Pharyngula

The Courtier’s Reply

There’s a common refrain in the criticisms of Dawkins’ The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) that I’ve taken to categorizing with my own private title—it’s so common, to the point of near-unanimous universality, that I’ve decided to share it with you all, along with a little backstory that will help you to understand the name.

I call it the Courtier’s Reply. It refers to the aftermath of a fable.

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

I’m afraid that when I read H. Allen Orr’s criticism of The God Delusion in the NY Review of Books, all that popped into my head was a two-word rebuttal: Courtier’s Reply. You would be amazed at how many of the anti-Dawkins arguments can be filed away under that category.

That’s all you’ll get from me on Orr’s complaint—it’s another Courtier’s Reply. If you want a more detailed dissection, Jason Rosenhouse provides it.

Comments

  1. #1 J. J. Ramsey
    December 24, 2006

    That may be a good analogy for some parts of Eagleton’s review, but not so much for Orr’s. a better analogy would be that Orr is saying that Dawkins wants to show that the emperor is naked, but instead of using the clear, high-res photos of journalists, he relies on his own blurry Polaroids, where the emperor’s dangly bits are too blurry to make out or hidden by someone’s hat.

  2. #2 George
    December 24, 2006

    Orr: “Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur.”

    Ouch!

  3. #3 Ebonmuse
    December 24, 2006

    In addition to the Courtier’s Reply, I’d like to suggest another category of very common replies to Dawkins: the one where the reviewer berates him at length on the theme of “If Dawkins is an atheist, he can’t possibly explain X!” when, in fact, he’s discussed the matter extensively and proposed a solution.

    Here’s an example:

    Dawkins and people like him pour ridicule on believers. But, as evolutionists, they can’t credibly explain why hundreds of different civilizations across the globe have felt the need to believe in a divine force. Billions of people have accepted what Dawkins considers are stupid, easily refutable and harmful ideas. How did those beliefs evolve? Were they an evolutionary advantage?

    Clearly, this person has never read The God Delusion, or else they’d be aware that he devotes an entire chapter to explaining his views on this topic in detail.

  4. #4 Christian Burnham
    December 24, 2006

    Brilliant post PZ!

    It’s amazing how many of our serious papers have commissioned nasty vitriolic reviews of Dawkins’ book.

    Be sure to catch Newt Gingrich’s ‘One Nation Under God’ special on Fox news over the next few days. (It’s bound to be endlessly repeated.) He really is a nasty piece of work.

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    December 24, 2006

    No, Orr falls squarely into the pigeonhole of the Courtier’s Reply. This is a perfect example:

    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

    Why the hell should anyone have to take the frilly excuses of theology seriously?

  6. #6 Caledonian
    December 24, 2006

    Ramsey criticized Dawkins’ efforts because he knows perfectly well that no photographic equipment, no matter how superior, can disprove the obvious truth that the Emperor has chosen to wear clothing of such clever design and subtle fabric that it cannot be distinguished from nudity. O, those fools! who seek to unravel the wonders of imperial attire, they will be forever deluded by the intricacies of the Emperor’s new bodysuit.

  7. #7 Steve LaBonne
    December 24, 2006

    It’s amazing how many of our serious papers have commissioned nasty vitriolic reviews of Dawkins’ book.

    I take this as a sign that many of the deluded have an uneasy feeling that Dawkins’s attack is genuinely dangerous and that they’d better fight back. Which in turn is a sign that Dawkins is on the right track- he knows that when you obey the “rule” that religion must never be discussed without at least the semblance of deference (no matter how phony), you’ve given the game away before it starts.

  8. #8 Mike Haubrich
    December 24, 2006

    “I take this as a sign that many of the deluded have an uneasy feeling that Dawkins’s attack is genuinely dangerous and that they’d better fight back.”

    Steve, I think you are on the right track, which is why it bugs me most that many of Dawkins critics come from within the atheist camp. “Don’t be so strident,” they implore. If we are to budge the monolith of religion and get the enlightenment back on track, we need the articulate ones to carry megaphones. And use them.

  9. #9 llewelly
    December 24, 2006

    The overwhelming majority of churchgoers are grossly ignorant of theology and philosophy. They will find Dawkins’ simplistic arguments compelling. The same audience would be put to sleep by the sophisticated arguments these whining myriad reviewers imagine. Dawkins wrote for the majority – not for the snobby reviewers. That is to say, Dawkins’ use of simplistic arguments is strategically sound. This, I think, is why the philosophically or theologically sophisticated cringe.

  10. #10 William Gulvin
    December 24, 2006

    Uh-huh. In other words the religionists think Dawkins, and all of us, should eat shit. Fifty trillion flies can’t be ALL wrong!

    I’ll pass, thank you.

  11. #11 Richard Harris, FCD
    December 24, 2006

    I think Orr’s criticism does have some merit.

    < >As T.S. Eliot famously observed, to ask whether we would have been better off without religion is to ask a question whose answer is unknowable. Our entire history has been so thoroughly shaped by Judeo-Christian tradition that we cannot imagine the present state of society in its absence. But there’s a deeper point and one that Dawkins also fails to see. Even what we mean by the world being better off is conditioned by our religious inheritance. What most of us in the West mean–and what Dawkins, as revealed by his own Ten Commandments, means–is a world in which individuals are free to express their thoughts and passions and to develop their talents so long as these do not infringe on the ability of others to do so. But this is assuredly not what a better world would look like to, say, a traditional Confucian culture. There, a new and improved world might be one that allows the readier suppression of in-dividual differences and aspirations.

    We can never know, or evaluate, how much good, or bad, the Judeo-Christian tradition has done. What if its responsible for catastrophic global warming? Had Communism been in place since the Middle Ages, we’d probably not be in such a mess. But there again, what a wonderful standard of living we enjoy, in the West.

    I believe that religion is a nonsense, but I do get a feeling that there are things to cherish that we owe to it. Yesterday, my wife & I went to a neighbouring town, which gave me a chance to look at & appreciate an old church that dates back to the Saxons (although the fabric of the original building will have entirely disappeared). Also yesterday, in the book that I’m currently reading, I came across a reference to my village, and the image of Christ that was found there in the form of a mosaic – 4th C Roman – believed to be the oldest extant image of JC. (Our village newsletter is called ‘The Mosaic’.) The Roman occupation ended, then the native Britons were eventually pushed out by Saxons, Danes, etc. And Christianity found its way back, centuries later. I have to presume that some thoughtful people decided that it offered better mythology than paganism. Better, meaning more effective social institutions, a healthier society.

    It is time to get rid of it, as far as I’m concerned. But what about all those people who don’t read & think about science & philosophy, and just believe whatever nonsense they get exposed to that fits with what they want to believe? Let’s not forget, about half the population has an IQ under 100. I shall continue to promote atheism, but we could be in a lot of trouble if it gets too much acceptance too quickly. And the view is different this side of the ‘ditch’, where religion is mostly fairly benign, (except for some Submissionists).

  12. #12 Diana
    December 24, 2006

    I got a kick out of Dawkins remarks about the “notoriously effective” JEWISH LOBBY, p 4 and p44.

    And he goes on about Jewish genocide and their bringing persecustion on themselves because they “like to remain separate”.

    Jesus H Christ, he hates Jews!

    Conspiracy theory anyone?

  13. #13 John Pieret
    December 24, 2006

    The overwhelming majority of churchgoers are grossly ignorant of theology and philosophy. They will find Dawkins’ simplistic arguments compelling. The same audience would be put to sleep by the sophisticated arguments these whining myriad reviewers imagine. Dawkins wrote for the majority – not for the snobby reviewers. That is to say, Dawkins’ use of simplistic arguments is strategically sound. This, I think, is why the philosophically or theologically sophisticated cringe.

    I haven’t read the book yet. Are you saying that Dawkins is deliberately aiming his arguments to take advantage of the crude understanding of non-professionals in the field as a polemic strategy?

    Who does that remind me of?

  14. #14 Uber
    December 24, 2006

    Are you saying that Dawkins is deliberately aiming his arguments to take advantage of the crude understanding of non-professionals in the field as a polemic strategy?

    Dawkins makes simple arguments that are difficult if not impossible to adequately answer. The ‘understanding’ of professionals in this case amounts to no more than the crude understanding of the target audience. There is no point in addressing all the ‘professionals’ points as they have no more substance than the crude versions.

    Why do people think there is some grand religious argument that is more sophisticated when not even shred 1 of evidence has been procurred.

  15. #15 John Pieret
    December 24, 2006

    Dawkins makes simple arguments that are difficult if not impossible to adequately answer.

    By what standard? Not Orr’s, surely.

    There is no point in addressing all the ‘professionals’ points as they have no more substance than the crude versions.

    Ah, I see … he could do so if he wanted to but … what? … doesn’t feel like it?

    I’m sorry. I’m still getting quite a whiff of our friends from the land of northwest coffee.

  16. #16 Ginger Yellow
    December 24, 2006

    John, the point is that it’s always possible for theologians (or sophists of any stripe) to construct a religion that can’t be disproved and that has no empirical consequences. Dawkins doesn’t directly address those religious constructs because they’re not very interesting. One, they’re sophistry. Two, hardly anyone believes in them. Dawkins is entirely upfront about what he’s trying to do. He’s addressing precisely the people who believe in a non-theological, personal, creator God, yet who haven’t thought about their belief as much as a theologian or indeed a committed atheist has. He directs people who want a challenge to the theologian’s God elsewhere. Now you can, like Orr, complain that that’s not fair, but you’ll be missing the point. There are hundreds of millions if not billions of people who fall into that category – far, far more than believe in a theologian’s God – and those are the people at whom he is aiming his arguments.

  17. #17 J. J. Ramsey
    December 24, 2006

    PZ Meyers: No, Orr falls squarely into the pigeonhole of the Courtier’s Reply. This is a perfect example:”

    The “Courtier’s Reply” is an attempt to dodge the question of the existence of X with concerns about the nature of X that are irrelevant to X’s existence. In the case of the naked emperor, the X is the clothing. In the case of The God Delusion, the X is God.

    From what I can tell, Dawkins also argues not only against the existence of God, but also argues that religion is a great evil, which comes into play in the latter part of your “perfect example.”

    Orr: The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?),

    Biblical literalism is not irrelevant to arguments about God’s existence that involve refuting some portion of the Bible.

    no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?),

    “God exists” is a religious proposition. If Dawkins want to refute it by treating it as an ordinary claim, then if he wants his argument to be accepted by those who separate religious propositions from ordinary claims, then he should point out the separation is invalid.

    no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

    This hits on the parts where Dawkins argues that religion is an evil:

    If Dawkins wants to argue honestly that religion is, on balance, a bad thing, then he should not ignore apparent counterevidence such as the good things the Church had done for religion, nor should he parody Christian belief to make it appear worse than it is (e.g., saying that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill).

  18. #18 GH
    December 24, 2006

    JJ Ramsey,

    with all due respect you are so far off base as to almost be a parody.

    God exists” is a religious proposition. If Dawkins want to refute it by treating it as an ordinary claim, then if he wants his argument to be accepted by those who separate religious propositions from ordinary claims, then he should point out the separation is invalid.

    This is exactly the kind of sly slight of hand that frankly should not be permitted. God exists is not a religious proposition. It is a claim that a being exists and is treated as such by the majority of believers. A being who makes real world events and communications. And he does point out the seperation of religious claims from others is invalid. Have you even bothered to read him? You sound as if you have no idea what his book says.

