Dawkins’ first name is “Clinton.” Hmmm. He’s two years younger than me. Hmmm. He got on the public merry-go-round by exploiting the discovery of the gene, which he personified (rather the way people personify some sort of humanoid in the sky, a concept he has made it a crusade to reject) by saying it was “selfish.” (“The Selfish Gene”, 1976) Of course, a gene is a molecule that patterns the process of life — it is not alive. His later book, “The Extended Phenotype” (1982) is an argument that the small changes prompted by the gene — esp. through the “meme” in society, which he suggests is like a gene — can have great influence. “The God Delusion” (2006) was very popular.
Born in Nairobi, Dawkins is a creature of the British Empire and embraces all their main values including militant pursuit of education and prosperity. He says he does rather like the ceremonies. (Like locking your ancestor’s remains in a closet.) And he’s not afraid to talk to an Untouchable. But he thinks of cloistered Cistercians, who are contemplative rather than running schools and hospitals, as wasting their lives. Even when he speaks to a representative of the Dalai Lama, he is forthright enough to say that all that eschewing of the world is pretty much evasion of what could be done. The monk freezes.
Actually, Dawkins is just a science-inflected version of a long rich tradition of humanism that has persisted for millennia. He does think about meaning, but he’s not all excited about service to others or starting a movement. Rather he argues for individual struggle to develop a “respectable” life of one’s own. Predictably, he is admiring of “great men.” White, educated, book-producers, taught in respected schools. No Derrida, no women, no poet maudits. No mysticism. Maybe a little nature appreciation, expressed as romanticism.
In short, Dawkins is muddled. He does not know the history of Eurasian religions nor is he even aware that the big mainstream institutions are encircled and underlain with many other ways of thinking and doing. But he’s very comforting to people who share his blinkerdom.
Now that science has begun to penetrate the operations of the mammal brain we have a clearer view. I say mammal since all the brain anatomies through time are cumulative and all our thinking mechanisms developed from what came earlier. Even Dawkins admits we still are 50% the fish from which we evolved, and so is that archetypal monkey we used to think about. (See: “Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body” by Neil Shubin.) Dawkins accepts this, though on-the-face-of-it the idea is preposterous, because it is proposed by science. He sees religion mostly as a way of suppressing science, so science is his religion, but he doesn’t think it IS religion. I think it is, clearly.
Human beings must manage their consciousness if they are to have any free will at all. Genetics helps to explain why one’s consciousness is shaped the way it is and how it fits into the world, but in the past we’ve felt gripped by our feelings and limited by our ability to think without having much of an idea of how or why. Religion — quite apart from its obsession with building empires — has amounted to a recommended pattern of consciousness management, best practices, and relationships. Do as Jesus, Moses, Confucius, Buddha recommend and you’ll probably stay out of trouble. It might make you feel pretty good.
Luckily, Dawkins’ contentiousness and impulse to deny is his strongest quality and shared by many rebellious others. They are the leavening in the lump. Jesus appreciates rebels more than Confucius does. But one could say that Dawkins’ worship of science is a surrender, a fallibility, on his part. Dawkins has never read Derrida — he has not been exposed to post-colonial thought. He’s looking for the perfect instrument in a world where some prophets assure us that there is NO perfect instrument, because we ourselves are not and will not be perfect. Perfection means stopping the process.
Bodies are a process, life is a process. The scientists tell us now that our identity is re-assembled every morning when we wake, because our brain was busy all night while sleep updated our hard-drives (to use computer jargon). Now we are different and must take that into account. This is why our memories are faulty — today our brain regards them differently, in fact, has “improved” them to fit our present world-view.
And all the time, under and despite new experience, more evidence, and the need to keep one’s culture from murdering one in the name of sustaining the peace, the bones — not of the ancestors but of the brain’s first fresh-from-the-womb structuring of expectations — insist on a certain shape. Pessimist or optimist, doer or thinker, it’s all there in embryo, confining us to four limbs, ten fingers, and a long coiled digestive tract. Et cetera.
Strangely and ironically, humans have a deep need to hierarchilize the other humans: good, better, best, unacceptable, kill ‘em. Then the liberal impulse, which is a kind of idea of equality and the expectation of empathy, began to say that all humans are equal, which slipped over into all humans are the same, which is the same in some minds as all humans have souls of equal value. Souls are a source of equality, which Protestant Calvinism is always trying to escape, claiming that souls can be condemned if they don’t perform properly, which they call sin, a source of criminalization and punishment, justification for murdering the indigenous.
But now, when we look at brains, we find that though there are givens, no two brains are exactly alike. That means no two people are alike. Each has a distinctive consciousness of the world and processes it in slightly different ways. Humans are not equal in the sense of “just alike.” In fact, though it is heresy, some people are a lot “smarter” which means (in my system) that they can handle abstractions but are also more sensitive to the sensory aspects of life and welcome empathy.
That is, they CAN think about contradictions, anomalies, and the unknown. They CAN think impossible thoughts and go seeking the evidence to elaborate on them. They CAN generate alternatives and not get locked into dogmas or denial or demonizing. They see Dawkins but exceed him. They look into the abyss calmly.
I wonder whether I could find the video series made by Ninian Smart. He was a Brit, but a Scotsman, always prone to nonconformity.