The ex-scientist and self-styled atheist Richard Dawkins descended on Australia yesterday in the first of two sessions of ABC-TV’s Compass. Next weekend, he is scheduled to manifest himself at the Sydney Writers’ Festival via a satellite link.

How long is it since Dawkins published an article on biology or genetics in a referred journal? His website seems neither to know nor care. The visitor is led through a maze of promotional materials, epistles to the mass media and passing around the collection plate for his foundation, like any tele-evangelist.

So, if Dawkins’s marketing tag of “scientist” is a tad wistful, surely the logo of big chief “Atheist” is beyond dispute?

The answer depends on how one defines atheism. Refusing to accept that the universe is in the hands of an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud has never been enough. In 1811, Oxford expelled Shelley for publishing The Necessity of Atheism. The poet never gave up his belief in lesser spooks.

God-deniers today are less likely to be captivated by spirits. Instead, they are afflicted with god-structured patterns of thought. In the place of god, they put an explanation which performs one of its functions. Those characteristics range from omnipotence to omniscience, while embodying the good, the true and the beautiful.

Dawkins is a case in point. The late Stephen Jay Gould accused him of falling for a god-structured distortion of Darwinism. His metaphor of a universe created by a blind watchmaker, with his miracles of perfect adaptation, takes the place of the intelligent designer.

In refutation, Gould stressed that not every trait is adapted to its bearer’s current environment. He mocked Dawkins’s version as Kipling’s Just So Stories. Gould argued for an evolution that proceeds through rough fits such as the Panda’s thumb, and has room for the atavism of hen’s teeth.

God-structured thinking also shows up in fiction, physics and mathematics. Historians are flagrant offenders. The more powerful and evil a figure, the more historians attribute to them the god-like trick of knowing the future. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is portrayed as a blueprint for the conquest of Europe and the Holocaust. That piece of god-structured history remains convincing until you plod through the 1925-27 master plan and set its ramblings and ravings against what Hitler did, and when.

Old-time secularism retains its relevance. In addition, we need an a-theism which rebuts the theism that thrives in people who boast of their atheism. Atheists need to adapt.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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