Pharyngula

Eagleton vs. Dawkins

You should only read Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion if you enjoy the spectacle of “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.” That’s the title of the review, but I think it’s more a description of the contents. You can get the gist from just the first paragraph.

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Shorter Terry Eagleton: “How dare a mere scientist criticize theology?” The whole thing blusters on in that vein for far too long.

He really misses the point, though. What we have in Dawkins is a scientist who has a fairly good grasp of what the real world is and how it works, noting that the personal spiritual guardian of most religious beliefs doesn’t appear to be doing anything in that world, and that all the convoluted rationalizations of theology seem to be a desperate grasping at straws, trying to insert an a priori belief in a supernatural entity into a universe that doesn’t need it. Eagleton practically snarls that Dawkins is “theologically illiterate”…which I think is a good thing. I don’t need to know the arcana of drawing up a horoscope to know that astrology is bunk; similarly, no one needs to spend years poring over the scribblings of theologians to see that their god is a phantasm. It ain’t the geopolitics of South Asia; South Asia exists, and bears a body of hard data.

And good grief, how can anyone speak of theology as the “queen of the sciences” as if that were a good thing? You’ve got to laugh at the notion, but this fellow writes as though the addition of half a millennium of knowledge that has dethroned his gibbering, senile queen was a great mistake.

Comments

  1. #1 Larry Moran
    October 22, 2006

    In his review Terry Eagelton asks,

    What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

    These questions are about as relevant as those concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They are only of interest to those who already believe in God.

    Dawkins raises question about the very existence of God. Until that question is answered, it’s a waste of time to discuss the concept of grace. I’m surprised that Terry Eagelton doesn’t understand this fundamental point. I’m sure that knowing Rahner’s views on grace aren’t going to help us understand whether God exists.

    There’s also a great deal of hypocrisy in what Eagelton writes. He unfairly accuses Dawkins of not addressing the sophisticated rationalizations of modern religious thought while blithely focusing on C.S. Lewis-type Christainity as though that were the only version of religion that evades the criticisms in “The God Delusion.” One wonders whether Eagelton rejects Hinduism; and if he does, is it because he has read all the modern Hindu apologists?

  2. #2 Don Culberson
    October 22, 2006

    Woo… Eagleton called him a name: “card-carrying rationalist”. Somehow, I know that was intended as a slur, like: “card-carrying child molester”, or “card-carrying wife beater”, but if someone called me a “card-carrying rationalist” I would take it as a good thing! Not Eagleton… anything would be better than rationality! Isn’t it amazing how these folks can turn common sense on its head?

    Card-carrying Uncle Don

  3. #3 Orac
    October 22, 2006

    PZ, you might be interested in the New York Times review of The God Delusion.

  4. #4 Scott Eric Kaufman
    October 22, 2006

    Also of interest is the discussion following Adam Roberts’ account of the Eagleton review on the Valve. Much rancor, much fun … but that’s the long version. You may prefer the short one.

  5. #5 decrepitoldfool
    October 22, 2006

    I must agree that Russell is a far deeper atheist than Dawkins. But it doesn’t matter; they dismissed Russell too.

  6. #6 Zeno
    October 22, 2006

    Theology is “queen of the sciences”? I always thought that mathematics was the queen.

    In the coming bitch fight, I’m putting my money on math.

  7. #7 Caledonian
    October 22, 2006

    The defining feature of the sciences is hypothesis invalidation. If theology is the queen of sciences, it must therefore postulate hypotheses and attempt to invalidate them.

    How, exactly, does theology made testable statements about the existence and nature of God? Where can these statements and their tests be found?

  8. #8 Mary
    October 22, 2006

    If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could.

    Yes – just like all of those creationists who delve so deeply into the details of evolution when making their arguments.

    So glad to have found your blog. Richard Dawkins in my god! 🙂

  9. #9 CalUWxBill
    October 22, 2006

    I agree with you guys on your criticism. However, If Eagleton’s criticism was mainstream Christianity I would be exceedingly pleased!!

  10. #10 Ophelia Benson
    October 22, 2006

    I did some flailing and punching at the Eagleton review last week while it was still subscription, here and here. (Some commenters – well, one, anyway – have been using the ‘how can you ask all these fool questions about what people mean by an omnipotent loving god who allows all this suffering when there are thousands of articles in theology journals that answer the questions?’ routine on me. It’s not a very convincing ploy, it seems to me.)

  11. #11 JasonN
    October 22, 2006

    I had not heard of Terry Eagleton, but the Wikipedia page tells me he is a “Professor of Cultural Theory.”

    That’s the most fraudulent corner of academia short of theology itself. Not only do cultural theorists waste millions of university dollars and hours of students’ time, but they also contribute tremendously to anti-intellectualism by being precisely the type of elitist, unrealistic, ivory tower pricks that the stereotypes suggest. Every time one of these half-wits opens his mouth, he turns somebody off to the entire idea of higher education. Nobody wants to pay $100,000 for their kids to come out of college talking like these goofballs.

    Their field is not a world of facts, reason, and inquiry, but of pointless name-dropping citations and contests to misuse the most avant garde vocabulary words in a single paper. They strive for obfuscation rather than clarity in their papers, and if you sit down to decipher one you’ll spend hours and eventually find that it didn’t actually say anything at all.

    Eagleten seems to at least have some idea of his own uselessness, considering this quote from the Wiki page:

    “Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on. It is also, as we have suggested before, rather an awkward moment in history to find oneself with little or nothing to say about such fundamental questions.” After Theory by Terry Eagleton, 2003

    Of course, he must not fully understand the point, or he would not pretend to be qualified to criticize Dawkins.

  12. #12 Jeremy Henty
    October 22, 2006

    What giggles me is that Eagleton rants furiously for 20-odd paragraphs and *then* accuses Dawkins of being “appallingly bitchy”. Tu quoque!

  13. #13 The Laugh
    October 22, 2006

    “And good grief, how can anyone speak of theology as the “queen of the sciences” as if that were a good thing? You’ve got to laugh at the notion, but this fellow writes as though the addition of half a millennium of knowledge that has dethroned his gibbering, senile queen was a great mistake.”

    PZ the only one that is laughing is you and your minority friends.

  14. #14 The Laugh
    October 22, 2006

    “And good grief, how can anyone speak of theology as the “queen of the sciences” as if that were a good thing? You’ve got to laugh at the notion, but this fellow writes as though the addition of half a millennium of knowledge that has dethroned his gibbering, senile queen was a great mistake.”

    PZ the only one that is laughing is you and your minority friends.

  15. #15 The Laugh
    October 22, 2006

    “And good grief, how can anyone speak of theology as the “queen of the sciences” as if that were a good thing? You’ve got to laugh at the notion, but this fellow writes as though the addition of half a millennium of knowledge that has dethroned his gibbering, senile queen was a great mistake.”

    PZ the only one that is laughing is you and your minority friends.

  16. #16 Arun
    October 22, 2006

    Suppose one studied religion and came to the conclusion that what is central in religion is not God, but belief. After all, the defining characteristic of a phenomenon need not be its most visible one. The believer casts the world (of people) into two categories – those who believe and those who don’t. It is this that produces all the social effects commonly associated with religion. Among other things, in a religious world, the construction of one’s sense of self is tied to belief.

    All that is happening on this blog is then that a religionist of one type is saying to the religionist of another type that “my belief is more rational than yours”. If Dawkins is successful, he has merely replaced one mode of religion with another. To be truely successful, IMO, he has to change the mode of thinking altogether. For example, a different ethic would be – what you do is what counts. Your identity is constructed from what you do and how you relate to others, not in what you believe. So, e.g., in a culture with this ethic, the following will be unintelligible: “”There are times when I am so little like myself that one would take me for another man of entirely opposite character” (Rosseau)

    The reason this is that for most people, the belief in scientific materialism is quite barren as a guide for daily living. It leads to this : “It is a purely consumer society. There is not much to life out there except buying things. Granted, a medieval serf would have regarded this as a problem much to be desired, but it leads to a certain bleakness today.” (Fred Reed).

  17. #17 Joel Sax
    October 22, 2006

    Indeed, how dare a scientist criticize theology without taking the time to understand the arguments?

    Marilyn Robinson does a nice number on Dawkins in the recent issue of Harper’s Magazine (November 2006), pointing out rather adeptly that Dawkins cannot be accused of foisting science on theology because his epistemology is hardly scientific.

    An excellent read that I cannot summarize here but do so on my blog later. This agnostic agreed with it on many points. When it comes to epistemology, Dawkins can hardly be called rigorous and truthseeking, just another gnat in the eye of human searching.

  18. #18 JasonG
    October 22, 2006

    Quoth Eagleton, “Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins…”

    The use of the word “rationalist” as a pejorative is a fairly good indicator of an author’s departure from reality. However, I have to admit that I’d love to obtain a rationalist card–I could flash it to any missionary who attempts to convert me to this, that, or the other.

  19. #19 Arun
    October 22, 2006

    “South Asia exists”.

    Actually, “South Asia” as a political or geographical division is a modern construct. It used to be part of the Orient. Columbus would have referred to any part of “South Asia” (as well as parts distant from it) as “India”. Though the British ranged all over South Asia, they had a “East India Office” and not a “South Asia Office”, etc. As far as I can tell, “South Asia” dates from the Cold War.

    Moreover the “South Asian” identity is a contested one.
    E.g.,
    http://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2006/09/imagining-south-asia-journal-cfp.html

  20. #20 Tom Huxley
    October 22, 2006

    “The reason this is that for most people, the belief in scientific materialism is quite barren as a guide for daily living. It leads to this : “It is a purely consumer society. There is not much to life out there except buying things. Granted, a medieval serf would have regarded this as a problem much to be desired, but it leads to a certain bleakness today.” (Fred Reed).”

    Yeah, I’m sure if you compare the consumer spending of the average Christian with the average agnostic or atheist in this country, those non-believers would rival Mellon or Rockefeller in their rapacious desires in comparison to the generous, self-denying theists. Please. The megachurches that are engulfing more and more of the nominal “Christian” population in this country are built on the foundations of Marketing 101, and they encourage personal accumulation and the furtherance of economic inequality as amendments 11 and 12 to the (as ol’ Al Gonzalez might say) quaint decalogue that is just so damned demanding. Very convincing, Arun.

    As for you referral to evolutionary biology as a religion – well, if you’ve actually been reading this blog as you indicate, you should have a better understanding of why such a silly claim is as tired as the rest of your arguments.

  21. #21 GH
    October 22, 2006

    PZ the only one that is laughing is you and your minority friends

    Oh no there are many more.

    It seems to me all these people bang on Dawkins for this or that when it is more than clear to anyone that all they have to do is simply provide even the smallest thread of evidence but simply cannot do so.

