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The tragedy at the heart of New Atheism

Belief in an ordered universe is hard to reconcile with a tragic view of life

By on Friday, 3 August 2012

Richard Dawkins poses on a London bus displaying an atheist advertisement (PA)

Richard Dawkins poses on a London bus displaying an atheist advertisement (PA)

I remember sitting up and taking notice of something Richard Dawkins once said, which was to this effect: “When aliens arrive here, the first thing they will ask is: ‘Have they discovered the theory of evolution yet?’”

The only problem with this quotation is that I can find no reference to Professor Dawkins actually saying it, or the occasion and context of him saying it. He may not have said it at all. If anyone can give me a reference (the link above, which is hardly satisfactory, is all I can find) then I would be grateful. It would be interesting to unpack the meaning of the words.

Hunting down the quotation, I did of course come across others, collected, for example, here. Again the lack of context makes them rather strange, and one wonders what so many of them mean. Words like “religion” are not of themselves univocal. It all depends what you mean by religion.

Here is a saying that I find particularly problematic: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

First of all, notice the use of the words “precisely” and “observe”. It is surely impossible to observe the universe in its entirety. We observe parts, though we may intuit wholes. But these observations are not going to be precise – not if they are observations of “the universe”. So the use of the words “observe” and “precisely” here strikes me as giving the statement a scientific veracity that it cannot possibly claim, for this statement seems neither falsifiable or verifiable.

What the statement seems to be conveying, rather than a scientific observable truth, is an existential statement of belief about the nature of the universe. While Christians believe that at the heart of the universe there is Love, Professor Dawkins makes an opposing and opposite statement. But if the first statement is unscientific, so surely is the second one as well.

What this might all boil down to are opposing interpretations of experience. Some may feel that they are being protected by a benign Divine Providence and that even when they suffer this suffering can be turned somehow to good. Others may feel that life teaches them that there is no purpose to anything, only blind, pitiless indifference.

This strikes me as being the essential difference between comedy and tragedy. The characters in a tragedy frequently experience this Dawkins-like sense of desolation. Remember the Duchess of Malfi? “Look you, the stars shine still” – in other words, the heavens are indifferent to human suffering. Indeed, the characters in tragedy often call upon the heavens for justice, but answer comes there none.

And yet comedy is radically different. In comedy there is justice done at the end, each gets what they deserve. Some may find it hard to join the harmonious human community, such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who leaves the happy final scene of reconciliation with the words “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” But comedy depends on a firm belief in justice and truth and that these are possible on earth.

It seems to me that if Professor Dawkins believes in pitiless indifference as the presiding spirit of the universe, then he is clearly in the camp of an earlier professor, Friedrich Nietzsche. This is a serious matter, because the Nietzschean vision is one that not only contradicts the idea of Divine Providence, but it also makes science of any sort nonsensical, in that it seems to deny intrinsic meaning to physical phenomena, attributing meaning only to human will.

In other words, a Nietzschean would say that any theory of meaning is in the head of the person who holds it, not in the phenomena themselves. Or to sum up the tragic view of life in the words of Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this what Professor Dawkins believes? Is this what modern atheists believe? It does sound pretty close to the quote from Dawkins above. But if he believes this how can he believe in an ordered universe, one that is susceptible to rational and scientific observation?

  • JabbaPapa

    No true Scotsman would ever consult google.

  • ASimpleCatholic

    Whence the materia came from, is not explained by the evolution theory, which is a hypothesis of biology that is an unproven theory which now sounds plausible to most modern men and construct their Weltanschauung but is not in the sense proven as Einstein’s theory of relativity.

    And biology is about living things, so it doesn’t explain whence the inanimate elements came from. The Physics has several hypotheses but they remain hypothetical.

    The claim of the Church is not in conflict with the evolution theory as a scientific hypothesis and it should be enough.

    We are not required by law to repeat the dogmas of Mr. Dawkins and his teenager imitators.

  • Jonathan West

    In that case, we have a scientific hypothesis which we can test as follows.

    We divide a set of patients into two groups, and find a group of people willing to do some praying. We provide the prayer group with the names patients only in one of the two groups.

    Provided the sample size is large enough and enough time is allowed for the effects of the prayers, it should then be possible to detect some difference in average outcomes, even if prayers for the sick are only sometimes answered.

    What I’m describing has been done innumerable times to test the effects of drugs, there is a standard approach to doing clinical trials of this sort.

