Reviewing Ruse’s Review

In his book Indiscrete Thoughts, mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota spoofed a certain style of book reviewing:

The bane of expository work is Professor Neanderthal of Redwood Poly. In his time, Professor Neanderthal studied noncommutative ring theory with the great X, and over the years, despite heavy teaching and administrative commitments (including a deanship), he has found time to publish three notes on idempotents (of which he is justly proud) in the Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society.

Professor Neanderthal has not failed to keep up with the latest developments in noncommutative ring theory. Given more time, he would surely have written the definitive treatment of the subject. After buying his copy of T. Y. Lam’s long-expected treatise at his local college bookstore, Professor Neanderthal will spend a few days perusing the volume, after which he will be confirmed in his darkest suspicions: the author does not include even a mention, let alone a proof, of the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem! Never mind that the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem is an isolated result known only to a few initiates (or perverts, as graduate students whisper behind the professor’s back). In Professor Neanderthal’s head the omision of his favorite result is serious enough to damn the whole work. It matters little that all the main facts on noncommutative rings are given the clearest exposition ever, with definitive proofs, the right examples, and a well thought out logical sequence respecting the history of the subject. By judicious use of the U. S. mails, the telephone, and his recently acquired fax machine, Professor Neanderthal will make sure that the entire noncommutative ring community will be made aware of this shocking omission. He will send an unsolicited review of the book to the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in which the author’s gaffe will be publicized.


In a comment to Wednesday’s post, DS suggested that I should not be so dismissive of the philosophical and theological criticisms levelled at Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion. After pondering the matter for the past two days, I’ve decided the issue desereves a post of its own.

Why am I generally so dismissive of the critical reviews of Dawkins’ book? The short answer is that I believe most of the critics, especially among the philosophers and theologians, are behaving like Professor Neanderthal. They are offering criticisms not from a genuine desire to refute any major point Dawkins is making, but instead out of a desire to burnish their own credentials, or to huff and puff over some trivial omission.

For the longer answer, let us examine specifically Michael Ruse’s review, published in the academic journal Isis. After a few introductory paragraphs, Ruse writes:

Whatever may be the case, it is not that the atheists are having a field day because of the brilliance and novelty of their thinking. Frankly-and I speak here as a nonbeliever myself, pretty atheistic about Christianity and skeptical about all theological claims-the material being churned out is second rate. And that is a euphemism for “downright awful.”

Strong words. Let us see how Ruse backs them up. His first counter point is this:

A major part of the book involves ripping into the chief arguments for the existence of God. I confess that it is the first time in my life that I have felt sorry for the ontological argument.

For “ontological argument&rdquo read “Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem.”

I have not seen any statistics on the matter, but I’d be amazed if it’s even one Christian in a thousand who could tell you what the ontological argument is. And I’d be doubly amazed if you could find very many who believe in God because they find the argument persuasive. Nonetheless, it is an argument with considerable historical significance, and one about which philosophers and theologians have spilled a preposterous amount of ink. In light of these facts Dawkins chose to give a brief description of the classical form of the argument, to explain the major problems with it, and to refer people to Mackie’s book The Miracle of Theism for a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of the matter. Seemed like a sensible approach to me, especially given that he was writing a popular exposition of these ideas intended to be read, as opposed to an academic philosophical treatise intended only to exist.

Notice that Ruse doesn’t really think the ontological argument has any merit. He wants it to be perfectly clear that he puts no stock in it, and that he doesn’t think a Mackie-like treatment of the argument would have altered any important conclusions Dawkins is drawing. Yet he makes this his lead-off point in his condemnation of the book. Curious.

Here’s Ruse’s next point:

More seriously, Dawkins is entirely ignorant of the fact that no believer-with the possible exception of some English clerics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-has ever thought that arguments are the best support for belief. Saint Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers of Western civilization, devoted but one paragraph in the City of God to the proofs. Saint Thomas was categorical that the proofs are second to faith.

For sheer ivory-tower cluelessness coupled with familiar academic arrogance this statement is hard to top. It is all the more bizarre given Ruse’s history of work among creationists. Let us begin with the obvious. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, one of the most famous and beloved works of Christian apologetics ever written, devotes his first chapter to how a process of armchair ratiocination (based on the universality of basic moral principles) led him to a belief in God. He goes on to discuss how it was reason that persauded him of the truth of the Christian scriptures. So much for Ruse’s absurdly absolutist statement.

Suggest to any Christian fundamentalist or evangelical that theirs is a religion based on blind faith and watch how quickly they bristle. They will inform you that, on the contrary, theirs is a faith backed up by reason. They will tell you that reason can’t actually prove that God exists, but it can make the proposition seem so likely that a rational person should accept it as true. They say things like, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!” which is their cheeky way of saying that invoking the deity is the only way of making sense of the facts of life as we know them. I would add that this is also the official view of the Catholic Church.

If Ruse’s intention is to hide behind his proviso that no believer thinks that arguments provide the best support for belief, I will still want to know how he backs up his statement. In my experience it almost never happens that a religious believer will tell you he believes in God because he has faith, and that is all. Instead they nearly always invoke the argument from design. Frequently they tell me about personal experiences they have had that have persuaded them. I have also had several people tell me that they decided to read the Bible simply out of skeptical curiosity, but were so overwhelmed by the force of the writing that they quickly came to believe. Dawkins is quite right to devote a few pages to each of these (more than a few in the case of the argument for design), and to several others besides.

So Ruse’s heroic attempt to downplay the importance of rational arguments in the religious life of believers is utterly laughable. Even worse is the simple fact that Dawkins never said that religious believers regard rational argument as the best support for belief. He said simply, in effect, “Here are some arguments that are commonly thrown at atheists in support of God’s existence, and here is why they are not very convincing.” I don’t know how Ruse is drawing his inference about Dawkins’ ignorance.

We have seen the first two planks in Ruse’s case for the awfulness of Dawkins’ book. The first is the trivial one that Dawkins gave short shrift to the ontological argument. The second is based on a blatantly false statement about the nature of religious belief, coupled with an equally blatant falsehood about what Dawkins is claiming. But Ruse is not finished:

Dawkins misunderstands the place of the proofs, but this is nothing to his treatment of the proofs themselves. This is a man truly out of his depth. Does he honestly think that no philosopher or theologian has ever thought of or worried about the infinite regress of the cosmological argument? If God caused the world, what caused God? The standard reply is that God needs no cause because he is a necessary being, eternal, outside time. Read Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Just as 2+2=4 is uncaused and always true, so is God’s existence. Now, you might want to worry about the notion of necessary existence. But at least you should know that it is something to worry about. And if you are going to reject the notion, then you must yourself address the key question behind the proof, the question that Martin Heidegger said was the fundamental question of metaphysics: Why is there something rather than nothing? If not God, then what?

Once again Ruse is distorting Dawkins’ argument. Dawkins’ ruminations about the designer regress are not found in his discussion of the proofs for God’s existence. They are found instead in a different chapter, in which Dawkins discusses the argument from design, and explains why the progress of science has made the existence of God seem very unlikely.

I am referring to Chapter Four of his book. This chapter is 47 pages long. It is a tiny portion of this chapter that is devoted to the idea that invoking God to explain complexity leads to the problem of infinite regress. It is quite a reasonable thing to point out, considering that so many religious believers (I am basing this both on personal experience and on the arguments I see laid out in books on Christian apologetics) seem to think that invoking God to explain complexity is some sort of explanation for free. Dawkins’ point in this chapter is that invoking God is an exceptionally poor sort of explanation, and one of which we have no need given the much better explanations science offers.

And to show that Dawkins’ is out of his depth with this entirely common-sensical argument, Ruse excoriates him for not mentioning the argument that God is a necessary being. If you are not familiar with that particular piece of theological sophistry, suffice it to say it is yet another example of an a priori argument. That is, it is an attempt to prove that God exists by logic alone, as opposed to doing so via an appeal to the facts of the world as we know them. As such it is closely related to the ontological argument and the first cause argument (both of which are discussed by Dawkins). The basic idea is that every fact about the universe, including its existence, is contingent in the sense that we can imagine it being otherwise. If this is the case something must exist necessarily to bring all of these contingent facts into being in the first place. That necessarily existing entity is God.

This is not very persuasive, to put it kindly. It simply assumes what it is trying to prove, namely that the existence of the universe is contingent. Of more relevance to the present discussion, however, is that Dawkins does discuss the notion of a priori arguments for God. He does not use the term “necessary being,” but he certainly discusses the idea, both in the chapter on arguments for God and in his chapter on the argument from design. Ruse may not be happy with Dawkins’ discussion, but he does not overlook the point.

And notice, once again, that Ruse wants it to be perfectly clear that he personally does not find the argument that God is a necessary being to be compelling. Had Dawkins stopped the action for a few pages to discuss the notion, absolutely none of his conclusions would have been changed in the slightest. Ruse raises the point as another Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem.

Surely Ruse must realize that he is engaging in an exceptionally cheap form of argument here. It is an all-purpose response that can be used any time your views are challenged. For example, here’s a passage from Ruse’s book Darwinism and its Discontents:

But one must add at once that this kind of [literal] reading of Genesis has never — at least since Saint Augustine, around 400 A.D. — been obligatory for Christians. Indeed, Augustine himself warned explicitly against this kind of literal interpretation of Scripture. On the one side, it is bound to get you into trouble, even without evolution. How, for instance, could God say, “Let there be light” before the Sun was created. (pp. 277)

Do you think Ruse would be impressed by a young-Earth creationist reviewer who wrote:

Ruse is brazen in his ignorance of young-Earth theology. This is truly a man out of his depth. Does he honestly believe that he is the first to see the problem of how there could be light before the Sun was created? The standard reply is that God is omnipotent, and if he wants to have light without the Sun he can have it. The Sun is not the only source of light, you know. And if you are going to reject that notion you must at least answer the question that lies behind it, if God is not the source of all light then what is?

Of course he wouldn’t be impressed. He would reply that he was giving a brief summary of some important issues, but was making no pretense at being comprehensive. Ruse’s book is chock-full of places where he makes an argument without stopping to consider all of the myriad responses that have been offered in reply. Shall we excoriate him for this? Or shall we acknowedlege that editorial decisions must be made, and sometime that means leaving out the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem.

Mind you, it would be different if Dawkins’ were being accused of leaving out good counter-arguments. But Ruse doesn’t have any of those to offer. As we have noted, Ruse is quick to apologize for the points he does raise, and makes it perefectly clear he does not think they ultimately have much substance.

And that’s it! That’s Ruse’s entire case for Dawkins’ philosophical ineptitude and for the awfulness of his book. Not a single example of where Dawkins concluded X, but a more sophisticated understanding of philosophy or theology would have cause him to conclude Y instead. Not a single example of a decent argument for God’s existence that Dawkins overlooked.

It would seem that Ruse is just sore that in a book that was already over 400 pages long, Dawkins chose not to delve into certain bits of esoteric philosphical flapdoodle of interest only to a handful of academic fetishists. And this failing on Ruse’s part is completely typical of the angry reactions to Dawkins’ book. So many critics seem to think their job is done after listing various theologians Dawkins failed to mention or by pointing to skillful bits of theological obfuscation Dawkins chose not to discuss. They would be more impressive if they pointed to something important that Dawkins got wrong, as opposed to something he chose not to discuss.

