On a recent trip to the local Barnes and Noble, I noticed a remarkable thing. On the main kiosk, the place where the Stephen King and John Grisham books are located, there were two prominently placed volumes that caught my eye. One was The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, the other was God: The Failed Hypothesis, by Victor Stenger.
I live in Western Virginia. These are not the sort of books you would expect to be popular here. Yet the folks at B&N, who I have no doubt are motivated solely by their desire to sell books and not by any particular political or religious bias, placed them where they would be difficult to miss. Interesting.
It’s all the more interesting in the light of this article from The New York Times. It is a review of the reviews of recent atheist books, especially Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
The article’s author, Peter Steinfels, writes:
Hey, guys, can’t you give atheism a chance?
Yes, it is true that “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins has been on The New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks and that “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris can be found in virtually every airport bookstore, even in Texas.
So why is the new wave of books on atheism getting such a drubbing? The criticism is not primarily, it should be pointed out, from the pious, which would hardly be noteworthy, but from avowed atheists as well as scientists and philosophers writing in publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, not known as cells in the vast God-fearing conspiracy.
A remarkable collection of sentences. The drubbing these books are said to be taking is not coming from the reading public, which, as noted above, is buying these books in remarkable numbers. If my local bookstore here in Harrisonburg, VA thinks these books are worth displaying prominently, you know they are things people want to buy.
The drubbing is only coming from a handful of pretentious critics, motivated as much by jealousy, one suspects, as by a desire to say something subtantive. I base this assertion on the facts that (a) All of the critics featured in this article are themselves quick to point out that they are themselves atheists, (b) They have universally failed to raise any significant points against the major claims of Dawkins and Harris, and (c) They have, for the most part, not given any consideration in their reviews to the social significance of these books, over and above whatever faults they find with their arguments.
And apparently Steinfels’ idea of a drubbing is to find four critics who did not like the book. Steinfels mentions only Eagleton in The London Review of Books, Wood and Nagel in The New Republic, and Orr in The New York Review of Books. He doesn’t mention other, mostly positive reviews, such as the ones by Michael Shermer in Science, Steven Weinberg in the Times Literary Supplement, P.Z. Myers in Seed, Daniel Dennett in Free Inquiry, or Kendrik Frazier in The Skeptical Inquirer. A more interesting article might have been to get a fuller survey of the reactions of various prominent atheists to the books by Dawkins and Harris. Instead of hand-selecting four critics and declaring a drubbing, why not explore the reactions of people on both sides?
The most remarkable thing about the excerpt above is that Steinfels makes no attempt to answer his own question. He merely repeats a handful of choice quotations from the reviewers, making no attempt to provide any balance or to assess the merits of the criticisms being raised.
Which is interesting, because the main criticisms levelled at Dawkins in this article, and in other reviews not mentioned here, are variations of “The Courtier’s Reply,” a term coined by P.Z. Myers to refer to the knee-jerk response that Dawkins only considers “man on the street&rduqo; theology and does not get his hands dirty with the sophisticated evasions of academic theologians. “Bah!” sneer the critics, “Dawkins doesn’t even consider the modal logic version of Anselm’s ontological argument. What a hack!” Or, “How can we take Dawkins seriously when he doesn’t even consider the possibility that a being capable of bringing universes into being with an act of its will could nonetheless be simple in a relevant sense?” The fact that you can count on one hand the number of people familiar with modal logic or that Dawkins intention was to consider religion as it is actually practiced (as opposed to the ethereal, metaphorized version of academic theology) does not enter into their considerations.
Dawkins and Harris have performed a great social service through their writing. That they have sold so many books is strong evidence that there is a market for the arguments they are making. They have the thinking world abuzz with talk of atheism, after decades of laying low while the religious right took control of many areas of the government. This is important and highly significant, and you would think that people happy to identify themselves as atheists would take note of this fact before offering whatever criticisms they have.
The main contributions of Eagleton, Orr and Nagel (much more so than Wood, whose review of Harris did contain some interesting points) is to show once again the wide gulf between academic discourse and real life. No one really thinks that Dawkins should have discussed modal logic, or the fine points of the philosophy of Aquinas or Wittgenstein. Such discussions would obviously have been out of place for the book he was writing. They are irrelevant to a consideration of the social force called religion, which has little use for such academic navel-gazing but does happen to be the subject about which Dawkins was writing. These are points critics raise not when they want to make a case against an author, but rather when they want to show-off how much they have read.
It’s funny. As regular readers are aware, I have spent a lot of time here examining the reviews of Dawkins’ book, and dissecting the arguments contained therein. It had occurred to me that it might be worth turning all of that hard work into an article for an outfit like Skeptic, or Free Inquiry or Skeptical Inquirer, which specialize in this sort of thing. So far I haven’t, mostly for lack of time. It never occurred to me that you could publish such an article in The New York Times.