Going Down? Dawkins, Doubters and Debauchery

Scott Oliphint
Editors' note: A summary of the incident referred to by Dr. Oliphint can be found here.

Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the (non-existent) god of all things atheist, recently found himself on the wrong end of a verbal baseball bat. The story itself drips with so much irony that it's impossible not to get soaked while reading it. To summarize: at a conference of skeptics, one of the lead "dubietants" found herself being propositioned on an elevator at 4 a.m. As is our (post)modern custom, the first thing one does when such traumas occur is blog about it.

The blog, however, didn't meet with universal sympatico. Particularly, it failed to garner the emotional empathy of Dawkins. In a comment on the "skepti-sleeze" incident, Dawkins used the Supreme Skeptic's blog complaint to attempt a taxonomic tirade of world-wide tragedies. Given the mutilation of Muslim women, commented Dawkins, a mere proposition on an elevator at 4 a.m. seems a relatively meaningless and petty complaint.

But Dawkins bit off more skepticism with such comments than his atheist stomach could digest. Even after an apology followed by an apology to the skeptics, he was ill-prepared for the wrath that the rationalist regime rained down on Dawkins. The vitriol was relentless, and Dawkins found his own god-like status in serious question. He simply could not understand how his prioritizing of evil deeds could have caused so much caustic consternation. Of particular interest to me was the article's concluding comment on the Skeptics vs. Dawkins discussion: "That's skeptics." said one writer, "Rational about everything except themselves, self-preservation, and manners."

These skeptics pride themselves on their commitment to rationality and evidence-based reasoning. However, what ought to be perfectly clear in this kerfuffle is that "being rational" is insufficient to deal with things like personal offenses, human preservation, and any statement or belief with an "ought" implied in it. More specifically, "being rational" provides no help or information to someone who is inappropriately propositioned in an elevator. The woman who was propositioned, and who, on her blog, names herself the "Skepchick," assumed that the mere mention of her plight on her blog would rally the rationalist troops with appropriate, rationalist responses. But Dawkins dared to compare the Skepchick's scare with Muslim mutilation and then to imply an (arbitrary) equation of moral equivalence. What Dawkins discovered is that such equations don't compute for the Skepchick and her supporters. How can it be, we could ask, that so many committed to nothing more than being rational and evidential find themselves in such turmoil?

This might be a good place to introduce a sometimes useful apologetic tactic. The use of so-called ad hominem (literally, "to the man") arguments are generally considered to be fallacious. There is no question that such arguments can be fallacious, but there is also no question that logical fallacies are not fallacious in every case. An ad hominem argument, when used in a fallacious way, is an attack on a person's personal character rather than a response to that person's argument. It is, in sum, character assassination. In a charged political atmosphere like the one we in the USA are currently enduring, such arguments are in abundance.

An ad hominem argument that is not fallacious is one in which a person's position is challenged based on what that person himself claims. It is an ad hominem argument because it goes to the challenger's own beliefs; it seeks to question the consistency of what someone believes, argues or maintains in light of other beliefs or arguments that one claims to hold.

So, we could ask, what is it about Dawkins' response that violated the rational or the evidential foundation of the skeptics? Dawkins tried to make the point that the Muslim mutilation of women is a level of evil with which a 4 a.m. request to have coffee on an elevator can hardly compare. Is that an irrational argument? If it is, then the Skepchick might have provided the specific law(s) of reasoning that Dawkins violated. Does it violate a commitment to evidentialism? If so, then it would have been useful to spell out just how evidential principles were transgressed in Dawkins' argument.

Of course, the fact of the matter is that the fact of the matter transcends the rational and the evidential. There is something at work in Dawkins' argument and in the Skepchick's response that goes beyond their basic commitments. The Skepchick (likely unconsciously) realized this point and so, predictably, attributed Dawkins' insensitivity to those things which are beyond his control, and which, at least according to her, motivate everything he says and does; she located the obtuse character of the argument in Dawkins' gender, race and age. The ad hominem question to ask here is just what it is about gender, race and age that violate rationality or evidential reasoning.

No legitimate response will be forthcoming from such a question because none could be. One will search the plethora of logic textbooks in vain if what is hoped for is the discovery of a rational law that would vindicate the Skepchick and her supporters. She had to move beyond her own worldview in order to lodge her lament against Dawkins. She was, consciously or not, depending on principles that did not comport with her supposed basic notions of the rational and the evidential.

There are, then, deep and inviolable forces at work in this debate, forces that go way beyond rationality and evidence. For Dawkins, there is the obvious scale of evil -- what is done to Muslim women is more evil that what was done to the Skepchick. For the Skepchick, there is a code of morality that must be taken with all seriousness when it is she who is violated. So, as the article says, there really does seem to be no common rational or evidential commitment between Dawkins and the Skepchick when it comes to their own personal lives, the way in which they ought to act, and what constitutes acceptable behavior between people.

This is inevitable. As we have said in previous articles, anyone who determines to base his life on something other than the Lordship of Christ, and all that His Lordship entails, will discover that whatever foundation he thinks is holding him up is actually, even if sometimes slowly or imperceptibly, crumbling to dust underneath him. Thus, the ad hominem argument. The supposed basic foundation they have chosen cannot bear the weight of real life in God's world, as God's creatures. It is utterly impotent and so cannot begin to accomplish the task it has been assigned.

The article is useful in that it points out, in a real-life, tangible way, just what it means when we say that atheists (skeptics included) cannot, on the basis of their own worldview, make a credible judgment on moral issues. Dawkins' argument may make some sense; it certainly seems to be true that the mutilation of women is more serious than a man asking a woman to have coffee, even if the request came at 4 a.m. in an elevator. But in order to make that evaluation, there must also be a cogent understanding of just what and who people are (i.e., image of God), and just why and how it is that such things constitute real, and not just subjective, evil (i.e., because God, as the only and ultimate good, determines what things are evil and what are not). The Skepchick was formally correct in pointing to the unalterable and involuntary aspects of Dawkins' character. But it was not his gender, race or age that motivated his assessment. Rather, contrary to his own announced commitments, Dawkins could only set out the priority of evils he attempted because he knows, deep down, that people are more than rational laws and material composites. They have characteristics that transcend their thinking and their constitution; they are image of God.

Dawkins wouldn't put it that way, of course. He could not do so without a healthy commitment to repent of all that he has stood for. But it is just that repentance, and that alone, that can resolve the tension between Dawkins and the Skepchick. It is, to put it rather bluntly, only repentance that will give to both Dawkins and the Skepchick what they so desperately want -- a cogent and consistent way to understand "themselves, self-preservation, and manners." The solution to the Skepti-Sleeze incident, then, as in all other problems, is to turn to Christ, to set Him apart as Lord. As a matter of fact, nothing could be more rational than that.