Blackford on Dawkins

In the comments to Jake’s post from yesterday, Russell Blackford left a comment that perfectly summarizes my own views on Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion:

This is what I find obnoxious about atheists who want to attack Dawkins for writing a book like The God Delusion, which is not actually strident and angry at all, but careful, fair, and good-humoured. Dawkins is not beyond specific criticism (e.g., I think he underestimates the force of the problem of evil and perhaps overestimates the force of the ultimate 747 gambit … and a few specific sentences in The God Delusion could perhaps have been less snarky), but I don’t think we should be criticising him for what he is doing, which involves a popular defence of atheism, including (in effect) a reliance on the obvious, though often denied, tension between the scientific and religious images of the world.

Exactly right. I would only add that I would say precisely the same thing about the books by Hitchens and Harris.

Comments

  1. #1 rmp
    September 13, 2007

    Having read ‘The God Delusion’, I’m struck by it’s tone. Listening to critics, you’d think that Dawkin’s was Hitleresque (Yes, I’ve invoked the Hitler/Nazi comparison). In truth, the book reads as if a friend were having a discussion with you at the local bar/pub. He thinks your wrong (assuming your a theist) but it’s very good natured albeit a little too sarcastic at times. Like I said, just like a conversation with a friend at the bar.

    I wonder how many people who haven’t read it realize that atheists such as Dawkins do NOT argue that there is no God. Rather, they are healthy skeptics who argue for you to show evidence that there is a God. That seems a point lost on most.

  2. #2 Stuart Coleman
    September 13, 2007

    It doesn’t matter what the tone is or what he’s writing, as long as it’s about atheism and taking the stance that religion is wrong and possibly harmful it will be ridiculed and demonized. At least, until atheism is publicly acceptable.

  3. #3 Russell Blackford
    September 13, 2007

    I agree with comments #1 and #2: yes, The God Delusion does read much as rpm described it; and yes, it does seem that tone and nuance are irrelevant to the book’s detractors, as Stuart Coleman suggests. Dawkins’ detractors (and the same applies, to various degrees, to detractors of the other “New Atheists”) seem to be looking for reasons to dislike his book, rather than reading it, and responding to it, for what it actually is.

    This is a pet peeve of mine. By all means let’s discuss the merits of the book’s various arguments, but I get weary of seeing the essential character of the book, and of much else that Dawkins says and does, misrepresented in ways that end up skewing the whole debate.

    At the same time, I should add that Dawkins’ supporters can also do this sort of thing. Alas, we’re all susceptible to demonising people whom we regard as opponents, and consequently distorting their messages. I’m reminded of this larger point by some of the criticisms of Jonathan Haidt that I’ve read over the past couple of days. While I certainly don’t agree with everything Haidt has said about the New Atheism in his recent Edge piece, I do think that some of the criticisms of Haidt’s arguments over on Dawkins’ site are insensitive to tone and nuance, and thus distort what Haidt is actually saying.

  4. #4 Ebonmuse
    September 13, 2007

    Dawkins’ detractors (and the same applies, to various degrees, to detractors of the other “New Atheists”) seem to be looking for reasons to dislike his book, rather than reading it, and responding to it, for what it actually is.

    Very well said indeed, Russell. I think I have a perfect example: I’ve been having a dustup with J.J. Ramsey about this same issue on my own site, and I finally got him to concede that Dawkins, Sam Harris and others don’t use ad hominem attacks or personal insults against believers. (“They’ll pay the usual lip service that they don’t believe theists are stupid, etc.”)

    Nevertheless, he maintains that regardless of what they actually say, at heart they do secretly believe that all religious people are stupid, and religious people can somehow discern this and therefore rightly dismiss them as hateful and intolerant. Basically, the claim being advanced is, “Don’t pay attention to what they say, I know what they really think!”

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    September 13, 2007

    What else could we expect? We know what a small fraction of the Bible most evangelical fundamentalists have even read. The figure varies depending upon the particular survey, of course, but the numbers are always astonishingly small. Altemeyer found that on average, those who scored in the highest fundamentalism bracket had read about a third of the Bible, and nineteen percent of them had not read one book of it all the way through. Avalos gives similar figures in The End of Biblical Studies (2007).

