Mary Midgley, author of a dozen books mostly on ethical philosophy read the item of 22 July on this weblog on Dawkins' thesis. She sent the following response.
Dear David - Many thanks for your very interesting piece about Dawkinsism. I've been rather slow replying because there are so many issues. I think you're quite right about pretty well everything in D's book. But what centrally worries me still is the question of motive. First, why on earth is it selling on this scale?? After that, the question why Dawkins himself is going on like this is certainly puzzling, and, as you say, suggests something wrong in the works there. But he isn't alone. There's Dan Dennett, Nick Humphrey, Grayling. Hichens and several others. How can it be that all these quite educated people seem to know nothing about any religion other than fundamentalist monotheisms, and are determined to ignore the political context which accounts for recent fanaticism there?
I suppose that a lot of them haven't thought about religion at all for years - have assumed that it was a thing of the past - and are then taken aback by finding that it is alive and kicking. But I still find it bizarre that they don't even want to look into the political background of this - colonialism etc - but instead go on like crude nineteenth-century American `scientific atheists'. Is it just the well-known Quest for Certainty? are they simply seduced by the idea of being sure about Something (namely, that there's no God.) (This might account for the denunciations of mnystery and the insistence that, if there's anything we don,t know, science will discover it next week. And do the people who buy it similarly think that, since it's Science, it must be the final answer to everything?
As for the book itself - Of course you are right that its rampant dogmatism and lack of argument is quite incompatible with the claim to be scientific. And of course, again, D's dogmatic `naturalism', which treats only what is dealt with by the natural sciences as real, disproves the existence of things like Britain, or its constitution, or consciousness, or the rules of football. As you say, many of the most important things in human life are not material. But that's a bit of philosophic thinking which he has never felt the need to do. This bad ontology comes out, too, doesn't it? in his notion that non-scientific concepts only provide `short-cuts' because they don't represent reality. There's a highly superstitious veneration of the scientists' representation of the world here
Your point about the evolutionary advantages of religion is surely also right. Dan Dennett, who is better educated than Dawkins, worries a bit more about this and concludes that we have to go along with keeping religion going (as you suggest) as a sort of practical support, but we must avoid taking it too seriously. He doesn't seem to notice that exactly the same applies to Darwinism - indeed, the whole Meme approach makes it impossible to take any doctrine seriously, doesn't it? Where's the thoroughgoing scepticism about science that should be on offer here?
Again, you're right that his attempts to say that science can take over the functions of religion fail because he simply isn't interested in asking what the functions of religion might actually be, except for `consolation', where, as you say, prescribing science instead isn't very convincing. But he doesn't seem to think that consolation is very important anyway.
It's all rather depressing, especially when considered as a best-seller. There have been some sensible reactions against it, but of course they don;t get anything like the same hype. I'm hoping that people will get bored enough soon with this stuff to put it out of fashion.