Stranger Fruit

Dawkins’ “stock reply”

At the risk of restarting the arguments of last month (and,
oh, what fun they were!), I will note that Richard Dawkins writes:

Congratulations to P Z Myers on this brilliant piece of satire. It applies not just to Allen Orr’s review in NYRB, but to all those many reviews of TGD that complain of my lack of reading in theology. My own stock reply (“How many learned books of fairyology and hobgoblinology have you read?”) is far less witty.

Far less witty indeed. And also somewhat problematic.

I want to stress here that I am not going to discuss the truth of the claim that The God Delusion may exhibit Dawkins’ “lack of reading in theology”. I will merely note that Dawkins does not reply by claiming to have read theological works. One must assume either (a) he hasn’t engaged with such
works, or (b) he has but instead of demonstrating that fact would rather give a glib “witty” reply. Take your pick. Either way, I ask you to consider the following:

A common critique of those that see Darwinism [X] as a secular mythology [Y] is that they fail to engage with the primary literature. One can conceive of a creationist dismissing such criticism by using the same “stock reply” as Dawkins, i.e. “I believe X to be the epistemological equivalent of Y. Since you don’t read learned books on Y (or such books don’t exist), you cannot criticize me for my lack of reading in X.”

Now, I think we can all agree that this would be an unsatisfying reply to the criticism at hand. Obviously, our creationist would have to first prove the epistemological equivalence of X and Y. Similarly, Dawkins needs to first prove the equivalence of theology [X] and “fairyology” [Y]before he can use his stock reply to deflect criticism. Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing – and that involves reading the theological writings
of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion. Note that I am making a distinction between the writings of theologians – who obviously have a commitment to the religious claims in question – and those of philosophers of religion who may or may not be religious (consider, for example, that Hume was a philosopher of religion, as was Nietzsche). The question remains, does The
God Delusion
demonstrate such an engagement? Defenders of Dawkins (following Dawkins himself) will perhaps claim that it does not have to, especially considering the work is a popular argument for atheism. Others may find that defense unconvincing.

[And before this gets out of hand, I’d like to make it perfectly clear where I stand. I am situated at milestone #6 of Dawkin’s typology (p. 51 of TGD). I agree that “I cannot know for certain but I think that God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there” but disagree whether that makes me a “De Facto atheist” or an agnostic, I also have no time for NOMA.]

One assumes that Dawkins read the primary texts (“scriptures”) of the monotheistic religions he is critiquing. One would hope that he engaged with the “secondary literature” of theological writings which attempt to interpret and justify these texts. Whether The God Delusion offers evidence for a serious engagement
with the philosophy of religion is a question for another day.

Comments

  1. #1 David Sewell
    December 26, 2006

    “How many learned books of fairyology and hobgoblinology have you read?”

    A propos, the New York Review of Books has just published a brand new edition of one of the classics of fairyology, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies, so there’s no excuse for not having read at least one learned book on the topic. :-)

  2. #2 MarkP
    December 26, 2006

    Shouldn’t the burdon of proof be on those that claim theology is worthy of study? After all, we know that there are many false (at best) or nonsensical (at worst), but complicated belief systems, such as astrology. It should be incumbant on theology to demonstrate some accomplishment outside its specific sphere, before it warrants serious study.

    Mathematicians derive relationships that have applications to a wide variety of activities. Physicists make discoveries relevant to activities far outside of “physics”. Ditto for biologists, and economists, and a whole host of other areas of thought. What do theologins provide worthy of being treated with the same seriousness and respect as those fields?

    IMO, the produce of the theological field is the same as that for astrology, numerology, and faith healing: a sense of comfort derived from after-the-fact rationalizing, thereby cementing desired opinions, and little else. In other words, its all voodoo in the end: it only matters if you believe it matters. Dawkis doesn’t, and neither do I.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    December 26, 2006

    John,

    Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing – and that involves reading the theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion.

