Richard Dawkins refuses to debate the existence of God (or comment on his ‘professorship’)
There is a report in The Daily Telegraph that Dr Richard Dawkins has refused to debate the existence of God with one of the world’s leading Christian apologists and philosophers, Professor William Lane Craig.
Amidst allegations of ‘cowardice’, Dr Dawkins maintains that Professor Craig ‘is not a figure worthy of his attention and has reportedly said that such a contest would “look good” on his opponent’s CV but not on his own’. He said: “I have no intention of assisting Craig in his relentless drive for self-promotion.”
It speaks volumes for Richard Dawkins’ character (and academic priorities) that he only appears to debate with those who will somehow enhance his own career: if that does not constitute a ‘relentless drive for self-promotion’, His Grace is not sure what does. One of Dr Dawkins’ fellow academics at Oxford, Dr Daniel Came (a fellow atheist), has the measure of the man. He has written to Dr Dawkins, observing: “The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.” And he adds: “I notice that, by contrast, you are happy to discuss theological matters with television and radio presenters and other intellectual heavyweights like Pastor Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals and Pastor Keenan Roberts of the Colorado Hell House.”
His Grace’s readers and communicants may recall that His Grace engaged with Dr Dawkins a few years ago, in the context of Labour’s introduction of legislation prohibiting ‘hate speech’. His Grace asked the rhetorical question: ‘Should Richard Dawkins be arrested for inciting hatred?’
He is, after all, an eminent religiophobe and obsessive, every bit as fundamentalist as those religious adherents he seeks to disparage; propagating a creed which is very bit as intolerant as those theologies he seeks to debunk. Dr Dawkins responded, and then proceeded to goad His Grace for taking a few hours to make a further response (as though His Grace had nothing better to do). However, without any consideration at all of how the author of The God Delusion and relentless self-publicist might benefit from having debated with His Grace, a full response was made.
Clearly, Dr Dawkins couldn’t have been impressed, because all that followed was an onslaught of vitriolic invective and personal abuse from hordes of descending Dawkins disciples, one of whom (speaking of his master) enlightened us with: “He's got more knowledge in his left testicle than you lot have in your combined brains.” It has to be observed that Dr Dawkins tends to debate with similar impeccable and unanswerable logic (he simply said that an article His Grace had written was 'nasty'), and so one might understand why his towering sense of self has no desire to debate with the lowly Professor Craig.
But on the matter of CVs and the question of self-promotion, His Grace would like to probe a little...
The Telegraph article refers throughout to ‘Professor’ Richard Dawkins: this academic title is also invariably used by television and radio presenters, and Dr Dawkins has never sought to convey otherwise: that he is indeed a professor at Oxford University...
In 1970, a promising young scientist returned to Oxford to become a lecturer in the Department of Zoology. He had worked under a Nobel Laureate, Nikolaas Tinbergen, and had published a handful of low-impact papers, mostly about the pecking order of baby chicks. Over the next few years his scientific publications remained modest (and included an absurd speculation that neurone death might be a memory mechanism, published in Nature). But in 1976 he published a popular science book with a catchy title and his public profile went stratospheric.
The Selfish Gene took a scientific idea with an important grain of truth in it (‘Inclusive Fitness’) and elevated it to dogma. Supposedly, we are nothing but lumbering, dribbling bio-cyberbots controlled by our genes: we exist solely because of these, and selfishly reproduce ourselves through sex in order to populate the world with hordes of mini-mes. The book coincided with the rise of materialism and individualism, and became sacred writ to a generation of selfish go-getters.
Richard Dawkins had discovered his métier: a writer of populist science books with a certain socio-political agenda. Having contributed one-and-a-half moderately interesting ideas to evolutionary theory (the ‘Evolutionary Arms Race’ and the ‘Extended Phenotype’), he published very little primary science, becoming a scientific commentator and populariser. His scientific career rather stalled – he was only appointed Reader in 1990. However, in 1995 an admirer (who had made some serious money from Microsoft) made Oxford University and offer they couldn’t refuse, and handsomely endowed a professorship for (not 'of') Public Understanding of Science with the express intention that the first holder should be Richard Dawkins.
As an Oxford professor, free to preach and publish without being a drain on University funds, Richard Dawkins strutted the international stage. He collected sundry honorary doctorates and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the relatively late age of 61. In 2006 he launched his broadside The God Delusion. This grossly overstated diatribe attracted very mixed reviews even from his admirers, and scathing reviews from his opponents (Terry Eagleton famously compared it to ‘a book on biology written by someone whose sole knowledge of the subject was acquired from reading The Book of British Birds’). By 2009, John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale could write that ‘a number of serious scientists have come to the view that, by taking shrill positions that go well beyond his area of expertise, Dawkins is bringing science into disrepute’ (Questions of Truth p30, unchallenged in any academic review).
Richard Dawkins retired from his professorship in 2008, but his fame spreads and he continues to be referred to, wrongly, as Professor Dawkins. However, his basic scientific dogma is now fraying badly at the edges.
Firstly, it is now clear, contrary to what was supposed in the 1970s, that genes, although important, are not nearly as important as people then imagined. The human genome is much smaller than was surmised, and much smaller than the genomes of far simpler organisms (maize, for example). The idea that there is ‘a gene for X’ which underlies most of Dr Dawkins’ thinking is ludicrously over-simplistic: genes always act through extremely complex biological networks involving hundreds or even thousands of other genes, and every gene appears to be involved in a myriad of such networks. It is now quite clear that much of inheritance is ‘epigenetic’, ie not done through the genes at all (epigenetics is a rapidly-developing field of research). Nor are these non-genetic effects matters of minor significance: it is known from twin studies that 80 per cent of variation in stature is inherited, but only about 16 per cent of this can be traced to genetic causes.
Secondly, first-rate scientists are making it increasingly clear that Dr Dawkins’ simplistic views don’t hold water at a biological level. Denis Noble (elected FRS at 43, and currently President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences) has persuasively rebutted Dr Dawkins' proposals, most notably in his book The Music of Life, along with subsequent scientific articles. John Polkinghorne (elected FRS at 44) and Simon Conway-Morris (FRS at 39) have also been effective critics. And recently two world renowned Harvard biologists, EO Wilson and Martin Nowak, demonstrated that the whole idea of ‘Inclusive Fitness’ is, at best, an approximation that is almost never accurate, and can be quite wrong in significant cases.
So, when we hear the shrill voice of Dr Richard Dawkins bleating about Professor Craig’s ‘relentless drive for self-promotion’, and rejecting the debasement of his eminent CV by debating with the distinguished Christian apologist, we should remember this: Richard Dawkins never contributed much to science; his Oxford chair was bought for him by a rich admirer; and the scientific ideas upon which he built his reputation are increasingly discredited. Those beguiled by his diatribes are listening neither to the voice of reason nor science.
Dr Richard Dawkins ought to feel honoured that such a distinguished professor of theology as William Lane Craig should seek to debate with him; and be grateful that his CV might thereby be enhanced. The doctor’s relentless drive for self-promotion needs no further encouragement.