    And, to the authoritarian mindset, that doesn’t matter at all!

    I’ve also asked parents who do read the Bible how they decide what to read. Most fundamentalists said they read selected passages, which often were selected for them by their church, a Bible study group, the editor of a book of devotional readings, and so on. Very few bother to read all the infallible truth they say God has revealed. If you only get into heaven if you’ve been devoted enough to read the whole Bible, there’ll apparently be no line-up before St. Peter.

    The Authoritarians (2007), p. 138

    If that’s how Holy Scripture gets treated, what can we expect for the words of an infidel? It’s always about attacking the image, never the content.

    Russell Blackford:

    While I certainly don’t agree with everything Haidt has said about the New Atheism in his recent Edge piece, I do think that some of the criticisms of Haidt’s arguments over on Dawkins’ site are insensitive to tone and nuance, and thus distort what Haidt is actually saying.

    I generally only skim the comments over at RD.net, and then only if the article being discussed really caught my eye. That said, I’m not too surprised; FWIW, I found Myers’ critique of Haidt more intellectually satisfying than the one from Harris.

  6. #6 john
    September 13, 2007

    Dawkins rocks, and he’s brilliant even when what he has to say insults me personally. The other two though – it’s an insult to Dawkins to lump him with the others. When people say “he’s too harsh on religion”, in essence they are saying that Dawkins should be less honest. Lumping Hitchens and Harris with Dawkins is a terrible insult to Dawkins.

    Hitchens is, of course, an enabler of the neocon lie that got the US into the Iraq war. He’s complicit in the deaths of 100,000 (or so) Iraqis. But with regards to “God is not Great”, I could only get a few pages into the book before I was turned off by the (surprise, surprise) dishonesty. Hitchens claims that religious believers won’t even entertain the most basic element of the discussion, the possibility that God does not exist. Rubbish. And I’m not talking about just theological liberals – you can even lead many conservatives (tentatively) into that discussion. So while I love to see Hitchens eviscerate right wing nuts, he isn’t better than them, just different. Harris, though I have only read snippets of his stuff, always seems to come across as a racist. And the difference between a racist and someone who just sounds like one is semantic.

  7. #7 Lettuce
    September 13, 2007

    >Harris, though I have read only snippets of his stuff…

    That’s not fair at all.

  8. #8 Kristjan Wager
    September 14, 2007

    I have some serious issues with Harris’ The End of Faith, especially the parts where he talks about Islam. He makes unsubstantiated claims about the inherent violence in Islamic countries, and (what’s worse) implicitly, and nearly explicitly, endorses torture.

    Hitchens I disagree with when it comes to politics, but I find myself somewhat in agreement with him when it comes to religion – and I love the fact that he was willing to take on Mother Terese, when no-one else was willing to question her “sanctity”.

  9. #9 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 14, 2007

    If it’s Dawkins’ tone that the critics don’t like (justifiably or otherwise) there are other choices. Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a wonderful read. Somehow it seems to have dropped off the cultural radar screen; perhaps the late Sagan has not been diligent enough in pursuing the talk show circuit.

  10. #10 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 14, 2007

    By the way, I notice that Sagan’s TVoSE is due out in paperback form in November 2007.

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    September 14, 2007

    Sorry for raising your blood pressure, but at the risk of getting too much on what has become my hobby-horse …

    Russell Blackford: “The God Delusion, which is not actually strident and angry at all, but careful, fair, and good-humoured.”

    There is plenty of evidence that Dawkins is neither careful nor fair, and we’ve gone over it several times. As for good-humored, I’ll grant that up to a point, in that he certainly doesn’t come off like a heel in pro wrestling.

    Off-topic, but since Ebonmuse brought it up …

    Ebonmuse: “Very well said indeed, Russell. I think I have a perfect example: I’ve been having a dustup with J.J. Ramsey about this same issue on my own site, and I finally got him to concede that Dawkins, Sam Harris and others don’t use ad hominem attacks or personal insults against believers. (‘They’ll pay the usual lip service that they don’t believe theists are stupid, etc.’)”

