In the last edition of The Interim I wrote about the noted atheist and enemy of the pro-life movement A.C. Grayling. But if Grayling is a problem, Richard Dawkins is a horror. In April, 2010 he announced an initiative to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested when the Pontiff made an official visit to Britain later that year; the ostensible reason being his involvement in the Catholic clergy abuse crisis. Benedict was 83 and in ill health at the time, that ill health being caused in part by the campaign against him by some Vatican insiders precisely because he was so active in exposing and punishing abusers. It was very likely one of the factors that led to his resignation three years later.
It’s an intensely revealing insight into Dawkins, and one far more accurate than the first volume of his autobiography, An Appetite For Wonder. It often reads as though the author were an extremely agitated caricature, unaware that misplaced hubris is hilarious. But Dawkins is not some boiling obsessive searching for attention but a genuinely influential thinker and author. He’s not a fool and surely knew that the abuse horror involved at most 3 per cent of clergy, that the vast majority of cases were of the past, that abuse rates were far higher in public education or organized sport, and that an arrest was impossible and had been suggested merely for publicity.
Benedict seldom responded to attacks when he was Pope or since, but did so in a letter to a more respectful Italian atheist than Dawkins. The pontiff explained that, “an important function of theology is that of maintaining religion connected to reason and reason to religion. Both functions are of vital importance for humanity. Besides, science fiction exists in the sphere of many sciences … Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is a classic example of science fiction.” Exactly, and well said. I bet Richard reacted extremely generously and calmly to that one.
As an evolutionary biologist Dawkins is considered by his peers as a sound and, at one time at least, a cutting edge academic. In recent years, however, his academic work and reputation had declined. Frankly, he would be largely anonymous outside of his rather limited field if it were not for his ostentatious atheism, and in that field he has never been considered sound and certainly not cutting edge.
Dawkins is aggressively eloquent, utterly confident and dismissively sweeping in his attacks on God and faith, but he is never profound or genuinely compelling. He insists on the same attacks on the same straw men of religion, and he is extremely selective in whom he will debate, and has refused public arguments with those he considers “unqualified” – a grotesquely snobbish euphemism and excuse. There are several North American Christian apologists who would be delighted to take on Dawkins, if only given the opportunity.
The noted philosopher and former atheist Dr. Edward Feser wrote that, “oddly, the rhetoric of the New Atheist writers – Richard Dawkins among the most prominent – sounds much more like that of a fundamentalist preacher than like anything I read during my atheist days. Like the preacher, they are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch their opponents with a sarcastic quip or two. And, like the preacher, they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking about.”
At the Rally for Reason in 2012 after that terribly brave Australian performer Tim Minchin had repeatedly sung, “F*** the Motherf****** Pope,” Dawkins told the hysterical crowd, “mock them, ridicule them in public, don’t fall for the convention that we’re far too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe, which need to be substantiated. They should be challenged and ridiculed with contempt.”
There was something almost fascistic about this and worryingly oppressive. Also utterly absurd. Too polite to talk about religion! Where has Dawkins been, where does he live? It’s been open season on Christianity for almost a generation now, and the last acceptable prejudice in so-called polite society is anti-Catholicism. Dawkins’ greatest achievement is Dawkins. He has closed rather than opened the debate around faith and reason, and made life far more difficult for informed believers as well as informed skeptics. But closing the debate is sadly typical now within atheist circles. As pro-lifers, of course, we know that far too well.