Reflecting on Richard Dawkins’ Letter to His Daughter

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The new atheist activist and anti-theist Richard Dawkins presented his daughter with what I believe is problematic and inconsistent advice. His daughter was just ten at the time he gave his advice to her (1). The letter focuses on the justification for belief and several reasons for believing something Dawkins considers unjustified. Dawkins reveals what he thinks are adequate grounds for one to believe in something,

“Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation… Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it.”

This is indeed an appropriate empiricist view which I do not have an issue with. Dawkins is also saying that all credible beliefs must be grounded in evidence. Evidence must always be based on observation from the five senses. The problem with Dawkins’ brand of atheistic-naturalism, as it has been stated in many places, is the claim that empirical verification is the only means to know truth or to discover the truth. On such a view, known often disparagingly as scientism, metaphysics and philosophy, as well as theology, are meaningless. They are meaningless because the questions they engage like God, the supernatural, miracles, freewill, life after death, logic, consciousness, morality, aesthetics, and so on are beyond empirical verification. But as Dawkins’ critics have rightly noted, this is problematic for the reason that Dawkins provides no evidence that can be traced back to observations from the five senses to justify the criterion itself. He just asserts it. What kind of evidence derived from the five senses could Dawkins provide for the claim that the only kind of evidence is that which ultimately derives from observations rooted in the five senses?

Dawkins goes on and says that in contrast to “evidence, which is a good reason for believing something,” there are “three bad reasons for believing anything.” These bad reasons, he maintains, are “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation.” Here we find several more inconsistencies.

Dawkins says that “Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing it because you are told to believe it by somebody important.” In the way Dawkins has used the term here, authority is always a bad thing. But if one were to apply this logic beyond this limited scope it would have disastrous implications for so many things we take for granted. For example, it would require that law courts do away with expert testimony because, technically, that would be deemed an “authority.” One would probably have to shut down universities too since it would prove a problem for students to have to listen to their professors, who are clearly authorities in the lecture halls and in the fields they are experts in. What about the doctor or the biologist? Applying Dawkins’ logic would mean we would not be able to trust their professional judgment because they are all authorities (there goes Dawkins’ own field of study too). So, we do need to rely on authorities and accept that they have a legitimate role in various sectors of life. This does not mean that we need to be ignorant or uncritical. Certainly we would also want to have good reason to believe in an authority. Of course, I would agree with Dawkins that we should not just blindly follow authorities without reason and accept that what they are telling us is true. Let us also not forget that in the context of Dawkins’ engagement with his daughter in this letter he himself is acting as an authority. Dawkins certainly thinks he is wiser and more knowledgeable that his daughter so that he can write her good advice. The irony is that if she had to take her father’s advice she would have to reject the letter!

Dawkins then tackles tradition, which he also views in a negative light. But this strikes me as naive. It is naive for Dawkins to think that he is somehow detached from context and tradition. Why? Because Dawkins himself is trying to influence his daughter of atheistic-naturalism, but this is a philosophy itself that has a history. Naturalistic-materialistic views were presented by ancient Greek thinkers well over 2000 years ago and, more recently, as little as two centuries ago in the Enlightenment. The point here is that Dawkins isn’t detached from context as though his ideas are unique to himself; rather, his ideas have been articulated by far more capable and intelligent thinkers historically. Dawkins’ entire philosophical system is built upon tradition itself which means that, again, if Dawkins’ daughter were to take her father’s advice then she would need to reject the view held by her father.

Dawkins then urges his daughter to be aware that “People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside… But this is a bad argument.”

Although this might strike many readers as commonsensical, I find this to be more rhetorical and hardly evident. The first problem with this statement is that human beings do tend to have “feelings deep inside” concerning certain things. We have feelings inside on moral questions and issues; for example, it feels wrong to torture a puppy or for a person to rape someone else. We know that these acts are evil because we feel that they are wrong. Unless Dawkins is a sociopath he himself will also have feelings deep inside himself. He deeply feels that indoctrinating children in religion by threatening them with hell if they don’t believe in God is evil. Dawkins has many feelings about religious people who reject evolutionary theory and teach their children alternative creationist ideas. Dawkins feels that blind faith is one of the greatest evils. Dawkins clearly has all sorts of feelings. But one shouldn’t be surprised why he thinks this is good advice. It makes sense on his rigid scientism in which questions of morality are meaningless because they cannot be empirically verified.

Dawkins then aims for the Christian religion in particular,

“Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood – not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence.”

Unfortunately for Dawkins, a small letter like his will not do justice to any one of these topics. Each and every one of these (belief in God, prayer, miracles, a virgin birth, etc.) are enormous subjects that have been debated, dissected, supported, criticized, affirmed, rejected, and more in greater detail elsewhere. What Dawkins is doing, and problematically in my view, is trying to indoctrinate his daughter into atheistic-naturalism. He knows that his daughter knows little if anything about the debates surrounding these topics, so he is trying to use her ignorance to his advantage. It is to get her on his side while her mind is still pliable and easily influenced. I believe in a far fairer approach, which is to present options: here is what Christians belief and why; here is what atheists and skeptics believe and why, etc., and let her make up her mind. But Dawkins won’t do that because he does not respect the views of others who disagree with him. He can’t respect the idea that there are people, just as intellectually bright and often brighter than himself, who really do believe in religion, God, and miracles. We should not expect someone who feels threatened by this fact to be fair.

References.

1. Rational Response Squad. 2006. Richard Dawkins letter to his 10 year old daughter (how to warn your child about this irrational world). Available

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8 comments

  1. “This is problematic because Dawkins provides no evidence that can be traced back to observations from the five senses to justify the criterion itself. He just asserts it.”

    Presuppositional word games. You can do better.

  2. Evidence MUST NOT “always be based (directly) on observation from the five senses”. There are many, many, many instances of phenomena that lie beyond the *sensoral tunability* of the human five senses. We cannot observe them directly, but must rely on physical devices and instruments for observational data.

    TRUE – INDIRECTLY we sense the outcomes and results of these hidden phenomena via our own senses, but ultimately they only lead us so far. Also there is no guarantee these devices will be able to detect the phenomena we are searching for, but then again MAYBE THEY WILL.

    What sort of “evidence”…..could Dawkins possibly produce that would “trace back to observations from the five senses to justify the criterion itself”…………..<<my own reflection to this statement is…….”WUT??!!”

    ..Well how about Dawkins referring back to the results of previous (historical) efforts of this methodology resulting in known reliable, TRUE, verifiably accurate results, possibly the results of some of his own previous work. How about referencing the fact that this criterion is firmly based in previous outlines and descriptions of Scientific Methodologies themselves??

    You seem to be trying to create an infinite regress, where there is none.

  3. I’ve quite admired Dawkins for his scientific contributions, but as a philosopher, he has always come up quite short, masking his insufficient knowledge in areas such as religion with witticisms, clever writing and speaking, and a sense of moral righteousness (which doesn’t seem to fit in with his worldview of a objectively valueless universe).

  4. I suggest that the above epistle is illogical rather than Dawkins’ letter. I believe that Dawkins does not say that “Authority” is wrong per se but merely that one should not believe something blindly. Authority always requires questioning. If it stands up to rigorous examination then it may be reasonable to accept it as correct.

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