  22. #22 Larry Moran
    October 22, 2006

    Joel Sax asks,

    Indeed, how dare a scientist criticize theology without taking the time to understand the arguments?

    Which arguments concerning the existence of God do you think Dawkins doesn’t understand?

    This is your big chance to enlighten all atheists. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

  23. #23 Larry Moran
    October 22, 2006

    Joel Sax asks,

    Indeed, how dare a scientist criticize theology without taking the time to understand the arguments?

    Which arguments concerning the existence of God do you think Dawkins doesn’t understand?

    This is your big chance to enlighten all atheists. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

  24. #24 Kristine
    October 22, 2006

    This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.

    Excuse me, who is best at coming up with “vulgar caricatures of religious faith” if it’s not the religious themselves?

    I don’t see much “wincing” when self-caricatures emit their unintentional self-parody and allow this drivel to influence what they call foreign or domestic policy.

  25. #25 Tom Morris
    October 22, 2006

    You guys just don’t get it – you’re reading this review as if the words on the page mean what they say they mean. I’ve been looking at my super-clever, theoretically-constructed machine which applies the latest neo-Foucauldian, re-de-constituted Freudian frameworks to texts and it has spat out a rewriting of the idea that theology is “Queen of the sciences”. In fact, theology is the drag queen of the sciences. Yes, it tries to tuck away the parts that would give away it’s fakery and dress itself up in a big old wig – but in fact, it’s nothin’ but a drag queen.

    When you think of theology, just think of a woman with chest hair. Or this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4alLarEefs

  26. #26 JamesR
    October 22, 2006

    “These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday”

    Yeah right! Like maybe in some parallel Fetishist Queen universe where theology is the science of choice. And especially if they get to dress up like the catholic church dudes with funny hats and all.

  27. #27 Scott Hatfield
    October 22, 2006

    I won’t gainsay the general tone of criticism found here, as I haven’t read the article in question. I merely note the following:

    1) PZ’s summary of the article does not, in fact, follow from the excerpt quoted above. The situation is *not* ‘How dare a scientist discuss theology?’. The complaint seems to be ‘Why should I regard the opinion of the theologically unsophisticated on the question of God?’ In other words, Dawkins isn’t to be disqualified on the basis of being a scientist; the implied lack of credibility is instead to be derived from Dawkins’ alleged lack of theological sophistication. The article may well eventually make the point PZ claims it makes; I will read it for myself to decide.

    2) Whichever argument that Eagleton is making, neither are valid with respect to ‘The God Delusion’ and Dawkins’ position as a whole. Dawkins could be a complete ignoramus on theology, but only some of his arguments refer to theology. The fact that one discipline has proposed solutions to the problem of evil (theodicy) does not make it any less of a problem, since their proposed models are not testable.

    3) Having said all that, if Dr. Dawkins is really interested in drawing those with liberal or moderate religious sentiments to consider abandoning the ‘God delusion’, he would be more effective if those arguments which referred to theology considered viewpoints other than those of fundamentalists.

    Respectfully submitted…SH

  28. #28 jeffw
    October 22, 2006

    Their field is not a world of facts, reason, and inquiry, but of pointless name-dropping citations and contests to misuse the most avant garde vocabulary words in a single paper. They strive for obfuscation rather than clarity in their papers, and if you sit down to decipher one you’ll spend hours and eventually find that it didn’t actually say anything at all.

    Well said. Exactly my impression. The whole review is just one long series of disconnected babblings by someone who tries too hard to sound intelligent, and fails miserably. A real struggle to finish it.

  29. #29 j.t.delaney
    October 22, 2006

    “Queen of science” — as in a sort of a garish, Bangkok lady-boy artifice of the real thing. I have to say, I kinda like this analogy! I guess you can think of theology as science’s overly-eager, heavy-jawed “girlfriend” sitting at the bar of academia: sure, after enough alcohol she looks enticing, but once you get to third base, you realize you’ve made some embarrasing errors in judgement… Suddenly, being a “positivist” never sounded so good.

    My goodness, how dare somebody who’s job it is to study the natural world using reason and empirical evidense write a book about theology! After all, scientists are interested in things that have a basis in reality — they’re totally ill-prepared to talk about God! They just don’t have the insights and expertise on things that don’t “exist” in the literal sense. This rube actually seems to say this:

    “…God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing…”

    Ah yes, God is the sound of one hand clapping, too. Wow, that’s totally deep. You freakkin’ blew my mind! Dude, you should totally write a book or something.

    I really enjoyed The God Delusion, but I would say that Dawkins didn’t go far enough in his critique of the creation myth. Evidently, he didn’t make it clear enough to folks like Eagleton that “God did it” isn’t a legitimate answer to the question “how is there something instead of nothing?”, since it doesn’t answer the question in any meaningful way. “God did it” isn’t even the right answer to the right question, since any explanation involving poofing things into existence doesn’t actually address the original question of how. I don’t think Dawkins intentionally pulled punches, but I wish he had made this point more clearly for the Eagletons of the world.

    This really is a strange book review. Is it just me, or are most paragraphs of it are devoted to defending Eagleton’s own favorite flavor of Jesus-n-me/”I got a tingly feeling” treacle? It seems that his disagreement with Dawkins is used as sort of a predicate for carrying on about his own religious agenda. I have to admit I’m not an ardent reader of the London Review of Books, but this seems like a very unsual format, and I would have expected higher standards. Aren’t there editors that are supposed to keep hacks like from going on tangents like this?

  30. #30 Aaron Baker
    October 22, 2006

    “Eagleton practically snarls that Dawkins is ‘theologically illiterate’…which I think is a good thing. I don’t need to know the arcana of drawing up a horoscope to know that astrology is bunk; similarly, no one needs to spend years poring over the scribblings of theologians to see that their god is a phantasm.”

    It may be a good thing to be theologically illiterate; but Eagleton seems to be making the unexceptionable point that you shouldn’t be theologically illiterate when opining about . . . theology. Unexceptionable in most most places but this one, I guess.

  31. #31 Chiefley
    October 22, 2006

    Dawkins would rebut this guy in his typical fashion. He would ask how much the critic knows about the theology of Zeus and Thor. The guy would naturally say, “not much”. Then Dawkins would ask him if he believed in the gods Zeus and Thor. The guy would say no, and then Dawkins would ask him how he had the nerve to not believe in a theology that he knew so little about.

  32. #32 BRC
    October 22, 2006

    I disagree with the above analyses, almost completely. To wit: http://scienceblogs.com/worldsfair/2006/10/about_god_and_theologians_and.php. Why is Dawkins more suited to tackle the God issue than Terry Eagleton?

  33. #33 GH
    October 22, 2006

    It may be a good thing to be theologically illiterate; but Eagleton seems to be making the unexceptionable point that you shouldn’t be theologically illiterate when opining about . . . theology.

    I simply cannot understand why people presume Dawkins hasn’t heard or considered all manners of theology. I doubt very much as if he is but recognizes even the alleged advanced theology for what it is mere handwaving.

    Why is Dawkins more suited to tackle the God issue than Terry Eagleton?

    He is entitled to his view as are any of us. Who exactly would be better suited to discuss an invisible entity?

  34. #34 BRC
    October 22, 2006

    But it’s precisely because Dawkins, and most commentators on this page, think that he *is* better suited than the likes of a Terry Eagleton, or you, or me, that interests me. Plus, reducing it to a conversation about “an invisible entity” is quite odd to my mind.

  35. #35 BRC
    October 22, 2006

    frick. link was not added right, three replies above. trying again:
    http://scienceblogs.com/worldsfair/2006/10/about_god_and_theologians_and.php

  36. #36 BRC
    October 22, 2006

    frick. link was not added right three replies above.
    trying again:
    http://scienceblogs.com/worldsfair/2006/10/about_god_and_theologians_and.php

  37. #37 R. Fye
    October 22, 2006

    Eagleton proclaimed:
    “Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster.”

    But, rather simply:

    Why isn’t believing in God exactly “like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist.”

    As the notion of a god is as notions of aliens and tooth fairies are, theologians must be considered, inconsiderately, merely tellers of fairy tales.

    The Loch Ness monster’s “transcendence and invisibility” are precisely all of what it is. What other parts are there, of Eagleton’s god, that differentiate it from the monster?

  38. #38 j.t.delaney
    October 22, 2006

    It may be a good thing to be theologically illiterate; but Eagleton seems to be making the unexceptionable point that you shouldn’t be theologically illiterate when opining about . . . theology. Unexceptionable in most most places but this one, I guess.

    The problem is: who is “theologically literate”? Are theologans any more qualified to give reliable answers on the existence of God and the supernatural than Dawkins? What is a meaningful yardstick of literacy for a field of study that has no measurable basis in reality? I contend that Dawkins is as eminently qualified and “literate” as any theologan. Then again, for the sake of disclosure, I think my pet cat is equally fit to give reliable answers about the thoughts, motivations and inner workings of supernatural beings.

  39. #39 George
    October 22, 2006

    Eagleton: “Dawkins may be relieved to know that I don’t actually know where he lives.”

    What’s that all about?

    An Eagleton quote:

    “All propaganda or popularization involves a putting of the complex into the simple, but such a move is instantly not constructive. For if the complex can be put into the simple, then it cannot be as complex as it seemed in the first place; and if the simple can be an adequate medium of such complexity, then it cannot after all be as simple as all that.”

    Huh? I’ll take Dawkins any day.

  40. #40 Don Price
    October 22, 2006

    “The reason this is that for most people, the belief in scientific materialism is quite barren as a guide for daily living. It leads to this : “It is a purely consumer society. There is not much to life out there except buying things. Granted, a medieval serf would have regarded this as a problem much to be desired, but it leads to a certain bleakness today.” (Fred Reed).”

    Sorry… This was a while back. I just got home from work. To chime in with Tom Huxley above, this reminded me of the time we were driving back from a vacation and were passed on the highway by a gold-trimmed Cadillac Escalade adorned with a gold-trimmed X-tian fish icon… With some X-tian-themed vanity license plate as well… That incident is such a microcosm of my experience with X-tianity. Have these people ever read any of the words of X?

    A gold-plated fish!

    I still can’t believe it…

  41. #41 nicole
    October 22, 2006

    Eagleton’s big mistake is to act like Dawkins is discussing theology at all. He isn’t, he’s discussing whether or not a truth claim about the existence of God holds up. The most telling part of the review, to my mind, is this: after outlining his friendly brand of Christianity, Eagleton admits,

    Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy. Most reasoning people these days will see excellent grounds to reject it.

    Well, that’s all that matters then, isn’t it?

  42. #42 dorkafork
    October 22, 2006

    The situation is *not* ‘How dare a scientist discuss theology?’. The complaint seems to be ‘Why should I regard the opinion of the theologically unsophisticated on the question of God?’ In other words, Dawkins isn’t to be disqualified on the basis of being a scientist; the implied lack of credibility is instead to be derived from Dawkins’ alleged lack of theological sophistication.

