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.