Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The three states of Richard Dawkins

As far as I can tell Richard Dawkins has three modes of being:

1. Angry and hostile (usually as a result of talking to religious extremists)

2. Slightly bemused (when talking to alternative health practitioners or new agey types)

3. Funny and enthusiastic (when discussing the achievements of science)

The first mode is most obvious in his series The Root of All Evil, where he travelled the world meeting and losing his temped with religious extremists. The problem with talking to any kind of extremist is they’re extremists. It doesn’t matter how rational or well constructed your counter argument is they gave up rational thought a long time ago. It’s the equivalent to being trapped in The Matrix. To speculate that religion or your mode of thinking maybe false or flawed is enough to sending you screaming into the dessert of the real, only to be confronted by even more, potentially disconcerting questions.

The second mode is most evident is his current series, The Enemies of Reason. Dawkins swaps, skullcaps and crucifixes for Tarots and crystals, confronting the legitimacy of New Age practices and alternative medicines. So far, Dawkins has met all the usual sort of people you’d expect to be embroiled in something like this. Most are harmless. He tries to dispel their illusions by either supplying, double blind tests or asking why they haven’t been conducted in that field. Usually the practitioners crumble or resort to, ‘I don’t know how it works but it does.’

The third state is in his TED lectures. My favourite is his talk on ‘militant atheism,’ where he argues atheists across the globe should unite and let our collective grey matter, green matter and political matter be felt.

If I have any criticism against Dawkins, it’s his militancy against horoscopes and tarot readings. I agree that religious extremists must be challenged wherever they spout rhetoric of hate and oppression. I agree that alternative medicines need to undergo strict testing like their scientific counterparts. And I agree that spirit mediums and the like should be held to account for perverting people’s feelings at the passing of loved ones.

The only reason I spare tarot cards and horoscopes is they’re fairly harmless. Anyone who truly believes in the legitimacy or power of one of these practices to actually guide their lives by it are obviously idiots. The fact is, even if you took these things away they’d still be idiots. This is the one thing I think Dawkin’s fails to grasp: take away religion, spiritualism, superstition whatever; you will have to find something to replace it. Not everyone is cut out for the life of being placated by the natural wonder of the universe and life itself. It’s too big for some, too random and non-linear. I’ve personally found solace in western philosophy. There’s something comforting to know that for centuries there have been other people wrestling with the same big questions you have been.

Go watch Dawkins or read some Wittgenstein. Go!

No comments: