Sunday, 20 July 2008

Dawkins on Big Brother

In the Sunday Times today, Kate Muir interviewed Richard Dawkins ahead of his new series about Charles Darwin, to be shown on Channel 4. In perhaps the most revealing moment, she asked him about one of that Channel's other programmes, suggesting that Big Brother represented "the ultimate cultural meme of the moment."


“I find that very shocking. I utterly despise Big Brother and I’m really sorry to be associated with it on Channel 4. It really is demeaning.” You might assume that he would find the programme fascinating, the studio equivalent of a wildlife show, with nature red in tooth and claw. But he has nothing but contempt for the survival of the fittest in the Big Brother house. “I have heard indications that the bullying style of some of the Big Brother characters is copied by schoolchildren. Schoolchildren doing copycat bullying because they learn about it from these vile people, the trailer trash who go on Big Brother.”


It's a vignette that sums up where Dawkins is coming from as much as any verbal punch-up between him and a Southern Baptist preacher. Dawkins is a natural populariser. The post he occupies at Oxford, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, is a job created specially for his particular talents. His books, even before The God Delusion, were bestsellers, not least because he writes with a limpid clarity that most authors would envy and that many professional academics (sociologists, for example, or literary theorists) would find both impossible and vaguely treacherous. But Dawkins' popularising, whether of evolutionary biology or of atheism, is of an old-fashioned kind, that of an enthusiastic grammar school teacher or a David Attenborough. Its basis is the view of the audience as intelligent, rational beings that want to be entertained, rather than monkeys who need their daily ration of bananas. Nothing could be further from the vulgar inanities of the Big Brother House.

This antiquated approach - what the BBC, before it became a national disgrace, used to call Reithian - also informs Dawkins' form of atheism. He might be described as a High Atheist, someone to whom atheism implies a high moral endeavour rather than merely the non-existence of a supreme being. His lack of belief is rigorous, philosophically-determined, and oddly spiritual - with the wonders of nature replacing experience of God. He has written rapturously himself of the Wordsworthian awe he feels contemplating the products of the Blind Watchmaker, one of his metaphors for natural selection. And tied to this romantic outlook comes a love of literature - including the Bible, at least in its proper, King James, translation - and a belief in old-fashioned standards of writing. Along with this heritage, which puts him squarely in the tradition of Hume, Gibbon and Voltaire as well as Darwin, there also comes a morality that is fairly puritan and abstemious. Atheism of the Dawkins variety doesn't represent the end of western civilisation, but rather the reverse, a Canute-like desire to preserve it, Canute-like in its inherent implausibility.

Another striking characteristics of Dawkins' outlook is a commitment to absolute truth, which strikes some as intellectual arrogance. If he hears someone spouting nonsense - whether it's astrology or creationism - he'll show his disdain. His detractors accuse him of wanting to be some sort of atheist pope, or use words like "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" to describe the sense of complete certainty that he exudes. He is certainly intolerant of rubbish; and to the extent that most people's minds are filled with rubbish, he is probably intolerant of most people. But it's a high-minded, morally-directed intolerance, a bit like Ratzo's. And as with the pope, it's all part of his unreconstructed mid-twentieth-century personality.

Atheism of the Dawkins sort is sometimes accused of piggybacking on two thousand years of Christian moral thinking and civilisation, using up the intellectual capital of a tradition while seeking to undermine the very thing - Christianity - that made it possible. But that is to mistake cause with effect. Christianity was part of the mix that made up the high civilisation of Europe in its heyday - roughly the late fifteenth to the early twentieth centuries - but so too were the legacies of Greece and Rome, artistic and architectural techniques, and the technology of printing. The intellectual revolutions that produced modern science and the Enlightenment were not themselves Christian in origin or expression. It's just that the Christian majority, as well as the growing (but largely over-educated) band of sceptics, benefited from the advances.

It isn't lack of belief in God that produces the emptiness and stupidity that Dawkins so despises in Big Brother, but rather a hollowing-out of the human brain that has much broader effects: a pervasive air of shallowness, the shortening of attention spans, the loss of confidence in high culture, rampant consumerism, the replacement of profundity by surface noise. Religion is as much prone to this deterioration as any other sphere of human activity. There is nothing in common between the redneck creationists Dawkins likes to take on in debate or mock in his books and, say, St Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas would probably see in Dawkins a kindred spirit.

