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’. Continue reading “Richard Dawkins and the Contradictions of Enlightenment”

On “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

So Edmund Burke begins his examination of the natural sublime in his A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), often seen as one of the central works in outlining the concept of the sublime and its role in the cultural transition from the classicist to the romantic period. Arguably, it is written somewhat too early to fulfil that role; but in its descriptions of the central concepts of the natural sublime – the effects of fear, of vastness, of infinity, of darkness, of magnificence and of great light – it is beyond doubt a powerful foreshadowing of the central themes of romantic figurative art and of the notion of the thrill of the sublime, especially the sublime of nature, that has moved us ever since. The stereotypical depiction of this sensation is of course the pictures of Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, and the like.

But I believe the contemporary world has a powerful place for the natural sublime, whatever may have been the progress of technology since those days. Indeed, one may argue that this process, together with the attendant secularization and disenchantment of the world, has in fact strengthened the desire for the experience of the natural sublime, by making it harder to find in the immediate effects of the everyday natural world, and by making that natural world a more threatened and remote thing for the city-dwellers that make up the majority of the population of the world today. Indeed, perhaps the ever increasing familiarity with the scope and interconnectedness of our own globe in the here and now, provided by the hitherto unimaginable progress of communication and computing technologies, airplanes and cargo ships, makes the modern natural sublime require an altogether greater tableau to effect that great thrill and terror that causes the suspension of the reasoning mind and the carrying away of the emotions that Burke describes. Continue reading “On “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man””