An astronomical problem with Dawkin’s thinking

Richard Dawkins is not an idiot. But sooner or later the blinkers through which he tries to ram his view of the world are going to become obvious to everybody. That process started a little with this guest post on the ever popular BoingBoing.

Dawkins gets on his soapbox, or behind his pulpit, hoping to preach to a sea of sympathetic listeners. It is the internet, afterall. The playground for the New Atheists.

His target, in this post, was an astronomer named Martin Gaskell. Gaskell recently missed out on an academic position that he was more than qualified for. Essentially because he’s a Christian, who, while not holding a young earth creationist position himself – is sympathetic to those who do.

Here’s what Gaskell says in a pretty fantastic piece of writing on the overlap between astronomy and the Genesis creation account (and varying positions within the scientific fraternity).

“I have a lot of respect for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible, but I don’t believe it is the interpretation the Bible requires of itself, and it certainly clashes head-on with science. This viewpoint is something of an “American” view and has been much less common among Christians in Europe.”

Sounds moderate. Right? Some would say positively liberal (having just read Al Mohler’s Atheism Remixed I’d hazard a guess that that’s where Mohler would place him on the spectrum).

So Gaskell sued this college who didn’t give him the job, because the head of the interviewing panel was stupid enough to put the following in writing:

“If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin’s religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious…”

That’s a smoking gun. Here’s how Dawkins, in this ill-informed diatribe, approaches the Gaskell question:

Step 1. Make allusions to Gaskell’s position on Creation – tying him to the YEC position while admitting that he is not in that camp:

“My own position would be that if a young earth creationist (YEC, the barking mad kind who believe the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog) is “breathtakingly above the other candidates”, then the other candidates must be so bad that we should re-advertise and start afresh.

Martin Gaskell claims, however, that he is not a full-blooded YEC although he has “a lot of respect for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible”

Step 2. Compare people who hold a young earth position (which Gaskell does not) to eye doctors who believe babies are delivered by stork, and geologists who believe in a flat earth while promising to teach otherwise.

“Even if a doctor’s belief in the stork theory of reproduction is technically irrelevant to his competence as an eye surgeon, it tells you something about him. It is revealing. It is relevant in a general way to whether we would wish him to treat us or teach us. A patient could reasonably shrink from entrusting her eyes to a doctor whose beliefs (admittedly in the apparently unrelated field of obstetrics) are so cataclysmically disconnected from reality.”

Step 3. Suggest that people with religious beliefs are essentially unfit for any job in academia (though, to be fair, probably in the sciences).

“I don’t care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they affect his suitability for the job, and I am going to take them into account.” A law that encourages you to say, “If a candidate’s private beliefs are based on religion I shall ignore them, otherwise I shall take them into account”, is a bad law.”

See, there are a couple of problems here. It’s not uncommon for Dawkins to completely misrepresent Christian beliefs and essentially create strawman pictures of Christianity based on Fox News reports and televangelists. But the other problem is that Dawkins himself links to Gaskell’s own testimony about his own beliefs. A document that contains passages like this:

“Historico-Artistic Viewpoint” – emphasizes that we have to realize that the Genesis was addressed to people 3400 years ago in a form and in descriptive terms they would understand. Moses wouldn’t have got very far if God had quoted from a modern introductory astronomy text to him! (“Say, God, what’s a quark?”). A senior physicist, who had been chairman of a large physics department in the US (and who was, incidentally, not someone with a high view of the Bible), once said to me, “if we put what we now believe to be true about the origin of the universe into poetic language someone would have understood 3000 years ago, we would come up with something very much like Genesis 1 & 2”. The historico-artistic viewpoint would also emphasize that Genesis 1 is in the form of a poem. It has a very definite literary structure. Phrases and patterns of words repeat (e.g., phrases such as “Then God said…and it was so” or “…and God saw that it was good” or “and there were evening and morning…” But we must be careful to note that whether Genesis 1 is poetry or prose has nothing to do with whether it is an actual very literal description of what happened or whether it is allegorical or something. We must not make the distinction prose = fact; poetry = fiction. ”

And this:

“The “scientific” explanations offered by “creationists” are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations).
While discussing controversies and interpretations of Genesis I should mention something that has been much debated in recent years but is not an interpretation of Genesis: what is called “Intelligent Design”. This movement, which is often erroneously confused with young-earth creationism, is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence. This is really a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications), and there is no opinion on the interpretation of Genesis.”

