37 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins and the Purpose of Purpose

  1. Austringer Post author

    I was up in the nosebleed seats for the lecture, having gotten my tickets a mere three weeks ahead of the lecture.

    My most immediate disagreement with Dawkins would have to do with his answer to the question about being described as an “evangelical atheist”. Answering in the way he did about not seeing himself as dogmatic and thus not evangelical relies on equivocation; the primary property of evangelicalism is not its dogmatism but rather its proselytizing character. He might as well have said that he did not consider himself an “evangelical atheist” because he didn’t have great hair like various televangelists. On the property of being a proselytizer, Dawkins simply had nothing to say. It would have been perfectly legitimate for Dawkins to say that he disliked having the term “evangelical” applied to him because of the baggage it carries, but I don’t think that he would demur at all from a recognition that he energetically and enthusiastically uses his skills in persuasion to convince other people to take up a “no-god view of life”. His response to the question does nothing, in my opinion, to de-legitimate the application of the term to his activities as a proselytizer for atheism.

  2. Spottedwind

    Wes, thanks for the notes. The archi-purpose and neo-purpose are intersting concepts that I think I’ll be mulling over for a bit. Just trying to parse out what societal behavior might come from what biological behaviors. Kind of fun in that sense.

  3. Bryan

    Thanks for the detailed description Wes.

    As for Dawkins’ answer to the “evangelical atheist” question, I think he understood evangelical to mean something close to fundamentalist. I could be wrong, but his answer certainly seems to suggest that. I suspect if the question had been “fundamentalist atheist” he would have answered the same way, and if it had been “energetic and enthusiastic atheist” he would have answered quite differently.

    The word evangelical confuses me too, frankly. Merriam-Webster defines it as follows, and only number 5 makes sense of your criticism, while the first 4 make sense of Dawkins’ take on it. I suspect that the word is used differently inside the Evangelical tradition, than outside.

    1: of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels
    2: protestant
    3: emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual
    4 a) capitalized: of or relating to the Evangelical Church in Germany. b) often capitalized: of, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism : fundamentalist.
    5: marked by militant or crusading zeal

  4. Austringer Post author

    Yep, only sense #5 would be applicable to my comment.

    It is interesting that none of the provided definitions make sense in terms of Dawkins’ reply to the question.

  5. Surk

    > It is interesting that none of the provided definitions make sense in terms of Dawkins’ reply to the question.

    of, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism : fundamentalist.

  6. Austringer Post author


    Dawkins addressed only dogmatism. He did not say anything in that response that I recall about fundamentalism.

  7. David vun Kannon

    I thought “evangelism” had to do with “telling the good news”, which is the way it is used in a secular sense in the technology industry. In this sense, I think that Dawkins is an evangelist for atheism.

  8. fatpie42

    Calling someone an evangelical atheist always seems a bit weird to me. The term ‘evangelical’ is distinctly Christian in character. Calling someone an evangelical Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist would seem just as weird to me.

    It seems that the element amongst evangelicals which sprung to mind for Dawkins was their insistence that you “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and saviour”. Dawkins claim that it would be more sensible for people to become atheists is not such a dogmatic insistence. It seems just as good a comparison as any.

    In the end, the problem was that the question was rather odd and so Dawkins had to interpret it as best he could. It seems bizarre to claim he was wrong because you believe that he fulfills the criteria of being an “evangelical atheist”. That would seem to involve claiming him to be both Christian and atheist at the same time (something Dawkins would find absurd).

    P.S. For those of you who would wish to remind me of the fifth definition above, that it referring to the crusading zeal of Christians (after all, a ‘crusade’ is also very much related to Christianity in particular).

  9. Paul Wright

    Ex-evangelical ex-Christian reporting in:

    “Evangelical” among Christians refers to a group of Christian beliefs. Typically, the need for personal repentance and conversion is in there. So is what’s known as a “high view” of the Bible (evangelical churches tend to describe themselves as “Bible believing”) where words like “infallible” or “inerrant” are used of scripture.

    Evangelical and fundamentalist are sometimes used as synonyms, and it’s perhaps that which Dawkins was reacting to by saying that he wasn’t dogmatic. They’re not quite the same, though: at least in the UK, not all evangelicals reject evolution, for example.

    The word for making converts is “evangelising” and the people who do it are “evangelists”.

  10. AdamK

    What is mistaken for evangelism or fundamentalism in Dawkins is simply enthusiastic teaching. He has long been committed to a program of public promulgation of science. (It’s ironic that religious people use religious terminology to accuse atheists of holding to atheism as a religion, thus seeming to accept the premise that religion is something shameful.)

