Weaving False Rainbows

John Danaher has a take down of this now famous quote by Richard Dawkins:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

While acknowledging the beauty and power of this sentiment, Danaher replies:

If we stripped away the lyrical writing, what would we be left with? To be more precise, what kind of argument would we be left with? 

Lyricism aside? I almost laughed aloud at my computer as I read this. The beauty in language for human beings is often in the language itself; stripped of its beauty, if there is an argument to be made (and there is here, of course), that can be examined, and Danaher is right to do so—but lyricism aside, what would religion, or even science, or anything, be left with?

But let us examined the kernel of argument in this flowering prose.

It is rather amusing to see atheists accused of having no sense of humor, then taken so literally when they joke or employ a colloquialism. I did not see Dawkins’ use of the word “lucky” as an argument strictly championing existence over nonexistence—he is merely stating that the latter is far more likely than the former. We are “privileged” by the mere fact of being the less likely ones, the elite, as it were. Dawkins is making an observation, not a judgment, for the real focus of his quote is not nonexistence, but the ordeal, and consciousness of, our impending deaths.

It is death that gives teeth to the statement of our fortune. My evidence for this is, would Dawkins have made this statement if we, the lucky living, were to live forever? The obvious answer is, of course not. Dawkins is not really concerned with being “grateful” for existing, but with putting death, much as it looms over our lives, into proper perspective. Danaher has missed the point.

Moreover, it is not against the fear of death against which Dawkins warns. When interviewed by physicist Brian Greene, who admitted speaking to his dead father despite knowing that no ear heard him, Dawkins is hardly surprised. I see no evidence of any exhortation to “quit whining.” Rather, it is against the construction of a fantasy afterlife which motivated Richard Dawkins to make this statement.

The response to the reality of death does not have to be “gratitude,” and for Danaher to cast it as such leads us perilously toward another tiresome design argument (to whom, or to what, shall we show “gratitude?”). Be grateful, or not; be angry, or not; feel the fear, acknowledge the fear, but the point is, however one reacts to death, no cri de coeur should ever result in a denial of death’s reality and the subsequent exploitation of our natural human fears by those who pretend to be travel agents for the “next world.” (As Susan Sontag once said, “This world! As if there were any other.”)

Dawkins is, as always, arguing not against human feeling, but against fraud.

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2 thoughts on “Weaving False Rainbows

  1. iamanatheistandthisiswhy

    Great post, and relevant to scientists and atheists in general.

    Regarding Dawkins. Its sad, but now days no matter what he says he gets criticized. I think if he walked inot a hall and just said hello to someoene he would be criticized for doing something wrong. Its absurd.

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  2. kristine Post author

    Well, criticism is the stuff of knowledge building. Cheap shots and misunderstandings are not, of course, but they will happen (to everyone, even to pseudoscience advocates at times). Something like 80 percent of human communication is gossip, so there you are – not only do we drag along “junk” in our genome, we drag it along in our day-to-day interactions as well. I have been learning to take a step back and observe human behavior for understanding, rather than to jump in with judgments – library school was excellent in training me for that!

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