Richard Dawkins and the Contradictions of Enlightenment

I used to be rather a fan of Richard Dawkins. Not so much because of his most famous work, his spirited and systematic defense of atheism known as The God Delusion, but rather because of the inspired, eloquent, and sometimes brilliant way in which he has popularized natural science. Being a biologist, he has naturally made defending and explaining the achievements of that discipline a major topic, working up a complex and many-layered theory like evolution by means of natural selection into an intelligent but fairly straightforward narrative. But not just that: he has also emphasized – as must be done by anyone concerned with questions of the relationship between religion and science – the real aesthetic and sublime that can be had from a materialistic understanding of the world, in the philosophical sense. Dawkins famously cited Darwin about evolution that “there is grandeur in this view of life”, and in works such as Unweaving the Rainbow and A Devil’s Chaplain he has rather gone out of his way, unusually so for an Anglo-trained natural scientist, to engage with the sublime of religion and also of literature and art. He has also, not unimportantly for the purposes of this article, taken his time to examine the ways in which people have (rightly in the former case, wrongly in the latter) felt naturalistic philosophy and theory to undermine the experience of this sublime. Although from academia there is often much contempt and sneering to be heard behind closed doors about the colleagues engaged in ‘the public understanding of science’, it is an essential, invaluable, and by no means effortless task. Richard Dawkins has proven particularly adept at it, and has rightly been included not just in the Royal Society for his efforts, but also in the Royal Society of Literature. (In fact, as far as I can tell, he is currently the only living person to carry both the titles FRS and FRSL.)

For this reason, it has been a disturbing and disappointing trend to notice Dawkins’ increasing indulgence of lazy, narrow-minded, and often outright racist and imperialist thought, fitting the worst traditions of Oxford contempt. On his Twitter account, he has made numerous absurd statements, often (as many people have pointed out) following a pattern of purposefully insulting and ridiculous rhetorical questions, in order to respond to the ensuing outrage and irritation with a smug dismissal of the public’s inability to understand the rhetorical uses of analogy. Such Oxford debating tactics are elitist and unproductive enough in their own sphere, but with the considerable public audience and scientific prestige Dawkins commands, they are all the more unacceptable. Suggesting (be it rhetorically) that one support Christian missionary activity in Africa because “Islam is such an unmitigated evil” compared to it is not only endorsing imperialism, but also totally inconsistent. His repeated inability to understand the significance of sexism, including within atheist debate and campaigning organizations, is disturbing. He makes profoundly silly comments on abortion and women’s bodies, purposely choosing annoying analogies in the Oxonian style thereby further obfuscating a point intended to discuss late-term abortions in moralistic terms. He continuously engages in equivocation about Islam and Muslims which can serve no useful or scientific purpose. He associates himself systematically with figures like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who share not just a desire to put atheism forward as a political subject, but also immediately integrate this idea into a greater project of ‘reasoned’ Western imperialism. Similar is his coalition with neo-sociobiologists such as the Viscount Ridley, a former director of the failed Northern Rock bank who now pontificates on social darwinist views of the natural liberty of the market, and so forth. All this serves but to reinforce, as many of his political comments generally do, what James Blaut has called ‘the colonizers’ model of the world’.

For many people, this has led them not just to wish to disassociate themselves from the label ‘atheist’, seen as now too wrapped up in the patriarchal, imperialist mindset of Dawkins cum suis. Some blame it more generally on the desire to make what I’d call a campaigning issue out of atheism, the idea of atheism itself as a substantive question of progressive politics, and see anything operating on that basis as inherently tainted with this particular mentality described above. Yet others go even further, and see this as the product of a more thoroughgoing scientism, the raising of science as a social undertaking to the level of an authority it should not have or as ‘disembedded’ from social and political processes and contexts. In this view, it is not just Dawkins’ campaigning atheism that leads to imperialist conclusions, but it is the very idea of promoting scientific thought itself over and against other forms of thinking that is at least likely to cause more harm than good, and gives science a status it does not deserve. I do not agree with any of these views, however. I think Dawkins himself is here a mere exponent or representative of a deeper problem of the Enlightenment, the old contradiction inherent in its legacy.