    The problem is Eagleton doesn’t present a strong case for this. Instead of specific examples, Eagleton just makes simple declarations that this is the case.

    He does the same thing regarding God as a scientific hypothesis. “God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in.” Why on Earth not? What makes a consideration of God so special? We can’t ask that because Terry Eagleton says so? “His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster.” Well that’s convenient. You can discuss empirical evidence of the Loch Ness Monster because the nature of the Monster is corporeal, but if you posit an invisible, metaphysical “entity”/non-entity, you can’t point to lack of any evidence, because lack of any evidence is part of the definition.

    Not only that, but some of his paraphrases of Dawkins arguments make me suspicious. “In some obscure way, Dawkins manages to imply that the Bishop of Oxford is responsible for Osama bin Laden.” In other words, although Dawkins never says the Bishop of Oxford is responsible for OBL, but I’ll go ahead and put those words in his mouth anyway. Or the rather bizarre passage about where Dawkins grew up. “…one can be reasonably certain that he would not be Europe’s greatest enthusiast for Foucault, psychoanalysis, agitprop, Dadaism, anarchism or separatist feminism. All of these phenomena, one imagines, would be as distasteful to his brisk, bloodless rationality as the virgin birth. Yet one can of course be an atheist and a fervent fan of them all. His God-hating, then, is by no means simply the view of a scientist admirably cleansed of prejudice. It belongs to a specific cultural context. One would not expect to muster many votes for either anarchism or the virgin birth in North Oxford.” Ignoring the non sequiter about Dadaism/anarchism/et al, the shorter Eagleton is: Dawkins doesn’t believe in God simply because he grew up in North Oxford.

  43. #43 Aaron Baker
    October 22, 2006

    “The problem is: who is “theologically literate”? Are theologans any more qualified to give reliable answers on the existence of God and the supernatural than Dawkins? What is a meaningful yardstick of literacy for a field of study that has no measurable basis in reality?”

    I think you’re missing my point. Whether theology has any measurable basis in reality is irrelevant; it is itself a subject matter, as real as any other subject matter, about which a person can choose to know more or less. The best critic of theology would have an extensive and accurate knowledge of that subject matter. Dawkins has been criticized, more than once, for being quite a bit weaker on the subject of theology, and on the broader subject of religion, than he is on the relevant science. Maybe such criticism is just plain wrong as applied to Dawkins, but that’s the only pertinent thing to say here; not how wonderful it is to be an ignoramus about theology.

  44. #44 Scott Hatfield
    October 22, 2006

    Indeed. What makes this so rich in irony is all the folk in science who are definitely *not* getting rich, and who have often chosen a less fiscally-rewarding but more personally-compelling career as an educator, researcher or field worker in science….as opposed to the generally more-lucrative and well-worn medical or engineering career paths. This is something like a secular vocation for many folk, and one of the consequences of this choice is they tend to have families later, and less children.

    Meanwhile, you’ve got gobs of Christians involved in the religious equivalent of multilevel marketing, all the while chirping about a ‘prosperity doctrine’ from a God that they fervently believe wants them to be materially successful and famously reproductive. Gotta raise up godly seed for the Lord and all that, not to mention keep the cash flowing,.

    All I can say about such teachings is that they are vulgar at best and, at worst, heretical; they are primarily a product of our present consumer culture, rather than the historical teachings of the Church. It is easy to see that they serve primarily to materially benefit the religious leaders who push it. Talk about selfish memes!…SH

  45. #45 Caledonian
    October 22, 2006

    Whether theology has any measurable basis in reality is irrelevant

    Um, no. The fact that you believe it to be irrelevant is quite illuminating as to the quality of your judgment.

    Quite simply, there is no value to purely arbitrary knowledge. Such a set of teachings can only have been constructed from whole cloth – if we consider them to have any truth value at all, then, we must consider them to be lies.

  46. #46 GH
    October 22, 2006

    Whether theology has any measurable basis in reality is irrelevant; it is itself a subject matter, as real as any other subject matter, about which a person can choose to know more or less. The best critic of theology would have an extensive and accurate knowledge of that subject matter

    Who can this even be? And other than being aware of a certain type of thinking what does it say about the thinkings accuracy?

  47. #47 Pete
    October 22, 2006

    I find a Harry Potter analogy to be the most fruitful here. Imagine that several years down the road, a devoted group of Harry Potter fans start believing that Harry actually exists and has magical powers and all the rest, and they start departments of Potterology at prestigious universities. Then someone writes a book that points out that there is no evidence that Harry exists, and in fact there’s lots of evidence that he was dreamt up in an Edinburgh coffeeshop by J.K. Rowling, so no one really should believe he exists.

    The defenders of Harryism retort that the person is unqualified to make the criticism because they’re not an expert Potterologist (and didn’t even read the Goblet of Fire)! Well, I haven’t read a single Harry Potter book and yet I know he doesn’t exist. What makes anyone think the situation with their favorite god is any different?

  48. #48 Joel Sax
    October 22, 2006

    Larry Moran: Start with Dawkin’s attempt to lay down once and for all the only true way to allow for the existence of God. Robinson’s article in Harper’s works a fine number on that one.

    Personally, Buddhist agnostic that I tend towards, I can only shake my head in perplexity that the lot of you are ever bit as dedicated to first causes as the average Fundmentalist.

    To be free, you must know what the problem is. It ain’t Science, it ain’t Religion.

    Oh, dear me, not only have I set you all to do some HOMEWORK OF YOUR OWN, but I’ve dismissed your concern about whether God exists or not. We agnostics can be pretty mean when it comes to it.

    Bye bye!

  49. #49 MarkP
    October 22, 2006

    I don’t have to know anything about trines and ascending cusps to say, with as much authority as is necessary, that astrology is a pile of poo. For if the “area of study” in question has no measurable basis in reality, then any knowledge of it amounts to little more than memorization of random definitions applied to arbitrary terms. Or do you think you need an exhaustive knowledge of the dungeon master’s guide to believe rightfully that Dungeons and Dragons is fiction?

  50. #50 Desert Donkey
    October 23, 2006

    … Religion, not EVEN a theory. Just a belief with no supporting evidence.

    Science my ass.

  51. #51 Russell
    October 23, 2006

    The chief characteristic of the more “sophisticated” believer is that they are great at saying what their god is not, but are stunningly incapable of saying what their god is. To me, the telling quote in Eagleton’s review is this:

    “In one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever.”

    If Eagleton could explain what “the condition of possbility of any entity whatsoever” means, and if he could tie that to human love, which he claims is important to his theology, and if he could show that’s what the historical Jesus was about, then he might have a point. My bet is that he can’t. There are, of course, volumes of theology that put forth similar theses. It has been all the rage since the demise of more traditional theology as having any rational claim. A lunging, flailing, mispunching rage against that demise.

  52. #52 Aaron Baker
    October 23, 2006

    You know whether something “is a pile of poo” by knowing something about it. Your critique is likely to be less valuable the less you know about it. It says nothing bad about MY judgment that I think you should know, as best you can, what you’re talking about first before critiquing it. That these banally obvious points are not quite registering with some who post here only confirms what I already knew: that a profession of atheism is no guarantee of intelligence.

    I’m an atheist by the way. I say this only in the probably vain hope of forestalling a certain line of especially stupid comment that I already see starting to stir. I don’t find much good in theology, but I’ve seen it up close and for a long time, and have formed my opinion on the basis of long study. That lengthy acquaintance, not just with Christianity (especially early Christianity), but also with Greek and Roman paganism and, to a lesser extent, the religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, has made obvious to me that religion exercises a hold on minds in some cases as good as, or even better than yours, that can hardly be shaken by flippant comparisons to the Easter Bunny, or Harry Potter, or even astrology. Religion flows from several different sources, not all of them vicious, and for several different reasons is as real to those committed to it as anything else could possibly be. Yahweh has, and at one time Zeus had, a reality that makes comparisons to Harry Potter so much feeble guttersnipery. Should you refrain from attacking religion? No. Should you at least know as fully as you can what the fuck you’re talking about? Unless you like being the village atheist and village idiot rolled into one, I’d say that’s a no-brainer.

  53. #53 Bro. Bartleby
    October 23, 2006

    “These questions are about as relevant as those concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

    That reminds me of the monastery’s “Angels and Pinhead Project”

    http://brobartleby.blogspot.com/2006/03/angels-and-pinhead-project.html

    Of course, relevant it is!

    Shalom,
    Bro. Bartleby

  54. #54 mjs
    October 23, 2006

    There is no way to put forth a rational argument for the existence of a creator deity, as there is no physical evidence, nothing to perceive. Conversely, the power of the irrational in humans is of sufficient size as to merit scientific inquiry. Proving there is/isn’t some mono-theistic deity at the wheel is just so much blather, as that is a game that has no real playing field, just descriptions and ideas.

    If belief is a pathology, then perhaps there is a scientific way of understanding its function: theology cannot hope to effectively examine science with anything approaching detatchment, but science can, with some effort, examine theology and the observer’s own biases at the same time–imperfectly, yes, but at least it would have a good chance of being a good-faith effort. My own contention is that religious zealots do not believe in God: they believe in a particular set of descriptions about a purported God. Big difference.

    +++

  55. #55 Clayton
    October 23, 2006

    Alright, I think for the first time ever I (sort of) disagree with you, PZ.

    From what I’ve read, there’s something to be said for Eagleton’s claim that Dawkins is lacking in theological literacy. It’s not as if he’s carefully worked through Anselm or Scotus, right? I’m guessing that his attitude is that carefully working through their arguments is a bit like trying to reason with the mentally ill on their own terms.

    Of course, there will be many of us who think this attitude is completely justified, but in a way that’s to grant part of Eagleton’s point. I doubt, however, that many of Dawkins’ critics will be terribly happy with my analogy so if they’d like, I’ll offer this one instead. Maybe the real problem with Dawkins’ book is that he’s shooting dead fish in a small barrel with big missles when the fish isn’t even there to be shot.

  56. #56 George
    October 23, 2006

    My own contention is that religious zealots do not believe in God: they believe in a particular set of descriptions about a purported God. Big difference.

    I agree. Without real evidence, there are only the descriptions of God people provide. Those are so plentiful and vary so wildly that there might as well be a thousand different gods as one.

    It’s difficult to refute god talk because people are describing stuff that only exists in their heads. We know from thousands and thousands of novels that people are terrifically good at making this kind of fantasy stuff up.

    A simple switch, from seeing God as real, to seeing him as just a fantasy, akin to the character in a novel (but reproduced by a huge set of writers over and over and over again), is all that’s needed, but the vast majority seem unwilling to take that simple, obvious step.