    I don’t think that is much of a problem at all. The complaint theologians make about Dawkins’ “not understanding theology” is predicated on the fact that he hasn’t involved himself in every bit of esoteric minutiae the “discipline” (if you can call it that) offers. The problem is that the criticism of Dawkins (and Harris, Dennett, etc.) takes place on a far more basic level, namely, the all important first question of whether there is any good reason to take the claims seriously in the first place.

    Every discipline we know of other than theology has a method of justifying claims. Science has hypothetical deductive and inductive reasoning, mathematics and computer science have written proofs, and even philosophy makes heavy use of logic and propositional calculus. In theology, however, even the most fatuous concoction can become immutable truth based on nothing more than the authority of the concocter.

    You either have good reasons to believe what you do, or you do not. Religion is really the only place where we not only permit, but glorify formulating beliefs in such an intellectually irresponsible manner that they are nearly guaranteed to be false. That is Dawkins complaint, one which his critics consistently and conspicuously fail to address.

  4. #4 John Lynch
    December 26, 2006

    [E]ven philosophy makes heavy use of logic and propositional calculus. In theology, however, even the most fatuous concoction can become immutable truth based on nothing more than the authority of the concocter.

    What about philosophy of religion?

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    December 26, 2006

    Your analogy with a creationist argument is problematic, though.

    I don’t expect most creationists to have read the primary scientific literature. If they have an objection to something they’ve heard second-hand, I’m willing to try and explain it to them.

    I’m still waiting to hear these wonderful theistic arguments cited and explained.

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    December 26, 2006

    What about philosophy of religion?

    Not quite sure what exactly you’re talking about. Philosophy of religion is a field that encompasses everything from questions of why people believe in such nonsense in the first place to whether Christ fulfilled or superseded Old Testament dictates. Things like the former are, at least in my estimation, legitimate considerations (even if fields like neuroscience may be well on their way to replacing it). But the latter is little more than unfounded pap and indistinguishable from theology itself.

  7. #7 John Lynch
    December 26, 2006

    Tyler,

    I think you are being a little dismissive of the philosophy of religion (PoR). Theologians work from a set of foundational assumptions and attempt to rationalize their beliefs. On the other hand, philosophers of religion examine all assumptions and suppositions of any belief system. In other words, there are no ideas to be accepted on faith and PoR is rational thought about religious issues without a presumption of the existence of a deity or reliance on acts of faith. A sizable amount of modern PoR deals with epistemological issues such as the comparative place of evidentialism and fideism in religious claims, and the rationality of belief. Now, for example, Dawkins will state that belief is irrational. Fair enough. But there are a host of academic philosophers (not theologians) who would dismiss Dawkins’ sweeping claim as being too easy.

    It is perhaps one think to dismiss theology as “pap” and another to dismiss PoR as such.

  8. #8 Shaun
    December 26, 2006

    PZ, I haven’t read the God Delusion, but I’m familiar with some philosophy of religion. So here are the ‘wonderful theistic arguments’ for you, which you probably are already familiar with.

    St Anselm came up with the Ontological Argument which says I can conceive of a perfect being, which being perfect, must necessarily possess existence, therefore God exists. It’s begging the question and in my opinion, the premise and conclusion may as well be identical.

    St Thomas Aquinas came up with the Cosmological Argument. He says that everything that is moved is moved by something else. He says that it can’t keep going, so he says that God must be the first mover. This contradicts itself because if there is a being that is an unmoved mover, then it is not the case that everything that is moved is moved by something else. Aquinas uses more or less, the same argument form in a few different instances, but since it’s the same argument form, they suffer from the same contradiction.

    William Paley came up with the Teleological argument, the backbone of intelligent design creationism.

    The Moral Argument, used by C.S. Lewis, but I don’t know if he’s the one who came up with it. Humans use a moral code and humans often fail to live up to this code. If morality is just an instinct, why should it be obeyed? The only explanation is that there is a God and that humans are estranged from God. Dawkins would use the evolutionary explanation of morality to refute this one. In other words, Dawkins just engaged with the serious academic ideas of a believer.