That is why I am so unimpressed with, and am generally dismissive of, so many of the critics of Dawkins’ book.

It’s not as if Dawkins’ book is perfect. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can be levelled, and I certainly agree that there are places where Dawkins fell down on the job. My view is simply that Dawkins gets it right far more often than he gets it wrong, and that his book is important given the current cultural climate in America. For an example of a critic who, in a very small amount of space, managed to put his finger on both the strengths and weaknesses of the book, I recommend Michael Shermer’s essay in Science.

Incidentally, Ruse does have one additional argument to make. But we shall save it for the next post…

Comments

  1. #1 Divalent
    May 30, 2008

    The Shermer link won’t work if you haven’t a paid Science subscription. Here’s a link to the Shermer Science review at Dawkins web site (even atheists can violate copyrights)
    http://richarddawkins.net/article,570,Arguing-for-Atheism,Michael-Shermer-Science-Magazine

    I find it curious that so many critical reviews of the GD focus on his treatment of these logical proofs, as if Dawkins’ argument stands or falls on whether he gets it right. Even if one or more of these arguments for God’s existance were true, that only gets you, at best, to deism: far short of the personal God that 99% of religious people believe in. Those religions make scientific predictions and, so far, none have proved accurate.

  2. #2 miller
    May 30, 2008

    Not a single example of where Dawkins concluded X, but a more sophisticated understanding of philosophy or theology would have cause him to conclude Y instead.

    What’s wrong with agreeing with Dawkins’ conclusions but disagreeing with the reasoning used to reach those conclusions? Isn’t that what rationalism is about, finding the correct reasons to believe the correct things?

    Actually, I agree with Ruse that Dawkin’s treatment of the Ontological argument was terrible. Dawkins does not cover most of the major points of the Ontological argument. Instead, he has a long series of anecdotes (more than I thought possible for something so abstract) with only vague references to various refutations. One time, Dawkins says Kant “identified the trick card” of the ontological argument as the idea that existence is more perfect than non-existence. AFAIK, that was not Kant’s major criticism, nor is it a good criticism at all. With all that space Dawkins spent on the Ontological argument, I think he could have afforded to include a good refutation.

    But then, unlike Ruse, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal that Dawkins’ failed to give the Ontological argument a proper treatment. Few care about the Ontological argument, and even fewer think it is correct. Ruse said himself that most people believe “arguments are the best support for belief”. If that’s true for anything, it’s true for the Ontological argument.

  3. #3 miller
    May 30, 2008

    Typo above: Ruse says that *no one* believes “arguments are the best support for belief”.

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2008

    miller-

    Kant’s main objection was that existence is not a predicate. That is, it is not the sort of thing you either possess or do not possess. Consequently, it is not meaningful to say that a God that exists in reality is more perfect than a God that exists only in our minds. It looks to me like that is how Dawkins characterized Kant’s view. As far as I know this is still considered a valid objection to the ontological argument by most philosophers.

    As for the anecdotes, I won’t discuss each one here but in my view they all furthered his point in some way. He makes the points that one should be inherently suspicious of an argument that reaches such a far-reaching conclusion about the world from logic alone, characterizes Kant’s objection, shows how the same logic underlying the ontological argument can be used to prove manifestly absurd things (following the example of Gaunilo), and then refers people to Mackie for more. I think these are all reasonable points to be made in the context in which he was writing. He could have gone on for many more pages, discussing responses to Kant or to Gaunilo style arguments for example, but I really don’t think the book would have benefited from the effort.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2008

    divalent –

    Thanks for providing the link.

  6. #6 DS
    May 31, 2008

    Interesting post, but I think you’ve caricatured Ruse’s arguments.

    In the first place, I think you’re wrong to compare a discussion of the Ontological Argument to the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem. It may be true that the average layperson might not recognize the ‘Ontological Argument’ as something important. But its central claim has been essential in rational theology from Aquinas to Descartes and beyond (you mention CS Lewis), and it’s hardly fair to call it “esoteric philosphical flapdoodle of interest only to a handful of academic fetishists.” The amount of space Dawkins himself devoted to it in GD speaks for itself, so I think your tactic of dismissing Ruse’s objection as trivial or elitist is disingenuous.

    If, say, a philosopher showed the kind of naive arrogance towards biology that Dawkins shows for philosophy, many scientists would be pretty upset. Dawkins basically presents Anselm’s 11th century version of the Ontological Argument as if it is the state of the art, then congratulates himself for demolishing it. That would be like a creationist refuting Aristotle and then claiming a victory over modern biology! Look, I agree with most of Dawkins’ criticisms of the role of religion in modern society, but his treatment of philosophical arguments made me wince. I don’t care how big or small the issue is (and I happen to think this one is not so small)–if it is important enough to appear in the book, it is important enough to do right. We expect the same in discussions of complex or seemingly arcane aspects of science in science writing, don’t we?

    Second, I think your characterization of Ruse’s motivation is grossly unfair. In this instance Ruse is not picking academic nits. He really thinks Dawkins is taking the wrong approach to the issue, and he thinks there may be serious consequences. I don’t actually agree with him entirely about this–I think accommodation is overrated–but it is a valid viewpoint that he’s expressed in many, many publications, not some petty high table dispute.

    Third, I really am confounded by your statement that “Suggest to any Christian fundamentalist or evangelical that theirs is a religion based on blind faith and watch how quickly they bristle.” Remember sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura? That’s the absolute foundation for modern evangelism. Fundamentalists and most evangelicals do reject reason as a criterion for belief–at least the ones I run in to. They will precisely not “inform you that, on the contrary, theirs is a faith backed up by reason”!

    I must respectfully object that you’re mixing up theological apples and oranges, and you confirm this by adding “that this is also the official view of the Catholic Church.” Catholics are neither evangelicals nor fundamentalists–and while there have certainly been rational theologians who weren’t Catholic, the vast majority of the important ones have been. When was the last time a Baptist offered you a rational proof for God’s existence?

    Let’s also be more careful about what we classify as “rational.” Of the several counterexamples you give here, I think none are germane. You write that believers “nearly always invoke the argument from design. Frequently they tell me about personal experiences they have had that have persuaded them. I have also had several people tell me that they decided to read the Bible simply out of skeptical curiosity, but were so overwhelmed by the force of the writing that they quickly came to believe.” Very few Christians (DI ideologues not withstanding), in my experience, actually offer any substantial version of the argument from design. Saying that ‘organisms look like they have a purpose’ is not much of a rational argument. Nor is is the persuasive effect of personal experience normally described in rational terms–usually it’s more along the lines of ‘my life looked pretty bleak because of [drug addiction/lost my job/spouse/etc.] and I turned to Jesus.’ Ditto being convinced by the “force of the writing” in the bible–that’s an emotional response, not a rational one.

    My final point (and then off to bed) has to do with your criticism that Ruse doesn’t offer substantive enough counterarguments. Here I think you’re not being realistic. I’ve written many reviews for Isis, and I can tell you that the editorial guideline is 600 words. Even though Ruse exceeds this by quite a bit in his review of GD, it’s pretty darn hard to get deeply into substantive arguments. Readers of short reviews are asked to accept the authority of the reviewer, to some degree, as a substitute for more lengthy analysis. And for that reason, readers should pay attention to the reviewer’s background and history–in this case, it’s salient that Ruse has had a long and sometime acrimonious history with Dawkins. But there are many places where one can turn if one wants to investigate the merits of Ruse’ position in more depth, or to assess his competency in making judgments. I’d say that before you mock him for “sheer ivory-tower cluelessness” about the history of theology, for example, read Can a Darwinian be a Christian or Darwin and Design or any number of other books or essays about these matters. Michael Ruse may (frequently) be an ass, he may sometimes be wrong, but he is not clueless or ignorant about this subject. There I think your post slides into its own arrogance, and I don’t think you advance this discussion much with that attitude.

  7. #7 miller
    May 31, 2008

    “Existence is not more perfect than non-existence” does not mean the same as “existence is not a predicate”. If that’s what Dawkins meant, he chose a very poor way to phrase it. It sounds like he’s making value judgments about existence vs nonexistence. It would have taken hardly any room at all to explain Kant’s refutation correctly (you did it in three sentences). But I am nitpicking…

  8. #8 J. J. Ramsey
    May 31, 2008

    Rosenhouse: “Kant’s main objection was that existence is not a predicate. That is, it is not the sort of thing you either possess or do not possess…. It looks to me like that is how Dawkins characterized Kant’s view.”

    Except that Dawkins only alludes to Kant’s view and never really explains it, and even here he muddies the waters by talking about whether existence is a perfection, rather than pointing out, as you did above, that existence isn’t really a property of things. He then quotes Norman Malcolm as saying that it is “queer” to say that something that exists is more perfect than something that doesn’t, but doesn’t explain why it is queer.

    Seriously, try to forget everything you know about the ontological argument (i.e. that existence is not a predicate) and then read Dawkins’ own arguments against it and see how well you’d be able to refute the ontological argument based on his words alone. I think you’ll find that what you learned apart from Dawkins was a heck of a lot more useful.

  9. #9 J. J. Ramsey
    May 31, 2008

    Sorry for the double post, but …

    Rosenhouse: “shows how the same logic underlying the ontological argument can be used to prove manifestly absurd things (following the example of Gaunilo)”

    Actually, Dawkins doesn’t do what you say he does. Gasking’s parody argument–which is what Dawkins actually quotes–is very different from Gaunilo’s and contains a flaw that is not in the original argument that it parodies, namely the inconsistency of having a nonexistent thing create something. Gaunilo’s own parody argument doesn’t even have such a glaring flaw.

  10. #10 James McGrath
    May 31, 2008

    I think that while some atheists and agnostics are happy simply to mention when appropriate that the emperor has no clothes on, some ‘apologists for atheism’ are actually playing the fundamentalists’ game, trying to prove that the emperor has no clothes on. But there are a whole range of nudists for whom the emperor is clothed splendidly without being clothed at all. It is the failure to appreciate such metaphorical language on its own terms, as something different from the way fundamentalists use language, that irks some.

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    May 31, 2008

    Wait a minute. You write this:

    “Professor Neanderthal will spend a few days perusing the volume, after which he will be confirmed in his darkest suspicions: the author does not include even a mention, let alone a proof, of the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem! Never mind that the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem is an isolated result known only to a few initiates (or perverts, as graduate students whisper behind the professor’s back).”

    And then this: “For ‘ontological argument’ read ‘Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem.'”

    Let me get this straight. Our hypothetical textbook author doesn’t mention the Worpitzky-Yamomoto, which is only know in the dark corners of the math world, and this is supposed to be analogous to Dawkins mentioning the ontological argument, which is well-known enough to be in a Philosophy 101 textbook. Does this make sense?

  12. #12 Caledonian
    May 31, 2008

    The real error is in comparing mathematics, which is not only profoundly useful but necessary to every technical field, and academic philosophy, which isn’t useful to anything.

