Atheists, Darwinists

Here are links to two stories about the irony of dogma – specifically about atheist dogmas. Atheists reject religious dogmas and criticize dogmatic reasoning. However celebrity atheists, for instance the scientist and popular writer Richard Dawkins, can present themselves as dogmatic. There are two dimensions of the word dogmatic in popular usage. There is a social and psychological dimension involving the project of presenting one person’s ideas and criticizing other people’s ideas. This involves temperament, attitude and social skills. Conservative religious believers are rigid and intolerant in public discourse. In that way, the word dogmatic starts to apply to anyone who is firm about a belief. In this sense, it applies to atheists who are aggressively anti-religious. Their confidence in their insights into the world extends to serious criticism of religion and the people who have religious systems of belief. The other dimension of the term dogmatic involves a more formally intellectual examination of what a person believes to be true on the basis of confidence in a set of principles and assumptions.

First, an article or book review from in Boston Globe, which mentions Richard Dawkins, evolutionary scientist, popular writer, atheist. It addresses a new book by Michael Ruse, published by Harvard University Press. His point is that scientists, having discovered something scientifically valid – such as the evolution of species – discredit themselves by metaphysical speculation. How do we get from the biological fact of evolution to the ideas of Social Darwinism – a speculative economic and moral theory that is used to rationalize injustice and oppression? Dawkins works with the tools of empiricism and the scientific method, and those tools have worked well in understanding evolution and natural selection. They aren’t particularly good tools for understanding history, the social sciences and the history of ideas. In public debate, Dawkins is intense, firm and on message, which makes him dogmatic in the popular social sense. Dawkins often seems to claim that atheism is more scientific than religion and that it presents a more highly evolved set of moral principles than religion. That kind of thinking opens him to accusation of intellectual dogmatism.
An article in the Guardian Unlimited by Dylan Evans called “The 21st Century Atheist” takes a few shots at Dawkins for being too 19th century, too anti-religious, too confident the progress of science, too ignorant about art. Professor Evans seems to be a kinder, gentler post-modern atheist who is prepared to let people live within beautiful narratives. He makes valid points about the limitations of Dawkins’ perspectives, but his own perspective that science and philosophy, like religion and spirituality, are just “stories” that help people understand the world, seems flawed. The weakness of this approach is that doesn’t have a way to assess the value of stories. Stories can have truth-values as depicting the relationships of things, persons and time accurately. They have aesthetic values – people like them because they fit with cultural ideas about how people should act and how people should value things and people. The stories believed by the New Age channeler, the Christian fundamentalist (who reads the bible literally), and the engineer who designed your computer are all just stories, but their meaning and value are radically different. Stories may have some equivalence of value in helping people focus their feelings and motivating their actions, but they do not have equivalent value in explaining reality and predicting the consequences of actions. This approach works well for to help people feel good about themselves and their beliefs, but it seems to be kind of fluffy.