  57. #57 Lab Lemming
    October 23, 2006

    The New York Times review linked early in comments is by far the most thoughtful and level-headed review of this book that I have seen to date.
    -C

  58. #58 Andrew Brown
    October 23, 2006

    Those who find Eagleton upsetting are likely to be even more upset by my review of the book, in Prospect: http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=7803

    and a follow-up was at
    http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/andrew_brown/2006/09/post_387.html

    The shortest form of all these objections is this analogy: Suppose that I, knowing nothing about economics, write a book saying that the world would be better off without money: that money has led people to terrible crimes, and may even be thre root of all evil — “and besides, when you look at it money doesn’t even exist: who is this ‘I’ who promises to pay the bearer on demand? Why should we believe in dollars when no one believes in Reichsmarks or in cowrie shells?”

    Would this be a scientific work? Would it advance our understanding of money, or of economics?

    There are lots of us who believe that religion is primarily a social reality. The way to study social realities, and to understand them, is not to ponce around saying “Nyah nyah nyah it’s all just an illusion.”

    Dorkafork – Eagleton is describing, more or less from the inside, what Catholics actually believe. I don’t see how else this can come across except as a set of assertions. But they are supported, in the sense that if you ask literate and educated Catholics what and how they believe, those are the sort of answers you will get. What other evidence could there be?

    As for North Oxford — that’s not where Dawkins grew up: It’s where he lives, along with most of the richer dons of the university.

  59. #59 j.t.delaney
    October 23, 2006

    I think you’re missing my point. Whether theology has any measurable basis in reality is irrelevant; it is itself a subject matter, as real as any other subject matter, about which a person can choose to know more or less. The best critic of theology would have an extensive and accurate knowledge of that subject matter.

    I think you’re missing my point. Theology is not a subject matter like any other subject matter. This is a field of study where the very existence of its focus is questionable, and reliable epistemology is non-existent. The problem is not that Dawkins isn’t sufficiently authoritative on the subject; the real problem is that neither is anybody else, either.

    If somebody with a doctorate in divinity from Oxford (or Orel Roberts University) tried to pontificate about non-ferrous metallurgy, proteomics, or fluid mechanics, it would be unsderstandable that their authority would be called into question. Why? Because these are research subjects based on empirical evidense, where there are verifiable facts. However, theology is somewhat unique as a “study”, since there are zero verifiable facts about the nature of God, other than the fact that there isn’t much to go on. The average Oxford regius professor of new testament studies has exactly the same number of facts to rely on as the local street sweeper or cafeteria worker when it comes to verifying anything about the true nature of God. All of the above are equally qualified to make declarative statement on theology (and/or toothfairyology, for that matter.) This is a very different case than what can be said about the faculty in the physics or chemistry departments.

  60. #60 bones
    October 23, 2006

    Of course Eagleton is refering to medevil Catholicism as the “religion” that he thinks is the “queen of the sciences”. How evangelical, quaint, and narrow-minded of him to ignore the thousands of other religions and the by-far more numerous followers of those religions.

  61. #61 Nick Valvo
    October 23, 2006

    I am going to defend Eagleton, a writer and critic I respect and admire in much the same way as most of you respect Dawkins. I knew this was coming as soon as I read the article; I even drafted but didn’t send PZ a link to this article earlier today. I suspected his thoughts would be close to what they were. I contend, with the maximum possible respect, PZ, that you’ve totally missed the point. I know this is the wrong venue to defend this critique; I guess I will just trust that you guys are as into open discussions as you claim to be. I read (and enjoy) this weblog regularly, but you guys can be pretty dogmatic at times. Since I’m positioning myself against my audience, I’d better do so out in the open. I’m an academic; I work on eighteenth-century English lit. I am an atheist, methodologically working in Marxism, psychoanalysis, historicism, and the problems of philosophical materialism.

    I will say this. Some of you in the comments are exposing yourselves as not having understood Eagleton’s argument (notable exceptions: Arun, Scott Hatfield, Clayton, Andrew Brown, maybe Joel Sax); this is not really surprising, either. The point is that the subtler brand of philosophically-interesting Christianity has never been a mass-phenomenon; critiquing megachurch Christianity on epistemological grounds is like me critiquing the research methodology of high school students’ bio labs and taking Biology to task. Get this: I’m pretty sure Eagleton would say that the Creationists don’t understand theology either. The mass might as well be in Latin. A lot of these people believe whatever James Dobson tells them to, because the content of the belief is not so much the point as a kind of quixotic oppositionism in the name of a past tradition that may not have ever existed.

    I suspect you guys also think that academic theologians are generally believers. This is not always true. I know a few who are not, but who find the rich medieval philosophical tradition interesting.

    I’ve read maybe three or four of Eagleton’s books and numerous articles, and you guys (some of whom seem to think he’s a Christian?!? Huh?) may be surprised to learn that he, one of the greatest Marxist literary critics of the previous generation, is almost certainly an atheist, just an atheist with a fair amount of historical sensitivity. JasonN callously and cluelessly takes Terry Eagleton to task for being both one of the most consistent and incisive critics of “cultural theory” since the mid-80s and for simultaneously being identified as a cultural theorist on Wikipedia (he is famous for his debates in the pages of the New Left Review with Fredric Jameson about the question of Postmodernism: Eagleton is not a fan, on basically Marxist grounds). What a scandal!

    There’s something that historians of science call triumphalism. It is a theoretical error, in writing the history of science (or other intellectual history) without empathy, without any attempt to understand why past scientists or natural philosophers thought as they did. In other words, telling the history of science from the point of view of modern science makes the past into “the prehistory of now,” in a phrase of Georg Lukacs’, and ignores ways that knowledge serves contemporary needs.

    With statements like GH’s “who exactly would be better suited to discuss an invisible entity?” you give yourselves away as not having any insight into the very real and palpable entity that had been actually under discussion: theology. You just know that this God thing they keep talking about does not jibe with the current state of natural science. Needless to say, it has occurred to theologians for the past several millennia that God is not visible — his verifiability is not really up for discussion. And you are welcome to join me in disbelieving in Him. Religion, however, is a very real thing, one with real social consequences for good and ill, and demonizing the entire institution is going to get you absolutely nowhere. It’s about as tedious as demonizing “Science” as if it were a self-consistent entity.

    Dawkins has overstepped his training before, which may be the reason for some of Eagleton’s snideness. During the right-wing fad for “sociobiology,” he published a book called “The Selfish Gene,” which I imagine you all know. It contained what I believe to have been a coinage of the term “meme,” which has taken off among bloggish people. In an ill-considered argument, he suggests that, like genes, units of culture could also be considered as autonomous agents, so that the social world can also be considered as a genealogical system in which “better adapted” things survive. This idea was briefly interesting to some people. I haven’t read the book in years, but it takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that he has done away with, for example, any kind of theory of ideology or space for political critique. Why does it make more sense to argue from the point of view of the selfishness of the meme, rather than from the use of the cultural form to concrete historical actors (as in a garden-variety historicism)? In other words, even if (as one tends to find) the culture that is sustained is the culture that serves the interests of the people who get to make the decisions, Dawkins argues that this is somehow because it is better adapted. Better adapted to elite interests, I guess. He does not escape a humanism, because the selfishness of his memes (differently than his selfish genes) is set in an environment of real people fighting real struggles, not indifferent nature. In other words, because of the ambivalent nature of the selection pressure itself, the genealogical/iterative method of evolutionary thought needs serious modification to work. I don’t see what it adds, and I do see what it distorts.

    He has, in effect, naturalized cultural history. To pick a tendentious example, in what sense is the creationism “meme” “well adapted?” It does a poor job of describing the world, it doesn’t help raise livestock or anything, it brands its advocates rednecks in the official culture. Creationism is best explained, I think we would all agree, as a cynical ploy to evoke a culture war that keeps a conservative electoral base, a majority in parts of the country, riled up to support a political party that offers them little of substantial value. Meme theory would reinterpret this from the point of view of Creationism, as if it weren’t an obvious hobbled-together fake idea, insincerely held. It produces a certain frisson, and it allows people who have spent their whole lives getting picked on to enjoy defeating at the polls long-haired, smart-ass, left-wing nerds like me. I guess you could argue that this very viciousness is a kind of success. (Those who are actually interested in trying to make genealogical arguments about culture in a politically-responsible manner should consider the work of Mexican philosopher Manuel De Landa or the recent work of Franco Moretti.)

    (Oh wow, this got long fast. I’m sorry, I’m somewhat drunk. I’ll finish up as quick as I can.)

    It may surprise some of you to encounter the notion that theology has only since the Protestant Reformation really taken on the sense as a set of facts to be believed (the way postmodern creationists “believe” the world is 6,000 years old). Remember, before the Reformation, the Mass was conducted in Latin, a language spoken only by elites. Scholastic argumentation — the cultural tradition Eagleton defends — did as much to preserve and incorporate pagan (read: Greek) knowledge as to defend orthodoxy. The rank-and-file Christian had faith, certainly, but it was not a faith in the same way that Evangelicals talk about faith today in terms of a personal relation to God, and a belief in specific tenets, etc. It was likely neither more nor less intellectual.

    The natural sciences as we know them grew out of 17th century natural philosophy, which was a curious hybrid of empirical experiment (in England), Cartesian rationalism (in France), and Scriptural exegesis (pretty much everywhere). Even the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century was not nearly so opposed to faith as has often been presented. Lots of people were accused of atheism, but nobody really was one yet. In the eighteenth century, it’s something mean you say about someone you don’t like. If anything, it is the nineteenth century that invents the Scientist as a figure opposed to faith. Before that, scientific enquiry and faith got along fine, and were even amazingly productive for a few centuries, inventing microscopes and steam engines and theorizing cells and the ideal gas law, all while believing in God.

    Dawkins, in his zeal to pretend that science and religion are somehow incompatible, in the face of the historical evidence, instead of a (historically-coherent) Gouldian model, comes off as a bigot and gets everyone pissed off. So, when Dembski says that Dawkins is God’s gift to Creationists, I see what he means.

  62. #62 Fernando
    October 23, 2006

    Arun, re: “South Asia exists”.

    Not to nit pick or anything, but nothing you mentioned negates the existence of “South Asia”. Using similar analogies one might argue about the existence or lack thereof of say “North America”. On second thought maybe you’re right North America doesn’t really exist either…
    If nothing else, “The UNITED States” is somewhat of a misnomer

    Just for the record I keep a globe om my desk with the north pole facing towards the surface of the desk and the south facing towards the ceiling.
    More often then not people ask me why my globe is upside down?
    My answer is always the same, it isn’t, I just prefer to look at it from a different perspective.

    Try not to cling so tightly to your dearly held paradigms for a change, not that I think you can, but that’s just MHO!

