The Devil's Chaplain Confounded
by Stephen M. Barr

Reference: Index

Copyright (c) 2004 First Things 145 (August/September 2004): 25-31.

Taken from:

A Devil’s Chaplain is a collection of essays, book reviews, forewords, eulogies, and assorted “tirades and reflections” selected by Richard Dawkins from his work of the past twenty-five years. It is a miscellany that touches on postmodernism, the jury system, New Age superstitions, the late Stephen Jay Gould, the deaths of friends, the wonders of Africa, the perils of quack medicine, and more. The author is known as a writer on evolutionary theory and is perhaps the best-known exponent of Darwinism writing today. His style is often truculent—it has been said that if T. H. Huxley was called Darwin’s bulldog, Dawkins should be called Darwin’s pit bull—and on the subject of religion, in particular, he is rabid. He has his calmer moments, of course, and when he confines himself to zoology, his field of expertise, he is capable of writing in a lucid manner. In A Devil’s Chaplain he presents himself as philosopher, social critic, and moralist, expounding on themes that are favorites of his: science and reason; the world of facts versus religion; superstition and wishful thinking.

His title is taken from a letter of Charles Darwin’s in which he exclaims to a friend, “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.” Dawkins suggests that if Darwin had “decided to extend the list of melancholy adjectives,” he would probably have added to it “selfish” and “blind.” It is this view of nature that lies at the heart of the philosophy, morality, and social criticism that Dawkins presents here. For him, the great foundational truth is that the universe and the life it has spawned are without any ultimate purpose: the revelation given to the Devil’s Chaplain is one of cosmic futility. What gospel, then, will a Devil’s Chaplain preach?

Or to put it another way, what are “Darwinism’s moral implications”? Dawkins poses this question in his title essay, which was written to introduce this collection, and cites two early and opposite responses to Darwinian evolutionary theory, those of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. In the preface to Back to Methuselah, Shaw wrote of Darwinian evolution:

When its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration.

Wells, however, seemed to revel in the ruthlessness of nature, writing in his scientific utopian fantasy The New Republic:

And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? . . . the yellow man? . . . the Jew? . . . those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. . . . And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favor the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity—beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds. . . . And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness . . . is death. . . . The men of the New Republic . . . will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.

What is Dawkins’ own response? Scientifically he cannot follow Shaw, who retreated, he says, into “a confused idea of Lamarckian evolution,” and morally he cannot follow Wells, whose vision he properly calls “blood-chilling.” Rather, Dawkins says, we must accept Darwinism as true science but must rebel against its moral implications: “[A]t the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.” He reiterates the closing words of his own first book, The Selfish Gene: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” What enables us to rebel, he says, is the fact that nature, though mindless, has accidentally endowed us with intelligence. Our brain can understand the evolutionary process that gave rise to it, and thus can transcend it. Our “blessed gift of understanding” enables us to react with “revulsion” to nature’s imperatives and to be the “only potential island of refuge from the implications of the Devil’s Chaplain.” (Dawkins employs such phrases as “blessed gift” from time to time but what he really means is fortuitous accident, and he generally says so clearly.)

This is Dawkins the humanist speaking: man is the great exception. And yet, Dawkins the scientist insists that we must come to terms with the “inescapable factual correctness of the Devil’s Chaplain” and his view of life, “bleak and cold though it can seem from under the security blanket of ignorance.” Endowed with reason, we have no alternative but to acknowledge the truth. We cannot be content with “cheap comforts, living a warm and comfortable lie.” We cannot bask in “comforting delusions” or “suck at the pacifier of faith in immortality.” We will, however, have compensation for our putting away of childish things. “There is deep refreshment to be had from standing up full-face into the keen wind of understanding.” There is “the joy of knowing that you have grown up, [and] faced up to what existence means,” or, rather, to its ultimate meaninglessness.

