Thursday, September 27, 2007

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.

My response to comments raised a couple of thread ago became too long and boring so I've put them here. I shouldn't bother with them if I were you.

Gareth McCaughan said...
I think it's accepted on all sides that Dawkins knows very little theology in the what-theologians-study sense; I'm not sure it's so widely accepted, or so clearly true, that he doesn't know what real religious people (more specifically: real Christians) think. As you rightly observe, there's a difference.

Can I suggest that there are actually three categories here?

1: The Man in the Pew who thinks that Jesus was born of a Virgin because that's the story he's always heard.

2: The Clever Believer who thinks that the story of the Virgin Birth points to the uniqueness of Christ (and the obedience of Mary) but accepts that it might be a legend.

3: The Academic who can tell you exactly when and by what stages the doctrine of the Virgin Birth became a credal statement, who dissents from it and on what grounds and will scoff if you think it's the same as "immaculate conception".

I haven't read Cornwell's book, but the particular point at issue is one you asy is also "the substance of Terry Eagleton's critique". Well, Eagleton's review complains, up front and very explicitly, about Dawkins's lack of expertise in what-theologians-study: Eriugena, Duns Scotus, and all that. And his account of the sort of thinking that Dawkins doesn't engage with seems to me (1) to consist mostly of fog and (2) not particularly akin to what most actual Christians think about God . I don't think the ideas Dawkins criticizes are so desperately distant from those of actual theists as to make his book irrelevant to them.

Well, Dawkins supporters certainly do use phrases like "the flying Jewish zombie and the invisible sky Daddy" and "the sky fairy" which makes Dawkins protests that he knows that the Christians don't think that God is an old man in the sky with a beard a bit hard to swallow. Is the claim that The Man in the Pew thinks of God as a spatially located anthropomorphic super-being, and that the more sophisticated claims of theologians haven't trickled down to him yet? And that Dawkins is directing his firepower only at The Man In the Pew while reserving judgement on the ideas of more sophisticated believers"?

I agree that Eagleton lapsed into jargon. He always does. His Literary Theory was very much the Bible of the Sussex English Literature department. One of the cleverest people I know told me he found it impenetrable.

You gave a couple of examples -- Dawkins, apparently, is confused about the Trinity (unlike Christians, of course, whose ideas on that point are perfectly clear and lucid)

Yes: I think that The Man In the Pew would give you a clear and lucid account of the Holy Trinity. I think that he would either give you:

a: A formula, say "It means that Jesus, God the Father, and the Spirit are all God, but that Jesus isn't the Father and the Father isn't the Spirit."

b: An analogy "If you were a flatlander, you might think that a cube consisted of six separate squares and not see what people meant when they said it was a single object."

c: A spiritual statement "We think that Jesus is really, really God; and we think that God is really, really with us in Church when we pray; but obviously, in different ways – God did leave heaven empty when when he was living on earth as Jesus."

What he wouldn't necessarily be able to do is give you a history of the development of the doctrine, or talk about some of the philosophical questions people have asked about it. (Divine impassibility, filoque, movement between persons, and what-not.)

Dawkins asserts that there was no substantive difference between Arius and the rest of the church on the question of the Trinity because the term "consubstantial" has no meaning. (QUOTE: "Arius of Alexander, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubstantial (that is, of one substance or essence) with God. What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking?..."Very little" seems the only possible reply.) This is a stage in his chain of reasoning: it is "sophisitical" for Hindus to say that the different gods are incarnations or avatars of Rama; it is equally sophistical (also "hair splitting" and "big endism") for Christians to say that God is three-in-one. Therefore there is no real difference between monotheism and polytheism...

If you asked The Man in the Pew to define "consubstantial" he wouldn't be able to: but if you said "Some people – Jehovah's Witnesses for example – say that Jesus is not the same as God, but simply the first and best thing He created: is that the same as you believe, different from what you believe, or doesn't it make a difference" they would immediately understand that Arianism is not Christianity as they understand it. Dawkins could easily have found out what substantive issue lay behind the homoousios/homoiousios question. He chose not to: this makes his point about Christian sophistry and everything which follows from it invalid.

and absurdly takes Jesus's description of gentiles as "dogs" as indicating some sort of racial bias on his part.