    If Dawkins wants to argue honestly that religion is, on balance, a bad thing, then he should not ignore apparent counterevidence such as the good things the Church had done for religion, nor should he parody Christian belief to make it appear worse than it is

    All I can say here is damn, have you even read the book? I mean your comments make you, at least to me, seem uninformed about what he actually says. He is very fair in the treatment of religions supposed benefits and from my reading doesnt ignore much. And he certainly doesn’t parody Christian belief to make it seem worse than it is, that would be nearly impossible. His is a very fair approach and frankly I don’t see your point at all.

  19. #19 Uber
    December 24, 2006

    Dawkins makes simple arguments that are difficult if not impossible to adequately answer.

    By what standard? Not Orr’s, surely.

    Good grief, there has never been satisfactory answers to any of the arguments he puts forth which is why they are still discussed. Is this even debatable?

    There is no point in addressing all the ‘professionals’ points as they have no more substance than the crude versions.

    Ah, I see … he could do so if he wanted to but … what? … doesn’t feel like it?

    He addresses the core that these ‘sophisticated’ arguments are based on, the underpinning, he addresses the common arguments put forth 99% of the time. Step right up and present your evidence for the deity of your choice. You always welcome to try. If he tried to engage every single argument he would never stop writing and it was’nt his books aim.

    I’m sorry. I’m still getting quite a whiff of our friends from the land of northwest coffee.

    I don’t think thats what your smelling.

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    December 24, 2006

    Mr Ramsey: I see over at Jason’s thread that you have gone on at length about Dawkins’ book, and I fear that you threaten to do likewise here. I strongly urge you to find something else on which you are competent to argue, because if you feel the urge to babble incessantly on a book which you haven’t read here, I’m going to dsmvwl yr ss. Now toddle off.

    This is a bad thing: criticizing books at length that you’ve never read. It really pisses me off, too, because I at least try to read the other side. I’ve read Collins (execrable), Miller (half bad/half good), Wilson (not bad), Roughgarden (pretty awful), and even Coulter (gibbering insanity)…what is it with people who think it’s OK to tear into Dawkins on 2nd or 3rd hand echoes of what he actually wrote? It’s intellectually dishonest.

  21. #21 RTY
    December 24, 2006

    Let me cut thru the muck, here:

    Orr just bitch-slapped Dawkins on the august pages of the NY Review of Books.

    Dawkins is a real smart fellow. Has written a few great books (The Selfish Gene comes to mind). But, he’s a bush-leaguer in philosophy.

    His anti-theism putsch borders on a Don Quixote folly.

  22. #22 John Pieret
    December 24, 2006

    I take it this is some kind of subtle insult equating people with Seattle… but I don’t get it. What does this have to do with the discussion?

    Who makes arguments designed to refute the “common man” understanding of evolution and who complains that it is easier (i.e. simpler) to misrepresent science than it is to explain its complexities?

    He addresses the core that these ‘sophisticated’ arguments are based on, the underpinning …

    I said I hadn’t read the book and was going by what llewelly said about his aiming his arguments at the “majority of churchgoers [who] are grossly ignorant of theology and philosophy” and not to those who aren’t ignorant of them. Jason Rosenhouse made much the same observation. Is that what Dawkins did and, if so, do you think that is the proper way for honest, intelligent people to argue?

    Good grief, there has never been satisfactory answers to any of the arguments he puts forth which is why they are still discussed.

    I’m sorry … does that mean that because the debate continiues it is actually over?

    Step right up and present your evidence for the deity of your choice.

    Whatever made you think I am a believer? Or am I supposed to ignore bad argumentation because it’s on “my side”?

    I don’t think thats what your smelling.

    I know, but I was giving Dawkins the benefit of the doubt.

  23. #23 Jack
    December 24, 2006

    Good for you, P.Z. I am frankly sick to death of people maligning Dawkins’s book simply because he doesn’t come to grip with all the theological niceties that can be wrested out of Biblical exegesis. He demolishes the main ones, and that’s all that matters; the rest is a disquisition on why believing in God makes no more sense than believing in the tooth fairy (and it doesn’t). Yes, there are a few flaws in The God Delusion, but on the whole it’s on a par (and better than) Bertrand Russell’s essay, “Why I am not a Christian.” Nobody took Russell to task for not dealing with the babble of every theologian who came down the pike. Why do people bring up these arguments now? Probably because if one wants to be a public intellectual in America, it’s not good to be perceived as anti-religious, and so you pick on the minor points of Dawkins book while ignoring the entire thrust of his argument.

    I haven’t seen a single review that talks about why we are more justified in believing in God than in believing the earth-oribiting China teapot that Dawkins discusses in his book. The reviewers have really dropped the ball on this one. Another example of how you can’t get away with criticizing religion in America. . . .

  24. #24 PZ Myers
    December 24, 2006

    By “addressing the core” what is meant is that Dawkins go straight to the central issue: is there a god? No messing around.

    Some people may be very impressed with the skillful rhetoric and razor sharp logic of theologians who argue about what color socks god might wear, and I agree that many very intelligent people have spent their whole lives fussing over such esoterica…but who cares? If they can’t even support their main contention, the existence of the being they’re dithering over, all the effort spent on the tangential issues is wasted.

    It seems you’re another of those guys who spends a lot of time carping at the book without reading it, John. How about visiting your local library and spending as much time reading it as you do writing about it?

  25. #25 John Pieret
    December 24, 2006

    How about visiting your local library and spending as much time reading it as you do writing about it?

    Sorry, I’m working on Dennett’s book now in hopes that the philosophy will be better.

    I’ve read Dawkins’ pre-publication articles that I understand appear as part of the book and I’m less than impressed but I’ll withhold final judgment until I read it. I’m interested here in what people are finding so persuasive about it.

    I’ve haven’t written about the book, though I’ve written a lot about some people’s attempt to wrap themselves in Winston Churchill’s reputation …

  26. #26 Wes
    December 24, 2006

    Dawkins’ book is far from perfect. There were certain arguments in it that just made me cringe, they were so lame (For instance: Why does he keep bringing up these flimsy multiverse hypotheses? They add so little to his over all purpose and open him up to criticism for promulgating a theory supported by extremely meager evidence while criticizing religion for doing the same).

    But over all it’s a good, enjoyable book and a lot of the points he makes are right on target. I have recommended it to friends, just with the caveat that some of his arguments are flawed. Too few people are brave enough to criticize religion openly, so even a somewhat flawed book is still a welcome addition to the debate. Dawkins’ book is good, but it certainly does have its shortcomings.

    However, PZ is right to point out that the problem is not with his not having read shitloads of theology. I have read some theology myself, and none of the theologians really provide anything over and above what Dawkins argues against. Theologians argue a lot over the nature of the parousia (return of Christ) or of the kerygma (order to preach the gospel). They go on and on about God’s Law, inspiration, angels, demons, miracles, salvation, heaven, hell, arguing to no end about the nature of an endless supply of completely imaginary inventions.

    As Dawkins himself said, you don’t have to study astrology in depth to know it’s false. You don’t need to read Aquinas’ opinions on angels or Luther’s opinions on the role of faith and works in salvation to criticize the basic notion that all of these things are completely delusional. The theologians first need to establish whether or not the things they are talking about are real before they start demanding that they be studied in detail.

    Imagine if scientists spilled gallons and gallons of ink describing an ever-increasing horde of new subatomic particles and arguing over their nature and features, but without ever doing a single experiment or observing a single phenomenon to test their hypotheses. They would get nowhere and prove nothing. That’s kinda the problem with theology. Before we can even have such a thing as “theology” we need to get some good evidence that there’s a “theos” who can be the object of our “logos”. So far, there’s none. And in his absense very little of theology has anything resembling a firm footing.

  27. #27 John Pieret
    December 24, 2006

    … withhold all judgment until you read it

    Now you see, here is the kind of information I’m seeking. I had no idea that Dawkins’s book was completely different from the articles that appeared during the run-up to publication or what he said in all those interviews.

    Now I’m sure I’ll be surprised.

  28. #28 mtraven
    December 24, 2006

    MarkP said:

    Theology is not outdated science. It doesn’t even rise to the level of bad science.

    Funny, I make exactly this kind statement when criticizing Dawkins (or PZ). Religion is not a bad form of science, and if you insist on interpreting it that way you miss the point. Religion is about myth, community, morality, and ritual, just as much or more than it is about cosmology. Science has undermined the cosmological functions of religion but really hasn’t done a lot for the other functions, all of which speak to people’s real needs.

    So Dawkins engages religion only at the level of the crudest fundamentalists, where he can score points. But very few people are going to abandon their faith based on arguments like that.

    Orr’s complaint, and many other’s, is that Dawkins is taking easy shots and not engaging with the more intelligent class of believers. This is a cheap debating trick. An analogy would be how a certain class of right-wing writers attack “the left” by picking out its most extreme members (ie, Ward Churchill) and using them to smear the whole.

    To quote Orr:

    Dawkins almost reflexively identifies religion with right-wing fundamentalism and biblical literalism. Other, more nuanced possibilities– varieties of deism, mysticism, or nondenominational spirituality–have a harder time holding his attention. It may be that Dawkins can’t imagine these possibilities vividly enough to worry over them in a serious way.

    Actually I’ve heard Dawkins speak to these views, and generally his tactic is to say that it there is a form of religion he finds acceptable, then it isn’t really religion. Which is just the converse of his basic trick.

  29. #29 Caledonian
    December 24, 2006

    I had no idea that Dawkins’s book was completely different from the articles that appeared during the run-up to publication or what he said in all those interviews.

    Fool! Criticize the articles, and the interviews, all you like. But you’re criticizing them, not the book. You shouldn’t be making any judgments about the book, much less final ones, without having read it.

    Coming from a person who condemns Dawkins for not having read all sorts of theology before discarding it, your attitude is particularly offensive. Dawkins has valid logical arguments which demonstrate that the central premises of theological arguments are unlikely to be true, but you have nothing but an inflated ego and an inability to think clearly.

  30. #30 W. Kiernan
    December 24, 2006

    That’s funny to read, because a while back in response to a comment on a blog somewhere praising Terry Eagletoin’s negative review of Dawkins, I posted this. Where I don’t remember but the draft ended up on my hard drive:

    I read Eagleton’s thing a while back. You know, I myself enjoy science-fiction, so I’m not trying to hate on any fans here, but…

    Imagine a sect with enormous political leverage who profess to believe in the material reality of “Star Trek.” (Hey, imagine two sects who have spent generations at each others’s throats: the Kirkites, for whom the Klingons were, are and always will be the number one foe of the Good, and the Picardites, who have reconciled themselves with the Klingons to face their common enemy, the Borg.) The Kirkites’s mission is to control all private and public policy under the guiding presumption that the Enterprise righteously orbits just past the horizon, scanners on “zoom” and phasers on “stun,” around and around, forever and again, time without end, amen.

    Along comes this noisy Kirkophobe Dawkins, who argues at length that these people’s ideas are just plain daft. And your man Eaglton the Kirkite paladin, what is his devastating rejoinder? “Why, for example on page 123 where this ignorant so-and-so Dawkins talks about tricorders, he is clearly unaware of the major differences between the obsolete Mark I tricorder and the 24th century Mark IV tricorder! And yet worse: Dawkins openly admits that he doesn’t speak a single word of Klingon! Fool! Qapla’!

    Well anyway, all I’m saying is I really wasn’t as impressed with Eagleton’s “takedown” as you were.

  31. #31 David Marjanovi?
    December 24, 2006

    all of which speak to people’s real needs.

    Then why don’t I have any such needs?

