Tuesday 8 February 2011

Why Dawkins gets a bad rap for his books

DSC_1776w_RichardDawkinsAnyone who has actually read a book by Richard Dawkins knows that he writes with transparent clarity. And that's his undoing, as far as his detractors are concerned. If a book has a provocative title — The God Delusion, for instance — persons of a certain predisposition will be predisposed not to read the book itself, and will rely on others to tell them what the book contains. TGD was even described by one detractor as a "barely literate diatribe" — which is so far from the truth one can only wonder if this person read even a single sentence of it.

Dawkins is an educator. His books are written mostly for a lay audience, and he takes care to be precise. This is particularly noticeable in his latest, The Greatest Show On Earth, where he elucidates, in detail, the overwhelming evidence for the fact of evolution. After reading TGSOE, no-one of moderate education or intelligence can fail to have an understanding of why evolution explains how we came to be here.

That his sentences only need to be read once in order to glean the meaning therein, unfortunately counts against Dawkins when he is read by someone used to grappling with the obfuscations of theology. Dawkins' writing is so clear by comparison it can be dismissed as simplistic, superficial or shallow — when it is nothing of the kind. Clarity is the enemy — indeed the antithesis — of theology. That's why the likes of Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong dislike it so much.

Clarity is often, as Dawkins himself has noted, mistaken for stridency, militancy and shrillness. If people accuse Dawkins of being strident, militant or shrill, you can be sure they've not read his books or heard him speak. His message is clear — and if his detractors understand it (as they must, if they understand English), they have only one way to attack it — by attacking him. They interpret his clear message as an assault on the intricate convolutions of theological navel-gazing. In the face of Dawkins' exemplary clarity those who resort to such ad hominem attacks can be justly labelled shrill, militant or strident.