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.

29 comments:

Gareth McCaughan said...

(Attention conservation notice: Anyone who didn't heed Andrew's warning about this being boring is advised to start heeding it now; the following is I think even longer than Andrew's post, and I'm not as witty a writer as he is.)

I like your tripartite classification. ("And yet they are not three Faiths, but one Faith"...) Of course even that isn't complete; for instance there's the Clever Evangelical who knows that some people think the Virgin Birth might be a legend whose main purpose is to point to the uniqueness of Christ, but who also thinks those people are heretics who must be resisted at all costs; there are quite a lot of Clever Evangelicals around, and I suspect (perhaps only because I happen to have spent quite a while among evangelicals) that they amount for a substantial fraction of the Clever Believers. I think Dawkins's fulminations apply almost as much to the Clever Evangelicals as to the Men In Pews. And then there are the Vague Confused Believers, who don't really give much thought to all that theological stuff but are inclined to be skeptical about the Virgin Birth because "it's a bit silly, innit". (Clever Evangelicals have an unfortunate tendency to think everyone else is a Vague Confused Believer.)

The point of all of which is to say: if you're hoping to suggest that the really representative Christians are the Clever Believers, I'm not altogether convinced. But they certainly exist, they're not numerically negligible, and they are (as it were) the Acceptable Face of Christianity. I think it's the Clever Believers that Dawkins has in mind when he makes sympathetic but patronizing noises about "moderates".

I don't think Dawkins can reasonably be blamed for the excesses of his supporters who talk about flying zombies and sky daddies. I don't know exactly what Dawkins would say about that, but it might be something along these lines:

"I dare say that very few Christians, if pressed, would say that God is actually located anywhere in space, or that humans are "in his image" in any physical sense, or that he has a beard. But for most of them, that doesn't mean that they have a much better idea of what sort of entity God is or how he relates to the universe he supposedly created; it just means that they've learned to stay out of the way of gross and obvious absurdity. And, anyway, nothing I've said rests on the idea that most or even many Christians endorse such primitive anthropomorphic ideas about God."

My comment about Eagleton wasn't that he'd lapsed into jargon. The bit of his review I was referring to was perfectly lucid. The problem with it is that it was silly, not that it was obscure or nonsensical.

I don't think the formula, analogy and "spiritual statement" you propose that the Man In The Pew might provide when asked about the Trinity are "clear and lucid" at all. Something isn't lucid merely because it's neatly expressed, or clear merely because it gives a feeling of having understood something. And if you say something that, on the face of it, is contradictory, then while of course you may in fact be saying something perfectly coherent and reasonable I don't think you can be held to have said something clear and lucid until you've done something to resolve the contradiction. The usual waffle about triangles, cubes, and suchlike doesn't really do very much to resolve it.

Now, actually, I suspect that the Man In The Pew typically has a reasonably coherent notion of the nature of God. He either thinks that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are parts of God, as the sides of a cube are parts of the cube, or that they are aspects or modes of operation of God, as ice and liquid water and water vapour are of H2O. The only trouble is that these reasonably coherent notions are heresies, because any time anyone's said anything comprehensible about the Trinity the Church has declared it a heresy.

I don't think "asserting that there's no substantive difference" is at all the same thing as "saying that the things being argued about don't actually make a lot of sense". I do agree that Dawkins exaggerates the meaningless of some things that are said about the Trinity, but I think he's right that the things sophisticated polytheists say about their gods (1) are somewhat reminiscent of the things Christians say about the Persons of the Trinity and (2) tend to blur the line between polytheism and monotheism. (Though I bet the Hindu equivalent of the Man In The Pew is straightforwardly polytheist in a way one can distinguish pretty clearly from Christianity.)

Dawkins doesn't mention the Syro-Phoenician woman, but Hartung (whom Dawkins is following) does; that story is in fact the first thing Hartung offers in defence of his view of Jesus's attitude to "out-group members". I agree that Hartung is by no means completely convincing (and on some points very unconvincing indeed), and that Dawkins points at Hartung rather than reproducing his argument. But, as in other places, I think Dawkins is overstating his case rather than saying something with no foundation in reality; there really is quite a lot of in-group-versus-out-group stuff in the Bible, including some in the NT; quite a bit of it, including some (though not so much) in the NT, is racial in character; and it seems to me that this *does* in fact tell us something about the ethical teaching of the actual book which you actually have on your actual shelf.

