Pharyngula

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Alexander Vargas
    January 18, 2007

    The ontological argument sounds interesting but to me it seems to have more to do with the concept of universe, than with the inevitably anthropomorphous concept of god.

    Pointing to the amateur level of dawkins is NOT like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Is Weinberg silly enough to buy that?
    All people can express their views on politics, but if you want to learn about politics, you go for a political scientist. And don’t you whine.
    Dawkins can express himself all he likes about anything. He has earned himself the amateur label because of silly statements, half-baked or frivolous arguments, “anecdotism” etc. All these people are saying is: we are not impressed, we have seen better. There is much better ways out there in defense of atheism, that is just a fact. Quite simply, someone must warn that Mr Dawkins is not precisely the state of the art for atheism ( or science, for that matter).

  2. #2 John Graham
    January 18, 2007

    I find Dawkins, and indeed most of the people who speak on this issue, to be too narrow-minded in their focus on “God”. There are many religions outside of the Judeo-Christian-Islam triumvirate that are equally based on mythology, and most of them do not believe in one all-mighty unmovable mover. Maybe we have a problem dressing down the Dalai Lama, but he, in his theology, is just as deluded as the Pope.

  3. #3 Abbie
    January 18, 2007

    Graham- AFAIK Dawkins has said multiple times he focuses on the Judeo-Christian God because it is the one he is the most familiar with, and its one that’s the biggest thorn in our side. I think his arguments would apply to any deity. Disproving the one we’re most familiar with seems a no-brainer.

  4. #4 Paul
    January 18, 2007

    As far as Nagel’s “amateur philosophy” comment goes, I think it’s entirely fair. I talk about it here:

    http://bajillion.blogspot.com/2007/01/dawkins-nagel-and-god-delusion.html

    Nagel, as a philosopher himself, maybe blows some of the philosophy problems out of proportion, but 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’s not that he’s wrong, it’s that he doesn’t even seem aware of the very powerful arguments on the other side.

    That said, it’s a terrific book otherwise, and on the narrow questions of religion he does a pretty thorough job. The documentary’s good, too.

  5. #5 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.

  6. #6 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.

  7. #7 Jonathan Badger
    January 18, 2007

    Phil Plait debunks astrology pretty effectively his book ‘Bad Astronomy’ without the need to debate the minutiae of the astrologer’s art. It is dismissed on the basis of its own improbability – that our lives and personalities cannot be governed by the position of distant planets and phenomenally distant stars.

    Haven’t read the book, but that doesn’t seem like a very good argument. It’s just the “argument from incredulity” as Dawkins calls it, or the “goofy meter” as I did. Sometimes that argument leads to correct conclusions, as when it causes people to reject astrology and other newage woo, but it can just as well be wrong as when it causes people to reject quantum mechanics or evolution.

    But, as others have pointed out, the internal consistency of a religious system is not evidence of its material validity. I’d guess that most religions that have flourished and faded during human history have been internally consistent, but we still dismiss them as constructs of the human imagination.

    But they *aren’t* internally consistent — certainly Judaism/Christianity aren’t, at least. That’s the major reason for rejecting them.

    Wouldn’t better evidence for the truth of a religion be its external consistency? E.g., miracles, divine interventions, and so on – something indisputably and unequivocally ‘supernatural’.

    Well, I was raised Episcopalian, and like in most liberal forms of theism there was very little in the way of faith healing or other “miracles” or “intervention” (at least in the present day — they were a bit vague as to whether Jesus actually had superpowers back in the day). Pretty much the only supernatural element was the afterlife — conveniently outside experimental verification. But realizing that even the theological explanations for the afterlife weren’t internally consistent was probably the start of my path to atheism.

  8. #8 GH
    January 18, 2007

    Dawkins can express himself all he likes about anything. He has earned himself the amateur label because of silly statements, half-baked or frivolous arguments,

    Puh-leez Vargas. His arguments go to the core. His detractors never actually rebut him but say he doesn’t address this or that which of course would take him 1000′s of years to rebut each silly point in 1000′s of religions.