    It is entirely possible for an obscure theorem from a very specific branch of advanced mathematics to be more important than an argument mentioned in every introductory philosophy textbook.

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2008

    DS-

    I won’t go point by point through your comment, but I will state for the record (since I don’t want it said that I am conceding any point that I fail to address) that I’m not impressed by any of your criticisms. Concerning the role of reason in evangelical thought, all I can say is that I have spent a lot of time socializing with them and every one has told me adamantly that Christianity is a faith backed up by reason. Go to any evangelical bookstore and you will see shelf after shelf of books proposing to offer rational defenses of the faith. The various solas are irrelevant to this claim. With all due respect, you are really way off base on this.

    Dawkins made it perfectly clear that Anselm’s version of the ontological argument is not the only one around. The section in which he discusses the ontological argument is, after all, entitled, “The Ontological Argument and Other A Priori Arguments.” He was using Anselm’s argument as representative of a genre. “The state of the art&rdquo requires a level of philosophical detail that would have been inappropriate for this book. That is why he referred people to Mackie.

    As for your claim that his treatment of philosophical arguments made you wince, I’m still waiting to hear what he got wrong. Ruse failed completely to give any such example.

    miller –

    The claim was simply that it is not meaningful to say that a God that exists in reality is more perfect than a God that exists only in the mind. That is a consequence of saying that existence is not a predicate.

    J. J. Ramsey –

    Dawkins gave a reasonable, one-sentence description of Kant’s argument and then quoted a modern philosopher making a nearly identical point in a clear way. So sorry that he didn’t attain your exacting standards for clarity, but this is pretty thin gruel for supporting the level of vituperation aimed at him.

    Let me get this straight. Our hypothetical textbook author doesn’t mention the Worpitzky-Yamomoto, which is only know in the dark corners of the math world, and this is supposed to be analogous to Dawkins mentioning the ontological argument, which is well-known enough to be in a Philosophy 101 textbook. Does this make sense?

    No, J.J., it is Ruse who is behaving like Professor Neanderthal in elevating a relatively unimportant piece of philosophical esoterica (and, yes, that is precisely what the ontological argument is), to a place where it is his lead argument for saying that Dawkins’ book is downright awful.

    You’re on firmer ground in pointing to the fallacy in Gasking’s argument. Dawkins would have done better simply to use Gaunilo’s argument directly. But even here Dawkins’ point, that the same logic underlying Anselm’s argument can be used to prove manifestly ridiculous things, is perfectly sound. I’m not saying that Dawkins’ treatment of the ontological argument was flawless or masterful, just that it was adequate for the context in which he was writing, and not something that should be provoking the heated reactions that have been directed towards him.

    James McGrath –

    Thank you for the link to your post. I have not yet read Haught’s book, but I did discuss his recent article in The Christian Century, which I understand was excerpted from his book. Suffice it to say that I don’t think Haught is someone who should be passing judgment on who is, and is not, a lightweight.

    In your post you quote Haught favorably saying the following: “So the new, soft-core atheists have arrived at the scene of Gods murder far too late. On each page of their manifestos we find them pummeling a corpse.” Do you honestly believe this? Do you really believe that the version of God and religion emphasized by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris is a corpse? Do you really think that your statement:

    But there are a whole range of nudists for whom the emperor is clothed splendidly without being clothed at all. It is the failure to appreciate such metaphorical language on its own terms, as something different from the way fundamentalists use language, that irks some.

    is more representative of American religious beliefs than what you find among evangelicals and fundamentalists? If you do, then tell me how you explain, just to pick one data point off the top of my head, that it is now over fifty percent of Americans who accept the young-Earth view of things. Dawkins and the rest are not flogging a caricature. It is the theologians who are doing that.

    And you can number me among those who are irked by the way many theologians use language. With the fundamentalists at least I know what they believe and why they believe it. With academic theologians I frequently haven’t a clue.

  14. #14 quork
    May 31, 2008

    And if you are going to reject the notion, then you must yourself address the key question behind the proof, the question that Martin Heidegger said was the fundamental question of metaphysics: Why is there something rather than nothing? If not God, then what?

    Wow, so that’s it right there, the fundamental question of metaphysics. This is what it all comes down to. I’d like to point out that the theist “solution” is no solution at all. It does not answer the question, it merely changes its form to “Why is there God instead of nothing?” That isn’t progress, it’s a sidestep.

    If someone wants a little bit more philosophical depth than Dawkins provides, I can recommend The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin. It has a very nice blue cover.

  15. #15 J. J. Ramsey
    May 31, 2008

    “Dawkins gave a reasonable, one-sentence description of Kant’s argument”

    But simply saying that existence is not a perfection doesn’t get you very far, and talking in terms of “perfection” points away from the problem that Kant pointed out.

    “and then quoted a modern philosopher making a nearly identical point in a clear way.”

    He quoted a modern philosopher asserting his point, not explicating it.

    “So sorry that he didn’t attain your exacting standards for clarity, but this is pretty thin gruel for supporting the level of vituperation aimed at him.”

    He budgeted about six pages worth to the ontological argument, yet of that, only a few sentences come close to actually examining its flaws, and they are introductory assertions, more suitable for starting a paragraph than as standalone summaries.

    “I’m not saying that Dawkins’ treatment of the ontological argument was flawless or masterful, just that it was adequate for the context in which he was writing”

    A treatment which beats around the bush and never quits points out the flaws in the argument that it’s rebutting is adequate?

  16. #16 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey –

    I won’t belabor the ground we have already tread, which is to say everything in your last comment.

  17. #17 DS
    May 31, 2008

    Gee, Jason, you’re not impressed with any of my criticisms but you don’t want to go through them point by point. I guess that settles that then–nicely argued!

    This statement made me laugh: “And you can number me among those who are irked by the way many theologians use language. With the fundamentalists at least I know what they believe and why they believe it. With academic theologians I frequently haven’t a clue.” Good god, would you accept it if I said “you can number me among those who are irked by the way many mathematicians use language… I frequently haven’t a clue”? Do academic theologians have a special responsibility to use plain language just because you decided to dabble in their field? There are plenty of theologians who do write for a general audience, and do so quite well, but philosophy and theology are in fact serious disciplines that require hard work to master and which have specialized languages.

    Frankly, Jason, I don’t think you know very much about philosophy or theology (or if you do you haven’t chosen to share that knowledge with us), and I think you’re pretty arrogant and impressed with yourself. But hey, maybe you and Caledonia should just hang out:

    The real error is in comparing mathematics, which is not only profoundly useful but necessary to every technical field, and academic philosophy, which isn’t useful to anything.

    It is entirely possible for an obscure theorem from a very specific branch of advanced mathematics to be more important than an argument mentioned in every introductory philosophy textbook.

    Amen, brother–who needs arguments when you have insults.

    You pretty much called me out at the beginning of this post, and I foolishly thought you might be interested in a thoughtful argument. I guess you’d rather just act haughty and superior, though. So knock yourself out–I won’t be back.

    Oh, and by the way, I showed your post to Ruse. He wasn’t impressed.

  18. #18 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2008

    DS –

    Wow! Looks like the gloves are off.

    You say I am arrogant and impressed with myself. Then you act as if I am obligated to drop everything to go laboriously through every point in your lengthy comment. Who is impressed with himself again?

    My remark that I was not going to go point by point through your comment was not intended to settle anything. My point was simply that life is short and comment wars can sometimes get out of control, with longer and longer comments being written to smaller and smaller ends. That’s it. I’m not sure why you read anything more into it than that. I had just finished writing a very long post and had other commenters to reply to as well. Sorry if you felt slighted.

    I did not “call you out,” at the start of the post. I was actually doing exactly the opposite. I was crediting you with having raised an interesting issue, one that I felt deserved a more thorough treatment than I could give in a comment.

    Mathematicians will happily tell you the precise meaning of any word they are using. My objection to the writing of many theologians is that they often use familiar, everyday language in very unfamiliar ways. For example, they will talk about God as something other than a supernatural being who creates worlds, which is what most people mean by this term. This would be acceptable if they gave clear definitions of precisely what they do mean, but it has been my experience that they frequently do not.

    When someone likes James McGrath writes:

    But there are a whole range of nudists for whom the emperor is clothed splendidly without being clothed at all.

    I’m afraid that’s a use of language that I find rather confusing.

    Its rather hard to defend yourself against a charge of not knowing much philosophy. I will reply simply that you should not mistake my general contempt for the subject for ignorance of it.

    I note that I did reply to what I felt were two of your more important points. I pointed out that you do not understand the nature of fundamentalist and evangelical religious faith and that you mischaracterized what Dawkins wrote. You chose not to reply.

    Here are a few further remarks on your comment. As I explained to J.J., my point in likening Ruse to Professor Neanderthal was that he was seizing on a very minor point in the book to justify a sweeping condemnation. Let’s suppose Dawkins’ treatment of the ontological argument is as bad as everyone says it is. That would still not justify the level of contempt levelled by Ruse.

    My charges that Ruse was picking academic nits had nothing to do with his views on Dawkins’ strategy. My point was that to justify the claim that Dawkins’ book was downright awful Ruse focussed on three bits of philosophical minutiae which, even if he were right on all three points (I don’t beleve he is, for the reasons already given), would not justify the scorn he expressed. Ruse could have written a review very much like Shermer’s. He could have said this is an important book which makes some good points, but would have been improved by a more sober consideration of the philosophical points, and so on. He chose not to do that.

    You seem to have completely missed my point in bringing up the Catholic Church. Ruse made an absolutist statement regarding the role of rational arguments for God’s existence in the life of religious believers. I was pointing out that fundamentalists and evangelicals routinely assert that Christianity is a faith backed up by reason. I base that assertion on several sources. One is my experiences at various evangelical gatherings, especially creationist conferences. The second is on the sermons I heard preached on a daily basis on the local evangelical radio station during the years I lived in Kansas. A third is on the numerous books of Christian apologetics that I have read. The point isn’t that reason is the primary basis for faith, but that reason complements faith and makes reasonable all of the major assertions of Christianity. Because of this I think it is unfair of Ruse to say that Dawkins’ is overestimating the importance of these arguments. Likewise for you.

    I mentioned the Catholics precisely because they are neither fundamentalists nor evangelicals. They represent another major branch of Christianity and their clearly stated position is directly at odds with the view stated by Ruse.

    Concerning what is and is not a rational argument, the argument from design is rational argument even when expressed in a primitive way. When I ask religious believers about the basis for their faith, they nearly always respond with something like, “What, you think this was all an accident?” That may not pass your exacting standards for philosophical sophisitcation but it surely is not an appeal to blind faith. Likewise for arguments based on religious experience. If someone says, “I believe in God because I had an experience I can not make sense of in any other way,” I take that as a rational argument. Again, it certainly is not an appeal to blind faith.

    Your final point, that Ruse lacked the space to make a substantive point, is nonsense. He had ample space to make all sorts of points, though he squandered a lot of it on wasted verbiage. The fact is he made a bold claim, that Dawkins book was awful, and did not back it up with arguments sufficient to the task. That is what I am criticizing him for.

