Yesterday I linked to P.Z. Myers discussion of a common anti-Dawkins meme. Specifically, that Dawkins’ arguments in The God Delusion are hopelessly superficial, and that his failure to ponder seriously various works of academic theology render his book incomplete at best, and vapid at worst.
Richard Dawkins himself has weighed in on Myers’ comments:
Congratulations to P Z Myers on this brilliant piece of satire. It applies not just to Allen Orr’s review in NYRB, but to all those many reviews of TGD that complain of my lack of reading in theology. My own stock reply (“How many learned books of fairyology and hobgoblinology have you read?”) is far less witty.
Over at Stranger Fruit, John Lynch is less impressed:
I want to stress here that I am not going to discuss the truth of the claim that The God Delusion may exhibit Dawkins’ “lack of reading in theology”. I will merely note that Dawkins does not reply by claiming to have read theological works. One must assume either (a) he hasn’t engaged with such works, or (b) he has but instead of demonstrating that fact would rather give a glib “witty” reply. Take your pick. Either way, I ask you to consider the following:
A common critique of those that see Darwinism [X] as a secular mythology [Y] is that they fail to engage with the primary literature. One can conceive of a creationist dismissing such criticism by using the same “stock reply” as Dawkins, i.e. “I believe X to be the epistemological equivalent of Y. Since you don’t read learned books on Y (or such books don’t exist), you cannot criticize me for my lack of reading in X.”
Now, I think we can all agree that this would be an unsatisfying reply to the criticism at hand. Obviously, our creationist would have to first prove the epistemological equivalence of X and Y. Similarly, Dawkins needs to first prove the equivalence of theology [X] and “fairyology” [Y]before he can use his stock reply to deflect criticism. Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing – and that involves reading the theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion. Note that I am making a distinction between the writings of theologians – who obviously have a commitment to the religious claims in question – and those of philosophers of religion who may or may not be religious (consider, for example, that Hume was a philosopher of religion, as was Nietzsche). The question remains, does The God Delusion demonstrate such an engagement? Defenders of Dawkins (following Dawkins himself) will perhaps claim that it does not have to, especially considering the work is a popular argument for atheism. Others may find that defense unconvincing.
I would make a few points in reply. The first is that one of the main purposes of TGD is to show that theology has no content. That is, Dawkins has shown the epistemological equivalence of fairyology and theology.
The second point is that most of that body of literature classified as theology and the philosophy of religion is totally irrelevant to anything Dawkins was addressing in the book. Dawkins was considering the question of whether there is any sound reason to believe in a creator God. He considers all of the major arguments offered by theologians and philosophers over the years, and shows that all such arguments are seriously flawed. That’s called serious engagement. Having done that, the theological literature on Christology, or process theology, or the Biblical justifications for various Chrisitan doctirnes, etc. are simply irrelevant.
But the main point is that Lynch makes a fundamental error in analogizing Dawkins’ response to that of a creationist being dismissive of having to read the primary literature on evolution. Commenting intelligently on evolution requires you to master certain basic concepts of biology. There is no way to gain that mastery without having engaged the biological literature in a serious way. This is why one of the primary responses to creationist arguments is to show that the creationists have made fundamental errors in their understanding of the relevant scientific concepts.
That is not the case with arguments for God’s existence. Anyone capable of thinking clearly is as qualified as anyone else to discuss the question of God’s existence. It’s not as if theologians have mastered some body of technical material that makes them better qualified than non-theologians to discuss the questions Dawkins addresses.
That is why most of the people criticizing Dawkins in this way do not point to specific places in the theological literature where he would find compelling answers to the arguments he makes. The critics seem to think their job is finished merely by showing they are aware of various bits of theological esoterica. This is precisely the point Myers was making.
Criticizing Dawkins for not having undergone a rigorous training regimen in theology is not a response to his arguments, it is a way to avoid having to address them. And when the critics do get around to addressing his arguments, they nearly always get it wrong (as I have shown in several posts at this blog.)