Unless, of course, you wish to maintain that the universalistic passages are things said by the Historical Jesus and all the more troublesome ones are later interpolations. But that would be ... a big claim.

Did Dawkins actually say that the (alleged) fact that Christians argue about non-issues is a point against the existence of God? I don't think he did. He did suggest that ridicule might be an appropriate response when people make meaningless statements with great confidence and claim that they're vitally important, and it seems to me that that's not entirely wrong even though one can distinguish reasonably well between Arius and Athanasius. I think one can make that distinction largely because Arius, unlike Athanasius, did in fact say things that make some sense. But it happens that Athanasius won, and present-day Christians do in fact commonly affirm solemnly every week that they believe that Jesus was "of one substance with the Father", and even though they can distinguish that from "not of one substance with the Father", I doubt that one in a hundred can give a genuinely coherent account of what it means for a human being, capable of making mistakes and dying and so on, to be "of one substance with the Father". (I'm not entirely sure that even *one* can -- i.e., it's not clear that any genuinely coherent account exists -- but I don't wish to press that point. Also: it's probably also true that not one person in a hundred, or even one in ten thousand, could give a coherent account of what it means to say that gravity results from the curvature of spacetime; it's certainly *possible* for something to be very difficult to make sense of but still correct.)

And I don't think Dawkins says, either, is that "one reason for believing there is no God is that the Bible is a horrible book". Perhaps he thinks that (though he's at pains elsewhere to say that he interprets "God" in a way that doesn't imply "good", that the argument from evil isn't much of a problem for theism because God might not be good, etc., so I rather doubt it), but he doesn't say it. What he says, unless I've misunderstood, is: Christians like to claim that the Bible is a lovely book and Christians are better than atheists and you need God as a source of moral values and so on (some of them say "and therefore God exists", but I don't think Dawkins is terribly interested in that, which is just as well because it's silly), but actually the Bible has a lot in it that's morally awful and in practice people who claim to be getting their morals from the Bible are getting them just as much from the culture around them, and a jolly good thing too.

"Is what is happening that ..."? I don't know, but I'm fairly sure that isn't happening to me. I have no great stake in the success or otherwise of Dawkins's book; I wouldn't call it "shit" as you do, but (as I've said) there's plenty wrong with it and if I'd been writing something along those lines I'd have written a very different (but probably more boring) book; and so far as I can tell I've been arguing entirely about the merits and demerits of Dawkins's book and not trying to shift the subject to whether, in fact, God exists. But for all I know there may be hordes of dawkinsbots saying just the sort of things you say.

Your restaurant analogy is amusing, but (I think) vitiated by the fact that a lot of the people dining at the Savoy will go out of their way to say "yes, of course I deplore the dubious taste of the people eating at McDonald's; but, none the less, we are all one big family, united by the fact that we choose to eat out, and in a very real sense we and they are part of a single body, of which they are as real and important a part as we are". The people who are actually repudiated by the Savoy-eaters are the ones who go to weird clubs where they dine on other human beings, and Dawkins gets in a few swipes at them but otherwise mostly talks about the McDiners.

Tpolg said...

So Dawkins thinks I am worse then a child molester. Should I be insulted? Does Dawkins think that molesting children is wrong? If so why? If he is going to say that my moral paradigm is “wrong” by what moral absolute does he judge it? Does he just think that all moral absolutes are wrong? I am afraid he cannot say that without using a moral absolute.
As for “proving God's existence from the Bible” I was not aware that anyone was trying that. However, if I were going to do such a thing I don’t believe I would I would start with the Apostolic writings.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Tpolg -- As I thought I clarified, he doesn't exactly say "worse" : he says "more harm is done ("arguably") by raising a child catholic than by sexually molesting them" == which isn't exactly the same as saying "catholic educators are worse than child molesters."

Emily said...

I wonder if you're not giving rather too much credit to the Man In The Pew -- though I largely agree with everything else you've written here; I think we have different Men In The Pews over in the U.S., because it's been my experience that most American Christians' explanation of the trinity would be heretical in one way or another.

J. J. Ramsey said...

This is sort of off-topic, but did you notice that the images in your review of Dawkins are now broken. This is true at least in Firefox and Safari.

Gareth McCaughan said...

It occurs to me that, in responding point by point to various things in Andrew's original post, I didn't make as clearly as I could have what I think is the key point about Andrew's comments about "The God Delusion".

Andrew's method is to go through the book looking for places where Dawkins has been sloppy, uncharitable, unfair, or just plain wrong, to produce extensive documentation of the wrongness of each one, and to say: Therefore this book is shit, especially since Dawkins has the nerve to suggest that people give him money for it.

Since "The God Delusion" is quite a long book, and Dawkins is a little way outside his domain of professional expertise, and it's written for a popular audience with all that that usually implies, this is an easy method to apply.

It seems to me that the same method can be practiced on other books. For instance, the Bible, for which bigger claims are made than "it might be worth spending a few quid and taking the time to read this", and readers are invited to invest more in it than the price and the time it takes to read.

I'm sure you're already familiar with the results. How nasty to order the massacre of the Amalekites. How wrong to say that rabbits chew the cud, or that hail is kept in storehouses. How unfair to say "the fool has said in his heart, There is no God" and that thing of St Paul's about the Cretans. How embarrassing all those unfulfilled prophecies are. How stupid to say (except in the NIV) that King Ahaziah was two years younger than his own father. And so on, and on, and on, to such an extent that these days the usual Christian response to much of it is to say "Oh, wait, you thought that stuff was meant to be true? Ha ha, how amusingly naive of you."

I'm prepared to make a guess that Andrew wouldn't on those grounds declare that the Bible is a "shit book", and that he doesn't think very highly of those who put up lengthy web pages enumerating contradictions and atrocities and errors in it. And he's right, because you can't in fact fairly judge a book by cherry-picking its worst bits. Not unless you're addressing people committed to the proposition that it's completely free from error, and as we all know there are lots of people who say that about "The God Delusion" but none who say it about the Bible. Or was it the other way around? I always forget.

Anyway: no, that sort of complaint doesn't mean that the Bible is a Shit Book, because it doesn't address the positive things that its fans might have to offer in its favour, or even acknowledge their existence.

I think Andrew's seven-part review and subsequent follow-ups mentioned one thing Andrew found in the book that wasn't shit. (An observation about believers' asymmetrical attitudes to empirical evidence.) Perhaps there were one or two others that I've forgotten. Now, I know that Dawkins is the Great Satan and the public has no taste and so on, but does anyone actually think it's plausible that Dawkins would write, or that millions of people would buy, a book composed entirely of shit? I mean, one can (I assume) find good things to say even about "The Da Vinci Code".

The differences between a review and a hatchet job are two. Firstly, a review attempts to evaluate the merits and the demerits of what is being reviewed, whereas a hatchet job is focused only on the demerits. Secondly and consequently, the fact that someone has done a convincing hatchet job on something is not generally good reason to dismiss it.

Doug said...

Oh no, I'm about to leap in to defend Dawkins here. I didn't expect to be doing that any time soon.

The bits in The God Delusion where he's on or close to his home territory are superb. (i.e., evolution, and the wonder and power of science, respectively.) Although I do think his other books, where he treats the subjects more thoroughly, are even better.

I think that many of his other arguments have force, but have been made better and more clearly by others. (If he asked me for advice, which he wouldn't, I'd suggest he spend more time with his chum Daniel Dennett.)

However - none of them got people talking about it to anything like the same extent. What Dawkins has achieved is to make these arguments in to a talking point. That's a pretty substantial achievement if you ask me. Which you implicitly did by leaving comments open :-)

Gareth McCaughan said...

