Friday, April 20, 2007

1: Where Dawkins Went Wrong

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.

Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I was sent a copy of Richard Dawkins amusing book, The God Delusion, by an anonymous donor (Steve Watson), so I feel I should at least try to review it.
This isn't easy. I got as far as page 36 before chucking it across the room in disgust. I was in the Boston Tea Party on Park Street. I warned the other customers to get out of my line of fire first.
It was a trivial thing. Dawkins was talking about Polytheism–the belief that there is more than one god. He admits that he won't have much to say about it.
Most of my readers will have been reared in one or another of the three 'great' monotheistic religions (four if you count Mormonism)...
I mean, seriously, what?
Where did that remark come from?
Mormonism, as anyone can easily find out, is one of a number of Christian sects which came into being in the USA in the nineteenth century. It differs from mainstream Christianity on certain technical points which Dawkins would at least pretend not to understand. So why write 'four if you count Mormonism'? Why not 'five if you count Mormonism and Christian Science'. Or 'ten if you include Mormonism, Christian Science, Christedelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Reformed Judaism, Shi'ite Islam, Strict Baptists, Celtic Orthodox, Unitarians and Quakers?' Does Dawkins think that the Mormons' adoptionist Christology is so far removed from the mainstream as to constitute a separate faith (while the Jehovah's Witnesses arianism is not?) Or is he playing a numbers game–saying that the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints is so numerous as to count as a religion in its own right, distinct from 'Christianity'. (But then, why not 'Four if you include Catholicism'?)
We never find out. Like Melchizidec. it comes from nowhere and it goes nowhere. It popped into Dawkins head and he wrote it down. It makes me doubt whether our author is fully in command of his brief.
Four if you include Mormons. Honestly, you might just as well say 'Britain consists of three countries: England, Scotland and Wales–or four if you include Tooting Bec.'
A trivial point, as I say. But once I had retrieved the book–the people on the next table were quite polite, considering–I found that nearly all the non-scientific sections were driven by the same kind of non-sequitur.
Look at the bit called 'Religious Education as a Part of Literary Culture.' Dawkins concedes that we should teach children about the Bible because of its literary importance. (As we'll see, he's deeply conflicted about the whole concept of religious art.) He demonstrates the importance of the Bible by listing 200 well-known phrases that originate in the Authorized Version. He adds:
Doubtless the equivalent is true of French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and other great European literatures. And, for speakers of Arabic and Indian languages, knowledge of Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita is presumably just as essential for full appreciation of their literary heritage. Finally, to round off the list, you can't appreciate Wagner (whose music, as has been wittily said, is better than it sounds) without knowing your way around the Norse Gods. Let me not labour the point...'
Again, what? Where does the Wagner remark come from?
The analogy doesn't stand up for one minute. The problem with being ignorant of the Bible is that it is assumed in our culture: it leaps out at you without warning in places where you aren't expecting it. In Shakespeare's Othello Iago says 'My lord, you know I love you'. If you know John's gospel this remark strikes you as ironic, even blasphemous: if you don't, it doesn't. The Ring doesn't assume the Prose Edda in any remotely comparable way. You might as well say 'You can't appreciate Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat without knowing your way around Genesis.'
What really interests me is the parenthesis. Where has the little snipe at Wagner's music come from? It isn't relevant and anyway, if you can google for a list of 200 Bible quotes you can google and find out that the remark wasn't made by 'someone witty' but by Mark Twain. But Dawkins can never resist the irrelevant sneer, the put-down, the look-how-clever-we-are remark. He puts in a completely irrelevant reference to post-structuralism purely so he can write it off as 'haute francophonyism'. Ho-ho. The Bible has made him think of the Koran; which has made him think of the Gita, which has reminded that in his chapter on Polytheism he compared the Hindu Gods with the Norse Gods, which has made him think of Wagner, which has called to mind the Mark Twain quote and he has bunged it all down. He's not even pretending to present a sequential train of thought.
Or look at Chapter III, 'The Argument From Scripture'. People have certainly tried to use the Bible to try and prove the existence of God; so of course Dawkins should try to demonstrate why he thinks those kinds of proofs don't work. Instead, he quotes the bloody trilemma from C.S Lewis and Josh McDowell (1). He rejects this argument, not—astonishingly–because it is logically invalid, but because he thinks that Jesus never actually claimed to be the Son of God. This triggers a two-page digression about inconsistencies in Matthew and Luke's accounts of the Nativity story (and also in the the vital matter of Jesus' genealogy) which suddenly veers off at 90 degrees to talk about the formation of the canon, climaxing with this jaw-droppingly childish remark:
The four Gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, our of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Phillip, Bathelomew and Mary Magdelen.
Think before you write, Professor Dawkins; think before you write. If the choice had been arbitrary then is it at all likely that all the Pauline,Trinitarian works would have been included in the canon and all the Gnostic and Ebionite works left out? Are you seriously saying that any council or church or community ever believed that late works like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas had equal status with Matthew or John? Are you aware that not one of the six works you cite is a Gospel in the sense of being a narrative account of the life, death, supposed resurrection and teaching of Jesus? (The 'gospel' of 'Mary', for example, is a brief dialogue in which 'Mary' reveals that 'Jesus' gave her secret gnostic teachings.) That word, 'arbitrary': I do not think it means what you think it means.
The reference to the Thomas 'gospel' triggers off a rather breathless footnote in which Dawkins tells us that A.N Wilson thinks that the Aramaic word naggar may not actually mean 'carpenter' but 'wise man' and by the way when the Bible says 'a virgin shall conceive ' the word virgin might really mean 'young woman' and did you know that when the Koran refers to '72 virgins' it might really mean '72 raisins' so aren't Christians silly?
(Not that it makes any difference, but the 'gospel' of 'Thomas' is a piece of pious fan-fiction imagining the childhood of Jesus. It says specifically 'Now Joseph was a builder and wrought ploughs and yokes for oxen.' How can you possibly say that Thomas had just as much right to have been one of the four Gospels as Matthew or Luke and at the same time say that we only think of Joseph as a carpenter because of a mistranslation?)
Dawkins goes on to explain how the four Gospels came to be written:
Much of what the four canonical gospels share is derived from a common source, either Mark's gospel or a lost work of which Mark is the earliest extant descendent.
I think you'd probably have to look quite hard to find a commentator who believes that John had a Marcan source. (I also like the idea that Mark may be derived from Mark, but that's probably just a proof reading error.) If you are going to make the whole difficult and controversial question about the origins of the Gospels–all those Qs and Jesus Traditions and Proto-Marks–part of your argument, I think you should probably spend more than 27 words on it.
Pausing briefly to wonder if Jesus even existed and deciding he probably did, Dawkins offers this school-boyish conclusion:
The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the Gospels is that the Gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.
The only difference?
1: Dan Brown's book is a thriller intended to entertain people. The Gospels are religious texts intended to win converts or to edify and instruct people who had already been converted.
2: The Gospellers were writing about events which they thought had happened, say, 50 years in the past. They were presumably working from earlier documents and those earlier documents may have had even earlier oral sources. Dan Brown is weaving a fictional work around 2,000 year old texts which carry a huge weight of commentary and cultural baggage.
3: The evangelists are telling a story; or perhaps commenting on and interpreting a story by re-telling it. Dan Brown is creating a meta-fiction about the origins of those ancient stories.
Aren't these differences?
And that's 'the argument from Scripture' dealt with: few random and not very well informed comments on why Dawkins can't be doing with the New Testament. We've heard very little about where the Lewis / McDowell argument breaks down and nothing at all about any of the other ways in which some Christians claim that the Bible proves that there is a God.
This you call 'argument'?
It is very, very hard to know where to begin in reviewing or responding to the book. It doesn't contain anything which I can recognise as a point of view or train of thought: it just fires off a random series of nasty remarks about Christianity and anything else which happens to come into the authors line of fire. I felt that I had spent the afternoon sipping latte in the company of one of those terribly sophisticated sixth-formers who is planning to leave home while he still knows everything. 'Then there's Wagner, but chaps like us know he's awful; and of course, there's modern French philosophy, but chaps like us know that's rubbish; then there's Descartes, but chaps like us are much too clever to read him.' Or perhaps, with a very, very clever but mildly autistic child, who spouts out an endless stream of non-linear free association. 'There's a big red truck. We had baked beans for tea. That makes me think of Hindus. Catholics are silly, aren't they? That makes me think of Vikings. We don't like Wagner, do we? Or Muslims. Or Jews. Or Post-Structuralists.'

(1) The Trilemma: 'Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. If Jesus was not the Son of God, then either he was lying, or else he was insane. Everything we know about Jesus makes it impossible to think that he was either mad or a liar; therefore, he must have been telling the truth.'