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The Open society and its Bigots: Richard Dawkins

Presented at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Conference October 10th

Revised October 16th, 2010


In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins argues that Christianity is indistinguishable from communism or fascism. Just as they lay claim to a utopia with which to justify the transformation of society, so too does Christianity in that God is used to justify atrocities against humans, for Dawkins, religious crimes against atheists. Dawkins counters this tradition by arguing that the concept of God is not universal and objective, but rather subjective and anthropocentric. By thus exposing the concept of God as a construct of the human will he hopes that Christians who are uncertain of their religion will dare to think for themselves.

There are doubtless Christians in the U.S. and Moslems in Islamic countries who have, as Dawkins suggests, conflated their personal ambitions and vendettas with the commands of an Absolute being. Their beliefs have contributed to the formation of a polarized geo-political environment. The God Delusion ought to be read by those adversaries alongside other books of a similar genre such as The Clash of Civilizations and McWorld. However, since Dawkins claims to be addressing the nature of God overall, he implicates every Christian in the actions of radicals and dogmatists. It is for this reason that his book warrants a critical response.

One way in which to enter into a debate with Dawkins is from the assumption that we are made in the image of God. If we are made to partake in God’s goodness, are open to eternal life, love and happiness, then atheists like Dawkins who are closed to the grace of God are understood to advocate a self-destructive life.[1] In his 2008 speech in Barangaroo, Pope Benedict said, “When God is eclipsed, our ability to recognize the natural order, purpose and the ‘good’ begins to wane. What was ostensibly promoted as human ingenuity soon manifests itself as folly, greed and selfish exploitation.”[2] The Pope is indicating that closure to God’s grace by way of a retreat into enlightened reason has alienated us from our authentic selves and thereby from understanding the natural order. Moving the question of our destructive relationship with the world in the direction of a theory about human nature goes a considerable distance in clarifying the kind of ethos underlying Dawkins’s science. But it is highly unlikely that he would agree to the criticism. The Pope’s argument depends upon metaphysical and theological assumptions that Dawkins rejects. In order to create a dialogue with him it is necessary to adopt an approach that begins with an outlook to which he can relate and from there, work toward the argument of Pope Benedict that when God is eclipsed we misunderstand ourselves and lose sight of the natural order.


I propose to employ a phenomenology of the senses in order to argue that although claiming to be objective and receptive to outside criticism, the empirical science exhibited by Dawkins is anthropocentric and therefore, represents a specific set of values that tends to misconstrue the position of its critics. The basis of the human-centered or subjectivity of Dawkins’s science is in its unreflective reliance upon the sense of sight, specifically, epistemic seeing, for the acquisition of knowledge. Once having shown how this visual way of interpreting experience yields instrumentalist values, I will argue for an auditory disposition opening up what epistemic seeing closes down­­; namely, empathy and care for beings other than ourselves (or in whose well-being the goodness of our lives are implicated). In short, I am arguing for a repositioning of how we relate to things in the world, a positional epistemology that brings the purpose of things, that is to say, their potential-possibility to light. Since a transformation in perception from cognitive seeing to hearing, commensurate with a shift from a human-centered to a non-self-centered perspective was performed by Augustine during his conversion, his experience is the background for developing a science inclusive of natural law, or potential purposes evident already in the work of Teilhard de Chardin and Suzanne Langer.

The premiss of this argument is that our senses, according to Marshall McLuhan, Hans Jonas, Walter Ong and Jacques Ellul, are not benign instruments of a mind that stands apart from them, interpreting the data they provide (i.e., a Kantian model of the person). On the contrary, thinking is held by these scholars to be deeply implicated in how we respond to, and interpret experience, because thinking is aesthetic or inseparable from the senses through which we have experiences.[3] Just as the senses vary in how they can comprehend something, so too do they account for variations in how we think. This is the thought that underlies the theory of multiple intelligences that distinguishes between, for instance, musical (auditory), mathematical (visual) and kinesthetic (tactile) learners.[4]

Section One: Sight and Natural Science

Sight has been the privileged sense for the acquisition of knowledge at least since Descartes who in the 17th century was determined to refute Montaigne’s scepticism by arguing that all objects of knowledge are subject to the same mathematical method of investigation which, being mathematical could not but focus on extended matter. Since then, the preference for reality being defined according to what is visible has become the standard against which to gauge knowledge in general. In his essay “The Nobility of Sight,” Hans Jonas writes, “Sight, in addition to furnishing the analogues for the intellectual upperstructure, has tended to serve as the model of perception in general and thus as the measure of the other senses.”[5] Augustine anticipates his observation, writing, “Sight is, properly speaking, the eyes’ business, but we use the word also of our other senses in their cognitive function.”[6]

