Richard Dawkins, Unreasonable Atheist?

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Headline of the weekend goes to "30,000 Godless Undeterred by Rain." It was a reference to the "Reason Rally," which brought lots of atheists and agnostics onto the Washington Mall.

Some of my best friends are reasonable, and I try to be that way myself most of the time, but there is one thing about this rally that bothered me: the intermittent lack of reasonableness evinced by its most famous participant, Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins shares with me, and presumably with everyone at that rally, the goal of keeping America's science curriculum uncorrupted by fundamentalists. For example, we both oppose a bill recently passed by the Tennessee legislature that allows teachers to challenge the theory of evolution--that is, to "teach the controversy." (Teaching the controversy would be fine if there was an actual controversy within evolutionary biology about the truth of evolution.)

But is Dawkins really pursuing our common goal in a reasonable way? At the Reason Rally he encouraged people not just to take issue with religious teachings, but to "ridicule" religious belief and show "contempt" for it. Now, suppose you're a conservative Christian in Tennessee, and a fellow conservative Christian is trying to convince you of the merits of that anti-evolution bill. You're on the fence--you'd never really given much thought to whether your child's religious beliefs would be threatened by the teaching of Darwin. Then you hear Richard Dawkins, probably the most prominent Darwinian in the world, advocating displays of contempt and ridicule for your religion.

Mightn't you sense a threat from Darwinism that you hadn't sensed before? Mightn't you become, if anything, more fundamentalist (since fundamentalism is, among other things, a reaction against perceived threat)? And is it really reasonable for Dawkins to expect otherwise--to expect that contempt and ridicule will be productive?

I don't think so. Yesterday, during an appearance on the MSNBC show Up With Chris Hayes, I got a chance to run my argument by Dawkins (whom I'm a great admirer of, and whose writing has had a great influence on me). The encounter is at the 6:05 mark in the clip below. As you can see, he was unswayed.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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