There is an amusing and puerile joke on Twitter. Whenever Richard Dawkins expresses his increasingly unpleasant bile towards Muslims, any other religious believer or, really, anyone who disagrees with him, people tend to respond with the words ‘Your a dick’. Interestingly, Dawkins calls these people ‘illiterate’, and puts a lot of store by grammar. His key demographic of nasty teenage boys, the sort who scoff at people for believing in ‘the sky fairy’, are just the type to shake off criticism by critiquing grammar, or ridiculing somebody who doesn’t have the same God-like grasp of the rules as they do.
Nonetheless, this faith in the clarity of grammar is evidence that Dawkins’s thinking is still theist in character, even if he rejects the usual narratives of God put forward by the major religions. To demonstrate this, I wish to turn to an atheist thinker of a completely different stripe to Dawkins, one who I hope will emerge more atheist than Dawkins in this short analysis, Friedrich Nietzsche.
I’d like to begin by stressing that Nietzsche is absolutely, unambiguously, an atheist. His most famous statement, that ‘God is dead’ would probably suffice enough, but since it is a far richer claim than it initially appears, I won’t dwell on it here. Rather, I will turn to the Nietzsche I will be talking about later in this piece, in which he writes: ‘concocting stories [fabeln – fables] about a world ‘other’ than this one is utterly senseless, unless we have within us a powerful instinct to slander, belittle, cast suspicion upon life: in which case we are avenging ourselves on life with the phantasmagoria of ‘another’, ‘better’ life’. Nietzsche rejects any claims of heaven, of God, of a world to come, in favour of life as we live it, now.
In Dawkins’s pronouncements about language though, this is precisely what he does. We find him claim, ‘English is my native language. My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently because of “social context” that’s your problem.’ Who authenticates that one’s words mean precisely in the way they were intended? Dawkins could claim that his words represent an intended meaning because social context has created generally-shared, but still ambiguous, shared meanings, on which he was drawing when he wrote the statement. However, he rejects meaning shaped by social context. Yet, if his meanings aren’t created by social context, then what does he have to draw on? He may believe that his words mean precisely what he intends, using his own sense of them as a guarantor, but they can only mean if they are spoken or written and somebody interprets them, hence we return to the problem of social context. Furthermore, where did he derive these meanings if not from social context? When he says that English is his ‘native language’, he is giving his words authority precisely on the notion that, as a native speaker, he is better acquainted with the social context of his language. Dawkins though is sure that there is a guarantor of precise meaning, hence there must be another, Platonic, reality, above the spoken one, that guarantees the meanings of his words. If Dawkins believes only in life, what there is for us to experience, words must be made to mean by social context. Otherwise, if words mean, something outside of human beings, outside of social context, must make them mean. What is being concocted here is another world where words have perfect meanings outside of the shifting, unstable language of human beings.
This attitude to language is typical of Dawkins’s unshakeable faith in the absolute power of reason. Could we forget that he is the founder of the ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science’? Of reason, Nietzsche writes that ‘the prejudice [note the idea of pre-judging here] called ‘reason’ compels us to establish unity, identity, duration, substance, cause, materiality, Being – we see ourselves to a certain extent tangled up in error, forced into error; as sure as we are, on the basis of stringent checking, that the error is here’. That is to say, reason is itself a social context (Nietzsche mentions that this worship of reason occurs ‘nowadays’, it is historically situated), which guarantees our sense of our selves and the existence of the world we live in by leading us out of error. Yet who decides what is reason and what is error? What is this world that we are led to, out of this world of error? As in the case of language, it depends upon a world where concepts can be guaranteed by something outside the shifting, amorphous zone of things like social context, which lead us into error. For how can we know what reason is without recourse to the language in which we express reasonable things? Yet as Nietzsche points out, just as our eyes are incapable of determining what we see in astronomy for certain, so language too carries the potential for error.
This is of course not to say that science should be dismissed as just another construct of the social world, that these types of critique are claiming that science is invalid, as many paranoid scientists seem to think. Rather, it is about recognising that atheists like Dawkins, and his increasingly godlike pronouncements on the power of what he calls reason, in fact take a theist position, and create a world outside this one to aspire to. It attempts to make the world homogenous and strictured in a way reminiscent of lots of hardline beliefs of religion. True atheism then would be a new world of unreason, and would, we can hope, see our attitudes to the marginanlised radically altered in a way that reason has never been able to do in its three-hundred year history. And this is absolutely a matter of how we view language. As Nietzsche puts it, ‘I am afraid we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar…’