    Do you think that a clinical trial of intercessory prayer for the sick along those lines should be conducted?

  • JabbaPapa

    I make of the first point, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time, that the Church’s position is that it interferes not the slightest in the research work of scientists, and in particular, in the work of evolutionary biologists.

    I make of the second point, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him, that it contradicts nothing in either Science or doctrine.

    That is a local publication by a local church, not an official statement by the Magisterium, nor by an Ecumenical Council, nor by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    It is therefore a pastoral teaching for the diocese of San Diego.

  • Jonathan West

    Light is a material phenomenon.So if the disciples saw Jesus with their eyes, and Jesus was sent by God, then we have a God who makes material (and therefore scientifically detectable) changes to the universe.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’m getting increasingly more and more unsurprised that you are so consistently failing to realise how laughably flawed your grasp of the limitations of scientific methodology actually is.

  • karlf

    I have provided you with plenty of evidence to show that Jesus took the stories literally (please see my replies to Lazarus too.) You however, have provided me with no such evidence to the contary.
    If Jesus did not believe in Adam and Eve, what would you think were his beliefs on the origins of humankind?

  • ASimpleCatholic

    The answer is short and clear no. Because we don’t need the approval and interference of self-proclaimed experts. We as normal and ordinary people live our everyday life according to common sense and we don’t need statistics to tell us how to conduct.

    P.S. It doesn’t deal with a scientific hypothesis. You certainly have no idea what science and what a hypothesis is.

    If someone kindly gives me an advice and I thank him for help, shall we conduct some “scientific trial” and provide statistics before I am allowed to thank him? Help is not a scientific term. It is a term from our every day life.

  • The Raven

    You’ve given instances where Christ uses the OT to illustrate a point that he is making; by definition he is using them metaphorically. This has been pointed out to you a number of times.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    First: it wasn’t only on China and the USSR that Marxism led to humanitarian catastrophe. Also on Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, Cuba, and everywhere else the Marxist “dictatorship of the proletariat” was tried.

    Second: Marx did advocate for the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. So it IS his fault.

    Not to mention that the Marxist elements of class hatred, of materialist conception of History, of the relativeness of Truth, lead to violence and bigotry.

  • The Raven

    You have an insuperable measurement problem with your proposal.

  • karlf

    “How foolish you are, how slow you are to believe everything the prophets said!” Luke 24:25
    How is that metaphorical?

  • The Raven

    Is your contention that there were no prophets or that they did not teach? Or are you making a theological point about the content of their teaching?

    Your argument was that Christ believed Genesis was literal truth: you’ve failed to prove your point and are now flailing around looking for OT references. Just give it up.

  • karlf

    Have you read Luke 24? I’m making the same point as when I started this discussion i.e. that Jesus took the OT scriptures as literal truth.
    So please answer this time:
    “How foolish you are, how slow you are to believe everything the prophets said!” Luke 24:25
    How is that metaphorical?

  • The Raven

    The statement that you’ve highlighted is straight reportage. The earlier part of c24 has Christ explaining how the OT relates to Him and His coming: you’ve highlighted the chapter in Luke that most clearly illustrates the Catholic interpretation of the Bible – Christ is pointing out metaphorical depictions of Himself in the OT.

    Now, are you planning to change the subject or just repeat a statement that has been repeatedly shown to be hogwash?

  • Subsilico

    I guess you never heard of Empiricism. Its the philosophy that knowledge comes from experience/experiment. It is well-known to underpin modern science. Scientists don’t guess about things under some “Christian patterns of thought.” They have to back up their hypothesises with evidence.

    Dawkins dismisses other philosophies as unnecessary since Empiricism is working great. That FAL dishonestly attempts to paint Dawkins as a nihilist is indefensible. But i guess you and FAL will just continue to argue that Dawkins is tragically one thing or another without a shred of evidence.

  • Jonathan West

    Describe the problem, and then we can see if it is insuperable.

  • Jonathan West

    How can you tell whether the payer really helped. If somebody tell  you they prayed for you but didn’t actually, how would you be able to tell?

    This isn’t an issue specifically about prayer or religion, this is the basic scientific question of how can you tell that you really know what you think you know?

    If, as appears to be the case, you choose to answer “I just know”, then I shan’t try to prevent you continuing with that line of thought, but equally, you won’t get me to join in with it.

  • Subsilico

     Godwin much?