    He just goes to the underlying premises.

  9. #9 Beren
    January 18, 2007

    Haven’t read the book, but that doesn’t seem like a very good argument. It’s just the “argument from incredulity” as Dawkins calls it, or the “goofy meter” as I did.

    I have only read the debunking of astrology on his web site (http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/astrology.html), but that argument wasn’t an argument from incredulity. He first discussed the fundamental forces and explained why none of them can be reconciled to the claims of astrology. Then he supposes that some as-yet unknown force is responsible, and explains why that can’t be. Then he supposes that it works anyway, and demonstrates that the claims are too vague, contradictory, and frequently innacurate to be valid. Finally, he provides links to a survey paper that summarizes the results of most (all?) then-extant results of research into astrology and concludes that astrologers’ predictions are no more accurate than chance.

    It was far more than a simple argument that he didn’t understand how it could work, so it couldn’t work (:

  10. #10 grigory
    January 18, 2007

    Over at John Lynch’s blogged response to this post, he has taken to censoring my comments. Those who read “Stranger Fruit” will have noticed that Lynch often mercilessly cuts into commenters who make typos (especially if they agree with PZ). Well, I merely pointed out that he often makes the very same sort of errors. In his response to this post about Weinberg, for example, he refers to Dawkins as “Dawkin’s”, and on his webpage he writes “surrpunding” for “surrounding”. None of this is very important: everyone makes this kind of mistake. They’re trivial. It’s just this triviality that I wanted to point out to him, in the hopes that he would stop ripping into people in such a pedantic way. No such luck… apparently John can only dish it out… not very good at taking it. I thought this might interest you, PZ, as it sheds some light on the ethical character of your self-styled opponent.

  11. #11 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    “grigory” You claim that I “often mercilessly cuts into commenters who make typos (especially if they agree with PZ).” Often? Mercilessly cut into? Makes it sound as if I regularly point at bad spellers/typos and go “Oh, look at idiot. No need to respond to him”. I recall only once consciously making a point of someones typos (here). Let’s look at what I say, shall we:

    You seem to expect Dawkins to mention all versions of the ontological argument aver stated? Or just the ones you believe are good?

    I don’t expect him to deal with all versions “avar stated”, and don’t find any of them convincing myself. I do however, expect Dawkins as an intellectual to properly engage with the arguments even in a popular work.

    Like Kurt says it is really easy to dismiss such proofs, just deny the assumptions, and you are home safe.

    Ahem. Shouldn’t you as a rationalist be disproving the assumptions and not just denying them. Whether Gödel’s proof may be “destrpyed” by denying that “existance is a positive property”, surely you must prove your stance rather than just deny Gödel’s

    didn’t Dawkins dismiss this assumption in his book?

    Precisely. Dismiss is the key word here. Dawkins doesn’t so much argue against Anselm as sneer at him. Dawkins “devotes” six pages to the ontological proof. Does he actually engage with the argument by trying (for example) to argue against its assumptions? No. Instead we are told that the argument is “infantile,” we are given it in the “appropriate … language of the playground”, and we are told that it is “logomachist trickery” that offends Dawkins. When we actually get to a “disproof” (p. 83) we are presented with Norman Malcolm’s statement regarding the queerness of the statemnt that existence is a perfection but are never told why we should accept Malcolm’s view over that of Descartes, Leibniz or Gödel (who of course, don’t get mentioned). Then we are treated to Douglas Gaskins’ “funny” proof that God doesn’t exist (which, by the way, is clearly logically problematic).

    And please, have you read Dawkins book? It is not a learned treatise,

    Yes I have. Damned straight it is not a “learned treatise”. Just because a work is popular doesn’t mean it cannot fully engage the opposing viewpoint or have to “dumb-down” the material. See, for example, Gleick’s Chaos or Dawkins’ own The Selfish Gene. Both deal with complicated material in a clear, concise fashion, and both are intellectually more respectable that Dawkins’ current jermiad.