Dawkins doesn't refer to the incident of the Cyro-Phoencian woman: he simply reproduces the claims made by someone called Hartung that Jesus thought that only Jews could be saved, Paul invented the idea of universal gentile Church, and that Jesus "would have" been shocked by this. (I think we can give up and go home when someone starts talking about what some historical person "would have" said.) This is another problem with writing about a field you are ignorant of: you have no way of knowing whether a given writer is mainstream, controversial, or a crackpot.

There are a large number of passages in the Bible where Jesus preaches love for Samaritans; talks about God having other sheep in other sheep folds; tells his followers to preach to the whole world; talks about God judging "the nations" on the basis of their charitable work; praising Romans for having more faith than Israelites; is worshiped by astrologer priests from the East etc etc. There are also a couple of passages -- two, off the top of my head -- in which he appears to favour Jews. The claim must therefore be: "All the universalistic passages are later interpolations; the pro-Jewish passages were said by the Historical Jesus." That's a big claim. Dawkins offers no evidence for it. At all.

And it wouldn't make any difference if he could. He claims to be showing that "the Bible" -- not some hypothetical lost source for the Bible, the Bible itself -- is a bad guide to morality, and claims in support of this case "to be calling attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its ethic teaching." ("Its ethical teaching" not the ethical teaching of a lost underlying source, or the ethical teaching of a hypothetical "historical Jesus" extrapolated from the canonical accounts.) Even if it is true that the Jesus who told the story of the good Samaritan and said "go and preach the gospel to all nations" is a fictitious character, based on a nasty racist about whom we know next to nothing ,that doesn't tell us one single thing about the "ethical teaching" of the actual book which I actually have on my actual shelf.

Well, fair enough; but are those confusions particularly relevant to the question of whether there is, in fact, any being much like the ones believed in by Christians, Jews and Muslims, or to the question of whether in practice religions like Christianity do more good or harm?

But...but...but...but... Dawkins was the one who raised them. Dawkins said that the fact that Christians argue about non-issues is a point against the existent of God; Dawkins said that the fact that Jesus "would have" thought that that gentiles were pigs was a point against God. Not me, not C.S Lewis, not Rowan Williams, Rabbi Blue. Dawkins, Dawkins, Dawkins.

This seems to be how this discussion goes.

Atheist Man says "One reasons for believing that there is no God is that the the Bible is horrible book, because...."

Christian Man says "No, the Bible is lovely book, because..."

And Atheist man says "How is the question of whether the Bible is nice or horrid relevant to the existence of God is quite beyond me. "

Is what is happening that atheist man's supporters are saying "Er...yes. Atheist man did write a shit book, and we a terribly embarrassed about it. We'd rather just talk about whether or not God exists than be reminded of the contents of the shit book."

(We've all done this: how many times have I said "Yes, C.S Lewis sometimes goes off on one about technology, or the welfare state, or homosexuality; but I still think his explanations of why Christians believe in the trinity, the atonement, miracles, or come to that God are as lucid as any you will read.")

It seems pretty clear to me that the answer to the first question is no. The answer to the second is less clear, and I think "Dawkins doesn't understand real religious people, other than crazed extremists, well enough; so we shouldn't take much notice of what he says about the benefits and harms of religion" is a reasonable argument. (I'm not sure I agree with it, but it's worth taking seriously.)

It feels to me as if the gourmets are saying: "Please, don't attack restaurants. We hate McDonalds just as much as you do – in fact, probably me, because our palettes are more finely attuned so we can detect flaws that you probably can't. You're criticisms about McDonalds are partly valid; but we eat at the Savoy." Does the critic respond. "Yes, of course when I say "restaurants food is high fat and low quality and wrapped in paper", I obviously don't include the Savoy: but sadly, there are a lot more fast food joints than upscale restaurants, so those are the one I spend my time attacking" or "No; the very fact that you eat at the Savoy gives spurious credibility to McDonalds. The only solution is to close down all restaurants" or even ""The food in the Savoy is high fat, low quality and wrapped in paper, and if you say it isn't, that's just because all you "eating out" people are part of the same conspiracy. Obfuscation! Obfuscation!"