  • Jonathan West

    Evolution doesn’t try to explain where the material came from. Evolution explains how the material came to be organised into the great variety of forms of life we see today (including us). Evolution has provided an explanation for something which was previously though only to be explainable by means of a divine designer.

    And yet the church still insists (ref my quote above) that this was a process guided by God, despite all the appearances to the contrary.

    If you define theistic evolution in terms so that it is impossible even in principle to devise a test that would distinguish darwinian evolution from theistic evolution, then what you have is an Unfalsifiable Proposition. Unfalsifiable propositions are untestable even in principle, they are therefore entirely unscientific. They can never be disproved, but on the other had there can never be any evidence that they are true and there is no reason to think they are true.

    Take for instance Last-Thursdayism. This is the hypothesis that the universe sprang into existence fully formed (including us and all our memories) last Thursday. The creation is so perfect that there is no possible means by which we can distinguish our real memories events since last Thursday from our synthetic ones of before. You can’t disprove that hypothesis either, but because it isn’t mentioned in scripture, I suspect you would need little time to dismiss it as a likely proposition.

  • The Raven

    It’s impossible to ensure that no-one is praying for members f the control group and you are also unable to quantify the effects of observation on the experiment.

  • flakingnapstich

    “God and existence are fundamentally bound up together.”

    That is a theological argument, not a scientific one. More to the point, it is nothing more than an excuse, an opinion for which you can offer no evidence.

  • flakingnapstich

    In which case the Dead Sea Scrolls constitute evidence that BOTH cannons are flawed. We BOTH have the wrong cannon. How can you have faith in the inerrant nature of an anthology whose very composition is cast into doubt?

    Ironically, the problems with the multiple Biblical cannons are one of the evidences Islam uses for the Koran.

  • flakingnapstich

    “Septuagint was the accepted canon of the majority of Jews”

    That’s a rather simplistic, and flawed, description of a complex situation. The Septuagint contains a good deal of material that Jews of the day did not consider canonical. Chapters of Daniel among the contested content. It was used out of necessity more than anything else.  It was abandoned not because of Christian use, but because comparisons with the Masoretic text revealed that it was a pretty rotten translation to begin with.

    You clearly have a rather limited understanding of the evolution of the Christian Cannon. I recommend you do some remedial research into the topic. Your understanding doesn’t seem to extend beyond that of a child. I think this is one of the flaws in Catholics confirming children at such a young age. Young children lack the intellectual development necessary to really understand anything about religion. Protestants, deferring confirmation until later, have the opportunity to give kids an actual religious education in confirmation classes. I only wish more churches took advantage of it.

  • JabbaPapa


  • JabbaPapa

    Light is a material phenomenon.So if the disciples saw Jesus with their
    eyes, and Jesus was sent by God, then we have a God who makes material
    (and therefore scientifically detectable) changes to the universe.

    Did you even TRY to understand the points that have been made, multiple times, about material versus immaterial ?

    Have you ever seen anybody’s soul ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Rubbish !!!

    You’re just assuming that the 16th century an later Protestant principles governing the establishment of canon are always correct.

    The canon of the Bible was informally constituted by 2nd century AD at latest, and was formally established in 3rd and 4th centuries.

    It has not changed since that period.

  • JabbaPapa

    I was baptised and confirmed in 2005, at the age of 40.

    Please take your fetid preconceptions elsewhere.

    The revised Jewish canon established from 5th and 6th centuries onwards affects the Christian canon established between 1st and 4th centuries (and 3rd century BC for the Old Testament) not in the slightest, notwithstanding your Protestant modernist revisionism.

  • karlf

    Not metaphorical depictions, but prophecies in the OT. What makes you think you can answer for Jesus on what he did or didn’t believe about the OT stories?

  • The Raven

    I’m amazed at your persistence, you’ve really flogged this dead horse hard and it still hasn’t moved an inch.

    So let me get this straight, you want to know know whether Christ viewed the parts of the OT that accurately prophesied His coming, teaching, death and Ressurection as literal truth?

    And you’re then trying to read across to the parts of the OT that he used figuratively and metaphorically to claim that He viewed those parts as being a literal account too?

    You’ve already acknowledged that the OT contains a variety of different types of literature, why are you wasting time trying to ignore the variety of literatures in the OT and trying to impose a single hermeneutic of interpretation on it? The point that you really need to get your head around is that what we think of as the OT would not have been encountered as a singular corpus by first century Jews: each book was on a separate scroll and different groups of Jews accounted different books canonical (the Sadducees accounted only the Pentatuech as scripture, while the Pharisees preferred a canon that was similar to the Septatuagint); no-one encountered it as a single corpus until the Christians started compiling codices in the fourth century. Your proposition that we treat the OT as a single, binary is/isn’t literal truth is as anachronistic as it is dumb.

