Tuesday, April 24, 2007

2: Some More of Dawkins' Greatest Mistakes

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

I mock thee not, though I by thee am mock├Ęd;
Thou call'st me madman, but I call thee blockhead.

William Blake

Dawkins devotes several pages of his Chapter 1 to the 2005 Prophet Mohammed Danish Cartoons Controversy.
You remember the story: an editor in Denmark decided that since Islam doesn't allow anyone to publish pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, pictures of the Prophet Mohammed were obviously the exact thing that it was his duty to publish. Some Muslims decided that since the the pictures were obviously a childish attempt to provoke a violent over-reaction, the best thing for them to do would be to violently over-react. In Nigeria people were actually killed over the issue: but British Muslims limited themselves to using violent language. But the language was very violent indeed.
Quoth the great man:
Demonstrators were photographed in Britain bearing banners saying 'Slay those who insult Islam', 'Europe will pay: Demolition is on the way' and, apparently without irony 'Behead those who say that Islam is a violent religion.'
And 'The Fantastic Four Are On the Way' bizarrely enough.
This affair didn't show Islam at its best; and, if we are inclined to regard 'religion' as an homogeneous thing, it reflected pretty badly on 'religion' in general. Not that the anti-God department came out of it smelling of roses. It isn't particularly 'bright' to march through Golders Green wearing a Nazi uniform and then pretend to be surprised when people throw stones at you. But that doesn't excuse the stone-throwers.
Here is a picture of the London demonstration:

Dawkins thinks the affair is an example of 'society's overweening respect' for religion. He quotes lots of examples of people who were incredibly rude about Islam during the controversy – Germain Greer saying that Muslims like pandemonium for the sake of pandemonium; an Independent journalist poking fun at people who claim to 'love a seventh century preacher more than their own family' and of course the actual publication of the pictures themselves. He could also have mentioned that the Sun, the Daily Mail and the fascist Daily Express could not be described as taking a consistently pro-Islamic line. Dawkins' 'overweening respect' appears to have been confined to a handful of leading articles in what he calls 'decent liberal newspapers' (i.e The Guardian and the Independent) which said that while it was naughty of the Muslims to hold up rude placards, it was also naughty of the Danes to print rude pictures in the first place. If he seriously thinks that the Guardian is overweeningly respectful to religion then he evidently didn't read their coverage of the election of Pope Benedict -- or come to that the article about the September 11th attacks written by one Richard Dawkins.
(Everyone, I guess, sees their position as the neutral one and everyone else's position as biassed. I wonder why 177 minutes of the Today programme is completely secular; you feel horribly excluded by three minutes of 'Thought for Today'. I see a sinister anti-religious bias when David Attenborough goes through a whole series without ever once saying 'On the other hand maybe God made it all'; you feel that 30 minutes of hymn singing on Sunday evening amounts to theocratic oppression.)
Dawkins also somehow forgets to mention that, far from treating the Muslim demonstrators with overweening respect, 'society' had at least one of them arrested, tried and sent to prison for the crime of 'soliciting murder'. It may even be that the masked protester at the centre-front of the picture is Abdul Muhid himself:

Certainly, this poster was the one most frequently quoted in the press to show how blood-thirsty these dark-skinned Johnnies are, which I don't think amounts to overweening respect. I must say, I doubt whether placards of this kind should be treated as incitement to murder, any more than headlines in the fascist Daily Express which say 'String Em Up!' should be regarded as soliciting lynchings. I think that both the fascist Express and Masked Demo Man are saying 'At the next election we should vote for a party that will, first, introduce legislation to withdraw from the European Union and repeal the Human Rights Acts; secondly, introduce legislation to restore Capital Punishment in England and Wales; third, having done that, I think that the courts should issue a warrant and the police should arrest certain criminals, and that they should be given a fair trial, and, if found guilty, subject to an appeal to the House of Lords, the Home Secretary and the Queen, executed.' The only difference is whether your preferred method of spine-severing is a rope or a sword, and whether your bogey-man of choice is a blasphemer or a paedophile.
This picture was, I thought, surprisingly similar to the apparently un-ironic one seen by Richard Dawkins:

Which in turn bore more than a passing resemblance to various cartoons which have appeared in Private Eye:

I need to be careful here. One of Dawkins' rhetorical devices is to take some remark made by a Christian, re-phrase it as if it were a syllogism, give it a title, sneer, and walk off. For example:
A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew.
But one child survived.
Therefore, God exists.