But I'd be more impressed with the latter argument if the people making it didn't consistently treat Dawkins just as uncharitably as he treats religious people. "Librarians are no better than child molesters", forsooth!

I agree that the analogy between Dawkins and my imaginary anti-book campaigner is inexact. If I had wanted it to be exact, I would have written: "I know that librarians in this borough have been sexually molesting children but, horrible as that no doubt is, it arguably causes less damage than bringing the child up to read books in the first place." (God Delusion, p 317)

Fair point, nevertheless.

Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Dawkins But Have Been Forced To Find Out

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.

4: B.Y.W.M

During an alleged review of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great (which, surprisingly enough, he likes) Richard Dawkins makes the theological point that the story of Jesus' birth is not unique in literature. Readers of the Times Literary Supplement were doubtless astonished to learn for the first time that other legendary and mythological characters apart from Jesus have been said to have had no human father.

Dawkins rants that:

Jesus' case was abetted by a simple mistranslation of the Hebrew for 'young woman' into the Greek for 'virgin'.

This phrase comes up a lot. One might almost say that it was 'stock criticism'. In a whimsical essay about possible examples of 'virgin births' in nature, Dawkins ranted unequivocally that:

The entire legend of the Virgin Birth stems, in the first place, from a mistranslation of a Hebrew word meaning 'young woman' into a Greek word meaning 'virgin'.

It is worth examining this theological claim in some detail. I think it tells us a great deal about why relations between the religious and the non-religious are on the point of breaking down.

First, some dull facts.

Two out of the four canonical Gospels contain a story about the birth of Jesus. The stories are quite similar in structure: Jesus' birth is announced by an angel; it is initially disbelieved but then supernatural proofs are offered; his special nature is recognized by various unlikely people. However, the details are entirely different.

All scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, but that they were independent of each other, apart from the ones who don't.The relevant part of Luke's narrative runs as follows:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the name of the virgin was Mary.

And the angel came in unto her, and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus"...

Then said Mary unto the angel, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"

And the angel answered and said unto her, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren."

The English word 'virgin' stands for the Greek word parthenos. So far as I know, no-one questions that parthenos means 'a woman who has not had sexual intercourse'. 'To know someone' is, of course, a Biblical euphemism for 'to have sex with them'. So when Mary asks "How is this possible, since I know not a man?", she is unambiguously asking "How can I possibly be pregnant since I haven't had sex yet?"

Here is Matthew's version:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."

....Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.

Again, the text is quite un-ambiguous. It doesn't state in so many words that Mary was a virgin; but it does say that Jesus had no human father and that Joseph had not had sexual intercourse with Mary when Jesus was born.

If you try really, really hard, you can imagine a Hebrew text underlying Luke's Greek in which the word 'virgin' had meant 'young woman'. In this imaginary text, the angel would have been sent to a young woman in Nazareth; and the name of the young woman would have been Mary. It is even possible to imagine a text in which "How is this possible, since I know not a man?" had been "How is this possible since I am a young woman." ("I am far too young to have a child, in the same way that my relative Elizabeth is far too old to have a child.") Such a change would not have been a mistranslation, but a conscious amendment of the text.

In Matthew's narrative, the 'simple mistranslation' theory is even harder to uphold. You would have to imagine an ur-text in which "before they came together" had been "while she was still a young woman" and "knew her not until she had been brought forth of her first born" had read "continued to have rapacious nooky even though she was only a young woman."

So, everything turns on the following comment by Matthew:

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name "Emmanuel" ' which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew is quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah, or, if you are the sort of person who worries about this kind of thing, the prophecy of dutero-Isaiah. The full passage runs as follows:

"Hear ye now, O house of David: is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings."

Isaiah wrote in Hebrew; but Matthew would have been looking at the standard Greek translation, called, for reasons I probably once knew, the Septuagint. This Greek translation certainly said that the person who would have a child and name it Immanuel would be a parthenos.