    The Argument from Religious Experience, also used by Lewis, is the hunger argument. All needs have things which fulfill them – food for hunger and sex for sexual desire. Therefore, the need for God must have a God to fulfill it. Anyone who doesn’t hunger for God proves that it is based on a false premise. Further, some people are hungry; they need food that they can eat, yet they die of starvation.

    Um. That’s it. I don’t know of any more and I’ve never heard anyone use an argument that doesn’t fit under one of those 5 headings. If Dawkins has engaged with and refuted these arguments, then Dawkins has engaged with the “theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion.” The Courtier’s reply not only fails to direct us to the nonexistent theology that proves the existence of god, it is also plain wrong.

  9. #9 John Lynch
    December 26, 2006

    Shaun said:

    William Paley came up with the Teleological argument, the backbone of intelligent design creationism.

    Eh, no. This argument is a lot older. See for example, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas …

    In fact, most of the arguments you give pre-date the individuals you attribute them to.

  10. #10 Tyler DiPietro
    December 27, 2006

    John,

    It is perhaps one think to dismiss theology as “pap” and another to dismiss PoR as such.

    Well, I didn’t quite know what you meant by the term, as I indicated in my post. PoR certainly seems in such a formulation to be an entirely legitimate endeavor. If believers wish to come to the debate table with the same laundry list of arguments they’ve been using since the Greco-Roman period, then they are by all means welcome to do so. What I want is to have a debate in the first place, and not have a status of respectably conferred upon religion by default as is clearly the case at the moment.

  11. #11 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    Shaun said:

    If Dawkins has engaged with and refuted these arguments, then Dawkins has engaged with the “theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion.”

    Indeed, Dawkins does deal with these (somewhat briefly) in Chapter 3 as the “rational” arguments for the existence of God. However, as I note above, one of the big philosophical issues in philosophy of religion is the issue of faith versus evidence. Now clearly Dawkins believes that the evidential proofs for God are weak (and here I agree with him) and dismisses the issue of fideism quickly (for example, he describes faith as an “evil” on page 308). The problem here is that he is ignoring valid philosophical debates (that indeed go beyond issues of religion). This is why philosophers are unlikely to find TGD satisfying.

  12. #12 Shaun
    December 27, 2006

    Thanks for the correction John. I think Aristotle may also have done the First Mover argument, which is more or less the same as Aquinas’. And I have no idea who originally invented the moral argument or argument from religious experience; I just know that Lewis used them. In the end though, I think we agree that they’re not very convincing.

    As for faith vs. evidence, would you apply the same kind of criticisms to 20th century continental philosophy? From the little that I’ve studied, phenomenologists, marxists and [post]structuralists also seem to ignore valid philosophical debates. Instead, they seem to prefer to classify religion as a subjective ideological institution.

  13. #13 Tyler DiPietro
    December 27, 2006

    As for faith vs. evidence, would you apply the same kind of criticisms to 20th century continental philosophy?

    In truth I think an analogy between the two is quite apt, not only because theology and postmodernism share the dual traits of being unfounded nonsense and being proud of it, but because they put the double standard we “new atheists” have been complaining about in a clear light. Scientists feel free to berate and ridicule the bizarre obfuscations of Baudrillard, Foucault and Lacan, but theology is something sacrosanct that shouldn’t be criticized by default.

  14. #14 John Pieret
    December 27, 2006

    You either have good reasons to believe what you do, or you do not. Religion is really the only place where we not only permit, but glorify formulating beliefs in such an intellectually irresponsible manner that they are nearly guaranteed to be false.

    Would it be fair to say that the basis of your beliefs are science and its method? If so, please demonstrate logically that science delivers “truth”.

    PZ knows he cannot do this and has previously retreated to the pragmatic argument that science “works” (which I agree with, BTW). But, taking the scientific stance (as Dennett does in his book), and assuming that religion is subject to natural selection, its very ubiquity suggests that it “works” too.

