Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fight! Fight! Fight!

"Dawkins 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."

27 comments:

Sam Dodsworth said...

I hadn't known Terry Eagleton was a Catholic as a well as a Marxist. Sounds like a tricky combination to me, but I guess tricky combinations are the lifeblood of theology.

John M. said...

Dawkin's arguments are generally childish attacks at straw men. Disappointing for a man of his intellect.

Andrew Stevens said...

Somebody once said of Dawkins that he was personally responsible for much of the modern intelligent design movement because he makes such a strong case for evolution and such a weak one for atheism. I'm an atheist myself and I am forever having to apologize to religious people for the Richard Dawkinses of the world and I do wish he'd shut up (or at least take some intro to theology classes). It has always been clear to me that Dawkins does not understand what he is criticizing when he talks about religion.

Moreover, his ethical philosophy is a complete mess. I believe it is certainly possible to have a valid and consistent ethical philosophy while remaining an atheist, but Dawkins hasn't even attempted it, so his ethical philosophy (such as it is) is mired in contradictions and absurdities. This is a problem for me, because most religious people assume that my ethical philosophy must be as irrational and muddled as Dawkins's and I certainly like to think that this is not the case. Atheism does not entail moral relativism or the denial of moral facts. I do believe in moral facts since I consider a statement like "It is wrong to torture little children just for the fun of it" to be more plausible and compelling than the premises of any argument I have yet heard against it. It is true that atheists cannot satisfactorily explain why such things as moral facts exist, but this is also true of gravity and I don't think religion has the better of it in this regard since explaining God is every bit as difficult (I would argue more difficult) and only moves it up another level.

Porlock Junior said...

(OT: Is there any way you could un-Beta your beta.blogger.com comments? What I now get on my Firefox on the Mac is a nasty little narrow window that cannot be resized to give a readable and writable width. Just asking.)
(In fact, it's impossible for me to comment using my normal browser, since the magic anti-spammer word is invisible. And on Opera, the composing window is still pathetically mis-sized.)


It's about time someone wrote that piece, and Eagleton has done a remarkable job. Comparing Dawkins and his people to creationists is exactly correct; provided, of course, that one restricts the comparison to this matter of ignorance of the positions being opposed, rather than considering that one is otherwise brilliant while the other is a bunch of dolts.

Someone needs to write this at book length, with time to go into all the details.

Someone has already tried: an Oxbridge don (bridge, I think) with advanced degrees in biochemistry and theology, no kidding. Unfortunately the book isn't good, despite a favorable review in Science from a professional skeptic. (Fumbling this because I don't have access to the book at the moment; more data later if anyone is interested.) It's written too much for the author's learned friends, with surprising ignorance (there we go again) of the nutballs whom Dawkins legitimately goes after.

But it has a lot of good data, and if Eagleton got to be co-author in the next edition, it would be a killer.

Louise H said...

Interesting article- the first quarter or so made sense, and then it started into the sort of stuff that I don't see how Dawkins could reasonably be expected to engage with. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. That means something to a Christian and a theologian; it means nothing to RD or, for that matter, to me.

As part of my philosophy degree I struggled for some time with Kierkegaard. I thought it was fascinating stuff; teleological suspension of the ethical and all that. But I was completely failing to work out how I could write a meaningful essay on the subject without simply repeating his phrases.

It took some time before I realised that while his philosophy was beautiful, it was also complete nonsense if viewed from any perspective other than his own. I could read any number of papers on what it all meant, but it wouldn't make it any more compatible with the rest of the world. To step back and out of it was to realise its basic irrelevance. Which is not to say that one could necessarily point out the logical flaws within his arguments; just that they has no clear connection with reality.

This seems to be where Eagleton is failing to understand the atheist position. The fact that theologians have developed elegant views on the nature of grace or transcendentalism doesn't mean that Dawkins has to engage with those theories; they make sense only to the insider.

Dawkin's condemnation of the believer as unthinking and immoral is not one that I personally share. He does rant, unfortunately. He considers religion evil whereas I tend to think of it just as wrong. But to suggest that his views are ill informed because he is not a theologian is missing the point.