12 comments:

valdemar said...

Having read nearly everything that Dawkins has written, I have never found him arrogant or intolerant. He is rational, humane and often witty. His opponents hate his even-tempered but rigorous approach, because he outclasses them. The numbers buying his books testify to the genuine mass appeal of rational discussion founded on fact.

I'm not at all surprised he despises Big Brother and he's right to condemn it for setting a lousy example. (Whereas being married to a former Doctor Who companion makes Dawkins an excellent role model for the young people of today.)

peter bracken said...

It's becoming a feature of your posts, hereisarch, that you write a lot about very little.

Dawkins has a dig about the poverty of culture as envinced by shows like Big Brother and you say...what exactly? That you agree with him, semi-reluctantly, grudgingly and - another feature of your writing - petulantly. So, you sort of agree with him, but seem to bridle and cavil at the fact.

There is nothing remotely 'spiritual' in Darwin's observance of the methodology of science; he's just a scientist who necessarily adhere's to it. Your adjective is loose and rootless, and to insist otherwise empties the word of its meaning.

By all means use your blog to display your learning, but let's have a point to it.

The Heresiarch said...

Oh no, I don't agree with him petulantly or grudgingly, I agree with him wholeheartedly. My point, which I thought was obvious, was that he is a much better representative of the "Christian" tradition of Western civilisation - which atheists are sometimes accused of undermining or replacing with nihilism - than many who cleave to a religious faith which has been emptied of all intellectual coherence or liturgical beauty.

valdemar said...

Well, H, it all seemed straightforward to me. Science, personified by Dr D, is the last intact survivor of the old, high Western culture which has been misrepresented as Christian.

If Mithraism had become the official Roman faith it would have done just as well, or just as badly. Dying and rising gods are ten a shekel.

Dawkins is a truth teller. He knows the scientific world view is more exciting and challenging than the religious one. Reality beats ideology. Well, let's hope so, anyway.

WeepingCross said...

Heresiarch, I Think You Are Entirely Correct In This Regard.

Waltz said...

It's curious how the pre-Christian northern European influence on our history is invariably ignored in favour of Graeco-Roman and Christian influences. For example, the custom of the Thing rarely gets a mention anywhere despite its obvious foreshadowing of various sorts of democratic assembly and parliament.

Heresiarch said...

Perhaps it's the language. The Greeks gave us "politics", "rhetoric", "democracy" and so on. The Romans gave us "republic", "civilisation" and "urbane". The Norse gave us a "thing". Doesn't sound quite the same, does it?

WeepingCross said...

Yes, I'm sure I remember hearing of an entire Icelandic saga about the dangerous effects of ignoring law and the breakdown of custom, neighbourliness, and common deliberation and decision-making.

I will agree with Mr Bracken on only one point, your use of 'spiritual'. 'Mystical' would seem a far more accurate word as it's describing something based on intuitive, subjective experience rather than reason or argument.

peter bracken said...

weepingcross: are you suggesting that Dawkins' belief in the scientific method is 'mystical'? And that, conversely, 'spiritual' is suffused with reason or argument?

Please tell me you're not...

valdemar said...

I know the words creative and imaginative have been tainted by the links with advertising etc, but they surely describe the scientist's relationship with the natural world. And indeed the human world, if they can be readily distinguished nowadays.

Heresiarch said...

Here's a quote from the great man which shows the sort of thing I had in mind: from "Unweaving the Rainbow":

"The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite."

Romantic? Certainly. Mystical or spiritual? I would say so.

WeepingCross said...

I come back to mu computer to find the Heresiarch has beaten me to it. No, I wasn't suggesting scientific method is mystical: that makes no sense at all, even for me. What I mean is that treating the cosmos as a source of ‘wonder’, whatever that is, is inevitably mystical as it rests on an individual intuitive response which it would be rash to assume anyone else shares, or defines in the same way as you.