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Dawkins' Crusade

on August 29, 2009

The Times: “Creationists, Now They’re Coming for Your ChildrenAlthough we frequently decline to comment when individuals inveigh against creationists (especially because such comments are often redundant and misinformed), we can hardly help but respond to vocal atheist (and anti-creationist) Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins trots out a supplementary example: Holocaust deniers.

Dawkins begins his strangely titled* piece with what he intends to be an analogical scenario: a teacher of Roman history and Latin whose pupils are distracted by “a baying pack of ignoramuses” who “scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade your unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed.”

Before we can respond, Dawkins trots out a supplementary example: Holocaust deniers. “Imagine that,” Dawkins writes, “as a teacher of European history, you are continually faced with belligerent demands to ‘teach the controversy,’ and to give ‘equal time’ to the ‘alternative theory’ that the Holocaust never happened but was invented by a bunch of Zionist fabricators.” Dawkins then makes explicit the implication of his analogy:

The plight of many science teachers today is not less dire. When they attempt to expound the central and guiding principle of biology; when they honestly place the living world in its historical context—which means evolution; when they explore and explain the very nature of life itself, they are harried and stymied, hassled and bullied, even threatened with loss of their jobs. . . . They are supplied with state-approved textbooks that have had the word “evolution” systematically expunged, or bowdlerized into “change over time.”

We of course disagree that this is an apt analogy to what’s happening to teachers of evolution today—for several reasons:

The “evidence” of evolution is indirect and based on speculation.

  • Dawkins analogizes opponents of Darwinism as “a baying pack of ignoramuses,” yet hundreds of PhD’s have expressed their disagreements with Darwinian theory. No wonder he later commits the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy, arguing “No reputable scientist disputes [evolution].” (I.e., he defines “reputable scientist” as “a scientist who believes in evolution,” arbitrarily excluding the many good scientists who reject Darwinism.)
  • Dawkins apparently ignores the difference in the type of evidence supporting Darwinism, ancient Rome, and the Holocaust. The Holocaust is documented by photographic evidence, by historical documents, and by testimonies of both prisoners and jailers. The evidence of Rome, too, is based on eyewitness documentation (albeit eyewitnesses who are no longer with us) and direct archaeological evidence. The “evidence” of evolution, however, is indirect and based on speculation. For example, fossils can only show differences, not an actual process of change. One can only determine a process of change between two different fossils based on prior beliefs.
  • If a Holocaust-denying student challenged his history teacher, we would expect the teacher to be able to answer the challenges based on historical facts. In fact, if there was a crackdown on debate over the World War II history in schools, would that not trigger alarms that the evidence of the Holocaust were perhaps weaker than had been construed?
  • We will grant Dawkins the point that there are some debates in which the evidence is entirely on one side, and the opposing side has a series of ad hoc rationalizations around the evidence. Yet there are also many debates in which both sides have competing interpretations (or models) of the same facts. Dawkins offers nothing to explain why the creation/evolution controversy falls into the former category rather than the latter. Why not allow students to examine all models for themselves and conclude which best explains the facts?

Dawkins cannot even see around his own biases. Misleadingly, he decries the spread of attacks on evolution in Europe as “partly because of American influence,” as though it were an issue of foreign policy or popular culture—instead of simply more and more people recognizing the failings of Darwinian theory.

Nonetheless, Dawkins declares, “The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust.” That’s why, in his new book, as he explains,

I shall be using the name “historydeniers” for those people who deny evolution: who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years rather than thousands of millions of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs.

Dawkins makes clear the point that certain theological truths are at odds with evolution!

Next, Dawkins lists a number of (mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic) church leaders who “grudgingly in some cases, happily in others . . . accept the evidence for evolution,” as if to say there’s no legitimate contention between religion and evolution (an ironic point for Dawkins to make, given how he has previously railed against the irrationality of religion). But then he—inadvertently—makes a point for our side:

To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed! If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely “symbolic” meaning, perhaps something to do with “original sin,” or the virtues of innocence.

Here, Dawkins makes clear the point that certain theological truths are at odds with evolution! The Christian faith rests on the doctrine of original sin; original sin requires a real Adam and Eve. Thus, if evolution undermines the reality of Adam and Eve, it also must undermine the reality of original sin!

The remainder of Dawkins’ essay is increasingly dogmatic—and fallacious. He essentially repeats (over and over again, louder and louder) that evolution is a “fact,” dressing up his language in various ways but continuing to beg the question at the heart of the debate:

  • “Evolution is a fact.”
  • “Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.”
  • “It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees . . . .”
  • “Evolution is a fact, and [my] book will demonstrate it.”
  • “Evolution is an inescapable fact, and we should celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty.”

Dawkins gives no scientific specifics, merely offering such comments as, “We know [evolution is true] because a rising flood of evidence supports [evolution being true].” And he rips apart a creationist straw man, lecturing the reader that “[e]volution is a theory in the same sense as the heliocentric theory.” He even sounds religious at one point (which is no surprise, since evolutionism is effectively a religious position), declaring, “Evolution is within us, around us, between us, and its workings are embedded in the rocks of aeons past.”

Dawkins is right—the origin of life is a historical event, something that none of us could have directly witnessed.

Near the end, Dawkins uses another analogy that we have used previously:

We are like detectives who come on the scene after a crime has been committed. The murderer’s actions have vanished into the past. The detective has no hope of witnessing the actual crime with his own eyes. What the detective does have is traces that remain, and there is a great deal to trust there. There are footprints, fingerprints (and nowadays DNA fingerprints too), bloodstains, letters, diaries. The world is the way the world should be if this and this history, but not that and that history, led up to the present.

Dawkins is right—the origin of life is a historical event, something that none of us could have directly witnessed. All of us agree on most of the facts, and those facts permit certain conclusions and not others (which conclusions are permitted and which aren’t are the subject of most creation/evolution debates). However, there is one piece of evidence we all do not agree on: God’s Word. Presumably Dawkins would accuse us of arbitrarily introducing a piece of false evidence; we accuse Dawkins, et al., of arbitrarily rejecting the most important piece of evidence. And hence the debate is as much about religion as it is about science.

* We’re not sure who titled Dawkins’ essay—himself or his editors—but it only seems to further many creationists’ worries that their parental rights will be abrogated if they teach creation to their children.

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