Now it gets very boring indeed. Where the English says virgin and the Greek says parthenos, the original Hebrew had said almah. The word almah occurs seven times in the Old Testament, and Good King James translates it variously as 'virgin', 'damsel' and 'maiden'.

Gen 24: 23: ' shall come to pass that when the virgin cometh forth...

Ex 2:8 '...and the maid went and called the child's mother.

Psalm 68: 25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the
playing with timbrels.

Proverbs 30:18 There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

Song of Songs 6:8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.

In each case, the woman being described probably was a virgin; explicitly so in the Genesis passage. However, Hebrew has another word, bethuwlah which can be used when the writer wants to make it clear that the the lady in question is a virgin in the Anne Widdecombe sense, as: "The damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her...'" Since Isaiah doesn't use this word to describe the woman in the prophecy, it is fair to say that he didn't think that her virgin-ness was the most important thing about her. The passage probably comes out as "You'll know that God is going to save you when a young woman names her child 'Emmanuel' " as opposed to "You'll know that God is going to save you when a virgin has a child, and by the way, she'll name him Emmanuel." (Since Isaiah was in the habit of giving his children names like A-Few-Will-Come-Back and Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder it's even possible that little God-Is-With-Us is another of the prophet's own kids. Hosea's children were named Unloved and Not-My-People. Registration must have been a bundle of laughs in Jewish schools.)

So: it is a perfectly good fact that when the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek in around 180 BCE the word almah in the Isaiah passage was translated as parthenos. To say that this came down to a 'simple mistranslation' says more than we know. Certainly, an ambiguity was removed -- a passage which could possibly be read as referring to a virgin was changed into one which had to be read in this way. Was it 'simply' a mistake? Or were the translators deliberately revising the text? Or were they making a traditional translation, writing parthenos because that reflected the opinion of the wisest commentators of their day?

"The idea that there was a prophecy which said that the mother of Jesus would be a Virgin is the result of a mistranslation" is an unexceptionable statement. Insert a couple of probablies and a perhaps or two and no-one but a megaphone carrying fundamentalist would have any quarrel with you. But it's always cited as "The story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is the result of a mistranslation." Not even "A mistranslation of the prophecy of Isaiah" – simply "a mistranslation." And this is a much more complicated claim, involving suppositions and conjectures and speculation and things we just don't know. In order to believe it, you'd have to believe the following:

1: The very earliest Christians -- the ones who who must have had first hand contact with Jesus' family and his disciples -- had no story of the birth of Jesus, or if they did it has been lost without trace.

2: At some time toward the end of the first century Matthew formed the opinion that Isaiah 7 was a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. He therefore invented out of his head the doctrine that Jesus' mother was a 'virgin', even though no such thing had previously been taught by Christians.

3: Oh, and by the way, he didn't check with any Hebrew speaking Jew.

4: In order to support the new doctrine that he had made up out of his head he invented out of his head the story of Joseph and the Angel.

5: Luke read Matthew and instantly accepted the new doctrine of the Virgin Birth. So he invented, out of his head, a completely different story, which owed nothing to Matthew, about Mary and the Angel, padded it out with some material about John the Baptist , and sent it off to the scribes without bothering to quote the Old Testament prophecy which had caused all the trouble to begin with. (1)

None of this is intrinsically impossible. Some scholars, I guess, believe it, or something a lot like it. The game of inventing imaginary histories for famous books keeps academics out of mischief for hours on end. The non-existent drafts of Hamlet are much more interesting than the actual play. But this kind of thing can only ever be a conjecture: based on the single fact that Matthew quotes Isaiah.

Isn't it equally possible that the very, very early Christians did indeed believe that Jesus had a supernatural conception – either because Mary had told them so, or because it expressed a prior theological belief that he was the Son of God? If this were the case, then Matthew, scouring the Old Testament for passages which seemed to back up Jesus' claim to be Messiah, would have taken it for granted that Isaiah really meant 'virgin' because that's what he already believed. This would take into account the fact that the fit between Matthew and Isaiah isn't actually all that good: if Matthew had been making the whole thing up, couldn't he have worked some honey and butter in somewhere?

