Sunday, 22 April 2012

Dawkins on history

Australia's Q&A broadcast a discussion between Richard Dawkins and George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney a couple of weeks ago. I have read thru the transcript though I did not see the broadcast.

Dawkin's made a several claims that were incorrect. I wish to address a couple of them. A minor one was in response to Pell's comment that Darwin called himself a theist.
PELL: Well, science and religion are two different activities and in the Catholic Church you can believe, to some extent, what you like about evolution. I think Darwin made a great contribution. I remember talking with Julius Kornberg, a very distinguished biologist, and he's worked with ants for years and he said, you know, he's managed to change them by changing the conditions but there are a number of things that evolution doesn't explain. Darwin realised that. Darwin was a theist because he said he couldn’t believe that the immense cosmos and all the beautiful things in the world came about either by chance or out of necessity. He said, “I have to be ranked as a theist.”

DAWKINS: That just not true.

PELL: Excuse me it’s...

DAWKINS: It’s just plain not true.

PELL: It’s on page 92 of his autobiography. Go and have a look.
Incorrect reference aside it is partly true, though not quite how Pell put it. In The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, and Selected Letters, Darwin writes about reasons for his belief in God in the context of his belief gradually diminishing
When thus reflecting, I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species, and it is since that time that it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker. But then arises the doubt—can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?

I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.
An admission to theism at the writing of Origin that had subsequently become agnosticism. So while various arguments suggested theism to Darwin at some times in his life, this gradually gave way to unbelief. Pell is correct in his statement about Darwin convictions at the time he wrote his theory, though not later in life. This development is not clear from Pell's comment. However Dawkins refusal to acknowledge this is unwarranted, especially as he seems ignorant of these comments of Darwin.

However what is particularly astounding in this discussion is an earlier comment by Dawkins on slavery.
DAWKINS: When you say that Christianity has been responsible for a lot of good, including science by the way, which is somewhat ironic, I think that most of the great benefits in humanity, such as the abolition of slavery, such as the emancipation of women, which the Cardinal both—mentioned both of, these have been rung out of our Christian history without much support from Christianity. I, as an atheist, my friends as atheists, lead thoroughly worthwhile lives, in our opinion, because we stand up, look the world in the face, face up to the fact that we are not going to last forever, we have to make the most of the short time that we have on this planet, we have to make this planet as good as we possibly can and try to leave it a better place than we found it.
Leaving aside the massive improvement in the conditions for women within Christendom compared to pagan society, where does Dawkins get his ideas about abolition?
without much support from Christianity.
Christians were at the forefront of abolition, especially in Britain. John Newton eventually quit then repudiated his previous occupation because of his faith. William Wilberforce brought bills before parliament for years to put a ban on the slave trade.

Slavery is a complicated issue, but as far as abolition of the trading of slaves and the end of slavery as an institution, Christians were very much at the forefront.

I have not discussed Pell's comments here. In general I thought he did a poor job and I disagree with him significantly on several issues. It would take some time to address all of them.


  1. I did watch that debate and find it strange that you feel the need to have a dig at Richard Dawkins when the Cardinal was the one who made an absolute fool of himself. Dawkins may have been jet-lagged (for good reason) but Pell appeared to be sherry-lagged. or perhaps its par for the course for a religious leader to make claims like humans evolved from Neanderthals! or diss the Jews as Pell did.

    Richard and Lawrence Krauss make some interesting comments on Pell and that debate in their discussion - see the video at "Toss out the moderator for a better discussion" (

    Dawkins is of course correct about Darwin - hardly surprising as he is an expert in that field. Darwin became more and more disillusioned with Christianity as he recognised the horrible pain and tragedy in nature revealed by his ideas on natural selection. By the time he wrote the Origins he was clearly not a Christian, but he felt obliged to introduce the word "creator" into later editions of the book (it wasn't in the first) and regretted having given in on that.

    He was concerned about the effect of his ideas on the strong beliefs of his wife and used to walk with his wife to their church on a Sunday but not attend himself.

    As for Pell's chauvinistic claims that Christianity is responsible for all that is good in the world - again Dawkins is more correct. Christianity is certainly not responsible for science - and on all these issues while one can find good people campaigning against slaver and oppression who were Christianity we can also find plenty of bad people who supported these evils who were Christian.

    Just think about apartheid in the RSA and segregation in the US.

    I don't think this debate was very enlightening - more interesting for psychological reasons. But the TV audience response was pretty dim for Christianity wasn't it?

    There doesn't seem much support for Christianity in Australia.

  2. Ken, my title said Dawkins on history. My point was that he was quick to deny something Pell said despite it appearing that he (Dawkins) was not aware of what Pell was referencing. Darwin's position on God was complex. I tried to make it clear that Pell needed to expand what he said. But he was correct that Darwin considered himself at the time of writing Origin. He states this himself at a later stage when he is willing to admit agnosticism. Dawkins did not appear to know this. This is no big deal. But Dawkins was quick to deny it anyway. This is what I was pointing out. Even a fellow atheist called Dawkins to task over this.

  3. On slavery, this topic is somewhat complex as I hinted at by mentioning both the slave trade, and owning slaves. Regardless of what you think about Christians debating this issue, it is very clear that the outlawing of the trading of slaves in England (and via their navy much of the world) was very much a Christian endeavour. Why the denial of this by Dawkins?

  4. Your complaint also seems to be that I raise an issues with Dawkins and not Pell. Yet I add a disclaimer to say that I disagreed with Pell quite substantially, I just did not address his comments. Dawkins is a spokesman for atheism. He is also an antitheist and virulently opposes Christianity. He also happens to make significant errors of fact that are easily documented.

    I guess I could write my disagreements with Pell, though that may be with answers he gave to most questions.

  5. Here's really the big issue with Christians trying to take credit for ending things like slavery: If Christianity were responsible, why didn't slavery end 1000 years earlier? Or why did the slave trade become so big in the middle of the 2nd millennium when so many of the countries involved were essentially Christian theocracies?
    Sure, you can point to a handful of people who happened to be both abolitionists and Christians, but where is the causal link? (Correlation does not imply causation.) Why were so many other Christians not abolitionists? Be careful not to claim they were not TRUE(TM) Christians, because that is also a logical fallacy.
    I'm also curious about these "massive improvements in the conditions for women" of which you speak. Citation needed.

  6. Bethyda, interesting you cherry pick Chris Berg to support your claim about Darwin's beliefs. That is just confirmation bias.

    I prefer to go by what Darwin actually wrote in the first edition and his later comments regretting his succumbing to pressure in later editions.

    However, the fact remains that Dawkins is far more widely and seriously read on this subject than Pell. The cardinal obviously grabbed a page number in his briefing for the debate - he didn't achieve any understanding. Quite the opposite.

    All issues are complex - not just slavery. The fact remains that Christians have certainly taken up positions justifying and fighting for the evils of slavery, racial and gender discrimination, etc.

    Bloody Hell, your mate Craig the topologist, actually as a Christian justifies genocide/ethnic cleansing and infanticide - providing his "loving" god commands it.

    These facts remain even though some Christians have fought against such evils. I suggest this sort of reinforces the scientific conclusions that such ideals are connected with humans, not originating in region, or Christianity.

    Your and Pell's claim is just Chauvinistic.

    My real complaint is not just that you stay away from criticising Pell, but feel compelled to always find something wrong or bad in Dawkins' position. Even if you have to invent it.

    "Dawkins' bashing" is rife amongst the theistically inclined - foolish really. Why do you think he gets invited on TV, attracts such huge crowds to his appearances and sells so many books? You guys can't help yourselves. You are his best publicity.

  7. Leo, Correlation may not imply causation but that is irrelevant to the question of abolition. You know their motives because they tell you.

    The question is not why did not every Christian oppose slavery, the question is why it was opposed solely by Christians based on their reading of Scripture when it was accepted in virtually every other culture. Who other than Christians were a force in opposing it. Opposition by Christians to slavery goes back further than a couple of centuries.

  8. It is really unwise to cite Dawkins as a historical authority. He frankly admits that he knows nothing outside of his field of expertise and does not want to learn, since his narrow view of the world is clearly superior to that held by 90% of humanity.

    Prior to Great Britain banning the slave trade, there had been atheist arguments for treating slaves kindly, or even for abolition, but they were not persuasive enough to overcome the economic incentives. Those economic incentives grew to be so overwhelming during the colonial era that a racially based lifetime model of slavery (made popular by the Arabs) became the prevailing system, at least in the US.

    By the way, the US Civil War was not fought by a bunch of Northern scientific atheists against a bunch of slobbering Southern Baptists; for some time beforehand, Christian abolitionists had been undermining the pro-slavery Christians in the South.

    There is no "scientific" argument against slavery that predates 18th-century abolitionism. Moreover, all of the "scientific" arguments supported racial slavery until the twentieth century, and they have had no effect at all on modern slavery.

    The non-scientific atheist humanist argument owes its entire basis to Christian humanism. The fact that Christians have argued on both sides of this issue is not proof that atheists are smarter; it is proof that Christianity has never been the monolithic monster portrayed in atheist parodies.

  9. Dave, agreed. But he is also a public spokesman that people listen to. Because of this influence I think it useful (though perhaps you may think pointless) for his errors to be identified.

    I kept away from the US situation because I think it more complex than the average person understands. There is the difference between slave trade and slave ownership which are addressed quite differently biblically.

  10. Sorry, bethyada, I was addressing Ken's defense of Dawkins. I encourage you to point out Dawkins's errors.



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