Sep 14, 2011
neil

Paxman and Dawkins on the stupidity of religion on Newsnight last night

Jeremy Paxman has a reputation of being a bit of a Bulldog. Yet last night on Newsnight the Bulldog failed to bark, let alone attack, preferring a tickle on the tummy from Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins once famously said

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt other people are going to get lucky and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice.  The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless existence.  DNA neither knows nor cares DNA just is and we dance to its music.

As we know, atheism does hold a pretty bleak outlook on life but now the nihilist who believes in only ‘blind pitiless indifference’ has given his atheism a make-over.  His new book The Magic of Reality conveniently hides from view his belief that nothing can really be considered morally evil preferring to find solace in the wonders of science; science in some sense reveals a magical reality according to Dawkins.  It might be a book for children but it skilfully disguises the darker realities that this universe is indifferent to human notions of truth, beauty and goodness preferring to blind us with science.

And so last night was a perfect opportunity for Paxman to put Dawkins’ arguments to the test and in doing so expose the manifest contradictions in his portrayal of atheism. But instead we were exposed to a pretty sycophantic interview in which Dawkins and Paxman laughted together after giving the straw-man they had invented a bit of a kicking. Paxman’s  question to Dawkins ‘Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?’ summed up the level of discussion. To watch it tune in at around 43 minutes.

By simply accepting Dawkins’ flawed premise that religion and science are opposed to each other Paxman missed a great opportunity for a grown up conversation. A conversation that would have been considerably more profitable to the thinking mind if held in conjunction with another author who has a new book out and who has debated Dawkins on a number of occasions.

Professor John Lennox of Oxford University also has a book already out in the US and coming out in the UK next week called Seven Days That Divide the World in which he discusses the relationship between the Bible and science. Alvin Plantinga, describes it as being ‘as good as it gets in the religion/science area.’

There might be good reasons as to why John Lennox could not have attended, or might even have preferred not to attend, but there cannot be any good reasons for Paxman going along with Dawkins’ pretence that religion is nothing more than a misguided myth.

9 Comments

  • To play devil’s advocate, I think you may be a little harsh when you say “atheism does hold a pretty bleak outlook on life” – perhaps some do, but I’m not sure every atheist you could ever come across would agree. I certainly look forward to Lennox’s new book; I’ve seen him hold his own with Dawkins with considerable grace and reason during debates; and an edorsement from Plantinga is always welcome.

    I think it would be interesting to see how much “religion bashing” there is the Magic of Reality. Given that Dawkins said it was a science book aimed at children aged 12 & up, I wonder if the atheism aspect of the book might be being overhyped. I won’t be able to tell until I’ve read it.

    But I agree with you that Paxman gave him a very easy ride. Perhaps Jeremy Vine might have been a better choice.

    • Thanks for the comments. It is important to differentiate between atheism as a worldview and atheists themselves. I certainly wouldn’t want to say all atheists hold a bleak outlook on life, in fact, it is quite clear that many don’t, but the worldview, to quote Dawkins himself again is clearly bleak.

      ‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt other people are going to get lucky and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice. The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless existence. DNA neither knows nor cares DNA just is and we dance to its music.’

      Dawkins is the one who concedes that our universe is one without justice, is indifferent to human suffering, is a place of pitiless indifference. etc. and that all seems pretty bleak.

  • Not bad. Two misrepresentations in just two sentences of something you yourself have just quoted in a preceding paragraph. Do you work for a creationist publishing house by any chance?

    • And those two misrepresentations are…

  • The quote does not say that Dawkins believes in only ‘blind pitiless indifference’.
    The quote does not say that he believes that nothing can really be considered morally evil.
    The quote clearly shows what Dawkins believes the ‘opinion’ of the universe itself is.

    Do you see much of Duane Gish these days?

    • I think it’s almost impossible to argue that Dawkins does not personally accept the logical conclusion of his Darwinian worldview. He’s too consistent a thinker for that.

      The obvious reading of Dawkins in the context of the book is that he fully accepts that if this is a god-less universe by definition it must void of any objective good, evil, morality, etc.

      Here is an extract from an interview he gave in Third Way magazine when asked about this:

      Interviewer: Suppose some lads break into an old man’s house and kill him. Suppose they say: “Well, we accept the evolutionist worldview. He was old and sick, and he didn’t contribute anything to society.” How would you show them that what they had done was wrong?

