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.

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 is superseded by P Z Myers brilliant satire on the Emperor's New Clothes.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.


Andrew Stevens said...

Just a quick note about your word choice. I consider myself an atheist. I suspect you would call me an agnostic because I am not a proselytizing atheist. I am quite happy to let other people believe in God and have been ever since I argued theology with my mother and she confessed to me that she believed in God mostly because it comforted her. Like Dawkins, I prefer the truth over comfort, but unlike Dawkins I am perfectly willing to let other people make the opposite choice.

Atheism simply means "a lack of theistic belief." Infants are implicit atheists (probably). Agnosticism is "an absence of knowledge" and, very likely, any claim of knowledge. The problem with calling anybody who does not assert that God is impossible (and I do not so assert) agnostics is that it makes atheism a rather meaningless word. There wouldn't be an awful lot of them (and Dawkins isn't one of them) and all of them would be wrong. I can no more prove that a god or gods does not exist (especially if the definition is sufficiently nebulous) than I can prove that leprechauns do not exist. Only certain logically impossible definitions of God can be proven to be false. If we define atheism the way the Greek roots would imply, then theism and atheism are both mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. You must be one or the other. There is no room for agnosticism.

The other problem is that agnostic is a perfectly good word in its own right. And it's quite possible to be both an agnostic and a theist. If we use agnosticism as the belief that the existence of God is unknown or inherently unknowable, there have been a great many agnostic theists over the centuries. Pascal, in his famous wager, was attempting to create agnostic theists. "You can't know whether God exists, but you should believe in him anyway." The word agnostic has also been used to describe theists who do not doubt the existence of God, but consider his nature and character to be unknowable, though I think that usage is rather confusing.

The belief that there cannot exist a god or gods is usually referred to as "strong atheism." People who refer to themselves as agnostics are almost invariably "weak atheists" (aside from those theists who know enough to call themselves agnostic theists). So I do consider you an afaeryist, a weak-form afaeryist if you like.

The other advantage of these definitions is that they make logical sense. If we weren't talking about such an emotionally charged subject as religion, the subject would never come up. Nobody thinks we need a third category to describe people who don't believe in faeries, but concede that the existence of faeries isn't logically impossible. The reason it did come up, by the way, was so theists could claim that atheism is a rival belief system with positive claims and thus evade the burden of proof. "We may not be able to prove our point, but they certainly can't prove theirs, so you might as well stick with us." Atheism isn't a rival belief system any more than afaeryism is.

Otherwise, I agree with the rest of your post.

Cupbearer said...

A small point, but I think that most Christians would be a bit surprised if you asked them how they differed from Catholics, what with most Christians being Catholics an' all.

Andrew Rilstone said...


I should have typed "Differed from some other named denomination; Catholic, for example, if the speaker was a protestant." Note that I had narrowed my focus from "Christian" to "Anglican" by my references to "parishes" and "vicars" in the previous paragraph.

Glad we got that sorted out.

Unknown said...

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"

We got that from Muslim when he saw us reading Bible on tube...

Doug Clow said...

You know how we moderate atheists are entirely prepared to acknowledge that the likes of Messrs Falwell and Bin Laden are far outliers and do not remotely represent the considered opinion of the general majority of believers?

Well, having recently had to read The God Delusion, I'd really appreciate some reciprocity. Imagine how you'd feel if Evidence That Demands A Verdict were the only decent-selling book of Christian apologetics.

Mike Taylor said...

Hey, Doug --

Relex. We do that Richard Dawkins is not representative of mainstream atheism. I won't tar you with the Dawkins brush if you'll not tar me with Fallwell's :-)

The problem is not that Dawkins is the most representative, but that he's the loudest. It's a shame for the cause of atheism that its best-known face is so, well, you can fill in that blank as well as I can :-)

Gareth McCaughan said...

Dawkins is very much more reasonable than bin Laden or Falwell. He's also not such an outlier among atheists as bin Laden is among theists. (Falwell? Dunno; there's quite a lot of roughly his sort of theology in the US.)

The analogy with Josh McDowell is much more apt. C S Lewis ("Mere Christianity") would be more so. (I think I think Dawkins is better than McDowell and worse than Lewis.)

Gareth McCaughan said...

Incidentally, "Mere Christianity" has no bibliography at all. But why anyone would think it makes sense to measure an author's knowledge by his bibliography, I've no idea.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think what atheists need to imagine is how they would feel if Christians were primarily going to C.S Lewis or Josh McDowell to find out about science

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that is a debating point. The substantive accusation is "Dawkins knows very little theology". This has been accepted by all sides: the question under discussion is therefore "Yes, but does this matter."

If Dawkins had said "Yes, of course I have read Bultman: I just didn't but him on the reading list because I didn't think he was relevant" then we'd be having a different argument, wouldn't we?

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.

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.

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

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.)

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!

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...


Can I ask non-rhetorically whether you've read the earlier sections of my critique of the "God Delusion"? I talk about the weaknesses of Dawkins critic of Christian beliefs at some length there, and it's probably not worth repeating myself.

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)

Will respond to your other points properly later.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Yes, you can (and may) ask that, and the answer is yes. I thought some of your comments were right on the mark, and others less so.

You make a good case that he's sometimes slapdash, that he exaggerates for rhetorical effect, and that he's always inclined to interpret everything in the way most unfavourable to the religious. Those are real faults. They're also almost universal in polemical works, which is one reason why I generally prefer to read other things. (It wouldn't be difficult to find examples in your generally excellent critique where you have been slapdash, exaggerated for rhetorical effect, or interpreted Dawkins in the most unfavourable way. Film at 11.)

I don't think anything in your critique gives much support to the argument "Richard Dawkins doesn't have an accurate idea of what real Christians believe; therefore what he says in his book about God is beside the point." (Which I take it is what you're saying here; correct me if I'm wrong.) Your main complaint along those lines, if I understood correctly, is that Dawkins takes "God" to mean "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us", and that four books of apologetics found on your shelves don't use the Argument from Design and lots of Christians agree that the way in which God made the universe involved a certain amount of Letting It Do Its Own Thing and in fact no one but no one apart from a few loonies believes in "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us".

At which point I'm afraid I call foul. Lots and lots of Christians, including sophisticated Anglican ones, believe that God (the same one they actually believe in) did just that. They would say that God created the-universe-and-everything-in-it-including-us in a cleverly indirect way; they would be reluctant to claim that God intended the universe to be exactly the way it is now, and mumble about free will and the elegance of a naturally ordered universe; but, none the less, they believe in a God who created the universe, who knew just what sort of universe he was creating when he did, of whom one can say things like "For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my
mother's womb" without being laughably wrong, and all the rest of it.

So far as I can tell, nothing in Dawkins's argument (such as it is, and I agree that it has plenty of holes) depends on interpreting "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" in a way that makes the majority of Christians not believe it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Reply much too long. New thread started.