You tell me there are fairies at the bottom of your garden. You haven't seen them but you know they are there. I tell you that I don't believe in fairies. You explain to me that you have worked out in detail where they live, their social structure, their reasons for being invisible, their ethical system and their plan for Mankind. But no matter how complex the structure of your belief, without evidence or direct experience it makes fairies not one jot more plausible to me. I don't need to know everything that you think about the nature of fairies to reject the idea that they are flitting among the nasturtiums.

Phil Masters said...

(OT: Is there any way you could un-Beta your beta.blogger.com comments? What I now get on my Firefox on the Mac is a nasty little narrow window that cannot be resized to give a readable and writable width. Just asking.)

(OT: I don't know if Firefox works the same on the Mac as on Windows, but I tend to right-click on the "Comments" link and choose "Open in New Tab". You still get a pokey little box in which to type comments, but at least you don't get so many windows open at once.)

I'm probably even more ignorant of theology than Dawkins (and I haven't read his new book yet), but playing Dawkins' Advocate for a moment - this whole Eagleton essay had the feel for me of somebody moving a much-moved target yet again.

The God that it describes is so transcendentally transcendent that He transcends not only transcendence but any sort of argument, which is no doubt nice and saves a lot of argument with biologists, and may well be justifiable by reference to many heavy-duty theologians, but this doesn't sound much like the God who seems to have been worshipped by most "mainstream" self-described Christians (or Muslims or Jews) over the last couple of thousand years. God as a "creator" who took only an indirect, metaphysically enabling role in the creation of, say, life on Earth, is surely not the God championed by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the Oxford Museum of Natural History in 1860, or the God described by William Paley. I have a sneaking suspicion it wasn't the God of those dim-witted clerics who knocked Eagleton about at grammar school, either.

Mind you, I did enjoy the screeching rhetorical U-turns in Eagleton's last paragraph. The bit about Dawkins being the second most frequently mentioned individual in his own book was gratuitous, though. Anybody wanna check if Andrew Rilstone is the second most frequently mentioned individual in this blog - if you count Tony Blair as an individual?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I tell you that I don't believe in fairies. You explain to me that you have worked out in detail where they live, their social structure, their reasons for being invisible, their ethical system and their plan for Mankind. But no matter how complex the structure of your belief, without evidence or direct experience it makes fairies not one jot more plausible to me. I don't need to know everything that you think about the nature of fairies to reject the idea that they are flitting among the nasturtiums.

As long as you are limiting yourself to saying "There are no fairies", then this is 100% valid. But as soon as you say start to say that the fairies social system wouldn't work, their ethical system is highly immoral, and their plan for mankind is actually just a complicated way of persuading terrorists to blow up dentists then I think that it is encumbant on you to understood what the social system and ethical systems and plans are actually thought to be. I believe that the criticism that is being made of Dawkins book is that he is not limiting himself to saying "There is no God", but making comments on specific religious doctrines and ethical theories without having properly understood what they are.

Since I was unaccountably left off the freebie list and have no desire to give Dastardly Dick any of my money, I will have to wait until the book is remaindered to find out whether or not this is a fair comment.

Phil Masters said...

But Eagleton really doesn't appear to be talking about ethics very much. He doesn't even mention the word (or the concept, so far as I can judge) until past the half-way mark, and his biggest objection to Dawkins' moral position appears to be that Dawkins is an optimist. (Presumably 21st century Marxists have to be pessimists. So much for the inevitable triumph of the proletariat.) He seems much more concerned with redefining words like "creation" and "existence". His answer to the question "Is there a God?" would almost seem to be "That depends what the meaning of 'is' is."

Andrew Rilstone said...

His answer to the question "Is there a God?" would almost seem to be "That depends what the meaning of 'is' is."

That would be consistent with what I have read of his lit crit, certainly.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't know about Eagleton, but Mr. Rilstone's response to Phil Masters is certainly my critique of Dawkins. Being an atheist, I have no difficulty with Dawkins's atheism, it's just that his critique of religion isn't confined to just that. He wants to show that religion is destructive, immoral, and irrational as well as false.