By this I mean: the premise of the Enlightenment is, above all else, the possibility of the emancipation of humanity qua humanity, i.e. not primarily as subjects of divine will, by means of knowledge. I would still hold to this view. Of course, as we know, mere knowledge, reasoning powers, and scientific accomplishments are not sufficient. The late Enlightenment generation of Kant and later Hegel encountered the brute fact of the ability of absolutist rulers to clothe themselves in the language and technologies of science without in the least thereby promoting human freedom and power. In response to this, Hegel and later Marx refined the Enlightenment ideas by historicizing them: the emancipation of humanity through understanding must, to be fully humanistic, be a process of the coming into being of self-understanding, and as Marx pointed out, this can only happen in and through the process of historical practice, not by the teachings of scientists or philosophes alone, however radical. This is the import of Marx’s ‘Third Thesis on Feuerbach’, where he writes: “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” The practical activity, in the broadest spheres of politics and the social relations, involved in achieving human emancipation from all forms of alienation without exception is the way in which the Enlightenment promise is to be fulfilled. Humanity emancipates itself by coming to know itself, but it can only do so by seizing the powers inherent in its own potential, not by waiting to be taught its truths by a ‘part superior to society’.

It is this latter aspect that not only invites the charge of scientism often levelled against the Enlightenment, but also the charge of imperialism. Very often, the Enlightenment is depicted by radicals today as being the domain of ‘dead white men’ who, upon having freed themselves from ancient limitations and prejudices, impose upon the rest of the world a set of quasi-scientific classifications, methods, and political structures which also conveniently happen to reinforce their own rule. Everything from colonialism to Foucault’s nightmare of the prison society is seen to stem from this. Horkheimer and Adorno argued in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and many have shared this sense with them, that the original sin lies precisely in the claim to a superior ‘rationality’ on the part of Enlightenment thought and its political-social praxis. Whether this involves atheism as an emancipation from religious alienation or the domination of nature as an emancipation from the restraints of scarcity, or even the idea of scientific knowledge with its immanent rules of evidence and procedure as the only road making emancipatory knowledge possible, in this narrative all these ideas appear as forerunners or elements of an ‘instrumental rationality’ which led straight to the Holocaust. Many thinkers and activists originating in peoples long oppressed by imperialism, often in the name of scientific classifications of cultures or races have shared this sentiment.

The likes of Dawkins, Harris and so forth then appear as merely another iteration of this phenomenon, and indeed probably are. But here I think the contradictions of Enlightenment go deeper than is supposed in this critique. As Sankar Muthu has detailed at length in his excellent Enlightenment Against Empire, there is an equally long and profound tradition of identifiably Enlightenment thought explicitly aimed against the ideas underpinning ‘the colonizers’ model of the world’ and all of its accoutrements. From Diderot through Mark Twain to the Marxist critiques of colonialism and capitalism, Enlightenment ideas have lent themselves very strongly to making the case for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world. And here lies, in my view, a potential and a problematic at the same time that is too easily dismissed by the above type critiques. For fundamentally, emancipation from alienating and oppressive structures requires two things: a recognition of what these structures are and how they work, and a practical knowledge of how to overcome them. And these two questions cannot but be profoundly scientific questions: they concern our knowledge of the world, how to apply this knowledge in practice, and how to validate and justify this knowledge against other claims. “The weapon of critique cannot replace the criticism of the weapons”, but only the search for knowledge can give us those weapons.

