I just learned from the local Lexington Herald that Richard Dawkins, well-known for his outspoken atheism, spoke Wednesday evening at nearby Eastern Kentucky University to a packed audience of several thousand; in fact, there were three overflow rooms. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, is a widely published author especially known for two books, The Selfish Gene, and The God Factor.
His visit surprised me, since I’ve never associated Kentucky with progressive thought in the 34-years I’ve lived here. I’m delighted, especially with the large student turnout, giving me hope that just maybe thinking young people are increasingly questioning cultural legacies, want to know the truth, and are finding courage to pursue it. We live in a new era, and many of the verities that guided us no longer fit humanity in a scientific age.
My admiration for Dawkins runs deep and yet I’ve also some reservations. Dawkins might be thought of as one of the New Atheists who’ve arrived upon the scene, openly aggressive in challenging theism, or the notion of a deity behind the material creation, purposive and caring . I think of Christopher Hitchens and Samuel Harris as other spokespersons for this school. It’s like having Thomas Paine with us again.
Dawkins sometimes resembles the doctrinaire religionists he fervently denounces, taking no prisoners, often resorting to derision, if not mockery, of any believer, whether liberal or fundamentalist. His assumption is that supernaturalism is founded on absurdity, not reason, or akin to believing the earth is flat. Our challenge is to confront cultural a priories, insisting on empirical data. No quarrel from me on that score. It’s the way we go about it.
My model for secularism would be Michael Parenti, the astute socio-political observer who has written many thought-provoking books on myriad issues. I would especially recommend God and his Demons, hard-hitting, yet generous toward sincere believers who help their fellows rather than persecuting them, open to science and reason. Parenti wars on the theocratic mind, with its legacy of hatred and violence, not religion per se.
As non-believers it’s incongruous to imitate the mind-set of those with whom we disagree. If we are right, then reasoned argument possesses its own sufficiency.