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 is superseded by P Z Myers brilliant satire on the Emperor's New Clothes.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