In the sphere of morality or culture alone, it is the word of one person against another, an indeterminate struggle which in the end will always be won by those with the greatest existing power to apply repression and violence. It is not sufficient to say that racism is wrong, that colonialism is bad, that women are not inferior, and so forth. For the powers of patriarchy and capitalism stand arrayed with all possible hegemony, with all possible force of arms, with all possible voice to drown out and repress these emancipatory ideas. So how would we be able to say that we were right and they were wrong? Only by immediately using our very knowledge of the world itself, a greater, more powerful and more practically and politically instrumental knowledge, can we give ourselves a ‘weapon of the weak’. Only a systematic, self-reflective, and historical knowledge of our societies and the causal forces that operate within it has the ability to not just make emancipatory statements, but to allow us to know them to be true, to make them practical, and to universalize our experience. Some have said it is sufficient to ‘first do no harm’; but this can just as easily be the motto of any Hayekian free trader, or pious Jesuit, and who then is to say they are wrong?

The last point is not to be underestimated: nobody who has been oppressed or exploited on one basis or another needs to be explained by any theorist what that is like, what it amounts to. But an aggregation of individual, subjective experiences of oppression is not by itself a potential for emancipation from those oppressions. For this reason precisely there are often long periods in history when oppressed people appear to ‘put up with their lot’. The coming to self-knowledge of humanity is precisely an essential prerequisite because it allows us to see patterns, understand causes, and thereby link one person’s experience of oppression with those of another – an idea feminist theorists have often seen better than anyone else, as in the idea of ‘intersectionality’. To my mind, therefore, the Enlightenment project itself is not just an essential part of a specific emancipatory theory like Marxism, but an almost Kantian epistemological and practical necessity for any emancipatory project at all. This is so even if one maintains, as I am inclined to do, a pragmatist view of the nature of ‘truth’, not requiring any strong statements as to its ahistorical, transcendent reality.

What does all of this mean for my subject? Simply this: I want to suggest, at least, that the concessions to the ‘colonizers model of the world’ common to Dawkins and others, and indeed to many of the canonical ‘Great Men of Science’ before him, are not the necessary consequence of Enlightenment thought and political commitments, but rather are a betrayal of them when properly understood. Nothing precisely upholds the emancipatory promise of the Enlightenment, and thereby the very purpose of scientific endeavour, more than to combat ‘scientific racism’, to combat ahistorical and snide putdowns of oppressed people, to combat neo-colonialist and imperialist ideas, to combat patriarchal thoughts and actions, and to combat everything that enslaves humans to structures and concepts of their own making. It is to my mind of the utmost important that people committed to a progressive politics in this sense do not fear science – and here as always in the broad sense of Wissenschaft. We should critique and historicize and sociologize and otherwise analyze the workings and realities of scientific organizations and individuals, as we should do with all aspects of our real, historical societies. But science in the sense of its commitments to universalization, to a system of rules of evidence, argument, and discovery that permit in principle anyone to overthrow all existing understandings and to confront society with its own ignorance in any domain, and to make such positions potentially accessible to anyone anywhere in the world rather than the mere insistence of a particular group or province – this science is not a haughty colossus, but a social institution of tremendous revolutionary potency.

The history of specific Enlightenment ideas shows their use both to support and to overthrow systems of oppression and exploitation, this is well-known. But what I am arguing is for the revolutionary potential inherent in the concept of Enlightenment itself, and thereby in the processes that incorporate it, whatever they are. A good example, although just that, is atheism itself as a campaigning issue: the liberation of humanity from those hopes and expectations concentrated on illusions that are the result of human activity itself, thereby impeding the self-understanding that will actually enable the achievements of those hopes and expectations. This is an idea that need not and should not be reduced to the immature sneers of an Oxford professor who is as incompetent in the social realm of science as he is brilliant in the natural. After all, such critiques have existed since antiquity at the earliest, and are no idea newly discovered by the individual merits of this or that white man.

Even if we were to limit ourselves to such, then one can do much worse than the understanding of Marx, for whom “the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism”. But only the beginning of criticism, therefore; not its end or ultimate purpose, a license to be a fool in all other questions of human activity, and express contempt for real human suffering. As he added: “The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” This is a true Enlightenment approach to atheism: not to simply provide a counter-theology but, as I have argued before, atheism that can only justify itself insofar as it is part and parcel of a general Enlightenment idea of emancipation through self-knowledge. To me, these are compatible ideas; but people may disagree on this. What’s more important for my purposes is that this debate be held with this understanding of Enlightenment thought, that it is more Marx than Dawkins, more Audre Lorde than Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and so forth.