So I should probably point out that I am NOT (n-o-t) attempting to make either:
Dawkins was taken in by an obvious internet hoax.
Therefore God exists.
Dawkins preaches scientific scepticism.
In fact he is prepared to believe any old rubbish if it supports his pre-conceived case.
Therefore God exists.
That Dawkins referred to an obviously Photoshopped picture as if it was the real Sylvester does NOT (n-o-t) affect his argument one way of the other. None of the following are central to Dawkins' case:
Some Muslims do not have a sense of irony.
Therefore, God does not exist.
Some people take different views from me about capital punishment.
Therefore God does not exist.
People get very, very angry when you run down things which are precious to them.
The Prophet Mohammed is precious to Muslims.
When someone ran him down, they got very, very, angry.
Therefore God does not exist.
In fact, I don't think he was presenting any kind of argument at all.

That's just the problem.
Okay, it was a small slip. All of us have failed to check our references at some time or other; although not all of us have lucrative book contracts and the Richard and Judy Author of the Year Award. But on practically every page, Dawkins presents things which he seems to remember reading somewhere or other and hasn't bothered to check; or asserts that 'Christians believe such-and-such' in terms which reveal that he simply doesn't understand, and hasn't taken any trouble to research, what Christians actually do believe. There might (seriously) be a case for producing a page-by-page errata.
In the meantime, here are a handful of examples to illustrate the the way in which he conducts himself.
On page 57, Dawkins is allegedly talking about Stephen Jay Gould's theory that, er, science and religion talk about different things. This is an idea that makes Dawkins very cross indeed. Wandering off the point, he asks:
How many literalists have read enough of the Bible to know that the death penalty is proscribed for adultery, for gathering sticks on the Sabbath and for cheeking your parents?
Cheeking your parents? Dawkins is thinking of Exodus 21:17. I have three translations of the Bible in front of me, and they render the verse as follows:
And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death (Authorized Version)
Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death. (New International Version)
Whoever curses his father or his mother is to be put to death. (Good News Bible)
The word 'curse' -- the wish that evil might come upon someone -- is not synonymous with 'cheek' which merely means 'impudence' or 'discourtesy'. I've checked every translation I can find, and not one suggests 'cheek' as a possible translation. (A few prefer 'revile' or 'dishonour'.) Dawkins, or whatever internet source he is using, has replaced the stronger Biblical word with the weaker modern one. It's a small point, but it suggests that he's not really trying.
The answer to his question is 'most of them'.
In another section, Dawkins argues that, because of all the smiting, the Bible is not a good guide for morality; and that, even when it seems to be saying something nice, it is often really saying something horrible.
Before leaving the Bible I need to call attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its ethical teaching. Christians seldom realise that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. 'Love thy neighbour' didn't mean what we now thing it means. It meant only 'love another Jew'....Hartung {an anthropologist} clearly shows that 'Thou shalt not kill' was never intended to mean what we now think it means. It meant, very specifically, 'thou shalt not kill Jews'. And all those commandments that make reference to 'thy neighbour' are equally exclusive. 'Neighbour' means 'fellow Jew.'
Now, let's switch on our brains for a few minutes.
Let's accept for the sake of argument that 'Thy Neighbour' means 'Thy Fellow Israelite' and therefore 'Love thy Neighbour as Thyself' isn't an injunction to teach the world to sing in perfect harmonee. Would it not occur to any fair minded person to ask: 'If the Old Testament says I should love my fellow-Jew, how does it say I should treat foreigners?' If so, the fair minded person would look in the Torah, and discover:
Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exodus 22:21)
Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exodus 23:9)
But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Leviticus 19 v 34)
Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)
So: Dawkins should have said that the Bible teaches that you should love a fellow-Jew as much as you love yourself but on the other hand that you should treat strangers and foreigners as if they were Jews and love them as much as you love yourself.

Glad we got that one sorted out.
Dawkins goes to the Talmud (the Jewish commentary on the Scriptures) to support his 'Jews-only' theory. This is a good idea: no-one apart from fundamentalists and Dave Sim thinks that you can interpret the Bible in isolation. Of course you should ask 'What does it say?' and 'What did the people who wrote it mean it to say?' but you also have to ask 'How do the people who believe in it interpret it? How has it been used?' Dawkins correctly points out that the Tracate Sanhedrin states that if you kill a fellow-Jew when you were aiming at a foreigner you are not liable to the death penalty:
The following are innocent: one who intended to kill a beast but killed a man; or a foreigner but killed an Israelite....'
Okay. But that same document also provide a commentary on the law which Dawkins said allowed the death penalty for 'cheeky' children. It says:
He who curses his father or mother is not guilty until he curse them by the Name; if he curse them under a pseudonym Rabbi Meir would hold him guilty, but the majority innocent.
I think 'Under a pseudonym' means 'Not using the actual name of God'; most of the Rabbis think that someone who said 'Daddy, I curse you in the name of the Almighty,' was not in danger of being stoned, but someone who said 'Daddy, I curse you in the name of YHWH' was. (Is there a talmudic scholar in the house?) At any rate when the Jewish commentaries make the Bible nastier than it seems on the surface ('It says "Thou shalt not kill", but we think it's okay to kill goyim') Dawkins thinks we should pay attention to the commentaries; but when the Rabbis soften the letter of the law ('It says "all those who curse their father and mother should be executed", but we think this only means "curse them in the name of YHWH" ') Dawkins wants us to stick with -- and indeed exaggerate – the original text.