  63. #63 Aaron Baker
    October 23, 2006

    I think I fully understand your point, which again demonstrates that you don’t seem to grasp mine. I’ll try again. You can study the history of religion, or of theology, in exactly the same way you study the history of science, or of any other intellectual activity. When you do that sort of thing, it is quite beside the point whether, say, alchemy as practiced in the 16th century was a field of study where the very existence of its focus was questionable, and reliable epistemology was non-existent. You can still study the history of alchemy, and your account will be more or less accurate insofar as you observe or violate the same canons of historical investigation that one applies, say, to the American Civil War. It behooves you, I think, if you want to speak authoritatively on the subject of alchemy, to learn a great deal about it as accurately as you can.

    A much more cursory investigation might convince you that alchemy is a crock. Fine, but you wouldn’t (I hope) write a book on the subject without doing a little more leg work. Theology, and religion, are, I’m inclined to think, subjects at least as complex as alchemy, and not adequately addressed in a serious critique by the usual atheist blog bull sessions. In a serious critique, for example, after citing Harry Potter and tea kettles orbiting Saturn, you’d have to make some effort to explain why God, and not Harry Potter, exists for billions of not certifiably insane or brain-damaged people. That effort takes genuine research. Some here wallow in the kind of anti-intellectualism that they rightly resent when spouted by a fundamentalist. Start observing your own principles consistently, and maybe you won’t have so much trouble getting my obvious point.

  64. #64 j.t.delaney
    October 23, 2006

    There are lots of us who believe that religion is primarily a social reality. The way to study social realities, and to understand them, is not to ponce around saying “Nyah nyah nyah it’s all just an illusion.”

    …and at that point, I would argue, you’re no longer studying theology (“n. — the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes and relations to the universe…”). Once you omit the study of SkyDaddy’s true nature from the discussion, I would say what you’re describing falls into the juristiction of sociology, ancient history, group psychology, anthropology, philology, or some other more tangible banch of human knowledge. These other subjects can be fruitful pursuits, but 2,000 years of theologans spinning their wheels has demonstrated that theology is an intellectual dead-end. Its a pity that resources continue to be allocated to this.

    The irony about this criticism of Dawkins, i.e. that he has no special knowledge or authority about God and ought to shut up, is that none of his critics do either… and they know it! Really, what sort of academic pedigree is required to talk about things that don’t exist with “authority”? Please tell me; I’m anxious to hear.

  65. #65 PZ Myers
    October 23, 2006

    Look, theology is real, and I know that many of the scholars of that field are agnostics and atheists. However, what theology actually is is the study of the documents and history of people who believed in various religions. What it is not is the study of a deity. That’s the message here: this “god” that so many claim exists does not have any evidence in its support, and citing the existence of theology does not correct that deficit.

  66. #66 Stephen Erickson
    October 23, 2006

    I am going to pen the definitive commentary to the rebuttal of the website devoted to the fisking of the response to the review of The God Delusion.

    Some day.

  67. #67 j.t.delaney
    October 23, 2006

    Aaron, studying the history of religion or the history of theology is not the same as studying theology itself, and isn’t going to tell you any deep truths about God, just as studying the history of alchemy isn’t going to tell you how to transmute base metals into gold. Why? Well, because both theology and alchemy are predicated on myths. Religion certainly had a deep impact on human history, just as alchemy did on the development of the physical sciences; the difference is, most people gave up on alchemy about two centuries ago, and have moved on to more practical applications.

    Explaining why billions of ordinary people believe in God doesn’t require a deep erudition of obscure facets of the letters of Tertullian or St. Thomas Aquinas — I assure you, only a tiny fraction of these “billions of people” would even recognize the names of these theologans, and fewer still even care.

    As a chemist, I wouldn’t turn to an alchemist to give me a meaningful insights into heteroleptic terpyridine complexing around transition metal centers, or rheological properties of collagen in living tissue. Likewise, as an layperson with an interest in human nature, I wouldn’t look to St. Augustine of Hippo to understand why so many people in the 21st century think Jesus is watching them when they take a shower or go to the bathroom (“shake it more than three times and you’re playing with it”.) There are modern, testable hypotheses for this; from previous experience, science is more likely to come up with a more rigorous, satisfying explanation. If that’s anti-intellectual, so be it.

    Credo quia absurdum

  68. #68 MJ Memphis
    October 23, 2006

    “The point is that the subtler brand of philosophically-interesting Christianity has never been a mass-phenomenon; critiquing megachurch Christianity on epistemological grounds is like me critiquing the research methodology of high school students’ bio labs and taking Biology to task.”

    Ah, yes, Dawkins can’t address the form of Christianity that most of the actual, ya know, Christians believe, he has to address the rarified philosopher’s version that no one actually believes in.

    “Get this: I’m pretty sure Eagleton would say that the Creationists don’t understand theology either.”

    Get this: the creationists would say that Eagleton is wrong too. And the next church down the road would say they’re both wrong. And so on ad infinitum. And all of them would have equally weighty arguments on their side- which is to say, none at all. Exactly how many theologies do you have to be an expert in to say it’s all bunk?

    “and you guys… may be surprised to learn that he, one of the greatest Marxist literary critics of the previous generation”

    So, being a successful scientist does *not* qualify one to comment on religious matters, but being a devotee of a failed social-economic system does?

  69. #69 wintermute
    October 23, 2006

    With statements like GH’s “who exactly would be better suited to discuss an invisible entity?” you give yourselves away as not having any insight into the very real and palpable entity that had been actually under discussion: theology. You just know that this God thing they keep talking about does not jibe with the current state of natural science. Needless to say, it has occurred to theologians for the past several millennia that God is not visible — his verifiability is not really up for discussion. And you are welcome to join me in disbelieving in Him. Religion, however, is a very real thing, one with real social consequences for good and ill, and demonizing the entire institution is going to get you absolutely nowhere. It’s about as tedious as demonizing “Science” as if it were a self-consistent entity.

    To paraphrase the argument:

    Dawkins: God doesn’t exist. There’s absolutely no evidence for it.

    Eagleton: You can’t say that! You don’t know enough about theology to make a statement like that!

    Commenters here: Huh? How does theology contain any evidence for god? Why does a theologian have any more authority on this question than a electrical engineer?

    Aaron and Nick, and a couple of others: Ah, but theology is about studying religion, not god. And I hope you’re not saying religion doesn’t exist; that would be stupid.

    Everyone else: Ummmm…. But the existence of religion still doesn’t prove the existence of god, therefore Eagleton is still wrong.

  70. #70 johnc
    October 23, 2006

    Eagleton’s critique does not bear on the question of god’s (non-)existence but on the adequacy of Dawkins’ book to the task it sets itself. Among the issues Eagleton identifies, one often overlooked by other scientists (who often share the same weakness) is that Dawkins is a political naif. From his comfortable Oxbridge environs, he has little concept of the economic and political conditions that provide the breeding grounds for religiousity. Whether speaking about Northern Ireland or the Middle East, Dawkins is therefore a reductionist and an idealist.

    As for theology, Eagleton’s point is worth quoting at length. After noting that most educated people will probably rightly reject even a sophisticated theology, he says:

    But critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism.

    Meanwhile, the debate on this review over at the Dawkins’ pages (http://richarddawkins.net/article,217,Lunging-Flailing-Mispunching,Terry-Eagleton) makes one realise that being an atheist does not give one a leg-up when it comes to rationality and that the religious have no patent on dogmatism.

  71. #71 Gerard Harbison
    October 23, 2006

    “Professor Dawkins simply has too crude and unsophisticated mind to understand the Emperor’s raiment. To Dawkins, the Emperor looks naked. However, if the emperor is naked, then what is there between the Emperor and the world? Nothingness! And Dawkins completely misses that delicate, diaphanous nothingness, on whose properties theologians and cultural theorists have spent lifetimes.

    Dawkins is merely noting the absence of mundane, everyday clothes, the kind theologians have not been looking at since St. Augustine. “

  72. #72 Arun
    October 23, 2006

    Fernando,
    The Indian point of view of geography:
    Here
    -Arun

  73. #73 Gerard Harbison
    October 23, 2006

    The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected

    Why?

  74. #74 RavenT
    October 23, 2006

    Aaron, Nick, as much as you keep insisting that we’re missing the point, you’re both conflating some very important distinctions.

    As j.t.delaney pointed out, theology is very different from the history of theology, the neuroscience of theology, etc. Theology deals with questions such as “Is God beneficent?”; that’s a very different issue from ones like “Who has argued that God is beneficent?” (history); “What parts of the brain light up in fMRI when God is being discussed?” (neuroscience), etc. Bringing in the latter questions does nothing to bolster the validity of the first one, and you seem to be unclear on the distinction.

    The second thing you seem to be unclear on is what exactly Dawkins is arguing. As an analogy, we can discuss it in terms of experimental validity: in those terms, Eagleton’s argument can be phrased as Dawkins cannot possibly comment on the internal validity of theology (issues such as is it internally consistent, etc.) without making a thorough study of it. Dawkins’ point in turn can be phrased as it does not matter how much internal validity theology does or does not have–he is talking about construct validity, or whether the study of theology actually measures what it purports to measure.

    No amount of internal validity adds up to construct validity–the two are orthogonal–and so to criticize Dawkins for not commenting on theology’s internal validity, when that is totally irrelevant to the construct validity which is is discussing, is to miss the point on Eagleton’s part.

  75. #75 RavenT
    October 23, 2006

    From his comfortable Oxbridge environs, he has little concept of the economic and political conditions that provide the breeding grounds for religiousity. Whether speaking about Northern Ireland or the Middle East, Dawkins is therefore a reductionist and an idealist.

    I thought Eagleton was talking about theology. Now you’re talking history, politics, and sociology, which are fine topics to discuss, but they’re not theology. If Eagleton wants to criticize Dawkins on his political science or history, why doesn’t he state it in those terms instead?

  76. #76 PZ Myers
    October 23, 2006

    Exactly, RavenT…it’s the Great Religious Obfuscation. “We’ve got centuries worth of scholarly writing on the nature of god — you can’t discuss it unless you read it all!”

    I will not deny that people have obsessed over religious matters for a long, long time (and that in itself is an interesting neurological phenomenon), but that infatuation is not evidence that the object of purported study exists. Eagleton and Quinn and all the other indignant critics might be better off just admitting that theology is the study of a significant slice of human behavior, but has no relevance to the existence of cosmic intelligences—but to do that would be to concede Dawkins’ point, that there is no evidence for gods.

  77. #77 Caledonian
    October 23, 2006

    Chomsky once noted that mathematicians never discounted his ideas on computational linguistics because his formal training wasn’t mathematical – instead, they wanted to hear his ideas and based their conclusions on their quality. When he spoke about politics, though, people frequently dismissed his views because he lacked degrees in political science.

    He concluded that the more substance there was to a field, the less concern there was with credentials and the more with arguments. In substanceless fields, it’s impossible to distinguish one claim from another on their own merits, so other metrics must be used instead.

