In praise of Richard Dawkins

This is a phrase I never thought I’d write:
Richard Dawkins is a truth-teller and a prophet.

Note: I write this on my personal blog because I work for the largest provider of developmental services in Ontario, and a Christian faith-based one at that, so I recognize that what I am writing may be misconstrued and as such is not indicative of the views of my organization.

Richard Dawkins has always been controversial, but he finds himself in the middle of a whirlpool of controversy surrounding a recent tweet. Here is a part of the conversation:

//, in one sense, the backlash is understandable. As an influential white male, to say something so concise and directive on an issue that impacts women most significantly, and to also include a moralizing element to it is a huge faux pas.

In another sense, however, why would anyone be surprised that this would be his view or that he would state it in this way? In one of his follow-up tweets he observes,

This, although it is rarely talked about, is absolutely true. It is a truth of which we dare not speak. To think that the great majority of Down Syndrome fetuses are aborted in our own country, our own city… If that was the case then we ourselves might share some of the responsibility!

Theologian Peter Rollins (among others, I’m sure) has observed that the tremendous power of key documentaries in our time is not that they reveal new information (such as on the fact that McDonald’s food is bad for us), but that they make public both to ourselves and to others the truth that we have known all along. The revelation they make is one of self-disclosure. 

Emperor's New ClothesRecall the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes: Everyone was able to go about pretending that everything was fine right up until the truth is laid bare and the excuse of ignorance is shattered. In this sense, Richard Dawkins is the child announcing “But he hasn’t got anything on!” Rather than listen to the child however, we see mass public outcry in order to try to take the words back, to feign ignorance, to drift back into the silence we have come from. The statistics (though varied, and differing by country) make it abundantly clear that the majority of women who find out that their child has a high probability of Down Syndrome DO abort them. We are a culture committed to an ethic of autonomy. As such, Western society is driven by a few key priorities, two of which are:

  1. Utility: often mixed up with “quality of life” language, we grade people based on their ability to accomplish, to attain, to contribute and
  2. Pain-avoidance: A moral imperative to avoid suffering at all costs.

Starting from these premises, we start to see why so many pregnant women choose to abort, and why Dawkins would go so far as to attach a moral judgment on the act of bringing a child with Down Syndrome into the world. The problem isn’t with Dawkins, it’s with the ‘gods’ of our society and our world – those priorities of utility and pain avoidance at all costs that define not only success but virtue in society. The real annoyance that we have with Dawkins is that he states it so openly.

In a paper in the Peace Studies Journal last year, I was able to dive into some of these issues in greater detail. You can find that paper here if you’re interested. As I describe there, the priorities that lead to Dawkins’ conclusions are embedded in the very fabric of the language we speak and the medical field as a whole. Doctors and OB’s, with one disapproving look, are able convey Dawkins’ message far more powerfully to women who are caught in the question of life-and-death than one tweet ever will. Dawkins’ sin was putting it so succinctly that it was seen for what it was.

christ-of-saint-john-of-the-crossI firmly believe that Christ provides a counter-narrative to the priorities of utility and a moral obligation to avoid suffering at all costs. The gospel message contains, at its core, the suffering of Christ on the cross, and the message of grace is simply that our striving, our utility is not what God seeks.// Hauerwas, in a recent interview, was asked “what is the role of that Christian and the church in this earthly city?” His response? “To tell the truth. Very simple. Just tell the truth and see what kinds of tensions that produces.”

The truth that millions of children are being aborted, and many of them based simply on the difference of one chromosome, is a truth that Christians – not Dawkins – need to be making society aware of. I believe that the reason that we don’t is because to do so is to recognize that we may share responsibility. We, too, often live by the same drive for utility and avoidance of suffering that forms the basis for the argument to abort. Even where our theology is solid, our actions betray us.

So how do we tell this truth? Not by judgment – after all, we do share the weight of our society together – but by radical acts of love for pregnant mothers; by telling the truth that children with Down Syndrome are real children with all of the delights, gifts, challenges, and heartache that come with being a parent; by coming alongside people in their suffering and loving them even when they don’t appear to have much to give back, in order to challenge preconceptions of pain and utility.

sevenly-blessing-not-a-burdenMe? I’m just as guilty as the next person. Well, maybe not quite – after all, I bought a “Blessing, not burden” T-shirt from that went to support, an adoption grant foundation that helps people afford to adopt children with Down Syndrome.

I’m kidding of course, that this makes me any less complicit, but it is one place to start.

And in closing, I want to thank Richard Dawkins, for prophesying the reprehensible ethical situation we will find ourselves in, and already do to a large extent, if we let our drive for utility reduce us all (especially the elderly and unborn) to calculated investments, able to be withdrawn at a moment’s notice.

So many beautiful people have already not been born. It’s time to change the course we’ve set.




6 thoughts on “In praise of Richard Dawkins

  1. Wow Keith. LOTS to think about here. I have to admit, I was pretty horrified by what Richard Dawkins tweeted, but I can see what you’re saying–that he just said what a lot of people were thinking. However, I think he might have said it in a way that made it more of a commentary and less of a personal opinion.


    1. Hi Emily, thanks for reading! I’m not sure he’s even saying what a lot of people are thinking. He’s thinking and speaking how most people are acting. We often act in such a way that we are not even conscious yet of the reasons behind why we act (hence the field of psychoanalysis). In a way he is holding up a mirror to society and saying “Are you sure this is where you want to end up? Because this is where we’re headed!”

      In turn, anyone who has gotten to know a person with Down syndrome should be horrified at the prospect of a Dawkinian future.


  2. Thanks for the great discussion. I used to teach special education in Virginia and in a discussion with colleagues noting we were seeing fewer students with Down Syndrome in our district one person attributed this to more women/couples choosing to have an abortion when they learned the child may have Down Syndrome. I questioned that at the time, but after reading this, and other articles, i realize thatshe probably was correct.


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