I wasn't especially impressed with Eagleton's response though. In particular he writes, "He also holds, against a good deal of available evidence, that Islamic terrorism is inspired by religion rather than politics." I will take Eagleton's word that the Northern Ireland problem is not primarily inspired by religion (or at least not any more). But I have to take exception to this claim about Islamic terrorism. I don't know what the "good deal of available evidence" might consist of, but Osama bin Laden would have a great deal more secular power and influence had he not decided to wage his ideological crusade. Even if bin Laden believes that his side will win eventually (and it seems that he does), he must know that his side won't win in his own lifetime. If he doesn't know this, it can only be because he believes Allah is on his side and will give him a speedy victory. I maintain that bin Laden's actions make no sense unless we take him at his word about his religious motivation. (Of course, it's possible that Eagleton is referring to tapes I'm not aware of in which bin Laden and others candidly talk about how they don't really believe in Islam. If so, I withdraw my objection.) During the Enlightenment, Terry Eagleton's defense was a common critique of religion - that all religious leaders and kings were frauds who didn't believe what they claimed. History is incomprehensible if one takes seriously this rather extreme Realpolitik view.

I happen to be American and an atheist. Perhaps it is the case that I'm as oppressed as gays were fifty years ago, but I honestly cannot bring to mind a single instance of oppression and I'm fairly outspoken about my lack of religious beliefs, even when I was at a party of my brother's in Georgia. (Most people acted as if they had never actually met an atheist before and asked me lots of questions about what my beliefs were on a host of issues. I think they also were a bit surprised that I could discuss things like the miracle of transubstantiation, the difference between the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception, etc. even though I was an atheist. At all times, everybody was respectful if bemused and curious. Here in the Upper Midwest, nobody bats an eyelash when I say I'm an atheist and I live in a "red state.") I confess I've never mentioned my lack of religion in a job interview, but most Christians I know don't mention their religion in job interviews either.

Phil Masters said...

Presumably, as a latent Marxist (with a pro-religious bias), Eagleton thinks that the "Islamic terrorist" problem is entirely economic in essence. The Middle East is impoverished and economically unstable, so it produces a lot of angry, deracinated, excitable people; the Middle East has been economically exploited by the West, so those people focus their anger on the West.

It's a point of view with some evidence to support it. But in the extreme version, it suggests that even if the Middle East was entirely inhabited by atheists, some of them would still be flying airliners into skyscrapers because of their economically-based anger, and bin Laden (or someone like him) would be organising them for similar reasons and with a detached, idealistic zeal that ignores his own best interests. (After all, atheists are capable of starting projects that they don't expect to see complete in their own lifetimes.) And no, personally, I don't buy that - mostly because of my not very scientific view of human nature. I think that those people's rage needs religion to give it its specific (and especially homicidal and self-destructive) contemporary form.

Likewise, a caricature anti-religious analysis would say that, even if the Middle East was economically stable and dynamic, and the West had always behaved with detached courtesy towards it, Islam would still inspire some people to fly airliners into skyscrapers. No, I don't believe that either. Not even religion on its own can make that many people that mad.

I could create an imaginary utopian alternate history Middle East in which prosperity and stability led to peace, and in which the occasional turbanned loony who ranted about caliphates and burquas and unbelievers was patted on the head and left to scream at audiences of three old men, while Islam mostly evolved into a Sufi-style religion of unworldliness and peaceful coexistence. But that's heading off into an imaginary stratosphere. What we're stuck with, unfortunately, is a lot of angry people who, like angry people throughout history, exploit and are exploited by a religion, making them doubly dangerous. In the Middle East and a lot of other places.

Porlock Junior said...

Louise H had the sense to read further into the piece than I did before posting. The last three quarters, though I find it well worth reading, is not what the world needs to hear to expose Dawkins's complete ignorance of the matter.