I notice that I goofed. I said "My comment about Eagleton wasn't that he had lapsed into jargon. The bit of his review I was referring to was perfectly lucid." But in fact I'd referred to two bits of his review; my complaint about the first wasn't about illucidity, but my complaint about the second was. Concerning the second (the fogginess of his description of what sort of thing actual Christians believe): (1) it seems curious to excoriate Dawkins for getting some details of what actual Christians actually think wrong, while praising Eagleton when what he says on that point is incomprehensible; (2) Eagletonian fog seems in fact to be rather common among reasonable decent Christians who don't believe in silly primitive anthropomorphic notions; the Clever Believer is a little too willing to say "oh, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is all about Christ's uniqueness; it doesn't matter that much whether it's true in the literal sense of the word" without being very clear about why the doctrine of the Virgin Birth would be a good way to express a belief in Christ's uniqueness if he wasn't in fact Born of a Virgin, or what aspects of his uniqueness are being pointed at by that doctrine; and a little too willing to engage in convenient apophasis (is that the word?), saying "no, of course I don't believe *that*" or "well, that may be true, but it isn't really the point" to anything definite enough to engage with. So I don't think it's just Terry Eagleton.

Tpolg said...

Andrew Rilstone said...
Tpolg -- As I thought I clarified, he doesn't exactly say "worse" : he says "more harm is done ("arguably") by raising a child catholic than by sexually molesting them" == which isn't exactly the same as saying "catholic educators are worse than child molesters."


Yes Mr. Rilstone, I believe you made that quite clear. But I also believe it is quite clear that Dawkins is simply playing word games to avoid a moral implication. You can say a hurricane may do more harm than a forest fire or for that matter say it is “worse”, without making a moral judgment on either. But you would still need some sort of teleology to validate it. As far as I know Dawkins has no such thing.

Kieren said...

Fundamentally Dawkins' problem with (monotheistic)religion is that his daddy was a priest (or whatever they're called in his denomination).

Personally, my problem with Christianity is that it's patriarchal monotheistic death cult. It's a similar objection that I have to Islam and Judaism - religion as a set of levers for social control, disguised as a means to understand reality. Those of us in the know understand that humanity's grasp on reality is tenuous. The monotheistic religion s are like pre-Gallileo astronomy - the pretence is that humanity is the centre of everything is convenient, but it vastly complicates the developemnt of theory.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Tpolg, what word games do you have in mind, and what reason do you have for thinking Dawkins is trying to avoid a moral implication?

Kieren, Dawkins's father was not a priest, he was a soldier and then a farmer.

Iorwerth Owain said...

"Personally, my problem with Christianity is that it's patriarchal monotheistic death cult. It's a similar objection that I have to Islam and Judaism - religion as a set of levers for social control, disguised as a means to understand reality."

To be fair, the extent that Christianity et al. are levers for social control is probably no more or no less than that of any ideology or belief that's been around for long enough to get organised (the catch 22 is that in order to *achieve* anything, you have to have some degree of organisation; however, once you have this, the exertion of social control is inevitable -- this is the eternal problem that most anarchists wrestle with). Man is a political animal, after all.

It's also the case that it has been used as a form of rebellion against improperly constituted social control (this seems to have been the case for evangelical Christianity in South Korea, the Joachimite and Waldensian heresies in the Middle Ages -- the latter of which began as a dispute over the preaching rights of the laity -- and most forms of Existentialist Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy [1,2]).


"The monotheistic religion s are like pre-Gallileo astronomy - the pretence is that humanity is the centre of everything is convenient, but it vastly complicates the developemnt of theory."

It's probably a bit tangiental, but I'll note that while the Earth was the centre of medieval astronomy, it wasn't the centre of medieval theology or philosophy, since the medieval worldview was AFAIK generally theocentric, not anthropocentric (the latter is more a Renaissance thing) . In fact, in medieval Aristotalean thought, the Earth and everything on it are at the centre because everything falls to the centre, which itself is rather crap, messy and unpleasant compared to the regimented mathematical order of the heavens.

People were depressed by the Copernican revolution less because it indicated that they weren't special, but more because it indicated that everywhere else would be just as crappy as Earth. (Of course, you could read it as indicating that Earth is as cool as the other planets, but given how crappy things were and are, why would you?)

Btw, you wouldn't happen to be the Kieren who was doing an MPhys a few years ago at Swansea? Because if so, hi!

