In this interview on CNN, Richard Dawkins answers questions about himself and his views. In particular, he argues that evolution is mainstream, and religion and creationism are really the controversial views. I think that Richard Dawkins, while he may be a brilliant biologist, is ignorant in matters of philosophy and religion. He is better than other prominent athiests, but his arguments are just as unpersuasive. Here is his answer to the question, “Where did morality come from? Evolution?,” with some of my commentary.
We have very big and complicated brains, and all sorts of things come from those brains, which are loosely and indirectly associated with our biological past. And morality is among them, together with things like philosophy and music and mathematics. Morality, I think, does have roots in our evolutionary past. There are good reasons, Darwinian reasons, why we are good to, altruistic towards, cooperative with, moral in our behavior toward our fellow species members, and indeed toward other species as well, perhaps.
He asserts that ideas about morality are derived from our “biological past.” Morality, therefore, is not transcendental or founded upon universal principles. According to Dawkins, ‘good’ seems to be whatever the Darwinian process turns out. Dawkins then makes the value judgment that these reasons found “why we are good to, altruistic towards, cooperative with, moral in our behavior toward our fellow species members, and indeed toward other species as well, perhaps.” I have a major issue with this assertion. Since we developed our “morality” via Darwinian processes, this morality is necessarily relativistic. Our environment, social, biological, and otherwise is what forms our thoughts about how we should act toward one another. If placed in another environment, our morals may turn out differently. In other words, Darwinian processes could have (and still can!) turn out reasons why we are good to kill our neighbor and steal his possessions. In no sense are these morals binding. The Darwinian process can hypothesize as to the origination of why we act the way we do, but it cannot turn around and say, therefore, “you must act like this.” In other words, the evolutionary explanation is descriptive but never prescriptive. Hence, Dawkins is only speaking of preference (social, individual, or Darwinian) and not actual morality.
There are evolutionary roots to morality, but they’ve been refined and perfected through thousands of years of human culture. I certainly do not think that we ought to get our morals from religion because if we do that, then we either get them through Scripture – people who think you should get your morals from the Old Testament haven’t read the Old Testament – so we shouldn’t get our morals from there.
Dawkins hits on a subject closer to my heart. I certainly find some places in the Old Testament hard to explain, but for Dawkins to say that people who say “you should get your morals from the Old Testament haven’t read the Old Testament” strikes me as naive. Plenty of theologians (Christopher Wright and Gordon Wenham, for instance) have reckoned with the ethics of the Old Testament and have come to vastly different conclusions than those of Mr. Dawkins. His answer shows that he has not studied the issue in depth. The Old Testament actually approaches morality from a nuanced perspective. The Bible acknowledges human sin and the brokenness of the world due to that sin, God’s commitment to justice and remedy of sin, and God’s faithfulness to his covenant. All these come into play when the Old Testament describes the history of God’s actions with Israel and provide the reader with the ability to make proper moral judgments based on its content. Mr. Dawkins, as a man of scholarship, please interact with the many who have studied this subject before you make a passing judgment on Scripture!
Nor should we get our morals from a kind of fear that if we don’t please God he’ll punish us, or a kind of desire to apple polish (to suck up to) a God. There are much more noble reasons for being moral than constantly looking over your shoulder to see whether God approves of what you do.
Again, this comment fails to interact with the Christian view of human ontology. Francis Schaeffer describes the fullest expression of humanity not as that which is characterized by many mistakes (i.e. to err is to be human) but as that which is unblemished by any imperfection. Beyond the fact that fear is actually a good reason to obey God is the idea that we are not truly human unless we are perfect in our obedience toward God. We have more than just fear of a holy God motivating us to be “moral people.” God’s love, mercy, and grace have always been motivations for God’s people to obey. Even the Ten Commandments begin with “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of slavery.” Redemption has always been the primary motivation for God’s people to be “moral.” That being said, God is a holy God and that should scare the Hell out of us.
I’ve always found Dawkins an interesting figure. He is in many ways the chief representative of the so-called New Atheists. He is supposedly a brilliant biologist. He is, however, dogmatic toward evolution and atheism in a manner that reminds me of uber-fundamentalist Christians. And he is, evidently and most importantly, lost as we all are without a Savior.