    Oh, and… as far as I remember, string theory is testable. It’s just that no humongous enough collider exists yet.

  32. #32 David Marjanovi?
    December 24, 2006

    all of which speak to people’s real needs.

    Then why don’t I have any such needs?

    Oh, and… as far as I remember, string theory is testable. It’s just that no humongous enough collider exists yet.

  33. #33 Bryson Brown
    December 24, 2006

    There’s a phrase that Imre Lakatos used to describe what happens to a research program on its last legs: a degenerating problem shift. When problems aren’t being solved, when successful predictions are rare as hens’ teeth, the defense of the program is reduced to efforts to avoid falsification. Ad hoc maneuvers remove direct conflicts between accepted observations and the core principles of the program; as new difficulties arise, new dodges arise to avoid them.

    It’s true that religion isn’t science–but the high-test theological parts of religion are still one of the best illustrations of a degenerating problem shift I know of. For most believers, religion is inextricably bound up with the central promises that provide pastoral comfort: That there really is a God whose power and goodness ensure that, despite personal tragedy and the horrific cruelties inflicted all around us, everything is really all right. What that comfort demands is a reasonable facsimle of an honest-to-God after-life. A God who fades away into a presence and a voice, a companion in moments of prayer, is not going to cut it. A religion that can’t be taken at face value, that requires subtle dodges to avoid outright refutation, that offers no evidence beyond a tradition of refined discussions grounded on the shared assumption of their tradition’s indispensability, is not a religion most people will find worth the bother. Hence the rapid growth of red-blooded religion– especially in the more desperate regions of the world– and the general unpopularity of subtle, conciliatory theological discourses. The latter has little to offer people hungry for real hope, not mere reconciliation with their fate.

    That’s all to say that Dawkins has chosen the right target– especially for a book aimed at a wider audience. The theological niceties would require a very different, far less readable book– his book is the better for not being that book.

  34. #34 Joe S.
    December 24, 2006

    This thread is producing more heat than light: ad hominems galore. But I don’t see much disagreement. The commentators mostly don’t disagree on two key issues:

    - The arguments against God are pretty strong.
    - Dawkins did not do a sophisticated job in pushing these arguments.

    Why all the fratricide?

    If anybody wants to flame me, two notes. First, I have read all the comments on this thread. Second, I once did an experiment with Mike Behe, while he was at the NIH, back before he came out as a creationist. (We looked for resonance transfer fluorescence of Tb+++/DNA complexes. No luck–it would have been a nice tool if it had worked.)

  35. #35 Friend Fruit
    December 24, 2006

    Let me cut thru the muck, here:
    Orr just bitch-slapped Dawkins on the august pages of the NY Review of Books.
    Dawkins is a real smart fellow. Has written a few great books (The Selfish Gene comes to mind). But, he’s a bush-leaguer in philosophy.
    His anti-theism putsch borders on a Don Quixote folly.

    Where’s the beef? Show me the money!
    You, like Orr, like Eagleton, like John Lynch, like the parrot Chad Orzel, repeat the claim that Dawkins has missed some important theology or philosophy in his arguments. Yet you, like all those others, fail to point out any such theological or philosophical substance. You are just another courtier, and you are just as naked as your Emperor.

    Daniel Dennett says:

    But this is well nigh impossible when the arguments you wish to rebut are too flimsy. For one thing, you fear that hyper-patience will appear patronizing and simply drive other, swifter readers away. For another, we are dealing here with arguments that in most instances no longer have identifiable living exponents. Who stands by the Ontological Argument today? There are historians of philosophy and theology aplenty who will lovingly teach the argument (and its variants and rebuttals and the rebuttals of the rebuttals) but with few exceptions they don’t defend it. It is treated as a interesting historical example, a Worthy Attempt, a jewel in the treasure-house of religion and philosophy, but not as a consideration that demands a response in today’s arena of argument. That being so, giving the argument the Full Rapoport Treatment would be misplaced effort, comically earnest. Still, what are we to say to those who, not being experts on the arguments themselves, have often heard them spoken of highly, and may well feel entitled to a more patient account? I think I can imagine mustering the good will, the humor, and the pedagogical doggedness to satisfy them, but I certainly couldn’t find the strength to do it now, and on present showing, Dawkins couldn’t either. In that case, then, perhaps it is all for the best that some readers will probably come away from the book more impressed by Dawkins’ disrespect than persuaded by his arguments. Dawkins might even add that when ideas are contemptible, to conceal one’s contempt is dishonest­and since he is so very good at expressing and defending the scientific ideas for which he has respect, this very contrast may, in the end, be a more potent consciousness-raiser than any argument. Perhaps some claims should just be laughed out of court.

  36. #36 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 24, 2006

    The kind of theology that Dawkins lacks knowledge of has nothing to do with what color socks God wears, or other such minutiae specific to particular religions — it’s more like Dawkins has decided he is qualified to dismiss all clothing as fantasy based only on the fact that the Emperor is naked. Ultimately, the Emperor may not be wearing any clothes, but neither is Dawkins.

  37. #37 Caledonian
    December 24, 2006

    Oh, really? Give us an example of a deity that Dawkins hasn’t dealt with.

  38. #38 Friend Fruit
    December 24, 2006

    The kind of theology that Dawkins lacks knowledge of has nothing to do with what color socks God wears, or other such minutiae specific to particular religions

    Finally some beef! No, it’s just an empty promise of beef. It’s another empty bun. No pickles even.

  39. #39 Friend Fruit
    December 24, 2006

    Orr: “Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur.”

    You guys have been holding out on me. Where do I sign up to get paid for my atheism?

  40. #40 Caledonian
    December 24, 2006

    No, in this context a ‘courtier’s reply’ is a dismissal of an irrefutable demonstration by claiming the demonstrator is deficient in arcane (and highly irrelevant) knowledge.

    Whether Dawkins is fully versed in the Christian theological debate over salvation through faith versus salvation through works has no bearing on his compelling arguments that gods in the broadest sense are a load of dingos’ kidneys.

  41. #41 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 25, 2006

    Ah, so this is something theologians of all religions agree on then?

    Ironic. By missing the point I was making, you actually remake the point I was making.

    Which is exactly the flaw in Dawkins’ mindless arguments against this construct-of-straw he has created and labelled “religion” that he likes to rail against.

  42. #42 Tyler DiPietro
    December 25, 2006

    Rev. Raven Daegmorgan,

    We’ve heard the “point” you’re attempting to make here ad nauseum, but so far, no one has had the courtesy show us the proverbial money. All we get is the same sneering reply from theists that we don’t know what we are talking about.

    If there is some theological system out there that Dawkins doesn’t address, or some crushing argument against him (beyond the common “HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THEOLOGY!” pap) please provide it. Otherwise you’re just wasting time and energy.

  43. #43 Ian H Spedding FCD
    December 25, 2006

    As others have pointed out, it is not Dawkins who has failed to squarely confront the problem of religion but his critics. They allege he is unaware of – or, at least, fails to address – the vast amount written about theology over the centuries. But, if there are no gods, how does that work differ from all that has been written about Star Trek or Star Wars – other than that the latter are recognised as fictional? Is it not all just mythology?

    On the other hand, if, for example, we can point to the bitter hatred and bigotry of the Westboro Baptist Church as an example religious intolerance at its worst, we must surely also acknowledge the love, compassion and forgiveness extended by the Amish towards the family of the man who killed or wounded so many of their children.

    While we want to discourage the worst excesses of faith, is it politic to alienate potential allies by labelling all the faithfull as equally dangerous? I say again that, if evangelical atheists want to invoke the spirit of Winston Churchill they would do well to remember his comment, as a bitter oponent of communism, about the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union: “”If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

    That said, while bellicose atheism like that of Dawkins may, at times, be tactically inappropriate, it is not the problem. The real objection is that it is too narrowly focussed. It is not just religious doctrine but any kind of absolutist thinking that poses a threat.

    I look forward to reading The God Delusion as I do all Dawkins books but I feel that, as a fan of George Eliot, a better label for the problem would be The Casaubon Delusion.

  44. #44 RavenT
    December 25, 2006

    @Rev. Raven Daegmorgan,

    I think you are not understanding the point that PZ is making. It really doesn’t matter what the details of any particular theology–or all of them taken together are–or how finely they are honed or whatever–because that’s not what the discussion is about.

    Sometimes it’s useful to bring in the Semantic Triangle to clarify the distinctions among the components of meaning. The Semantic Triangle differentiates among “referent”, “term”, and “concept”: the referent is the thing in the material world to which meaning attaches, the term is the arbitrary string used to refer to the referent, and concept is the set of the mental constructs around the referent. So a referent might be one of the bears in our current study, a term might be any of the strings “sun bear” or “oso” (Spanish) or “shash” (Navajo) or “beruang madu” (Indonesian) or “Ursula” (the name of an individual bear). Concepts are things like “fierce predator”, “protective mother”, “wildlife pest”–they have an emotional or experiential charge that the arbitrary string (term) doesn’t have (think “connotation” (definition 1) [concept] vs. “denotation” (definition 2) [term]). Depending on our experiences, then, we can find ourselves weighting the different components in incompatible ways, and so we can mean very different things when we use the same word “bear”.

    Anyway, the particular strength of science is that it can reliably (repeatably, reproducibly) make testable predictions about natural-world referents. So it serves the purpose of standardizing or normalizing a frame of reference to move us from the unique meaning of our individual phenomenologies to a universal reference point, or at least as close as imperfect senses and measuring instruments can get us. It faciliatates communication by fixing meaning in that way.

    It is that fixing of meaning by reliably linking from the terms and concepts to the referents that Dawkins is claiming that all but the most deistic of religions cannot provide. And by asserting in effect, “but look how well-developed our terms and concepts are”–the details of theology, or the imaginary fabrics in PZ’s analogy–you still are not answering the criticism of religion’s inability to link those terms and concepts reliably to the referents (the dangling genitalia, in this case). So it doesn’t matter how heavily-weighted the other vertices of the triangle are; Dawkins doesn’t need them in order to point out that religion is not equipped to reliably deal with referents.

  45. #45 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 25, 2006

    The fact that Dawkins addresses only one theistic system (and one so simple a five-year old can dissect it) and presents it as the summation and totality of “religion” and religious thought (or theology) is the most damning argument against him.

    I am sure you are aware of basic logic and debate: a straw man damns your own argument for you (though they provably serve as excellent rallying points).

    You’ll argue: you’re just saying the same thing again and we’ve proven that isn’t a valid response because..! And that is a big part of the problem.

    The problem is most atheists can’t even tell he’s using straw, because of the ignorance of most of the same regarding the idea of theology and actual world-wide religious beliefs (based on their narrow personal experiences and, more importantly, perceptually-reinforced understanding of such things), which only contribute to the problem.

    At that point, it is like trying to have a discussion with a fundamentalist Christian about the supposed inerrancy of the Bible and truth or falsehood of Christianity as a set of beliefs.

    Which, as I’m sure you probably know from experience, is that the problem isn’t the argument being presented to them, it is the basic (faulty) assumptions on which replies to it stand, which never let the individual get past their initial conclusions (case in point: they too utilize the “we’ve all heard that one before…” response, and go right back to arguing something you just dismissed as faulty).

    You see, this whole “Emperor’s clothes” idea, that he only needed to disprove this one basic idea because the rest after that is fluff and cover for this one central premise, is indicative of this ignorance: because there’s more than just additional fluff and one central idea about “God” (or whatever) out there.