He is not arguing even-handedly.
Stay with me: I'm only just getting warmed up.
Dawkins thinks that Christian writings, as well as Jewish ones, say that you should only be nice to members of your own group and indeed, that 'Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews.' But surely everyone knows what Jesus said when someone asked for his opinion on this very subject? A Torah-expert cited 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself' and asked what he understood by the term 'neighbour'. Jesus, as usual, turned the question back on the lawyer:
Jesus answering said: 'A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
'And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
'And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
'But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, 'Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.'
'Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?'
And he said, 'He that shewed mercy on him.'
Then said Jesus unto him, 'Go, and do thou likewise.'
These are surely the most famous words ever spoken by Jesus, which is to say, the most famous words ever spoken. It's odd that Dawkins isn't familiar with them. I don't see that they leave much room for doubt.
'Define the term 'neighbour'?'
'Well, if you were in trouble and two religious Jews refused to help you but an infidel foreigner did, who would be your neighbour?'
'The foreigner, obviously.'
'Right. Off you go and do the same.'
So much for Jesus' pro-semitic in group mentality.
It gets worse.
Hartung draws attention to the two verses in Revelation where the number of those sealed (which some sects, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, interpret to mean 'saved') is limited to 144,000. Hatung's point is that they all had to be Jews; 12,000 from each tribe.
Dawkins makes all the usual jokes about the book of Revelation: no, it's not an LSD trip, it's a complicated collection of allusions to the Old Testament. He wants us to think that the bit about 144,000 'sealed' means that John thought that only Jews went to heaven. This is such a massive fib that it is worth quoting the relevant Biblical passage in full.
And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea saying, 'Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.'
And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
Of the tribe of Judah were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Asher were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Nephthalim were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb!' And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, 'Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.'
And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, 'What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?'
And I said unto him, 'Sir, thou knowest.'
And he said to me, 'These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. hey shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.'
Revelation is a notoriously ambiguous book, but this is surely one of its more straightforward passages. John sees two groups of people in heaven; a small group consisting of descendents of Joseph and his brothers; a large group consisting of people from ever country under the sun. The smaller group are explicitly the Jews; the larger, inclusive, group fairly obviously represent Christians. (Jesus is 'the Lamb of God'; to 'wash your robes in the blood of the lamb' means 'to be cleaned from sin because of the death of Jesus.') Doubtless there are different ways of interpreting this: 'There will be both Christians and Jews in heaven'; 'Jewish converts should be regarded as Top Christians'; 'If you perfectly fulfilled the Law, then you will go to heaven; the rest of us need to be forgiven'. Jehovah's Witnesses do indeed have their own, esoteric reading of the passage. They think the small crowd represents an elite of Witnesses who chose to take Holy Communion and therefore have a shot at being in the Heavenly Government; the big crowd represents the ordinary J.W who didn't knock on enough doors and will therefore have to content himself with living-forever-in-a-paradise-on-earth. But even this allegorical reading depends on their being two groups: the 'sealed' and everybody else. Dawkins has quoted verses 4-8 but ignored verses 9-17 in order to make it look as if St John thought only Jews went to heaven.
By the way, I don't know where he gets 'two verses' from: I make it five.
Granted, Dawkins is following Hartung in all this, but once again he has conspicuously failed to check, or even bother to think about, the facts and has therefore made statements which are obviously, self-evidently, non-controversially untrue.

Which makes this reader, at any rate, very doubtful about the rest of the book. If he quotes such misleading evidence when he is discussing things I know a little bit about, how far can I trust Dawkins when he is talking about specialist subjects of which I am entirely ignorant? Indeed, how confident can I be about the whole concept of scientific objectivity? Can I be sure that Dawkins' confident assertions about evolution by natural selection are not based on an equally biassed approach to the evidence?

Other examples of Dawkins' technique

Sense of proportion
"Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic Priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up catholic in the first place."

"The status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago."
Tasteful Comparisons
"Another prominent luminary of what we might call the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists...."
"Our eyes see the world through a narrow slit in the electromagnetic spectrum... Quite how narrow is hard to appreciate and a challenge to convey. Imagine a gigantic black burka..."
Subtle analysis of complex problems
"Yes, yes of course the troubles in Northern Ireland are political....except that–and this is important and widely overlooked–and this is important and widely overlooked–without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge."