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Dawkins delusion: the legacy of New Atheism



Contrary to their claims, the New Atheists do have a creation myth. It goes something like this: emerging from darkness into the light, Enlightenment thinkers cast off the shackles of religion and, in so doing, ushered in an age of reason. For the likes of Richard Dawkins, a founding member of the movement, this is an article of faith, and he’s spent recent years casting himself not just as an heir of this tradition, but also as its modern day guardian.

Richard Dawkins in Sydney promoting his book (Getty Images/Don Arnold)

When Dawkins speaks of the Enlightenment one knows what he means — he is talking about Locke and Hume and Newton and the triumph of the scientific method. He is not talking about the Enlightenment of Isaiah Berlin and its legacy of monism, which, he argued, tends to authoritarianism; nor is he talking about the Enlightenment of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, with its scientific racism and state absolutism and from which, they claimed, a direct line could be drawn to the Holocaust.

Blissfully unaware and lacking even an iota of self-doubt, it’s become something of a periodic rite for Dawkins to take to Twitter to demonstrate that he is far more a custodian of the Enlightenment he rejects than the one he accepts. His latest flirtation with the merits of eugenics is a case in point:

‘It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.’

Science and ethics, in this formulation, occupy two distinct spheres. For Dawkins, unethical science is not ipso facto bad science.

One sees many of these same shortcomings in his atheism, which is fundamentalist at its core. Instead of dealing with theological questions in a serious or meaningful way, he relies almost exclusively on literalist readings of religious texts. It is fideism dressed up as rationalism. Those who believe such fantasies, in the worldview of the New Atheists, are unenlightened idiots, not yet liberated from God.


'God didn’t die — he was superseded by the god of materialism. Capitalism has atomised societies, undermined meaningful communities and left people feeling alienated and alone.'


Their model of freedom is based on an ethics of choice — belief is simply a matter of weighing up the evidence and making a decision accordingly.

This notion shares some striking similarities with rightwing libertarian notions of free will and, specifically, the idea that the freedom of choice is the highest form of freedom. In contemporary politics this manifests itself in a reductive biologism that’s dismissive of structural inequalities (we are all masters of their own destiny, etc.) and an unwavering commitment to the free market (regulations being unjust restrictions on the choices available to individuals).

In a recent piece for Overland, Jeff Sparrow pointed out that Dawkins — ‘the dreary boor regularly popping up in your social media feed with yet another drunken uncle tweet about gender or race‘ — hasn’t changed in recent years; rather, the world has. But Sparrow doesn't cover all the monumental forms that change has taken. 

The God Delusion was published in 2006, two years prior the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. For many, the GFC dashed any sense of optimism and laid bare the fundamental immorality of the market. While the financial institutions were bailed out, those who’d lost everything because of the reckless and dishonest conduct of bankers were left destitute.

Since then, developed economies have shown little interest in making the necessary reforms to address inequality and prevent another crisis. Naturally, many people who’ve come of age in the shadow the GFC have begun to question the neoliberal consensus that’s been in place since the 1970s, expressed most obviously in support among young voters for unapologetically anti-capitalist politicians like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Significant mass movements have developed around these figures not simply because they are committed to fighting the structural inequalities imposed from above, but because they also provide an alternative to the nihilism of unbridled capitalism and commodification. God didn’t die — he was superseded by the god of materialism. Capitalism has atomised societies, undermined meaningful communities and left people feeling alienated and alone. ‘Anti-capitalism,’ wrote Mark Fisher, ‘must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality.’

The New Atheists — partly because they derive their identity from what they oppose, rather than what they believe — have never provided convincing remedies to the nihilism Nietzsche sensed with uncommon acuteness, nor do they offer the promise of a universal project. The Hindu in rural India is no less of a dupe than the Baptist in America or the Muslim in Libya. But if atheism is a precondition of your supposedly progressive movement, then it’s going to exclude most of the world’s population. 

Dawkins the biologist brought the wonder and splendour of the natural world to mainstream audiences, but for Dawkins the atheist that complexity and nuance doesn’t seem to extend to the realm of human thought. He would do well to heed the warning of one of the Enlightenment’s most important thinkers: ‘Doubt is an uncomfortable position,’ wrote Voltaire, ‘but certainty is a ridiculous one.’



Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

Main image: Richard Dawkins in Sydney promoting his book (Getty Images/Don Arnold)

Topic tags: Tim Robertson, New Atheism



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Existing comments

High time the "new atheism" were called for what it is: scientific fideism. Well done, Tim Robertson (though I'm a little bemused by the certain tone of Voltaire's endorsement of uncertainty).

John RD | 26 February 2020  

Atheism generally criticises or ridicules believers on the basis that the believers cannot provide absolute(scientific ) evidence of the existence of God. Amazingly, Atheism is yet to provide evidence in support of the non-existence of God. A recent global survey conducted by Encyclopaedia Britannica indicated: believers 80% of the world's population, agnostics 18% and atheists 2%.

john frawley | 26 February 2020  

Dawkins does not know his maths, that most rational of disciplines. In 1931, Gödel proved theorems that in any logically consistent system, statements can be made which cannot be proved. In other words, things can be true, but cannot be proved. Dawkins believed (stated in "The God Delusion" I think) that a proof that "God does not exist" would eventually be found. Mathematics has nothing to say about such a statement; it declares itself to be agnostic, not atheist.

Peter Horan | 26 February 2020  

'God didn’t die — he was superseded by the god of materialism. Capitalism has atomised societies, undermined meaningful communities and left people feeling alienated and alone.' In old time language, the worship of Mammon.