  11. intidel

    Thanks for making your notes on Dawkins’ new lecture public, for those of us unfortunate enough to be thousands of miles away and having to miss it.

    Austringer@#1 brings up great points about the denotation of the term evangelism. Sounds more like he was thinking of “fundamentalism” when he was responding to that question.

    That said, his points in the article’s selfsame paragraph, that whereas Billy Graham was “absolutely sure that [he was] right,” Dawkins’ point that he would be able to change his mind given sufficient evidence was spot on, and shows a flexible and reasoning mind capable of adjusting itself in response to the direction the evidence points, and without harboring presuppositions in any direction (in the absence of valid evidence).

    I’ve heard him make the “evangelism” vs. “fundamentalism” gaffe before, and while they often overlap, they by no means have the same denotation, so I hope he corrects that at some point in the future. (How this is or can be spun or quote-mined rhetorically is another matter entirely, of course.)

  12. Siddharth

    >He did not say anything in that response that I recall about fundamentalism.

    define:fundamentalism in google gives,

    “# Religious fundamentalism refers to a “deep and totalistic commitment” to a belief in the infallibility and inerrancy of holy scriptures, absolute …”

    I think Dawkins addressed precisely this point.

  13. paul01

    Would it be fair to say that Dawkins\’ talk is really a derivative of Dennett\’s Darwin\’s Dangerous Idea, e.g., in regard to Dennett\’s hiearchy ending in Popperian man? Also the references to on board computers.

    Having said that, I think perhaps his notion of archi-purpose may have more \”combat value\” than Dennett\’s design stance, since it strikes directly at the \”illusion of design\”, yet does not commit itself to over-interpreting what is \”designed.\”

  14. Maat

    He’s not an evangelist for atheism, atheism is not a belief structure. Atheism is simply non belief based on evidence for the same reasons you don’t think Santa Claus is real, or pink fairies orbit pluto. Can you prove they don’t? No, but your disbelief based on evidence and reason does not constitute a belief, just like not believing in a God does not mean you have faith or a belief construct in the other direction.

    You could say he is an advocate for reason.

  15. Sili

    David stole my comment.

    The (likely) nonexistence of gods is a “joyous message”.

  16. tmaxPA

    “Dawkins addressed only dogmatism. He did not say anything in that response that I recall about fundamentalism.”

    I think you’re just being difficult. You may consider the difference between the two concepts as material and specific, but in truth they aren’t – if fundamentalists were not dogmatic, they would not be fundamentalists. Nor dangerous.

    Which Dawkins isn’t. He may be rude and disturbing (or he may just appear that way to those who don’t want to hear what he has to say, however gently he tries to say it), but he is not dangerous, nor is he dogmatic, nor evangelical.

    He explains it quite clearly – he believes there is a real universe not subject to any arbitrary whims from some superior entity, not because that is the article of faith which underlies his beliefs, but because that is the result of his consideration of the facts, without any articles of faith whatsoever save for the fact that there is a real universe.

    So he is an evangelical scientist, and an atheist, but he is not an evangelical atheist. Unless you insist that any atheist is evangelical because he would argue against your All Powerful Stone Age Deity.

  17. Robert

    So what, it’s deplorable to attempt to change people’s minds?

    The real motivation behind accusing Dawkins of prosyletizing is to make him out to be a hypocrite.

    But then when has he ever suggested that there should be a moratorium on the competition of ideas? Isn’t that competition how good ideas supplant bad ones?

    To advocate atheism is not the same as to prosyletize for a religion, as the materialist model of the universe and our origins is well supported by evidence, and supernatural alternatives are not, except where they plagiarize wholesale from the materialist model and then stick their preferred god on top.

    You may as well scold anti-vaccinationists for “prosyletizing” their \”religious view\” that vaccinations don’t cause autism.

  18. Eric MacDonald

    The word ‘evangelical’ is, while occasionally used in an extended sense to mean the zealous promoter of any cause, comes from the Greek word ‘evanggelion’, which is the word that we translate correctly with the word ‘gospel’, which comes from the Old English ‘godspel’, for good new or glad tidings. In Old English, of course, the sense is ambiguous, because the word for God is god, so it could be, and was no doubt often taken to mean, ‘God’s tidings’. So ‘evangelical’ (as Webster rightly indicates) refers primarily to the proclamation of the Christian message.

    The use of the word with respect to an atheist is, in a real sense, then, an oxymoron. Dawkins is not, as Sili says, delivering a joyous message. He is making what he feels to be a reasonable claim, based on the evidence available to us. But he is not asking anyone to accept it because he says so, but because he thinks it is probably true. It is not, in the sense of a gospel, good news. It’s just a fact, or not, as the case may be.