    That is, it has nothing to do with the details of “theology”, because there isn’t “a theology”. That is Dawkins’ mistake: it is his straw man. His “idea”, “concept” — his “referent” — of “religion” itself.

  46. #46 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 25, 2006

    It is not just religious doctrine but any kind of absolutist thinking that poses a threat.

    Indeed, I agree. And for me — whether he is right or wrong, and quite beside any agreement or disagreemnt I have with any of his arguments or conclusions — this includes Dawkins’ disturbingly short-sighted and self-righteous brand of atheism.

    I have argued in the past his bellicose atheism is exactly the problem — as such behaivors have been throughout human history, no matter what particular group is currently laying claim to their right to rage, belittle and snipe as part of their sacred duty to save the world from itself.

    The fact he claims it is for the good of humanity is irrelevant; neither that, nor his claim to rationality is a defense, because such things are always the claim when similar individuals arise and spew forth their bile.

    But he makes me glad I have atheist friends who are above his irrational, divisive, and childish nonsense — and for the friends of numerous faiths who are above the same attitudes expressed in their faiths.

  47. #47 Tyler DiPietro
    December 25, 2006

    Rev. Raven Daegmorgan,

    Quite amazing that, after accusing an opposing poster of proving your point, you prove ours in spades. Your above post is a perfect example of the unfounded accusations and rhetorical hand-waving that so characterizes Dawkins’ critics. I see nothing of substance in your post, only vapid allegations that Dawkins has erected a strawman without any elaboration. In science, math, and other areas of inquiry, if someone erects a strawman version of an argument, model, theory, etc. it is intellectually irresponsible to make such an accusation without providing a correction.

    If you have the money, then show us. Otherwise it may be prudent to take your theology and go home.

  48. #48 RavenT
    December 25, 2006

    The fact that Dawkins addresses only one theistic system (and one so simple a five-year old can dissect it) and presents it as the summation and totality of “religion” and religious thought (or theology) is the most damning argument against him.

    Speaking of strawmen, perhaps you’d be kind enough to cite where he does exactly that?

    You’ll argue:

    No, I don’t think so.

  49. #49 truth machine
    December 25, 2006

    I take it this is some kind of subtle insult equating people with Seattle… but I don’t get it. What does this have to do with the discussion?

    He’s likening Dawkins to the Discovery Institute, but he’s full of crap and apparently none too bright.

  50. #50 truth machine
    December 25, 2006

    “… withhold all judgment until you read it”

    Now you see, here is the kind of information I’m seeking. I had no idea that Dawkins’s book was completely different from the articles that appeared during the run-up to publication or what he said in all those interviews.

    Now I’m sure I’ll be surprised.

    Don’t be an ass; you haven’t even offered any criticism of Dawkins’s articles, merely said that you’re less than impressed, which is hardly surprising considering how dense and uncomprehending your comments here have been.

  51. #51 truth machine
    December 25, 2006

    The kind of theology that Dawkins lacks knowledge of has nothing to do with what color socks God wears, or other such minutiae specific to particular religions — it’s more like Dawkins has decided he is qualified to dismiss all clothing as fantasy based only on the fact that the Emperor is naked.

    Oh, right, the other God is naked, but yours isn’t.

    Ultimately, the Emperor may not be wearing any clothes, but neither is Dawkins.

    Dawkins shows that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes; you’ve shown nothing.

    Why is it that I can almost always count on anyone with “Rev.” in front of their name to be dishonest and dim?

  52. #52 Steve LaBonne
    December 25, 2006

    Good for you, P.Z. I am frankly sick to death of people maligning Dawkins’s book simply because he doesn’t come to grip with all the theological niceties that can be wrested out of Biblical exegesis.

    I personally found the book pretty much a total yawn, and far less interesting than Dennett’s; everything in it is very old hat to any long-time unbeliever. But that’s not in any way a relevant criticsm of Dawkins because, you see, the book really isn’t for me or people like me. That’s the point that a lot of not very competent “criticism” completely misses.

  53. #53 paul fauvet
    December 25, 2006

    We are told that Dawkins doesn’t understand religion, which is really all about “myth, community, morality and ritual”.

    Nice try – except that I can still remember very clearly what the Jesuit priests at my Catholic grammar school used to teach us. They didn’t tell us anything about myth or community (though there was lots of stupefyingly boring ritual). Instead we were faced with a large number of prohibitions, and told that if we broke any of them, we would burn in hell for all eternity.

    Miss mass on a Sunday ? Mortal sin. Burn in hell. Fail to take Holy Communion at least once a year ? Mortal sin. Burn in hell. Sex outside of marriage ? Mortal sin. Burn in hell. Masturbation? Mortal sin. Burn in hell. Of course, you can escape from the burn in hell bit, if you confess your sins – but to whom ? Why, to the same people who told you they were sins in the first place !

    In that particular school, the reality of religion was psychological terrorism – do what we say, or you will be forever damned.

    As for religion being about morality – well, there are indeed some attractively moral passages in the New Testament. The problem is that the Christian religion has never taken them seriously, and as a result the meek have still not inherited the earth.

    Furthermore, attractive sayings put into the mouth of Christ are more than set off by the rest of the Bible, which gleefully approves of behaviour that we would nowadays characterise as genocide and war crimes (see the book Of Joshua for some of the worst examples of divinely-sponsored mass murder – ameliorated somewhat by archaeology which shows that the conquest described in Joshua could not possible have happened.)

  54. #54 Phoenician in a time of Romans
    December 25, 2006

    I take this as a sign that many of the deluded have an uneasy feeling that Dawkins’s attack is genuinely dangerous and that they’d better fight back.

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Gandhi.

  55. #55 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 26, 2006

    For those few individuals who have used reason and grace in their responses: thank you for behaving like thinking, intelligent beings. I hope I will be able to eventually answer all of you as I’m able, if the following does not serve as a reply.

    Now, to get directly to the point: The only straw I’m seeing here is yours, Rev.

    I’m sorry you haven’t seen my point yet; it’s not like I’ve never been in (or seen) arguments where the opponent didn’t grasp the point being made by their debate partner. I accept that as a part of debate between humans, and if we can’t get over that hump, we can’t.

    Also if you’re willing to point out which statement I’ve made is straw, please do, I’m open to hearing your criticisms.

    On my part, this will be the clearest I can make the argument against the Emperor’s Clothes and Dawkins.

    To return to the analogy: I have stated, or tried to make understood the idea that Dawkins is claiming the Emperor is naked, when what’s he’s really claiming is that the Emperor isn’t wearing a waistcoat. Dawkins wants to define “naked” to mean “without a waistcoat”; and I am arguing against that, because there is more to being clothed than that argument takes into account. The theology Dawkins is ignorant of is everything beyond the waistcoat.

    Unfortunately, my use of analogy to describe the problem hasn’t worked well thus far, so let’s abandon it, because, really, analogies only serve their purpose if one understands their point…and arguing via analogy can quickly become mired in nonsense.

    The problem is that Dawkins’ arguments against “religion” and “God” apply only to a specific theological understanding of those subjects.

    As such, the argument against Dawkins’ assertion has nothing to do with the details of specific Judeo-Christian theological arguments, but the fact that there is not one, singular, central tenet of “theology” across all religions or even sects of religions that he can neatly dispute.

    It is like believing that because you can refute some basic point of Descartes’ philosophy and overturn all his later arguments, it gives you license to discard the philosophies of Plato, Nietzsche, or Locke as well. That’s the sort of thing I’ve been pointing out regarding atheist ignorance of the breadth of theological thought, and why it has nothing to do with the details of any specific theology.

    Since not all religions or theologies require or rely on the divine to be a “Big Magical Fairy Man in the Sky, caucasian, 5’6″ and 160 lbs, drives a white cloud” (or whatever)*, the claim that he successfully refutes the concept of God is in error, as is the claim that pointing out Dawkins’ error of ignorance is just the Courtier’s reply.

    * For example: variations of Buddhism, some modern Hindu sects, various pagan and pantheist religions, some tribal religions (possibly more that I have no real knowledge of).

    So, that is the problem with Dawkins’ argument, and why the Emperor’s Clothes defense of Dawkins’ ignorance is flawed, because the presumption is that Dawkins’ argument does in fact take all the necessary facts into account, that there is only one “theology” and understanding of the nature of the divine for him to disprove, and thus that his ignorance of theology/religion isn’t a problem for the argument he is presenting.

    Note that I am not arguing he hasn’t disproven the specific “Man in the Sky” idea, but claiming that because critics rightly point out the above error on his part they are just blathering about pointless, meaningless details is equally an error in understanding the basis for their criticism.

  56. #56 MTran
    December 26, 2006

    Rev,

    Dawkins explains which types of religions and religious beliefs he is and is not attempting to refute rather clearly. You apparently have assumed that because many of the comments on this site (and many other sites) understandably focus attention on the Abrahamic fundamentalist religions that are most prevalent in the US, that Dawkins has failed to recognize that there are other styles of religion.

    Dawkins has, however, made the complaint that the softer, more “nuanced” or “rational” religions provide cover for the extremely damaging literalist mind-sets and that as a consquence, public policies have come to cater to the literalist / fundamentalist mind-set. To our great detriment.

    Look, I’ve spent something like 30 years as a student or lecturer at Jesuit and similar universities. Your assertions that there is some particularly persuasive theological argument out there that is being overlooked by unschooled atheists is just a crock. At the end of the day, the theological arguments must be accepted on faith, not reason. Unless they are accepted as some sort of credo consolans. And every single well educated believer that I have known has ultimately described their faith as being just that: a matter of personal and spiritual comfort.

    Now the believers I have known are unlikely to be typical of the usual believer demographics. They are much better educated, for one thing. But I have never once had a single person tell me that they based their faith on any theological argument. I have had uneducated believers tell me that they “have to” believe in a god because they “just can’t imagine” how the world could come into existence without one. Kind of like the ID line.

    But how about canning the insults about atheists not knowing any theology or religious history or canon.

    Nearly every atheist has been a believer at one time. In the US this usually means they were raised as some sort of Christian. So they all have a religious grounding that is at least as good as the typical believer. But unlike the typical believer, they are more likely to have actually examined the physical, textual, and spiritual basis of those beliefs.

    If 30 years of discussions with genuine Christian and religious scholars hasn’t changed my mind about the utter falsity of theism, your unsupported insults surely won’t.

  57. #57 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 26, 2006

    Are you sure you read my statement above, MTran?

    Because I wasn’t arguing that theism was true, so I’m not sure where you get that idea or why you spend time railing against it. You appear to be committing the same error as the individual above who stated: Oh, right, the other God is naked, but yours isn’t.

    You’ll notice I never said anything about “my side”, or “my God”, or the truth (or falsehood) of theism, or what I believe to be the case anywhere in my response. I only pointed out the logical fault in Dawkins’ argument and thus the Emperors’ Clothing defense of that argument.

    Now, I can’t recall off-hand the name of the fallacy you and the other individual committed, but it is the one where a person assumes that because someone is arguing against Y that individual must be claiming the opposite of Y is true, or that individual is “obviously” arguing Z.

    As you should know, in logic and debate, you can point out errors in logic without making a claim to knowing the actual truth. That’s also how science works in those sorts of cases, “(I don’t know the answer, but) your answer is in error because we know this is wrong…”

    As well, the number of strawmen created in response to my argument, particularly regarding what I do or do not understand or will ever understand, is amazing.

    Maybe I’m a Discordian Reverend, and thus think the whole religion thing is a joke anyways…but some of you have decided that because I have those letters in front of my name, I MUST think that…well, these things you’ve stated I must think because I have some letters in front of my name, without my ever having stated such things.

