The following blog post refers to this Vice.com article on Richard Dawkins’ recent comments about rape.
I respect Dawkins’ credibility as an evolutionary biologist – few modern intellectuals can so accessibly demystify the arc of existence. He’s a wonderful ambassador for some forms of knowledge, but he is not suited to being a cultural commentator. He’s almost awkwardly unaware of the way emotions function in people (including in himself). His historical and present comments about rape stem from a fundamental lack of understanding about how people (in our evolved emotional intellect) survive – we survive because we believe we have purpose, that we have rights and deserts, that our bodies and minds are our own to steer. Whether any higher power has granted these rights is totally beside the point. The point is that human belief in purpose is our survival instinct. Rape is one form of violence that particularly desecrates our sense of purpose – because it pillages our belief that we have agency. And if we don’t have agency to something as basic as our own bodies – if even that is merely a myth – then to what other myths have we subscribed? You see, rape severely erodes the psycho-emotional assumptions upon which we premise our survival.
Dawkins doesn’t understand this, not really. That’s why he focuses away from the individual, to poke at other situational / contextual possibilities. He’s poking at it the way a scientist would, asking, “But what about this? How do you know it wasn’t ___?” That’s actually good science. It is not malicious, but is terribly misguided for this particular conversation.
I’m not surprised. Dawkins’ comments here match his pattern of strengths and failings as an intellectual – he knows plenty about the science of life, but comprehends rather little about the science of people. This is why his ‘militant atheism’, though entertaining, has always fallen flat for me – he misses a larger point about why people subscribe to and organize around unproven myths / stories. He misses the point that, if not religion, it would simply be something else that people subscribe to and organize around. (And that, in fact, there are already countless examples of non-religious institutions that humans accept as a form of purpose in life.) Humans have evolved to survive out of a belief in our own purpose – while that purpose need not be religion, some replacement must be found in order for individuals to keep surviving. He sees religion as an enemy of human intellect, when in fact religion is just one example of how human intellect has been wired to help us continue to exist.
So, in my mind, it’s not that the atheist movement needs to disown Dawkins. It’s that the atheist movement falls right in line with any other movement humans have created to re-infuse or reinforce some sense of purpose into our lives. And failing to understand this means you’ve failed to understand what keeps the human clock running. Dawkins’ comments about rape are just another example of how he’s failed to comprehend humans in their iron-clad sense of purpose, rights, and ownership. I’m not offended, really – it’s not his wheelhouse. And he’s never struck me as a malicious personality – just often unaware of where his intellect and expertise end.
If you liked this post, you should also check out: A Presence of Faith in Atheism and Science.