--Iozz

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, the first Existentialist, ranted eloquently both against the controlling tendencies of both Hegelian metaphysics (which inspired Marx's more dubious views on history) and organised 'Christendom', which he regarded as probably the worst thing to ever befall his religion.

[2] AFAIK (and I'm open to correction) Roman Catholics are not, officially, allowed to be Existentialists. So the ones who would be become anarchists (in the style of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers) instead.

Anonymous said...

"(Of course, you could read it as indicating that Earth is as cool as the other planets, but given how crappy things were and are, why would you?)"

That's essentially what Giordano Bruno did, isn't it? Only to be forcibly reminded of just how crappy things are.

Rodger Cunningham

Iorwerth Owain said...

"That's essentially what Giordano Bruno did, isn't it? Only to be forcibly reminded of just how crappy things are."

To be fair, his strident advocacy of Hermeticism in general probably didn't help him either, though (unlike the author of an opinion piece in the New Scientist [1] many years ago) I don't really regard his being burned at the stake as a victory for Reason, or anything, really.

[1] I think. It may have been The Observer.

Danel said...

It does seem to come back to the child molesting thing again and again; to answer tpolg's point on it first, Dawkins' would probably answer that it just further proof of religion's evil that a no doubt perfectly lovely person such as yourself is convinced to do something so wicked, whereas we can more readily understand child molestation as the wicked acts of wicked people.

As to why Dawkins' argues that religion is a form of child abuse, and returning to Andrew's example; it might be a different story if librarians argued that those who didn't read would suffer eternal tortures upon their death - and that they'd deserve it as well. (Certainly, there are those such as C.S. Lewis who'd argue that this is kind of metaphorical, and that people who don't read probably wouldn't much enjoy an eternity in the great Library in the sky; nonetheless, there are a large number of librarians dedicated to convincing young children that they have to read or be in agony for ever).

It's definitely a flaw of Dawkins' that he appears not to realise that such a charge as he makes here really isn't one to be thrown off in passing as a joke; Hitchens' devotes rather more attention to the question "Is religion child abuse?" (SPOILER ANSWER: Yes, mostly due to stuff about sex), but Hitchens' book is more of a sustained argument rather than a kind of conversation like Dawkins' book.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Danel: "a no doubt perfectly lovely person such as [tpolg]": I'm guessing you haven't read his book-in-progress. (Where, e.g., he argues perfectly seriously that all women can be classified into virgins, wives and prostitutes, those who have sex with more than one man immediately putting themselves into the last of those categories. And, though it's possible that I've misunderstood, I think he very generously concedes that women should be allowed to wear underwear provided it's transparent. This is apparently a vital matter when determining The Principles Of Legitimate Government.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Of course, you could read it as indicating that Earth is as cool as the other planets, but given how crappy things were and are, why would you?

"Yes, there is weakness. There is frailty. But there is courage also, and honour to be found in Men. But you will not see that." -Boromir, from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings

Science has not yet found even a single planet remotely as hospitable as Earth, and probably never will. (After all, we evolved to live on Earth. It would be surprising, though not impossible, if we were better calibrated for living elsewhere.)

Tpolg said...

Gareth McCaughan said...
Danel: "a no doubt perfectly lovely person such as [tpolg]": I'm guessing you haven't read his book-in-progress. (Where, e.g., he argues perfectly seriously that all women can be classified into virgins, wives and prostitutes, those who have sex with more than one man immediately putting themselves into the last of those categories. And, though it's possible that I've misunderstood, I think he very generously concedes that women should be allowed to wear underwear provided it's transparent. This is apparently a vital matter when determining The Principles Of Legitimate Government.)




You have understood well my young apprentice.

Seriously though, thank you for reading my work, I have not yet checked back to see if you have left a comment there.

But back to the business at hand, Dawkins is trying skirt (sorry I just could not resist) moral implications probably because he realizes that without sound teleology there can be none. Dawkins himself my not be uncomfortable with this fact, but he probably knows his readers might be. By using words such as “harm” instead of “wicked” he is trying to create the illusion that it is somehow impersonal and objective. But this is just an illusion. Again, a hurricane my be impersonal, and you could say it “harms” the fisherman by destroying his boat, but then you could say it helps the fish by getting rid of it. Who has the preferred frame of reference? For the Christen it is God. For Dawkins it is apparently himself.