      Dawkins: You credit them with rather more rational thought than I suspect the real thugs would have had.

      Questioner: In The Selfish Gene, you distinguish between a statement of what is and the advocacy of what ought to be. We are born selfish but we need to teach generosity. Why ought we to? You talk of altruism but fail to explain why we should have the capacity for it. Doesn’t consistency require you to reject all that?

      Dawkins: My main concern is to argue against people who quite wrongly think that because you have shown that something is, therefore it ought.

      So, for example, I can show that from a Darwinian point of view there is more Darwinian advantage to a male in being promiscuous and a female being faithful, without saying that I therefore think human males are justified in being promiscuous and cheating on their wives. There is no logical connection between what is and what ought.

      Now, if you then ask me where I get my ‘ought’ statements from, that’s a more difficult question. Firstly, I don’t feel so strongly about them. If I say something is wrong, like killing people, I don’t find that nearly such a defensible statement as ‘I am a distant cousin of an orang utan’.

      If somebody used my views to justify a completely self – centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose roughly what, I suppose, at a sociological level social Darwinists did – I think I would be fairly hard put to it to argue on purely intellectual grounds.

      I think it would be more: “This is not a society in which I wish to live. Without having a rational reason for it necessarily, I’m going to do whatever I can to stop you doing this.”

      Questioner: They’ll say, “This is the society we want to live in.”

      Dawkins: I couldn’t, ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious. I think I could finally only say, “Well, in this society you can’t get away with it” and call the police.

      I realise this is very weak, and I’ve said I don’t feel equipped to produce moral arguments in the way I feel equipped to produce arguments of a cosmological and biological kind.

      • Unfortunately, not too many of Dawkins’ fellow Atheists will admit that they can’t cross Hume’s Is-Ought problem bridge as he seems to have in this extract.
        Interesting to see his acceptance of defeat in being able to actually ground his moral views.. given his axiom about having to demonstrate that beliefs are actually true.

  • There is a, very easy to understand, difference between saying:
    ‘Nothing can really be considered morally evil’
    and
    ‘The universe is devoid of any objective evil’.

    Your extended quote from Third Way only digs you into a deeper hole than you were in beforehand. He quite clearly does not “believe in only ‘blind pitiless indifference’.” He says so himself, in what you have just quoted.

    This is not rocket science. You are, like quite a lot of Christians in the Evangelical fold, clearly and deliberately misrepresenting what someone you disagree with is saying.

    • I ask you to believe me when I say that I’m not trying to misrepresent Richard Dawkins or anyone else for that matter. I genuinely want to represent him fairly.

      In the Blind Watchmaker he describes a universe in which there is ‘no evil’ and ‘no good’. In the Third Way article he presents his own views on morality but also acknowledges that there are other perfectly legitimate views on morality, from a Darwinian perspective, that he personally dislikes. He recognises that whilst he does not personally hold these views that they are perfectly consistent with Darwinianism.

      What other conclusion are we meant to reach when Dawkins says:

      ‘If somebody used my views to justify a completely self – centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose roughly what, I suppose, at a sociological level social Darwinists did – I think I would be fairly hard put to it to argue on purely intellectual grounds.’

      Please note Dawkins’ last phrase. He is saying, with commendable honesty, that he could not argue on intellectual grounds (from his Darwinian perspective) against the action of thugs who chose to kill an old man who served no Darwinian purpose.

      Have I misunderstood Dawkins there? Is there a better way of understanding that last phrase?

      Am I saying that Richard Dawkins does not wish to live a moral life? Not at all. I’m sure he does. It is a life he has chosen to live even though it serves no Darwinian purpose. It’s a free world and that is his choice.

      Am I highlighting Dawkins own conclusion that because a Darwinian view of reality is that there can be no objective evil in an amoral ‘accidental’ universe? Yes, because Dawkins is perfectly willing to concede the point as shown by his refusal to condemn on intellectual grounds the thugs who chose to murder.

      If you can point me to any statement in Dawkins published works or interviews in which he argues for OBJECTIVE morality (that is a morality binding on all people) I would love to see it. Dawkins makes something of his PERSONAL morality but never a case for OBJECTIVE morality. It is at that point that the theist and atheist differ.

      Theism grounds absolute, objective morality in an eternal God (whatever we make of such a claim) atheism cannot and Dawkins makes no attempt to seek an objective morality.

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