So what is the advantage that vision has over the other senses such as hearing or touch? Sight is prized because it is alleged to provide the clearest idea of what something is. As Jonas points out, sight has a reputation for being the noblest of the senses because it preserves the object of knowledge from being tainted by human subjectivity. In contrast to touch, which meddles directly with things, and hearing, which tends to be a channel to our emotions that cloud clear thinking, sight is reputed to keep things and us at a distance from one another thus facilitating pure knowledge of things. As long as we are not involved in the process of acquiring knowledge, things as they really are, so it is claimed, will show themselves to us. From this perspective, the best way in which to examine things or see them clearly is with a non-relational attitude. Moreover, sight is prized because more than any other sense, such as touch and hearing that are restricted to the temporal durations of their impressions, seeing is capable of taking in a single field of view all at once even as the objects within it might change. Sight then functions well independently of fluctuations in the environment it sees.[7] Changes within a field of vision tend to be frustrating for a kind of vision fitted to epistemology and science, clear and distinct ideas, and hence, without much in common with the ambiguity of perception or interest in shadows and light typical of an artist.

So what possible role could this kind of seeing play in Dawkins’s view of God? He argues that God is an incoherent idea insofar as he is held to be universal and particular, eternal and temporal at the same time. For Dawkins, these attributes cancel one another out; God is an illogical idea to which he juxtaposes his quintessential rational or logical science. However, the principle of non-contradiction, the rule for right reasoning about propositions, in this case about God, is based on sight. Ellul points out that for us a piece of paper is either red or blue, but never both at the same time.[8] This elementary experience of not being able to see that two colours, although they could be two forms, shapes or sizes, cannot occupy the same place at the same time is represented in the principle used by Dawkins to argue that the notion of God is incoherent.

Another way of looking at how sight compels Dawkins to reason as he does about God is as follows: If everything is defined according to what is amenable to sight, then everything is defined in terms of properties, characteristics or accidents, with the result that the essence or substance of a thing is judged to be either empty nonsense, or just another property interchangeable with others. The implication is that it is impossible for Dawkins to understand how God could have an existence unlike any other thing with the result that certain arguments against the existence of God suddenly become plausible. For example, if God is a thing or entity, then his causal role in the world is inconceivable except as being one of two kinds (1) an inexplicable miracle which is beyond science and thus forgettable, or (2) a material-efficient cause. Working with the second of these alternatives, there can be no understanding of God upholding creation; instead, being the same as any other thing, God is either at the start of the causal chain, or a product of it.[9]

Similarly, the principle of non-contradiction, or inability to think two opposites together, transforms distinctions into dichotomies or juxtapositions; for instance, science versus religion, enlightened knowledge and ignorance or faith, the supernatural versus nature, and thereby ignores the points of contact between them. Although Dawkins’s work is a reply to a religiously divided world, he paradoxically contributes to its divisiveness.

In short, as a result of conflating God with a form seen (or thing), thinking a contradiction is impossible for Dawkins, and hence, God, for him, cannot participate in the world, the beginning cannot be the end, three cannot be one (and he finds, of course, the notion of the Trinity incomprehensible).

Sight and Subjectivity

The primary criticism of the objectivity of science has come from Heidegger and Heisenberg. Heidegger argued that every inquiry presupposes an understanding of the world; Heisenberg that the knower and known are fused. Chardin echoes the insights of Heidegger and Heisenberg. He comments of the scientists caught upon the naïve belief that they could look down upon the world from a higher ground in order to see phenomena in themselves, “They are now beginning to realize that even the most objective of their observations are steeped in the conventions they adopted at the outset and by forms or habits of thought developed in the course of the growth of research.”[10] The collapse of the subject-object dichotomy is crucial to Einstein’s theory of relativity. According to Einstein, what anything is varies according to our relation to it. While this discovery implodes the pretense of being objective, it does not step outside of the visual frame for making sense of the world and instead, divides one perspective into many.

Although modern science acknowledges that we are involved in the act of knowledge, it has not connected our participation in the process of acquiring knowledge to the predilections of sight and hence, has left unexamined the question of how our visual disposition shapes our understanding of reality. [11] There are two ways in which epistemic seeing yields a subjective perspective that conceals things themselves, by which I mean their reason for being. First, by relying upon sight we are inclined to believe that we are in control of experience; for example, in contrast to hearing which cannot control the sounds that surface and impinge on our ears with sight we have the ability to narrow or broaden our focus on different aspects of an object at will. The feeling of being in control of the external world fostered by a visual disposition has also led some empirically honed philosophers to seriously wonder whether or not the world exists when they close their eyes. Since we can’t know for sure if it does, some philosophers have decided that reality is a state of mind, otherwise known as the problem of a brain in the vat, or how to reach the outside world and other people.