I guess the next edition of the anti-Dawkins book needs a third collaborator: someone who understands what the Fundies (*) are about and takes them seriously as a political and intellectual (anti-intellectual) threat. There's more of gentlemanly fun in treating them as beneath notice, but it doesn't work.

(*) Fundies: a term I dislike, but everyone knows what it currently means, though that's utterly different from what Fundamentalist was meant to mean. When Muslims are called fundamentalist, why keep fighting it?

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil,

Great response. Certainly we can all agree there is some politics involved. But it reminds me of debates about what the root causes of the U.S. Civil War were. It is true that the South resented tariffs, but they did not secede from the Union in order to protest tariffs. Without slavery, there would have been no war.

The significance of economics is overblown though. I grew up poor (granted, being poor in America in the late 20th century was not a serious hardship) and whenever people say that "poverty is the root cause of terrorism," it makes me gnash my teeth. This is just a slander against poor people. Almost all the hijackers were of middle-class background and well-educated. They are somewhat motivated by political factors: principally, the plight of the Palestinians and the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam, since 1991. But the latter is probably the most significant issue (in a straw that broke the camel's back sort of way) and that's motivated primarily by religion.

Obviously, you and I have very little to disagree about on this issue. I'll certainly take Eagleton's attempt to deflect the blame from religion over Dawkins's uneducated rantings about the "Crusades" and "witchhunts." (I'd be prepared to defend either of those two topics in a debate, as long as I'm allowed to plead "guilty, but. . .")

Phil Masters said...

Saying that something has an economic cause isn't quite the same as saying that it's caused by poverty. You're completely right to point out that the 2001 hijackers were a bunch of screwed up middle class rebels-without-a-clue who probably had relatively little to complain about in their personal economic lives, but they were evidently motivated to some extent by Middle Eastern politics. Now, how much of politics is economics is another debate again, but you can bet that if that region had less oil, things would be different somehow.

All of which is just saying that causes and effects can be traced back indefinitely. Me, I stop at the Ottoman Empire and blame them at the last resort, but that's probably just Western tradition. Old-school leftists tend to regard "economic" causes as determinant, probably partly because it's fun to depict your opponents as fat men in stovepipe hats who water the workers' beer, and partly because they tend to have Marxist intellectual backgrounds.

Somehow, I don't believe that when Marx wrote Kapital he was intending to let religion off the hook for all the horrors that have been committed in its name, but it's an interesting application of his theories.

Dawkins is perhaps inclined to over-emphasise religion as a source of justifications for deranged behaviour; he might do better to admit that other things can serve much the same purpose. Marxism, Fascism, nationalism, or, at a pinch, animal rights or the contemporary cult of personal fame, can all get people killed in the right hands. Religion has the unique advantage of the built-in jam-hereafter clause when inspiring actively suicidal behaviour, but I'm not sure that religious death-cults actually use that half as much as us atheists tend to assume. Promising your followers an unlimited supply of virgins after death tends to blow your credibility as an ascetic puritan if you're not careful, and reminds your followers that there may be more fun things to do with their time than hang around a compound planning to die. Likewise, for example, Japanese nationalism managed to crank out a fair number of effective suicide-killers sixty years back without much in the way of afterlife promises.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil - your latest comment may be one of the best things I've read on the subject yet. I agree with all of your points (save, perhaps, one), especially on the capability of non-religious ideologies to inspire evil, but also on religion's quasi-unique ability to do so. I should also point out that I wasn't saying that you were blaming terrorism on poverty. I'm sure you've heard it said since I seem to hear it all the time.

