The Man of Science vs. The Man of Faith: Richard Dawkins Spars with Stephen Colbert

Several days ago, the world’s foremost evangelist of the new atheism, Richard Dawkins, made an appearance on The Colbert Report, Comedy Central’s spoof of the Fox News-style, uber-conservative, pro-family values political commentary show. The purported reason for Dawkins’ visit was to discuss his newly released tome, The Greatest Show on Earth, a book that claims to reveal “the evidence for evolution,” as declared by the book’s subtitle. But for Stephen Colbert, the show’s faux-conservative bombast of a host, Dawkins’ visit was the chance to disprove the measly theory of evolution and trumpet the unassailable truth of intelligent design.

This interview of the eminent Dawkins revealed Colbert at his parodic best, as he mimicked the reductionistic arguments of intelligent designers:

Colbert (with mock swagger and arrogance): How can the long neck of the giraffe be an evolutionary accident?
Dawkins (calmly, seriously): It’s not an accident; it’s the result of generations of genetic adaptations.
Colbert (with mock anger): How can those genetic adaptations be an accident?
Dawkins (calmly, seriously): They’re not; they’re the result of the instinct of survival.
Colbert (with mock incredulousness, raising his voice): You’re saying survival is an accident? There’s no purpose to life???
Dawkins (calmly, seriously): There is no purpose to life. We all make our own purpose, our own reasons.
Colbert (blowing his lid): You can make reasons but God can’t. You’re saying that you’re better than God???

Which is, of course, not at all what Dawkins was saying.

And then to underscore the farce:

Colbert (pointing his finger aggressively at Dawkins): “Those are your words, sir.”

Which, of course, they weren’t.

But Dawkins was not to be outdone by this impressive (if dubious) Colbertian logic. “Where’s the evidence for God?” he asked, laying an empirical trap for his willfully un-empirical opponent.

Colbert, however, would not oblige – or rather he obliged all too well. Where’s the evidence for God? “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” Colbert declared triumphantly. “Someone had to design the peanut butter cups.”

And so Colbert struck a blow for intelligent design.

In this made-for-late-night TV confrontation between the Man of Faith and the Man of Science, the winner very clearly was the viewing audience. Even by Stephen Colbert’s lofty comedic standards, this interview was a hilarious hit.

What made it a hit was Colbert’s genius parody of the well-known and eminently mockable cultural trope of the woefully naïve proponent of intelligent design. This was Stephen Colbert channeling not his normal inner Bill O’Reilly, but his inner Ray Comfort or Ken Ham. Sure, one is an intelligent designer and the other is a creationist (and the two camps are not the same – and are frequently quite antagonistic toward each other), but Colbert lampooned them both. His appeal to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup was no doubt a parody of Comfort’s Banana argument, while his robust disdain for scholarship and his oft-repeated pride in his obstinate inability to actually listen to his opponent’s arguments find their clearest parodic target in Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization.

The point is not which specific individual Colbert parodied; the point is that Colbert satirized an easily recognizable cultural type – the anti-evolution man of faith, standing on the promises and trusting in the Lord. And we who viewed the show – we who call ourselves The Colbert Nation – soaked it all in and laughed loudly and often at our own unreflective assumptions about the so-called Man of Faith.

These brief observations about the Colbert-Dawkins exchange dovetail with a much longer video presentation we’re currently preparing for publication on RD. In that video we will argue that people like Ken Ham and Ray Comfort – the most visible and outspoken of the creationist and intelligent designer lot – may think they’re engaging in critical and rational debate about the existence of God or the age of the earth, but in reality their arguments have little intellectual punch and fail to register as meaningful except among their already established groups of devotees.

In our estimation Ken Ham is not the public intellectual he envisions himself to be, but much more closely resembles a professional wrestler. Like the superstar grapplers of the WWE, Ham crafts a public persona, which is a stock cultural character or embodied cultural trope. Like Hulk Hogan, who played the blond-haired, blue-eyed All-American golden boy, or Stone Cold Steve Austin, who played the leather-clad, hard-drinking, hard-living rebel, Ken Ham enacts a powerful cultural trope: the Bible believing man of faith, who defends God’s Word against its godless, secular humanist assailants.

In this role he presents arguments that look, on the surface, like real arguments, and he presents them to his audience as the forceful blows of logic that strike his opponents down. Upon closer examination, however, they are empty and fake, just like the fake punches, kicks and chops of pro wrestling.

This particular cultural trope – the Bible-believing Man of Faith — is what Colbert parodied so well, as he high-fived his audience while making his way to the debating table/wrestling ring. Colbert pointed at Dawkins and declared, like a trash-talking pro wrestler, “You’re going down.” This, of course, is what Ham says every time he speaks (without actually saying it). Colbert then attacked his opponent with a flurry of empty arguments, dropping his opponent to the mat with the peanut butter cup attack. And just as a wrestler ends a match with a super-destructive finishing move, so also Colbert finished off a beleaguered Dawkins with this unassailable (but silly) finishing move/argument: “If that’s true [that there’s an evolutionary advantage to being beautiful, as Dawkins just claimed] and we’ve had millions of years of doing this, why are there so many ugly people?” And thus the wrestling match ended with Colbert on top. Dawkins was finished; the ref counted to three.

Colbert’s parody of the creationist/intelligent designer worked because that persona is so eminently lampoonable. The argument of our upcoming video presentation, however, is that it takes two to wrestle. The Stephen Colbert/Ken Ham character isn’t the only one primping and preening before adoring crowds; he isn’t the only one throwing fake intellectual punches at his opponent; he isn’t the only one with a finishing move that sends the masses into a tizzy. Our argument – slightly more controversial, no doubt – is that Richard Dawkins, the Man of Science, is no less a pro wrestler than his seemingly intellectually naïve opponent, Stephen Colbert/Ken Ham.

We certainly are not the first academics to criticize the intellectually dubious arguments of Richard Dawkins. RD has published plenty of articles on the topic – and academic giants like Terry Eagleton have even jumped into the fray. What makes our argument unique is the comparison with pro wrestling. So if you’re a fan of the high profile discussions between Those-Who-Speak-for-Science and Those-Who-Speak-for-Religion, or if you’re a fan of pro rasslin’ (or if you’re like us and you’re both), keep an eye on RD in about a week or two for our video presentation. We’ll try to convince you that Dawkins and Ham are properly understood as pro wrestlers engaged in fake fighting.

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