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins

by Bill Hayes

In The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins for the New Republic, John Gray argues that the scientist’s brand of atheism is a religion.

If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance). But as the Victorians well knew, there are many types of atheism, liberal and illiberal, and many versions of atheist ethics. Again, Dawkins imagines an atheist is bound to be an enemy of religion. But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood. More intelligent than their latter-day disciple, the positivists tried to found a new religion of humanity — especially August Comte (1798–1857), who established a secular church in Paris that for a time found converts in many other parts of the world. The new religion was an absurdity, with rituals being practiced that were based on the pseudo-science of phrenology — but at least the positivists understood that atheism cannot banish human needs that only faith can meet.

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignation — a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a kind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted pose of indignant rationality merely laughable. “I am not a good observer,” he writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beings — himself and others. [more]