    Where do we go now?

  15. #15 Daryl McCullough
    December 27, 2006

    I don’t think it is relevant whether Dawkins is well-versed in the theological literature or not. It seems to me that Dawkin’s purpose is to flatter and encourage the people who already agree with him, rather than to convince anyone new. At least, the people that I’ve heard praising Dawkin’s book have all been people who were committed atheists prior to reading his book. It’s “preaching to the choir”.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that there are any good theological arguments for believing in God that need to be addressed. Many people believe, but not because they’ve been convinced by any argument. Perhaps there is the rare C.S. Lewis type who claim to have be an atheist won over by a powerful argument, but I think most people who are believers are believers for emotional and social reasons, rather than intellectual reasons.

    John, what exactly is your beef with Gould’s NOMA? It seems to me that it is empirically correct. Religion in fact has no significant influence on the progress of science, and science in fact has no significant influence on people’s religious beliefs.

    It is a fact that many people are religiously observant and also believe that religion should play no role in science. The usual question asked is something along the lines of “How can you reconcile a belief that Jesus rose from the dead with what we know of science?” The answer is that there is no way to reconcile them, and there is no need to.

    I wrote a little essay about my mother’s religious beliefs in my blog. She considers herself a Christian, but does not claim to believe any of the points of faith: Virgin birth, resurrection, heaven, hell, or even the existence of a God that created the world. So in what sense is she a Christian? It’s a matter of how one lives one’s life, not what one factually believes about the world.

  16. #16 Friend Fruit
    December 27, 2006

    One assumes that Dawkins read the primary texts (“scriptures”) of the monotheistic religions he is critiquing

    One wouldn’t need to “assume” this if one had actually read Dawkins’ book, because one would have found specific examples of errors and contradictions from such primary texts.

  17. #17 Friend Fruit
    December 27, 2006

    I don’t think it is relevant whether Dawkins is well-versed in the theological literature or not. It seems to me that Dawkin’s purpose is to flatter and encourage the people who already agree with him, rather than to convince anyone new.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that there are any good theological arguments for believing in God that need to be addressed. Many people believe, but not because they’ve been convinced by any argument.

    And yet, the criticism being directed at Dawkins in most negative reviews is that theology, or Philosophy of Religion, has some substance to it, and that Dawkins fails to address this substance. And yet, no one in any discussion I have been party to has managed to produce any such substance. Lynch declines to do so now and has failed to do so in the past. Shaun, who has not read the book, has provided a nice list, and I can say that Dawkins did address at least four of those arguments in his book, and I read an interview in which he addressed the fifth. No one, in any discussion I have encountered, has managed to make a case that theology has any more substance to it than astrology.

    Where’s the beef? Show me the money!

  18. #18 PeteK
    December 27, 2006

    “I doubt that religion can survive deep understanding. The shallows are its natural habitat. Cranks and fundamentalists are too often victimised as scapegoats for religion in general. It is only quite recently that Christianity reinvented itself in non-fundamentalist guise, and Islam has yet to do so (see Ibn Warraq’s excellent book, Why I am not a Muslim). Moonies and scientologists get a bad press, but they just haven’t been around as long as the accepted religions. Theology is a respectable discipline when it studies such subjects as moral philosophy, the psychology of religious belief and, above all, biblical history and literature. Like Bertie Wooster, my knowledge of the Bible is above average. I seem to know Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon almost by heart. I think that the Bible as literature should be a compulsory part of the national curriculum – you can’t understand English literature and culture without it. But insofar as theology studies the nature of the divine, it will earn the right to be taken seriously when it provides the slightest, smallest smidgen of a reason for believing in the existence of the divine. Meanwhile, we should devote as much time to studying serious theology as we devote to studying serious fairies and serious unicorns.”