    Don’t misrepresent me. That’s no concession. The full quote is “They’ll pay the usual lip service that they don’t believe theists are stupid, etc., but they don’t act that way, and people pick up on that.

    There is nothing secret about their behavior. Neither “faith-head” nor the Neville Chamberlain gambit were done in a corner. Nor were the indications that Dawkins isn’t giving the subject his best game, like dumb little avoidable mistakes like saying that “theology — unlike science, or most other branches of human scholarship — has not moved on in eighteen centuries.” (Ahem, Protestantism anybody?)

    And even more off-topic: Mr. Blackford, last time I checked, quote-mining was about quoting someone out of context to give the impression that someone holds a position which they do not.

    Ok, back on the topic …

    I suspect that a number of the fans of The God Delusion are so glad that an accessible critique of religion has made such a splash that they don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. It also helps that Dawkins is very good at rhetoric, and that can make it much easier to gloss over problems.

    As for what is in my mind (since Blackford had wondered what it was at Ebonmuse’s site, and it is sort of relevant), I read TGD through the eyes of someone who has seen a good chunk of apologetics and counter-apologetics, both online and in books, and found myself negotiating BS on both sides. For me, then, TGD is emblematic of problems that have plagued atheist literature even before Sam Harris came on the scene.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 14, 2007

    J.J, Ramsey-

    You’re welcome to raise my blood pressure any time you’d like. I always find your comments interesting, even though I rarely agree with them.

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    September 14, 2007

    I should add (or maybe I shouldn’t?) that I saw problems with Dawkins even before TGD. I was unimpressed with the “designer must be more complex” argument even before it was dubbed the Ultimate Boeing 747 argument, and his Gerin Oil editorial struck me as wrapping questionable conventional wisdom in a clever metaphor.

    BTW, to Russell Blackford, I suppose that to further expand what is on my mind, part of my deconversion was distancing myself from the sloppy and “meanie” atheists and making sure that I had solid grounds for my nascent disbelief that could hold up against apologetic arguments.

  14. #14 Russell Blackford
    September 15, 2007

    JJ, we could argue this back and forth forever, and I should make clear that I do find valuable things in some of your comments. However, it seems to me that you go too far in your attempts to show that The God Delusion has some kind of nasty tone, and I do think that you cherry-pick to find bits that are actually not representative of the book’s overall tone and effect.

    I’ve said a few times during the debate across various sites that I think there are about six sentences in the whole book that make me wince. Actually, I can only think of four. I think the term “faith-head” is used twice and it would have been better to use some other, less colourful term, such as dogmatist. I think that the discussion of “appeasement” and so on is actually quite careful and fair, and that you mischaracterise its tone. Nonetheless, I think it might have been better to stop one sentence short to give less a feeling of mocking and more a feeling that the analogy with Chamberlain was inevitable (which I actually think it was; given the accusations Dawkins was making, I don’t see how he could have avoided making reference to the classic case of appeasement). The other sentence I have in mind is one where he seems to misunderstand the idea of hate speech.

    Strangely, the “faith-head” and appeasement examples are your favourite ones, but we could change the word “faith-head” to “dogmatist” twice and remove one sentence from the “appeasement” discussion … while leaving something more thsn 99.999 per cent of the book unaltered.

    I’m sticking to the claim that Dawkins actually goes out of his way to be fair and to consider views contrary to his own, even if he occasionally shows an irritation with dogmatists and with people whom he thinks of as natural allies but considers counterproductive in their actions. I can open the book at random and will find myself reading page after page of clear, careful prose. Sometimes it is satirical, sometimes it has to deal with issues in a way that might not satisfy a purist, sometimes it may show touches of indignation. The tone varies, but always in ways that seem to me to be to be justifiable, at least arguably. I can always see good reasons why a particular tone is being taken at a particular time, whether Dawkins is being funny (as he often is) or grimly serious.

    I’m sure that this will not make you change your mind about the book, but I often feel as if you’re making good points about how one could legitimately wish the book to be otherwise, while not seeing the strengths of the book as actually written.