Now, I’ve got no significant bones to pick with those who hold to a less than literal, or a literal, view of Genesis 1-2:3. I thought that was the worst part of Mohler’s book (Atheism Remixed) – which was actually a pretty good primer on the debate and used arguments from Alister McGrath and Alvin Plantinga (amongst others) to show just how shoddy Dawkins is with regards to his treatment of Christian belief and with regards to philosophy (ie he begs the question of scientific naturalism because he’s bought into evolutionary theory as a unifying theory of everything1). But Dawkins wants anybody who has any religious belief excluded from jobs on that basis. And the beauty of the post on BoingBoing is that its readers call him out. And they are, based on past experience reading the comment threads, a pretty agnostic bunch.

Here are a couple of the comments.

“Oh, just come out and say it, you want to discriminate against a certain class of people even though there is no real objective logical reason to do so. You get an ick factor. Which is eminently stupid. Competence is by definition the ability to get the job done in a satisfactory or better than satisfactory manner. If the person is competent, but somehow throws you off personally because of cultural predilections, that’s frankly a problem and a weakness of your comfort level. Imagine a world where you could hire and fire based on that. I would certainly like to see what you’d have to say when someone refuses to hire an Atheist, because “it tells you something about him.””

And another…

” To not choose the right person for the job, when they have demonstrated in the past that they are fully capable and suitable for it, on the basis of the fact that you don’t like the way they think privately, is pure bigotry.

If he shows evidence that his beliefs are interfering with his work then by all means fire him, but thought is inherently private. Should you equally deny somebody a job in finance because they like to read Marxist literature? What about denying somebody a job as a bartender because they’re teetotal? Where do you draw the line when making that decision for other people?”

One that opens with a quote from Dawkins in the post:

“I suspect that most of my readers would discriminate against both these job candidates…”
If by “my readers” you mean the echo chamber at that you’ve grown accustomed to, certainly.”

My favourite of the lot:

“I think what you are doing here, Richard, is similar to what you do when you criticize religious people in general: you pick prominent but basically ignorant religious people, demonstrate what idiots they are, and then say “well, these guys are prominent, so no doubt the best examples of their lot. Hence, any other example will be even more idiotic, and we therefore need not examine them.”

Here you say “look, we have a competent person who holds religious beliefs someone found objectionable” (for reasons unstated, at least by you). “Isn’t it basically okay that he was discriminated against on the basis of those beliefs, since all people who hold those beliefs are idiots or insane? … The fact is that you appear to know very little about religion (and certainly as a self-proclaimed “atheist” you are entitled to that state of ignorance, at least in regards to religions involving the worship of deities). So it’s hard to see how you’re qualified to even ask this question, because you’re not competent to discriminate accurately between religious people who are idiots or insane, and religious people who are neither.”

It seems that the jig is up. When the masses start picking up the critique of your interlocutors in the sphere of published debate, and they’re doing it in a forum that should cede you home ground advantage, your methods are in a bit of trouble.

1 On this note, I really don’t get how explaining the mechanics of something, explaining the question of how something works, does away with agency. It’s like finding a ball floating in the air towards a target and suggesting that because you understand everything about its motion it must not have been thrown. Or like listening to a piece of music and suggesting that understanding the underpinning musical theory, and the function of the instruments in an orchestra, does away with a composer. It’s philosophically untenable. Just dumb.


AndrewFinden says:

Great post Nathan.

On this note, I really don’t get how explain­ing the mechan­ics of some­thing, explain­ing the ques­tion of how some­thing works, does away with agency.

You might like my motivational poster on that subject:

AndrewFinden says:

Seems the Prof. decided to comment to clear some things up:

I very clearly stated that, precisely because Gaskell himself denies being a YEC, I was not going to talk about his case. Nowhere in my article did I say that Gaskell himself should not have got the job.

I deliberately discussed extreme hypothetical cases, because they raise the general issue starkly, in a way that the Gaskell case does not.

“extreme hypothetical cases” – aka Strawman.

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Finden, nm_campbell. nm_campbell said: blogging: An astronomical problem with Dawkin's thinking #atheism […]

Stephen says:

On this note, I really don’t get how explain ing the mechan ics of some thing, explain ing the ques tion of how some thing works, does away with agency. It’s like find ing a ball float ing in the air towards a tar get and sug gest ing that because you under stand every­thing about its motion it must not have been thrown.

Well, to me it’s more like if a) there is only one ball in the world (there are no reference points for the universe) and b) you find it flying through the air and c) can’t see anyone who threw it that you then dismiss the idea that someone might have thrown it. I think studying the mechanics of it is a bit of a red herring: how it works is a different question to how it got there. For example, evolution is not how life began but it is how life adapts to its environment.

It just seems to me that you should generally keep “maybe someone made it” around as a possible option if you’re asking “how did something start?” even if that option is unlikely and hard to prove from your viewpoint.

David Ould says:

great link. I must have missed that on my RSS feed. A real joy to read! Thanks for bringing it to our attention.