I don't know about blaming the Ottoman Empire, though. The Ottomans were a fascinating culture, very religiously tolerant for example (at least later in their history). It's true that non-Muslims were second-class citizens, but there was little in the way of oppression or forced conversion or anything. I think we're perfectly justified blaming the British and the Israelis themselves for the Palestinian problem. I mean no disrespect here - the only culture I admire more than Jewish culture is British culture. British colonialism was the cause of many problems, but on the other hand they spun off wealthy, successful democracies in a great many places and were the primary instrument in stamping out the world slave trade, which had previously been accepted by virtually everyone for thousands of years. Jewish culture, of course, is admirable in its extraordinary resilience and determination (still around despite constant persecution, even though it's not a proselytizing religion). I often stump fundamentalists by asking them if they've ever considered, since they agree the Jews are God's favored people, whether Christianity might not simply be a test for the Jews. However, the British made conflicting promises to the Palestinians and Israelis in order to garner support during World War I, and it's reasonable to hold them accountable for their later inability to reconcile these promises. The United States is surely not innocent either, having propped up the Saudis for decades now and coming two decades late to the table to try to pressure the Israelis to resolve the Palestinian problem. Yes, yes, I grant that the Israelis have had innumerable problems since their opponents refuse to concede their right to exist. I am not trying to ladle all the blame onto the Israelis or the British here. And sending children to blow themselves up in crowded markets is an indefensible tactic, even if the Palestinians were being slaughtered en masse, which they most assuredly are not. But neither the U.S. nor the U.K. has ever had any serious interest in just seizing Middle East oil. Our interest has always been in trying to maintain stable governments (preferably friendly) in the Middle East so we can continue to buy it. Towards this goal, the West has on occasion propped up some appalling dictators, including of course Mr. Hussein.

Perhaps this was justifiable during the Cold War. I love the United States, but I freely grant that its history, like that of all countries, is fraught with moral difficulties. Often racist, occasionally imperialistic, sporadically vile to the poor, and all that. But I cannot bring myself to buy into the idea that it was just as bad as the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. was vile to everyone all the time and did all its negotiating via the barrel of a gun. When France left NATO, the United States jawboned them and called them ungrateful, and all that. When Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia wanted to leave the Eastern bloc, the Soviet Union rolled in the tanks. That Eastern Europe was full of occupied nations became crystal clear when the dominoes started falling as soon as Mr. Gorbachev withdrew the Red Army. I'm not claiming this is sufficient justification for the U.S. sacrificing the people of the Middle East as a pawn in the Cold War, just that there is some justification.

What I love is hearing Osama bin Laden (or Richard Dawkins) blather about the Crusades as if they had any relevance. I'd have guessed bin Laden at least would actually know the history. (He might, though - he could just be playing to the guilt of what Lenin called "useful idiots.") Fact is that A) the Crusades were largely defensive, granting there were some appalling atrocities committed (though mostly against Jews), B) the Crusades were almost all ultimately failures, and C) the Crusades were mostly viewed, at the time, as the last gasp of a dying religion, a religion that had been dealt defeat after defeat after defeat for centuries to the muscular vigor of Islam. Christendom could barely hold onto Spain and were completely kicked out of Northern Africa and the Middle East which had once boasted substantial Christian majorities. Eventually, they even lost Constantinople and it really wasn't until the late 17th century when the situation finally reversed. I am amazed that anyone seriously argues that the Crusades were an unprovoked attack on a peaceful and scholarly religion as the modern view appears to be. I think one can only reach this conclusion if one assumes in advance that everything bad that happens is always the fault of Christianity and the West. (Remember that I already granted the atrocities committed by the Crusaders. But I can counter all of those with atrocities committed by Muslims when conquering Christian cities like Jerusalem, Aleppo, Antioch, and Constantinople.)

Jez said...

I don't know if the modern view of the crusades needs an assumption that Christianity is to blame for everything in order for people in the West to assume they were the sole aggressor during the period. A lot of people would assume that relative levels of power are equivalent to their current levels, and therefore assume Christian Europe, presently vastly more powerful, was the aggressor.

Also, the crusades have become synonymous with 'stupid war over nothing but religion', and is the first argument to be made when suggesting religion can be responsible for stupid or evil acts. It's only natural to think of your own religion/nationality first, and so when a particular piece of history is known as a 'stupid religious war', you think of your own side primarily. In a similar sense, Gallipoli has become known as a 'stupid waste of lives', which in Australia is thought of almost entirely as a 'stupid waste of Australian lives'. People here tend to be only vaguely aware that any other Allied nations served, let alone that the Turks, British and French each lost significantly more troops than the Anzacs.