  78. #78 PZ Myers
    October 23, 2006

    Heh. Should I mention that I know where Dawkins lives, and even have his phone number? Obviously, ignorance of these irrelevancies makes Eagleton unqualified to argue about Dawkins, while my knowledge makes me definitive.

  79. #79 Caledonian
    October 23, 2006

    Ah, but Dawkins is a real person about whom we can possess real knowledge, so Eagleton wouldn’t care whether you possess trivial, real knowledge about him – there’re so many non-trivial things that actually apply to the debate.

    There is no real, non-trivial knowledge to be had about their imaginary sky Daddy, so Eagleton is reduced to a trivial one-upmanship. He complains that Dawkins doesn’t know the specifics of all theological claims to distract from the reality that Dawkins has exposed the critical failure of theology: its methods for generating claims are nonsense, and thus the claims themselves are meaningless.

  80. #80 AJ Milne
    October 23, 2006

    I’d previously commented that if theology is a serious academic discipline, Calvinball’s a sport…

    I was forced by an colleague to retract it. He was entirely outraged. Said the comparison was grossly unfair to Calvinball.

  81. #81 MJ Memphis
    October 23, 2006

    Well, we do at least know that the rules in Calvinball can never be the same twice, which is one more thing than we know about any particular divinity.

  82. #82 yonatron
    October 23, 2006

    PZ:Heh. Should I mention that I know where Dawkins lives, and even have his phone number?

    Sweet. Can you call him and ask if he has any time to swing by Penn on Friday to sign my copy of his book? Afraid I might have to miss him at the Free Library.

    Don’t want to get too much into the above discussion: I’m neither drunk nor Marxist but I could probably run up a few hundred words just repeating what’s already been said. Interestingly, it seems to me, PZ, that a few comments back you conflate theology with the various ways to study theology, but maybe I’m just confused. I was under the impression that theologians work under the assumption that they are discerning true propositions about an actual god(s) and supernatural realm, whereas it’s scholars of Religious Studies (they really need a catchy name for that field) or Comparative Religion who are doing the interesting work in looking at what and why people believe, regardless of whether it’s true.

    Of course, I’ve no expertise whatsoever in these fields, so if someone who does tells me that lots of theologians don’t assert the existence of a god, I guess I’ll take their word for it. But again, it’s patently obvious that knowing all the intricacies of the field and its history are completely unnecessary to argue against the existence of God. If he’s supposed to meddle in the affairs of the world, then there’s an overwhelming lack of evidence for him. And if it is supposed to be some undetectable, transcendent, “possibility of existence”, then its existence is utterly uninteresting. Dawkins would be absolutely justified in blowing off any intradisciplinary quibbles at a deeper level of analysis.

    Like I was saying, I could go on (and on), but most of y’all have covered this far better than I.

  83. #83 hoody
    October 23, 2006

    Shorter Terry Eagleton: “How dare a mere scientist criticize theology?”

    Shorter PZ: “how dare ANYONE ever criticize any of my writings or those of my heroes? They are gospel, I say. GOSPEL!!!”

  84. #84 PZ Myers
    October 23, 2006

    No, actually…I’m a critic of many of Dawkins’ ideas. I lean towards the Gould side of the spectrum.

    Oh, but I’m sorry — you were just ranting, and I shouldn’t make serious replies to that kind of crap. Never mind.

  85. #85 johnc
    October 23, 2006

    People seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that the Eagleton review concerns itself with the existence of the supernatural – it does not. The issue, and a proper one for a book review, is whether Dawkins adequately deals with (or indeed understands) the subject matter he has set himself. Falsifying the God hypothesis does not at a stroke invalidate 2000 years of Christian thought, including that which gave birth to modern science.

    And the reason the politics of The Troubles or the Middle East is being discussed is because Dawkins himself put them on the agenda in TGH. The adequacy of his analysis of these issues is therefore a legitimate subject for critique. Perhaps if more contributors bothered to read both TGH and the Eagleton review a more sensible discussion might ensue.

  86. #86 Bronze Dog
    October 23, 2006

    hoody, your lack of reading comprehension is showing.

  87. #87 PZ Myers
    October 23, 2006

    Man, years ago I got into arguments with astrologers, and it’s amazing how much this debate parallels that one. They all trotted out the same claims: it’s been sanctified by thousands of years of serious study, there’s a huge literature that I haven’t read, the science that disagrees with it does not negate the human value, all those smart people couldn’t possibly have been wrong, etc., etc., etc.

    It’s pretty simple, actually.

    If the fundamental phenomenon that the discipline purports to study is invalid, it just doesn’t matter how much rationalization has accreted around it.

  88. #88 RavenT
    October 23, 2006

    Perhaps if more contributors bothered to read both TGH and the Eagleton review a more sensible discussion might ensue.

    I did read Eagleton–he said:

    you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology…When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

    He is clearly talking about theology, as the parts I have emphasized demonstrate. But you have not answered my question to you, which is, if Eagleton is criticizing Dawkins’ grasp of history, politics, economics, etc., then why is he couching his argument so much in terms of theology itself?

  89. #89 quork
    October 23, 2006

    What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

    All but one of them are wrong. All the atheist has to do is argue about the last remaining one. So, before a discussion starts, maybe the theist should just identify which one he thinks might be right, it would save a lot of time on the “20 questions” BS.

  90. #90 johnc
    October 23, 2006

    “maybe the theist should just identify which one he thinks might be right”

    Which theist?

  91. #91 Tom Huxley
    October 23, 2006

    If the fundamental phenomenon that the discipline purports to study is invalid, it just doesn’t matter how much rationalization has accreted around it.

    Great point, PZ. As an agnostic virologist who grew up in a Catholic family, I found myself in an interesting situtation recently. I was reading a history of the English Civil War and the role of the debate over predestination’s importance in Protestant theology was briefly covered. In Catholicism, the subject of predestination is of much less significance (except, of course, to your average Jesuit scholar who is probably extremely well-versed on the intellectual foundations of the doctrine). As a novice on the subject (which is truly fascinating with respect to human psychology if nothing else) I began to spend an inordinate amount of time studying the origins of the idea of predestination, the debates over its merits, and its role in the early Reformation. At one point, when I was struggling to understand a minute point of contention between one sect’s interpretation of predestination’s significance and another sect’s, I suddenly realized that I had, in a way, fallen into a very cogent trap. Throughout this brief period of intense study I never thought of predestination as anything other than an odd, complete ridiculous bit of bunk. However, the intensity of the arguments made on its behalf, as well as the real-life (sometimes life and death) results of these theological grudge matches, really absorbed the attention of even a non-believer like yours truly – to the point where I found myself debating the merits of each minor debating point. The human mind is capable of conjuring remarkably detailed concepts that, I would argue, are at times even more effective than the rational or scientific concepts materialists support. When a concept is built out of nothing, every bit of its make-up can be attuned to the emotional cravings humans as a species share. In short, Darwin was always at a disadvantage to his theist rivals because his theories had to dispense with one of the mightiest tools practicioners of rhetoric have had at there disposal for thousands of years – a sense of empathy.

  92. #92 George
    October 23, 2006

    Eagleton: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

    I suggest Terry Eagleton aim his rhetorical canon at the idiotic religious wingnuts who pretend they know something about evolution. What does it feel like to read them?

    I find it sad that Dawkins is one of the few prominent scientists to come out strongly against these people. That he recognizes the threat and has decided to devote some of his precious time on this planet to combating the nutcases is incredibly admirable. For that he gets attacked.

    This is just one more person telling atheists to shut up. It never stops. Shame on you, Eagleton.

  93. #93 quork
    October 23, 2006

    “maybe the theist should just identify which one he thinks might be right”
    .
    Which theist?

    Whichever one is arguing that all those various theologians have weighed in; in this case Eagleton.

  94. #94 quork
    October 23, 2006

    Look, theology is real, and I know that many of the scholars of that field are agnostics and atheists.

    In Religion Studies, Universities Bend To Views of Faithful

    Scholar of Mormon History,
    Expelled From Church,
    Hits a Wall in Job Search
    Trying to Avoid ‘Minefields’
    By DANIEL GOLDEN
    Wall Street Journal – April 6, 2006; Page A1


    In the 1970s, some universities pioneered the idea of privately funded professorships in specific religions by establishing Judaic-studies chairs. Now many universities have chairs for faiths ranging from Islam to Sikhism. They are usually underwritten by donors of the same religion, who generally expect that the scholar filling the chair will be sympathetic to the faith.

  95. #95 Tim B.
    October 23, 2006

    MJ Memphis said above:

    “Ah, yes, Dawkins can’t address the form of Christianity that most of the actual, ya know, Christians believe, he has to address the rarified philosopher’s version that no one actually believes in.”

    That’s the salient point, in my opinion. Eagleton’s version seems closer to some John Shelby Spong New Ageism than what 99.9% of self-identifying Christians claim as their belief-system. The resurrection merely a symbol of transcending the tragedy of human experience? Most Christians certainly give the idea more weight than that, or at least more physicality.

    I think Eagleton would be better engaged by criticizing Christian literalists than in challenging a clear-eyed atheist such as Dawkins. When he has succeeded in converting at least 51% of Christians to the notion that God is not a person, then perhaps he might be better armored to re-approach Dawkins’s skepticism.

  96. #96 Caledonian
    October 23, 2006

    I lean towards the Gould side of the spectrum.

    Shame on you, PZ! Gould was just another exceptionalist, refusing to apply rational thought to his cherished belief system. Descartes’ wager was invalid, and so is Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria”. You ought to be ashamed to associate yourself with such nonsense.

  97. #97 fedup
    October 23, 2006

    The athiest outrage here is humorous and pathetic. Is the history of science worthless? It would have to be considering the ” if we know harry potter is false, why get informed about it” arguments. Well, we know quite alot of scientific theories to be false but still learn about them. Furthermore, much of what we ‘know’ now may turn out false – such as what theory of evolution wins out but here we’re still discussing them. Is that a waste of time? Oh, what happens if we learn that many of the various Quantum theories are wrongheaded? Was it all a waste of time and how the hell do you precribe to know before becoming informed?
    If someone says, ” Newton was wrong because his theory was unfalsifiable” you’d all scream and probably turn red telling the ignoramous to learn about the history of science and the various arguments of Einstein that toppled him. Still, if we know Newton to be ‘wrong’ in some points why learn about it? Why can’t we all just not get informed about it and write 400 page polemics dismissing him because afterall, we’re not obligated to be informed about obvious falsities? I would encourage the theist to engage in the same tactics since it requires the same boneheadness. ” Well, science is obviously wrong so why learn about it? Evolution is obviously wrong so why learn about it?” If its ok to write 400 pages of uninformed blather about people, then its just as fine for idiot creationists to hold forth an and dismiss evolutionary theory because its obviously wrong. When someone tells you arrogant little pricks to learn anything about others instead of parroting your intelligence, you get uppity. Amusingly, and depressngly assuming your own correctness and asking for others to disprove you. A tactic, of course, familiar to zealots of all kinds. None of you are any better than fundamentalists because you lack one belief. You all have the same attitudes and think inculating yourselves from criticism by refusing to understand the other is some virtue. This is the ammo of fanatics of all sorts – whether each side claims the light of reason and evidence or the other faith and experience. Of Of course, the implied mutual exclusivitity implied in the latter, being of course borne of the very debate since the fanatics in either side need to project some fundamental conflict that does not exist. And yes, I write this knowing full well it it will impact nothing and invite only ridiculue from the self-appointed rational human beings here to direct us all about what is true and is not but I’m stating my peace. You all disgust me.

