Reality Conditions

Monday, January 08, 2007

Dr. Atheism

I'm sure I am not the only one tired of the byzantine discussions about Richard Dawkins. In the last two weeks we had two similar examples, in which recorded opinions of him were analyzed to the highest degree of semantic precision to determine whether he had or not overstepped the limits of reasonableness into some dark form of scientistic totalitarianism. First it was the topic of "should religious indoctrination be prohibited", next "should Saddam have been used for scientific research on psycopathy instead of executed". Why do people from all sides of the ideological disputes rush so quickly to these discussions to do their best to convict or acquit Dawkins of this or that nefarious opinion?

It is, of course, because he has become the Public Face of Atheism. He's the first one the media will try to get when they need the opinion of an atheist about something, and he's the one that will represent atheism in the imagination of the general public. Hence the effort by atheists of his persuasion in making him look good, and of the enemies of atheism or of his particular kind of atheism to make him look bad. But it all gets a bit ridiculous at the end, and everyone on every side should remember that Dawkins is only one man, that he does not speak for anybody but himself, and that both his good and his mistaken opinions may or may not be shared by all other atheists. He's not the Pope of our atheist church, not even its spokesman. And I say this not to distantiate myself personally from him (though some of my disagreements have been recorded already) but just to put some perspective into all this.

This transformation of biologist Richard Dawkins in "Dr. Atheism" brings to mind a game I thought of long ago, which consists in coming up with the "Dr. X" figure that represents discipline or intellectual position X for the general public. It usually is a top figure in his or her field, or a very successful popularizer, or both. Let's see:

Dr. Physics: Used to be Richard Feynman. Since his death, I think Stephen Hawking has taken the post. We can also mention here the existence of a Dr. String Theory (Brian Greene) and a
Dr. Loop Quantum Gravity (Lee Smolin).

Dr. Astronomy: Used to be Carl Sagan, be a large margin. I'm not sure who it is now.

Dr. Biology: Again, I am sure that before his death Stephen Jay Gould had this role. (My argument: any intellectual that appeared in The Simpsons is the almost certainly a Dr.) But for now I'm not sure; maybe Dawkins can claim this one as well as the Dr. Atheism one?

Dr. Medicine (or Dr. Dr.): Zero ideas here. Suggestions?

Dr. Economics: Another case of recent deaths (J.K. Galbraith and Milton Friedman) making the decision difficult. Perhaps for Americans it is Paul Krugman?

Dr. Linguistics: By right it ought to be Noam Chomsky, but perhaps he is so absorbed by his role of "Dr. Anti-Imperialism" that he has resigned the position. In that case, I don't know who replaced him.

Dr. Semiotics: Umberto Eco, of course. The proof is that he is the only living one I can mention.

Dr. Philosophy: I don't think there is any worldwide one, but perhaps several of local recognition. In Britain, perhaps A.C. Grayling?

I leave the rest of the game for you. Who are the "Drs." for disciplines I left out like psycology and political science? Who the hell is Dr. Mathematics? And for other intellectual positions than atheism, such as vegetarianism, feminism, libertarianism or Marxism? Have fun!


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