Dawkins often counsels us to face up to things. Another Darwinian lesson that we must face up to is that we are animals, with no special status or unique value among the animals. To think otherwise is “flagrant speciesism,” “human chauvinism,” and “human speciesist vanity.” It is only a “discontinuous mind” (that is, a mind given to the making of false distinctions—and such minds are now, he says, “ubiquitous”) that can claim to see a gap between such very close relatives as, for instance, humans and chimpanzees; and this deluded mind’s only warrant for making such a distinction is the accidental happenstance that prior intermediate forms between man and chimp are all, evidently, dead. Dawkins goes so far as to say that the prospect of intentional human-and-chimp interbreeding, though he doubts its feasibility, is “a pleasing thought,” because the resulting hybrid “would provide exactly the comeuppance that ‘human dignity’ needs.” Here Dawkins the Darwinian seems to have elbowed aside Dawkins the “passionate anti-Darwinian” and humanist.

Religion takes a savage beating from Dawkins, especially Catholicism, for which he seems to have conceived an almost lunatic hatred. Nuns, in particular, disturb him because as educators they are given access to impressionable young minds. His theory of religion is spelled out in five essays gathered under the heading “The Infected Mind.” Religion is simply a “virus of the mind,” or a “meme” (a term he coined in his first book). A meme is an idea or word passed from mind to mind somewhat as a gene is passed from generation to generation. Religion exploits the fact that small children are preprogrammed by evolution to accept uncritically what adults tell them about the world. There is too much that small children have to learn about culture and life and language for critical filtering to be anything but a hindrance at that stage of life. It is this natural childish gullibility, carried into adulthood, which is the basis of religion, and of all belief systems based on authority, tradition, and revelation. (In an interview Dawkins has expressed the view that “you won’t find any intelligent person who feels the need for the supernatural,” unless that person was brought up as a child to believe in it.)

For Dawkins, the supernaturalism of religion is antiscientific and its doctrines absurd. The doctrine of the Trinity is “obvious nonsense,” and “it takes a real, red-blooded Catholic to believe something as daft as transubstantiation.” It is, however, the Catholic dogma of the Assumption of Mary that for him is the ne plus ultra of religious silliness, with Mary’s body “zooming off to Heaven.” He freely avows both “hostility” and “contempt” for religion, and he feels it is his moral duty to mock it as much as he can. In an essay provoked by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he writes, “Those of us who have for years politely concealed our contempt of religion need to stand up and speak out.”

Polite concealment of contempt is not a rhetorical mode that one associates with Dawkins. He is much given to invective, not all of it against religion. Here is how he characterizes the thoughts and attitudes of some of his other targets: “caterwauling shrieks,” “low-grade intellectual poodling of pseudo-philosophical poseurs,” “footling debates,” “boorish tenured confidence,” “yahooish complacency,” and “driveling ephemera of juvenile pamphleteers and the old preaching of spiteful hard-liners.” The man, as they say nowadays, has issues. It appears that Dawkins and his publisher understand that he has acquired a reputation, even among his admirers, for having a rather icy philosophy and a nasty literary personality. We are therefore promised that this book (which contains, please note, the insults collected above and many more like them) will show us Dawkins’ “gentler, more contemplative side, which may surprise many readers,” his “warm, personal side,” and his “sympathetic side.” (These promises are made by the book’s dust jacket, its publicist, and Science News, respectively). Dawkins seems aware of his image problem, for he writes in the introduction to the American edition: “Though I admit to occasional flames of (entirely justified) irritation in my writing, I like to think that the greater part of it is good-humored, perhaps even humorous.”

One goal of this anthology, then, may be to humanize the flame-throwing controversialist. The eulogies and laments for dead colleagues gathered here show his capacity for deep feeling and deep friendships (as well as his facing-up abilities, of course). Dawkins’ reviews of Stephen Jay Gould’s books and the final e-mail correspondence between them display magnanimity toward a sometime intellectual foe. The essays about Africa, his “personal birthplace” and “our ancestral home,” reveal his poetic nature. His letter to his ten-year-old daughter, which brings the book to a close, shows him as fatherly and as a man who does not talk down to children.