Jim | 26 February 2020  

Reading "The God Delusion" about two years after it was published, I was struck by Dawkins's attempt to explain everything in terms of evolution. I recognise the scientific validity of Darwinian evolution, but to explain every aspect of human life as evolutionary is application of this valid scientific finding far beyond its defined scope. More broadly, the main problem I have with the New Atheism is that a much higher level of faith in statistics is required to believe that all life started and developed from the chance bonding of molecules in the 'primal seas' than to believe in a pre-existent life-force which energised the Big Bang and everything that followed. I really do not have the required level of faith demanded by the New Atheists.

Ian Fraser | 27 February 2020  

Is it capitalism per se Jim, or is it the excessive concentration of power? After all, other politico-economic systems (think communism and fascism) have 'atomised societies' through concentration of power.

Ginger Meggs | 27 February 2020  

Richard Dawkins is English and very much part of a long tradition which started off with the first Enlightenment in its particularly English expression. This particular Enlightenment was very much the possession of the English upper classes and took place at the same time the First British Empire was being built on the backs of slaves in the West Indies. This was also the time of the Industrial Revolution. To the upper classes workers and slaves were at the bottom of the pecking order. It is possibly a natural expression of the inherent superiority the upper class feels to believe in eugenics. Dawkins is a formidable controversialist, whose former Chair of the Public Understanding of Science was specifically funded and founded for him. He is on the same pedestal on the Transatlantic speaker circuit as the late Christopher Hitchens. Propounding Atheism and the resulting controversy with believers is very popular there. My answer to him on Unbelief would be to quote Blake's poem 'Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau'. Interestingly, Rousseau is reported to have confessed and been received back into the Church on his deathbed.

Edward Fido | 27 February 2020  

Thanks for this Tim. I would go further. Someone like Dawson is a shadow of the great atheists of former times. That he has gained such popularity and that anti-capitalism has gained such popularity is a sad indictment of the church’s ability to communicate the deeper and richer truths running all the way back to Abraham and coming up to Theresa of Calcutta, Edith Stein, Thomas Merton and so on...

Rob McCahill | 28 February 2020  

And indeed Alister (and Joanna) McGrath have tackled Dawkins with great cogency in 'The Dawkins Delusion'

Ian Carmichael | 28 February 2020  

“His latest flirtation with the merits of eugenics is a case in point: ‘It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.’” Read his correction of the blog hysteria against him (which may have come after this article was submitted for publication). ‘[W]ouldn’t it work for humans’ refers to the technical possibility of applying eugenics to humans, not to its moral desirability. Anyway, given that the primary unease in the cosmos is the war of Lucifer against God, why would breeding a strain of temperament in favour of obedience to God be a bad thing? Wouldn’t that be the same as breeding the alcoholism predilection out of humans, or the vulnerability to sickle-cell anaemia?

roy chen yee | 28 February 2020  

Thank you. It is a relief to read this 'enlightened'piece, after years of being bombarded by Dawkins' arrogant certainty. I do not hav the scientific background to argue with him, but committed I've-time of faith-filled endeavours and my own faith, while full of questions, is still strong at 84 and in poor health.

Margaret Lamb | 01 March 2020  

There is an arrogance born of certainty - hubris - on both sides of this divide. Voltaire was spot on. Certainty should always be qualified with the caveat 'but I may be wrong'.

Ginger Meggs | 01 March 2020  

While acknowledging the wonderful way Dawks has with words in describing The Greatest Show on Earth and his evangelical spirit in spreading the doctrine of atheism, he is still left, in the final analysis, with emptiness. As can happen with extremely specialised intellectual pursuits, the same rigorous investigatory practices are not always applied equally to those the protagonist opposes, for example, in The God Delusion, Dawks contemptuously dismisses the phenomenon of .christianity, the testimony of four gospels and centuries of systematic theology, form criticism and exegesis in a few pages - not the performance of serious scholarship. A Big problem for the atheist is "proving" that the mind blowing complexity of life on little blue planet earth originated by chance - an experiment which of course was not observed and cannot be replicated. Amazing that he seems so certain about his views!

Graeme | 05 March 2020  

I believe Dawkins is merely a shrewd business operator playing a role in order to increase book sales. None of the revelations he makes in his books about the myths of religion are new - and neither are they cause to abandon faith. He simply targets jaded believers who probably had simplistic views about their faith and replaces their now-unlikely religious fundamentalism with a form of atheistic fundamentalism.

AURELIUS | 23 March 2020  

You are right Graeme, nobody can prove anything in this debate. Dawkins can't prove his point any more than you or I can prove our opinions. But the discussion can be fascinating. I do wonder though at your disrespect in calling him "Dawks". I know it is just a small annoying point but it looks like a contemptuous dismissal of him as a person and it detracts from any counter-argument to his points. We will never know because there is no proof, but just like you and every other opinion here, Dawkins may yet be right after all.

Brett | 02 April 2020  

“Dawkins the biologist….” Perhaps he should have started his career of atheism as a physicist. It’s plausible to claim that given enough time, the complexity in a piece of macro-biology (such as a pattern on a wing which makes a butterfly look more like a branch and therefore less likely to be eaten) might change into a different arrangement because life is movement, movement consists of sequences of chemical steps, and once in a while a step in a sequence might not be identical to the steps preceding it (random mutation) and cause a different path or sequence of steps to come into being. But well before macro-biochemistry is micro-physics and the question of why an electron, the thing that makes sequences change by changing chemistry, doesn’t evolve even though it spends its entire life (which is forever, matter neither being created nor destroyed, or, at least, to date, six billion years old) in super-motion, the specific ‘places’ of which cannot be predicted, but yet overall behaving predictably enough that we have chemistry stable enough to make the same concrete, steel and coronavirus vaccines day in and day out. Is there evolution in deep physics? That’s where everything is sustained.

roy chen yee | 05 April 2020  

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