A Master in One Field is not automatically an Expert in Another

There’s no question that Richard Dawkins, best-selling author of such books as The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, is popular. And there’s no question that Dawkins is a respected scholar in the field of microbiology. His membership in the Royal Society alone is proof of the respect he commands among his scientific peers. What people often forget (especially members of the media), however, is that expertise in one field does not automatically carry over into other fields. In spite of this (to me) obvious point, Dawkins is often held up by the media as an expert in such fields as philosophy, religion, sociology, and metaphysics. And while (as I indicated) his expertise in the field of microbiology is beyond dispute, his limitations in these other fields is apparent to those who are, in those fields, somewhat more proficient than Dawkins.

In spite of his lack of expertise in fields outside of microbiology, Dawkins seems to relish pontificating in areas and on topics on which his knowledge is very limited. Allow me to give an example. One point that Dawkins enjoys making centers around his contention that religion is a dangerous and destructive force in the world. Consider some of the statements he has made on this topic:

“Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

“Faith can be very, very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.”

“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that.”

“The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism—as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion. Voltaire got it right long ago: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ So did Bertrand Russell: ‘Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.’”

“Religious faith is a state of mind that leads people to believe in something, it doesn’t matter what, without a whisper of doubt, or a whiff of evidence, and believe so strongly in some cases, that they are prepared to kill and die for it, without the need for further justification.”

So, is Dawkins right? Is religion dangerous? That last question is in fact the title of a book by Keith Ward, a professor at Gresham College, London and a fellow of the British Academy. And while I am inclined to believe that Dawkins is unquestionably a better microbiologist than Ward, in the fields of religion and sociology Ward is the true scholar. There is not space enough here to go into the subtleties of Ward’s argument but his general conclusion, based on true critical study, is that it is not religion that is dangerous but people who use religion to give alleged moral support to their own hatred, prejudices, and fears. This is a much subtler and nuanced argument than, I suspect, Richard Dawkins has even considered.

Indeed, in addressing Dawkins’ claims that religion is dangerous, Ward has written:

  • “[S]uch assertions are absurd. Worse than that, they ignore the available evidence from history, from psychology and sociology, and from philosophy. They refuse to investigate the question in a properly rigorous way, and substitute rhetoric for analysis. Oddly enough, that is just what they tend to accuse religious believers of doing.”

People in society generally and in the Church specifically must begin to take a much more critical approach to statements that are made by public figures. We need to recognize, too, that because an individual is an expert in one field does not make him an authority in all fields. So, be wary the next time you hear me give a public lecture on microbiology and be just as cautious when you hear a microbiologist pontificating on religion (even if he does speak with a British accent!).

Richard JacksonComment