Whether all of this humanizes Dawkins is not for me to say; it is doubtless a speciesist concern in any case. Of more concern is the quality of his thinking, which is far from impressive. To call it low-grade intellectual poodling would perhaps be too harsh; but it is certainly not high-grade. The first thing to note is Dawkins’ carelessness with facts. (This is especially strange in a man who so emphasizes the factuality of science, with its “testability, evidential support, precision, [and] quantifiability”). Here is a small sampler: speaking of neutrinos, he says that “on average one passes through you every second.” Actually many billions of neutrinos pass through you every second, a fact well known to science buffs. In explaining an evolutionary idea he states that a certain quantity “grows as a power function,” though any mathematically minded person would see that it grows exponentially. He attempts an elementary combinatoric calculation and gets it wrong. He discusses a well-known quantum phenomenon in terms that are incorrect. If one reads enough of Dawkins, one gets used to this sort of thing; in a previous book he showed that he did not know the difference between a cosmic ray and a gamma ray.

It could be urged, in extenuation of such mistakes, that Dawkins is not a physicist or mathematician. Even so, one might have expected better of a man whose title at Oxford is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. Certainly he and his editors might check such statements with people who know these fields better. His problem, however, is not just with the quantitative sciences. He evinces the same indifference to facts in other areas on which he freely expounds, such as religion. He says, for instance, that a pope’s pronouncements on doctrine are based on his personal “revelations,” a notion totally at odds with Catholic teaching. He asserts that “the present pope has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have.” He cites the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption to rebut the claim that “religion has moved on” and no longer teaches that “God has a long white beard.” (His idea seems to be that if people have bodies of some sort in heaven, then so must God. Certainly Dawkins could have learned, without much effort, that Christianity has never held the position, from which it might “move on,” that God is corporeal.)

Dawkins’ superficiality extends beyond his treatment of facts. What is clear from these essays is that he has not thought very hard, or at any rate very deeply, about many of the important things on which he chooses to write. Had he done so, he might have seen that a number of his ideas are patently inconsistent with one another. This is particularly true of his ideas on the moral implications of Darwinism.

Darwinism as understood by Dawkins necessarily involves a completely naturalistic conception of the world, in which there is no place for God or ultimate purpose. It is plain that this view is incompatible with belief in an objective moral order, and the more clear-thinking atheistic Darwinians have always understood this. One is proscribed by such a philosophy from speaking of the “purposes” of things in any sense that can give rise to moral obligation. A natural object can have a purpose only in the limited sense of a function to which its structure suits it, as, for instance, the biological function of an eye is to see. And what is the biological function of an organism? Simply and solely to survive and to propagate its own kind. Natural selection gives nothing beyond that.

None of this yields moral obligation. It is quite meaningless to ask, for example, whether one “should” build a dam that will cause the snail darter to become extinct. We can only ask whether building it would be conducive to human survival, or to snail darter survival, or to some other arbitrarily chosen end. People may, of course, have feelings of moral obligation; but only the feelings are real, not the obligations. As Edward O. Wilson and Michael Ruse put it, “human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey.”

Given all this, it might seem that Dawkins is simply being consistent when he condemns “speciesism.” After all, given his premises, there can be no objective basis for what he calls “absolutist valuings of human life above all other life.” Humans may be more important to humans, but snail darters are more important to snail darters. In his essay on the discontinuous mind, Dawkins says that the question “What’s so special about humans?” may perhaps have “a powerful answer,” but he does not claim to know the answer; his purpose here is to raise the question, because the “unthinking nature of the speciesist double standard” keeps us from even facing the issue of why we should treat other people “better than, say, cows (cows may be cooked and eaten, people may not).” “If we want to justify double standards . . . there must be better reasons than cousinship,” because our “cousinship” (with other humans and with chimps, but not with, for instance, the cow and the octopus) is merely “incidental,” an accident of evolution. Dawkins suggests that humans may be special because they are brainier, or perhaps because, as Bentham claimed, they can suffer more. But he does not pause to resolve the question, and in the other essays collected here he is unequivocal in his denunciation of prevalent human “speciesism.”