    I don’t wish to end this on an acrimonious note. It was not my intention to offend you, but in my defense I think you’re going out of your way to look for reasons to be offended. I would also point out that you were the first one to resort to personal insults and name-calling. That wasn’t very nice.

    As for Ruse, I’m truly shocked that he wasn’t impressed with my post. For the record, I’ve been unimpressed with most of his writing for the past decade. That notwithstanding, he is welcome to comment here if he would like to correct me.

  19. #19 Caliban
    May 31, 2008

    I’ve long since lost the desire to badger about theological issues online. It’s often a very tedious process with little reward.

    That being said, I’d like to congratulate you, Jason, on another great post. I especially admire the very adroit way you handle the more hot-headed commenters. :)

  20. #20 J. J. Ramsey
    May 31, 2008

    “Let’s suppose Dawkins’ treatment of the ontological argument is as bad as everyone says it is. That would still not justify the level of contempt levelled by Ruse.”

    That depends on whether Ruse is only finds fault with Dawkins’ treatment of the ontological argument itself, or is just using it as a convenient example of weak argumentation on the part of Dawkins. That said, it would be better if Ruse had picked more than one example, which he’d have room for if he ditched the second part about arguments not mattering to religious faith. (I’m presuming from your post that Ruse did not discuss flaws in Dawkins’ treatment of other arguments for God.)

    On the lighter side …

    “My point was simply that life is short and comment wars can sometimes get out of control”

    You wouldn’t be thinking of this XKCD comic, would you?: http://xkcd.com/386/ :)

  21. #21 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2008

    Caliban –

    Thanks for the support! I was beginning to feel a bit beleaguered.

    J. J. Ramsey –

    I can only judge Ruse on the arguments he made. If he has some really bang-up arguments up his sleeve that he did not include in his review, then I’m afraid I can not consider them. I assumed that to justify his charge that the book was “downright awful” he would use his best arguments.

    I covered all of Ruse’s philosophical specifics. He also devotes a chunk of his review to his vexation at being included among the Neville Chamberlain atheists. Now, I have criticized Dawkins before for making his point in such a needlessly incendiary way, but here again Ruse gives a badly distorted impression of what Dawkins was saying.

    As for that cartoon, yes, that was the kind of thing I had in mind! One of the things I find hardest about blogging is recognizing that these blog discussions, which seem so important and all-consuming when you’re in the middle of them, have to end at some point, even if that means letting the commenters have the last word. David (of D.S. fame) seemed to think I meant to insult him by my initial willingness to let his long comment stand mostly unchallenged. That was not my intention.

  22. #22 DS
    May 31, 2008

    Ok, I said I wouldn’t be back but I couldn’t resist. Jason, I invite you to read through my responses and yours and re-think that statement that I resorted to “personal insults and name-calling.” I certainly didn’t call you any names, nor, I think, did I insult you. I made a conclusion that a) you didn’t seem to know much philosophy, and b) you’re arrogant. Both are empirical observations, not insults. And of course as such they could be wrong. You might know tons of philosophy, and you might be the sweetest guy in the world, but based on my interaction with you here those are the conclusions I drew. I don’t necessarily expect you to like me saying that, but I most certainly wasn’t trying to insult you gratuitously or resort to ad hominem attacks.

    In my first reply, I don’t think I said anything that could possibly have been construed as an insult. Then, in your response, I thought your tone got pretty haughty and condescending. For example:

    I won’t go point by point through your comment, but I will state for the record (since I don’t want it said that I am conceding any point that I fail to address) that I’m not impressed by any of your criticisms.

    If you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll recognize that this is a pretty dismissive response. Which is fine if that’s what you intended, but then don’t fault me for pointing that out. I’ll note, however, that you’re the one who called me “way off base” and characterized one of my arguments as “nonsense.” I think, in comparison, that my language has been more polite.

    As far as I’m concerned, that’s as far as this needs to go. I didn’t respond to your point about evangelical and fundamentalist christianity being rational because I think you’re wrong, I already said so, and there isn’t much else to say. I’ve studied religious history in pretty significant depth over the years; you seem to be drawing your evidence from anecdote and personal experience rather than scholarly study, and maybe that’s why we see things so differently. But I’ll insist that if you ask any religious historian or theologian whether American fundamentalism is a ‘rational’ theology, they’ll tell you no way.

    As you know from your experience with creationists, the only ‘rational’ arguments fundamentalists use are post hoc justifications for predetermined positions. Perhaps some of our disagreement is semantic, but I’m sorry–that is not rational theology under any accepted definition of the term. Genuinely rational theology–of the kind espoused by, say, Aquinas or Ibn Rushd, actually attempts to determine whether theological propositions (like “is God an uncreated being”) are valid. It is not saying ‘ok, let’s find a way to twist reason or science to agree that passage x in Genesis must be correct.’

    Your definition of ‘rational’ wouldn’t pass muster with a philosopher, but as you’ve said, you don’t think very highly of philosophy. By the way, I do find that position strange coming from a mathematician–what’s the difference between mathematics and philosophy, would you say (that’s a genuine question, by the way)?

    2 points in closing, and then I really will shut up, and if you feel like it we can talk off list. First, to Caliban: you may call me hot headed, but your statement about the relative importance of mathematics versus philosophy is uninformed, asinine, and obnoxious. Did you really feel clever after that bit of schoolyard name-calling? You’re just a garden variety internet blowhard, I’ll bet. Second, if I have been aggressive in my defense of Ruse it is because he is not just someone I respect, but also a very good friend. Michael certainly does not need me to fight his battles, but I will not apologize for defending my friend in very strong terms.

  23. #23 Caliban
    May 31, 2008

    DS, What on earth are you talking about? This is my second post in this thread. I never said anything at all about “the relative importance of mathematics versus philosophy”.

    Are you confusing me with some other commenter?

  24. #24 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2008

    D.S. –

    Ah, I begin to see your intention. When you said that I was arrogant and self-important, based on my willingness to leave substantial portions of your comment unanswered, that was not meant to be insulting. You were just informing me of certain conclusions that you had drawn. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

    Saying that I was not impressed by your arguments is not the same as dismissing them. It’s just that I know from experience that if you fail to respond to a point you can look forward to some future commenter gleefully calling you on it. My desire to forestall that possibility was the sole intent of my statement.

    And do you really not see a difference between describing someone’s arguments as way off base or nonsense, and telling someone he is arrogant and self-important? I would say one is a response to an argument, the other is a personal attack.

    Now for your latest points. You wrote:

    I’ve studied religious history in pretty significant depth over the years; you seem to be drawing your evidence from anecdote and personal experience rather than scholarly study, and maybe that’s why we see things so differently. But I’ll insist that if you ask any religious historian or theologian whether American fundamentalism is a ‘rational’ theology, they’ll tell you no way.

    Don’t write something like that and then wonder why people think academics live in ivory towers. What you call anecdote and personal experience I call spending several years immersed in their culture, reading their books, listening to their preachers, attending their gatherings, and interacting with quite a few on an individual basis. That IS scholarly study, my friend, and it’s a sort of study I consider far more reliable than whatever tidbits you picked up hobnobbing with historians and philosophers. And it is a recurring theme that I have encountered time and again that Christianity is faith backed up by reason (that’s their phrase, by the way).

    If by a “rational theology” you mean a theology that starts with the facts of the world and reasons its way to its conclusions then that is simply not what I said. The phrase “faith backed up by reason” which I have used several times already, makes the proper relationship between faith and reason clear. But remember that I was responding to Ruse’s statement that

    Dawkins is entirely ignorant of the fact that no believer-with the possible exception of some English clerics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-has ever thought that arguments are the best support for belief. Saint Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers of Western civilization, devoted but one paragraph in the City of God to the proofs. Saint Thomas was categorical that the proofs are second to faith.

    This dramatically understates the role that reason plays in the views of fundamentalists and evangelicals. Yes, faith is paramount, but they also believe they have the evidence on their side and the better informed among them are fully prepared to go point by point with you. For Ruse to suggest that Dawkins attaches too much importance to these arguments (imputing a view to Dawkins he did not express anywhere in his book, incidentally) is unfair to say the least.

    To clarify my remark about my contempt for philosophy, I was thinking specifically of the philosophy of religion (including theology) and the philosophy of science. The former, because I think that theologians and philosophers of religion tend to discuss highly attenuated and vague notions of God and religion that are far removed from religion as it is usually practiced, and then turn around and lecture people like Dawkins and Hitchens when they choose to address the real thing. The latter because I think that, especially with regard to the demarcation problem, they have fogged up what are ultimately some fairly simple questions. There is an irony here. The two people I especially have in mind are Larry Laudan and Phillip Quinn, whose ridiculous attacks on Ruse’s testimony at the 1981 Arkansas trial have given aid and comfort to the creationists.

    To answer your question about the difference between mathematics and philosophy: The former is a branch of physical science with clear rules and in which problems can be definitively described either as solved or open, and which, when it goes well, leads to profound and frequently useful insights about the world in which we live. The latter, at least as it plays out in the pages of many an academic journal, seems far more concerned with logic chopping and abstraction than it does with bringing clarity to problems of pressing import. There is an irony here as well. Michael Ruse, in a recent article in The Philosopher’s Magazine, expressed similar concerns about academic philosophy.

    I hope we can put any personal unpleasantness behind us and, should you choose to continue this discussion, stick primarily to issues of substance.

  25. #25 JimCH
    May 31, 2008

    I made a conclusion that a) you didn’t seem to know much philosophy, and b) you’re arrogant. Both are empirical observations, not insults.

    From an outsiders perspective to this discussion … what? Recognizing the fat kid on the playground as such & calling him “Fatso” is an insult precisely because it is an empirical observation that everyone can easily recognize. If the kid were skinny calling him “Fatso” wouldn’t be an insult because it just wouldn’t make sense.

  26. #26 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 31, 2008

    JimCH –

    Thanks for the defense, but are you suggesting that you agree with D. S.’s conclusion that I am arrogant? :)

  27. #27 JimCH
    May 31, 2008

    Jason…
    Not at all (but I suspect you’re teasing), at least not beyond what seems healthy :)

  28. #28 Chris Schoen
    June 1, 2008

    JimCH,

    You are miscontruing the nature of the insult “fatso.” It is not merely an empirical observation along the lines of noting that someone is overweight. It goes further by implying a moral failing, where being fat is an indicator of personal weakness. It is comparable with calling a suggestively dressed woman a “slut” or using a derogatory term like the n-word to describe an African-American, going beyond mere description to impute personal inferiority.

    I’m not saying that that something like arrogance is objectively demonstrable; it’s always going to be a matter of taste and interpretation. Nevertheless, it is an arguable quality, rather than an insult or slur that relies on innuendo and coded connotation to denigrate its object.

  29. #29 Leni
    June 1, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse wrote:

    The phrase “faith backed up by reason” which I have used several times already, makes the proper relationship between faith and reason clear.

    I think it’s actually “faith informed by reason”. ;)

    Just a quick remark on the interplay of faith and “reason”. (This will probably also segue nicely with your point that theologians sometimes confuse matters by co-opting everyday terms…)

    It seems to me that Jason is entirely correct about the reasons people believe. Evangelical churches are full of people laying hands on one other (I know, I don’t have a straight face either), rolling on the floor, speaking in tongues, vomiting out and otherwise exorcising demons. Doing all kinds of silly things that are tailored to reaffirm the reasons they believe. It’s real, and gosh-darnit I’m going to freak out with the holy ghost to prove it.