Second, technical making is implicated in epistemic seeing. When we orient ourselves toward common forms or categories, for instance “house,” we tend to think about the particular in terms of that general category such that the process of coming to know “this home” includes the activity of making it conform to a prior idea of what we think it is, “house in general.” That is to say, insofar as sight is biased toward a general idea or form, it also overlooks the present in which things come to be in themselves by projecting ahead of the present a prior idea of what something is. This is a criticism of sight that has been investigated by Martin Heidegger, is framed by existentialists such as Sartre, as essence prior to existence, and is re-iterated by Jacques Ellul when he writes:

A human being’s sight commits him to technique. The visual image points out the totality of my possible life in a world where I am both master and subject. All techniques are based on visualization and involve visualization. If a phenomenon cannot be translated into something visual, it cannot be the object of a technique.[12]

Science and Politics

If epistemic seeing is a human outlook on beings that purports to be objective, but is in fact subjective, the scientific theories cannot but be value-laden and thereby encourage one way of life or another. The title of this paper is “The Open Society and its Bigots: Richard Dawkins.” Why the title? I am replying to Karl Popper’s book, The Open Society and Its Enemies where he implicates Plato’s philosophy in 20th century totalitarianism. There is an interesting commensurability between Dawkin’s science and the liberal dispensation. Just as liberal political theory purports to be tolerate of all points of view, inclusive and accepting, so too does empirical science, although in the language of value-neutrality. However, in both cases some views are more valuable than others and some views are excluded outright. I think the reason is in a particular way of making sense of experience that is centered upon an analytic, Cartesian, conceptual way of relating to ones self and others. If the only thing worth talking about in matters of knowledge is evidence that can be measured, then there is no way to understand the purpose of things independently of how they appear to (and for) us. There is, on this basis I reckon, a inner connection between empiricism, imperialism and the politics of an equality of sameness, i.e., crude democracy. While the empirical method tables mere probability and hypotheses, and thus seems “open,” it admits of only one kind of evidence or criterion of validity that neutralizes the dimension of reality Pope Benedict points toward.

In a bid to open up this possibility of understanding the reason of beings, it is necessary to transcend epistemic seeing with the sense that does not project, but rather receives, that is not estranged from the emotions, but rather is a channel to them, that is also keyed to the temporal duration of events rather than abstracting from their time in order to make them fit a pre-given idea of what they are. The sense, of course, is hearing or as I have said, an auditory disposition (and not just the sensation of hearing which is a Kantian model of the relation between the mind and the senses), that is tuned into non-discursive discourse, faith in things unseen, the spirit of the letter. It amounts to a way of existing that is guided by empathetic understanding, which is the only kind of understanding fitted for, the reason of beings. This does not circumvent the theory of evolution. It just means that from one angle, development over the course of time is governed by chance, but from another, the phenomenon in question have a reason that is directed toward fulfillment and goodness, an internal principle of nature, the psychic, vital force, the within of things, or what Benedict calls the order of creation.


In The Selfish Gene Dawkins argues that we are hard-wired to follow the path of least resistance in the interest of maximizing advantages for survival. If we accept this account of our nature to be definitive, then we are inclined to aim for a maximization of self-investments and calculate toward that end. In this case, we find ourselves juxtaposed to the well-being of others. And yet, according to the theory of evolution, the chances of survival are not increased by asserting a private interest ahead of others, but rather, by adjusting and conforming to new environments. In this case, it is not advantageous to be an autonomous agent charting a new course in life on one’s own but instead, it is advantageous to conform to whatever happens to be happening. Dawkins’s genetic theory thus maps onto individualism, the theory of evolution unto an ethic of assimilation. Insofar as our self-understanding is formed by his science, the social ramification is a network of individuals maximizing freedom of choice in every conceivable direction, but in essence choices are the same because the objects of desire are of the same ontological order, private goods. Evolutionists have thus been aligned with capitalists or free market economists such as Friedrich von Hayek.[13]

[1] Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor #73.

[2] Benedict XVI, “Welcoming Celebration by the Young People: Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI” Thursday, 17 July, 2008.