Andrew Stevens said...

Terrific point, Jez. Now that you've brought it to my attention, I have little doubt that you're right. I suspect most people do think Europe was powerful relative to Islam during the period, even though it clearly wasn't. The Byzantine Empire had been begging for help against the Arabs for centuries before the Crusades. Even when the Arabs sacked Rome in 846 and robbed the Basilica of Saint Peter, the Church still didn't act. This could be because the Arabs were fairly gentlemanly conquerors other than sacking and looting which all armies did. It was considered proper warfare at the time to sack a city which had resisted and leave undisturbed a city which surrendered and both Muslims and Christians did this. However, while the Arabs ruled Jersusalem, Christian churches were left untouched (for the most part - there were some problems around 1009) and Christian pilgrims unmolested. This changed when the Seljuk Turks succeeded the Arabs as the power in the region. The Turks did not allow pilgrims into Jerusalem (or else heavily taxed them) and there seemed a real danger that Byzantium itself would fall which would have been disastrous for Western Christendom.

Later Crusades would be rather stupid. The Fourth Crusade decided to save Islam the trouble and sacked Constantinople themselves - for the first time Crusaders had started attacking other Christians. We won't even mention the Children's Crusade (which, by the way, was not blessed by the Pope and was really more of a very young cult led by a very young charismatic cult leader). Later Crusades were even more abysmal failures for the most part. I am not surprised that the Crusades got a reputation as "stupid wars about religion." Many of them deserve that reputation, except perhaps for the First Crusade and maybe the Sixth which enjoyed some modest success. The Fourth Crusade in particular caused a widening of the rift between Eastern and Western Christians which the original Crusade had been intended to try to heal.

Another reason the Crusades might be viewed as evil is because a lot of attention is paid to the unsuccessful Third Crusade and it's hard not to sympathize with Saladin. He was an aggressive, ruthless, and highly successful conqueror, but he was also quite clearly a man of honor, chivalry, and charity and was highly respected even by his Crusader opponents like Richard I. (Saladin appears as a virtuous pagan soul in Dante's Inferno and Sir Walter Scott treated him very well.) Saladin, of course, eventually agreed to a treaty which would allow Christian pilgrims into Jerusalem. If you make Saladin the hero of the Crusades, it's natural that the Crusaders must then be the villains.

Jez said...

There's a pretty strong tendency to create a narrative in history, in part because its a natural way of understanding something, and in part because we absorb so much of our current history through dramatic retellings. So if the moral of the tale is that religious fanatacism is bad, and your audience is the West, then you tell the story of stupid religious fanatics heading off to fight for the promised land. And that's the story that people generally know.

Anyway, thanks for your couple of posts on the topic. It's been an interesting read.

Phil Masters said...

"Crusade" has just become a shorthand term these days - for different things in the Middle East and the West, which adds to the fun and means that Western politicians periodically have to be physically restrained from using a word that sounds quite unremarkable to them. While I'm sure that at least some of the people involved do know their history, or at least a version of it, it's not really very relevant any more; it's mostly just a semantic root, not something that's actually being invoked for most listeners.

In these parts, "crusade" probably gets the lower case, and just means "a big, determined attempt to accomplish some Great Cause, for better or for worse". It still has just enough religious overtones to make it more of an inherently positive word for religious hearers - George Bush may assume that his constituency will cheer a bit when they hear it, whereas others round here will be a bit more cynical - but basically it's positive to neutral.

In the Islamic world, "Crusade" (probably upper case) means, basically, "foreign invasion" - for those who do know their history, specifically, "violent attempt by perfidious Westerners to bring down Islam, which will be driven off by heroic warriors and leaders". Whatever the moral and strategic details of the original events (a Byzantine diplomatic manouevre that got spectacularly out of hand, so far as I can see), they did involve attacks by Western armies on Muslim areas, and hence it's a handy word for the likes of Bin Laden.