    Further, sometimes there is a direct correlation between the level of enthusiasm expressed in these acts and the amount of “faith” their peers perceive them to have. The more one freaks out, the more “in the spirit” the person is said to be. So it’s also about demonstrating how righteous a believer one is to one’s peers. (I think a lot more can be said about the psycho-social aspects of these displays. I’m not going to give that the treatment it deserves, obviously. So please withhold the criticisms on that count!)

    So, the “faith” card is like a handy swiss army knife that can be used by the devout in all kinds of situations. It deflects unanswerable questions or criticism (have faith in God’s plan, because you know darn well there’s no rational reason for “his actions”), it can keep doubt at bay, and it can measure the amount of enthusiasm a believer has for his or her religion. Ruse’s faith “argument” most certainly exists outside of academia, but perhaps not in the way he seems to think it does. It is more or less their get out of jail free card. It comes out when the reasons fail, or is used in conjunction with reason when the reasons aren’t all that good.

  30. #30 Leni
    June 1, 2008

    Chris Schoen wrote:

    You are miscontruing the nature of the insult “fatso.”

    Ah, yes. The much maligned, oft misunderstood Welles-DeLuise theorem. ;)

  31. #31 JimV
    June 1, 2008

    I see big differences among the unfounded arrogance of people like George W. Bush, the somewhat-founded arrogance of people like Muhammed Ali, and the confidence of people who have studied and thought about something a lot and reached a firm conclusion which they will defend strongly until they see new evidence which convinces them otherwise. Much that is worthwhile has resulted from the latter, not so much from the former. The difficulty of course is to tell them apart in a new encounter. My guess from reading this blog for a while is that our host falls mainly in the latter category, although we all have bits of the former in us. (I think they are evolutionary successful traits, unfortunately, and we all come from a long line of successful evolvers.)

  32. #32 B8ovin
    June 1, 2008

    DS-

    Help me out here. I am a “casual” atheist and an even more casual philosophy student. Your friend, Mr. Ruse, has dismissed Mr. Dawkins book for a variety of reasons. I might conclude from reading his review that I need not bother with “The God Delusion”. Do you think that the book has no value to its intended audience, has value to its intended audience but not the readership of “Isis”, has intrinsic value to all readers or no value to anyone? I have not read the book, but I have read Mr. Ruse’s review and find it cunningly elitist, just as Mr. Rosenhouse suggests. I find it difficult to believe that you can dismiss the book based on academic concerns alone, because I don’t believe it was written to be a text book, just as I don’t believe “Bambi” was a nature documentary. Suggesting the book is dismal based on what it doesn’t say isn’t the same thing as reviewing what it does say, reviewing its importance or reviewing its value to some readers. Do you or Mr. Ruse accept the point that some people are atheist because they simply don’t believe or can see no reason to believe? While I am sure your philosophy (and your friendships) have great value to you, and help justify all those long years of study, what of the rest of us? It is wonderful that people like you exist to ponder with one another the meanings and meanderings of philosophical argument, but I have tons of other things to do and just want to read a book about atheism, maybe one that just covers basics that I’ll understand, and maybe suggest other reads. Is it wrong of me to not care what theology says in detail and be curious only about basic fact? You know, all that thinking may put food on your table but it doesn’t feed my family, just my curiosity.

    So what do you say? Has Dawkin’s book any value at all or is it just junk because it doesn’t pay decent homage to Mr. Ruse’s field?

  33. #33 J. J. Ramsey
    June 1, 2008

    B8tovin: “Do you think that the book has no value to its intended audience, has value to its intended audience but not the readership of ‘Isis’, has intrinsic value to all readers or no value to anyone?”

    I’d say that the best summary of the good and the bad of The God Delusion is at the Bad Idea Blog. Here are some of the more scathing snippets:

    Unfortunately, Dawkins’ admittedly quite excellent defense of reason as a method still inevitably implies a rigor that his book can’t live up to. Fair or not, anyone claiming to defend reason as a method is going to come under especially close scrutiny as to their own usage of it: being fun and flippant isn’t going to come off well. And that really is a problem here: if you try to read the book with an aggressively critical eye, then it really is pretty thin stuff….

    “The God Delusion” isn’t something I’d hand to a believing friend: not someone I respect. Not someone I’d want to come to understand atheists better (Dawkins’ discussion of the nature of atheism was actually sort of bumbling, and I thought his construction of “certainty levels” just further confuses issues of knowledge and belief rather than clarifying them). And certainly not someone I’d want to convince.

    The gist of the negative part of the review is that Dawkins gives nitpickers far too many opportunities. Not all of his review is scathing, though. Far from it. Here’s the rest of it: Link

  34. #34 Shirakawasuna
    June 1, 2008

    And the counterpoint, J. J. Ramsey, is that the apparent alternative to giving nitpickers opportunities is to both inflate the importance of ideas like the ontological argument by giving it more space and likely bore the target audience by discussing something tangential to their belief and others’ beliefs (it’s not terribly common outside of academic circles). Dawkins referenced a book rather than going into this specific topic for very long. Is this an illegitimate sacrifice given my above explanation? Clearly if one wanted to get into all the nits that could be picked concerning the ontological argument, it would indeed take an entire book.

    All of this argument is over confusing the intention of Dawkins’ book with the entirety or what they personally consider sufficient consideration for arguments for atheism (or against theism, same difference). Did Dawkins ever say that he was going to thoroughly explain the counterarguments to every argument against God’s existence (the one he defined)? Did he even say he was going to thoroughly go through the less common and more academic ones? No? Then why are you criticizing him as if he had?

    Much of these complaints seem to get confused and work against their apparent goal, as well, which is exemplified perfectly in Michael Ruse’s rather arrogant and astoundingly poorly-argued review in which he himself inflates the importance of these arguments (and the importance of Dawkins’ not giving them enough shrift), with slight addendums explaining that he still doesn’t find those arguments to be successful. If these truly are nits to pick, it’s not exactly a good idea to say that they make the book a failure. I believe he said “downright awful”.

    Do you really not see the contradiction between admitting that this is nitpicking and that the arguments not properly considered still fail on further consideration, but that the book is “downright awful” because of them? Unless Ruse is entirely incompetent, I think we should indeed take the examples he lists as the best he has, and they’re poor ones indeed.

  35. #35 JimCH
    June 1, 2008

    Chris Schoen…
    You caught me being lazy. What I let pass without comment is that it seemed doubtful that “arrogant” was a passive observation & not intended as an insult, given the tone of the comment in which it was delivered. If it was not an insult then at the very least it was offered as a mild chiding. In any case the framing of the word here constrained the continuum of possible intentions to imply some degree of unsavory behavior. If the intent of the tag “arrogant” was not pejorative in its use then it would not have made sense to bring it up in this instance. Therefore, it was either a mild chiding (doubtful), a passive observation (more doubtful), or an insult. However, the thought of equivocating on the use of “fatso” is kinda funny to me for some reason.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    June 1, 2008

    Shirakawasuna: “And the counterpoint, J. J. Ramsey, is that the apparent alternative to giving nitpickers opportunities is to both inflate the importance of ideas like the ontological argument …”

    No, the alternative to giving nitpickers opportunities is to make one’s arguments more rigorous. Dawkins could have used the same six pages to make a good rebuttal against the ontological argument instead of a bad one. Dawkins could have checked the source of his quotes and avoided repeating a quote mine of John Adams. A moment’s thought would have been enough for him to know better than to say that theology had been stagnant since about 200 C.E. (and it would have kept him from contradicting himself when snarking about feminist theology, which wasn’t around a century ago, let alone earlier than 200 C.E.) He could have boned up on the bog-standard Christian apologetics, which would have made him aware that the apologists have made much sport of the pseudohistorical parallels that some atheists have made between Jesus and pagan religions, and thus avoided alluding to them. These nits were not hard to avoid. All Dawkins needed to do was (gasp!) do some research. A regular on IIDB’s BC&H forum could have done it without much trouble.

  37. #37 DS
    June 1, 2008

    Sorry Caliban! I read your comment too quickly and confused your handle with “Caledonian”. Mea culpa. I really should have been more careful than that.

    Jason, I have to agree with Chris Schoen. While it may not be nice to describe someone as “arrogant,” it is not a slur (though I’ll admit perhaps I should have said something more precise like “I find your response arrogant”–as I said I really don’t know much about you as a person). But what can I say: you dismiss a field I have a lot of respect for–philosophy–in what I can only describe as arrogant and dismissive terms. I base that judgment solely on what you’ve written on your blog. I’m not saying, “you’re arrogant, and therefore you must be wrong,” but rather “because you’re dismissing philosophy without (in my opinion) justifiable reasons, you’re acting arrogantly.” Big difference, I think.

    Jason, I don’t just ‘hobnob’ with historians and philosophers. Is that really what you think historians and philosophers of science do–just stand around in a room drinking sherry and speculating about some far-away real world we’d rather not touch? No: we read and think about as much source material as we can, which has included (for me) quite a lot of theology from antiquity to the present. I’m not saying that guarantees that everything I say will be smarter than someone else, but here again you’re being dismissive of other disciplines in a way that doesn’t do you credit.

    Finally, B8ovin:
    As I’ve said many times in comments posted here, I liked much of Dawkins’ book and I do think his approach has merit (as does Ruse). I’m an atheist, and I feel just as frustrated with American culture as does Dawkins and many of you.

  38. #38 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 2, 2008

    D.S. –

    You have things backward. It was you who were dismissive of my experiences as a legitimate source of information. You played the “I’m a scholar, you just have a few anecdotes,” card, which is about as arrogant as it gets.

    You mock the idea that your hobnobbing consists of drinking sherry and speculating about some far away real-world. Then to prove your point you tell me that your activities involve reading and thinking and studying ancient theology. Are you listening to yourself? Has it occurred to you that if you want to understand what modern fundamentalists and modern evangelicals believe you should interact with them, go to their gatherings, listen to their preachers and so on? I’m not dismissive of your discipline (history). You have this strange idea that being dismissive of certain bizarre and contentious statements on your part somehow constitutes a dismissmal of your discipline. More arrogance on your part, I’d say. But you don’t seem to understand that we are not talking about history. We are talking about the present.

    J.J. Ramsey –

    You know, you’re much better at this than Ruse or Eagleton or most of the other folks who have reviewed TGD for the prestige outlets. I actually think less of the book because of the points you raise. But my opinion of it was so high to begin with that I still give it a thumbs up. :)

    JimV –

    An excellent analysis. Thanks!

