Note: This is post is an edited version of an August 02, 2007 piece from my old blog. Back then, I’d have less direct experience of the new atheists and held back a few points. I have decided in the face of this controversy at Jason Rosenhouses blog to include some points about Dawkins’ other, proposed, evidence free “science” as well. I will point out, if anyone is as to any doubt about the intellectual bankruptcy of the new atheism, that Dawkins was the Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and a Senior Editor of Free Inquiry when he wrote the bizarre article which first appeared there.
It was considered sound enough to be reposted at secularhumanism.org. Humanism clearly isn’t what it once was, either. Dawkins in a display of typical arrogance began his article “A cowardly flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people.... “ before attacking Stephen J. Gould. Irony is never far off when Richard Dawkins is speaking.
"Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question." Richard Dawkins
The first thing to notice about this odd passage is "Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide....". Why "whether"? Its an absolute fact that there is no physical evidence available. None. No medical records, not even skeletal fragments. No physical remains of the woman or son or a possible human father in question are available nor is their possibly surviving lineage known. It's unlikely in the extreme that those will ever be identified. Why try to obscure the fact that there is none of the evidence necessary to examine the question with science when it is indisputable that there isn't any? So, Dawkins proposes examining the question scientifically without any physical evidence. He proposes determining the paternity of a child without anything to go on, whatsoever.*
Perhaps somewhat more understandable, since it's Dawkins, he says that you can deal with the assertion of something that is claimed to have happened miraculously, outside the usual order of things and exactly once in the entire history of the world in the remote past, with science.
Dawkins, who has been one of the major figures in evolutionary psychology, which is based in making up creation myths and inventing allegedly beneficial adaptations, inventing scenarios amounting to fictional sociological and cultural anthropological field observations in the process, might be predisposed to figure you can do without that troublesome, and aggravatingly unavailable, physical evidence. So he’s never been one to be troubled by the kind of “science” you get when you fill in for those. He’s also the inventor of the bizarre idea of memes, which has been almost universally rejected by scientists and other people who think.
With the claims made by those who believe in the Virgin Birth, even argument by analogy can't address it. When an event is claimed to be unique, there is no possibility of making a comparison with another or even every other event proposed to be similar. Any scientific comparison with any other event would be irrelevant to the claims of a miracle unless you had physical evidence of it**
The total lack of evidence and the claim of uniqueness renders it clearly and most certainly NOT a question science can deal with. And this from the Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Certainly among the first things to understand about science are when there isn't enough evidence to practice it and when there is. Not that that hasn’t stopped him in the past, however.
Much as it must frustrate those who would like to deal with some religious questions with science, much cannot be. They might not like that fact but that is just too bad. When the physical evidence necessary to study those is lost to history or non-existent, that is simply impossible. Pretending that you can proceed without the evidence it is dishonest and, beyond doubt, unscientific. You can believe or not believe the claims but using the prestige of the name science to back up your assertions can be done honestly only under specific conditions. It also carries a serious responsibility.
No one has to believe in the Virgin Birth, this short piece isn't about that. This is about how one of the most famous and arrogant personalities of science can get away with saying something so stunningly absurd. With his status in contemporary culture, it's just amazing that a person holding a position like Dawkins' conveniently ignores something so basic to science.
If biologists are content with having Dawkins being the face of their science, they are exchanging short term glamor for long term problems. It is growing clearer that in the political climate in democracies that science can't support the dead weight of extraneous ideologies unnecessary for it. I will make a prediction that you can check out later, if Dawkins truly becomes the face of evolution it will continue to face fierce opposition by many of those he insults gratuitously. Its research funding will not be secure. In the face of his arrogant condescension, a large percentage of the public will not understand the science or want to.
* While it might be fun to point out, going into the need to give God a paternity test only heightens the apparent absurdity of Dawkins claim that this is "a strictly scientific question. Science not only can't deal with these kinds of things, it makes a mockery of science to try it.
**. Your only hope to determine the accuracy of a claim of a miracle is to look at whatever evidence of the specific event is available and see if the claimed result happened. Modern claims of, for example, miraculous cures of physical diseases, could, very possibly, be investigated by science but only by examination of the physical evidence. Without that, science can't be used to investigate the claim.