    An come on, doesn’t Gödel, Anselms and Plantingas “proofs” sem very contrived to you?

    Just because they “sem very contrived” doesn’t mean that they can be dismissed quickly.

    As you can see, I make an attempt to engage with soren’s argument (something you refuse to do). Perhaps I should have laid off making an issue of the spelling, but that’s an issue between myself and Soren (who himself later said “Let me also apologize for the spelling mistake, I can see how that made all my points mute, and without merit.”)

    Anyway, I want to apologize to PZ (who is not by opponent, as you seem to think) for taking up space with this issue.  

  12. #12 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    From the review: “As for the New Testament, he quotes with approval the opinion of Thomas Jefferson, that “The Christian God is a being of a terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust”.”

    It’s fine that Weinberg finds much to agree with Dawkins on, but he should be more careful about believing Dawkins’ quotations to be accurate. Jefferson actually said these words about the God of Jews, while stressing how the Christian God is different from this picture. Here’s the complete letter. Search for the word ‘cruel’ to find the context.

    So, which is it? Has Weinberg misunderstood Dawkins’ words, or has Dawkins engaged in selective misquotation, as he had done with other authors before? Can anyone verify?

  13. #13 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Dawkins quotes Jefferson on page 31 of TGD as saying “The Christian God is a being of a terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust” amd offers no citation.

    It’s clear from the letter that Jefferson was talking about the “religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses”. Sloppy research by Dawkins.

  14. #14 George
    January 18, 2007

    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.

    What’s it like to be a Nagel?

    To claim that that is the only reasonable conclusion for anyone to draw from the empirical data, the defender of evolutionary theory would have to claim that the belief in a god who can intervene in the world, like the belief in witchcraft, is itself irrational, and that it has been refuted by science. I am sure there are atheists who believe this, even if many of them would be reluctant to say so — for reasons of tact if not of political prudence. But I believe they are mistaken: Neither belief nor disbelief in God is irrational, and the consequence is that two diametrically opposed attitudes toward the natural order are both reasonable.
    http://www.law.nyu.edu/clppt/program2005/readings/secular_philosophy.pdf

    He’s a both/ander. No wonder he doesn’t like Dawkins.

  15. #15 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Steve:

    > You clearly know nothing of Jefferson. No surprise there.

    No need to stoop to insults.

    Look at the quote on page 31 of TGD. Dawkins states:

    Thomas Jefferson – better read – was of a similar opinion: ‘The Christian God is a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.’

    That quote attributed to Jefferson does not occur in the letter that Anatoly linked to. Perhaps it occurs somewhere in Jefferson’s writings; if so, can you point me to it?

    It may be what Jefferson felt, but he did not say (unless you can demonstrate otherwise) that ‘[t]he Christian God is a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.’

  16. #16 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    Again, I’m not insulting you; I’m stating facts. If you knew the first thing about Jefferson- the very model of an 18th century deist- you’d know that he was a devoted enemy of Christians (whom he referred to as Athanasians- Google on the keywords “Jefferson” and “Athanasians” for some really choice invective) and their idea of God. Go and learn. He indeed “said” it many times over, and not by any means just in the quoted letter. In no way, shape or form was Dawkins misleading anyone about Jefferson’s views.

  17. #17 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    Wow, Steve LaBonne is on a roll. Dawkins misquotes Jefferson, mangling his words and falsely attributing his characterization to the “Christian God”, when Jefferson specifically talks about about the God of Jews, in the context of explaining what Jesus sought to reform in that image! Steve, seeking to defend his idol, is all too ready to blithely put into Jefferson’s mind intentions Steve all-too-clearly sees (but Jefferson never uttered), while ascribing ignorance to me and John Lynch. Not quite Dawkins’ level, Steve, but you’re getting there.