The contradictions of Enlightenment have always been the struggle between the bearers of ‘truth’ and their ‘instrumental rationality’, where Enlightenment transforms into its opposite as justification for oppressive power; and those opposing the Enlightenment altogether as itself an oppressive power, which has as often been the position of patriarchal and reactionary forces as it has been the final consequence of the ‘imperialism of science’ described by so many critics from Mary Shelley to Edward Said. But neither of these are necessary. It is my hope and profound conviction, my own religion if you will, that truth, being in the ultimate instance a reality for humans and meaningful in human society only, cannot be harmful or oppressive to the alienated and oppressed human. Rather, if it appears so, it must be because it is not ‘truth’ in this, pragmatist and Romantic, sense: that is not truth which does not ultimately enable human freedom, most importantly the practical control over our conditions of life and our self-development. These are the great insights romanticism contributed after the first Enlightenment generation ran aground on the contradictions described by Marx in his Third Thesis. It is this union of Romantic thought, with its understanding of subjectivity, identity, and creativity, and Enlightenment thought, with its understanding of the role of knowledge and reason – to use that word for good – that has the potential to overcome the original contradictions of Enlightenment, and contrary to Adorno and Horkheimer’s war-darkened pessimism, lead us not to fascism, but to the beginning of the ‘real history of humanity’, the history of our free development.


I like Richard. I think he has spunk. I defend the right of anyone to criticize others and ideas. I disagree with you on the point that atheism is not a world view and is nothing to do with enlightenment. In that light I view Richard as useful even if the entirety of his world view does not match mine. I don’t think his mission is enlightenment as you describe it. Both are useful, but I choose not to criticise him in as much as what he is doing is also needed.

My own trajectory was quite similar. For a certain sort of young person in a certain sort of circumstance, even surrounded by religion that is quite liberal, atheism appears to be not merely a truth but a very important Truth in the romantic sense, perhaps even the truth. These same circumstances also tend to be fertile soil to a sort of ressentiment-fueled colonizer’s model of the world – or as a friend of mine once put it, “nerdiness is performing masculinity poorly and whiteness well.” I like to think I’m a bit more mature now, but these early errors are still something of my “spontaneous” worldview, and still bound to impair my ability to grasp the Truth as well as various subsidiary truths. For instance, I’d like to believe that I continue to endorse science on the merits, but I suspect the small-t truth is just that I could never psychologically accept the “anti-scientistic” position as true. After a lifetime of too much internet I’ve argued myself into all sorts of bizarre claims, but I don’t think this is one where I could ever properly feel the evidence of the other side. Surely there must be at least dozens of such restricted questions, and I can scarcely be right about all of them. This is in addition to more generic privilege-related obliviousness issues.

What do you think of the Himmelfarbian thesis that there was a liberal British enlightenment and a radical French one? It seems like a classic mistake to take someone else’s white hats/black hats dichotomy (for that’s what she employs it for) and merely “correct” the polarity, but it also seems like an obvious hypothesis if one’s to pose the question of the contradictions inherent in “the Enlightenment.”

I also suspect that you may be reading a pragmatist conception of truth back into Romanticism, or perhaps not far enough – this liberatory, soteriological employment of Truth-with-a-capital-T is at least as old as Christianity (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that sort of rhetoric shows up in other contexts as well.) More generally all the Axial Age religions (whether or not there’s anything to such a designation) seem to contain this core of liberatory potential. From the perspective of a cultural Whig history perhaps the overthrow of Jupiter may have been more important than the overthrow of Christ. (It is a popular position on the far right that leftism is a species of Christianity, and there might be something to that. Perhaps we ought own the charge and lay claim not just to the True Enlightenment, but to the True Axial Age as well, ready to scrub away the cruft of accumulated paganism that’s rusted the old models.) But perhaps this is an excessively idealist position, not to mention one with at least as much potential for racism as the Enlightenment one.