    **Oh yeah, it takes a special sort of illiteracy to derive what Pz did from that quote of Eagelton but instead of stopping and thinking, you all worship at the altar and proceed to make some of the most banal and stupid arguments in order to make a moral virtue out of your ignorance. **

  98. #98 BRC
    October 23, 2006

    (wow. he sounds pissed.)

  99. #99 Sean
    October 23, 2006

    “this reminded me of the time we were driving back from a vacation and were passed on the highway by a gold-trimmed Cadillac Escalade adorned with a gold-trimmed X-tian fish icon… With some X-tian-themed vanity license plate as well… That incident is such a microcosm of my experience with X-tianity. Have these people ever read any of the words of X?”

    Yes, but they’re planning on getting rid of that whole “easier for a camel to get into Heaven..” bit in the next revision of their holy scripture.

  100. #100 Sean
    October 23, 2006

    Sorry, I shouldn’t try to type and converse at the same time…it should read:

    “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle..”

  101. #101 Larry Moran
    October 23, 2006

    Andrew Brown says,

    There are lots of us who believe that religion is primarily a social reality. The way to study social realities, and to understand them, is not to ponce around saying “Nyah nyah nyah it’s all just an illusion.”

    There are many “social realities.” Some people believe they’ve been abducted by aliens. Others believe they can talk to the dead. There’s a large group of people who think that the moon landings were faked by NASA. Millions of Americans think the world is less than 10,000 years old. Millions more think that you can cure cancer by drinking pure water.

    If you’re interested in studying these “social realities” you need to read all the trash books that the kooks have written. If you really want to understand these “social realities” then there’s only one way to do it–you’ve got to immerse yourself in the kook literature.

    But I don’t need to understand the psychology of those people who think they’ve been taken on board a UFO and probed with various instruments in order to determine whether their “social reality” is a real reality. Similarly, I don’t need to understand several thousand years of study by Jewish scholars in order to determine whether there is a God. I can recognize a delusion when I see it.

    Andrew, I think you’re confusing theological writings and apologetics with rational discussion about the existence of God. The main arguments for the existence of God are simple enough to be covered in introductory philosophy courses or in the first chapters of Dawkins’ book. Most atheists are just as much experts on this subject as most theists. In fact, on the subject of atheism (the subject of Dawkins’ book), one could argue that atheists are the only experts and the theists need to do some studying.

    I thought I straightened you out when we discussed this in that pub in South Kensington last week. Did you forget everything the next morning? 🙂

  102. #102 Russell
    October 23, 2006

    johnc writes, “Falsifying the God hypothesis does not at a stroke invalidate 2000 years of Christian thought..”

    It depends whether by “Christian thought” you mean thoughts whose prerequisite assumptions are Christian belief, or thoughts that Christians have. The former is completely invalidated, at a stroke, when the God hypothesis fails.

    “..including that which gave birth to modern science.”

    That would be the latter.

    Some in this discussion seem to think that because religion is a very real social phenomenon, because Christianity is a defining part of European history, because religious practice can have some individual or social benefits, or because many scholars have spent lifetimes studying it, that therefore it has to have some sort of intellectual validity. As someone on the other side, I think this is nonsense on its face. Yes, there is a disingenuousness in comparing Jesus to Santa Claus, only because Santa Claus never became part of a historical mythology. The more apt comparison is to Odin, Athena, and Astarte. Those were real myths, believed by real cultures, built into real social practices.

  103. #103 Tom Huxley
    October 23, 2006

    When someone tells you arrogant little pricks to learn anything about others instead of parroting your intelligence, you get uppity.

    You know, this has got to be one of the most ignorant statements I’ve seen in a while. Most scientists I know are as well-versed in Christian theology as the average non-scientist Christian. Partly this is because most scientists grow up in religious households, just like most non-scientists do, and partly in is because the curiosity that is part and parcel of being a scientist is rarely restricted to scientific topics only. On the other hand, find me more than a vanishingly small number of true-believing theologians who understand biology at even a basic level, let alone an intermediate level, and I’ll be in your debt.

  104. #104 Aaron Baker
    October 23, 2006

    There’s a lot to respond to here. I’ll try not to be too repetitive in doing so.

    First of all, trained as I was to be a historian, I would only accept with a great deal of qualification J.T. Delaney’s claim that the history of theology is not the same thing as the study of theology. History may not be solely the reenactment of past thought (a la R.G. Collingwood), but that reenactment (or reconstruction, if you prefer) is an essential constituent of history. To be a historian of theology is not just to try to figure out what Constantine or Eusebius DID at Nicaea, it is necessarily an effort to reconstruct what these two very unpleasant gentlemen THOUGHT at Nicaea, as well as away from Nicaea.

    J.T. Delaney also wrote: “Explaining why billions of ordinary people believe in God doesn’t require a deep erudition of obscure facets of the letters of Tertullian or St. Thomas Aquinas . . . .” I would agree you don’t need to know much about theology for that one, but if the question why so many people believe in God isn’t one of the most vexed problems in the sociology of religion, I don’t know what is. Surely no one is pretending here that you’re more likely to hit on the right answer(s) by being superficially informed about religion?

    RavenT contrasted the internal validity and the construct validity of theology. Thanks for introducing me to some cool new jargon, but how does the distinction blunt my point? Why wouldn’t you need to know a fair amount about theology to answer usefully whether it has either kind of validity? And I will not plead guilty to conflating the two kinds of validity, even though I didn’t previously know them by the nifty names you give them.

    Caledonian repeats an anecdote often told by Noam Chomsky. I can’t tell whether this is directed at me or not. If it is, I’m astonished that he misread so badly what I’m getting at. I fully agree with Chomsky (paraphrased by Caledonian) that “the more substance there was to a field, the less concern there was with credentials and the more with arguments. In substanceless fields, it’s impossible to distinguish one claim from another on their own merits, so other metrics must be used instead [such as, I guess, whether one has a degree or not].” I never said anything about degrees or other credentials. If someone’s suggesting that I think Dawkins ought to become a doctor of divinity before he writes about religion, I’ll stop laughing just long enough to say of course not. I’ve said only, and I’ll continue to say, that when dissecting religion or theology, one should know more rather than less about the subject. If Chomsky is treated with respect by mathematicians, it’s because he has a fair knowledge of the relevant math; I couldn’t hope for more distinguished support for my case.

  105. #105 Aaron Baker
    October 23, 2006

    In the second line of my final paragraph above, the “he” I’m referring to is Caledonian, not Noam Chomsky. Irritation isn’t conducive to good writing.

  106. #106 RavenT
    October 23, 2006

    First of all, trained as I was to be a historian, I would only accept with a great deal of qualification J.T. Delaney’s claim that the history of theology is not the same thing as the study of theology.

    You really cannot see the difference between the two following assertions?

    (a) God is beneficent. (theology)

    (b) Christians believe that God is beneficent. (history of theology)

    Thanks for introducing me to some cool new jargon, but how does the distinction blunt my point?

    Same as above–(a) is an assertion that cannot be tested, measured, or demonstrated, but (b) can be. That is an essential distinction, and if you cannot see it, that’s really too bad. Because if you switch back and forth between those types of assertions without realizing the distinction, people aren’t going to be able to follow your arguments, and are likely to judge them incoherent and fuzzy.

    Why wouldn’t you need to know a fair amount about theology to answer usefully whether it has either kind of validity?

    Because the two kinds of validity have nothing to do with each other–they vary independently. You can increase the internal consistency as much as you want; it has no effect on construct validity, external validity, or any other types of validity. You realize, of course, that I’m using the terms in the sense of analogy, but I think the point still holds.

    All the refinements of theology may increase the internal consistency, but they don’t have any impact whatsoever on whether or not the the object of theological description describes something that really exists. If the theologians want to assert the positive claim of construct validity, the burden of proof is on them. Dawkins points out that to date, they have failed to do so. You don’t need to make an intensive study of the internal validity of a study to point out that the investigators have failed to demonstrate their construct validity.

    And I will not plead guilty to conflating the two kinds of validity, even though I didn’t previously know them by the nifty names you give them.

    Yeah, if you don’t understand the distinction between (a) and (b) above, I can see how you’d continue to insist you weren’t conflating them.

  107. #107 JJR
    October 23, 2006

    Oh, dear. So much for Eagleton’s Marxism…what a shameful performance….I used to respect Terry Eagleton…this really takes him down a few pegs.

  108. #108 Nick Valvo
    October 23, 2006

    “So, being a successful scientist does *not* qualify one to comment on religious matters, but being a devotee of a failed social-economic system does?” Oh, snap.

    It’s not so much the Marxism as the historicism that’s relevant here. I mentioned his Marxism because a few commenters seemed to be chaining Eagleton to the “postmodernism mumbo-jumbo” hobby horse that one is accustomed to hearing from people outside of literature departments, e.g. “I can’t understand the disciplinary vocabulary of this writer, and I for some reason expect to be able to do so although I am not trained!”

    I’ll be more direct. What Dawkins is doing wrong in his book is acting like belief in God and Christianity is not a phenomenon with a history, that happens in the world and in culture. While you can just come to something like that cold and start making pronouncements, it might be more politic (and effective, I might add) to try a little tenderness.

    I guess this is those “two cultures” I keep hearing about.

  109. #109 PZ Myers
    October 23, 2006

    Have you read the book?

    Near the end, he has a section where he plainly states that the cultural and historical elements of religion are important, and suggests that we need education in religion in order to understand our culture. It’s curious to be told about something he is “doing wrong” in his book that is exactly opposite what he says in his book.

  110. #110 Blake Stacey
    October 23, 2006

    Nick Valvo wrote as follows:

    I mentioned his Marxism because a few commenters seemed to be chaining Eagleton to the “postmodernism mumbo-jumbo” hobby horse that one is accustomed to hearing from people outside of literature departments, e.g. “I can’t understand the disciplinary vocabulary of this writer, and I for some reason expect to be able to do so although I am not trained!”