  39. #39 Shirakawasuna
    June 2, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey: that sounds reasonable. At the same time I must think that your opinion on this is different from what was written by Ruse and the others alluded to by the various atheist bloggers as invoking the “Courtier’s Reply”. Even your own claims have a sense of inflating the importance of modern apologetics (or the various historical points), though, as while they are indeed accurate and while Dawkins could definitely have improved the research quality for some of his points, we all know that they’re nits, particularly concerning the goal and intended audience of Dawkins’ book, which surely includes primarily atheists and vaguely theistic (not firmly) people. I suppose my own summarized opinion would be that there are legitimate issues with the book that should definitely be pointed out, but that how they influence one’s overall opinion of the book should reflect their relative importance to the book’s message itself. I think a lot of the nasty reviews have more to do with some anti-Dawkins vitriol than a balanced approach.

    Since my point has been mostly about Ruse and those defending this type of publication and you didn’t respond to it, I’ll repeat my last paragraph:

    Do you really not see the contradiction between admitting that this is nitpicking and that the arguments not properly considered still fail on further consideration, but that the book is “downright awful” because of them? Unless Ruse is entirely incompetent, I think we should indeed take the examples he lists as the best he has, and they’re poor ones indeed.

  40. #40 J. J. Ramsey
    June 2, 2008

    Shirakawasuna: “Do you really not see the contradiction between admitting that this is nitpicking and that the arguments not properly considered still fail on further consideration, but that the book is ‘downright awful’ because of them?”

    There’s an old joke about how if you put a drop of wine in a barrel of sewage, you get sewage, and if you put a drop of sewage in a barrel of wine, you still get sewage. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it doesn’t take very many nits to spoil a polemic. If you make only a few mistakes, but they are mistakes that could have been avoided by due diligence, then your credibility is shot. The reader who laughs his head off at Dawkins’ remark of how theology hasn’t moved on in eighteen centuries is a reader who will probably not take Dawkins’ message seriously.

  41. #41 Kevin
    June 2, 2008

    quork: “It has a very nice blue cover”

    does it also have the soothing words “Stay Calm” on it?

  42. #42 Kevin
    June 2, 2008

    “he has some really bang-up arguments up his sleeve that he did not include in his review, then I’m afraid I can not consider them”

    “I have an excellent proof of how and why Dawkins has failed to provide any insight into the issue at hand, however it is too lengthy to fit in this margin….” Ruse?

  43. #43 tomh
    June 2, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey wrote: The reader who laughs his head off at Dawkins’ remark of how theology hasn’t moved on in eighteen centuries is a reader who will probably not take Dawkins’ message seriously.

    This reader you postulate who places such importance on modern theological arguments will never take a popular work like TGD seriously. And make no mistake, this is a popular level book, for Americans mainly, aimed at American religion. What people like Ruse and Eagleton don’t seem to realize is that the mainstream American religion is fundamentalism. More than 1 in 4 American adults, (55 million), identify themselves as born-again evangelicals, 2 of 3 adults want Creationism taught in schools, almost 80% want prayer sanctioned in schools, the list goes on and on. Theological arguments, whether abstruse, logical, or whatever are not even a blip on the radar of American religion. And to have people review this book who spend their time, as DS so aptly put it, “we read and think about as much source material as we can, which has included (for me) quite a lot of theology from antiquity to the present”, to have academics like this review a gut-level book like Dawkins wrote is truly laughable.

  44. #44 J. J. Ramsey
    June 2, 2008

    tomh: “This reader you postulate who places such importance on modern theological arguments will never take a popular work like TGD seriously.”

    We aren’t necessarily talking about a theologically sophisticated reader here, just someone who knows a little history. A reader who knows that Protestantism is far younger than eighteen centuries could easily find Dawkins’ statement risible, and at least one of them did, for that very reason.

  45. #45 Shirakawasuna
    June 2, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey: I like the joke, but it’s a bit of a repetition of the entire point, eh? In this case, I think that bit of sewage doesn’t turn the wine and is really just more like some bad grapes. I also think that the reviewers like Ruse or the various theologians who do actually complain about simply not exploring an idea thoroughly enough for their tastes have tried this wine before and prefer their sherry. To take the analogy a bit too far, I’d say it seems like their distaste for his past vintages has led them to pretend that bad grapes are sewage.

  46. #46 tomh
    June 3, 2008

    J.J. Ramsay wrote:
    A reader who knows that Protestantism is far younger than eighteen centuries could easily find Dawkins’ statement risible, and at least one of them did, for that very reason.

    Another dyed-in-the-wool religionist review. Someone who sneers at Dawkins’s comment that “the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world.” How can you take anything seriously from someone who takes it as a given that the gospels are a reliable account of world history? And Protestantism? That’s your example of how religion has progressed in the last 18 centuries? Founded by that paragon of virtue, Martin Luther, with the Bible the sole measure of theology – this is your best example of progress? You do realize that those 55 million born again evangelicals in America are all Protestants, I’m sure. Stagnant is too mild a word for theology over the last 18 centuries.

  47. #47 Chris Schoen
    June 3, 2008

    Tom H,

    I believe the point is that Dawkins’ comment that theology has not moved on in 18 centuries is a circular argument. For those already inclined to agree with him, it’s an endorsement of what they already know to be true. For those inclined to treat Christianity sympathetically, or at least give it the benefit of the doubt, it’s an empty statement; that is, it’s only meaningful if you define “moved on” as “employed the scientific method,” which begs the question of whether there is any valid function for religion outside of making scientific truth claims–a question which Dawkins rejects outright. As he once wrote, proudly, on the definition of genes, he has now defined religion “in such a way that [he] cannot really help being right!”

    Whether or not you care for it, Christian theology has been under pretty constant discussion for the last two millenia. Even though much of the doctrine was ironed out fairly early on (Council of Nicea, etc.), the interpretation of how to understand the gospels has never really stood still, from the “desert fathers” to the scholastics, to the reformation and counter-reformation, the Deists, the Enthusiasts, the Christian Existentialists, the rise of Fundamentalism, Ecumenicalism, Liberation Theology, and (as J.J. mentions) Feminist Theology.

    Saying that none of that matters, because the entire conversation is based on a false premise (The God Hypothesis) is one thing, but it’s ridiculous to claim that the Abrahamic religions are stuck in time. They have all responded to contemporary cultural and social changes over the years, including the development of science. There is very little “stone age” left in the god-concept of even contemporary fundamentalists. This is the kind of oversimplification that makes TGD very hard to take seriously.

    Also, I think you misinterpreted Stephen Tompkins in Ship of Fools. His point is that there is no use “debunking” the Christmas story, as it operates in a mythic, rather than factual sense (“the single most obviously legendary part of the four Gospels”).

  48. #48 tomh
    June 3, 2008

    Chris Schoen wrote: I think you misinterpreted Stephen Tompkins in Ship of Fools. His point is that there is no use “debunking” the Christmas story, as it operates in a mythic, rather than factual sense (“the single most obviously legendary part of the four Gospels”).

    Did you read the rest of the sentence? After the Christmas story quote he goes on to say that Dawkins also , “tells us that “the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world.””
    The very next sentence begins, “Beyond all these unreasonable generalisations about religion, …” It’s very clear what he means – that the Gospels, aside perhaps from the Christmas story, are a reliable account of what happened in history.

  49. #49 Chris Schoen
    June 3, 2008

    The very next sentence begins, “Beyond all these unreasonable generalisations about religion, …” It’s very clear what he means – that the Gospels, aside perhaps from the Christmas story, are a reliable account of what happened in history.

    In context, I think the more likely interpretation to be that the generalization Tompkins indicates is “all Christians believe in the historical truth of the gospels.” This is more more in keeping with the spirit of his argument in the preceding paragraphs, where he takes Dawkins to task for generalizing the worst excesses of Christianity (promoting intellectual dishonesty, intolerance of homosexuality, blind faith, etc.)

  50. #50 eddie
    June 3, 2008

    I think the correct phrase is “sour grapes” ;)

  51. #51 J. J. Ramsey
    June 3, 2008

    tomh: “It’s very clear what he means – that the Gospels, aside perhaps from the Christmas story, are a reliable account of what happened in history.”

    It’s obvious that he thinks Dawkins overgeneralized from the Christmas stories. It is likely that he thinks that they are somewhat reliable. How reliable he thinks they are, and for what purpose they are reliable, isn’t that clear from the review.

    tomh: “And Protestantism? That’s your example of how religion has progressed in the last 18 centuries?”

    Ahem, Dawkins’ words were “moved on,” not “progressed.” In other words, to anybody not trying to defend Dawkins, it looks like he is saying that theology hasn’t changed in eighteen centuries, which is laughably wrong, regardless of what one thinks of the quality of the changes.

  52. #52 386sx
    June 4, 2008

    Ahem, Dawkins’ words were “moved on,” not “progressed.” In other words, to anybody not trying to defend Dawkins, it looks like he is saying that theology hasn’t changed in eighteen centuries, which is laughably wrong, regardless of what one thinks of the quality of the changes.

    Dawkins was talking about the “trinity” and the “characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology” and about how the Catholic Encylopedia quotes third-century theologian St Gregory.

    Here’s the whole thing:

    “Do we have one god in three parts, or three gods in one? The Catholic Encylopedia clears up the matter for us, in a masterpiece of theological close reasoning:

    In the unity of the Godhead there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct from one another. Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: ‘the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.’

    As if that were not clear enough, the Encyclopedia quotes the third-century theologian St Gregory the Miracle Worker:

    There is therefore nothing created, nothing subject to another in the Trinity: nor is there anything that has been added as though it once has not existed, but had entered afterwards: therefore the Father has never been without the Son, nor the Son without the Spirit: and this same Trinity is immutable and unalterable forever.

    Whatever miracles may have earned St Gregory his nickname, they were not miracles of honest lucidity. His words convey the characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology, which – unlike science or most other branches of human scholarship – has not moved on in eighteen centuries. Thomas Jefferson, as so often, got it right when he said, ‘Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

    I think some people around here like to call it “bafflegab.”

    Same ol’ bafflegab eighteen centuries later!

    Bafflegab baffle!

  53. #53 386sx
    June 4, 2008

    There is therefore nothing created, nothing subject to another in the Trinity: nor is there anything that has been added as though it once has not existed, but had entered afterwards: therefore the Father has never been without the Son, nor the Son without the Spirit: and this same Trinity is immutable and unalterable forever.

    Why is that guy talking like he knows what he’s talking about? He couldn’t possibly know that, but he talks like he knows what he’s talking about. Why?

    The answer is of course: he’s pretending like a little baby. Or he’s a fake.

  54. #54 Leni
    June 4, 2008

    Well, one aspect of theology hasn’t changed in 18 centuries: arguments for god that pass muster. Like they say, some things always say the same :)

    Sorry for butting in, but I think this is mistaken:

    Chris Schoen wrote:

    For those inclined to treat Christianity sympathetically, or at least give it the benefit of the doubt, it’s an empty statement; that is, it’s only meaningful if you define “moved on” as “employed the scientific method,”…

    Are you sure that’s they only way? Dawkins has acknowledged the fact that the “liberalization” (or neutering, to be indelicate) of religion is a good thing. I doubt very much that he, or anyone sane, would argue that religious ideas or practice have not changed in all this time. Of course it has, and largely for the better. In fact, one of the central points of “the new atheism” is that the religious ideas that have given way should have. They just haven’t given way perhaps as quickly as some of us would like. To me, it seems like unless one is going out of one’s way to criticize Dawkins, the obvious conclusion is that he means something particular about theology hasn’t changed in nearly 2000 years. Not that “religious ideas in general” haven’t changed in all this time.

