Richard Dawkins is an outspoken atheist and author of several scientifically based books on evolution, biology, and religion. He’s quite well known as one of the most famous contemporary atheists (one of the four “Horsemen” of new atheism), particularly for being so outspoken.
I’ve read and listened to Dawkins quite a bit. While I find many of his arguments compelling, I don’t generally agree with the entirety of his methodology (I’m more of a fan of Sam Harris), nevertheless he gets the job done.
In any case there’s one particular argument though that I want to critique.
Back in 2011 Dawkins made the following argument:
“A doctor believes in the stork theory of human reproduction, rejecting the sex theory. He applies for a job as an eye surgeon in a teaching hospital, is rejected because of his beliefs, and sues the hospital on grounds of discrimination. His lawyer makes the case that, since he makes no pretence to be an obstetrician, his views on obstetrics are irrelevant to his (breathtakingly superior) ability to operate on eyes and teach ophthalmology.”
Also, reiterated in the following wording:
“For instance, Dawkins asks us to suppose we visit an eye doctor who believes that babies come from storks, rather than sex-gestation-live birth. This belief is clearly irrational, unscientific, and flat-out wrong — but it would not necessarily decrease the doctor’s knowledge or skill as an optometrist. If you were hiring director at a hospital, and this person were the most highly-qualified for the job, would you hire them? If you were a patient and found out that your optometrist believed in the Stork Theory, would you feel confident in their ability to treat you?”
What’s wrong with this argument?
I think the crux of what Dawkins is arguing for is that irrational belief can and should impact our perception of people’s credibility across domains.
I agree only a little bit with this sentiment, which I will unpack in this article.
Logical Fallacy: Composition / Division
If we turn to our logical fallacies poster, there’s one called “Composition / Division”
I think this is what applies here, which I’ll elaborate on…
Problem 1: Belief and Logic; often separate fields
The first problem with this analogy is that faith-based belief systems and logic-based reasoning are often like two separate segments of the mind. (Believers often like to keep it this way 🙂 because it protects irrational faith from logic). But genuinely, they are like two separate languages that someone can speak. I have met so many religious people who are highly intelligent, (folks like Dawkins would use the words “otherwise highly intelligent”) yet they carry belief. I believe this is due to this segmentation of logic and faith. This is also why I call religious belief “the ultimate intellectual blindspot” — because it quells critical thinking in a particular domain.
Thoughts on the goodness/badness this separation aside, I think it’s a real phenomenon, and in terms of credibility and competence in a rational-based knowledge domain outside of faith, I think it works in favour of those who believe.
Problem 2: Cross-Domain Intelligence / Intuition
The second part of the argument I disagree with is the idea that irrational belief/ignorance in one domain of knowledge necessarily translates into irrational belief/ignorance in another domain. This simply isn’t the case.
Simple example: My mother in law is Chinese and grew up in a very superstitious time. She believes that having a mirror facing the bed where you sleep is bad luck and should be avoided. This is an irrational belief; one which I now view as “on par” with many religious beliefs. I chuckled a lot the first time she taped Chinese newspapers to the mirrors facing our bed in an older house to protect us from the bad luck, I simply found it entertaining and funny, but totally silly.
However, my mother in law is an excellent cook. Her knowledge of buying vegetables and other groceries and the pricing of them is impressive. Her knowledge of the various ways to make food is impressive.
Should I reject her good food because she carries a silly belief? Does her silly superstition make her a bad cook?
Another example: We recently hired a new web development project manager at my work. Just recently I learned that he is an evangelical Christian.
Did this have any impact on my perception of his project management skills? Absolutely not. I thought no more or less of his professional competency after learning of his religiosity, because it genuinely has no impact. Indeed I didn’t really think any more or less of him as a person generally from learning this information; it just happens to be the belief system he inherited.
These stories illustrates the weakness in the Stork Analogy. In the Stork Analogy, the person is applying to be an optometrist, which is science-based career (medicine), and the irrational belief is also in the realm of medicine (it is regarding reproduction). Hence in this analogy, the domain of the irrational belief and the domain of the employment are the same — giving the analogy it’s “punch”.
But I don’t think this necessarily translates across domains. To give another example, I might harbour a bunch of ignorant and incorrect beliefs about South African politics, based on incorrect information which I’ve never thoroughly researched, yet I might still be a good engineer.
What I’m suggesting is our insight/ignorance in some knowledge domains does not necessarily carry over to insight/ignorance in other domains.
Problem 3: The general ignorance of mankind
Finally, the Stork Analogy is unfair for another reason; the general “common sense” knowledge of mankind.
That is, the fact that babies don’t come from storks is rather well known. The fact that God is an anthropomorphic projection of human nature is at best way less known, at worst very disputed. Regardless of the correctness or incorrectness of atheism, much of the world is religious, and thus raised to be believing, and thus it’s not fair to make the argument that religious people are altogether ignorant — at worst everyone has inherited a state of ignorance which is not their fault.
Taking this argument a step further; imagine our descendants a thousand years from now. Imagine how stupid and ignorant we will probably appear to them. They might have made discoveries that make us look like apes. Science fiction might have become a reality. Would it be fair to them to call us all incompetent?
So where we have three issues with this argument:
- Faith and Reason are fundamentally different “parts” of how the brain works. One can be very faithful and very skilled in reason. Indeed I think faith relies explicitly on the lack of reason being applied to the faith domain, so they have to be different.
- Insight/ignorance in some knowledge domains does not necessarily carry over to insight/ignorance in other domains. Someone can be a Christian AND a great optometrist. Someone can be an atheist AND a great engineer. Someone can be an excellent historian AND a terrible writer.
- The concept of “general intelligence” does apply here, but it does have limits.
- Most people have inherited a state of faith, and so are ignorant “like everyone else”.
Please don’t view all of the above as “apologetics for the faithful”, this is not an effort to defend faith, but to defend discrimination against the faithful on logical grounds. Competency decisions should not be influenced by faith unless they are in a domain impacted by faith.
I’m in a position in my work where I hire people and have to judge their competency. When I go about that process, I try to ignore factors such as age, gender, race, and religion, as they are all irrelevant to the core question: can you do a great job?