Tag Archives: atheism

The New Richard Dawkins

I rarely idolize writers or public personalities in general, but last month I found myself in a long line at Kimmel Center to get my copy of Richard Dawkins’ new book signed. The talk at NYU was part of a series of appearances to advertise the launching if his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, in which he describes some events that led to his well known intellectual position, and in particular to the writing of The Selfish Gene, the book that turned him into global celebrity in the 70s.

I still have to read the book, but there’s already something to say based on his talk at Kimmel, and an extended interview he gave the day before to John Stewart at The Daily Show. Namely, that Dawkins’ discourse got milder, less combative, and reaches to broader concerns, rather than simply to ridicule religious practices — what he is most famous for, since the publishing of The God Delusion in 2006.

Dawkins has certainly made a lot of religious enemies, but he also caused controversy among atheists. Critics argue that the scientist ignores the social and psychological benefits provided by religious practice, focusing simply on attacking beliefs, dogmas, rituals, and sacred scriptures.

Although I agree with the criticism, I think people like Richard Dawking, and books like The God Delusion, are necessary. As I wrote in a previous article, they provide support to individuals who want to get rid of religious superstition, and need help understanding why it is alright to do so. But in the article I also point to the lack of support to atheists after the religious ties are broken. That is, while it’s straightforward to see what is wrong with blind faith, no alternative is provided, and the atheist is left to deal with major life questions traditionally approached by religion (such as ethics, will, and purpose) all by himself.

Dawkins new discourse indicates he’s aware of these issues. It can be seen, for instance, in one of the highlights of his interview at The Daily Show, when John Stewart asks about the consequences of knowing that man is just “individual genes fighting for their own survival.”

“Natural selection working at the level of genes has put our bodies here and our brains here,” Dawkins replied, “but our brains are capable of taking off and departing from, cutting ourselves adrift from the dark side of our Darwinian heritage. You don’t have to be pessimistic and say we’re only a machine for our genes. We rise above that. We’ve got big brains, we’ve got culture, we’ve got art, we’ve got music, we’ve got poetry, we’ve got science. We’ve left behind the wild world in which our genes were naturally selected.”

I hope the author will further discuss these topics on upcoming publications. For, as in the case of religious criticism, a secular approach to them is also necessary.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

We Need Newer Atheists

With the spring of modern science, the “God hypothesis” — as famously referred to by the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace — turned out less and less necessary to explain natural events. The phenomenon caused religiosity to decline, specially among educated people. As secular States developed and freedom of expression emerged as a human right, criticism of religion, both by philosophers and scientists, inevitably became widespread.

In this sense, the movement led by Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens — the so called New Atheists — is not new; although it was triggered by a new use of the power of religion: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the concept of reward in an afterlife, and blind faith on it.

On a sober review, the New Atheists present a modern, updated, supporting framework, for the individual that’s able to overcome the frightening concept of eternal punishment, often solidified during a religious childhood, and to realize that “everything is possible” or “God works in mysterious ways” are merrily shortcuts for intellectual escapism. Their books provide excellent guidance out of the mazes and away from the traps of faith in its pure form.

However, despite more recent attempts, such as Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality and Harris’ Free Will, the New Atheists, or the “old” ones for that matter, don’t have the same level of success in laying the foundations for a fulfilling life with atheism.

As it turns out, the pursuit of happiness is a journey far more complex than the logic of the involved chemical components and the understanding of the evolutionary processes behind them. Throughout history, besides the supernatural-related affairs, religion took care of many aspects related with the self and life in society, often times providing valuable answers, in the individual and collective realms, as in the practice of meditation, and the act of gathering to celebrate a common purpose, for instance.

But as technology gets more powerful, the world more connected, and cultures clash in unprecedented scale, it becomes too dangerous to leave guidance on these complicated topics to people who base their rationale on dogmas, supposedly sacred books from the ages of tribalism, dreams, and entities undistinguishable from imaginary friends.

This gap has been recognized. We can see the emergence of interesting movements, such as Secular Humanism, and thinkers are starting to approach the topic — see, for instance, recent work by the British philosopher Alain de Botton. Unfortunately, though, there is no solid, structured proposal, and the average atheist is in great part left to find his way through life individually, having to learn and test alternatives by himself.

In part, this is due to the fact that the territory of mind is largely unknown, and a honest, confident answer, can’t be formulated yet. It’s good that we treat the topic carefully, but we need more people, “newer” atheists, to start thinking and acting towards that goal. Because, as the cliche goes, life is too short — a fact we atheists are very aware of.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)