All of this may sound like unflinching logical consistency. But if we think a little more deeply than Dawkins does, we realize that moralizing about speciesism is utterly silly from the standpoint of atheistic Darwinism. True, there is no absolute reason to prefer people to cows; but then, there is no absolute reason to prefer anything to anything, including non-speciesism to speciesism. If all moral standards are arbitrary, one might as well go with the speciesist standard. That, at least, has the human organism acting in a way that corresponds to its biological function of survival and propagation. “Cousinship,” indeed, is the very best of Darwinian reasons for caring. There is certainly no way to make sense, from a Darwinian perspective, of a trans-species Benthamite calculus of suffering, for that has nothing to do with any organism’s fitness for survival.

But haven’t we forgotten something? Dawkins has already told us that he is passionately anti-Darwinian when it comes to how we should conduct our human affairs. Indeed. But why should that be? Do we detect here an unthinking speciesist double standard? Why should bovine affairs be conducted on a Darwinian basis, and not human affairs? Cows do not seek to minimize our suffering; why should we seek to minimize theirs? Is it because we alone have the “blessed gift of understanding”? We do, but so what? What is there to understand when it comes to morality? Are there objective moral standards existing somewhere, out there, for our understanding to latch on to? Not on Dawkins’ premises. Indeed, he explicitly admits that “science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.”

We come down to this: our reason enables us to rebel against the implications of Darwinism. But why rebel? Where does the moral standard come from that says we should? Of course, the question is moot. For the fact of the matter is that rebellion against nature is impossible if atheistic Darwinism is true. We are a part of nature and cannot be anything but that. Dawkins thinks he can prove otherwise. He gives the example of contraception as “anti-Darwinian” behavior. But that behavior is no more anti-Darwinian than is a dog chasing a car and getting run over by it. If evolutionary theory is correct, organisms are programmed to respond and to act in ways that most of the time, but not invariably, favor their chances to survive and reproduce. Dawkins should really listen to the Devil’s Chaplain again: nature is “clumsy, wasteful, blundering.”

Dawkins argues against genetic determinism. Given his materialism, it is hard to see the point of this. Whether or not genes decide anything, atoms decide everything. Whether or not there is genetic determinism, there is physical determinism. One does not liberate anybody by throwing open the gates of a prison and leaving the inmates locked in their cells. It is of little importance what influence genes or the environment have, or what role is played by individual choices, if in the final analysis everything is just matter anyway, including the genes, the environment, and the individuals who choose. To a materialist, we are just congeries of atoms; and atoms must go whithersoever they are driven by the laws of physics and blind chance. Dawkins wonders whether a child can “escape” the indoctrination of nuns. It is idle of him to wonder. He should know that no one can “escape” anything. There is no place for intellectual or moral freedom in a universe that is mere matter in motion. That is why Sir Francis Crick, Edward O. Wilson, and many others who share Dawkins’ basic views call free will an illusion.

Dawkins contrasts ideas that are just memes, mindlessly and slavishly copied from brain to brain like computer viruses, with scientific ideas, which he likens to useful software that is critically evaluated by potential users and adopted or rejected on rational grounds. Such a distinction may be valid, but it is not a distinction that a materialist can make. It is based on there being an essential difference between machines, which can only do as they are told, and intelligent and free users of those machines, who can decide for themselves what to do. In the materialist’s universe, however, all users are themselves just machines, and are therefore as much driven by physical necessity (or chance) as everything else is. As the great mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl observed,

There must be freedom in the theoretical acts of affirmation and negation: When I reason that 2+2=4, this actual judgment is not forced upon me through blind natural causality (a view that would eliminate thinking as an act for which we can be held answerable) but something purely spiritual enters in.

The inescapable conclusion is that Dawkins and materialists of his sort do not in fact “stand up full-face into the keen wind of understanding.” They don’t face the implications of their ideas. If they did, they would have to dismiss all talk of morality, rebellion against nature, and intellectual freedom as so much sentimentality.