Of course any critique of Christianity will involve a critique of the historicity of the Gospels; of course one of the things that would occur to any sensible critic is that some of the stories about Jesus were 'reverse engineered' to make it look as if they fulfilled prophecies. But to say "The story" – sorry, "the entire legend" -- was "the result of a mistranslation" when what you mean is "A plausible case can be made out of saying that the story was a fictional creation that was retrofitted to a prophecy – and by the way, the prophecy itself contained a questionable piece of translation" is misleading. Wouldn't an intelligent but ignorant person, hearing the claim for the first time, assume that "the story is the result of a mistranslation" meant "someone mistranslated Matthew and Luke so it looked as if Mary was a Virgin; but Matthew and Luke never said anything of the sort; it was all a silly mistake like Cinderella's fur slipper becoming a glass slipper because 'vair' and 'verre' sound similar. Har har aren't Christians silly." Do those who pass on the 'mistranslation' story do anything to correct this impression? Is it in fact just what they want people to think?

"Perhaps Matthew retrofitted his text to a prophecy from Isaiah and perhaps that prophecy had been contentiously translated; and perhaps Luke based his story on Matthew; and perhaps everyone accepted their stories, and perhaps that's where the story of the Virgin Birth came from" is complicated, vague and dull. "The story of the virgin birth is the result of a mistranslation" is simple, exciting, and easy to remember. There a lots of simple, exciting, easy to remember and massively misleading slogans about the Bible in circulation: "They've discovered a new Gospel which gives Judas' side of the story" "There were at one time of 70 different Gospels"; "Constantine made up the idea that that Jesus was the Son of God", "The council of Nicea decided on the content of the Bible", "Judas was a zealot".

It isn't easy to respond to slogans: by the time you have said "Well, it depends what you mean by...." and "That's very misleading because...." your victims eyes have glazed over. "You don't seriously expect me to compare and contrast different texts and look things up in a concordance, do you? The simple phrase is much easier to grasp than your long, boring essay, with all those nasty liberal 'perhapses' and 'maybes' in it. You must be splitting hairs. Or trying to confuse me. Obfuscation! Obfuscation!"

Is it possible that Dawkins is deliberately infecting people with the 'simple mistranslation' meme in the hope that it will inoculate them against what he sees as the much more dangerous virus of Christianity? If he is right that Christianity is dangerous, would it even matter if the factual content of the anti-meme was incorrect? Are Christians making a silly mistake when we treat phrases and essays and indeed entire books which are intended only as slogans and rallying cries as if they were actual arguments? Indeed, should we give up the whole concept of "good or bad argument" and "true or false claim" and replace it with "successful or unsuccessful meme"? If you believe in memes, does the concept of 'truth' retain any validity at all? Is the logical conclusion of Dawkinsism to raise "whatever I say three times is true" to the level of a scientific axiom?

(1) Incidentally: when referring to this in a footnote to a book on evolution – go figure – Dawkins rants that Matthew 'was not, of course, the Apostle and contemporary of Jesus, but the gospel-maker writing long afterwards'

There are no 'of courses' in the study of the Gospels, but a lot of sensible scholars have said that Matthew must have been written after 70CE, because he refers to fall of Jerusalem, but before 100CE, because he's quoted by Ignatius. Whether 70-100CE amounts to 'long afterwards' depends on your point of view. If Matthew had been an up and coming tax inspector of 22 at the time of Jesus, then he could have been a nonogenarian sitting down to compose his memoirs at the turn of the century. 'Long afterwards' raises the suspicion that the speaker believes Brownite fantasies of the Gospels being fourth or fifth century and should be stomped on whenever they turn up.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Dawkins But Have Been Forced To Find Out

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.

2: Reviewers, accuracy of

"Some good, literate, entertaining anti-Dawkins stuff by Andrew Rilstone (RC I think)"

"As far as I can determine, the reviewer is a Roman Catholic, and holds to the brand of theistic evolutionism espoused by the Vatican."

"Please tell me this guy is a satricial take on religious bloggers written by Craig Brown?"

"You present yourself as a liberal Christian who tries to be reasonable and who believes most of what scientific research claims to have discovered, and accordingly are probably, in many ways closer to Dawkins philosophically than you are to many other religious persons, which may be partly why Dawkins annoys you so much."