    You’ve run out of road on this argument – you’d be better off trying it on Southern Baptists than Catholics.

  • karlf

    So how do you know that Jesus didn’t believe that the flood and Jonah’s whale adventure were real events? It’s a simple question.
    “Haven’t you read the scripture that says that in the beginning the Creator made them male and female?” Jesus

  • The Raven

    That assumes that the Dead Sea scrolls are a comprehensive source for scripture and that we have the entire corpus. It isn’t, we don’t.

  • The Raven

    I’m really looking forward to your scientific argument for existence.

    And you got a theological answer because you asked a theological question.

  • The Raven

    Why do you believe that he did?

    And why are you getting upset that He’s stated a literal fact, that we are created male and female and referenced a metaphorical account of that creation?

    Your argument, like the metaphorical dead horse, won’t run; you’re flogging it in vain.

  • flakingnapstich

     “You’re just assuming that the 16th century an later Protestant principles governing the establishment of canon are always correct.”

    That’s not what I said, or implied at all. I wrote “We BOTH have the wrong cannon.” You are lying about what I said mere lines from what I wrote. I fail to see the point in discussing anything with you if you’re going to flat out lie to me about what I myself wrote.  Your ignorance of how the cannons have evolved combined with your overt lies leads me to disregard anything a dishonest fool such as yourself has to say.

    “That assumes that the Dead Sea scrolls are a comprehensive source for scripture and that we have the entire corpus. It isn’t, we don’t.”

    It makes no such assumption. Normally a partial manuscript will be missing content from the beginning or end, especially in a scroll. The apocryphal content of Daniel however is located within the manuscript, not exclusively at the beginning and end. This means the condition of the manuscript cannot be used to explain away the content only found in the Septuagint.

  • flakingnapstich

    “I’m really looking forward to your scientific argument for existence.”

    I never said I would offer one, I merely pointed out that your pathetic proclamation of “Well God did it!” was no better than a scientist saying “We don’t know.”

    That’s the difference between your dead end, intellectually bankrupt ideas and science. Scientists admit “We don’t know” and go about searching for an answer. You throw up your hands, bleat “god did it” and leave it at that.

    “GodDidIt” has people praying for a miracle instead of going to a doctor. We are having this conversation on machines that exist because scientists decided that “GodDidIt” wasn’t a good enough answer.

    Scientists don’t know what came before the big bang. Neither do you. Scientists, at least, have the self-respect and integrity to admit it. I’ve seen from your other posts that you are an intellectually bankrupt liar, and my time with you has been wasted.

  • The Raven

    Looking forward to your account of the empirical discovery of ethics. Or are scientists busy using Christian modes of thought when we come to matters that are closed to scientific enquiry?

  • The Raven

    I like your consistency: you know almost as little about the history of science as you do about Catholic views on cosmology or the establishment of the OT canon.

    I am particularly thrilled by your inability to distinguish between “believe” and “know”: that’s very special. And I am really touched by your earnestly expressed belief that having beliefs about God and the universe prevents one from scientific enquiry.

  • karlf

    I need to flog it because you won’t answer my blinking questions! Please answer it Raven.
    unlike you I don’t know whether Jesus did or did not take those stories literally.I can’t see any indication in the Bible that suggests that he didn’t, and surely this would have been made clear, had it been the case.
    I’m not getting upset, and it’s not a literal fact – “in the BEGINNING the Creator made them male and female”. You don’t think that’s a reference to “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” really??

  • JabbaPapa

    Blimey !! Well excuuuuuse me for analysing your statements.

    Nonetheless, they are incompatible with any understanding of what constitutes canon except the Protestant one from 16th century and later.

    There are multiple reasons why some copies of texts may lack contents found in other copies — the massively most common cause is copying errors, people skipping paragraphs as sometimes occurs when reading, turning two pages at once — or copying from a damaged manuscript, and simply skipping the missing sections.

    There can be cases where a copyist may add some words of his own, or (more likely) copy some marginalia into the main text — but this is FAR more frequent when fiction or other non-serious literature is being copied, than when any serious reference works of whichever nature are being reproduced.