    Richard Dawkins, 23 December 1998, The Independant

    Define “gods” first. Until you do, the question “Do gods exist?” is out of order. Either god(s) is/are natural, and therefore indistinguishable from the natural world that he/she/it is invoked to create, or god(s) is/are SUPERnatural, and therefore “Above and beyond” human understanding. God(s) cannot be defined by natural langauage, since they are supposed to be SUPERnatural, and humans are bound by natural language.

  19. #19 John Farrell
    December 27, 2006

    St Thomas Aquinas came up with the Cosmological Argument. He says that everything that is moved is moved by something else. He says that it can’t keep going, so he says that God must be the first mover. This contradicts itself because if there is a being that is an unmoved mover, then it is not the case that everything that is moved is moved by something else. Aquinas uses more or less, the same argument form in a few different instances, but since it’s the same argument form, they suffer from the same contradiction.

    Um, no. Aquinas’s argument is that you cannot have an infinite regression of explanations. When he says ’cause’ he does not mean it in as simplistic a sense as Dawkins thinks (or Sagan for that matter). Otherwise why does Aquinas have no problem with the temporal eternity of the world?

    Likewise, Dawkins dismissal of Anselm is based on the same simplistic misreading of the Proslogion that even Kant was guilty of. Here I would cut Dawkins a little slack (since he obviously relied on Kant), as virtually everyone since Anselm’s time (including Aquinas) misread what he meant by the ontological argument.

    Orr was right. You didn’t see Dawkins writing sloppy science when he wrote The Selfish Gene, a book that I think is just as much targeted to joe everybody as God Delusion. But with much better sources. I think he wrote GD in a rush, and am frankly mystified that a scientist at Oxford didn’t at least have the time to consult a colleague in the philosophy department before regurgitating the standard positivist cliches about theology.

  20. #20 Daryl McCullough
    December 27, 2006

    It is only quite recently that Christianity reinvented itself in non-fundamentalist guise, and Islam has yet to do so (see Ibn Warraq’s excellent book, Why I am not a Muslim).

    I don’t think that either claim is true. There have been nonfundamentalist Christians from the beginning. Also, the Sufis were non-fundamentalist Muslims.

  21. #21 Friend Fruit
    December 27, 2006

    God(s) cannot be defined by natural langauage, since they are supposed to be SUPERnatural, and humans are bound by natural language.

    I am no buying this argument. Human language has plenty of words dealing with the supernatural: ghosts, souls, etc.

    Likewise, Dawkins dismissal of Anselm is based on the same simplistic misreading of the Proslogion that even Kant was guilty of. Here I would cut Dawkins a little slack (since he obviously relied on Kant), as virtually everyone since Anselm’s time (including Aquinas) misread what he meant by the ontological argument.

    The ontological argument is deeply confused. Before attempting a refutation, one must first try to figure out what it is saying. It is no surprise that the argument has been interpreted in different ways, and the deep confusion at its core is certainly no evidence of its correctness.

  22. #22 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    “Friend Fruit”:

    > Where’s the beef? Show me the money!

    This is getting quite tiresome. You’re like a little yapping dog.

    First of all, don’t conflate theology with PoR (see above).

    Secondly, go to your local university library and look at the books on PoR. Read what they are about. You’ll see names like Kant, Kierkegaard, Hume, Nietzsche, all of whom get scant (if any) mention by Dawkins. Has he read them? Possibly. Did he understand them? Possibly, but TGD shows no evidence of that.

    Thirdly, Dawkins dismisses the arguments for the existence of God in a breezy thirty pages. A little brief, eh, considering the amount of word written by, for example, Mackie on the issue. The only reason you find Dawkins’ chapter three convincing is that you already know the answer you want and it helps that Dawkins dodges all the philosophical issues.

    Like it or not, there are valid philosophical questions here that Dawkins just hand-waves away. If you find that convincing, fair enough, but realize that most philosophers are unlikely to be convinced by Dawkins’ jeremiad.

    (Again, I write this as a “de facto atheist,” to use Dawkins’ terminology. I just find the intellectual content of the book too damned low to be convincing.)