    Meanwhile, I wonder how many regulars here are intellectually honest enough to admit to the plain fact that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson here and alters the plain meaning of Jefferson’s words. Let’s see how many people are up to the task. After all, we’re all rational people here, right?

    In fact, I wonder if PZM has anything to say on the subject! I suspect he’s not quite as… brazen as Steve to openly defend Dawkins with falsehoods, but not quite… ready enough to admit Dawkins could commit such a gaping instance of misquotation in TGD. So, my money is on him keeping silent.

  18. #18 bernarda
    January 18, 2007

    I haven’t read all the posts, so maybe someone already posted this. But here is an interview with Richard Dawkins on KPFK radio.

    http://www.alternet.org/story/46566/

  19. #19 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    I’ve been able to find this:

    “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded upon fables and mythologies. The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust…” (Works Vol. iv., p. 325).

    It is clearly not the letter Anatoly quoted (though the parallels are striking). Since I haven’t a copy of Jefferson’s Works, I cannot check the quote, but I will take it on face value and stand corrected.

    This would have been a lot easier had Dawkins provided a citation for his quote (as he does for a Randolph Churchill quote in the previous sentence in TGD).

  20. #20 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    You’ve made an ass of yourself in public but you blame Dawkins? He was not writing a scholarly tome.

  21. #21 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    > He was not writing a scholarly tome.

    I’ve heard that one before. Apprently it’s the catch-all excuse.

    It doesn’t have to be a “scholarly tome” to have footnotes. Guess what, Dawkins does give some, just not for this quote. A little inconsistent, imho.

    > You’ve made an ass of yourself in public

    No, I investigated a claim and admitted I was wrong. You claimed that the letter Anatoly linked to contains the quote (“He indeed “said” it many times over, and not by any means just in the quoted letter.”). Are you willing to admit you were wrong?

  22. #22 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    YOU are the one who was wrong. YOU need an excuse. Dawkins doesn’t need one. I don’t need one. YOU are the one who is so ignorant that he needed to be told the most basic things about Jefferson’s views. Nice try though.

  23. #23 Jason
    January 18, 2007

    Anatoly,

    Meanwhile, I wonder how many regulars here are intellectually honest enough to admit to the plain fact that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson here and alters the plain meaning of Jefferson’s words.

    I’m intellectually honest enough to point out that you are clearly misrepresenting what Jefferson wrote in that letter. The “reform” he’s discussing is his, Jefferson’s, interpretation of what Jesus really meant, not a reformed God that Christians supposedly believe in that differs from the cruel and vindictive Jewish God.

  24. #24 Steve LaBonne
    January 18, 2007

    And I was correct, regardless of the wording of the specific letter, because it is precisely the Old Testament baggage that was one of the main things Jefferson detested in orthodox Christianity. Again, this is of the most elementary obviousness to anyone who knows about Jefferson’s views on religion. I used to attend Unitarian churches and we always got a chuckle out of his notoriously inaccurate prediction that someday everybody in the US would be a Unitarian.

    Again, regardless of the status of that particular letter, there is no question whatsoever that Dawkins did not misrepresent Jefferon’s views on Chritianity at all. He was agin it. He believed neither in the Trinity, nor in the divinity of Jesus, nor in a personal God of the orthodox type as opposed to the “Nature’s God” of deism.

  25. #25 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    Steve, you advanced several false claims already in this thread and contributed exactly nothing to the argument over Dawkins’ misquoting of Jefferson (in fact, there’s no argument, it’s just plainly true). You’re not exactly in a meaningful position to tell anyone to read anything about Jefferson. I have read that page, and much other material about Jefferson’s views.

    Idiots may think that someone who objects to Dawkins’ misquoting Jefferson on Christianity must surely consider Jefferson to have been a Christian. Idiots don’t allow for the possibility that someone may well know Jefferson did not believe in the Christian doctrine, and still object to dishonest misquotation of his views on religion. Idiots see the world as “our side versus their side”, and do not understand that someone may respect the truth as it is, convenient or inconvenient though it may be. Idiots are best ignored.