    Flat-earthism, geo-centrism, creationism. As bad as those things are now, the situation certainly isn’t as bad as it was, say, 1500 years ago. That is a good thing. Nevertheless, I think we can all acknowledge that the arguments for god have not improved at a comparable rate. They certainly haven’t become much more coherent (much less demonstrably correct.)So in that respect, as much as the church has given way to modern knowledge and culture changes, and as much as our cultural discussion of god has changed, some things still have not. And certainly “case for the existence of god/s” is foremost on that list.

    The discussion about how we choose to worship undoubtedly has improved in some respects, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t improve in other respects. And since Dawkins is taking it to task for not having good arguments for god, perhaps we shouldn’t blame him for not looking to feminist theology or protestantism for a better argument. After all, they haven’t produced one, have they?

    You more or less say so yourself later in your post:

    Whether or not you care for it, Christian theology has been under pretty constant discussion for the last two millenia.

    This discussion has not born the fruit of a better case for god. It’s born the fruit of a kinder, gentler religion (in some cases), perhaps. But these improvements in making a less offensive, less oppressive, and less cruel religion (in some cases) did not result in a better argument for god’s existence than anything Dawkins mentioned.

  55. #55 Leni
    June 4, 2008

    386sx quoted Dawkins saying:

    His words convey the characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology, which – unlike science or most other branches of human scholarship – has not moved on in eighteen centuries.

    OK I assumed he was talking specifically about arguments for god/s- I stand corrected. Still, he certainly isn’t saying that the content of theology hasn’t changed in eighteen centuries (e.g. feminist, protestant, deist…).

  56. #56 Shirakawasuna
    June 4, 2008

    386sx: good catch. I had searched through my ebook version for it to double check and completely failed to notice the context… which makes me look a bit stupid :). Yet another lob against Dawkins that isn’t up to snuff…

    So now rather than Dawkins merely making what would be a somewhat ignorant point, and a very small one, and blowing its effect out of proportion, it’s a complaint essentially about how he wrote a single sentence such that someone not reading it very closely (like me) *might* come off with the wrong impression. Sounds like at best we should be complaining to Dawkins’ editor unless we expect him to be superhuman and never make these kinds of “mistakes”.

  57. #57 Shirakawasuna
    June 4, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey: The article you linked to made the same mistake I did, and as such I don’t think we can really blame Dawkins for someone else’s incompetence. Here’s the relevant line to this specific topic:
    He tells us that “theology ? unlike science, or most other branches of human scholarship ? has not moved on in eighteen centuries” ? which invites scepticism from anyone who has heard of, for example, Protestantism.

    Now read 386sx’s post, which is quite accurate as to the context. This is clearly either a quotemine or an example of extreme incompetence – if I were going to quote Dawkins to criticize him, I’m pretty sure I would’ve noticed the context. In this case Dawkins didn’t even set it up terribly obviously for quotemining, as has been the case in some of the more atrocious creationist ones, so we can’t blame him for that… I must wonder what level of fault one is bestowing, exactly, such that this type of “error” leaves one with such a bad impression.

  58. #58 J. J. Ramsey
    June 4, 2008

    Leni: “Still, he certainly isn’t saying that the content of theology hasn’t changed in eighteen centuries (e.g. feminist, protestant, deist…).”

    Excuse me, but there is nothing in the larger context that indicates that Dawkins isn’t talking about the content of theology. 386sx seems to be trying to say that Dawkins is saying that the “characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology” hasn’t moved on in eighteen centuries, but that would make Dawkins’ comparison to “science or most other branches of human scholarship” make no sense. Theology is a branch of human scholarship. An “obscurantist flavour” is not.

  59. #59 tomh
    June 4, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey wrote: Dawkins’ words were “moved on,” not “progressed.

    Moved on, progressed, changed, oh my. What a fine example of the hair-splitting that defines the study of theology. Don’t you ever tire of torturing logic as you try to defend the house of cards that’s called religion?

  60. #60 Chris Schoen
    June 4, 2008

    Leni,

    How much rides on your presumption that people’s beliefs should necessarily arise out of arguments. Granted, this is the standard that is used for science, and rightly (though tautologically) so. But what is the argument for believing in arguments, universally?

    My point is not to belittle the scientific method. I am just recapitulating the case, once widely accepted, that science cannot validate its own metaphysics. To do so would be bootstrapping.

    Most religious believers were never argued into their beliefs, or (for those who later recanted) argued out. People tend to stick with what works for them–that’s the real meaning of faith. And it applies to us all equally. If science didn’t “work” it would have been abandoned. By the same standard, religion has obviously “worked” for almost all humans who have ever lived. To call this denial, or comfort-seeking, is besides the point. How do we address the enormous effectiveness of religion, as it is actually perceived? Rationalist critiques do not approach this problem.

    I was never “argued” into my present atheism. It just felt “true,” at a certain point in my childhood, that the god I had been raised to believe in did not exist. Now that I’m older and have had a chance to survey a wide range of human beliefs, I realize that I have the choice of re-entering that belief system if I choose (though it would be in a more *cough* sophisticated fashion than my childhood version). The reason I don’t is not because of any compelling arguments against theism, but because I frankly don’t like much of the baggage of the Christian tradition (though I do find many of the myths somewhat moving).

    It is a peculiarity of the rationalist mindset that proceeds as though there were only one way to assemble the known facts into a meaningful coherence, and that we have no say in the matter. I’m always a little surprised to hear Dawkins say that, all things being equal if there had been no Darwin, he would have no choice but to be a Creationist.

    Theology is much more than rational argument for belief (in fact most theologians haven’t bothered with that type of argument for many years, C.S. Lewis notwithstanding). It’s an explication of what that belief means, and feels like; of how it is perceived and integrated into our overall experience and understanding. This, to me, is the enormous category error that has fueled a debate that has obviously been far from fruitful.

  61. #61 386sx
    June 4, 2008

    Excuse me, but there is nothing in the larger context that indicates that Dawkins isn’t talking about the content of theology. 386sx seems to be trying to say that Dawkins is saying that the “characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology” hasn’t moved on in eighteen centuries, but that would make Dawkins’ comparison to “science or most other branches of human scholarship” make no sense. Theology is a branch of human scholarship. An “obscurantist flavour” is not.

    Yeah but theology isn’t an “obscurantist flavour”. It’s a branch of human scholarship. Looks to me like he’s talking about the “characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology”.

    Look at this:

    “In the unity of the Godhead there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct from one another. Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: ‘the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.”

    What is that? Who could possibly know that? It’s all a bunch of verbose fluffery to make themselves feel like they know what they’re talking about, when actually there’s no way they could possibly know that.

    If anybody knows Mr. Dawkins could they kindly ask him what he means so we can settle this? Thanks!

  62. #62 J. J. Ramsey
    June 4, 2008

    386sx: “Looks to me like he’s talking about the ‘characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology’.”

    Yet it is clear that “theology,” not “the characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology”, that is the subject of the clause “has not moved on in eighteen centuries.” You have to ignore the aside “unlike science, or most other branches of human scholarship” to argue otherwise.

  63. #63 J. J. Ramsey
    June 4, 2008

    tomh: “Moved on, progressed, changed, oh my. What a fine example of the hair-splitting that defines the study of theology. Don’t you ever tire of torturing logic as you try to defend the house of cards that’s called religion?”

    Excuse me, but you are the one who read the idea of progress into the words “moved on,” which don’t clearly connote progress at all. Furthermore, if you do read the idea of progress into them, you imply that Dawkins had implied that theology had progressed up until about 200 C.E.–which Dawkins would hardly grant! It’s also telling that an attack on Dawkins’ words is construed as a defense of religion.

  64. #64 Leni
    June 4, 2008

    JJ Ramsey wrote:

    Excuse me, but there is nothing in the larger context that indicates that Dawkins isn’t talking about the content of theology.

    Yes, there is. Theology never moved into the realm of non-obscurantism. That’s what hasn’t changed about it. He isn’t saying that nothing has changed, he’s saying that part of it hasn’t.

    As I said before, if you step back for a moment and realize that much of Dawkins’ general argument relies on the fact that theology has changed and should change (particularly in response to scientific discovery), perhaps you’ll see that it’s really rather silly to carry on as though Dawkins thinks religion hasn’t at all changed at all in nearly 200 years.

    It really seems as if you are making a mountain out of a molehill here.

    Chris Schoen wrote:

    How much rides on your presumption that people’s beliefs should necessarily arise out of arguments. Granted, this is the standard that is used for science, and rightly (though tautologically) so. But what is the argument for believing in arguments, universally?

    I’m not sure why you are asking me this. I only pointed out that there are more ways for religion or theology to “move forward” than “employ the scientific method.” I gave reasons above that I don’t need to repeat, but if I’m missing something important I’m sorry. Feel free to clarify. I’m not trying to give you the brush off, I just don’t see the relevance.

    Theology is much more than rational argument for belief (in fact most theologians haven’t bothered with that type of argument for many years, C.S. Lewis notwithstanding).

    By “many years” did you happen to mean “18 centuries”? Kidding aside, CS Lewis didn’t actually say anything new either. At least not that I’m aware of.

    It’s an explication of what that belief means, and feels like; of how it is perceived and integrated into our overall experience and understanding. This, to me, is the enormous category error that has fueled a debate that has obviously been far from fruitful.

    As you said, it’s true that theology is about more than rational arguments for god. Nevertheless, it is an important aspect of it and it has not much improved. (Particularly with regard to Catholism!) So responding to a criticism of that by pointing to feminist theology isn’t really a response at all, it’s a misdirection.

    I wasn’t under the impression you were anti-science or anything, I just disagreed with your characterization of the “moving forward” remark.

  65. #65 quirk
    June 4, 2008

    Leni, as you have spotted all too well, for some, the next best thing to writing a book is to parse the hell out of one that someone else has otherwise written better than the “parser” could dream of doing.

  66. #66 J. J. Ramsey
    June 5, 2008

    Leni: “Yes, there is. Theology never moved into the realm of non-obscurantism. That’s what hasn’t changed about it. He isn’t saying that nothing has changed, he’s saying that part of it hasn’t.”

    And as pointed out, this explanation doesn’t work. You and 386sx are arguing that Dawkins said this,

    the characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology, which – unlike [XXX] – has not moved on in eighteen centuries.”

    where “the characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology” is the subject of the verb “has”. Now based on this interpretation, Dawkins is contrasting this obscurantist flavor with “[XXX].” Now, [XXX] is “science, or most other branches of human scholarship,” so under your own interpretation, Dawkins is comparing a flavor to branches of scholarship–an apples-and-oranges comparison, indeed. If “theology” is the subject of “has”, then Dawkins is comparing one branch of scholarship, theology, with another, and there is no nonsensical comparison. 386sx’s parsing is creative, but doesn’t work.

    Leni: “It really seems as if you are making a mountain out of a molehill here.”