  23. #23 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    John writes:

    You didn’t see Dawkins writing sloppy science when he wrote The Selfish Gene, a book that I think is just as much targeted to joe everybody as God Delusion. But with much better sources.

    I agree. Compare the apparatus surrounding TSG with that around TDG. The latter is certainly sloppy in a philosophical sense.

  24. #24 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    “Friend Fruit” writes:

    The ontological argument is deeply confused. Before attempting a refutation, one must first try to figure out what it is saying. It is no surprise that the argument has been interpreted in different ways, and the deep confusion at its core is certainly no evidence of its correctness.

    Those of us who teach history of philosophy appeal to the principle of charity. Simply put, it asks students to realize that though an argument may look easy to refute (or just plain wrong), there is probably something philosophically worthwhile contained within. So, applying the principle here, I will claim that any confusion perhaps comes from your reading rather than Anselm.

    Read Proslogion (and of course the Reply by the Fool) – they are both freely available online. If it is so “deeply confusing,” how come Descartes, Kant and Hume (to name only a few) found it necessary to deal with the argument? The very fact that Dawkins refers to the argument as “infantile” does not bode well for his engagment with it.

    Intellectual laziness on your behalf is no excuse. Do the work.

    (Caveat: I personally find a priori arguments for the existence of God unconvincing and very much follow Hume’s approach to them. Having said that, I would never claim them to be “infantile”.)

  25. #25 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    I wrote:

    Thirdly, Dawkins dismisses the arguments for the existence of God in a breezy thirty pages. A little brief, eh, considering the amount of word written by, for example, Mackie on the issue.

    I occasionally have students attempt to refute Hume’s brief essay On Miracles in a six page paper. I warn them that six pages is inadequate to philosophically deal with the issues Hume raises, and indeed many of the papers ultimately become arguments like “Hume is wrong because I believe he is wrong” coupled with a few sniping arguments). Dawkins’ chapter three reads like such a paper – superficially convincing but lacking sufficient depth.

  26. #26 Tyler DiPietro
    December 27, 2006

    John Pieret,

    Your comments are so irrelevant as to be laughable.

    Taking your argument to it’s logical conclusion leads directly to nihilism. There is no methodology out there in any discipline that can recursively prove itself. You can’t logically deduce logical deduction, and you can’t mathematically induce mathematical induction (although proof of the latter is certainly possible). Like it or not, we are always dealing with the pragmatic effectiveness of one method or another.

    I’m not making any claim that science is a better method than theology a priori. I am making an a posteriori argument that theology is devoid of demonstrable claims. You, like many others, prefer to dodge that.

  27. #27 Tyler DiPietro
    December 27, 2006

    PeteK,

    God(s) cannot be defined by natural langauage, since they are supposed to be SUPERnatural, and humans are bound by natural language.

    This is not an argument, it’s an arbitrary semantic construct. Here is a bit of non-rigorous formalization of it in set-theoretic terms: S is the set of all claims supernatural and N is the set of all claims natural, and both are wholly partitioned (i.e., the intersection of the two is empty). Therefore, the claims contained in S cannot be understood as those claims contained in N.

    When you formulate it like that, you realize that given the implicit logic of the argument there are infinitely many claim sets that you can construct that are supposedly beyond natural understanding. Thus the argument is a simple example of question-begging.

  28. #28 Tyler DiPietro
    December 27, 2006

    John,

    Like it or not, there are valid philosophical questions here that Dawkins just hand-waves away. If you find that convincing, fair enough, but realize that most philosophers are unlikely to be convinced by Dawkins’ jeremiad.

    Dawkins’ chapter of the arguments for the existence of God is more primer than anything else, and I agree that if it were aimed at academic audiences it would be considered very weak and non-professional. But Dawkins’ book isn’t aimed at academic audiences, for if it were about 5 people would read it when it came off the shelf.

    I don’t think anyone is claiming that TDS is the be all, end all of debate on religion. In fact, I see it only as a call to arms for atheists to demand that religion either earn the respectability is currently has by default or forfeit it.