Danel said...
It does seem to come back to the child molesting thing again and again; to answer tpolg's point on it first, Dawkins' would probably answer that it just further proof of religion's evil that a no doubt perfectly lovely person such as yourself is convinced to do something so wicked, whereas we can more readily understand child molestation as the wicked acts of wicked people.



Umm…What?

Gareth McCaughan said...

Tpolg on Tpolg: No, I haven't left a comment. It seems very unlikely to me that there's a constructive discussion to be had there.

Tpolg on Dawkins: You might be right that Dawkins is deliberately deploying descriptive terms rather than ones that purport to be objectively evaluative. I'll hazard a guess that if he'd done otherwise you'd be making similar objections, only saying not "Dawkins is sneakily avoiding making objective moral claims" but "Dawkins is illegitimately making objective moral claims".

So, in order to avoid complaints from you, he would have to avoid making any kind of evaluation of anything. Conclusion: he shouldn't have bothered trying to avoid complaints from you. Which, I dare say, he didn't :-).

Tpolg on moral values: Leaving aside the question of what Dawkins said and why, I think that depending on what you mean by "a sound teleology" it's either wrong or tautologous to say that you need one to make moral statements, and in any case I think you're wrong if you think that as an atheist Dawkins can't have any basis for making moral statements. (He can't have any unquestionable basis for doing so, but you're fooling yourself if you think that God or the Created Order gives you one. Everyone has this problem, if problem it be.)

Tpolg on Danel: He's saying (tongue possibly in cheek) that Dawkins might argue: "Given that bringing up children to be religious is as bad as some sorts of child abuse, the fact that even people who wouldn't dream of engaging in those are quite happy on account of their religious beliefs to bring children up to be religious simply shows how bad religion is -- because it induces otherwise decent people to do that nasty bad thing."

Iorwerth Owain said...

"Science has not yet found even a single planet remotely as hospitable as Earth, and probably never will. (After all, we evolved to live on Earth. It would be surprising, though not impossible, if we were better calibrated for living elsewhere.)"

Well, yes. But the point is more one regarding how unpleasant and imperfect life can be and often is, rather than one about the hospitality of planets to human life.

Basically, in pre-Galillean thought, the heavens lacked such imperfections.

Andrew Stevens said...

Iorwerth, I wasn't trying to say anything terribly serious. I just thought your statement about how lousy life on Earth is was awfully pessimistic. Whether you think life on Earth is great or terrible really depends on whether you're comparing it to your imaginary idea of what could be better or your imaginary idea of what could be worse. Imagination can easily provide either one.

I was just pointing out that in the Universe in which we actually live (rather than the Universe of someone's imagination), most other places we could be would result in our immediate demise, so an optimistic outlook seems more logical.

Iorwerth Owain said...

Fair enough... I've a tendency to over-compensate for any Panglossian optimism that I think I might be showing.

I'm a miserable git, me. Probably a sign that I should cut back on the Russian literature... :)

Steven Carr said...

Dawkins has read more of the Bible than of theologians.

No wonder he has a distorted view of Christianity.

I doubt if he could even tell you what 'Sola Sciptura' means!

If you want to learn about Christianity, you don't start off with the Bible.


You start with the spin doctors.

Tpolg said...

Gareth McCaughan said...
Tpolg on Tpolg: No, I haven't left a comment. It seems very unlikely to me that there's a constructive discussion to be had there.


Then kindly refrain from bringing it up on other peoples websites. I do not wish to clutter Mr. Rilstone’s blog by responding to your comment here.

Tpolg on Dawkins: You might be right that Dawkins is deliberately deploying descriptive terms rather than ones that purport to be objectively evaluative. I'll hazard a guess that if he'd done otherwise you'd be making similar objections, only saying not "Dawkins is sneakily avoiding making objective moral claims" but "Dawkins is illegitimately making objective moral claims".


Of course, any none validated moral claim is illegitimate. I suppose you could say Dawkins would show more kahones by not being sneaky, but really that is not something I care about.

