Is Richard Dawkins Growing Up?

The FSM slayer turns to essentialism:

If, like Aristotle, you treat all flesh-and-blood rabbits as imperfect approximations to an ideal Platonic rabbit, it won’t occur to you that rabbits might have evolved from a non-rabbit ancestor, herbert-garrison-20090318040350264-000and might evolve into a non-rabbit descendant. If you think, following the dictionary definition of essentialism, that the essence of rabbitness is “prior to” the existence of rabbits (whatever “prior to” might mean, and that’s a nonsense in itself) evolution is not an idea that will spring readily to your mind, and you may resist when somebody else suggests it.

Paleontologists will argue passionately about whether a particular fossil is, say, Australopithecus or Homo. But any evolutionist knows there must have existed individuals who were exactly intermediate. It’s essentialist folly to insist on the necessity of shoehorning your fossil into one genus or the other. There never was an Australopithecus mother who gave birth to a Homo child, for every child ever born belonged to the same species as its mother. The whole system of labeling species with discontinuous names is geared to a time slice, the present, in which ancestors have been conveniently expunged from our awareness (and “ring species” tactfully ignored).

Phil Burton-Cartledge wonders if this could mark a new direction for the New Atheist:

Dawkins’ contemplative position sets up an opposition, a rigid distinction between believers of whatever creed, and the godless. Being unbelieving is a matter of personal growth, of intellectual and mental maturity, of possessing reasonable and rational-critical faculties. One might observe that this idealist position lapses into essentialist thinking. It’s not that all religious people are unintelligent, but clearly on some level they’re all stupid, or so the assumption goes.

Regardless of what one thinks of Dawkins, whether one hangs on his every dot and comma or takes a more critical stance, his choice to dump essentialism is an interesting one as binning it means breaking with a component of his own philosophical atheism. Hopefully some fresh, more interesting thinking through of religion and atheism is just around the corner.

In thinking about religion in a non-essentialist fashion, I’ve found myself having to be more nuanced than I once was. I now see more clearly that the forms that religion takes can be as important as the doctrinal content, that there are, yes, varieties of religious experience, and that the distinction between faith as a relationship with doubt as opposed to faith as a relationship with total certainty is a real, if still crude one, and that between a lived faith and a neurotic fundamentalism even more critical to understanding our current world.

If Dawkins’ opposition to essentialism is real, he may begin to accept that treating all religion as the same essential thing is far too crude to add much light, rather than heat, to the conversation. For another nuanced take on the varieties of religious experience in modernity, I highly recommend Ross Douthat’s stimulating blog post here.