The thing about the Ottomans is simply that they were around for long enough that if you trace causes and effects back far enough and then stop, you've got a fair chance of finding them involved. (More seriously, yes, I think that British foreign policy in the WWI era has a hell of a lot to answer for.) But, all the laissez-faire social-religious policies and gorgeous art aside, the fact is that they were a bunch of arrogant, brutal, misogynistic tyrants who developed an extraordinarily stubborn, inflexible set of social assumptions while running divide-and-conquer policies across their empire whose effects are still visible today. To begin with, they made enough serious attempts to conquer Europe to perpetuate a tradition of hatred between the two cultures. Then, they ruled one of the world's greatest, potentially wealthiest cultural regions during the greatest period of development in human history - and made such a pig's ear of it that the region sank into poverty. And their stubbornness was such that the standard model for European foreign policy became "prop up the Middle Eastern dictatorship, because the alternatives are worse".

Endie said...

I am moderately sure that Dawkins believes ust as strongly in God as I do.

Dawkins, on the other hand, seems firmly of the opinion that God has let him down pretty badly at some point, and is spending his life flailing wildly in his general direction.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Old-school leftists tend to regard "economic" causes as determinant, probably partly because it's fun to depict your opponents as fat men in stovepipe hats who water the workers' beer, and partly because they tend to have Marxist intellectual backgrounds.

Or possibly as a means of countering a romantic perception of history. As others have pointed out, there's a very human tendency to impose narratives on historical events, and with honor or religion as a motivation, those narratives almost inevitably take on an epic flavor. There's something shabby and mean about a conflict over money that makes it resistant to this rose-tinted perception.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Dawkins, on the other hand, seems firmly of the opinion that God has let him down pretty badly at some point, and is spending his life flailing wildly in his general direction.

"You bastard! You don't exist!"
Samuel Beckett

Andrew Stevens said...

Or possibly as a means of countering a romantic perception of history. As others have pointed out, there's a very human tendency to impose narratives on historical events, and with honor or religion as a motivation, those narratives almost inevitably take on an epic flavor. There's something shabby and mean about a conflict over money that makes it resistant to this rose-tinted perception.

This could be right, but I'm doubtful. I find the left to be curiously obsessed with money: who's got what and how much of it. It's very bourgeois of them, but quite in keeping with Marxist analysis. Moreover, it's not like the left is neutral in these "shabby, mean conflicts over money." They invariably side with the have-nots and turn it into a different kind of romantic struggle - the eternal resistance of the proletariat against its fattened masters and/or exploiters. The left essentially roots for the underdog almost reflexively. I don't think it ever occurs to a lot of them that rich or powerful people might just be right on occasion. If you believe, as Marx did, that one cannot acquire wealth or power except through exploitation, this is not an entirely unreasonable view and I frequently sympathize with it. (Perhaps because of my own impoverished roots.)

Of course, I don't agree with the Marxism. I consider Marxism to be both falsifiable and falsified. Having said that, his analysis of past history isn't a bad theory at all. He simply made a number of rather obvious mistakes and some not so obvious ones when he tried to extend it into the future. There was nothing wrong with Marx using the labor theory of value for his economic analysis. Adam Smith did as well, but the labor theory of value is still false.

Phil, I don't disagree with your opinion of the Ottomans. I certainly agree that the Ottomans were responsible for the decline of Islam and sowed a lot of strife. I think if we traced the use of the word Crusade back in Islamic culture, we'd discover that it didn't become a pejorative until the decline of the Ottomans. While the Ottomans were mighty, Muslims showed no particular animosity over the Crusades. It was when the Ottomans became the "sick man of Europe" that Muslims developed a righteous anger over the Crusades and this became all the stronger in modern times since they view the formation of modern Israel as just another Crusade. Only this time, they're not powerful enough to roll it back, at least not yet.

As I'm sure you agree, whether it's all the fault of the Ottomans, the British, the Israelis, the Arabs, the Saudis, or the Americans is historically interesting, but doesn't really matter that much. (And I'm sure we could trace it all back and blame it on the Romans if we wanted to.) We are where we are and the real question is what do we do now, not who got us into this mess.

