Monday 14 September 2015

Richard Dawkins- Patronizing Git!

Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life sounds like the title of a Woody Allen comedy, but it's actually a new documentary with Richard Dawkins; see the background links below where I've written about Dawkins before. Its style leads me to believe it is from the same production team that brought us his previous clangers, The Root of All Evil and Enemies of Reason. In the third part of Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, Dawkins discusses the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a king who displeased the gods. With typical Olympian sadism, the gods punished him by making him role a huge boulder up a hill; and once he'd accomplished that, the boulder would roll to the bottom, forcing him to repeat the tribulation, and this cycle would recur over and over again for eternity. This story made the French philosopher Albert Camus think about how it related to the meaning of life. In 1942 he wrote a book all about Sisyphus. The universe, Camus said, was "absurd"; there was no rhyme or reason at all. Some people committed suicide because they found no meaning in their lives. Camus found hope in the myth of Sisyphus, in fact for him Sisyphus was a hero and prophet who represented the rebellion against the futility of existence because his arduous task had its own meaning from the very effort he put into it. Camus said: "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Dawkins states that he does not agree with Camus, and neither do I. For Dawkins and me, Sisyphus' torment is pointless, as his divine persecutors intended it to be. The problem is that Dawkins then goes on to find what he thinks is a real life Sisyphus. His name is Hori Lal and his job is to sweep the streets and clean the public toilets in Varanasi, India. He has done this job for over twenty years and will probably do it for the next twenty, see here from about 27:00: India has a "caste" system, a very rigid order of social segregation. Hori Lal is a Dalit, the very lowest caste. In the programme Dawkins riles against this system and cheers on Mahendra Kumar, another Dalit who escaped his conventional bonds to become an IT expert. I agree, it's admirable that Mr Kumar had a personal dream and achieved it, but this does not make him objectively any more valuable a person than Hori Lal in my view. I understand completely the issues involved here because as a former hospital porter, I played a role in my society very similar to the one Mr Lal plays in his. It never occurs to Dawkins that there is an enormous difference between Mr Lal's duty and the punishment of Sisyphus. Nobody would suffer if Sisyphus found some way of dropping his rock and escaping. However, if Mr Lal downed his broom Varanasi would very quickly become buried under a mountain of its own refuse. It is extremely ignorant and patronizing of Richard Dawkins to equate a job to the ordeal of Sisyphus just because it lacks conventional status. Like myself, Richard Dawkins lives in Oxford and might have had to use the services of the John Radcliffe Hospital. In that case, I helped to make him better, better so he could go off gallivanting around the place making condescending TV documentaries that pour scorn on the essential servants of the human world. Dawkins is not the only one who fails to grasp what I see as a very obvious concept. There were people I served alongside in the hospital who had the same attitude, see here for more details: I wonder if Richard Dawkins is aware that Albert Camus was good friends with another great philosopher called Ludwig Wittgenstein, and that's a name all regular readers will recognize. He was a professor of philosophy at Cambridge... but was also a hospital porter, see: Did Camus get his ideas about the meaning of life from his conversations with Wittgenstein?


  1. Great post, well worded. Many people take lowly positions and/or a position that they are able to be left alone in without having to compromise their moral culture and able to have the head-space that is so difficult to find in this rodent-relay (no offence to rodents) so that they can in-effect use this field to reflect upon themselves, meditate upon what is important to them, including their very nature in this world. Of coarse, there are many who are in lowley jobs with lot's of headache and infact more pressure than those in comfortable, well paid positions. Your points are down right to the point and yes the title too Richard Dawkins- Patronizing Git! Small minded comments from a 'giant' in the vacuum created by contemporary mistrust in belief systems that seem to assume that their new dogma of retiring Skepticism somehow fills the beautiful void and all it's potential.

  2. Cheers, X. I did ponder the title for a while but could think of no other that was appropriate. I wish Camus and Wittgenstein were alive today because there is another issue connected to the myth of Sisyphus that they might understand, Wittgenstein certainly would, that lies beyond the scope of this article. The Greek gods did what they did to Sisyphus to make him suffer, therefore if he found a way to rise above his suffering then his ordeal would lose its meaning and his persecutors would be foiled. A thought for a future post I think.