  58. #58 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 26, 2006

    Scott,

    Apparently I have given the impression that my argument is the idea there are convincing arguments the atheists haven’t yet heard. No. That’s an old bone, and I’m apparently fighting its ghost.

    My response was meant to criticize be the way in which Dawkins’ writes his argument, because there may be responses to all the theological arguments ever conceived in theist-land, but as I stated above (buried in the text there somwhere), being able to disprove all of Descartes’ philosophy says nothing about disproving all of Plato, Nieztsche, and Locke.

    And that is what Dawkins’ argument and the Emperor’s Clothes defense attempt to do and what I have a problem with.

    ie: “We don’t need to know about all those other theologies; we only need to know about and disprove this one, and thus they’re all false.”

    And given what I have read of Dawkins, the interviews he has given, the shows he has been on and in, they have all led me to the conclusion (shared by a number of my atheist friends, though not all) that he simply doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about when it comes to religion. He’s a one-trick pony when it comes to “debating” religion.

    So, while the passge you quote may be a fair way for MTran to frame religious belief as a skeptic, it doesn’t really have anything to do with what I was trying to argue.

    Does that answer your question, Scott?

    Regarding my unfortunate coming off as arrogant, that wasn’t my intent. Apologies. This is likely due my comment regarding atheist ignorance on religion and theology.

    To explain that: for me when I say most atheists are ignorant of religion beyond their own debunking and anti-apologist literature, I base that accusation on years of actual experience with atheists who don’t know or understand much of anything about religion outside those sources and a form of Judeo-Christian tradition they rejected.

    And because of the above, based on those years of experience, I find arguments about atheist behavior and superior knowledge as unconvincing (and even empty) as MTran found mine, especially when it comes to most atheists comprehending religion beyond a certain type and knowledge level — which was relevant to my statement about it not being about “what color socks God wears”, but there being more than one theology to consider.

    (BTW, I’m feeling a bit leery of continuing this conversation here: I feel I’ve used up far more space on Dr. Meyers blog than I think I have any right to, and am really not feeling comfortable monopolizing more text space on his territory. But I don’t know, is this actually a problem?)

  59. #59 Richard Harris
    December 26, 2006

    truth machine – It’s bizarre to see someone argue that we don’t know how the world would have been without religion, and then blather on about it producing cherishable things. A remarkably transparent case of selective perception.

    I was only defending Orr, who made some reasonable statements, particularly, < Even what we mean by the world being better off is conditioned by our religious inheritance. What most of us in the West mean–and what Dawkins, as revealed by his own Ten Commandments, means–is a world in which individuals are free to express their thoughts and passions and to develop their talents so long as these do not infringe on the ability of others to do so. But this is assuredly not what a better world would look like to, say, a traditional Confucian culture. There, a new and improved world might be one that allows the readier suppression of in-dividual differences and aspirations.

    You say, “A remarkably transparent case of selective perception.

    As T.S. Eliot famously observed, to ask whether we would have been better off without religion is to ask a question whose answer is unknowable.

    An excellent reason to judge it solely on its own merits”.

    I won’t even try to deconstruct this. (Of course it’s selective perception.) Instead, please bear in mind that only one tradition gave rise to the Enlightenment, although others provided necessary contributions. It’s absolutely impossible to judge it (religion) solely on its own merits. What do we judge it against – man in a state of nature – man in a mythopoeic society – man as his society might have developed if Ancient Greek philosophy had taken deeper root – man under other religions? Scientific rationalism may seem obvious to us, but it never was to the ancients, or even medieval peoples.

  60. #60 Friend Fruit
    December 26, 2006

    You’ll notice I never said anything about “my side”, or “my God”, or the truth (or falsehood) of theism, or what I believe to be the case anywhere in my response.

    Yes, we noticed your evasion. You have been asked, Where is the Beef?, and you continue not to supply any. You say that Dawkins has not argued against every detailed theological claim ever made, and yet you continue not to supply us with any example, or explain why we should take it seriously.

    The immense plurality of religious claims is not evidence for religion, it is evidence against. It is as though religionists are making **** up.

  61. #61 quork
    December 26, 2006

    The opening post has been reposted and linked at Richarddawkins.net.

  62. #62 Pete
    December 26, 2006

    I’m tired of seeing Buddhism trotted out as an example of a religion that isn’t really a religion. If you go and see what most of the people who self-identify as Buddhists actually do and say and believe, you’ll find that although it doesn’t involve a monotheistic deity, it is just as irrational and supernatural. Buddhism too fails to provide any linkage between its concepts and real referents — and by the way, you should all go back and reread this post of RavenT’s, even if your eyes glazed over the first time at “Semantic Triangle” &c., because it contains the entire, sufficient response to Rev. Raven, who I will note has still not provided an example of a bit of relevant theology that would have altered Dawkins’s argument had he not “missed” it.

  63. #63 windy
    December 26, 2006

    Rev. Raven wrote: To explain that: for me when I say most atheists are ignorant of religion beyond their own debunking and anti-apologist literature, I base that accusation on years of actual experience with atheists who don’t know or understand much of anything about religion outside those sources and a form of Judeo-Christian tradition they rejected.

    Do most believers know or understand much about other belief systems? What about most theologians?

    If there *is* a theology that is by some criteria more plausible than the one Dawkins rejected, could someone briefly describe it? Just pick one if there are several. We could even ask Dawkins to take another crack at it.

  64. #64 tomrob
    December 26, 2006

    The Emperor is not naked; rather the Emperor does not exist. What is seen is a suit of clothes. (Look there’s the emperor!)

    God has many suits of clothes (religions). We argue over which is better; which god prefers. I like god in a tux, you like it in a business suit.

    So it doesn’t matter whether Dawkins is versed in any particular religion. It’s only a suit of clothes. Dawkins addresses the central issue: are the clothes actually being worn.

    All religions, and religious flavors (deism, theism, etc) have as their authority a single claim: god exists. And if it doesn’t?

  65. #65 MTran
    December 26, 2006

    GH and Scott Hatfield: Thank you. I have no argument with anyone who knowingly finds solace in faith as credo consolans.

    Pete: I too am getting tired of seeing Buddhism being touted as the “godless” religion. Although certain strains of Buddhism are compatible with atheism, only a minority of Buddhists are atheists or a-supernaturalististic.

    Rev,

    My comments may look as if I am assuming you are a theist apologist but I actually did not make that assumption. To more accurately restate my position:

    There are no theological arguments that you can trot out that will convince me that the argument is viable or that theism is valid. Your constant yet empty assertions that there is something more out there that Dawkins or anyone else needs to understand before they can criticize “religion” does not convince me of anything at all. Although it gives rise to the impression that you are all smoke and mirrors. As someone else has remarked, “Where’s the beef”

    Neither my nor your personal experience with the amount of religious understanding had by atheists matters much, it’s just anecdotal. But if you bother to search out statistical information about atheists, you will find that they tend to be better educated than believers. (Please don’t make me go and dig up those stats, I’m kinda tired and when I do research I expect to get paid for it.)

    You have not demonstrated a single argument that would be important for Dawkins or anyone else to consider before tearing belief and religion — as it is commonly understood in the US — to shreds. Dawkins was not writing for the Theosophical Institute. He was writing for the mainstream reader.

    You have said: [Dawkins] simply doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about when it comes to religion. He’s a one-trick pony when it comes to “debating” religion.

    I don’t know that he’s a one trick pony but he is certainly answering the religious “arguments” or defenses that are typical of the vast majority of “believers” in the US. Why should he be attacking apologetics that are either unknown to the typical believer or are applicable only to specific denominations or sect? Doing so is pointless in so far as getting a message through to the majority of woefully ignorant theists.

    paul fauvet: The reason you are having difficulty with Rev’s writing is because the writing is not clear and the arguments are either non-existent or incoherent.

  66. #66 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 26, 2006

    MTran, it is apparent you are not reading what I am writing, and prefer talking to the ghosts of arguments past rather than what is actually presented to you.

    Thus, in response to both you and Windy (ahh, and Pete, too) — and this is the last time — please see my reply to Scott: it has nothing to do with the plausibility of alternative theologies or the correctness or incorrectness of Dawkins’ argument: my objection is to the construction of Dawkins’ argument.

    You may also note Deuc has comprehended the argument I am actually making, and responded to it as such — but you’re never going to get from me proof for an argument I haven’t made, no matter how much you (or anyone else) rants off into teh intarwebs or demand I provide it or be labelled “wrong”. Don’t be ridiculous.

    As to atheist ignorance of religion: true, it is anecdotal and I probably should not rely on such. Yet Paul, above, proves my point about atheist ignorance of religion quite well: there are a number of sects of Buddhism which do in fact include gods and deities, and also believe in the various Buddhas as gods or as real spiritual entities. Though as Deuc points out, there are understandable reasons why atheists do not usually know more about religions outside their local brands.

    (BTW, love the snark; you guys are so amusing with your little ad hominems and insults. Is that how we behave around here? Should I start making side comments about your grammar and calling you thick-headed and possessed of a lumbering intellect? Ok, I won’t…it’s rude and useless and quite probably not true, but I’m really nonplussed by such nonsense.)

  67. #67 windy
    December 26, 2006

    I heard that one girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth came up with this totally awesome theology last Thursday. Why didn’t Dawkins address that one?

  68. #68 MTran
    December 26, 2006

    Rev,

    I actually did read and understand Deuc’s comments. And can agree with most of them. Particularly when he says: your point is trivial if you cannot show that there is something in other religions that demands something new and different to refute them.

    But as far as I am concerned, your entire objection to the way Dawkins has constructed his argument is trivial. You seem to want Dawkins to have written something other than what Dawkins wanted to write.

    You have made some wandering analogies and made plenty of assertions but I have yet to see any relevant substance.

  69. #69 rhodes
    December 27, 2006

    Like a lot of commentators you miss the main problem with Dawkins. It is not that his logic isn’t correct, or his scientific reasoning sound, it is that he conveniently overlooks one of the major paradoxes of religion. Religion exists and indeed thrives because of Dawkinsian principles – i.e. it confers evolutionary advantages on its followers. Quite simply, large sections of the human population have evolved a need for religion that is outside of their control.

    Trying to take that away from them is like trying to train people to stop blinking when something hurtles towards their eyes. It could possibly be done but you’re going to leave them feeling very unsettled and vulnerable.

    The biggest complaint I have against Dawkins is that he is trying to destroy something that provides comfort and hope to billions, without offering anything anywhere equivalent in its place. His problem is that he has given himself an entirely futile task, which he as a humorless cynic is ill-equipped to perform.

  70. #70 Jeff
    December 27, 2006

    Rev. Raven,

    After having read this entire thread, does this accurately paraphrase your position:

    Dawkins may have done a good job pointing out the fallacies in the traditional Judeo-Christian religions so prevalent in the Western world, but there are other religions out there that he didn’t address, so he didn’t succeed in debunking religion in general. So your concern in this comment thread isn’t about the actual truth of any religion, but only Dawkins’ shortcoming in not having debunked all religion.

    Well, if you’d be willing, I’d like to move past that. I haven’t read Dawkins’ book (I’m cheap – I’m waiting for the paperback), which is why I haven’t commented on this thread so far, so I’m really not interested in whether or not Dawkins has used the “proper rhetoric.” But I have done a fair amount of research on religion on my journey to atheism. And I’ll admit it, as someone else had commented, most of my research was on Christianity, since that’s the religion I was indoctrinated into as a child, and the religion that surrounds me living in the U.S. If I was too quick to become an atheist, I’d love to know it. Could you provide more information on some religion that you think might actually be true? You don’t even need to write about it in detail – a link would be fine.

