Ideas & Philosophy — 19 September 2011
Paxman and Dawkins – Evangelising Militant Atheism

On 13th September 2011, BBC Newsnight aired a conversation between Jeremy Paxman and Professor Richard Dawkins discussing Dawkins’ new book, ‘The Magic of Reality’. The programme seemed to offer Dawkins an almost unchallenged platform to proselytise his position whilst holding the semblance of a debate. When Paxman did ‘challenge’ Dawkins it was on the very weak propositions that religious narratives offered more comfort than scientific ones and better stories.

Throughout the interview both guest and host smirked at each other’s derisory comments about “religious hogwash”, even going as far as to say on national television that Christians who believed literally in the Bible were “stupid”. Sadly, this barely concealed mockery did very little to enlighten viewers on what should have been a stimulating topic about the roles of myth, allegory and rationality in the beliefs people carry.

But apart from showing that atheists are capable of being every bit as intolerant as religious people are usually accused of being, it was also interesting insofar as it contained some examples that illustrate that Dawkins’ brand of ‘militant atheism’ bears the same hall mark of ‘blind faith’ that he and Paxman derided during the programme.

Most striking was the use of the word ‘science’, which was frequently interchanged with the word ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ without any critical challenge and remained ill defined during the conversation.

The term ‘science’ can reasonably be used to refer to observations of the natural universe – sometimes using the most sophisticated technology – and it may be that these observations are indeed held to be indisputable fact.

But in its most generic sense, ‘science’ also includes theories about the natural universe that are subjected to empirical testing, which then form a matter for critical analysis and debate. For the most part the conclusions of these debates are not considered indisputable facts but matters of opinion or speculation, depending upon the strength of the evidence of the testing – as well as the strength of competing ideas.

Dawkins used the two interchangeably, so presenting ‘opinions’ and ‘theories’ as ‘truth’ and ‘fact’, which is something objective scientists do not usually do. And Paxman seemed to suspend critical reasoning and accept the views put to him by one of secular atheisms foremost ‘high priests’ (though thankfully he didn’t fawn quite as much he did during an interview with that other famous militant atheist Christopher Hitchens).

Lay people often back away from challenging any form of ‘high priest’ – religious or scientific – for fear of appearing foolish, heretical and ignorant of the mysteries they propound. Which might explain why hidden irony often slips past most observers: Dawkins’ views on the origins of life on earth are themselves based on blind faith.

Scientific theories about the origins of the Universe, life on earth and humanity all have varying degrees of evidence to support them. But none of these theories can claim indisputable proofs – and few scientists would be so bold as to claim this.

But, importantly, when evidence to support different aspects of the various theoretical propositions does emerge, it invariably leads to further questions that require evidential proof in order to be answered.

Dawkins et al would not only have us believe that theories of evolution are ‘fact’ and ‘the truth’. They also believe that whilst all the answers have not yet emerged, they will eventually be answered by science over in time.

This may or may not be true. But they prophesise that there will come one greater than them – whose test tubes they are not fit to wash – who will answer these unanswered questions. In other words, they have ‘faith’ in science akin to faith they criticise in the religious people who accept what their priests tell them without concrete proof.

Paxman introduced the discussion by saying that religions have tried for years to impress myths, fables and fairy stories upon the minds of children; and Professor Dawkins was offering a ‘counterblast of fact’. His book is aimed at the over-12s. But less than two weeks before the Newsnight programme the media reported that he wanted 5 year olds to be taught the basics of evolution. Of course, he might not consider ‘indoctrination’ to present theories as facts to young minds incapable of differentiating between the two – but many others might differ.

Science has undoubtedly led to us understanding uncounted things that were misunderstood in the past; and no doubt in future it will continue to do the same. But to present a discussion in such a manner that suggests scientific proof is the only proof is false; just as it would be to suggest no religious beliefs are established in rational proofs.

