Repent, brother Dawkins
By Charles Foster
Richard Dawkins is at it again in the Guardian. It’s the familiar stuff: a fluent, funny, whingeing litany of jibes about genocidal Israelites, filicidal Gods and benighted Tennessean Creationists. We’ve all heard it all before, of course. Dawkins has become a hackneyed national treasure. He’s a sort of pantomime dame – always doing the same old gags. We’d miss him if he didn’t appear. We love him for his ridiculousness, the extremity of his speech, and the extravagant colour of his bile, just as we love the dame’s unfeasibly enormous breasts and her outrageously striped tights. You’ve got to admire the Dawkins-Dame. He never rests on his laurels. His lines might be the same, but he tries to alternate his frocks. This time he’s wearing a very fetching little pretext: read the King James Version. It’s great literature, and it’ll tell you, almost as well as Dawkins himself, just how absurd religion is.
It takes great stamina to carry on doing the same show for decades. Why does he do it? He doesn’t need the money. Surely he’s not so insecure as to need the applause of his scientifically illiterate fan club? Doesn’t he know that there’s almost no one in mainstream biology who thinks that life and the universe are as monolithically simple as he says they are?
He’s done some genuine good. Much of what he says is right, and even more is entertaining. To use an intellect like his to lambast Young Earth Creationists is like shooting dairy cows with heat-seeking missiles. It’s not sporting, it’s not clever, but it is very funny, and it serves a social purpose. But he’s done all he can do. The Messianic mission is as complete as it can be. He’s smart enough to know that to continue will be counter-productive.
So why go on? Perhaps because he’s become his mission. Perhaps there’s no Richard Dawkins inside that scowling, spitting ball of godless epigrams. If he stopped preaching, maybe he’d just disintegrate. Old actors become their parts: when the show stops, so do they.
But I’d like to think that something else is going on. Dawkins, just like everyone else, is desperately searching for a metanarrative. Human beings are stories: they find meaning by finding a place in a bigger story. Dawkins’ rhetoric is that evolution is the only story there is. He writes lyrically about how satisfying he finds his own place in the Darwinian web of life. But, to my ear, he protests a bit too much. If he really finds his own set of answers so utterly fulfilling, why fulminate so loudly against those who aren’t totally convinced? Doesn’t it denote a lack of confidence in his solution? Like the latently gay homophobe, irresistibly drawn to gay bars, (if only to denounce them in the name of Yahweh) Dawkins is obsessed with religion. He wants to convince himself that he’s more cosmically significant than he insists he is.
His suppressed intuitions are correct. If you try to do life, ethics, or anything using any model of humans other than one of a story within a story, you’ll get things wrong.
One of the important things about stories is that they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Ideally the beginning, middle and end of human stories will be linked by a strand other than a mere sharing of the same biological vehicle. That strand has had various names: ‘soul’, ‘self’, and ‘integrity’, for instance. All of which are more or less unsatisfactory. Lack of connection between the three elements has various sinister psychiatric names, including depersonalisation. It’s a horrific diagnosis. It’s the object of many corporations. But it doesn’t seem the right diagnosis for Richard Dawkins. His thundering dissatisfaction is the saving strand.
So, brother Richard: repent. Come out of your closet. Say sorry to all those straw men you’ve so amusingly assaulted. There’s time yet for a good ending to the story that you’ve been.