by Freddie Sayers
Friday, 18
June 2021

Richard Dawkins: ‘Scientism’ is a dirty word

The prominent atheist discusses the limits of science and the fate of New Atheism
by Freddie Sayers

We were really delighted that Richard Dawkins agreed to come on LockdownTV to discuss “Scientism” and his new anthology of writing about science literature, Books do furnish a Life.

It turns out that Mr Dawkins’ view of “Scientism” is that it is a “dirty word used by people who are critical of scientists” — so that was a relatively brief part of the conversation.

On Covid, he is not especially worried about the boundaries of politics and science becoming blurred, but feels that “science is the way to discover the right answer to anything about the real world — and that, of course, includes how to deal with a serious epidemic.” Vaccination and mask-wearing is “not a matter of a set of self interest” it is a “moral responsibility.”

I asked Mr Dawkins about the impact of the New Atheism movement, ten or more years on. How does he respond to Scott Alexander’s analysis that the Atheist+ activists of the 2000s seem to have graduated into the social justice warriors of the 2010s?

“I’m interested in science, I’m not interested in politics or sociology.” Fair enough!

I also asked how he responds to the Tom Holland thesis that the atheist movement bears many of the hallmarks of evangelical Christianity?

The historical roots of where we’re coming from, are in Christianity, that I suppose is undeniable — that’s not in any sense, a defence of Christianity. It’s not in any sense meaning that you can’t be an atheist without being post-Christian or anything like that. But it’s just a historical fact, which I suppose is mildly interesting. Not very.
- Richard Dawkins, UnHerd

Mr Dawkins went into detail about a fascinating essay in his book about the evolutionary power of kin selection, how prioritising genetic relatives explains so much behaviour in the animal world. So what does that say about the human species? If prioritising our genetic in-group is so deeply wired in our DNA, what does that say about the tendency to revert to a tribal or race-based politics?

In modern societies like ours, we don’t see that in any simple way. There are disciplines like called evolutionary psychology, which try to interpret modern society in those terms with a certain amount of success. But it has to be done in a rather clever, indirect way… I think it is very difficult. And I think you’d have to tread very carefully. I think it’s probably safest not to apply these ideas in any kind of naive or simplistic way. You have to be very sophisticated about it.
- Richard Dawkins, UnHerd

We discussed a conversation he had with Christopher Hitchens back in 2011 when they were both worried about America becoming a “theocracy”. Ten years on, that seems like rather a remote possibility, surely?

I think things are getting better in America. The trends reflected in the polls suggest that things are getting better the number of people who do not subscribe to a religion, so called nuns and o n e s, so called nuns, allow up to about 25%, which is about as many as any particular religious denomination in America. So that’s pretty good news. It’s not news, which has reached the eyes of politicians necessarily, because they still seem to feel the need to just suck up to religious, special interest groups and to ignore the non believers in America. But statistically, things are going in the right direction.
- Richard Dawkins, UnHerd

So what is the Dawkins dream scenario? A world where that number falls to zero and there are no religious people left?

Yes, to me, the hope would be default to zero. Christopher Hitchens disagreed with that — he rather paradoxically liked having religious people around so that you could argue with them. I would prefer religious belief to fall to zero. But that does not mean that I like to get rid of all the cultural baggage that goes with it because that includes beautiful music, beautiful art, beautiful poetry. I would not wish to be without the B minor mass or Mozart’s Requiem, these are wonderful pieces of music. And the same goes for great art, and great literature — the Bible itself is great literature.
- Richard Dawkins, UnHerd

Dawkins believes that as we move away from religion we are becoming more moral.

We no longer have public executions, public torture, we no longer have the stocks where we throw rotten eggs at people; we no longer torture cats for the sheer amusement. bullfighting is going out. So there are there are a strong trends in in what I think you and I would both agree are the right direction. And these are secular trends. Religious people have possibly contributed, by example, to the abolition of slavery, but that was in the teeth of other religious people — slavery is sanctioned in the Bible, after all — so the sorts of things like the abolition of slavery, the decline of racism, the decline of sexism, all these good trends are, I think, in the main secular trends.
- Richard Dawkins, UnHerd

He ended with a note of cautious optimism, rejecting any notion that the era of rationality is over.

Put it this way. If I thought that was going to happen — if I thought that the world was going to descend into a new Dark Age, with a lack of rationality — I would be very, very upset. Indeed I find it hard to imagine a worse scenario really than we should descend into superstition and, and irrationality and lack of, of solid scientific sense. So I certainly hope that isn’t happening. I cannot believe it really is if there are short term trends in the wrong direction, then let’s hope that they’re short term.
- Richard Dawkins, UnHerd

Our thanks to Richard Dawkins for sharing his thoughts. His book is available HERE.

Join the discussion

  • I am both unwilling to exclusively believe scientists (especially after locking me up for over a year during which time I followed ‘the science’ unfolding) and I am also unwilling to abandon my spiritual beliefs which I know to be true. I am wary of zealots from certain organised religions, but not everyone is a zealot and religions can assist in guiding morality in societies.

  • Touch of the old-time BBC deference there, “tell me Mr Dawkins, what would you like to tell our listeners”. It would have been good for Freddie to have asked him his reaction to the infamous Lancet and Nature articles regarding the Covid-19 origin and whether that dented his faith in the science establishment. I suspect he would have retreated into one of his no-go areas – “not my field old chum; couldn’t possibly comment on that”- especially given his evident gullibility on the climate issue.

  • I guess scientists have the same social responsibility as the rest of us, to be as honest as they can be. I think it is possibly helpful to distinguish between scientists and science. The power of science lies in its falsifiability and the very democratic process of peer review depends on that. Individual scientists and groups of scientists can be and often are wrong in their conclusions, whether through some form of incompetence or conscious intent, but the debate that takes place through peer review and checking of data/replicating results allows science to approach the truth with ever higher probability over time. Individual scientists are a means to that end.

    Problems arise when science mixes with politics because politics doesn’t manage probability and uncertainty very well. That has certainly happened during the pandemic, where politicians claim to be ‘led by the science’ when what they mean is ‘led by a group of scientists ‘. That group of scientists may be well intentioned but they are not infallible as has become increasingly clear, and by cutting out the debate provided by peer review, science isn’t being allowed to properly do its job.

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