Dawkins and Democracy

This is a post by Edmund Standing:

Here’s Richard Dawkins on the question of a referendum on EU membership:

In UK We elect MPs to decide complex issues . Why a plebiscite on, of ALL things, a subect as complex & hard to understand as EU membership?

This is a very revealing comment. First off, here’s where Dawkins is wrong:

In the UK, we have a representative democracy. The fundamental principle behind representative democracy is that we, the electorate, vote for the person we think best represents our views and our interests overall. We do not vote for an ‘expert’ who will ‘decide complex issues’ for us, but rather for one of our peers who we send to London to express our views in the House of Commons. Of course, we do not have the time to collectively undertake detailed studies on every issue that will be debated in Parliament, but we nonetheless work on the basis that our MP will do his or her best to approach those issues with the views of those who elected them in mind. We do not elect MPs to act as wise overlords who take away the need for us to think or have an opinion. MPs are public servants – they serve us, they do not dictate to us.

Dawkins’ argument is fundamentally elitist and is arguably only a few steps removed from an assault on the notion of democracy itself. After all, if the electorate cannot understand ‘complex’ issues and need others to ‘decide’ what is best for us, then what is the point in allowing the electorate to vote at all? Why not simply form a council of wise men and women who will decide what is best and leave us to follow whatever decisions they may make? If EU membership is too ‘complex and hard to understand’ then what right do we have to hold opinions on topics such as the economy? Why is EU membership any more ‘complex and hard to understand’ than education policy or energy policy, for example?

What this reveals, I feel, about Dawkins’ overall outlook is that he is thoroughly elitist and deeply contemptuous of the views of ‘non-experts’ on any topic. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the utter contempt he seems to show towards religious believers. Belief in God is not simply wrong in Dawkins’ eyes but is, rather, a delusion, a form of mentally disordered thinking. Once  you’ve happily accepted that the majority of the world’s population is in the grip of a kind of mental disorder, it is perhaps not such a leap to thinking that the majority of people do not have the right to an opinion on anything and should reverentially bow before their intellectual superiors instead.

Dawkins likes to talk about the need for rationality and evidence and claims that faith is ‘the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence’, yet at the same time he clearly suggests that for most people, thinking about and evaluating evidence is something that is far too ‘complex and hard to understand’. Why should it be that looking at the evidence for evolution by natural selection is something we are all capable of, yet looking at the arguments for and against EU membership is beyond most of us? In reality, I would argue that Dawkins actually thinks that most people are too stupid to do either. As a result, he thinks that scientists like him should be able to dictate the truth or otherwise of any and all statements regarding both the natural world and its origins (i.e. the things we should all believe about these topics) and that professional politicians should be able to dictate what we should accept as true when it comes to political matters. Dawkins claims to favour debate and rational thought, yet his statements on the EU and the dogmatic manner in which he promotes atheism both point to someone who actually thinks that debate is a waste of time and that what we lesser mortals should be doing is shutting our mouths and unquestioningly accepting the wisdom of higher authorities. Which sounds rather like fundamentalism to me.

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One Reply to “Dawkins and Democracy”

  1. The point of a ‘representative democracy’ is that it shouldn’t require referenda on EU membership, education, energy, or any other issue.

    Scientists like Richard Dawkins don’t “dictate” the truth about the natural world and its origins, they *present evidence* about such things. In the case of evolution by natural selection, the evidence is overwhelming from a rational perspective. Dawkins sets the evidence out very clearly in his book “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

    The difference between Christian fundamentalism and Dawkins’ presentation of atheism is that the former is based on the arbitrary elevation of the status of a specific collection of books to some sort of inerrancy, whereas the latter is based on argument which is open to rational debate.

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