  15. #15 J. J. Ramsey
    September 15, 2007

    Russell Blackford: “However, it seems to me that you go too far in your attempts to show that The God Delusion has some kind of nasty tone”

    I wouldn’t say that the book’s tone is nasty, per se, certainly not the way Ann Coulter is. Rather, it is sort of like the tone of a guy who is overall polite but inserts enough subtle and not-so-subtle jabs to let you know what he really thinks. Actually, I liked the book better at first and thought I was a little unfair in my preconceptions about it, and when I started flipping through it in the bookstore to see if it was worth buying, I noticed Robin Lane Fox’s Unauthorized Version and thought, okay, he’s got some good sources.

    When I saw the criticisms from Orac, who was the first to really lay into Dawkins about the Neville Chamberlain thing, as well as those from John Lynch, and some others, I looked back and saw the cracks that Dawkins’ rhetoric helped smooth over. And not only there are a lot of little and not-so little cracks in multiple places, but none of them needed to be there, and the bulk of them wouldn’t have been there if Dawkins had been as diligent as some of the better amateurs on IIDB. It’s like he didn’t care enough to even try to do it right. This isn’t rocket science, or even deep philosophy. The accumulation of cracks not only spoils the book for me, but it means that I could never recommend the book to any doubting theist, either, for fear that he or she would see the cracks that I do.

  16. #16 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    Rather, it is sort of like the tone of a guy who is overall polite but inserts enough subtle and not-so-subtle jabs to let you know what he really thinks.

    What he really thinks? He thinks religion is nonsense, and he’s stated that quite politely. Why do you insinuate that politeness must be associated with respect for opponents’ positions in order to be real and valid?

  17. #17 J. J. Ramsey
    September 15, 2007

    Caledonian: “Why do you insinuate that politeness must be associated with respect for opponents’ positions in order to be real and valid?”

    Fair point, I suppose. I should have said,

    “Rather, it is sort of like the tone of a guy who is polite and at the same time insinuates subtle and not-so subtle insults.”

    Insults do skirt the edge of politeness, though.

    That said, if one is arguing against a position, one should respect it the way one might respect an enemy. That is, one doesn’t assume that dealing with it will be a cakewalk and plans accordingly.

  18. #18 Caledonian
    September 15, 2007

    I see no evidence that Dawkins has considered advocating against religious to belief to be a “cakewalk”.

  19. #19 J. J. Ramsey
    September 15, 2007

    Caledonian: “I see no evidence that Dawkins has considered advocating against religious to belief to be a ‘cakewalk’.”

    You mean aside from using avoidably weak material in his arguments against religion?

  20. #20 Dave Carlson
    September 16, 2007

    JJ Ramsey said:

    And not only there are a lot of little and not-so little cracks in multiple places, but none of them needed to be there, and the bulk of them wouldn’t have been there if Dawkins had been as diligent as some of the better amateurs on IIDB.

    When I first started reading the book, many of the arguments that Dawkins used had a familiar ring to me. Eventually, I decided that Dawkins was–unsurprisingly–making arguments similar to those that I had read at IIDB. At first, I found this please and refreshing, like reading something a good friend had written. But as the book progressed, I kept thinking back to some of the better contributors at IIDB and I realized that many of their arguments were superior in both logical rigor and written execution to the arguments Dawkins made in TGD.

    That’s my main problem with the book–I don’t think that Dawkins shouldn’t have written it or come to some of the conclusions that he did, but that the end result should have been better than it was.

  21. #21 melior
    September 18, 2007

    Help, I’m being persecuted!

    Someday science will discover a quantitative measure for hurt feelings, and then we will finally be able to determine once and for all whether Prof. Dawkins hurt the fundies’ feelings more by calling them “faith-heads” than they hurt mine as a child by teaching me I was going to burn in painful fire for all eternity for not believing.

    In the mean time, I hereby invite those who feel that we owe it to the believers to be more gentle and tender in explaining how completely deluded they are to write a book just like Prof. Dawkins’ wonderful work, only without any of the hurtful “anger” (that I didn’t seem to notice when I read it).