  26. #26 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    Steve,

    No one is arguing about what Jefferson felt about religion. That is common knowledge.

    You claimed that the letter was “specifically” dealing with the Christian god. This is not clear from the context.

    You claimed – as does Dawkins – that Jefferson said (elsewhere) that “The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust”. That may be true, but we’re having a difficult time tracking down that quote. Dawkins does not source it (as he does other quotes) and may indeed have taken it as “common knowledge” as it appears to exist online.

    Again, I’m not claiming that Jefferson did not believe what you attribute to him. I’m merely saying that the quote (as given by Dawkins and supported by yourself) needs to be demonstrated to be accurate. You may think this is nit-picking but it is central to good historical research to represent quotes accurately.

    Anatoly:

    Throwing around “idiot” (just as Steve threw around “ass”) is not helpful.

  27. #27 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    I’m intellectually honest enough to point out that you are clearly misrepresenting what Jefferson wrote in that letter.

    But are you intellectually honest enough to also admit that Dawkins is misquoting Jefferson by saying that Jefferson wrote about “The Christian God” things that Jefferson wrote about the God of Jews as opposed to the God of Jesus?

    Come on, that can’t be too hard.

    Now, about my purported misrepresentation of Jefferson’s views:

    The “reform” he’s discussing is his, Jefferson’s, interpretation of what Jesus really meant, not a reformed God that Christians supposedly believe in that differs from the cruel and vindictive Jewish God.

    That doesn’t contradict anything I wrote, as far as I can see. You have a good point. Jefferson describes, in a series of striking oppositions, the differences between the God of the Jews, and the God of the Jesus, so to speak, in Jefferson’s understanding of how Jesus tried to reform Judaism. He doesn’t say anywhere that Christianity as actually practiced in his time is exactly what Jesus wanted it to be. In fact, he plainly states that they’re very different, many times in his writings (not just in this letter). But that doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that he considered Jesus to have added nothing, in practical terms, in terms of how people actually practice Christianity, to the image of God the Jews had! That would also be an absurd mischaracterization of his views.

    So, by quoting Jefferson as saying “The Christian God etc.” Dawkins is misquoting him, both explicitly (because these aren’t the words Jefferson used and the words Jefferson used talk explicitly about the God of the Jews), and substantially (because Jefferson didn’t think or say that the Christian God as actual practicing Christians see him coincides with the God of Jews).

  28. #28 Colugo
    January 18, 2007

    The proper interpretation of Dawkins’ characterization of Jefferson’s beliefs about God:

    The atheist version of angels dancing on the heads of pins.

  29. #29 Jason
    January 18, 2007

    Anatoly,

    But are you intellectually honest enough to also admit that Dawkins is misquoting Jefferson

    You haven’t demonstrated that Dawkins misquoted Jefferson. Are you intellectually honest enough to admit that (since you seem so big on this “intellectual honesty” thing)?

    That doesn’t contradict anything I wrote, as far as I can see.

    Of course it does. You claimed that Dawkins misrepresented Jefferson’s “plain meaning.”

  30. #30 Anatoly
    January 18, 2007

    Jason,

    OK, so you can’t admit that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson when Dawkins quotes Jefferson as saying

    “The Christian God is a being of a terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust”

    while what Jefferson said (in the only known well-established quotation of the “terrific character etc.” words) was

    …His 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. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being…

    I understand. Is anyone else of the regulars here intellectually honest enough to admit that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson here?

    Come on. Anyone? This is one of the preeminent science blogs. It champions rationality, independent thought, and questioning authority. It can’t be that bad, can it?

  31. #31 George
    January 18, 2007

    Is anyone else of the regulars here intellectually honest enough to admit that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson here?

    I am. I’m still investigating.

