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. This post breaks down the letter and offers a series of critical responses to it.
Dawkins reveals what he thinks are adequate grounds for belief,
“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 an appropriate empiricist view one should not take issue with. Dawkins is rightly saying that beliefs must be grounded in evidence that is informed by the five senses.
The problem, however, is Dawkins’ brand of atheistic-naturalism, which he has asserted in many places, is the claim that empirical verification is the only means to know the truth or to discover truth. This view has often been called scientism, which is a materialist worldview that postulates that metaphysics and philosophy, as well as theology, are meaningless.
These are meaningless because the subjects they engage (God, the supernatural, miracles, free will, life after death, logic, consciousness, morality, aesthetics, etc.) are beyond empirical verification. But as Dawkins’ critics have rightly noted, Dawkins provides no evidence that can be traced back to observations from the five senses to justify this criterion itself. Rather, he just asserts it. The question is then: What kind of evidence derived from the five senses could Dawkins offer for the claim that the only kind of evidence is that which ultimately derives from observations rooted in the five senses?
Moving on, Dawkins says that in contrast to “evidence, which is a good reason for believing something”, there are “three bad reasons for believing anything.” These are: “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation”. A few more inconsistencies emerge.
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 crosshairs here is the notion of religious authority, such as held by a priest or pastor, or any religious figure in a higher position in the organizational hierarchy than oneself. The way Dawkins uses the term here, suggests that authority is always a bad thing.
But if anyone applied this logic in daily life, it would have disastrous implications for so many things. For example, it would require that law courts do away with expert testimony because, technically, that would be deemed an “authority”. Is the judge not also an authority in the court evaluating evidence to come to a verdict? What about the lawyers and detectives providing this evidence to a jury?
One would also probably have to shut down universities because, on Dawkins’ logic, students should not listen to their professors, who are experts in their fields and certainly academic authorities in the lecture halls. What about the doctor?
Long story short, Dawkins’ logic means we (and his daughter) should not trust any authority or their professional judgments. It is clear that this is problematic.
Rather, a more nuanced view is that one can listen to an authority (preacher, doctor, lawyer, etc.) but should put cognitive steps into place to avoid being uncritical. Certainly, one should want a good reason to believe in something an authority asserts. Dawkins is no doubt right that one should never blindly follow authorities without good reason and/or accept that what they are informing us of is true.
But this is also also a huge oversight on Dawkins’ behalf. In this letter addressed to his daughter, Dawkins is acting as an authority. Dawkins is wiser and far more knowledgeable than his daughter, which is why he pens a letter to her giving what he thinks is good advice for her to live by. The irony would be that if she took her father’s advice to heart, she would have to reject the letter itself and any advice therein.
Dawkins then raises the notion of tradition, which he also views in a negative light.
The problem for Dawkins is that he is embedded and entangled in tradition, and no human being on earth is detached from context and tradition.
Dawkins is placed in a scientific and atheistic-naturalist tradition, which are traditions in which thousands of smart individuals have come and gone well before his time. Some ancient Greek philosophers held naturalistic views, as did various thinkers to emerge during the more recent Enlightenment period. Dawkins would likely not know about Sigmund Freud, it but I would place him (and some of his New Atheist peers) in the Freudian tradition in which religion is ideologically constructed as the ultimate enemy of reason and a sign of underlying mental disorders (the symptom of “universal neuroses” to be more specific).
So, in more ways than one, Dawkins is not detached from context and tradition(s). His ideas, especially in religion and philosophy, are far from unique and, in fact, are in many ways grossly uninformed. Again, if his daughter imbibed her father’s advice, she would need to reject another large section of the letter.
Dawkins further urges his daughter to be aware that “People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside… But this is a bad argument”.
This might strike many as commonsensical but that would be only superficial. The fact is that human beings tend to have many “feelings deep inside” about certain things.
Does it not feel wrong to torture a puppy or for a person to rape another individual? Regardless of the ontological nature of morality, almost everyone will feel that one or more acts of immense evil are wrong. Unless Dawkins is a sociopath, he will have deep feelings inside himself too.
In many cases, he makes this very apparent. He strongly feels that the indoctrination of children by religious parents and authorities, and threatening them with hellfire if they do not believe in God is evil. Dawkins does not like that so many religious people reject the theory of evolution and teach their children Bible-based creationist ideas as if they are scientific. Dawkins feels that blind faith is one of the greatest evils. Dawkins clearly has all sorts of feelings. So, when his daughter is informed by her teacher that bullying others is wrong because the teacher has strong “feelings deep inside” about it, should she reject the teacher’s advice?
Dawkins then aims the nose of his skepticism at various miracles taught in the Bible,
“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.”
This is indeed Dawkins’ view but a small letter like his cannot be said to do justice to any one of the topics he has raised in this sentence.
Each and every one of them (belief in supernatural agents and miracles, the function of prayer, specific Christian beliefs, etc.) are very large areas that have been debated and dissected in great detail for many centuries if not more, and into the twenty-first century too.
This all raises the red flag of indoctrination, the very crime Dawkins attributes to religion and the religious. One could make the case that this letter functions as a form of indoctrination geared toward his daughter, who, at that stage, was a young and impressionable child. Dawkins is well aware that his daughter knows very little if anything about the advanced debates surrounding these religious and philosophical topics, which suggests an attempt to strategically mobilize her ignorance against her and to his own advantage.
A much fairer approach would attempt to be more informed and accurate regarding the topics one critically discusses. To write a letter such as this, Dawkins was disrespectful and inconsiderate of the worldviews of others he does not share. I believe Dawkins is uninformed in many of these areas but he is smart enough to realize doing a bit of research and exercising some care when disagreeing with others and their beliefs is the right approach. Dawkins knows what the Golden Rule is but his career of critical engagement in the realm of religion has been a series of unreflective, unfortunate events, one after another.
1. Rational Response Squad. 2006. Richard Dawkins letter to his 10 year old daughter (how to warn your child about this irrational world). Available
[…] to be such a man of science, is also terribly naive (a good example would be my analysis of a letter he penned to his daughter). What science works from is the assumption of methodological naturalism […]
“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.
Thanks Bob. Though I doubt he can do better
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.
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).
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.