The programme confined itself to a criticism of Judeo-Christian beliefs, which was unsurprising since western European societies have much to owe to this tradition – a fact acknowledged by both men. Yet it seemed clear that both presenter and guest had a general view of religious teachings as myth – equating them with fairy stories and tales of Father Christmas.

This one-dimensional presentation of religion does little to generate an enlightened discussion. Some religious people, for example Muslims, will argue their beliefs are based on rational proofs – a matter that will be addressed later. Some Christians will also argue rational proofs to aspects of their faith, and may hold their Bible to contain true messages, whilst not taking every word to be literally true. Other Christians do hold a literal belief in what is mentioned in their Bible. This acceptance of faith without proof is for them a devout pillar of their faith, and something rationalists might understandably question. The programme made no differentiation between these differing views between and within religions. Indeed they all ‘religion’ per se with disrespect, bordering on contempt.

Rational thought is based on an observation of facts and realities – whether or not they are derived from empirical methods – as distinct to a scientific approach that relies on the testing of hypotheses.

The beliefs of Muslims are built upon observations of numerous realities that provoke thought and lead to rational conclusions. This is the way that countless people have embarked upon a path to belief in the Islamic creed for centuries. Indeed, it is extremely uncommon to hear of ‘supernatural’ or spiritual events – like the ‘Damascene conversion’ – that lead to people embracing Islam. It is usually belief based upon conviction in the Islamic creed – i.e. people become convinced through a process of thinking – and not infrequently against their own emotional bias.

Even those born into Muslim households ultimately find themselves convinced by a rational approach, because the Quran repeatedly enjoins human beings to look, reflect, and think: about the Sun, Moon and stars; about the earth, skies and seas; about animals and plants; about the rain, thunder and lightning; about complexity of our hands and fingers; about the diversity on the planet; about mountains and earthquakes; about embryonic and foetal development, and sexual reproduction generally; about the mystery of sleep; about time. There are specific Quranic verses that mention all these matters in ways that have provoked thought.

Observation about these things and many others can lead to a few definitive conclusions. All material things have limits: they cannot emerge from nothing, they do not last indefinitely, and nothing is entirely independent of everything else. These are matters that apply as much to a grape as they do to a star. To subsequently conclude that all matter must is therefore created by something other than itself is not irrational but completely rational.

Indeed, to deny this and suppose that matter can emerge from nothing – that is, not even an empty space – would be irrational and nonsensical without some compelling proof – for which none exists.

This is the most basic point of rational inquiry that underpins Islamic belief, but by no means the only one. Many people of other faiths, who do not know or accept other aspects of Islam’s rational creed, share this understanding; which is why many scientists over the centuries have had no problem reconciling belief in a creator with their scientific understanding of the universe.

Yet, this is such a fundamental issue in Islam that a Muslim who does not undertake rational inquiry at some level would have neglected a much-repeated Quran command. It is this process of thinking used by the Bedouin who concludes that footprints in the sand indicate that someone or something had been there before; just as it is the same process explained great Muslim thinkers in the past who wrote long treatise on the subject – or indeed by Aristotle, Aquinas and others.

Much of the debate about evolution, the big bang and other origin theories distract from – but do not contradict – this most basic point. The most arrogant of critics of religion even seem to deliberately obfuscate the issue – which if it were understood more clearly would lead to the questions being about process and not about creation and origination.

It is true that when people try to deduce more about the nature of that which created matter – or about other aspects of religious doctrine – without the sufficient information and proofs, it can lead to (at best) speculation or (at worse) nonsensical conclusions. But this does cannot take away from the fundamental and extremely rational idea that things cannot just come into existence from nothing.

The observation of the universe and all it contains – using scientific methods, the latest technology or just by using the senses alone – can lead one to sense the real magic of reality. It can deepen faith and belief in a creator – and instill a profound awe and humility when one contemplates one’s place in existence.


Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected]


For further reading on this subject please see:

Rationality, religion and atheism – By Uthman Badar

Life: So Much to Lose – By Dr A Robin

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