On March 24, 2012, Richard Dawkins beneficently smiled down at congregation of adoring atheists before him. Dressed in a grey suit and a science-themed tie, he was no physically charismatic presence. Yet hearing some 20,000 people chant his name at the culmination of the Reason Rally in the National Mall, one could be forgiven for drawing parallels to Martin Luther King Jr. preparing to deliver his iconic address to the March on Washington. Then, Dawkins spoke.
“Mock them. Ridicule them in public. Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion.” His injunctions were sharp and definitive. They were designed not merely to excite but to establish the strategic direction of modern atheism. No longer would we, the faithless, remain passive. It was time for a revolution of reason.
The late doyen of atheism, Christopher Hitchens, once diagnosed the corrupting influence of a “father who never goes away.” Modern atheism suffers from the same problem. Once its visionary founding father, Richard Dawkins has now far outlived his usefulness to the atheist movement. In fact, the continued presence of his firebrand anti-theism is hampering and damaging our movement.
There are two reasons to reject the oppositional anti-theism of Richard Dawkins. First, stridency alienates both religious and non-religious communities. When this critique is raised, atheists indignantly respond that we are allowed to be vocal and opinionated in all other spheres of life. The problem with that response is not one of factual inaccuracy but rather of a profound lack of empathy for the subjective importance of faith. This importance does not categorically exclude the possibility of religious criticism but it renders strident criticism counter-productive.
Religious critiques that are not sensitive to this understanding are perceived as violent assaults on the values that religious people hold most dear. It drives religious communities to insularity by vindicating the claims of extremist pedagogues that religion is under threat. On the atheist side, it commands non-believers to view the religious—their family, friends and neighbors—as stupid and immoral. Insofar as the atheist movement can be a force for good, it must have currency and support. This cannot be achieved through insult and verbal abuse.
Further, the Dawkins brand of atheism is overly reliant on science at the expense of other moral and spiritual concerns. The vast majority of moderate religious people are not religious for reasons cleanly reducible to science or rational theology. The very word faith suggests that values like spirituality and the instinctive belief in a higher power shape individuals’ daily engagement with their religion. The problem then is not that Richard Dawkins and the religious communities hold different views but rather that the value systems from which their views arise are incommensurable. Dawkins’ atheism cannot genuinely engage with religion because the importance placed on scientific proof and spirituality, respectively, is not shared on both sides. Genuine engagement requires a conversation based on shared value systems. Richard Dawkins’ narrow focus on science precludes such a possibility.
Note that these criticisms of Dawkins are not arguments against atheists ever critiquing religion. In fact, the problem with the atheist movement is that it has deviated so far from the effective ways in which individual atheists already interact with religion. The conversations that drive atheism forward occur, not in debate halls or in rallies, but around the dinner table. The most persuasive counter-point to the demonization of atheists is not Dawkins’ donation portal, givingaid.richarddawkins.net. It is the average, moral citizen who seeks to do right outside religion. Atheism must now accept a truth already known to its followers by embracing civil dialogue and the empathy that lies at its foundation. Michael J. Sandel, for one, would probably be delighted.
There are many things that Richard Dawkins has contributed to the atheist movement. Despite being an unlikely candidate for charismatic leadership, he courageously spearheaded the task of challenging dogma and criticizing the worst excesses of organized religion. It may even be true that his confrontational anti-theism was a necessary first step in bringing atheism to prominence. Yet past achievement is no penance for present detriment.
Late last month, Richard Dawkins’ memoir “An Appetite for Wonder” was published. It will be viewed in some atheist circles as the indispensable reflections of a courageous leader. For some, the temptation to adopt it as a manifesto in the vein of “The God Delusion”will be great. Yet the memoir—a record of history—represents precisely the role Richard Dawkins should play in the future of atheism. Atheists must now do what they preach and cut off their meddling, strident and destructive father.
Bo Seo ’17 is a Crimson editorial comper in Straus Hall.