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Where Dawkins gets it so wrong about Leavers


HERE is part of Professor Dawkins’s Diary in last week’s Spectator magazine: ‘I hate the very idea of a referendum. Referendums are capable of naming a ship “Boaty McBoatface”. We are a parliamentary democracy. We vote for representatives who have the time (and salary) to examine complicated economic and political issues thoroughly and give an informed vote. Nevertheless, having got into this mess through David Cameron’s cowardly folly, the only way out is another referendum. If Leave wins again, we should accept it with good grace and make the best of it. But it’s hard to imagine that Leave could possibly win again, now that we know – as we did not in 2016 – what Leave really means. A connoisseur, too, of religious faith, I detect it in the fanatical zeal of Brexiteers: those for whom the 2016 vote has become unchangeable holy writ; those who are prepared to force Brexit through at any price, even if the price is the obvious and undeniable disaster of no deal. Boris Johnson’s bullying, threatening bluster, when he should be apologising if not resigning, may betoken cynical ambition, but the ill-mannered cheering-on by his barmy supporters surely stems from blind faith.’ 

The kitten of his argument is eaten alive with polemical fleas. Washing these off, we see that he says referendums sometimes give answers that those in charge don’t like, which is true, but trite; and that we should have a second referendum because Leavers didn’t know what they were voting for the first time, which is not trite and not true. If anything, during the pre-vote campaign the Leave-inclined public had an unduly bleak picture of economic consequences painted for them by the PM, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Governor of the Bank of England, CBI and all the other panjandrums riding Tom Pearce’s grey mare towards their downfall. 

One could also argue that Remain-inclined voters were insufficiently informed of the likely consequences of staying in the EU: the military build-up, the legal seizure of control over UK Armed Forces, the aspiration to Empire, the dangerous fiscal imbalances in the eurozone, the growing regional inequalities that are feeding social unrest, the threat to the UK’s Welfare State of unlimited Schengen ‘free movement of people’. Professor Dawkins may find it hard to imagine Leave winning again, but his view is coloured by the know-it-all Oxford milieu in which he lives, and which prevents him from understanding – perhaps he has never even met them – the ‘fanatical’, ‘barmy’ and ‘blind’ majority of his fellow subjects.

One reason he will have been given this space to air his views is that he has just brought out another theological tome, Outgrowing God. The review in Private Eye (issue 1506, p36) is unsympathetic and identifies, I think correctly, a weakness in him: an inability to appreciate alternative points of view. He seems to be the sort of person who ‘knows what he knows’ and that is not a quality to make the best sort of university teacher, I should have thought.

But then the professorship he held from 1995 to 2008 was not for scientific research and teaching per se – though he is a highly distinguished geneticist. The chair of ‘Public Understanding of Science’ was created specifically for him by the billionaire Microsoft applications developer Charles Simonyi, who will not have been unaware of Dawkins’s views on religion. Dawkins was given a position that required him to communicate with the public; though under the circumstances, one wonders what is the gist of the messages Simonyi hoped he would convey.

In any case, such is the Professor’s ‘fanatical zeal’ that he is in danger of undermining his own credibility. Philosopher and Christian Peter Williams says that ‘far from being a disinterested advocate of truth, Dawkins spends his time preaching the gospel of atheism using a raft of fallacious arguments dressed up in an obscuring cloak of science’, and gives examples of his logical weaknesses.

Returning to Outgrowing God, the Private Eye reviewer says: ‘Worse still is the book’s lack of empathy. There is no acknowledgement, let alone understanding, of the fact that, for some young people, science and reason may not offer the same degree of emotional comfort provided by the notion of God and, what’s more, this does not necessarily make these individuals w*nkers . . . There remains a coldness at the heart of Dawkins’s writing that is as self-defeating as it is wearing.’

I am sure that when discussing matters within his scientific field Dawkins makes perfect sense. But he may be blind to science’s – and his own – limitations. The philosopher A J Ayer used to maintain that meaningful statements were about only what could be proved, a position from which he resiled later on. I suggest that one of the unprovable ones is Leibniz’s question: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’

It seems to me that any scientific attempt to explain the origin of the universe can refer only to things we observe in the universe itself – time, space, matter, energy – and so the explanation will be circular. If the universe had a beginning, we cannot know how it started, even theoretically (references to a multiverse merely raise the question of how that started.) Alternatively, if there was no start, the brute fact of the universe’s existence is equally enigmatic.

I accept that by itself this conundrum goes nowhere near justifying all the tenets of religious dogmas, but I think Professor Dawkins should temper his assertions with a little humility and empathic understanding. He lays about him insensitively, like someone playing Blind-Man’s-Buff.

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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