    Perhaps Dawkins needs to work on his answer to this question. There are several that I can think of, which would not leave his audience hanging by a thread.

  19. Pierce R. Butler

    Is the proper prefix for an instinctive purpose (for lack of a better term) “archi-” or “archaeo-“?

  20. NewEnglandBob

    Austringer, Prof. Dawkins answered the evangelical question quite properly.

    You missed the important part – he “would be able to change his mind given sufficient evidence that he was wrong.”

    Billy Graham works ONLY on faith, not evidence. He is dogmatic.

  21. eddie

    I remember apple mac evangelists.
    Poor deluded fools.

    Seriously, how often does RD get asked about being evangelist or fundamentalist? Atheists are constantly being labeled as dogmatic followers of just another religion.
    Its good that RD’s reply made the point, whatever the wording of the question.

  22. Logan N

    Is Dawkins wearing designer jeans in that picture? LOL, I’ve never seen him wear jeans.

  23. weatherly

    “Dawkins went on to talk about artificial selection as a transition to natural selection.” Isn’t artifice a subset of natural? If it ain’t what is it?

  24. Austringer Post author

    Thanks to everybody popping in from Pharyngula.

    #21: I’d disagree that I “missed” the point about dogmatism and evidence.

    I’d certainly agree that people seeking to cast atheism as another religion are confused, but, as I said in #1, “dogmatism” isn’t the principal usage associated with “evangelist”. I don’t see a problem with Dawkins doing his best to argue his viewpoints, but I also don’t see a problem with the descriptive term being applied. At least, a demurral from dogmatism isn’t an effective counter-argument on that score.

    Amusingly, I just came across the following from the July/August 2007 PCPhoto (p.56):

    An Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and a senior evangelist for a premier imaging technology company, Weston Maggio is an authority on Photoshop instruction.

  25. Michael J

    From an ex-Catholic standpoint, we used to use evangelical as denoting a Christian who spread the gospel through the community. I belonged to a Christian group and we would refer to others as being more evangelical. The term seemed to have broadened to mean anybody spreading a message.

    I think the confusion is that in a America the label has broadened to mean a whole grab bag of values belonging to a certain type of Christian.

  26. Richard Barton

    I began to write a comment but accidentally wrote “Evangenital” instead of “Evangelical” – I guess this says more about me than anything else. It also makes this message more interesting than the original message I was writing. So I’ve sent THIS one instead.

  27. Jerry Billings

    While I can imagine any number of miracles that would falsify my opinion that there are neiter a god nor gods, I cannot imagine a single positive piece of evidence that the gods do not exist. What sort of a miracle could a non-existant god present?My strong Atheistic conviction depends upon the impossibility of a supernatural and the addition of naturalistic explanations by the sciences of the questions of life. I do not recognize the god-of-the-gaps as any explanation at all. The explanation of a miracle by invoking a greater miracle is just plain goofy and should be pointed out to every fundie who trys to adopt it.
    If there is a single issue in Atheism that deserves criticism it is the shameful cowardness of so many Atheists who refuse to open their self imposed closet door, to come out, to be proud of their knowledge and to be free from superstition.
    Thank you Professor Dawkins. I apologise for the nay sayers and nit pickers who are so bloody negative.

  28. Steven Schafersman

    Thanks for the excellent summary, Wes.

    I agree with Wesley that Dawkins answered the “evangelical atheist” question as if he understood it to be “fundamentalist atheist.” Dawkins is of course not the latter, since new evidence (e.g, of god, of supernaturalism) would change his views; he is not dogmatic. But Dawkins and the other New Atheists frankly do not have a good understanding of the diversity of religious belief. They tend to generalize too much and lump religionists together. Not all Evangelical Christians are Biblical Literalists and Inerrantists, Religious Fundamentalists, and Social Conservatives. Some evangelicals (obviously not a majority) are liberal to moderate and do not read the Bible literally. They DO accept Christian doctrine, but are not necessarily dogmatic or fundamentalist. It is likely that Dawkins does not know that Christian Fundamentalists took to calling themselves Evangelicals since the term “Fundamentalist” has correctly earned a nasty stigma. That’s why Fundamentalists like to call themselves “Conservative” when they are in truth quite radical in the right-half of the political spectrum, i.e. they are Fascists.

