Science in the Soul by Richard Dawkins

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My review of Richard Dawkins’s new collection of occasional pieces, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (Bantam Press) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

What Dawkins wants to do is depose religion and put science, narrowly construed, in its place. For Dawkins, science is a lovely, rational, clean, benevolent enterprise (“Science is both wonderful and necessary”) which “has many of religion’s virtues,” and “none of its vices.” If we all thought like scientists, Dawkins believes, then the world would naturally evolve into a rationalist utopia. “I suppose I am saying,” he remarks, in his 1997 Oxford Amnesty lecture, included here, “that scientists have a scale of values according to which there is something almost sacred about nature’s truth.”

“Almost sacred” is the giveaway, here […] Dawkins is exactly right when he describes himself as “a deeply religious non-believer.” He is persistently drawn to religious language: eulogising Christopher Hitchens, he writes, “maybe he has no immortal soul – none of us has. But in the only meaning of the words that makes any sense, the soul of Christopher Hitchens is among the immortals.” Dawkins is confident that our “spiritual” needs can be met by a proper understanding of science – an understanding mediated by ”literary” science writing, of the sort in which Dawkins himself specialises.

At one point, Dawkins tells us that he believes in evolution “with passionate conviction.” But why, we might legitimately wonder, is belief required? Evolution, as Dawkins insists, is as close as scientific enquiry can come to a proven fact; by Dawkins’s own lights, evolution is true whether you believe in it or not. “Conviction” is beside the point. “Science is actually one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines around,” says Dawkins. But this is to assert a value, not a fact (earlier in the collection, Dawkins remarks, perhaps not surprisingly, that “the fact-value distinction has been oversold”).

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