3: Dawkins' y-fronts, combustibility of

During a '60 second interview' in Metro Richard Dawkins denied that the Bible is a peaceful book. ' "Thou shalt not kill" really means "Thou shalt not kill another Jew" ' he ranted.

That little word 'really' is doing a lot of work. As we have seen, in The God Delusion Dawkins makes the theological claim that the Talmud says that the killing of gentiles by Jews is not murder. (It has been suggested to me that the passage he quotes is actually talking about 'friendly fire' incidents in time of war: is there a Rabbi in the house?)

But in the newspaper interview, "was held by the most learned commentators of the 2nd century CE to mean " has undergone a random mutation and become "really means". This is misleading almost to the point of dishonesty.

Someone will correct me, but so far as I can tell there is no Hebrew word that means "to kill a Jew": Strong's Concordance lists ten words under "kill", with shades of meaning such as "to slaughter an animal", "to sacrifice", "to put to death" and "to dash to pieces".

Dawkins is, of course, on stronger ground when he talks about the bloodthirsty sections of Old Testament: but you can't easily go from "In the book of Joshua, YHWH approves of wars" to "YHWH thinks that it's okay to kill gentiles whenever you feel like it." Since YHWH is neither a pacifist nor a vegetarian, most people who have bothered to read any theology think that "Thou shalt not kill" 'really' means "Thou shalt not kill human beings, except in the case of war, self-defense or possibly capital punishment", or as most modern Protestant translations render it , "Thou shalt not murder."

Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Dawkins But Have Been Forced To Find Out

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.

1: Leprechauns

--What is Bernard Manning famous for?

--"That is the question."

--Correct. Who is the present Archbishop of Canterbury?

--He's a fat man who tells blue jokes.

--Correct. What do people kneel on in church?

--The Right Reverend Robert Runcie.

The Two Ronnies

It is always thrilling to watch skilled conjurer at work. You know you are being hoodwinked, but the sensation of having the wool pulled over your eyes is strangely exhilarating. Richard Dawkins' letter to the Independent on September 17th included an Houdini-like maneuver of quite breath-taking chutzpah.

Dawkins was responding to Peter Stanford's response to John Cornwell's response to The God Delusion. Stanford says that one of Cornwell's stronger points is that Dawkins' book has a very limited bibliography: he appears only to have read works which support his side of the argument, and is quite ignorant of Christian theology.

But the core is his dismantling of Dawkins's answers and sources. Perhaps the most telling point is just how small and self-serving was the reading list for The God Delusion.

This is, of course, also the substance of Terry Eagleton's critique of The God Delusion:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds..."

and also of Alister McGrath's:

...a worrying absence of knowledge of Christian thought...Dawkins'; more polemical writing are perhaps directed toward an audience which lacks familiarity with the Christian intellectual tradition and hence prepared to accept his assertions without question.

Dawkins' response to Stanford's comment is devastatingly brilliant:

This is a stock criticism. It assumes there is a serious subject called theology, which one must study in depth before one can disbelieve in God. My own stock reply (Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?) is superseded by P Z Myers brilliant satire on the Emperor's New Clothes.

Everything pivots around the word 'disbelieve'. We are supposed to be considering Dawkins' right to disbelieve in leprechauns. Not 'write a book about'; 'argue the case for'; 'critique the validity of supposed sightings of ': simply disbelieve in them.

Dawkins seems to intend us to infer that Stanford thinks that Cornwell thinks that his lack of knowledge of Christianity disqualifies him from disbelieving in it; that only people with certain academic qualifications are permitted to be atheists; that Cornwell is calling into question his moral and intellectual right to think that there is no God.

This would, of course, be absurd. It would mean that Stanford thinks that Cornwell thinks that the default setting of the human brain is 'Belief in God' and that only a small cadre of experts were qualified to change that setting; that everyone ought to believe in the existence of everything which they have not specifically disproved; that an intelligent but ignorant person believes in both Marxism and Keynesianism because he hasn't studied either of them; that I agree with David Icke on all points because I have no idea what he thinks.