[3] Patrick A. Heelan writes, “I conclude that visual perception – and by analogy all perception – is hermeneutic as well as causal: it responds to structures in the flow of optical energy, but the character of its response is also hermeneutical, that is, it has the capacity to ‘read’ the appropriate structures in the World, and to form perceptual judgments of the World about which these ‘speak.’” “Perception as a Hermeneutical Act,” 43.

[4] See Howard Gardner’s work.

[5] Jonas, “Nobility of Sight” in Phenomenon of Life, 135.

[6] Augustine, Confessions, Book X. 35, 54, page 233.

[7] In “The Nobility of Sight” Hans Jonas intends to explain why sight has been heralded since the Greeks as the sense par excellence, why sight has a higher role in mental performance. He argues that visual thinking is prone (1) toward seeing wholes rather than contingent particulars and (2) toward the formation of objectivity. (Jonas, “ Nobility of Sight” 135-156). Jonas points out that in contrast to other senses sight is not time-bound. Whereas other senses are limited to succession in time (one sensation at a time), sight is capable of taking in a manifold or complete field of content co-temporaneously, or at the same time. It isn’t simply the feeling for the rigidity of a pen that sight detects; it takes in, for Jonas, the entire room in a glance and for this reason tends toward the comprehension of wholes that transcend the temporal duration of the surfaces touched. Whereas touch (including taste) might convey some semblance of a table by feeling every millimeter of it piecemeal, sight sees the entire form simultaneously. No less than touch, hearing is limited to the temporal duration of what is heard. Just as it is not a table that is felt, only a sense of resistance; it is not a dog that is heard, merely the bark. Since sight has the capacity to see the whole (form) of what is touched or heard Jonas believes it to be superior to the other senses.

[8] Ellul, Humiliation of the Word, Note 3, 11.

[9] Put succinctly, the argument that God is a product of evolution depends upon a horizontal or linear notion of time modeled on the identification of time with objects in space. Just as objects move one after another in a sequence that can be mapped according to what came before and after, so too is time presumed to be chronological (see Aristotle). But why must it evolve from the simple to the complex? This would seem to be the result of transposing the logic of scientific analysis that presupposes the simplest element is the cause of more complex ones, e.g., point to line, line to plane, plane to solid, onto chronological, linear time. It is thus impossible for Dawkins to conceive of how the beginning is the end, or of things coming to fulfillment.

[10] Chardin, Phenomenon of Man, 32.

[11] Neither has the work of Paul Feyerabend, Hans-Georg Gadamer or Michael Polanyi made a significant difference to how we think about scientific problems. While Feyerabend, along with Hans Kuhn, punctures the belief in scientific progress, he does not explain why we assume that time is progressive or directed toward the future, or recommend another sense of time with which to better grasp the truth about something. Instead, the very possibility of truth is undermined by his science, which he acknowledges by characterizing it as Dadaism. Gadamer makes a constructive use of our prejudices. Rather than suspend them in order for phenomenon to be given to consciousness (Husserl’s epoche) he aims to reveal those prejudices during a dialogue with the tradition. However, the process of having our prejudices questioned by the past yields what he calls a fusion of horizons which, as Stanley Rosen suggests, is tantamount to a metaphysical idea or insight. Gadamer does not so much undermine the spirit of natural science and its technologies as he re-establishes them within the temporal horizon of history. Michael Polanyi … elaborate In short, these philosophers of science do not press the question far enough. Although they recognize the participation of the self in the process of knowing, they do not dare to think of a way of existing that might be truthful and therefore, are as misled about in what the truth of things consists as are empirical scientists. Martin Heidegger has made the greatest contribution in this area. He investigates the structures of existence that make possible propositional truth. However, his ontology of existence remains burdened by phenomenology, what he calls phenomenological seeing he claims to have learned from Husserl and attributes to Aristotle as well. This perceptual bias lays a significant role in determining his description of time as being oriented toward the future. No less than the epistemologists he disavows, the future-directedness of Dasein bypasses the present, which Heidegger equates with non-Being or death. Nevertheless, by initiating a step back into existence from the chamber of consciousness he raises the question of how to live truthfully in order to truly see-know . . .

[12] Ellul, Humiliation of the Word, 11. The relation of sight to its technologies including print and the alphabet has been investigated by Marshall McLuhan and others (Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, Ivan Illych). The step they do not take is to link their insights about the visual in contrast to the auditory disposition typical of literate and oral cultures respectively to either empirical science or the theory of the self implicit to that science as indicated by Christian anthropologists.

[13] I am relying upon Ronald Beiner, What’s the Matter with Liberalism on the character of liberalism, 20-28. Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution is sometimes aligned with Fascism and Friedrich von Hayek’s defense of competition (a variation the struggle for survival) with free market competition.

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