Thursday, 15 April 2010

Richard Dawkins: Status Creep?

No, this is not an ad hominem attack on Richard Dawkins, as the post title might seem to indicate. Although Prof. Dawkins is known for making ad hominem attacks on his perceived opponents himself, as when he recently referred to an Australian politician known to be a Christian as having an I.Q. less than that of an earthworm, I do not believe Christians should respond to him in kind. We Christians are to ‘play the ball, and not the man’ in debate. But then this post does not so much deal with 'the ball' - Dawkins's arguments - but rather seeks to explain his current popularity and credibility in terms of the modern phenomenon known as 'status creep', so I suppose it is more an attempt to explain why the current condition of the pitch and the prevailing wind favours our opponent so much at present.

"Status creep" is a phenomenon that feeds off the present-day diffusion of knowledge across various fields of specialised endeavour, which means that the idea of universal knowledge that cultures ascribed to in the past and tried to inculcate in their brightest and best (hence the idea of the "University") has disintegrated. Yet because the public still craves an explanation of, well…everything, a person who gains prominence and respect in one field of endeavour that society values highly, such as science, can easily find themselves regarded as an authority on subjects beyond their area of demonstrated expertise: status creep!
(Probably the most culturally debased form of 'status creep' is when the political opinions of entertainers are accorded credibility by sections of the general public simply because they appreciate the artist’s music and persona. One would like to see 'Bono' or 'Sting' given some real responsibility for poverty eradication or carbon reduction in the world, but for the probable negative impact upon real people, that is. Australian readers need only consider the case of Peter Garrett, formerly a singer with the popular, ideologically driven band Midnight Oil, lately a somewhat inept government minister with responsibility for the environment and setting houses on fire.)

Richard Dawkins’s main contribution to his field of evolutionary biology is actually fairly modest: it is his speculation about the "extended phenotype", which is intended to extend evolutionary biology's understanding of how inherited genetic traits are 'concretised' in the life of an organism beyond the organism itself to the physical world, e.g. the ant’s nest, the rabbit’s burrow, the mollusc’s shell, etc. Dawkins’s real genius, however, is as a populariser of evolutionary science, which talent first came to the fore in his 1976 book 'The Selfish Gene', followed up ten years later by ‘The Blind Watchmaker'.

The success of ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ seems to have extended Dawkins’s reputation, both in the public’s mind and his own, beyond the field of his training into the territory of theology and the philosophy of religion, as exemplified by his recent book ’The God Delusion’ (2007). Not that there is anything wrong, on the face of it, with an amateur theologian, or in Dawkins's case an anti-theologian, expressing his opinions in writing, and if he can find a publisher (and Dawkins is gold to a publisher) good luck to him! I have read some very stimulating theological essays by men and women untrained in the field (C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, for instance), but their arguments stand or fall on their merits, not on the basis of their well-deserved reputations in other fields of endeavour.

That caveat does not seem to apply in Prof Dawkins’s case, however. With ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ to a certain extent, and more so with ’The God Delusion’, Dawkins has become the prime exhibit, I contend, of ‘status creep’. Most bright theology undergraduates could successfully disarm the arguments Dawkins uses in ‘The God Delusion’. The problem is that the average reader who buys the book is probably not a bright theology undergraduate. In fact, he or she probably has even less familiarity with philosophical and theological thought than Prof Dawkins apparently does, but that doesn’t stop them from ascribing almost infallible authority to Dawkins’s arguments and consequently feeling justified in dismissing the existence of God from their lives altogether, and there‘s the rub!

There is a spiritual dimension to this phenomenon, but for now I want to focus on the immediately explicable aspect of it. Perhaps there is something to be said for 'status creep' as a symptom of the loss of the quest for universal knowledge, but I also wonder whether its cause isn't a little more simple, to wit an education system that no longer teaches people to think critically, or even attempts to educate them in the classical Western tradition to which they are heirs, which would involve at least some knowledge of and appreciation for philosophy, theology and the principles of logic, but which instead indoctrinates students with the politically correct opinions of the day. From that point on intellectual laziness sets in, for it is always more pleasant to have one's half-formed prejudices confirmed than to have to re-examine them critically.


Matthias said...

I sent an email to the president of the Australian atheists mob asking why Anthony Flew-the philosopher who was a atheist now a deist-was not invited. i think it was because Flew ran rings around Dawkins at a debate last year.So much for the quest for universal knowledge by Aussie Atheists.

'acroamaticus' said...

A Flew-Dawkins debate would have been interesting Matthias. Unfortunately, we shall never see it now; Flew died a week ago.

Matthias said...

What a pity.I hope that he met the Risen Lord as Saviour before he died