Richard Dawkins, Unreasonable Atheist?

By Robert Wright

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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