Robert Wright promotes accommodationism, disses Dawkins


I’ve never encountered a single bit of writing by Robert Wright that hasn’t annoyed me.  A self-described agnostic, he is nevertheless the most ardent faitheist I’ve ever seen, constantly chiding atheists for not being nicer to the faithful.

And it doesn’t help that he seems to totally lack a sense of humor.  Once Wright sat next to me at a meeting in Mexico, determined to get me to admit that I had unfairly maligned him in my review of his book, The Evolution of God. I was so shaken by his relentlessness that I approached Dan Dennett afterwards and asked him for a hug. (There are few things more soothing to a distraught atheist than a hug from the amiable and bearded Dennett.)

At any rate, Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic, goes after Richard Dawkins in a piece in Monday’s issue, “Richard Dawkins, unreasonable atheist?” (The answer is “yes,” of course.) I’ll reproduce Wright’s plaint and the relevant video below.  This is his take on the Reason Rally, and all he says about it:

Some of my best friends are reasonable, and I try to be that way myself most of the time, but there is one thing about this rally that bothered me: the intermittent lack of reasonableness evinced by its most famous participant, Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins shares with me, and presumably with everyone at that rally, the goal of keeping America’s science curriculum uncorrupted by fundamentalists. For example, we both oppose a bill recently passed by the Tennessee legislature that allows teachers to challenge the theory of evolution–that is, to “teach the controversy.” (Teaching the controversy would be fine if there was an actual controversy within evolutionary biology about the truth of evolution.)

But is Dawkins really pursuing our common goal in a reasonable way? At the Reason Rally he encouraged people not just to take issue with religious teachings, but to “ridicule” religious belief and show “contempt” for it. Now, suppose you’re a conservative Christian in Tennessee, and a fellow conservative Christian is trying to convince you of the merits of that anti-evolution bill. You’re on the fence–you’d never really given much thought to whether your child’s religious beliefs would be threatened by the teaching of Darwin. Then you hear Richard Dawkins, probably the most prominent Darwinian in the world, advocating displays of contempt and ridicule for your religion.

Mightn’t you sense a threat from Darwinism that you hadn’t sensed before? Mightn’t you become, become, if anything, more fundamentalist (since fundamentalism is, among other things, a reaction against perceived threat)? And is it really reasonable for Dawkins to expect otherwise–to expect that contempt and ridicule will be productive?

I don’t think so. Yesterday, during an appearance on the MSNBC show Up With Chris Hayes, I got a chance to run my argument by Dawkins (whom I’m a great admirer of, and whose writing has had a great influence on me). The encounter is at the 6:05 mark in the clip below. As you can see, he was unswayed.



Written By: Jerry Coyne – WEIT
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  1. When someone makes a false claim, especially when they know it is a false claim, it does not deserve polite acquiesence.  Religions are involved in politics. If they can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

  2. roedygreen: “…especially when they know it is a false claim…”

    How do you know that they “know it is a false claim”?  Just because you are convinced that a certain theory is true doesn’t mean others share your certainty.  I’ve read a great deal of the material that challenges evolution and I don’t get the impression that those who have compiled it “know that they are wrong”.  They look to be pretty convinced in their own minds of their position.

    As it happens, the empirical scientific method cannot deliver certainty when it concerns reconstructions of events outside the range of direct observation, such as events of the distant past.  Such reconstructions are inevitably going to be influenced by assumptions.  It is clear to me that many people cannot understand why they are being expected to swallow the line that the complex systems of life MUST have been assembled without any intelligent input or guidance, especially given the information rich nature of such systems.  Abiogenesis, after all, is not exactly proven, is it?  So why assume that such people “know that they are wrong”?  That seems bizarre reasoning to me.

    And what is there to ridicule?  I thought science was about bouncing ideas around and always being open to new ideas and about current ideas being challenged.  Also scepticism is about questioning everything, even evolution.  A sceptic who is not prepared to challenge even his own naturalistic assumptions is not a sceptic in my book.  Scepticism works both ways.  I am a true sceptic, because I question everything, even Darwinism.  I hope that I don’t resort to the unreasonableness of ridicule, although we all have our weaknesses…

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