Steven Weinberg reviews The God Delusion. It’s almost entirely positive—one exception is that he takes Dawkins to task for being too even-handed and well-intentioned towards Islam. I particularly enjoyed his criticisms of the critics. Here’s a familiar argument:

The reviews of The God Delusion in the New York Times and the New Republic took Dawkins to task for his contemptuous rejection of the classic “proofs” of the existence of God. I agree with Dawkins in his rejection of these proofs, but I would have answered them a little differently. The “ontological proof” of St Anselm asks us first to agree that it is possible to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. Once that agreement is obtained, the sly philosopher points out that the thing conceived of must exist, since if it did not then something just like it that actually exists would thereby be greater. And what could this greatest actually existing thing be, but God? QED. From the monk Gaunilo in Anselm’s time to philosophers in our own such as J. L. Mackie and Alvin Plantinga, there is general agreement that Anselm’s proof is flawed, though they disagree about what the flaw is. My own view is that the proof is circular: it is not true that one can conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived unless one first assumes the existence of God. Anselm’s “proof” has reappeared and been refuted in many different forms, it is a little like an infectious disease that can be defeated by an antibiotic, but which then evolves so that it needs to be defeated all over again.

I’ve always felt that leap from a conception to reality was unwarranted and a cheat; but then, maybe that part isn’t in the modal logic version that gets touted now and then. I suspect that the modal logic business is like a variant coat protein to help the nonsense slip by the immune defenses.

He also jumps on the tired “amateur philosopher” line of attack.

I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.

Weinberg is a little more sanguine about the evangelical threat in America, but then he doesn’t quite have the full-throated assault on his discipline in the schools that we biologists face…yet. He sees a sign of weakness in the degree of tolerance exhibited by Christianity—it’s a good thing, I agree, but I also think it means we should be rising up to finish the beast of faith off, not that we should relax our exertions.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 18, 2007

    Weinberg has a distinctive and certain voice, though I could as well accuse him of being too well-intentioned. He is a physicist that likes to take the philosophical arguments on, instead of dismissing them as the hammer and nail obsession to get to truth that has occupied philosophers and theologists for millenniums. Many physicists seems to treat philosophy like PZ treat religion, tolerance but no respect.

    But in this case it is mostly his conclusion that we should not disrespect all religion equally I disagree with. As some commenters noted, it is mostly political, economical and perhaps cultural contingencies that makes the differences. I agree with that it may even be contraproductive to single out some.

    Though I don’t think that means that one should not point to the religion as a contributor when analyzing specific political trouble. Functionally, religions differ in what the believers are supposed to do.

    Dawkins definitely dismisses ontological dualism as though he doesn’t understand that there are versions of it that 1) are widely, though not unanimously, supported by professional philosophers and 2) have nothing to do with religion per se. He also throws out moral absolutism in a similarly sloppy manner.

    It is probably due to Dawkins background as a scientist – dualisms and moral arguments aren’t adequate when they meet reality. For example, physicists has made platonism a monism, neuroscientists doesn’t necessarily need qualia, and decoherence has put any remaining measurement problem outside the mind. With that in mind philosophic discussions seems less profitable here. I suspect Dawkins didn’t want to waste too much time on it after a rough analysis showing that it is precisely a waste of time.

  2. #2 Écrasez l'infâme
    January 23, 2007

    Crossposted from Stranger Fruit:

    Positive Atheism lists the quote as a phony, having made an inquiry to Jefferson Presidential Library:

    The Jefferson Presidential Library has searched for the following alleged quotation and cannot find it within their collection of known and verified Jefferson writings. Therefore we think this quotation is probably a forgery and recommend its removal from all quotes collections.

    However, there are several properly cited Jefferson quotes at WikiQuote that express Jefferson’s views on this subject throughout his life:

    * The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 78.

    * Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. “No two, say I, have established the same.” Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 80.

    * I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years imprisonment for not [297] comprehending the mysteries of the trinity.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 81.

    * [I]n a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever[.]
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, pp. 83-84.

    * Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object [religion]. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. … But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. … Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? You will next read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions I. of those who say he was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, & was Punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furcâ. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of it’s consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort & pleasantness you feel in it’s exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a god, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, & neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision. I forgot to observe when speaking of the new testament that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, & not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some however still extant, collected by Fabricius which I will endeavor to get & send you.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 5, pp. 324-327.

    * A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution [the University of Virginia].
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Cooper, October 7, 1814.[1]

    * But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill[.] … The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems,[footnote: e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. --T.J.] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 141-142.

    * My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers [the authors of the Gospels], which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian. When Livy and Siculus, for example, tell us things which coincide with our experience of the order of nature, we credit them on their word, and place their narrations among the records of credible history. But when they tell us of calves speaking, of statues sweating blood, and other things against the course of nature, we reject these as fables not belonging to history. … That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, on his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435-1440.[2]

    * His [Jesus'] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, on his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435-1440.[3]

    * The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823.[4]

    * It is between fifty and sixty years since I read the Apocalypse, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams. … what has no meaning admits no explanation.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825.[5]