I personally believe that yes, Richard Dawkins a respected evolutionary biologist and writer can be close minded, particularly when he discusses religion. In my opinion, many of Dawkins statements on religion and religious adherents exemplify typical “us vs. them” rhetoric. For example:
“Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.”1
This to my mind perfectly illustrates his tactic of belittling his ideological opponents to cultivate an air of authority. This allows him to use said rhetoric as a tool claim the “intellectual high ground” in his and his supporter’s minds and so launch his ideological crusade from a position of perceived superiority. If you paint your opponents as mentally ill why should you consider what they have to say? Why should you engage in fair debate? Close minded “us vs. them” attacks like this have been used throughout history to drive walls between people and promote tribalism. It is disappointing that any eminent intellectual chooses to “debate” in this way.
One of Dawkins hallmarks is a focus on rationality and logic. While rationality and logic are excellent tools; they are just that, tools. I’d argue that outside of the scientific disciplines and especially when dealing with particularly emotional issues, sensitivity is more important than being “correct”. In fact letting differences in opinion slide is probably necessary to form any semblance of a functioning society. It is obvious to me that he argues in this manner because he feels only he can be correct in this particular debate. However, it seems that he does not want to actually deliberate with his opponents but use the debate as a platform to preach from.
One of the most jarring examples of his disconnect with wider society is his comments on physical abuse when compared to teaching children about hell. The full quote can be seen below:
“But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief [in hell] might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.”2
I personally find this comment and the full article extraordinarily disturbing and distasteful. Never mind describing child physical abuse as a “temporary embarrassment”. However, the point I wish to discuss is that instead of reflecting on and refuting any of his critics’ points; in the full article he merely expands upon and reiterates his position. He didn’t entertain the discussion or criticism so acted in a closed minded manner.
Ultimately while I believe Dawkins is close minded, aggressive and unhelpful he is a formidable intellect and we do need to have discussions about many of the issues he raises. But, I believe that these discussions need to open, frank and held with much less confrontational rhetoric.
1Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press