Dawkins burned again

Agnostic John Carey, Emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford burns Dawkins on bad use of word “awe.” Beautiful respect for the meaning of words and language:

Richard Dawkins. He often talks about awe, doesn’t he? About how you don’t need religion because science gives you awe and wonder – as if religion only gives you awe and won­der! But awe and wonder, it seems to me, are simply traceable to the deficiencies of the human brain as it has dev­eloped over the millennia. What it’s developed to do is to, well, solve simple physical problems – make stone axes and so on. And if you look at subatomic particles and think how awesome they are – well, they’re only awesome because we’re completely unable to deal with them. What Dawkins calls ‘awe’ is actually ignorance. I don’t see anything particularly wonderful about it.”

read more at Third Way Magazine in Nick Spencers interview here.

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5 Responses to Dawkins burned again

  1. Phil C says:

    I’m not quite sure what to make of this – it seems to me that Carey and Dawkins are not using the term “awe” in the same way.

    Carey says that awe is inspired by ignorance (or presumably fear – say, a man coming face to face with an angry elephant for the first time).

    Dawkins’ use of the term seems to refer to awe inspired by knowing something more deeply – I can imagine coming to understand something well, and being in awe of it (like a mathematical equation, say, or an amazing nebula, or the intricacy of the human body).

    So whereas Carey says awe is about ignorance, for Dawkins it is about knowledge. Have I misunderstood Carey’s point, though? I suppose he might be making a more general point about value – as in, what actually is the value of awe in itself, whether it is related to ignorance or knowledge, if it is not pointing to something transcendent?

    What irritates me is how Dawkins et al seem to think that awe in the face of the natural world somehow negates, or supersedes, or undermines, or replaces awe in the face of God. I just don’t know what they are trying to prove.

  2. Lauri Moyle says:

    I think Cary is saying that Dawkins “awe” is one which stems from ignorance and hence is not “awe” but simply a reaction to ignorance. Cary is saying awe is inspired by fear and an appropriate understanding and respect, which fits in nicely with what I was tought awe before God meant. Thats what I understood him to mean anyway?! Does that make sense? Have I misunderstood him?

    I think what Cary is saying is precesiely one responce to the problem you point out with Dawkins in your last para.

  3. Phil C says:

    Right, I think I understand now. Carey is saying that Dawkins has to redefine “awe” in mechanistic terms to be consistent with his worldview, but Dawkins seems to think that awe is something good. Dawkins doesn’t really have room for explaining how something can be “good”, so he is being inconsistent.

    I think that criticism is probably valid. When Dawkins et al talk about “awe”, I think they really mean something like “appreciation of beauty”, and it’s difficult to talk about that in materialistic/evolutionary terms without reducing it to something flat and irrelevant. Of course, that would apply to any value judgement under Dawkins’ worldview.

    • Lauri Moyle says:

      Yes, I think so. On another note, I think Dawkins might also be reacting to a “God of the gaps” argument (which is obsolete at best) by talking about not needing god to be in awe of something, asuming that Dawkins still thinks that there are people out there who espouse the God of the gaps view of science. But that is a total assumption on my part.

      • Phil C says:

        Not quite. I think when Dawkins uses such language, he is responding to the general claim that metaphysical naturalism of the Dawkinsian variety is insufficient to explain or include the varieties of human experience.

        For example: “Uplift, however, is where science really comes into its own. All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it’s exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe — almost worship — this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide. And it does so beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics. The fact that the supernatural has no place in our explanations, in our understanding of so much about the universe and life, doesn’t diminish the awe. Quite the contrary. The merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise.”

        Here he just seems to miss the point – it seems obvious to me that awe at nature translates, for the “religious” person, into awe at supernature. So to say that awe as a result of scientific observation somehow supersedes religiously-informed awe seems to get it the wrong way round. I think he’s taking a bald statement about the nature of awe as some kind of argument against naturalism – on this point, he just sounds a bit confused to me.

        I took the quote from: http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/articles/dawkins.html

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