Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching

I’m far to the right of this reviewer in my theology and politics. That said, I think he scores a number of direct hits against Dawkins in the material I’ve excerpted:

Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching
Terry Eagleton

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins · Bantam, 406 pp, £20.00

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

A molehill of instances out of a mountain of them will have to suffice. Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

He [Dawkins] thinks, for example, that the ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland would evaporate if religion did, which to someone like me, who lives there part of the time, betrays just how little he knows about it. He also thinks rather strangely that the terms Loyalist and Nationalist are ‘euphemisms’ for Protestant and Catholic, and clearly doesn’t know the difference between a Loyalist and a Unionist or a Nationalist and a Republican. He also holds, against a good deal of the available evidence, that Islamic terrorism is inspired by religion rather than politics.

These are not just the views of an enraged atheist. They are the opinions of a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist…There is a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh and taste, and The God Delusion springs from, among other places, that particular stable. At its most philistine and provincial, it makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann.



  1. I don't know that it is unfair to characterize "faith" for Christians as in a sense being different from reason. This may not be true for contributors to this blog. It wasn't true for me when I was a Christian, and I regarded those Christians that thought faith was opposed to reason as wrong headed. But I was in the minority of Christians and I knew it. Is it really unfair for Dawkins to characterize Christians in this way? I don't think so. You can't say anything of professing Christians that is true for each and every one of them. If what you say is true of 95% of them you are doing better than you would normally do.

    In the same way I think it is fair to characterize Catholics as for the most part people that worship Mary. Of course the RC apologist will protest, talk about distinctions between "dulia" and "latria" and say that other RC's that don't recognize these things are deficient. Fine. But isn't it still fair to say that RC's worship Mary as they worship God? If most of them do then it is a fair statement.

    You guys are amongst a small minority of professing Christians. You are the exceptions. This critique suggests that Dawkins criticisms should focus on the exceptions and ignore the general rule.

  2. Several problems, Jon:

    1.Yes, many Christians are fideistic. Fideism is their default setting.

    That’s not because they’re Christians. It’s simply because many or most Christians aren’t intellectuals for the same reason that many or most people, Christian or otherwise, aren’t intellectuals.

    2.We can say exactly the same thing about the average unbeliever. The average unbeliever is not a high-powered intellectual. The average unbeliever is incompetent to present a philosophically cogent defense of his unbelief.

    Indeed, that was the whole point of Witmer’s tactical advice.

    3.Many Christians have a rational faith. They simply lack the sophistication to articulate the rational grounds for their faith.

    4.Dawkins characterization isn’t limited to Christians. That isn’t even his primary target.

    Rather, he’s attacking Christians as a way of attacking the Christian belief-system. That is quite different from attacking the subjective faith of Christians in general.

    I daresay that most folks who believe in evolution hold no advanced degrees in the relevant fields of science.

    Does Dawkins think that we should judge the merits of Darwinism (or modern cosmology or historical geology or cognitive science) by the quality of argumentation that the average, Darwinian layman could muster in support of naturalistic evolution?

    And do you think that’s how we should judge the merits of Darwinism, or modern cosmology, or historical theology, or cognitive science?

    The choice is not between focusing on the few rather than the many. Instead, it’s a question of focusing his critique on the belief-system, and, with that in mind, addressing himself to the best evidence for the belief-system.

    5.In addition, there’s more at issue than the intellectual competence of the average Christian. There is also the issue of Dawkins’ intellectual competence.

    He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s too arrogant and cocksure to even acquaint himself with the standard literature.

  3. Understand that I actually have the desire to know what is true, to the best of my own abilities. I do not want to prop up shallow scarecrow/strawman claims of Christianity (or any other religion) in order to display my prowess at knocking them down.

