Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Dawkins vs democracy

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

May 22, 2013
6 min read


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


  share     tweet  

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

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


The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite


68