    Currently looking here for clues:

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/ToC/0054.php

    THE WORKS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON IN 12 VOLUMES, ED. PAUL LEICESTER FORD (THE FEDERAL EDITION) (1905)

  32. #32 Jason
    January 18, 2007

    Anatoly,

    OK, so you can’t admit that Dawkins misquotes Jefferson

    I can’t “admit” what you haven’t shown to be true. A letter containing a quote similar to the one Dawkins offers in TGD does not demonstrate that Dawkins’ quote is spurious. John Lynch seems to understand this. Why can’t you?

    I wouldn’t bother with this, except that you seem to have some pathological need to score trivial debating points against Dawkins (yes, I remember your appearances in previous Dawkins threads), and I’m happy to hang you by your own juvenile standards.

  33. #33 Kseniya
    January 18, 2007

    I accept that the quote in question is spurious, and that Dawkins fell prey to a pitfall that is all too common in this day and age: the assumption that if a quotation or attribution is ubiquitous on the Internet then it has a high probability of being accurate. Sloppy? Yes. A profound or intentionally deceitful misrepresentation of Jefferson’s views? Hardly.

    The evil twin of the Jefferson quote is a disturbingly ubiquitous “Ten Commandments” quotation attributed to James Madison, which has been shows to be one of the many lies to come from the poison pen of dominionist David Barton.

    Clearly, in his letter to William Short, Jefferson refers to the Old Testament God, not the “Christian God” as described by Jesus in the New Testament – but given that they are universally (?) considered to be one and the same entity, the corruption of the quote attributed to Jefferson in the (probably fictional) letter to “Dr. Woods” is, at worst, a little bit of spin, and hardly qualifies as a deception, particularly when viewed in comparison to the whole-cloth fabrications of a David Barton.

    This passage by Jefferson (from a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush) seems apropos this discussion:

    “[My views on Christianity] are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other… It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith which the laws have left between God and himself.”

  34. #34 John Lynch
    January 18, 2007

    I’ve asked here for help in sourcing the quote as given by Dawkins. If any reader of this thread has any clues, please post.

  35. #35 JimC
    January 18, 2007

    If Dawkins sourced the quote wrong he sourced the quote wrong. He made a mistake – big deal. It does nothing to diminish the overall strength of his book.

    Likewise calling the OT God not a Christian God is pretty pointless unless one is willing to throw the OT out of Christianity.

  36. #36 George
    January 18, 2007

    Unless there is a second “cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust” quotation, it appears Dawkins got it wrong.

    Via Amazon’s look inside the book (requires login), see Jefferson’s Political Writings, pubished by Cambridge University Press:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/sitbv3/reader/102-2667336-9547322?asin=0521648416&pageID=S0CQ&checkSum=kT28hLA8QqwqLOzxtoGs5EG6JFI8yFQIL0j7Xsva6/Q=

  37. #37 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    But are you intellectually honest enough to also admit that Dawkins is misquoting Jefferson by saying that Jefferson wrote about “The Christian God” things that Jefferson wrote about the God of Jews as opposed to the God of Jesus?

    Dawkins apparently misquoted Jefferson, but you surely can’t be asserting that “the God of the Jews” and “the God of Jesus” are distinct entities, can you, troll? Christians believe they are the same entity, so the misquote doesn’t change the meaning.

  38. #38 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    Do your own research.

    Well, Steve, they have done their own research, and have demonstrated that Jefferson used that exact same phrase in connection with the “sect” of Moses — the exact same phrase that Dawkins used, without citation, in connection with “The Christian God” — perhaps drawn from one of the web sites where this quote appears, again without citation. It is most likely that the Dawkins quote is inaccurate. It does us no good when people on “our side” are so transparently intellectually dishonest as you have been here; there are far better ways to respond to the trolls than that.

  39. #39 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    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

    Ahem. There are no respectable professional philosophers who support theistic dualism, and virtually none who more generally support substance dualism. The various esoteric (and fallacious) arguments for aspect dualism or property dualism, in regard to the mental, are not within the scope of Dawkins’s book.