    Christianity has gone through numerous revisions and evolution over the past 2000 years, and some very great minds have tackled age-old objections to, and problems with, the faith. When we approach some of the most sacred and orthodox of Christian beliefs, such as prayer, the goodness of God, etc., with the care they require, we are not deluding ourselves into thinking that we've dealt with the best version of their arguments. I do not think that Dawkins or Harris have done this, but I am not sure that any work which does would be popular, as it would be written at an intellectual level which most Americans simply aren't at (not saying I am).

    Believers and unbelievers alike deserve the respect of giving our best shot at evaluating arguments for and against faith in God. These arguments should be out there.

    Now, what we ought to separate are serious philosophical investigations from cultural pleas. I think that Dawkins' latest work falls into the latter category, as do the works of Harris. I think there is a place for this sort of thing, and a need for it, and when attempting to influence culture (these men obviously have, for better or worse, as their works skyrocket up the bestseller list), we all recognize the painful truth that works on these subjects must be "dumbed down" to be read widely. In that sense, I understand why Dawkins and Harris write as they do -- they want to influence the masses, and recognize the folly of using a book with extensive footnotes and philosophical verbiage.

    But mere cultural competition is something I hope that all persons, of faith or without it, come to detest. I hope that human culture evolves to a level of complexity that books on the subject of religion do their subject justice, and that they can be well and widely-received. It does not seem, though, that with the competition from media that such an intellectual ascension looks likely...sadly to say.

    And that's why I said I wasn't going to buy Dawkins' book a while back, not that I don't appreciate the effort.

    I think a book needs to be published from a godless perspective parallel to Paul Copan's How Do You Know You're Not Wrong? (I own it, btw) A concise, but footnoted and indexed, outlined and progressive, hard-hitting summary of the major arguments against religion in general, and for atheism in general, with particular focus on moral arguments and the PoE.

    An updated, expanded, more technical version of George Smith's classic work (which I also own, but have not yet read). When I say "concise" I do not mean less than 200 pages. But I mean summarizing the arguments with the minimal support required. Dealing with and dispatching some of the major objections to each argument for atheism. References to infidels.org and all of the popular, articulate atheist bloggers out there.

    I am aware that Dawkins and Harris have a wide audience in mind, and write it that way. I am also aware that they do not have the sort of textbook-style work that needs to be written. Perhaps I should feel inspired...perhaps...

  4. Daniel Morgan said...

    "We all recognize the painful truth that works on these subjects must be 'dumbed down' to be read widely. In that sense, I understand why Dawkins and Harris write as they do -- they want to influence the masses, and recognize the folly of using a book with extensive footnotes and philosophical verbiage.

    No, the problem lies deeper than that. It isn't just a case of dumbing down for popular consumption.

    They really don't know what they're talking about when they get on the subject of religion.

    And it's viciously circular: because they already believe that religion is bunk, they think it's a waste of time to acquaint themselves with the standard literature.

    And it's not merely that Dawkins is writing outside his field. He's an Oxford Don. He could have run a preliminary draft of his MS by some of his colleagues.

    But having an accurate knowledge of Christian theology would be an impediment to his critique. For if he knew the complexities of the debate, his critique would lose its punch.

  5. You are so right, Steve.

    Or not.

  6. Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.

  7. I have to disagree that the arguments for and against god and religion in general have to be too technical and convoluted for the average Joe.
    Theological arguments - no matter haw well made are generally based on the assumption of divinity. Logical arguments about concepts such as hope, love and subjectivity are irrelevant to the central question of Dawkins book.
    The probability as to whether God exists is actually a fairly simple question that you can tackle without reference to every previous theological work. This is what Dawkins does. I think the remainder of the book about whether religion is "good" or "bad" is not strong - I agree that Dawkins has a personal agenda here. His central point that the the foundation of all religions (well most!)- the existence of a creator - is probably not true should stand by itself. This being the case, in a rational world with everyone educated to a reasonable standard and without brainwashing from childhood - he thinks that organised religion would die out. Maybe he is right - I suspect that those memes he goes on about are a little too strong for that.