This is certainly the inference that some of Dawkins' acolytes drew from the letter. Several of them came to their guru's defense, saying that of course he had a right to think that there isn't a God even though he hadn't studied theology. A follow-up letter to the Indy asked:

If a background in theology is essential for someone to question the existence of God then why is it unnecessary for those who do believe?

Note the slippage: a background in 'theology' (we will come back to this word in a second) is now 'essential' to even 'question' whether or not God exists.

A more ranty fanboy on Dawkins on-line fan-site makes the same point less coherently:

I wonder if Stanford and Cornwell are as critical of Christians who believe despite not having read books by the major theologians, ie 99.99% of them. (1)

Again, an analogy is being drawn between complaining about people who 'believe' -- not 'write books about' or 'argue the case for' or 'accuse atheists of being no better than child molesters', simply 'believe' -- despite having not read learned books about belief and complaining about people who don't believe without having read those same books. And this would be a perfectly valid analogy, if such a complaint had in fact been made.

But of course, Mr. Stanford hasn't said anything nearly so silly. Dawkins has elected to treat a criticism of his book as if it had been an ad hominem attack on himself. What Stanford has called into question is the credibility of the arguments which Dawkins puts forward in support of his opinion. Dawkins has responded by defending his right to hold such opinions in the first place.

It's an astonishing maneuver. It's rather as if you had said "I'm not going to give much credence to your critique of the Iraq War, since you appear to think Iraq is in South America" and you had responded "Oh, I suppose you have to have A Level Geography in order to be a pacifist nowadays, do you? " Or if I had said "I'm not sure how much attention we should pay to this debunking of cryptozoology since the author appears to think that Loch Ness is a salt-water lake" and you had said "I don't need to read learned books on marine biology in order to know that there's no such thing as sea-serpents."

A stock response to Dawkins' stock response to what he claims is a stock criticism would be "No: but if you are going to charge people twenty quid for 150,000 word demolition-job on leprechology, you probably ought to get your facts straight first."

Now we get onto the term 'theology'. Theology originally meant something like 'talking about God', in the same way that 'pornography' meant 'writing about prostitutes'. A lot of people seem to want it to mean "Arcane, erudite knowledge; pedantic, hair-splitting; doctrinal points which could be of no possible interest either to a believer or a skeptic" or else "The pretense by some academics that the nature of God can be studied in quasi-scientific terms." In fact, it doesn't necessarily mean very much more than "Ideas about God; the systematic formulation of those ideas; What Christians Think."

What do we mean by "English literature"? Do we mean "Books which have been written in English; especially well-regarded ones"; or do we mean "The academic discipline which studies those books." If someone said "All books written before 1950 were racist; Oliver Twist is Jane Austen's most racist work. Librarians are no better than child molesters. Close down the libraries!" I might very well respond "You are obviously very ignorant about English Literature." Would you take me to mean "You obviously haven't read very many books" or "Unless you get an M.A and learn how to distinguish between Leavis and New Criticism, you aren't allowed to have an opinion"?

If someone – a Muslim perhaps -- said "You claim that Jesus was the Son of God, don't you? But that logically implies that there must have been a Mrs. God -- unless you are saying that Jesus was a bastard. Har-har, caught you out, Christians are silly" I might very well reply "You obviously don't understand Christian theology very well." I wouldn't mean "Go away and study for B.Div. or I won't talk to you." I would mean "Spend 20 minutes in the library, find out what Christians actually mean by the term 'Son of God' and then we'll talk". If he continued to say that Christianity was absurd because the existence of Mrs. God was absurd, he would either be a twit or a fibber and I would tell everyone not to read his book.

Dawkins spends considerable amount of space in his book talking about such subjects as the character of YHWH in the Old Testament; the doctrine of the atonement; the composition of the Bible. He asserts that there is no difference between Arianism and trinitarianism and claims, (absurdly) that Jesus and John were pro-semitic racialists. But these are theological questions: questions about What Christians Think.