  71. #71 windy
    December 27, 2006

    Jeff wrote: If I was too quick to become an atheist, I’d love to know it. Could you provide more information on some religion that you think might actually be true?

    The Rev. has said to many previous commenters that the plausibility or truth of different theologies is not the issue. However, this comment of his puts that statement in a strange light:

    The fact that Dawkins addresses only one theistic system (and one so simple a five-year old can dissect it) and presents it as the summation and totality of “religion” and religious thought (or theology) is the most damning argument against him.

    Which is it? Are there theologies out there that would have been much more difficult for Dawkins to dissect, and in that case why not tell us which ones? Or are all theistic systems fundamentally similar to one a five-year-old can dissect? (in which case it doesn’t much matter if Dawkins dissected one or several.)

  72. #72 Steve LaBonne
    December 27, 2006

    I haven’t read Dawkins’ book (I’m cheap – I’m waiting for the paperback)

    I solve that kind of problem by reading the book for free at Barnes & Noble. But I always salve my conscience by buying a cup of coffee and a snack. ;)

    (I try to buy only books I know I’ll read more than once, and as noted above The God Delusion, while well crafted for its intended audience, doesn’t fall into that category for me.)

  73. #73 AC
    December 27, 2006

    The biggest complaint I have against Dawkins is that he is trying to destroy something that provides comfort and hope to billions, without offering anything anywhere equivalent in its place. His problem is that he has given himself an entirely futile task, which he as a humorless cynic is ill-equipped to perform.

    Humorless? Anyway, I would say that most people merely need to see that so much of what they use religion for (morality, community, etc.) doesn’t require religion at all. Now, if you want a substitute palliative for the cold hard fact of human mortality (i.e., death is the obliteration of consciousness), we may have a problem. I can’t think of anything as potent as outright denial and delusion for that. But considering the side effects, I can’t recommend that treatment. Personally, I prefer being as engaged as possible with enjoyable people and pursuits, so that I don’t have time to worry about death.

  74. #74 junk science
    December 27, 2006

    Trying to take that away from them is like trying to train people to stop blinking when something hurtles towards their eyes. It could possibly be done but you’re going to leave them feeling very unsettled and vulnerable.

    And god forbid people ever learn to think beyond their instincts or raise their consciousness, lest they feel unsettled and vulnerable.

    Dawkins is a scientist, not a babysitter. Get your own pacifier.

  75. #75 Elentar
    December 27, 2006

    Reverend, to disprove Dawkins argument, you must provide at least one system of theology that it does not refute. Your inability to do so demonstrates that Dawkins argument is sound. The bald claim that there is some theology which is does not answer is pointless if you cannot provide an example.

    We are still waiting, after all this time. One example, please.

  76. #76 MTran
    December 27, 2006

    The biggest complaint I have against Dawkins is that he is trying to destroy something that provides comfort and hope to billions, without offering anything anywhere equivalent in its place. His problem is that he has given himself an entirely futile task, which he as a humorless cynic is ill-equipped to perform.

    Let’s try a bit of rephrasing:
    The biggest complaint I have against drug control laws is that they try to destroy something that provides comfort and hope to billions, without offering anything anywhere equivalent in their place. The problem is that Congress has given law enforcement an entirely futile task, which it, as a humorless, mindless, and cynical bureacracy is ill-equipped to perform.

    Personally, I am against drug control laws while at the same time I discourage the improper use of drugs.

    I feel the same way about religion. It shouldn’t be criminalized but its dangers are horrific indeed and should be avoided by all.

  77. #77 Rev. Raven Daegmorgan
    December 30, 2006

    Windy and Elentar, surely you know how to use Wikipedia and/or perform research library at a library? Does it not behoove you to do so before taking a position in a debate, to actually understand the source of an opponent’s criticism rather than automatically assuming it is invalid or based on nothing?

    Really, I am saying nothing that Terry Eagleton and various other reviewers haven’t said before, but as you apparently missed those individuals’ pointers to such material, this meager offering should hopefully suffice to quench your intellectual thirst for a response:

    There are concepts such as Process theology and various Transcendant theologies, there are also the Hindu concepts and philsophy of Brahman, phenomenological conceptions of the divine, and panentheism and its postulates regarding the nature of the divine. Etc. None of these (among others) are covered, or fully covered, by Dawkins’ arguments.

  78. #78 Oran Kelley
    January 2, 2007

    Is there a God? What thinking person cares to read a book exclusively focussed on this question? I mean who needs arguments on this point?

    If Dawkins were to follow up with a book on “Is there a Santa Claus” are we to praise him for that, too?

  79. #79 upinVermont
    January 4, 2007

    [This is crossposted from http://duplicitous46xyprimate.blogspot.com/

    Yes, this is such a beautifully witty reply that I’m tempted to leave it at that, but the “Courtier’s Reply” begs the question: What was Dawkins writing about?

    If it was just that God does not exist, then “The Courtier’s Reply” would be apt. However, rejecting theism is child’s play. This isn’t the central thesis of Dawkins’s book and to read it as such is to read it as a child.

    What Dawkins does is to equate religion with evil. He makes this crystal clear when he compares raising children under religion with child abuse.

    Now, if you’re going to equate Religion with evil, it is not enough to say:

    1.) God does not exist

    2.) Belief in God is irrational

    3.) Irrational belief is evil

    4.) Therefore religion is evil.

    This is idiotic and well deserves Orr’s criticisms.

    The question of God’s existence and the evil of religion *are in fact*, two separate issues. It does not follow that because ones beliefs are false, that how one acts on those beliefs will therefore be corrupt.

    By accusing Religion of being evil, Dawkins is making a philosophically based statement (not a statement based on any kind of scientific scrutiny). And as such, a failure to engage the philosophers of religion (the theologians) must be considered a fundamental failure in his thesis.

    It is in this sense that Orr’s criticisms are apt and the “Courtier’s Reply” misses the point. The question is not whether the theologians might have been capable of defending a belief in God (which they could not have), but whether they might have been capable in defending the value of religion (which they might have). Since Dawkins never chose to adequately address this deeper question, his book *has* to be viewed as an amateurish effort.

    //It should be obvious that the atheistic regimes were themselves types of religions complete with hero-worship and devout dogmatism.//

    That is my point also, except that I don’t go so far as to consider “religion” as being, by definition, fundamentalist. What these secular regimes had in common with religion was fundamentalism and dogmatism.

    //Was it really atheism itself that made these people this way?//

    No, it was the flawed mindset of the fundamentalist, the idealogue; and this fundamental human flaw does not seem to be anymore rampant in religion than secularism. It is a diseased way of thinking. Conflating the fundamentalist mindset with the religious mindset is a critical error.

    I know I sound like I’m defending religion. I’m not. What I’m defending is a clear-eyed recognition of the source of the evil that Dawkins so facilely places at the foot of religion.

    Even Harris, I’m beginning to think, is making a mistake in conflating the fundamentalist’s psychosis with the religious impulse.

    I say this having read Andrew Sullivan’s latest book and having read George Lakoff’s various books. I say this believing that fundamentalism is far more endemic in the “Christian Right” (who we usually refer to when we refer to the “religious”) than even Dawkins or Harris acknowledge.

    Fundamentalism is the illness of which humanity must be cured — and it is a virus that infects all beliefs, philosophies and political systems.

    Bush is a fundamentalist. So was Frist. So is William Krystol — who is not overtly religious.

  80. #80 Justin Moretti
    January 11, 2007

    To quote Star Wars’ Grand Moff Tarkin:

    “This bickering is pointless.”

    If the two sides could live and let live, we would not be having this discussion. The problem is, they can’t. On one side you have politically motivated jerks using religion as a convenient shield to hide behind while they pursue social control issues (the real agenda IMHO of the Religious Right, the fundie Islamists etc), and who emphasize all the nastiest, most bitter aspects of the bible/Koran etc. to crush people’s individuality. On the other side you have atheists like Dawkins whose approach to the former consists of an unnecessarily broad assault on the entirety of religious faith.

    The first is simply evil, the second misguided.

  81. #81 dzd
    January 20, 2007

    Oh, sure, this is necroposting but hey.

    If Dawkins were to follow up with a book on “Is there a Santa Claus” are we to praise him for that, too?

    Well, the problem is that most people have two categories of “supernatural beings” in their heads: category (A) being children’s myths ala Santa, fairies, and Baba Yaga; category (B) being deadly serious ‘gods’ worth killing (and killing, and killing…) each other over. The fact that anything makes it out of category A and into B is the dangerous part.

  82. #82 Rethink
    March 1, 2007

    Let’s follow the “Courtier’s reply” analogy a little further. In the fable about the emperor and his clothes, the emperor and his people believed that he was wearing a fabric that the morally pure could see, and the dishonest and corrupt cannot. (What a yarn!)
    If Dawkins (with or without knowledge of the it’s-visible-only-to-honest-people hypothesis) would shout: “The emperor is naked! I can see dangling genitalia!” he would be speaking the truth. He would, however, do nothing to refute their belief in visible-only-to-some cloth. If he shouts that, the people would merely, according to their belief, regard him as one of the corrupt.(At least as corrupt as they themselves.)
    To truly demonstrate to them that their belief is wrong, he’d need to speak directly about why that fabric cannot exist, or at least why they cannot assume him corrupt. No amount of proof for observed nakedness would replace that.
    It is not necessary for disprovers to have read “Oh, the texture of the emperor’s waistcoat”, but, in order to have any effect, they do need to answer to the visible-to-the-morally-pure story. Therefore, the “Courtier’s reply” analogy completely misses the point.

    To apply that to dawkins, what central issue does he miss out on? Well, the Who-designed-the-designer argument actually argues that, under the rules of evolution, a materially complex being with superior intelligence cannot have pre-existed to create the universe.
    Most every monotheistic believer, whether Muslim or Jew or Christian, learned theologian or unlearned, believe that God is a Spirit Being, not a Highly Complex Material Being. If someone shows that a Highly Complex Material Being could not have created the universe, he says absolutely nothing of whether their God could have created it.

    (PS: This is not a comment on the book “The God delusion.” It is a comment on “The Courtier’s reply” and on Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer argument.)

  83. #83 Tony
    March 28, 2007

    Im not sure if you guys know but The Courtier’s Reply was read out by Dr Dawkins at a recent debate with Professor Alister McGrath.

    You can find the debate here: http://richarddawkins.net/home

  84. #84 latsot
    September 29, 2007

    I don’t understand. Dawkins’ main point is that the god hypothesis is a scientific one… Is that disputed?

    His main arguments work for any god that purports to maraud about the place creating universes.

    Don’t they?

  85. #85 Andersson
    February 17, 2008

    I take this as a sign that many of the deluded have an uneasy feeling that Dawkins’s attack is genuinely dangerous and that they’d better fight back.

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    February 26, 2008

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    February 26, 2008

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  88. #88 blake
    May 17, 2008

    @ PZ -

    Would this be a correct articulation of the Courtier’s Reply?

    “A Courtier’s is given to someone who attacks his or her opponent’s lack of specific knowledge concerning the subject he or she opposes, when such knowledge would not alter the argument at hand.”

  89. #89 Jesse
    May 28, 2008

    I’ve gone through some of this thread, and I will admit I haven’t read Dawkins’ book.

    But I have read other essays of his, and some of his other work.