    Funnily enough, this statement expresses quite well what Lacan, Latour, Irigaray, Deleuze, Guattari et al. kept on doing until Alan Sokal called them on it. I suppose using the terminology of the sciences is fine, but using that of literature is illegitimate? (And hey, I got a physics degree and was one class short of a literature minor, so I can cross the line any which way I want!)

  111. #111 Blake Stacey
    October 23, 2006

    . . . And yes, I know that tu quoque is not a way to advance an argument. However, the intellectual standards of a blog-comment thread drop off precipitously after the sixty-ninth comment. . . .

  112. #112 Aaron Baker
    October 23, 2006

    I’m beginning to think that rather than reading what I’ve written, some people are reading some weird alternative world version of what I’ve written.

    I thought I’d made clear that I wasn’t treating history as just some reconstruction of past thought–simply that this reconstruction of past thought is an essential component of history. The history of theology is not identical to theology, but you cannot do the history of theology without studying theology; I would have thought before today that this was obvious.

    And all your snotty assertions to the contrary, I fully understand the difference between testable and untestable statements. I guess my referring to history was to blame for this bizarre misimpression. I mentioned history because I assumed (naively, I’m thinking now) that it was obvious that intellectual history is a study of ideas themselves, not just of people thinking of the ideas, or acting upon them. So, for what I hope is the last time I have to say it, yes I’m aware of the difference between “God is benevolent” and “people believe God is benevolent.”

    I’ll assume with you that internal validity and construct validity have nothing to do with each other. It has nothing to do with the very simple point I made: an assessment of either kind of validity is unlikely to be worth much if you don’t know a good deal about the subject whose validity (of whatever sort) you’re investigating. I nowhere suggested the two kinds of validity were somehow connected. It’s also completely irrelevant where the burden of proof for establishing construct validity lies. For theology, I’ll gladly let the burden lie on theologians. Again, what has that to do with my point?

    I think that last bit of yours about theologians sounds more than a little like a sneaky insinuation that I’m defending theology. I’m not, and if such an insinuation was intended, I resent it; I’m defending knowing what you’re talking about.

  113. #113 Scott Hatfield
    October 23, 2006

    RavenT, with respect to the distinction regarding types of ‘validity’, well-said. I think I’m going to add that to my tool kit in arguing with creationists, not to mention roll it around in my own mind when examining my own beliefs. Isn’t it interesting, though, that as scientists many of us show an aesthetic preference for beauty and internal consistency?

    Cordially…SH

  114. #114 RavenT
    October 23, 2006

    I’m beginning to think that rather than reading what I’ve written, some people are reading some weird alternative world version of what I’ve written.

    I’m just going by the text I see before me. I’ll show you how I got out of it what I did, and if I’ve made a mistake somewhere, you’ll correct me, I’m sure.

    You write now:

    The history of theology is not identical to theology

    but before, you wrote:

    First of all, trained as I was to be a historian, I would only accept with a great deal of qualification J.T. Delaney’s claim that the history of theology is not the same thing as the study of theology.

    Can you see why I am confused whether you are asserting they are the same thing or not?

    And all your snotty assertions to the contrary,

    Snotty?

    I fully understand the difference between testable and untestable statements.

    You asked how the distinction blunted your point, you said you didn’t know the jargon I was introducing, and you said you weren’t conflating two things that you obviously were conflating. That gave me the impression you didn’t understand the difference, especially when you said that you would accept only with a great deal of qualification j.t.delaney’s assertion that theology and the history of theology are not the same.

    I guess my referring to history was to blame for this bizarre misimpression.

    No, I think your saying they were pretty much the same was to blame.

    For theology, I’ll gladly let the burden lie on theologians. Again, what has that to do with my point?

    Because the whole point of PZ’s original post was Eagleton’s hectoring Dawkins about theology. Several commenters here criticized Eagleton for that, and you and Nick argued that we were missing the point. Since the point you were defending against our missing of it was “Dawkins should study theology before he talks about it”–i.e., the theologians are exempt from the burden of proof–it was reasonable to conclude that that was what you intended to convey.

    Now you are saying that you agree that the burden of proof lies on the theologians, but that seems to be the opposite of what you were arguing when you stated we were missing the point.

    I think that last bit of yours about theologians sounds more than a little like a sneaky insinuation that I’m defending theology. I’m not, and if such an insinuation was intended, I resent it; I’m defending knowing what you’re talking about.

    I was going by your defending Eagleton’s drumbeat iteration of “theology” in his text and your criticizing us as “missing the point”. And and PZ pointed out, moving the goalposts by arguing that despite calling it “theology”, Eagleton’s critique was really only about the social science aspects of theology would be more effective if Dawkins didn’t write about exactly what he is accused of neglecting.

    But you “resent” the insinuation you’re projecting onto me, and I don’t like being called “snotty” or “sneaky”, either. This discussion with you is turning into a big time-wasting drag, which it doesn’t sound like you’re enjoying any more than I am, and I’m perfectly happy to let it drop at this point.

  115. #115 RavenT
    October 23, 2006

    Hey, Scott, glad I could reciprocate just a little for the teaching materials you sent me :). Even taken as an analogy, rather than literally, I find it useful for clarifying complicated matters.

  116. #116 Caledonian
    October 23, 2006

    That should have been “Pascal’s wager”. Sorry about any confusion.

  117. #117 Observer
    October 23, 2006

    Did anyone read Marilynne Robinson’s review of The God Delusion in the November Harper’s Magazine? It might not be on the stands yet, but has already arrived via subscription. It’s titled “Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins.” It is not a positive review. In fact, regrettably, I haven’t read one wholly positive review of The God Delusion. Her review is worth taking a look at; it’s too long for a synopsis here.

  118. #118 dorkafork
    October 24, 2006

    Dorkafork – Eagleton is describing, more or less from the inside, what Catholics actually believe. I don’t see how else this can come across except as a set of assertions.

    The assertions I was thinking of were Eagleton’s assertions that Dawkins gets theology wrong, and his examples seem poor. Not only is there a dearth of direct quotes (you’d think there’d be plenty grist for the mill), but the examples he gives sound like counterarguments against atheism instead of a simple ignorance of theology. Nor does Eagleton effectively make the case that Dawkins is unaware of these arguments.

    Eagleton’s fifth paragraph is particularly lousy. At the risk of unfairly paraphrasing it: Dawkins says claims God exist can be treated as a scientific hypothesis. Eagleton says no evidence for God is necessary because he’s invisible/transcendendant. And is this supposed to be evidence of Dawkins’ theological ignorance?

  119. #119 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 24, 2006

    I see PZ found out how to increase traffic again. 🙂

    RavenT, I would like to extend my thanks as Scott did – new methods or definitions are always welcome!

    http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/measval.htm : Uh, okay, now it was perhaps too much. 😉

  120. #120 Aaron Baker
    October 24, 2006

    Well, I agree the discussion has become an unpleasant waste of time.

    I’ll concede I expressed myself poorly when I said “I would only accept with a great deal of qualification J.T. Delaney’s claim that the history of theology is not the same thing as the study of theology.” But I explained, ad nauseam, I thought, that I was accepting that the two were different with the qualification that I discussed: namely that the study of theology is an essential component of the history of theology. I don’t know what else I could say now to make it clearer. If you want to continue thinking I was conflating the two things, go ahead.

    You seem to me to be conflating “the burden of proof,” a subject I never brought up, with something very different: I’m accused of suggesting that “Dawkins should study theology before he talks about it–i.e., the theologians are exempt from the burden of proof–” The “i.e.” here connects two points that don’t, in my view, have any necessary connection with each other, nor have I said anything to suggest they do. The burden of proof for alchemy pretty clearly falls on alchemists, I would say; still I would hesitate to write at length about alchemy without close study of the subject. I was also, contrary to the suggestion you convey, explicitly leaving it an open question whether Dawkins was guilty as charged by Eagleton, but let that pass.

    I’m still not understanding how I clearly conflated two kinds of validity that at no time I conflated. My unfamiliarity with your terminology isn’t in my view very good evidence of incomprehension on my part. Yes, further discussion would seem to be a waste of time regarding that.

    As to matters of tone, yes I got angry quickly, too quickly, and let it show too obviously. From time to time, I’ve apologized for getting too surly online. I’ve noticed that the apology has yet to be reciprocated by the equally insulting jerk I was arguing with, so I don’t think I I’ll do much more apologizing.

  121. #121 Keith Douglas
    October 24, 2006

    Scott Hatfield: Beauty and internal consistency are at best fallible indicators of the truth. I would put it more concretely this way: that a theory should be internally consistent is necessary but not sufficient for its truth.

  122. #122 elliottg
    October 24, 2006

    The existence on non-existence of G-d which Terry Eagleton may or may not agree with doesn’t change what he is really getting at which is that Dawkins has written a flawed book. That is no more startling than to state that he is an annoying jerk at times even when he may be right.

  123. #123 Scott Hatfield
    October 24, 2006

    Keith: I don’t disagree, but consider: one of the criticisms often levied of the Standard Model is one of ugliness. Too many particles, too many arbitrary parameters, too many items impossible to test at present. Never mind that it works ‘beautifully’ at most levels of scale.

    Besides, if we believe that the universe is lawful, we should (and in fact do) tend to privilege explanations that are not merely lawful, but also ordered, symmetrical, patterned, etc. That may not be universally regarded as beautiful, but it’s a step in that direction, I think….SH

  124. #124 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 30, 2006

    Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance points out that Eagleton steps in the very same puddle he accuses Dawkins of stepping in: confusion between the abstract “God of the philosophers” and the personal, person-like “God of the believers.”

    Found via Pharyngula.

  125. #125 steve
    November 9, 2006

    Criticizing Dawkins doesn’t mean being a theist. If Eagleton is any less atheist than anyone here I’ll eat my hat. I think the best point he brings up and in my opinion the best critique of the book is its assumption that “that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’.”

    This review seems to read to most of the people here as an attempt to refute Dawkins’ point that god doesn’t exist. Like a good book review it is actually critiquing how well the book does what it attempts to do. I’m inclined to agree with Eagleton that it doesn’t do it well. Doesn’t invalidate the point at all though.

    I’m also kind of surprised that so many people brought up crazy religious types in this discussion as I think they have nothing to do with this review or either side of any argument over it.

    s.

  126. #126 JJWFromME
    December 16, 2006

    Marilyn Robinson does a nice number on Dawkins in the recent issue of Harper’s Magazine

    The cultural Daleks that post on this site aren’t going to bother to read Robinson’s essay. They’re just going to keep right on truckin’.

    Here it is: “Hysterical Scientism: The ecstasy of Richard Dawkins”

    Marilynne Robinson

    http://solutions.synearth.net/2006/10/20

    Also see: “An Atheist Bullies the Faithful”

    Lakshmi Chaudhry

    http://www.alternet.org/movies/45388/

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