Anyone who regularly tunes in to academic, atheist and author Professor Richard Dawkins’ television appearances and YouTube videos will likely be familiar with the following extract, which popped up in my social media feeds again, recently. This particular clip features Professor Dawkins’ 2012 participation on the panel of Australian ABC TV’s discussion show, “Q&A”, taking questions from the audience.
This was reposted along with comments that are all too common among some atheists, to the effect that it was funny to see Dawkins putting the theistic audience member in his place, almost as though being an atheist meant to be the adult, godless version of a playground bully. (Compare the title of the video for more of the same type of attitude.)
The clip, in my view, would have made for much more interesting viewing had Dawkins actually answered the audience member’s question, although as an atheist, I agree wholeheartedly with what Dawkins said.
At its simplest, the audience member is presenting a yes-or-no question, namely:
Aren’t atheists hypocrites? In argument form, this runs roughly as follows:
P1: The ability to decide between right & wrong comes from a sense of absolute morality
P2: Absolute morality requires an irrational leap of faith
P3: Atheism rejects absolute morality and irrational leaps of faith
C: Atheism cannot know right & wrong without being hypocritical
Again, while I agree with what Professor Dawkins says, he does not, technically, answer the question. His response is essentially “I don’t want your absolute morality”, for the reasons and examples he cites. While these reasons may be viscerally appealing to atheist audiences, his response boils down to an appeal to ridicule: framing someone’s argument as absurd (even if it is), instead of addressing the points raised.
As a fledgling critical thinker, I feel the exchange would have been more informative had Professor Dawkins engaged with the notions raised by the audience member, and with the argument put forth; and he is certainly eminently qualified to do so. Specifically, it would have been interesting to hear Dawkins’ views on absolute morality, its history and validity, and perhaps why atheists do not merely reject it, but for whom it is something of a non-concept, before proceeding to a dissection of the argument.
As atheists, and hopefully as critical thinkers, it is incumbent on us not to give in to the comfort of confirmation bias by behaving like fans, followers or congregationists before those who generally, and vocally, represent our views. For those of us who grew up in a religious environment, it is that sort of herd behaviour that we are supposed to have left behind. Everything and everyone should be subject to scepticism and critical appraisal, uncomfortable though it may be to us. That is the way towards freedom, and that is the way towards truth.