    Here’s something I don’t get.

    Dawkins treats religion as an unmitigated evil, and I admit on my bad days I think so too.

    But there are many times when religion has played a positive role. Abolitionism in the US wasn’t based on any scientific premise at all, merely a moral one, that scientists don’t have much use for (because that isn’t what science is for.)

    For example, I can make a “scientific” argument for slavery (it demonstrably provides economic growth in the absence of machinery) or against (people are not biologically different from one another therefore deserve equal treatment).

    I can do that because science isn’t made for certain questions, like “what is the meaning of my life.”

    I spent a lot of time talking to Native people about their land rights. It was, at its root, a religious movement. There is no scientific justification for giving those people their land back. But I don’t think most people here would argue that the treatment Native people got was justified in any way.

    So I’m not sold on “religion is evil and should be erased.”

    In that sense, whether Dawkins can disprove the existence of god(s) seems almost beside the point. That’s the objection I think Orr is raising, in part. God doesn’t exist. OK, so what? There’s a host of questions that are still rather open at that point, and it doesn’t seem to me that proving whether god exists or not addresses any of them.

    Any bad behavior on the part of Churches has been duplicated by non-churches, so I can’t see how god’s existence addresses institutional problems like that, for instance. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Atheist Questioning Society are just as likely to have a bunch of power-hungry abusers in them. They’d just manifest in slightly different ways.

    I don’t buy theological arguments for God either. But like I said, for a lot of things Dawkins discusses that’s beside the point, it seems.

  90. #90 Notkieran
    May 28, 2008

    Memphis @ #122:

    Actually, as a member of a family that loudly proclaims itself as buddhist, and having observed the rites of Buddhists acting under the auspices of Buddhist organisations:

    Buddhists _claim_ to have no god, but they then address prayers to Buddha, proclaim edicts of behaviour as being offensive to Buddha, and, in short, conduct their lives in a manner indistinguishable from a theistic sect.

    First rule of anthropology: the etiquette proclaimed by a group is in no way demonstrative of what the group actually does, the same way that people who proclaim the omnipotence of God will then proclaim that he is powerless to defeat evil.

  91. #91 Notkieran
    May 28, 2008

    Jesse @ #166:

    You make the case that:

    >Abolitionism in the US wasn’t based on any scientific premise at all, merely a moral one, that scientists don’t have much use for (because that isn’t what science is for.)

    >For example, I can make a “scientific” argument for slavery…

    But then you miss the point that the case for slavery was ALSO religious– the doctrine of “The children of Canaan” states that all the dark-skinned descendants of Ham in the Southwest– Africa– are destined by the Bible to be slaves.

    Thus, you cannot argue that religion is good because the abolitionists used it without first addressing the fact that antiabolitionists _also_ used it.

    The issue of slavery or non-slavery is a moral one, and the fact is that religions cannot justify morality without a priori moral principles that exist separate of religion.

  92. #92 Notkieran
    May 28, 2008

    My bad. I meant the doctrine of the “Curse of Canaan”, not “children of Canaan”

  93. #93 Kseniya
    May 28, 2008

    Right. Morality exists apart from religiousity. Sometimes they overlap. It’s possible to be moral, unscientific, and irreligious all at once. In fact, that might be the default state for the unindoctrinated human mind. :-)

  94. #94 Notkieran
    May 28, 2008

    Kesniya: I may be more cynical than you, but as a teacher, I find it more effective to asume amorality.

    On the other hand I’m a big believer in motivating my students through their base instincts.

  95. #95 Steve in MI
    May 28, 2008

    Jesse, since this archival thread is already a couple of years old, I don’t think it’s the best place to re-ignite an active discussion. But as a frequent passerby, let me offer a reply or two.

    I don’t think it’s correct to say Dawkins et al think of religion as an “unmitigated evil”. My personal belief is that religion is a great mitigated evil. Messages of kindness (where they exist), interesting (if wasteful) buildings, and remarkable music (albeit with some of the scariest lyrics ever) serve to mitigate – not necessarily counteract – the problems which religion spreads.

    You’re right to differentiate science and philosophy, although they are not entirely unrelated. But your example of indigenous land rights is not the place to try to argue that religion is an appropriate base for morality. Religious morality is necessarily limited to the tenets of each particular religion. Many of the North American First Nations peoples hold a historic belief in common land ownership by divine right; the bible of the Christians – who now number almost 80% of the U.S. population – says “be fruitful and multiply”. The go forth and conquer message is obviously incompatible with the Mother Earth worldview. One needs look no farther than the Israel/Palestine conflict to judge the effectiveness of religion as a moral compass for the resolution of real estate disputes.

    The broader point is that there are rational means by which a local, national, or global society can agree upon a common moral code. Freedom, individual rights, mutual aid, common benefit, and equality of treatment are points on which persons and nations can agree without resorting to a religious authority. In fact, one can arrive at a much better consensus by rational means, since they are not limited by the inherently self-serving limitations of the various religious viewpoints.

    Separately, to your suggestion that “any bad behavior on the part of Churches has been duplicated by non-churches”: try that argument again if you hear of Pastafarians starting wars, Atheists objecting to medical treatment for poor people, and humanists clogging downtown neighborhoods with corporate-owned tax-exempt real estate. Your claim that “They’d just manifest is slightly different ways” defines the word “slightly” in a way with which I’d not previously been familiar.

  96. #96 Aegis
    May 28, 2008

    Regarding this:
    “It does a disservice to those Greek astronomers to compare them to theologians. While Ptolemaic astronomy does indeed fail in a variety of ways, it still was a good model that fairly well predicted the motions of the planets and stars, even allowing the construction of mechanical computers to automate that prediction.”

    I believe the same – I’ve even made a T-shirt about it! If you happen to be a La Fraise member (or want to sign up) and vote to get a science-friendly shirt printed, please do:

    http://www.lafraise.com/contest.php?op=lafraise_submission&lang=en&submission_id=117427

  97. #97 Brendan S
    May 28, 2008

    The point isn’t that religion is morally evil. THe pointis that religion is morally neutral. People horrible things WITH or WITHOUT religion. People do good things WITH or WITHOUT religion. (Except in cases of the ‘No Real Scotsman/Christian’ argument)

    Why is this important? Because arguments about the existance of God generally go like this:

    God Exists.
    No he doesn’t.
    Okay, but you can’t PROVE he doesn’t.
    Oh yeah? You can’t prove he DOES!
    But all these people believe in God!
    Lots of people believe (insert historical or modern example here.)
    But look at all the good in the world! It’s created by God.. *OR* Look at all the good things God fearing/loving/etc.ing people do.
    Oh yeah? They do terrible things too.

    In other words, it’s generally a central pillar of the argument FOR religion ‘Okay, maybe God doesn’t _really_ really exist, but people who worship him do great things.’

  98. #98 eyelessgame
    May 28, 2008

    I think Dawkins makes two different points, and he’s on much firmer ground with one than the other.

    Dawkins asserts that the God Hypothesis is wildly improbable. Apart from his simple complexity argument (which frankly one could demolish simply by pointing out that it’s perfectly imaginable that God might have evolved His enormous complexity, and then created the world and everything in it), the stronger (and indeed compelling) argument is simply that there’s no evidence of any god. And he’s right, and therefore there’s no need for the hypothesis.

    But Dawkins goes on to say that religion, besides being false, is evil.

    I am not sure that’s fair or true. I don’t think he’s on firm ground with it, and I don’t think he engages the critics of that reasoning in a fair way. I have trouble considering that something which honestly brings joy to many peoples’ lives is entirely, or even mostly, evil.

    Religious extremism certainly is. But I am comfortable asserting that basic, ordinary, everyday religion isn’t — it’s no more evil than fandom (which it resembles more than either side would care to admit) — fandom of Star Wars, or sports, or prominent bloggers, all is more than a little like religion.

    For some religious folks I know, religion is less about God than about the community. Caring for a community and helping it — that’s not evil. Yes, of course this can be done in the absence of religion. And what makes it religion is that there’s a god lurking behind it. But imperfect vehicles are still vehicles. If religion is the mechanism by which some people care about their communities, then religion, at least in that context, is a good thing. Could it be replaced by another good thing? In the abstract, sure. In the world we actually live in? Only with massive effort and reprogramming.

    Now, reasonable people can disagree. I’m not going to sit here and insist that you all agree with me that religion isn’t bad. But I think that, as a point of argument and philosophy, it is both ineffectual and invalid to conflate the two claims (god does not exist, and religion is evil).

    It’s also unfortunate that this seems to descend into argument ad consequent: even if religion were evil, if it were true we should be compelled to agree with its hypotheses. If God were both real and a monster, honest people would still agree that God was real. If a real god existed and worship of that god compelled worshippers to treat their fellow man badly, deny themselves necessities or luxuries, and so on, but they would be rewarded (or escape harsher punishment) for engaging in that worship, still many of us understandably would worship. Because God would be real.

    The evilness of religion has no bearing on the God Hypothesis. It’s a shame that Dawkins didn’t stick to the topic.

  99. #99 eyelessgame
    May 28, 2008

    I wrote the above before reading all of Orr’s article. He lets loose with some howlers. He writes “Does anyone really believe that the Church’s dreadful dealings with the Nazis were motivated by its theism?” and then immediately after, “it’s hard to believe that Stalin’s wholesale torture and murder of priests and nuns (including crucifixions) and Mao’s persecution of Catholics and extermination of nearly every remnant of Buddhism were unconnected to their atheism.”

    Buh? Totalitarians exterminate rival powers. That’s not really much to do with theism or atheism.

    And I note he sidesteps Nazis’ persecution of Jews. Which was inextricably connected with their theism.

    okay, never mind. Ignore my earlier comment. Orr is a nutjob.

  100. #100 His Shadow
    July 22, 2008

    But, (Dawkin’s) a bush-leaguer in philosophy.

    And again and again and again. Is this really all Dawkin’s critics have? That Dawkin’s is unqualified to discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    Without any evidence of the primary assumption, theological or philosophical ramblings in support of the existence of any god is verbal masturbation. There is no need to argue over intricate methodologies for measuring the height of a house of cards and claiming said measure is a determination of it’s robustness. It is enough to pull one card from the bottom and watch it fall.

  101. #101 Kel
    July 30, 2008

    Every time I read this it still makes me laugh. It’s the perfect reply to any theological discussion.

  102. #102 Metacrock
    August 1, 2008

    why can’t you just face the fact that Dawkins is a fool? Instead of try to dismiss his ignorance and stupidity by attacking the knowledgeable people who point it out, just face the fact the guy knowing nothing about theology at all, and he still criticizes it. that’s the mark of a real idiot.

  103. #103 Jesse
    August 12, 2008

    Dear God…
    An excellent piece or writing; i’m still dismayed at those who are convinced by the — i suppose you could call it “mature, modern theology” (as opposed to fundamentalism) — justification for religion. Anyone with a remotely open mind can see the biting yet simple logic (and i don’t mean to demean him by saying this) of Dawkins’s argument against theology: if there is, in all likelihood, no god, then the study of the seemingly infinite nuances of that non-entity’s will/behavior/general psychology/etc. becomes irrelevant.
    People like myself pose the simple question, “if god truly wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he just show himself?”
    The typical response is, of course, that doing so would defeat the purpose of faith.
    Aside from the asinine nature of such a reply (the much simpler explanation is that you don’t see something — or even any evidence for it — because it’s not there), this line of reasoning, in light of the utterly dire consequences of disbelief, does not lend itself to the argument that “god is love;” if anything, it shows god as vicious trickster who is perfectly willing to cast the majority of the world’s population into the fiery chasm — with complete impunity — for all eternity, thus making all of the torturers and mass murderers throughout history (religious people, i even encourage you to invoke Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.) seem like simple schoolyard bullies.