The ever fantastic Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece today in the Guardian that echoes what you wrote:

And one of my favourite philosophy podcasts did a series on the New Atheists, and it was delightful:

From a philosphical perspective it is “just the worst sort of rhetorical garbage you can put on paper.” As these guys show, the New Atheists are not philosophers of religion, they are simply cheerleaders and sycophants to the newest money-making trend, which happens to be a loose conglomeration of vitriol directed mostly towards Islam, but towards organized religion in general.

Other comments about the New Atheists amounted to “vitriolic attacks on religion,” “bullshit”, “toilet reading”, “preaching to the choir”.

I’ve never cared much for The Dawks. His rendering of evolution is could justly be accused the very easy-answer-seeking he ostensibly despises in religious apologists. In fact our understanding of the mechanics of evolution are primitive and the more we discover the more we realize we don’t know. Terms easily brandied about by Dawkins and ken like gene and natural selection really don’t mean very much scientifically. For example, the picture of DNA as a kind of firmware that the cell passive takes instructions from is false; nucleic acids play a role but not a monolithic role–prions, e.g., radically alter cellular operations without touching DNA or RNA. Calling into doubt the implied picture of evolution being the accidental result of bad DNA/RNA copies (mutations) as the whole picture of the story, or even a significant part of it (Cf Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, James Shapiro).

Therefore that he’s lately come out as a bigoted asshole seems to fit with his established character.

As to the Enlightenment–or Enlightenment(tm): what a misnomer! A few areas of the natural sciences did make some real progress*; on the other hand imperial conquest was in full swing. It’s true religion more or less died out in Europe but otherwise society remained as irrational as ever; at the beginning of the 20th century taking a plunge into insanity.** For the most part the Enlightenment was really just the apex of the arrogance of Renaissance humanism. The world wars dealt a blow to this to this confidence for the time being… but historical memory is short.

*Not to mention the industrial revolution–which Britain for its part did even thing it could to thwart in the Colonies, esp India–also in what became the US southerns states.

**Of course a lot of radical political movements were inspired too; most notably communism and anarchism/syndicalism; but the people who compromised these movements stood well outside the liberal, secular-priest caste constituted by the historical figures Dawkins would admire.

Since there is no such thing as religion in general, those who want to oppose it to science or reason or whatever as an abstract concept will only ever be able to find instances of concrete practices embedded in certain social and political contexts. But in order to fully understand these practices, you would need to abandon “religion” as your primary framework, and instead look at the relations of these practices and their contexts themselves, which of course would include all the myriad complexities associated with global capitalism and western imperialism and whatever other particular dynamics apply.

All of these complexities have to be ignored and implicitly naturalized if all we want to do is to isolate religion in the kind of facile, ahistorical way Dawkins and the rest do. Otherwise, we would find ourselves having to question the assumptions that ground the position from which such a criticism is made in the first place. And if enlightenment means anything, if reason has any value, isn’t it foremost in asking these kinds of questions?

I think that people like Dawkins should not be seen as being arrogant. I think that they are simply profoundly unaware of the immensity of their ignorance. And this can probably be explained with reference to the specialization and compartmentalization of science and technology.

But you are already lost if you think that science is beautiful or provides meaning. Isn’t the lesson of modern science that we are alone in a cold, meaningless universe totally indifferent to our existence and suffering?

Why must the universe you live in care for your life and your suffering to be beautiful? Why must it provide it’s own meaning to be worthwhile? The structures we see in our universe have emerged from chaos and simple laws of nature to form all of the wonder we see around us, including life itself. I am an atheist and I see the universe that time has created and it is good.

The universe does not come with some inherent meaning. It is up to us to define our own purpose and define the legacy we will leave behind us when we die. It is our vision that will ultimately shape the universe.

I may not believe in a God but I take equal solace in knowing that, although we may not have an afterlife to look forward to, we have a beautiful and precious life to live right now.

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