Yesterday on Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson weighed in on a conversation that I have found entirely surreal. A religious man named Neil Ormerod from Australia attempted to take Richard Dawkins down a peg, and he wrote what looks like a very excellent article on the subject. However, when one delves into the article, it doesn’t hold much water. Ophelia does a great job of poking it with sticks, and I suggest you read both.
In articles like this, I can’t help but think back to my grade 11 high school production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. During one scene, Jaques speaks at great length describing his encounter with Touchstone, who is a fool. While my buddy Damien was doing this monologue, the court of Duke Senior (played by me! ZOMG!) sat listening. During rehearsal, the teacher asked, “What are you doing right now?” of one of the actors. He responded, “I’m just listening”. She laughed and said that you have never just listened to a thing in your life. You listen and fidget. You listen and think of a counter-argument. You listen and wonder about whether or not the cute girl wants to date you. “Just” is a figment of our imagination.
In his argument, Ormerod uses this same dismissive approach. Yes, Dawkins believes (if I’m not mistaken) that we are made up of atoms in motion, and that our activities are reducible in principle to the laws of physics. But there’s a lot more to it than that, isn’t there? If we are merely atoms bumping around, how do we learn anything? Yes, we are a collection of atoms. But the old Systems Analyst in me knows that a system is a collection of parts who work together to accomplish a larger purpose. Focusing on the parts misses the capabilities of the system.
When someone gives you two (and only two) options to choose from when deciding something as complex as the motivations of a person, they’re usually full of shit. People are ridiculously complex, and summing anyone up in a single sentence is probably not going to be very accurate.
Personally, I think that Dawkins is trying to persuade readers to understand their own irrationalities. When you know something is irrational, you certainly are well within your rights to continue to believe it, but the hope is that people would be able to confront their irrationalities and get past them. Ormerod’s argument might hold some water if Dawkins had said instead, “Religious readers who open this book will be atheists when they put it down, or they are not functioning humans”. But he didn’t.