05/07/2013 10:43 am ET | Updated Jul 07, 2013

Is Richard Dawkins Really the World's Leading Intellectual?

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Prospect magazine just named the 65 leading intellectuals in the world.

First on the list was Richard Dawkins, known for his work in biology and for his polemics against religion. Dawkins on biology is an elegant, lucid and even enchanting explicator of science. Dawkins on religion is historically uninformed, outrageously partisan and morally obtuse. If Dawkins is indeed our best, the life of the mind is in a precarious state.

Historical Ignorance

Anyone who could write "Hitler's ideas and intentions were not self-evidently more evil than those of Caligula" is egregiously ill-informed at best. Not only are Caligula's intentions and actions a subject of historical speculation and even revision, but he did not plot to wipe out an entire people simply because they existed, or mobilize a vast military machinery to enmesh the entire world in war. I trust this is merely a misjudgment and not -- given Dawkins statement that "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully" and that "Jews" are "notoriously one of the most effective political lobbies in the United States" -- indicative of any deeper prejudice. (Note to the many credentialed Prof. Dawkins, "Jews" are not a political lobby.)

Of course, this historical misfire comes from the same book, "The God Delusion," that insists, "I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca -- or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame." As Alistair McGrath points out, that would surprise anyone who is aware of the fact that the explicitly atheistic Soviet regime destroyed the vast majority of churches (and priests) between 1918-1941. The Tamil Tigers (again, atheistic, and the inventors of suicide vests) leveled countless Buddhist sites of worship. While it is true to say that atheists would not have built Notre Dame, it is not true to say none would ever destroy it.

Intellectual Narrowness

Dawkins exhibits none of an intellectual's characteristic ability to understand the second side of the argument. He not only discounts religious argument, he is unable to believe in the integrity and sincerity of those scientists who disagree with him. Referring to a fundamentalist who gave up science because he could not reconcile the two, Dawkins suggests that he be given the Templeton prize (a prize for scientists who make spiritual contributions) because "He might be the first really sincere recipient." All the other distinguished scientists who received are presumably phonies, since apparently, no one can credibly differ with Dawkins. He writes of biologist Stephen Jay Gould, "I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages" (Gould's book on science and religion). The inability to credit your opponent's arguments or intentions is not a mark intellectual distinction. As Stephen Jay Gould himself points out: "Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs -- and equally compatible with atheism."

Moral Obtuseness

To write, as Dawkins has, not only that religion is a form of child abuse but indeed may be more damaging than actual sexual abuse, is closer to raving than to reason: "Priestly groping of child bodies is disgusting. But it may be less harmful in the long run than priestly subversion of child minds." Puerile swipes at the religion of a billion people are beneath any intellectual, much less a "leading" one.

That religions, for all their many and frequently noted faults, do great good in the world (the largest aid organization in the USA is World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian group), and are integral to the art, culture and even scientific development of both the east and west is all germane, but not central. Central to the evaluation of an intellectual's integrity is whether they are arguing with the best in the opposing position. Dawkins grabs every depredation of religion as though it were a central tenet and everything noble as though it were an accidental, replaceable byproduct. This is a sophist's strategy, unserious and unworthy.

Thoughtful atheism is an important contribution to the debate. Far more credible is the conclusion of an ideological confederate of Dawkins, editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer: "However for every one of these grand tragedies there are a thousand acts of personal kindness that go unreported. ... Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil."

Such vapid reductionism would never be undertaken, of course, by anyone with genuine intellectual integrity. The idea that this simplification would be assayed by the world's leading intellectual is a mockery -- like the list that enshrines him.