Oh, and I loved Endie's comment. I actually think that's right; I think Dawkins does secretly suspect God exists. He argued in one book that he believed Darwin was necessary before one could be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. His argument was that, before Darwin, the problem of organized complexity was apparently unsolvable. Dawkins was wrong in that. (I believe David Hume would tell him it was perfectly possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist before Darwin.) But Dawkins was wrong in a telling way. Dawkins needs an explanation for everything. He essentially admitted that, had Darwin not explained organized complexity, he would have fallen back on the God hypothesis. The reason I'm bringing this up is, as I said earlier, I have no explanation for why moral facts exist. I know that they do (though I'm only very rarely certain that I've correctly identified them), but I don't know why. (Evolution appears to be powerless to explain it despite valiant efforts. Cf. G.E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy.) I do not believe the God hypothesis solves this dilemma, but if I were the kind of person who could not be satisfied without an explanation, perhaps an unexplainable being is exactly what I'd choose. In order to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, it is imperative that you accept "unexplained does not mean inexplicable" for the very simple reason that we're not yet advanced enough to explain everything, either scientifically or philosophically. Hume couldn't explain organized complexity, but he did not then conclude it was inexplicable as Dawkins has admitted he would have. Dawkins clearly believes in morality in a muddle-headed sort of way, but his philosophy finds it entirely inexplicable so I believe that he has created an evil creator (being more concerned with why evil exists than why good does) and now pretends that creator doesn't exist. Personally, I require no special explanation for why there is good and evil in the world. I love to think about such things, but I have no illusions that I will solve all my philosophical problems in my lifetime. And if I did, I'm sure I'd be wrong on about half of them.

ts said...

Eagleton is lying. 99.9% of everything that Christians say about God makes him out to be a chap; it's only when they are trying to defend against the claim that they are delusional idiots that they go all transcendent. And the transcendent crap is even less defensible than the chap crap, but you can't fault Dawkins for generally addressing the delusion rather than the hyperesoteric rationalization.

"Dawkin's arguments are generally childish attacks at straw men."

Where'd I put my "hypocrisy" and "innuendo" rubber stamp? Perhaps you would care to actually offer an actual Dawkins argument and a response to it.

ts said...

The left essentially roots for the underdog almost reflexively. I don't think it ever occurs to a lot of them that rich or powerful people might just be right on occasion.

Or, gee, maybe the left is largely made up of people who aren't rich or powerful. If the underdog is an isolated rich person, I don't think the left would reflexively root for them. I wonder if it ever occurs to you that you might be dimwitted?

ts said...

His argument was that, before Darwin, the problem of organized complexity was apparently unsolvable.

No, his argument was that, before Darwin, no solution was known, so atheism would be intellectually unsatisfying; it might help if you actually opened up the book or googled the quote instead of taking your own self-serving misinterpretation as evidence.

He essentially admitted that, had Darwin not explained organized complexity, he would have fallen back on the God hypothesis.

He admitted no such thing, essentially or otherwise. It's clear from his statement about Darwin, atheism and Hume (remember the part about Hume?), as well as all his other statements, that he wouldn't have found "the God hypothesis" to be more intellectually satisfying.

I know that [moral facts exist]

No you don't, and apparently you don't know what knowledge is.

Andrew Stevens said...

Here is The Blind Watchmaker pp. 5-6:

I feel more in common with William Paley than I do with the distinguished modern philosopher, a well-known atheist, with whom I once discussed the matter at dinner. I said that I could not imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859, when Darwin's Origin of Species was published. 'What about Hume?', replied the philosopher. 'How did Hume explain the organized complexity of the living world?', I asked. 'He didn't', said the philosopher. 'Why does it need any special explanation?'

Mr. T.S. is correct that Dawkins never said he'd have found God more satisfying than Darwin's explanation (which is obvious, or he'd believe in God now), but I'm fairly sure I never implied that he did. But Mr. T.S. seems to have a different interpretation of what Dawkins means when he says "I could not imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859." I'll leave it up to each of you to decide which of our interpretations is correct.