Libby Purves on Dawkins

Libby Purves reviewed for “The Times” Dawkins’ first episode on “The Genius of Darwin”. That, and Dawkins’ reply follows. The issue it raises though is whether science ultimately leads to atheism as the only rational choice in the face of the evidence we can assimilate and know anything about.

There are many more pressing issues to contend with; war, disease, hunger. Yet the idea of whether there is a god responsible for everything, if so what plans does this being have, and whether such a being is worth bothering about seems to have a hold on people despite the era of magic and superstition giving way to empirical observation and the scientific method.

Dawkins admits that evolution convinced him that there was no need for a god. His honesty that this personal realisation based on facts of the origin of species has for those that wish to build bridges or at least well codified areas of separation between faith and science roll their eyes. That some people believe that the earth has to be a few thousand years old (Answers in Genesis) and that a species could not over time evolve into a recognisable different one seize, not so much on the facts and what they do reveal, but on that evolution leads to a lack of belief in god. Also, that secularism too leads to a lack of belief in god and so both hand in hand lead to a slide into deprivation and immorality.

When it comes to education children need the tools to analyze the facts, what people are saying, and differentiate between the subjective and the objective. These reasoning skills are essential for children to come to their own realizations about life, the universe and everything. Dawkins was careful not to tell the children not to believe in god. However, what he did do was to explain evolution and what fossils are.

There really are people that literally think there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. That god can order genocide as in 1 Samuel 15 against the Amalek (including babies) and get pissed off when the best animals are kept alive but that is alright because by the New Testament god is all loving although the idea of eternal hell as a burning torture gets it’s first airing there. The Church of England allows Christians not to believe in hell – not on pragmatic or theological grounds but by Act of Parliament. The law recognises that just disavowing hell does not stop you being a Christian.

So in the face of these things we may argue that religious indoctrination should be left out of the classroom, and that people should be given the tools to discover the world for themselves. But as those children revealed they were already prejudiced against something they had not yet learned. The reason why we should care about faith and its battle with science? Quite simply because whether overtly or by undertone how war, disease and famine are tackled is effected by those that claim that faith has an impact on issues from overpopulation to sex to just war. We must recognise that people differ in how their religious belief impacts on their politics, philosophy and understanding of the natural world.

For example when I introduced my friend to Dawkins and she mentioned that she read Theology at our university I jokingly mentioned she should have said that she knows the earth is billions of years old. Faith is not a barrier to science and understanding the world. The issue is that some people try to make it a barrier saying that evolution is not compatible with a belief in god – people are using their own dogma to close people to finding out what and how we know things, often resulting to slight of hands which at best are misleading implications of observed events as I discovered at a talk by Ken Ham.

Watching the episode it was clear that Dawkins was opening the kids up to evolution as a scientific fact, only criticising that allowing the faith you happen to be born in stop you investigating what science reveals – not to fear other ideas despite the faith you happen to be born in. That is not about saying it is either god or science. That is about being open to what gets us closer to the truth of how things are.

August 7, 2008

Richard Dawkins, the naive professor

It’s not a simple choice between God and evolution: none of us can know that there is nothing out there

Firmly I believe and truly that Professor Richard Dawkins is an honest scientist and great communicator. He’s magic on telly: his programmes sending up New Agers were fun, especially when he let a lady “replace his Atlantean cells” by blowing on him. As for his reverence for Darwin and evolutionary theory, I share it. Have done ever since school.

My convent school, to be exact. The chief science-nun, despite her wimple and veil, was dead keen on Darwin. Most educated Christians are. Which is why the first episode of the professor’s Channel 4 series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, had me alternately cheering and cursing. Talking about evolution, he is terrific. But every few minutes he spoils it by announcing that natural selection means there is, categorically, no God. Not needed as wildlife designer – ergo, non-existent.

Professor Dawkins met a class of children, some of them indoctrinated by that crazily literal minority who think the world began 6,000 years ago on a divine drawing board. Instead of explaining natural selection and letting them work out that maybe the Creator works in more mysterious ways than the Genesis myth, he offered them a choice as stark as any bonkers tin-hut preacher from the Quivering Brethren shouting: “Repent or burn!”

Evolution or God – take your choice, kid! The moment one of them found an ammonite on the beach, Professor Dawkins demanded instant atheism. OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters. But most believers are not creationists. Some are scientists. They reckon that an omnipotent being capable of giving humans free will is equally capable of setting a cosmic ball rolling – Big Bang, abiogenesis, all that – and letting it proceed through eons of evolution, selection and struggle. One of the oddest aspects of Dawkins’s TV programme, rich in antelope-mauling and gobbly snakes, was his emotional implication that, gee, Nature is too cruel to have been invented by God! A wet, mawkish, bunny-hugging argument.

Darwin shines; evolution is as marvellous as Dawkins says. But it is not fair to use Darwin’s beautifully evolved brain to bang the drum for your private conviction that there is nothing out there. Nobody knows. Not really. Teaching children real science is one thing, making them choose God or evolution is another.

Stupid, too, in a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. If you offer a choice between science on one hand and faith and tradition on the other, too many people will reject science. A subtle and well-evolved species like us can accept both ammonites and Alleluias. Live with it, Prof.

August 9, 2008

Richard Dawkins replies to Libby Purves

Professor Richard Dawkins on his television programme about Charles Darwin, evolution and atheism

Yesterday, Libby Purves wrote about Professor Richard Dawkins’ television series about Charles Darwin. Richard Dawkins writes in reply:

Sir, In her article about episode 1 of my television documentary, The Genius of Charles Darwin, Libby Purves says that I offered the children a choice “as stark as any bonkers tin-hut preacher from the Quivering Brethren shouting: ‘Repent or burn!’ Evolution or God — take your choice, kid! The moment one of them found an ammonite on the beach, Professor Dawkins demanded instant atheism” (Opinion, August 7).

That is unjust, to the point of outright mendacity, and an insult to any professional educator. It was the creation-indoctrinated children themselves who made the leap: “Evolution = atheism”. I was scrupulously careful not to make that connection in the presence of the children, although I have made it elsewhere, spelling out the nuanced argument in The God Delusion.

She goes on to say, “OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters. But most believers are not creationists.” I expect it’s true that the few believers Libby Purves meets over canapés are not creationists. But “most believers”? Most believers in Bradford? The Scottish Highlands? Pakistan? Indonesia? The Arab world? South America? Indeed, North America? Polls suggest that more than 40 per cent of the British population are creationists. For the subset who call themselves believers, the figure must be considerably more than 50 per cent. Please don’t say “most people”, when what you really mean is Islington and Hampstead Garden Suburb.


Filed under Dawkins, Religion

4 responses to “Libby Purves on Dawkins

  1. GOD

    Evolution does not conflict with Christianity in anyway whatsoever.

    Evolution is one of my creations with which I am most pleased – signed GOD

    Pagan scientists should stop trying to create a big issue when no conflict even exists.

    Thank you

  2. Well it is fundamentalist Christians who say that evolution and their faith are incompatible. If so, then the fact of evolution proves Christianity untrue – the “pagans” are having their argument against faith made for them by that line.

    In short GOD you may want a word with the Answers In Genesis people ….

  3. “But every few minutes he spoils it by announcing that natural selection means there is, categorically, no God.”

    I must not have been paying attention because I missed that part.

  4. Pingback: The Genius of Darwin - Part 2 Darwinism’s Heart of Darkness « Homo economicus’ Weblog

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