It’s a debate that has raged since Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution in ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859 – were we (humans) created by a benevolent god or did we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees?
In a recent online conversation, a peer asked the following question, “Is there anyone…who can explain why Richard Dawkins isn’t an idiot?” – implying that he was unimpressed with Dawkins’ approach and ability to debate the above-mentioned topic. As I pondered the question, I began to see where he was coming from (albeit without losing any respect for Dawkins). My response was somewhat surprising to me, as I haven’t actually thought about the approaches used by major opponents of religious ideology. For the most part, Richard Dawkins is seen as an exceptional debater, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in terms of effectiveness and end product, I didn’t agree with his approach. Ultimately, I found myself supporting Dawkins in his opinions, but disagreeing with his methodology for convincing people that evolutionary theory is correct. My response to this simple yet profound question quickly became a philosophical standpoint as to how we, as biologists and scientists, should be approaching the debate between science and religion (for statistics, please see Gallup, 2014).
So how can the promotion of evolutionary theory be optimized? Personally, I’ve gotten away from the Dawkins/Hitchens approach when trying to convince people that evolution is a ‘fact’ (people always say evolution is just a theory’, but don’t grasp that a theory is essentially a fact – it is the semantic for the strongest supported ideas in science), and have moved more towards the Stephen Jay Gould approach, in which you stop raising conflict with creationists and resort to simply showing them the evidence and educating them. Ultimately you need a mix of the two to get any points across, since creationists are very reluctant and adamantly against parting ways with their ‘all-loving’ god (for the record, not capitalizing god is not a typo in the sense that I use it – god, to me, should it be treated as a proper noun, as if it were to exist, it wouldn’t be the name of a person, rather it would simply be a thing much like a tractor or a tree or a book). The way that Dawkins and the like approach the promotion of evolution is a bit misled (in my opinion), as that they seem to attack the ideology of religion rather than presenting the overwhelming evidence supporting counterargument(s). So rather than presenting the evidence for evolution, they try to attack the ideas of creationism and show people how stupid they are. I’m in agreement with the two that the ideology of creationism is indeed stupid, but trying to convince people of it by attacking their beliefs isn’t as effective in changing people’s minds as simply presenting evolutionary evidence; in the former case, those being attacked are simply going to try and defend their position without taking into account the actual evidence for the contradicting claim, ultimately ending the argument with the participants in the same mindset that they came with.
Aside from The Greatest Show on Earth*, if we look at Dawkins’ books, many of them do just as mentioned above. For example, if we look at The God Delusion, the title itself implies that belief in a god is stupid and makes one delusional. To quote a line from the text:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Although I personally agree with Dr. Dawkins, his statement is ultimately attacking the ideology of a good and all-loving god. Although the point is valid, it still takes a rather hostile and conflictive approach to the “is religion good or bad” debate – it implies that to say god is all-loving and great (a prevalent and almost instinctive belief of all Christians) is simply wrong.
Additionally, sometimes Dawkins is too broad in his approach as well. Science, particularly biology, has its own language, and unless you’re a biologist or have completed a biology degree, the concepts and teachings of such a field are difficult to understand. With that being said, Dawkins, like many scientists, often dumbs-down things for the people he is debating with for the same reason mentioned above – people simply don’t understand evolution and won’t understand the beautiful intricacies and details of its evidence (a process that I like to call ‘David Suzuki Syndrome’). However, I’m again of the opposite opinion – we need to stop leaving out information to make things easier for people to understand. If they don’t understand it immediately, then try to clarify it. This could actually make many of the broad and over-arching comments/arguments that Dawkins makes, which are readily easy to refute, much more solid and difficult to argue against.
We, as scientists and educators, have to stop attacking religion in such an antagonistic way and start providing new generations with an impeccably accurate version of the evidence for each theory. If/when we establish this practice, Western religion will likely subside and vanish within the span of a few generations – it simply has no supporting evidence other than a storybook that was written to guide a society that is entirely different from the society that we live in today. The problem is that children are often brainwashed with literal claims of the church, and are taught nothing more (or, if taught evolution, are not taught a scientifically accurate account of it). As a result, these kids are grossly misinformed of the wealth of scientific evidence supporting evolution, and simply believe what they are told because that’s all they know.
Although his tactics may be flawed, Dawkins, much like Christopher Hitchens, isn’t an idiot at all. The claims he makes in his debates are always valid. To give him credit, debating with a fundamentalist Christian is one of the most frustrating tasks a scientist can engage in. For example, fundamentalists often like to attack the idea that since evolution can’t be 100% proven, we shouldn’t believe in it. This is a silly assertion – given the amount of evidence for evolution as compared to the amount of evidence for intelligent design or creationism, it’s a no-brainer as to why you should believe in evolution. However, nothing in science can ever be 100% proven (other than in mathematics) – if things could, science would be non-existent (or close to it). Science is driven on the fact that things are never completely proven; it’s how we shape experiments and studies. Scientists don’t go into an experiment hoping to show that something is right, we go in hoping to show that it’s wrong. It’s easy for individuals who know the history of evolutionary theory and comprehensively understand the evidence behind it to simply get frustrated and fed up arguing with someone whose claims have no valid, empirically-tested evidence. Moreover, the vast majority of Christians arguing against evolutionary theory don’t understand it. There are so many misconceptions about how evolution works that are promoted and taught by fundamentalists to deny evolution that it just boggles your mind; they tend to brainwash people with incorrect statements that support intelligent design and reject evolution.
Ultimately, Dawkins is an exceptional debater and a key proponent for the establishment and growth of evolutionary theory within society, but his tactics may not be the most effective in persuading those who disagree with evolution that it is indeed the way that species came to be as they are (and continue to change into what they will become). The man is exceptionally intelligent, but, when trying to promote evolution, we have to get away from the idea of attacking religion and start using enticement, evidence, and education rather than conflict to help people understand that applying a literal reading of religious stories to scientific matters (such as where we came from) is simply wrong.
*This piece approaches the evolution/religion debate from the angle of simply providing the overwhelming evidence for evolution. It’s a fantastic read with an overwhelming representation of the scientific evidence supporting evolutionary theory. In my opinion, if you read this book and aren’t convinced that evolution is real, you’re either a) so conservative in your views that nothing is going to convince you otherwise; or b) you haven’t read it carefully enough. It really is a magnificent piece of work.