  40. #40 truth machine
    January 19, 2007

    Nagel, as a philosopher himself, maybe blows some of the philosophy problems out of proportion

    Uh, yes. Dawkins doesn’t simply “assume” scientific reductionism, it’s an extremely well-grounded position, and he and the rest of us are far better off to ignore the abstruse fallacies that folks like Nagel and Chalmers professionally generate for the consumption of other professional philosophers. Better to leave the refutation of that stuff to folks like Jaegwon Kim, Robert Kirk, and many other physicalist philosophers who are experts in the field.

  41. #41 Steve LaBonne
    January 19, 2007

    If the quote can be demonstrated to be incorrect, Dawkins ought to correct it in the next edition of his book. Where have I said otherwise? It remains a fact, as you, truth machine acknowledge, that he did not unfairly represent Jefferson’s view’s on Christianity. That is the point I have been concerned to keep clear amidst the troll smoke screen.

  42. #42 wintermute
    January 19, 2007

    Dawkins attributes the following to Jefferson:

    The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust…

    .

    John Lynch finds a citation for the following passage, as a demonstration of the quote’s accuracy:

    I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded upon fables and mythologies. The Christian God is a being of terrific character — cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust…

    Anatoly refers us to the Jefferson library, who claim that the following quote is “unconfirmed”, thus demonstrating that Lynch’s citation is false:

    I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.

    Let us accept that the fact that they have been unable to confirm that quote means that it is spurious. Given that there is no overlap between it and the original quotation made by Dawkins, why does it necessarily follow that Dawkins misquoted Jefferson? I accept that the fact that my 10-minutes interweb research has not uncovered a decent citation for it is evidence that it may well be apocryphal, but it’s hardly compelling.

    In addition, why does Anatoly insist that it must be a misquote of a specific letter? After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a letter writer had re-used a phrase he particularly liked…

    I suspect that Anatoly is right, overall, and the the quotation is false, but simply pointing out that a different quote that had been conflated with it was false is not proof positive.

  43. #43 windy
    January 19, 2007

    But I do find it odd that we’ve taken creationist literature seriously enough to point out all the flaws in it and even created an internet archive of the debunking, and yet the more moderate theological literature (written by and for people noticeably less insane than creationists) isn’t considered worth such a treatment.

    Good idea, why don’t you start up an archive of theological claims?

    (The obvious reason why this has not been a priority is that creationism is explicitly anti-science, and theology isn’t. But certainly Dawkins would agree that theology is sneakily anti-science.)

  44. #44 J Daley
    January 19, 2007

    Regarding the “amateur philosopher” attack, an extension of The Coutier’s Reply:

    “Mr Dawkins lacks any training and is an amateur at best in the Philosophy of Clotheology, and his ignorance regarding such works as Pant’s Critique of Pure Fashion or Le Haute Couture, not to mention Gabardine dualism (“the crotch is the seat of the pants”) is greatly apparent in TGD. He should have consulted experts in the subject before dismissing it; otherwise, he’s the same as pleationists who dismiss the Theory of Nudity while lacking any training in nakedness.”

  45. #45 Alexander Vargas
    January 20, 2007

    Dawkins is basically an ultradarwinian into scientism. He has respect for natural sciences but not much true respect for philosophy, history, or social sciences in general.
    However, social sciences, and not a sterile theory of meme selection, are the most relevant areas to understand cultural change, and specially, how religion increases or decreases its pervasiveness in society, and what could be done about it.
    I understand those who do not want to know much about theology, but take a historical-sociological attitude. After all if you want less influence and privilege of religion, it comes in handy to have a genuine understanding of what is going on in their heads (and how that may change or become undone)
    The surge of humanism, rationalism and science that begun In the Renaissance should be of great interest to Dawkins, but I think he is rather handicapped to discuss it. His feet are only truly on the ground if we talk about selection of something. Anything.

  46. #46 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]

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