    My main complaint about this talk is the coining of new terms. Dawkins’ “archi-purpose” and “neo-purpose” are incredibly awkward and could be better stated as simply “apparent purpose” and “intentional purpose.” In fact, technical terms for these two concepts have long existed in science and Dawkins should have used them: teleology and teleonomy. Intentional, goal-oriented purposeful behavior is teleological. Ernst Mayr long ago defined the term to describe the apparent but non-teleological purposefulness and goal-directedness in nature: teleonomy. The apparent design of the biological world is teleonomic, not teleological, because it results from a natural and mechanistic modifications (by mutation, recombination, and natural selection) to a program of coded information (DNA). There is even a webpage devoted to this term: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleonomy

  29. latsot

    From what I can tell from the last photograph, Dyer appears to be a fairy-tale giant.

  30. Austringer Post author

    Dyer is about my size, but I’m standing down some steps and Dyer is a few feet closer to me than Dawkins for that photo.

  31. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

    I am spreading the evangel -glad tidings of humanism, naturalism, rationalism and skepticism. I belonged to the defunct group Evangelicals for Agnosticism at its end.
    We have the right evangel in that we embrace reality rather than superstitions in handling the world.
    Google naturalistgriggsy, rationalist griggsy, skeptic griggsy, griggs1947, sceptique griggsy and esceptico griggsy around the globe in different languages to see how I spread our evangel around the globe. Also I have blogs @ Google and WordPress under griggs1947.
    Oh, how much misery has Graham contributed to humanity? I’d like to see someone expose his stupidity. I know that Joseph Barnhardt has out “The Billy Graham Religion.”

  32. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

    I have been using the term atelic in the atelic argument that, since the weight of evidence shows no cosmic teleology, therefore no need to postulate God as the designer as we see patterns, not designs anyway.Now I’ll use the postivie term teleonomic as I use the positive terms naturalilst and rationalist as opposed to atheist[ and naturalism and rationalism also oppose the paranormal.] A without telic -teleology
    I also use the term dysteological- for the imperfections- for Hume’s negative argument against the teleological ones. Also we should require theists to respond to why the imperfections without answering the problem of evil!
    Logic is the bane of theists. Religion is mythinformation. Reason saves, not that dead , fanatic, Galilean cult leader!

  33. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

    Sorry for the typos. Barnhart
    positive naturalist
    Also Eugenie C.Scott errs in her book against creationism for castigating scientists for noting no cosmic purpose as she sees that as philosophical rather than scientific. Nay, as Paul Draper in an email to me, notes, she doesn’t fathom the demarcation problem of where science starts and ends; also, it was Simpson and Mayr who led the rebellion against the notion of orthogenesis which she would allow apparently. The article in Wikipedia belies her bald assertion in that it notes that orthogenesis is no longer a viable term. She would endorse, in effect, Miller’s and Giberson’s silly attempts to see orthogenesis in the form of convergence as Jerry Coyne shows up in ‘Seeing and Believing “@ the New Republic. Dawkins rightly contemns the accommodationists to the oxymoronic theistic evolutionism!
    From the side of religion, she can aver that there is no conflict but not from the side of science! We need to oppose such shenanigans. As Coyne notes, the fight is really between faith and secular reason,not merely creationism and science.
    Also Amiel Rossow @ Talk Reason pans Miller’s reintroduction of the designer after he demolishes ID. Coyne notees how Miller finds God in quantum processes: I say that is the god of the invisible!

  34. Owen

    Does dawkins ever talk about what he see’s as his purpose (neo-purpose)? (please don’t just say look at his foundation website)

  35. Austringer Post author

    That’s pretty much my complete set of notes above. If you don’t see it there, it didn’t strike me as something I needed to get down while the talk went on.

  36. Jonathan

    But asking ‘why’ living organisms are seems to often have been done in the past.

    As well it should be. The lecture misses a fundamental point – why do organisms bother to evolve? The answer is, they evolve in order to survive. But why is survival an aim? Why bother surviving? Why did life evolve from being blue-green algae to humans over 4.5 billion years? Ultimately there is no ‘real utility’ in surviving, because we all die eventually. Even if it is just selfish genes doing what they do best, why do they do it? My answer is – human life is an intrinsic good, it is good in its own right, and this is why it evolved. It is the purpose towards which life has evolved for 4 billion years, or so.

    What is the alternative view? If there really is no such purpose, then life ‘just happened’ to evolve, culminating in human form. But this is not any kind of explanation, or theory – it is the absence of one.

    SO – I think it is perfectly legitimate to say ‘we are not concerned with purpose, science doesn’t deal with ultimate ends’. However it is perfectly meaningless to say ‘there is no purpose, life evolves without a purpose’. One would only say this because one thinks the statement that life has a purpose is a religious statement, and one hates religion.

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