    I merely pointed out that Dawkins wrote a howler of a nit that a critical reader was likely to pick. It was 386sx that made the mountain by engaging in apologetics on behalf of Dawkins. What’s ironic is that he pointed out more nonsense from Dawkins in the process. The quotes Dawkins gave aren’t that obscure. Whatever real or apparent contradictions that they have are paraded openly. The translations of Athanasius and St. Gregory may be a bit stilted, but are otherwise straightforward in meaning and are hardly word salad. His claim that ridicule is the only weapon against unintelligible propositions is also wrong. One can also point out the contradictions or vagueness in such propositions, and indeed if one can’t, one has no business calling them unintelligible in the first place. Essentially, Dawkins paraded a non-argument argument that had far more rhetoric than sense.

  67. #67 Chris Schoen
    June 5, 2008

    But Leni, now you’re having it both ways. To say that Christianity has “liberalized” (even if not aggressively enough for your liking) is to say it has “moved on.” Feminist theology is therefore extremely pertinent.

    You wrote:

    [Theology] has not born the fruit of a better case for god. It’s born the fruit of a kinder, gentler religion (in some cases), perhaps. But these improvements in making a less offensive, less oppressive, and less cruel religion (in some cases) did not result in a better argument for god’s existence than anything Dawkins mentioned.

    You seem, here, to be making the case that on the arguments for god alone rest the question of whether or not Christian theology has “moved on.” And that is why I responded that “arguments” are really besides the point.

    The quote in question is on page 34 of TGD, which is available for review on google books. The quotation which precedes it, concerning the trinity, has nothing to do with an argument for god’s existence. It is one writer’s description of the nature of the trinity. Whether or not it is hair-splitting or obscurantist is not germane to the statement that Dawkins makes next, that Christian theology has been stagnant since the 3rd century.

    Since that time we have seen the East-West schism, the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Deism, and the whole list I wrote above to tomh. It’s true that orthodox Catholicism still exists, but to deny all the “moving on” that has gone on around it is like saying that evolution has not moved on since the Devonian Period since we still have coelacanths and sharks.

    And let’s not forget that even Catholics, with Vatican II, have repudiated the bible-literalism and Scholastic theology of their medieval forebears. So I think it’s fair to ask why comically sloppy statements like this don’t seriously undermine Dawkins’ proposal to be taken seriously on this topic?

  68. #68 tomh
    June 5, 2008

    Chris Schoen wrote:
    It’s true that orthodox Catholicism still exists, but to deny all the “moving on” that has gone on around it is like saying that evolution has not moved on since the Devonian Period since we still have coelacanths and sharks.

    But evolution has not “moved on” – it consists of exactly the same elements and proceeds in exactly the same ways that it always did, natural selection, drift, and so on. The fact of evolution has not changed since the Devonian, or the beginning, for that matter, whenever that was. The fact of theology, like evolution, hasn’t changed either. It still consists of obscure hair-splitting arguments and impenetrable fantasy, whether it’s a third century high priest telling us three is one and one is three, or a modern day equivalent like John Haught telling us to ignore science and subjectively get directly in touch with God. The process of evolution may have produced different plants and animals but evolution itself is unchanged. It’s a fact of nature. Modern theology may differentiate among 2000 different Christian sects but theology itself is unchanged. It’s an imaginative product of the human mind spinning fantasy into ever finer threads.

  69. #69 Leni
    June 7, 2008

    Sorry it took me so long to reply. I’ve just got a Wii. No offense, but it’s a lot more fun that posting ;)

    JJ wrote:

    386sx’s parsing is creative, but doesn’t work.

    I disagree. A quick glance at the paragraph above this sentence would make anyone suspicious that it was you who was being creative. Reading it should confirm that suspicion.

    I’m sorry, but your semantics argument just isn’t convincing. He’s talking about a characteristic of theology not changing. A central, really important characteristic of it to be sure, but it is beyond silly to insist that means he’s saying theologians can’t come up with other ideas. That’s just absurd and clearly not the point of the remark.

    This is trivial semantics, which is not terribly convincing given the simple fact that Dawkins discusses other changes in theology on a regular basis. Positively, even, sometimes. In other words- you are asking us to disregard obvious reality and instead use part of a single sentence to damn Dawkins as a fool. Since I think this both an invalid criticism and a type of quote mining dishonesty, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    Chris Schoen wrote:

    But Leni, now you’re having it both ways. To say that Christianity has “liberalized” (even if not aggressively enough for your liking) is to say it has “moved on.” Feminist theology is therefore extremely pertinent.

    It isn’t that I want it both ways. It’s that you don’t seem to understand that the point of the remark is to criticize an important way in which theology hasn’t changed. Namely- the fact that it failed, after several thousand years of concerted effort, to shed any light whatsoever on a central figure of the theological discussion: the deity or deities at the heart of it all.

    Maybe theology has moved on…. in some respects. But it hasn’t in the respect that Dawkins is specifically criticizing it for. That’s the entire point of the criticism. Hand-waving distractions will not change the fact that he’s right: several thousand years of theology has failed to produce a single coherent description of the very deities it discusses. Including the feminist theologians. They don’t, and can’t, know any more about the nature of their god/s than St. Augustine could have. Or Jesus himself, for that matter.

    Further, that Dawkins has repeatedly acknowledged changes in religious opinion and it’s effects on society necessarily means that he doesn’t think theology hasn’t changed in any imaginable way. That should make it plain that this criticism is little more than overzealous niggling.

    If you want to criticize him that’s fine. Go right ahead. Just please criticize him for something substantial. Like the false Jefferson quote. Now that was bad.

  70. #70 J. J. Ramsey
    June 8, 2008

    Leni: “you are asking us to disregard obvious reality and instead use part of a single sentence to damn Dawkins as a fool.”

    I’m sorry, but you seem to be the one disregarding “obvious reality.” That “part of a single sentence” is evidence that 386sx is wrong. Simply saying that it is a small part of a whole, as if small parts can’t make big differences, is an insufficient reason for dismissal. And it’s not as if Dawkins hasn’t screwed up foolishly before, so it’s not out of character for him. Furthermore, you are stuck picking one poison or another: either he said something obviously wrong about theology, or he made a bizarre apples-and-oranges comparison. At best, Dawkins wrote sloppily. If he looks the fool, that’s his own fault.

  71. #71 J. J. Ramsey
    June 8, 2008

    Leni, to help clarify, let me ask you this question: Did Dawkins mean that “science or most other branches of human scholarship” have “moved on in eighteen centuries”?

  72. #72 Leni
    June 8, 2008

    JJ, just to be clear, did feminist theology actually provide a more coherent description of their gods than St Gregory did? Were the indeed, not displaying that characteristic flavor Dawkins criticized?

    (The answer is no, and you know it.)

    That aspect of theology has not changed and can not change because there is no way any of these people can know anything more than their predecessors claimed to. And yet, strangely, they continue talking about it as if they do.

  73. #73 J. J. Ramsey
    June 8, 2008

    Leni: “JJ, just to be clear, did feminist theology actually provide a more coherent description of their gods than St Gregory did?”

    I haven’t followed feminist theology, so I can’t tell you for sure. Considering that the Bible’s patriarchal bent, they are perhaps less coherent than St. Gregory. :)

    I’m not sure that “coherent” is the word that you want, though. One’s views can be internally coherent but very wrong. Furthermore, there is a big difference between being incoherent and being obscurantist. The essence of obscurantism is to hide one’s meaning, usually by expressing it in purple prose or ambiguities. One can be incoherent and not obscurantist, and vice versa.

    I’m assuming that you aren’t trying to replace “obscurantist” with “coherent” so that you can use “characteristic obscurantist flavor” to refer to something other than obscurantism. After all, that would be obscurantist, wouldn’t it?

    I noticed that you never answered my question: Did Dawkins mean that “science or most other branches of human scholarship” have “moved on in eighteen centuries”? Yes or no?

  74. #74 Leni
    June 9, 2008

    That snarky question was my answer.

    In retrospect, I do think you are right about the sentence. I misread it, stupidly. Sorry for the misunderstanding, and obviously I’ll take the responsibility for that. My mistake.

    That said, (and you have to know this is coming, lol) I don’t think the other points I made are far from the mark. And I do still think the criticism is not tremendously noteworthy. Primarily, I just don’t think things like “feminist theology” have anything to do with what he meant by moving on. I gave two solid examples why.

    Part of the problem, I think, is that you are far more willing that I to consider the sideways motion that ended up in modern theology as “moving on”. I can see what you mean, but I can also see why, in many respects, nothing really has changed.

    It reminds me of a web page I once saw that described, in excruciating detail, the raging debate over whether or not the Balrog has wings. (The Balrog is the big, fiery demon that killed Gandolf somewhere or other in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy). Perhaps some day they too will “move on” to debate the number of teeth he has; or perhaps someone will estimate his average hourly wattage in a very cutting edge PhD thesis. And I suppose you could call that moving on if you wanted, but I think it would be perfectly understandable if someone else did not quite see it that way. It certainly wouldn’t be a “howler”.

    I’m not sure that “coherent” is the word that you want, though. One’s views can be internally coherent but very wrong.

    True, but theology hasn’t even really gotten that far, has it? Baby steps!

    I’m using coherent as a best approximation for “non-obscurantist”. I couldn’t think of a better word. I still can’t, really. Part of what makes it obscurantist is that it is indecipherable, incomprehensible bullshit (whether intended or not). I’m assuming that if it weren’t those things, then at the very least it would be coherent. Maybe that’s overly optimistic, though…

  75. #75 J. J. Ramsey
    June 9, 2008

    Leni: “It reminds me of a web page I once saw that described, in excruciating detail, the raging debate over whether or not the Balrog has wings.”

    Except that the changes in theology haven’t all been that minor. History would have been much different without Protestantism. It laid the groundwork for the fracturing of Western Christianity into denomination after denomination, which itself had ripple effects.

    Now, did Dawkins mean to imply that he thought theology hadn’t changed in significant ways over time? I suspect that he was just careless. That, though, is a problem in itself, and it is one that crops up several times in The God Delusion. It’s as if he was so contemptuous of his opposition that he got lazy when he tackled it.

  76. #76 Leni
    June 9, 2008

    JJ wrote:

    Except that the changes in theology haven’t all been that minor. History would have been much different without Protestantism. It laid the groundwork for the fracturing of Western Christianity into denomination after denomination, which itself had ripple effects.

    Not as minor, but still as irrelevant to criticism of the one critical way in which it can not and did not change.

  77. #77 Shirakawasuna
    June 10, 2008

    Just gonna poke my head in and say that I agree with J. J. Ramsey that Dawkins made a flub.

    I think it’s pretty darn minor, too.

  78. #78 J. J. Ramsey
    June 10, 2008

    Leni: “Not as minor, but still as irrelevant to criticism of the one critical way in which it can not and did not change.”

    Dawkins didn’t specify “the one critical way” that theology can’t change. He was offering a snarky aside, not details.

    Shirakawasuna: “I think it’s pretty darn minor, too.”

    If you already agree with him, perhaps. If you are a wary religious reader, it looks like the kind of dumb mistake that indicates that he just didn’t care about getting things right.

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