The same failure to think things through is evident in Dawkins’ views on religion. There is nothing in Darwinism, even in its most naturalistic form, that must lead one to despise religion as Dawkins does. There is every indication that religion is natural to man and conducive, on the whole, to his survival. It can give him hope in adversity, strengthen family bonds, and motivate sacrifice for the common good. Dawkins calls it a virus; but if it is, it is one that, according to the latest research, makes us healthier. “Faith sufferers,” as Dawkins calls them, seem to suffer less from a wide array of ills. Among other things, they are less given to depression, anxiety, addiction, criminality, suicide, and divorce. To state these facts is not to preach the prosperity gospel, but to see the weakness of Dawkins’ position even on its own naturalistic terms.

Without religion, says Dawkins, we would not have wars of religion or religious persecution. True. And without sex, fathers, families, material possessions, and governments, we would not have sex crimes, abusive fathers, dysfunctional families, greed for material possessions, and oppressive governments. Every natural and necessary thing can be perverted, even reason. Religion has led to hateful ideas, but has any Christian writer ever published ideas as hateful as the social Darwinism of H. G. Wells? Religion has led to persecutions, but none even nearly as massive as those produced by militant irreligion. More people were killed by the “scientific atheism” of communism on an average day than the Spanish Inquisition killed in an average decade. And largely responsible for this fact was a teaching of contempt for religion of exactly the kind that Dawkins propagates.

Dawkins gave an interview to recently. He was asked whether he could think of anything, just “one positive, if minor, thing” that religion has done for the good. No, he replied, he really couldn’t. What about great religious art? “That’s not religion,” said Dawkins, “it is just because the Church had the money. Great artists like . . . Bach . . . would have done whatever they were told to do.” So Johann Sebastian Bach was just in it for the money. What this sordid remark reveals, apart from amazing ignorance and philistinism, is the mind of a true fanatic. It is not enough for Dawkins to say that religion is bad on the whole; it must be wholly bad.

Even without his bigotry, we could not expect balanced judgment or logical consistency from Dawkins, because he is a man in a muddle. One encounters in A Devil’s Chaplain at least three Dawkinses: there is Dawkins the Humanist, Dawkins the Reasoner, and Dawkins the Darwinist. Each sits on a different branch, sawing away at the branches on which the others sit. Dawkins the Humanist preaches, inveighs, denounces; he bristles with moral indignation. Dawkins the Darwinist tells him, however, that his humanism is speciesist vanity, his moral standards arbitrary, and his indignation empty. Dawkins the Humanist rebels, proclaiming himself (in human affairs) passionately anti-Darwinian. Dawkins the Reasoner joins the rebellion, declaring that our minds allow us to transcend our genetic inheritance. Dawkins the Darwinist answers with lethal effect that our brains “were only designed to understand the mundane details of how to survive in the stone-age African savannah.”

The blame for this muddle lies not with humanism, reason, or even Darwinism. It lies with Dawkins’ atheism and materialism, which prevent any coherent viewpoint from emerging because they deny the spiritual soul in man. That soul is indeed a blessed gift. It is precisely “what is so special about humans.” It is what enables us to be people of reason and not just animals programmed to survive on the African savannah. It is what allows us to grasp moral truth and to have the freedom to follow it rather than the laws of matter or the law of the jungle. It is what makes it possible for us to have that hope and love to which the subtitle of Dawkins’ book refers, but which are absent from its pages, and about which he has nothing in the end to say.

Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware. He is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press).

Home Page



Family News

Family History



Paul's Health

Sue's Health


External link - MAD (Bristol) MAD (Bristol)

External link - BCAN Homeless Forum BCAN Homeless Forum

External link - Bristol:networks Bristol:networks

External link - Bristol Anabaptists Bristol Anabaptists




Interactive Gospel

Christian Articles

General Articles

Other People

Other Places



Web Site

Contact Us



Search this site

Complete file list



Reference: Index

Copyright © 2004 Stephen M. Barr was last updated 13 August 2009
Page content last modified: 3 August 2004
You are welcome to print this page for your personal use or create a link to it, but if you would like to use any part of this page in any other way, please read the standard terms and then contact me.

Go to the top of this page
Home | Personal | Ministry | Writings | Web Site
Display this page in a printer-friendly format

I welcome your comments and feedback.
You can either send me a message or write in the guest book.
Page counter at 04:54 on 30 May 2017