Dawkins vs democracy

Leigh Phillips looks at Richard Dawkins’ proposal to put scientists instead of bishops in the House of Lords
22 May 2013

Richard Dawkins. Photo: Shane Pope/Flickr

Richard Dawkins, professional atheist and Twitter provocateur, has branched out beyond his recent foray into Muslim journalist-baiting to offer his recommendations for parliamentary reform. Following Labour ex-minister Frank Field’s call for the new Archbishop of Canterbury to give up the 25 seats the Church of England appoints to the House of Lords, and have the seats awarded instead to people from civil society, Dawkins burped out a series of tweets saying that these seats should be given to scientists and other ‘elites’.

‘Replace Lord Bishops by (elected) heads of Royal Society, British Academy, Roy Coll Physicians, Royal Academy etc,’ he tweeted, adding: ‘I want to be operated on by elite surgeons, flown by elite pilots, have my car fixed by elite mechanics. Why not elite electors of Lords?’

Each of these colleges of presumably godless elites would select their own representatives to the upper chamber, a suggestion that was met with a chorus of approving retweetage from the atheist brigadier’s amassed troops of skeptics, secularists and science fans.

Who decides?

However fond of science and evidence one may be, it should be simple to spot the problem here. Who chooses which colleges of elite experts, scientists, technocrats? Perhaps we could have an expert panel that has an expertise in choosing experts. But then how is that expert panel chosen? Perhaps there are experts in expert panels that have expertise in choosing experts. One way out of this infinite regression is that grizzled old idea, democracy.

Dawkins is not alone these days in his greater faith in elite experts than in lumpen voters. The crisis response of the European Union has been to hollow out democracy and put in place new institutional mechanisms that remove fiscal policy-making from elected chambers and place it in the hands of unelected technocrats, central bankers, judges and diplomats instead.

As they could not be trusted to push through the necessary austerity and structural adjustment in the face of popular opposition, elected leaders have been thrown under the bus in Greece, Italy and Portugal by EU powerbrokers. And across the European periphery, ‘troika’ wonks are flown in to superintend governance. Without experts at the reins, Brussels says, electorates will keep voting themselves ever deeper into debt.

This elite anti-political stance – encompassing a fear of ‘excessive’ democracy, contempt for ordinary people and a faith in experts – is just the contemporary expression of an older distaste for taking democracy too far that dates back to the revolutionary republican upheavals that followed Dawkins’ beloved Enlightenment. Kings may have been overthrown or cowed by the insurgent Enlightenment-reading bourgeois, but that was as far as it was supposed to go.

Upper houses – Senates, Bundesrats, Chambers of Peers, Councils of State and so on – were all intended as wiser, wealthier, more knowledgeable checks on what US founding father James Madison described as the ‘fickleness and passion’ of lower chambers. They are in essence houses of republican nobility. (And, in the House of Lords, actual nobility, but its bicameralism is defended for the same reasons.)

Two Enlightenments

As one of the world’s leading historians of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel, has documented, there were in fact two Enlightenments: the moderate Enlightenment of Rousseau, Newton and Kant that embraced science and secularism but made its peace with or defended established power; and the radical Enlightenment of a hardier bunch inspired by Baruch Spinoza, the ‘prince of philosophers’, who went further, targeting the injustice of the entire social order and demanding democracy, equality and what we now call human rights.

There is much to be celebrated in the arrival in recent years of a popular militant secularism and cheering of science and reason. From the youthful Skeptics in the Pub groups popping up across the country, to homeopathy overdose die-ins, to the popularity of ‘science comedy’, it is hard to be curmudgeonly about a revival in Enlightenment thinking when Louisiana schools are teaching that the Loch Ness Monster disproves evolution.

But there can also be at times something a little bit sneering and, well, elitist, about bits of this ‘movement’, the same attitude that inheres in the affinity of Dawkins and his followers for a scientised House of Lords, that democrats amongst the geeks would do well to try to excise. There is insufficient effort at understanding why people might embrace religion, New Age mumbo-jumbo, or alternative medicine, and occasionally a smug dismissal of the dumb, unlettered mass of humanity. Is this not the contemporary analogue of the moderate Enlightenment, an elitist rationalism comfortable with illegitimate power and disdainful of ordinary people?

Another famous haranguer of religion, Karl Marx, understood religion to be a protest against real suffering, and that the struggle against religion is pointless without a struggle against a political economy that requires religion as its analgesic. His frequently over-shortened quote, that religion is the opium of the people, continues: ‘The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.’

A House of Lords with 25 extra godless scientists is still a House of Lords. The living flower would not have been plucked.

Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


Donate to build socialist media

Right now, with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, there is a real possibility of a resurgence of the left in Britain. With mainstream media showing clear bias against Corbyn, this new left movement urgently needs its own strong voices.

Welcome to Liverpool - a heartland of the rebel cause

Thousands of activists will arrive in Liverpool this month for the Labour Party Conference and its fringe events. Jenny Nelson recommends places to visit and introduces the local political scene

Housing and land activists to join forces

In the run up to a November event Robin Grey makes the case for urban and rural communities to work together to tackle land rights, ownership and usage

The Train Gate story is a product of desperation

Alex Richardson-Price observes the pressing need for a character assassination, by any means necessary, of Jeremy Corbyn.

Bill 23 May 2013, 12.59

Very enjoyable article, thank you. Although I would caution that Prof. Dawkins enjoys throwing ideas out there for debate and people do seem to have a tendency to assume that he is one hundred percent behind them when often, it seems to me, he is only provoking discussion.
Also noticed your comment, “There is insufficient effort at understanding why people might embrace religion, New Age mumbo-jumbo, or alternative medicine, and occasionally a smug dismissal of the dumb, unlettered mass of humanity.”. I reently came read the book “Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, it may interest you.

GordonHide 23 May 2013, 13.58

As the breadth of human knowledge expands we can expect executive and legislative bodies to make worse and worse decisions based on relative ignorance. Relative, that is, to the total content of human knowledge.

I don’t know if Professor Dawkins’ proposal is a good idea but it must be worth considering some solutions to alleviate this problem for everyone’s benefit.

Brian Taylor 24 May 2013, 09.15

Why do people embrace alternnative medicine? Because for many with chronic conditions, such as in my case M.E, it helps, whereas scientific orthodox medicine doesn’t. I’m quite happy to support good science, but Dawkins, and now Brian Cox, et al. whose scientific work may be fascinating, sadly become mindless tub-thumping fools -no longer interested in evidence- in relation to the phenomena of psychic or spiritual experience ( unusually perhaps amongst contributors to this site, I’m an animist and astrologer ). See, for instance, Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘The Science Delusion’.

A, Theist 24 May 2013, 16.31

You complain about the qualifications about scientists, but what qualifications do the bishops have?

[Apart from ‘believing’ in a sky-fairy!]

james c 24 May 2013, 18.42

Terrible idea of Dawkins. Lords is for superannuated MPs and cronies only.

Pat 24 May 2013, 18.55

We already have a House of Lords filled with people like Dawkin’s, rich up-class public school snobs that got ahead not because their ideas where any good or original, or that they had talent but because daddy was rich enough to send them to famous schools where they made friends in publishing and have an insane knee jerk reactions to the real world.

Also, if you mean by ‘science comedy’ The Big Bang Theory, you’re wrong. It was never funny.

Edmund Potts 28 May 2013, 13.19

To paraphrase Francis Wheen’s excellent chapter on the subject in his book “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World”:

There is no such thing as alternative medicine, any more than the human body has an “alternative central nervous system” with which such medicine might interact. There is, ultimately, only medicine which works, and medicine which does not. If rigorous scientific studies of an ingredient in so-called alternative medicine show it to have real and useful physiological effects, then after the necessary research and trials it will cease to be alternative medicine and simply become “medicine”.

Will Podmore 13 June 2013, 10.59

Brian Taylor writes, “Dawkins, and now Brian Cox, et al. whose scientific work may be fascinating, sadly become mindless tub-thumping fools -no longer interested in evidence- in relation to the phenomena of psychic or spiritual experience.”
No Brian, they consistently adhere to evidence and all the evidence proves that ‘the phenomena of psychic or spiritual experience’ are all fraudulent. Sheldrake is the deluded one, not Professors Dawkins and Cox.
Pat’s abusive and ignorant post misses every point he tries to make. Dawkins’ school of course produced many untalented people who have got ahead in the worlds of business and politics, but in higher education one needs not just ‘friends in publishing’ but genuine ability – which Dawkins has.
What ‘insane knee jerk reactions’ is Pat writing about? Dawkins publicly spoke out against the vicious illegal insanity of the US/British attack on Iraq. Was that an ‘insane knee jerk reaction’?
Abusiveness and evidence seem to be inversely correlated.

Comments are now closed on this article.

Red Pepper · 44-48 Shepherdess Walk, London N1 7JP · +44 (0)20 7324 5068 · office[at]redpepper.org.uk
Advertise · Press · Donate
For subscriptions enquiries please email subs@redpepper.org.uk