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)...
What?
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.'
However:






Note
(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.'

20 comments:

Pearse Sheehan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
culfy said...

Imagine it's 1995 again. I'm sitting in the Student Union bar, having a friendly debate with my friend about the relative merits of Blur and Oasis. I'm pro-Blur, my friend is pro-Oasis. All very good friend.
Then the Union tosser staggers over, having consumed 10 ciders, starts attacking my friend verbally for liking Oasis and tries to get me involved. I just want to hide under my seat.
As an atheist, that's pretty much how I feel about Richard Dawkins

Pete said...

I don't think he's an atheist any more: he's an anti-creationist.

He's defined himself so much by the fight against creationism that he's become the flip side of his objection to being labelled an atheist.

His objection being that a-theist implies he is defined by theism (but Richard, the way you're acting, you really, really ARE defined by theism).

He is to theology what the religious right are to evolutionary biology: they don't know it, but they don't like it, so they don't need to study it to destroy it.

He makes the same category errors in confronting theism that the religious right make when confronting evolutionary scientists... but hey, he's RIGHT, they're WRONG, so that's OKAY.

Have I mentioned that, even though he's supposed to be on my side, james randi also gets on my tit-end.

"I have no objection to him having an ace up his sleeve, I object to his opinion that God Himself put it there" - must find the source for that, it sums up dawkins and Randi to a T

Pete said...

Apparently, he gets Romana* to read him to sleep with chapters from his own books... *cough*narcissist*cough*

*Oh, you know who I mean... Tom Baker's ex...

chrisstiles said...

Yes - it would be interesting to see the rest of this review.

That Dawkins has become the mirror image of that which he rails against was obvious to me when watching that C4 series he did. But for Ted Haggard, and the other chap whose friend killed an abortion doctor (who both come across as world class buffoons), Dawkins seems more unpleasantly fanatical than the Christians featured.

ian said...

Mormons are polytheists, not monotheists
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godhead_%28Latter_Day_Saints%29
though they would not say so themselves.
And no, one has no idea why they get "4" status, unlike, say, the various offshoots of Theosophism, or West African henotheism (who have much greater cultural impact & membership).
But then, Dawkins is a biologist who has expanded his field of study to an universal metaphysics; not so strange theres thin spots. Why in the world he could not just stick to showing the biological absurdities of genesis literalism... (though even there, an paleontologist would be more appropriate).

gareth.rees said...

I think it's easy, living in a largely secular country like the UK — where our job prospects, suitability for public office, and general respectability are not affected by our atheism — to hold our noses at the way Dawkins is putting forward the case for atheism. But if not Dawkins, then who? He may not be a patch on d'Holbach but I don't see the latter in bookstores.

culfy said...

I think it's easy, living in a largely secular country like the UK — where our job prospects, suitability for public office, and general respectability are not affected by our atheism — to hold our noses at the way Dawkins is putting forward the case for atheism. But if not Dawkins, then who? He may not be a patch on d'Holbach but I don't see the latter in bookstores.

No sorry that just doesn't work. My argument against Dawkins is not that he is unpleasant or angry, but that his arguments simply don't work (As I tried to show on www.culfy.blogspot.com and I'm sure that Andrew will show in later posts far more elegantly than I ever could). I'm not sure how presenting fallacious arguments in a beligerant style could ever help anyone.

gareth.rees said...

I'm not sure how presenting fallacious arguments in a belligerent style could ever help anyone.

And yet it does seem to help some people. Logical argument isn't everything: it also helps just to know that other people share your belief and aren't afraid to justify it in public. Dawkins may come across as arrogant, and he may often be wrong or unfair in detail, but he's sincere, articulate, and outspoken in a way that not many atheists in public life are.

Chris said...

I don't come here to defend Dawkins; I haven't read TGD, at least partly because I had the throwing across the room moment with one of his earlier books. But to nit pick, the Mormons do regard as canonical a body of texts which main stream Christians regard as fictional, not even apocryphal. Surely that justifies regarding them as a separate faith, however they define themselves. Otherwise you might as well argue that Muslims are really rather untypical Jews. Nevertheless...

Dawkins is a terrible writer of advocacy (sorry, pearse). His standards are inconsistent, his research outside his own field is sloppy and his invective is badly targetted. To anyone who is not a trained biologist, but who attempts to apply the rules of simple logic to an appreciation of his stuff, he is a dead loss. I say this as one whose own beliefs probably coincide with his more often than not.

So why is he given a pass by so many scientists who lose no opportunity to attack the same failings in theologically and dialectically incompetent Christian opponents? That isn't a rhetorical question; it's one that bugs me increasingly, and I've never seen it addressed in an unbiased fashion.

ian said...

"So why is he given a pass by so many scientists who lose no opportunity to attack the same failings in theologically and dialectically incompetent Christian opponents?"

They are too busy doing science, I suppose. Or are christian themselves, which obviously excludes scientificosity;). (Actually, some of his fellow zoologists seem to have commented on him being a bit fixated on the whole gene thing; but dont really know enough about it to say more).