  • The Raven

    I am sure that He was citing Genesis, what of it? We are male and female and we are not increate.

    Your question simply doesn’t make sense: what do you think that we believe Christ to be?

  • Subsilico

    I think your post epitomizes my point that many Christians are close minded. You claim that anything you don’t want science to investigate is closed to scientific inquiry. And, you posit such assertions without evidence and expect gullible people to take it on faith. Not all people are foolish enough to fall for it. I guess people like you are though.

  • Subsilico

    By your logic these people are wasting their time:

  • Acleron

    Most scientists will soon not have had a christian background. Do you somehow think that progress will stop?

    And it is always amusing to see someone underestimate science. Many times the cry has gone out that ‘ science cannot investigate this’, the opportunities to say it now are getting smaller all the time. That which was once thought beyond science such as origin of species, the structure of the universe and even the origin of the universe are now being actively probed. The supposed intangibles such as love, ethics, rules of society (your so called morals) and altruism are all being explained by the scientific method. We can leave the soft subjects such as philosophy and theology to those who can’t keep up.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    Richard Dawkins supports infanticide. Share this with your friends.

    Here is a transcript of the relevant part:

    Richard Dawkins: Another example might be SUPPOSE YOU TAKE THE
    INFANTICIDE. But I think I would worry about, I think I would wish to at
    least to give consideration to the person who says “well, where does it

    Peter Singer: Yes, I can see that there is a problem with, say small
    children and partly because we’re bonded to them very closely in a way
    that we’re not really bonded, to the same extent anyway, to the fetus,
    or perhaps even to the newborn infant. But I think when people make
    slippery slope arguments in this area, you have to appreciate that it
    does go the other way. Precisely because we draw this boundary between
    us and animals, we turn a blind eye to all of that animal suffering, as
    you are more or less acknowledging I think. And that of course has
    disastrous consequences for animals.

    Richard Dawkins: AGREED.


  • The Raven

    You are making a number of unsustainable assertions there:

    • who said that I want to prevent scientists from examining things? You did; I’m just pointing out that natural sciences are not always the right tool for the job;

    • the effect of your post is to suggest that the only valid firm of knowledge is that derived from the natural sciences. It isn’t.

    In response to one of my earlier posts you produced a number of articles which you described as providing “scientific proof of love”; in each case the paper was reporting research that had gone some way to explaining a behaviour and then, more or less sensationally, had gone on to report speculation about the wider consequences of that research; in some cases the headline was related tothe researchers’ own speculations, in others the headline was reporting the journalist’s speculations. None of the articles furnished “proof”, scientific or otherwise if the point that you were trying to make.

    The point of mentioning this is that it illustrates the superstitious way in which you treat things labelled as “science” – from the research, some of the headline speculations were partially justified, many of them weren’t, but you’d seen something flagged as science and immediate worshipped it uncritically.

    In short, the only absolutist here is you, because you want to insist that only one form of enquiry or knowledge is valid, while at the same time failing to apply a basic critical analysis of items labelled “science” – just because a person wears a label marked “scientists” doesn’t mean that that person always talks science and it doesn’t guarantee that the non-scientific things that they say will be right.

  • The Raven

    Well done, you’ve found a humanities faculty that is labelling its output as science. Do you atheists ever read the sources that you link to?

  • The Raven

    1. You’re living in a society that was entirely formed by Christianity, from the laws to our language, that influence isn’t going to disappear any time soon.

    2. You really do need to take a class in philosophy, because the cod philosophy that you’re twiddling about here and labelling science is frankly cringeworthy.

    3. The philosophical position that you’ve just taken here is called “materialism” and not “empiricism”; the empirical basis for materialism has been heavily undermined by the work of Heisenburg and the quantum physicists, since, at the fundamental quantum level, the universe is influenced by non-material inputs.

  • The Raven

    Yes, you would have impressed us equally if you’d just written “duh”.

  • The Raven

    Dear me. Who said that the manuscript was partial? I said that the cache of scrolls at the Dead Sea may not have constituted the entire library, the parts that we do have contain, in some cases, a number of copies of individual books, some of which do contain alternate readings.

    We are unable to definitively conclude that the community who originated the Dead Sea scrolls did not use the longer version of Daniel, we can only say that we have not found evidence for it here.

    And why are you citing the Masoretic text? It’s a good text, but it dates from over 500 years after the Christian canon of the OT was settled, it doesn’t provide proof of the Jewish canon at the time of Christ.