Tpolg on moral values: Leaving aside the question of what Dawkins said and why, I think that depending on what you mean by "a sound teleology" it's either wrong or tautologous to say that you need one to make moral statements, and in any case I think you're wrong if you think that as an atheist Dawkins can't have any basis for making moral statements. (He can't have any unquestionable basis for doing so, but you're fooling yourself if you think that God or the Created Order gives you one. Everyone has this problem, if problem it be.)

Did I say he cant have any basis for making moral statements? I do not recall doing so. But so far as I can tell if he has such a basis he has not revealed what it is. You know (or at least apparently know where to find out) exactly what my basis is. You may critique and question it to your harts content. However, since Dawkins does not seem to feel inclined to subject his basis to such analysis, one wonders if in fact he does have one.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Of course, any non-validated moral claim is illegitimate. Then in your view no one can make any moral claim without justifying it from first principles, which means in practice that no book can make any moral claim without actually being a book of ethics. You're entitled to that view, but I think Dawkins was right not to be swayed by such arguments.

Did I say he can't have any basis for making moral statements? No, not in so many words, which is why I said "if you think" rather than "since you say", but it seems to me that some such idea underlies your criticism made earlier: But you would still need some sort of teleology to validate it. As far as I know Dawkins has no such thing.

Tpolg said...

I crave your indulgence in that I have not actually read the entire book; someone apparently neglected to put me on the complementary copy list. But is not the God delusion more or less a book of ethics? At any rate I see no reason why one should not at least indicate ones first principles if making a moral statement in any context. A great deal of western literature implicitly falls under the creation myth of Moses the Hebrew. But since Dawkins apparently rejects that, should he not indicate what sort of first principles he has substituted?
You say I am entitled to my view, and that you think Dawkins was right. Both of these are subjective statements with moral implications. I personally do not think I am entitled to my view, I do not think I am entitled to anything (you see I am a reactionary ;) but as long as I am granted free will I hope to seek the truth what ever it may be (even if it is socialism) I appreciate hard criticism were ever I can find it and try to give it were I can. But I am afraid I cannot appreciate treading in a sea of subjectivity.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Tpolg: no, it is not mostly a book of ethics. Roughly speaking, the first half is about whether God exists (and related matters, such as whether we can actually hope to find out by rational means); the second half is about the practical consequences of religion, with (as you might expect) a strong focus on the bad ones. There's very little ethics in the first half; quite a bit in the second.

Most of the ethical claims Dawkins makes (explicitly or implicitly) are "robust" in the sense that he's appealing to principles agreed on by a wide variety of ethical traditions. Those whose ethical principles diverge greatly from his will disagree. Those whose ethical principles agree (on the relevant points) will agree.

If the purpose of the book were to provide a theoretical basis for a system of atheistic ethics and explore the consequences, then it would have made some sense for him to begin at the beginning and try to base his evaluations on some sort of fundamental first principles. (Or perhaps to give them some other sort of basis; it's not clear that fundamental first principles are actually the best way to go. But that's another matter.) But, as it happens, that doesn't appear to be the purpose of the book. He's saying, rather, "Look, here are some effects that religion has. If you feel as I do about those effects, then perhaps you should feel as I do about religion itself."

If you consider that anything other than an examination of ethics from the foundations up is too subjective to be interesting or useful to you, then by all means restrict your reading accordingly. I just don't see the point of complaining that Dawkins wrote a book about whether there's a God and the effects of religions, rather than a Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten.

Tpolg said...

I beg your pardon, my bad of course. It is a common but none the less inexcusable fallacy oft perpetrated by our species, that we should project elements of our own personalities to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of those we know less about. I assumed that Dawkins was attempting to convince those that did not already agree with him that his point of view is correct. But then as my old logic professor was fond of pointing out, to assume makes an ass out of you and me. If Dawkins is merely (if you will excuse the expression) “preaching to the choir” then I suppose his writings have no relevance to me.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I think you may be conflating two things.

1. Dawkins doesn't assume that his readers are atheists, or skeptics, or biologists, or members of any other similarly narrow group.

2. Dawkins does assume that his readers share some of his values.

There's no incompatibility between these, and (at least for me) #1 would need to be false for "preaching to the choir" to be a good description of what he's up to.