They have actually compared Dawkins with Bertrand Russell; not something Rusell would have been too happy about, one suspects. For one thing, he was actually a philosopher.

Can see little to choose between theocrats using highly subjective exegesis as thinly veiled political propaganda, or mememist witchdoctors who would replace politics with their own obsessions.
Actual rational communication looses either way.

Pearse Sheehan said...
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Eloieli said...

Pearse said:

"I can see that he might be perpetrating misinformation among people who don't know specifics, though I'd imagine anyone who'd pick the book up must have some knowledge or interest in the subject."

Most people I know who are knowledgeable in this area don't even bother with him. Most people I have met or heard of who have read this have uncritically accepted his assertions and used it as justification for their own atheism.

Which is tragic, because all this justifies is plain old bigotry. Just because Dawkins is famous doesn't make his views any less bigotted. With a sweep of his pen he classes a huge group in our society effectively as child abusers.

Whats not bigotted about that? And that doesn't even cratch the surface.

"Plus, organized religion CAN be dangerous, or can at least instill worryingly conservative prejudices (not in all cases though - some of my best friends are Catholics!) Heh."

This is surely not serious. It is certainly not a serious argument to disbelieve something. Anything can be dangerous. Atheism killed more people last century than religion did (Communisim in the USSR and Cambodia and China and Nazism in Germany). Therefore atheism is dangerous and only an ignorant fool would hold to it. Anyone who teaches thier kids to be atheists is effectively perpetrating violence and abusing the children.

Does that argument offend? It should. And it's the same argument Dawkin's uses against religion (and, your comment implicitly agrees with).

Eloieli said...

"Plus, organized religion CAN be dangerous, or can at least instill worryingly conservative prejudices."

Are conservative prejudices more worrying than liberal ones? Surely the view that conservative morals are prejudices is, in itself a worrying liberal prejudice?

Is not Dawkins worryingly prejudiced? And he isn't religious at all. Well, actually I think you can make an argument that he is just as religious as the people he so vehemently hates, however there isn't really the space here to do that.

The point is though is that any prejudice is worrying, liberal, conservative, theist and atheist. But not all the beliefs people who disagree with you hold are prejudiced.

Pearse Sheehan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Stevens said...

Surely the argument against organized religion cuts equally well against political parties of all kinds. Of course, there are plenty of political parties which have done very little harm and there are plenty of organized religions which have done very little harm (the Quakers, anyone?). However, plenty of political parties have accomplished much good as have many organized religions.

I just don't see any support in history for the thesis that organized religions are somehow uniquely bad. It's become a mantra that people repeat until everyone believes it. The Inquisition has nothing on the gulags of the Communists, gas chambers of the Nazis, and World War II in general, all caused by organized non-religious ideology (i.e. political parties).

I don't belong to any political party nor any organized religion, not because I believe organized ideology in general is a bad thing, but because I believe all their ideologies are false. (I do think there probably is a true ideology, but I have yet to find anyone clever enough to have articulated it. I suspect it will turn out to be quite amazingly eclectic.)

Len Hart said...

Dawkins was just being a smart ass. Lighten up!

gordsellar said...

"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?"

I'm no expert but I think you might be missing the point of his comment about "arbitrary" choice here. The basis on which the texts for what is now "The Bible" were most certainly made by people who took the choices seriously, and there's lots of scholarship about how all that happened.

But my impression is that those gnostic texts were excluded for reasons that were as much "political" (theologically political, if you know what I mean) and aimed at excluding the gnostics and "troublemakers" within the Church. At least, that's something like Camille Paglia's argument about them circa long ago.

If the texts excluded were excluded for aesthetic (whose?) or political reasons -- rather than, say, the fact that they were even more fantastical than the acceptably fantastical synoptic gospels -- then this seems to me to be an arbitrary choice. I mean, these gospels were not fact-checked and verified against eyewitness accounts -- some of them could not have been, and the choice to exclude some gospels came way too late for such verification -- so we are stuck with either arbitrary aesthetic or arbitrary political (anti-Gnostic, pro-single-coherent-Gospel-story) grounds in mind... right?

After all, lots of religious traditions have room for more than one aesthetic, more than one kind of "logic", and more than one political stance when it comes to acceptable scriptures. Would there not be room for a gnostic tradition in Christianity if it had been allowed to flourish? Doubtless the Churchmen who participated in the exclusion of those Gnostic texts surely would say their decision wasn't arbitrary, but we're under no obligation to take that claim seriously.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ok, I'm late to the party, but just for the record ...

"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 isn't quite true. Dawkins does point out that the trilemma leaves out a fourth option: that Jesus was honestly mistaken, which does torpedo the typical trilemma argument.

(Interestingly enough, for the trilemma by C.S. Lewis, Dawkins' point is irrelevant, since Lewis used the trilemma merely to cut off "patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.")

Simon said...

I got about 10 pages further before I felt the need to throw the book. I however have an electronic copy of it and felt the satisfaction of throwing the book was not quite worth the expense of a new computer.