  104. #104 Kristen
    August 16, 2008

    Thank you for enlightening me to the fact that I am stupid, that my personal experiences are all delusions, and that my careful reasoning is completely beside the point– which is that I am stupid and that my personal experiences are all delusions.

    However, may I point out that you have begun with the assumption that I am stupid and that my personal experiences are all delusions, and have not proven these assumptions?

    Your “Courtier’s Reply” is nothing more than a mockery on top of a mockery. Mocking has the very real effect of nullifying in your own mind any possibility of validity in the thing you are mocking, so that you cannot ever actually consider it on its own merits. It seems to me that this kind of self-congratulatory, group-think atheism is actually the Emperor without clothes.

  105. #105 Rev. BigDumbChimp, KoT
    August 16, 2008

    However, may I point out that you have begun with the assumption that I am stupid and that my personal experiences are all delusions, and have not proven these assumptions?

    What personal experiences?

  106. #106 Kristen
    August 17, 2008

    Nope. Not going to spill my guts to be trampled on, thanks anyway.

  107. #107 melior
    August 17, 2008

    Thank you for enlightening me to the fact that I am stupid, that my personal experiences are all delusions, and that my careful reasoning is completely beside the point– which is that I am stupid and that my personal experiences are all delusions.

    If personal internal experiences were infallible, we would all have agreed on The Answers to Life’s Big Questions long ago. This is a world filled with mutually contradictory personal revelations.

    A big part of science is realizing that everyone’s understanding is incomplete and partly wrong, and we each have to be willing to let go of what we thought we knew just yesterday, to make room for the next bit of truth. That’s not a crime, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. By pooling all our knowledge we can tease apart the truths that survive the experience. Many of yesterday’s truths will be casualties.

    It’s good that this story made you think. Sometimes people are reluctant to let go of a path they have invested a lot of effort in, even when they learn that they were heading down a false trail. It’s very human to feel embarrassment at the messenger in such cases.

    In the end, none of that time you spent was really wasted — everyone is stuck somewhere, trying to figure out the next step to take. The real question you might ask is what will I do with the time I have left?

  108. #108 Owlmirror
    August 17, 2008

    Nope. Not going to spill my guts to be trampled on, thanks anyway.

    This is something I’ve seen before: Some religious people, will, with prompting or without, describe some intensely personal experience, and have it pointed out to them that this experience is not evidence of God.

    Others, though, seem to lack the courage of their convictions, and kinda already suspect that their personal experiences are not convincing evidence for God. So they mention them… and then they back away from actually discussing them.

    Kind of like courtiers when pressed for the actual evidence of the Emperor’s clothes.

  109. #109 Sven DiMilo
    August 17, 2008

    “Personal experiences” like special revelation, vouchsafed to you but (cruelly?) denied the rest of us? Must be nice to be so special.
    One time my buddy Bob was absolutely certain–100% dead sure–that Jerry Garcia had worn a space helmet for the entire second set (Grand Rapids MI, 1980, if I remember correctly, which is kind of unlikely). The rest of us hadn’t, uh, noticed, but he could not be dissuaded. How is your “personal experience” any different than that?

  110. #110 Kristen
    August 17, 2008

    The tone of superiority here has not changed. One person even thinks I was serious that your close-mindedness and disrespect for any perspective but your own, had somehow convinced me of my “false trail.” What makes you so sure it’s not your trail that’s false?

    And now I’m accused of backing off from explaining my experiences to you because I’m not sure of them. Have any of you given me any reason to trust you? Any reason to think you wouldn’t greet my words with anything other than the self-congratulatory mockery you’ve shown to date?

    You’re glad your posts have “made me think.” Not even a trace of willingness to think about my side of the question has been shown here.

    The only thing I can even attempt to communicate here is that I resent your attitude. Perhaps you might consider at least thinking about that.

  111. #111 negentropyeater
    August 17, 2008

    Kristen,

    you wrote a post #181
    Rev. asked you a question in the most straightforward and simple possible manner #182
    you chose not to reply with a perlocutionary speech act #183

    Then you’re complaining about the tone of superiority ?

    And if you don’t trust people, then why are you here ?

  112. #112 Owlmirror
    August 17, 2008

    What makes you so sure it’s not your trail that’s false?

    If there were a real entity that was powerful, knowledgeable, and good, that entity could and would speak for itself.

    Since there is no entity that speaks for itself, there is no real entity that is powerful, knowledgeable, and good.

    Have any of you given me any reason to trust you?

    Why should you need to trust us? If your experiences were real, how would disbelief and mockery from any of us change them?

    You do still seem to be implying that you don’t even trust your own words to be convincing.

    Any reason to think you wouldn’t greet my words with anything other than the self-congratulatory mockery you’ve shown to date?

    Probably not. But your lack of confidence in yourself and your experiences speaks for itself.

    The only thing I can even attempt to communicate here is that I resent your attitude. Perhaps you might consider at least thinking about that.

    Yet I cannot help but think that your resentment arises because you fear that the nonexistence of God is in fact true, and you seek to deny this nonexistence by blaming the messenger, as it were.

    Or to put it another way, you are decrying the blunt rudeness of the ones who are pointing out the nudity of the Emperor, while carefully averting your eyes from said nudity.

  113. #113 Kristen
    August 17, 2008

    I was directed here by a friend who was amazed at the tone here and wanted me to see it. I spoke up because it made me as angry as it made him. But it’s not worth it– anything I say can and will be held against me.

    FWIW, not every time someone refuses to continue in conversation with you, is it because you’re so right they have nothing to say. Sometimes it’s simply because they know they won’t be given a fair hearing.

    I’m not hanging around.

  114. #114 Owlmirror
    August 17, 2008

    I spoke up because it made me as angry as it made him.

    You were free to speak up, and we are free to respond.

    But being angry does not mean that you are correct.

    But it’s not worth it– anything I say can and will be held against me.

    It’s interesting that you use the formula for judgment. Yes, your words will be held against you, because you are making a claim, not just about yourself, but about the nature of reality itself. Of course your words will be judged for whether they are honest or fraudulent, or at least, self-deceptive or self-serving.

    Sometimes it’s simply because they know they won’t be given a fair hearing.

    I am not sure a fair hearing is possible. How can there be, when all of theology is based on the unfair illogic of assuming your conclusion?

    I’m not hanging around.

    No-one is compelling you to stay, except perhaps yourself.

  115. #115 khan
    August 17, 2008

    I was directed here by a friend who was amazed at the tone here and wanted me to see it. I spoke up because it made me as angry as it made him. But it’s not worth it– anything I say can and will be held against me.

    FWIW, not every time someone refuses to continue in conversation with you, is it because you’re so right they have nothing to say. Sometimes it’s simply because they know they won’t be given a fair hearing.

    I’m not hanging around.

    I assure you that will break my heart and render my life meaningless.

  116. #116 MartinM
    August 17, 2008

    FWIW, not every time someone refuses to continue in conversation with you…

    One can’t continue a conversation which never started. You didn’t come here to talk, you came here to be offended in our general direction.

    FWIW, not every time someone hold the things you say against you, is it because you’re not getting a fair hearing. Sometimes that’s precisely what a fair hearing entails.

  117. #117 Kel
    September 12, 2008

    I was at a lecture last night on fundamentalists, and the lecturer called Dawkins and Hitchens fundamentalists. He said that nowhere in their books do they take into account modern theologians who have critically analysed the idea of God and came up with modern versions.

    This popped into my mind right away. :P

  118. #118 Owlmirror
    September 12, 2008

    Link to Blake Stacey’s Latin translation, Responsum Aucili

    Since comments on that thread are now closed, I will just note here that I think that “Mawkscribblerius” should rather be Latinised as [something]scrivenius (or something similar). Sentimenscrivenius? I see that “mawk” originally meant “maggot” … Larvaescrivenius?

    Hm.

  119. #119 Daily Sourdough
    October 7, 2008

    Flogging a dead thread maybe, but it’s amazing seeing the sheer gulf between believers of faith and advocates of reason. Faith is precisely that: something is true because it says it is true, not because of any evidence for it.

    Let’s say a bunch of people believe there’s an Invisible Teapot in orbit around the moon, and they spend years debating about its colour, the pattern delicately painted on its surface, the volume of tea it can hold. When someone sends a space probe loaded with the latest instruments to check for the existence of this teapot, nothing is found. Ships full of astronauts go into lunar orbit and no one bumps into the teapot. The Teapotists keep claiming that, although it’s invisible and can’t ever be detected, it’s still there and they’ll never stray from that belief despite the lack of evidence.

    I think one very difficult thing about becoming an unbeliever is the sheer inertia of faith. Once you join a religion (I’d hate to use “embrace”), the religion itself has self-correcting behaviour to prevent you from leaving. Any crises of faith are the temptations of the Devil or a test from God to further strengthen your faith. The religious solution to that is even more faith in the form of prayers, consultations with priests, loading up on scripture etc. You end up going round and round until you either decide to jump off and approach the world with reason or keep believing. It’s never comfortable to realize that you were wrong, especially when it comes to a lifetime spent preparing for an afterlife. What would happen if the Catholic Church found it had no basis for existence, or if Muslims spent their lives praying for nothing? The political impact would be enormous.

    I think it takes a lot of courage to be an atheist and to face the world as it is, not as you would wish it to be.

  120. #120 Darren
    January 16, 2009

    I do see the Courtier’s Reply technique often, and especially in response to books by Dawkins and similar material.

    I’m not sure the review in question fits that pattern; it depends how you interpret the bits that do in the context of the rest of the review.

    I read Orr’s commentary as saying, essentially: “Dawkins, you make good points, but by treating all people’s religious beliefs as simple and ill-considered, you’ve both alienated most of your audience and failed to address your more-sophisticated opponents.”

    If you read carefully, you’ll note that Orr concedes that Dawkins’ position is “probably right”, which gives me a strong clue that Orr’s commentary is on the quality of Dawkins’ persuasion, not on the correctness of the arguments presented.

    I tend to agree with Orr on some level (though I think he’s a bit unfair in some ways as well). The God Delusion is an excellent argument against religion as practiced and thought about by the majority of its adherents. Unfortunately, it fails to address likely counter-arguments that more sophisticated religious philosophers could reasonably raise; and it does so in part by lumping all of the spectrum of religious belief into a few caricatures.

    I enjoy Dawkins, and I don’t think TGD was bad, by any stretch. However, I don’t think it makes an argument that will be compelling to theists who’ve given their beliefs a great deal of thought.

  121. #121 Owlmirror
    January 16, 2009

    I tend to agree with Orr on some level (though I think he’s a bit unfair in some ways as well). The God Delusion is an excellent argument against religion as practiced and thought about by the majority of its adherents. Unfortunately, it fails to address likely counter-arguments that more sophisticated religious philosophers could reasonably raise; and it does so in part by lumping all of the spectrum of religious belief into a few caricatures.

    Well…

    I think Dawkins did acknowledge that tGD is a popular work rather than a deeply philosophical one; his included bibliography has works that contain much deeper analyses.

    And the Courtier’s Reply is meant to emphasize that when the “more sophisticated religious philosophers” are carefully analyzed, that sophistication is illusory: Theology all comes down to either faith, or facile equivocation, or both (usually committing various unacknowledged fallacies to boot).

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