Why Dawkins is right and his critics are wrong


Why Dawkins is right and his critics are wrong
As the Channel 4 series The Genius of Charles Darwin drew to an end on Monday, the usual chorus of insults reined down on the head of its star, Richard Dawkins. Despite the fact that Dawkins went out of his way to avoid bad-tempered arguments or overt proselytising on atheism, his critics saw only what they wanted to see – and often that was not what appeared on the screen.

In one section of the film, Dawkins met a class of schoolchildren and asked them what they knew about evolution. Most said they had the rudiments, but also stated that they preferred to stick with their religion’s explanation. Dawkins took them to a beach in Dorset to hunt for fossils. He gave them a quick lesson on how these ancient relics illustrated clearly that life on earth was tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years old. Not six thousand, which is what their religion told them.

Some of the children, though, were impervious to this knowledge, and Dawkins was disappointed. But he did not challenge them or demand that they change their mind. The Radio Times, however, still published a letter from someone criticising the programme, saying Dawkins “tried to promulgate his atheist doctrine amongst schoolchildren.”

AA Gill in The Sunday Times wrote: “His anger and bombast stand in stark contrast to Darwin’s quiet, inquisitive humility.”

Michael Deacon, the Telegraph’s critic, too, couldn’t resist a pop: “I, too, am an atheist”, he wrote, “yet Dawkins is so fanatical that I find myself playing devil’s advocate, or in this case God’s.”

It was sad to see Libby Purves, once a half-decent journalist, now obsessed with religion. She has a “Faith” column on the Times website of such unutterable stupidity it leaves one wondering how this once-great newspaper fell into the hands of such nincompoops. She wrote of schoolchildren’s fossil-hunt: “The moment one of them found an ammonite on the beach, Professor Dawkins demanded instant atheism.”

What programme were these people watching? I saw none of this. It is quite clear that Richard Dawkins has learned his lesson from previous programmes and tries to subdue his personal annoyance at the wilful ignorance he encounters. I thought he was the model of restraint when confronted with John Mackay, a leading creationist who insisted that “before the flood, people lived to be one thousand years old” and the “science teacher” at a state-funded grammar school who insisted that the earth as no more than 6,000 years old.

And that is before we came to the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose famous silver-tongue seemed to become tied as he foundered to find a way out of the logical mess he created when trying to square his beliefs with reality. I thought Dawkins let him off rather lightly when he put the embarrassing evasions down to the use of “poetic language”.

Richard Dawkins wasn’t prepared to say it on air, but I’ll say it for him here – if the Archbishop truly believes what he said on Monday’s programme, then he is a deluded fool. He’s often advertised as an intellectual giant. Intellect giant? I’ve said before and I’ll say it again now – it’s all flim-flam. Rowan Williams is an emperor with no clothes, and in this film we glimpsed his nakedness.

I don’t know what it is that makes sensible people want to throw in their lot with the creationists and intelligent design merchants as soon as Dawkins’ name is mentioned. Maybe it is some kind of residual feeling that they must be respectful of religion, even when it propounds absurdities. They think it shouldn’t be attacked because nice people believe in it as well as murderous wackoes.

But as Dawkins pointed out – the nice people who subscribe to ridiculous things simply open the door to the nasties who want to blow us up or impose their fantasies on us by law.

Creationism is stupid and that’s all there is to it. There is no equivalence with science, and we must resist the claim that there is. Creationism belongs with the other fairy tales and horror stories that make up religious education; and religious education belongs in church, not in school.

22 August 2008