If you limit yourself to saying "I refuse to consider any question about What Christians Think because there is no God" then theological ignorance may be quite forgivable. Once you start to say "One of the reasons for thinking that there is no God is that What Christians Think is absurd / contradictory / hairsplitty / immoral / child-molesty" you need to have quite a good grasp of What Christians Do In Fact Think. Not a degree in the academic study of the History of What Christians Do In Fact Think: not specialist knowledge of every writer who has ever written a technical tome on What Christians Think, but some general grasp of how St. Paul thinks that Old Testament is related to the New; or some appreciation that, even among evangelicals, Penal Substitution is not the only game in town.

Again: Dawkins central argument is as follows: "The theory of evolution by natural selection fully explains why the natural world appears to be orderly and designed. There is therefore no reason to believe that it was designed by a God. And therefore the is no reason to believe in any kind of God or any other form of religion, either." The first part of the argument is a scientific one, and I understand that Dawkins makes it very well – though not in The God Delusion. But the second part has strayed into theological territory: it's a question about What Christians (And Other Theists) Think. And Dawkins ignorance robs those sections of his book of any credibility whatsoever.

And anyway... I've met three different people who believe in leprechauns.

At any rate, I've met three people who claim to have encountered fairies, or probably "faeries". They weren't mad; and they weren't actively taking the piss.

I wouldn't quite describe myself as an afaeryist. I don't have a strong disbelief in faeries any more than I have a strong non-interest in what is going to happen on Emmerdale Farm this week. I don't feel that it is my mission in life to persuade my friends to clap their hands and make little Tinkerbell drop down dead. I don't entirely rule out the idea that some of the people who say they have seen a faery have been in contact with something real. I don't think they have, but I don't think they definitely haven't either. Agnosticism of this kind makes Dawkins foam at the mouth: that's part of the beauty of it.

As long as I am happy to blunder along through life with a complete absence of a belief in faeries, then I don't see much need to interrogate my friends about their faery encounters. (You ask me how you know he lives? He lives within my heart. Well, that's cool. You ask me how I know he doesn't live? He doesn't live within my heart. End of conversation. Pass the fairy cakes.) But if I decided that it was my duty to convince my friends that faeries positively don't exist -- that they didn't see what they think they saw, or that what they thought they saw doesn't prove what they think it does – then I'd want to make jolly sure that I knew what they thought they had seen and what they thought it proved before I started. I doubt that they are all talking about the same thing. When Serious Neo-Pagan Guy talks about "The Good Folk", I guess he means something different from the guy who just kind of experienced something in the woods that he couldn't explain. I am pretty sure that neither of them have in mind the kind of creatures that those little girls convinced Sherlock Holmes that they had seen in their garden. There would be very little point in my explaining that such small, dainty little wings couldn't possibly support such a big body if the creature my friend thinks he saw in the woods didn't have wings, and if, in fact, all the spotters guides are quite clear that the 'gossamer wings' idea of faeries was invented by a Victorian painter who'd never seen a real one.

My three friends would have a right to be quite irritated if I said. "You are being evasive! Body to wing ratio PROVES that there no faeries. Everybody KNOWS that faeries have wings! Look on top of any Christmas tree! Read Jade The Disco-Fairy! Obfuscation! Obsfuscation!"

It wouldn't prove that faeries exist: but it would prove that I was a bit of an arse.

(1) A good-sized church has a congregation of about 100, so if the 1 in 10,000 figure were correct, you'd have to attend about 100 different churches to find someone with a working knowledge of theology. I can only say that I must have been exceptionally lucky in the half-dozen or so I have attended. In the 2001 census, 37 million people claimed to be Christians, giving us about 4,000 who have read a work of theology. There are about 13,000 parishes in England, so the other 9,000 must be pretty dissatisfied with their vicars.

Most Christians seem to be pretty well versed in the content of their faith: if you ask them "What do we mean by 'atonement'; why do we believe in it; and where do we differ from the Catholics?" they can often give you a coherent reply, although I assume that their knowledge comes from popularizing works rather than primary texts.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

It's International Talk Like a Pirate Day

In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour. In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst is only a sour look or two at choking? No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.
Captain Roberts

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I wish I was dead....

(or, if you are rather more clear-headed, that the Vogon had never been born.)