  29. #29 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    [R]eligion either earn the respectability is currently has by default or forfeit it.

    And I certainly agree with this.

    It seems to me we have a couple of things going on here.

    Firstly, an argument about the rationality of religion, and secondly, one about the utility of religion. Dawkins breezes through the first one (ignoring valid arguments within PoR) while being very much more concerned (ultimately) with what he sees as the “evil” effects of religion on society, i.e. the second issue. He would have been better off leaving the first issue alone (even as a “primer” … though I will note than freshman non-major philosophy courses deal with the material more fairly than Dawkins does) and concentrating on the second issue.

    [As an aside, Dawkins may want to examine his use of the phrase “evil” in light of Nietzsche’s writings on the term :) ]

  30. #30 peter
    December 27, 2006

    This may be a bit simplistic, and I apologize for stepping into fields for which I am but lightly equipped, but it occurred to me as I was reading TGD that the underlying comparison that Dawkins was making could be seen as Darwin:creationism as Copernicus:epicycles. the back-twisting that was done to rationalize the odd movement of the “heavenly bodies” is roughly similar to the work being done to rationalize “irreducible complexity” and the like.

    From that perspective, does it matter whether or not Dawkins has studied so much theology? I can imagine (probably erroneously) that Copernicus was motivated to find a simpler explanation simply by the volume of disagreement over the nature of planetary movement rather than by trying to refute any particular number of epicycle based hypotheses. In the same way, Dawkins is not trying to refute any particular religion per se, but rather, in taking on the whole concept of religion, is trying to present a simpler reason for things being as they are. His point seems to be that no matter what religion you start out with, you are starting from a flawed basis, and no theological argument (other than proof) is going to budge that. It seemed to me that Dawkins’ hand waving over the supporting ‘proof’ for god was that the proofs were untestable, and if a hypotheses has no supporting observable, repeatable experimental evidence, it cannot progress to ‘theory’ (as I understand the scientific process anyway…) The sheer volume of disagreement of theologians and philosophers about even the nature of the question “Is there a god?” might be ample indication that there is little or no consensus (or evidence, or proof,) as to what is really going on…

    Note: I have not read much of the philosophers you cite either, so some (if not all) of my argument may be disregarded. on a side note, I might recommend to any interested “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong. An interesting, if not terribly unbiased, view of judaism, christianity and islam from their common root as a competing religion to that of ba’al.

    On the bright side, eventually the copernican view won out, and even the young earthers (I think) don’t dispute the location of the earth in the solar system.

    I also note that on pharyngula there were some comments to that post that defend even epicycles.

  31. #31 Friend Fruit
    December 27, 2006

    how come Descartes, Kant and Hume (to name only a few) found it necessary to deal with the argument?

    Why do professors of evolutionary biology find it necessary to deal with Intelligent Design in their classrooms? Is it the merit of the argument, or something else?

  32. #32 John Lynch
    December 27, 2006

    Why do professors of evolutionary biology find it necessary to deal with Intelligent Design in their classrooms? Is it the merit of the argument, or something else?

    And in a single breathtakingly inane comment, you demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge of how, for example, Descartes uses the ontological argument to further his own. Come back when you have some grounding in the history of philosophy.

  33. #33 J. J. Ramsey
    December 27, 2006

    MarkP: “Shouldn’t the burdon of proof be on those that claim theology is worthy of study?”

    One of my professors had said, when describing his policy on cheating, that you don’t have to drink the whole glass of milk to know it’s sour. The flipside of this is that you have to drink some of it.

    When it comes to astrology, you don’t have to know the finer details. However, it would be smart to know why someone reading a horoscope would wrongly think that his/her horoscope fits like a glove. When it comes to theology, one ought to at least be acquainted with the reasons why one should or should not believe in the gods in question.

    BTW, Mr. Lynch, what bits of Chapter 3 in TGD would you single out for criticism? For me, the bit about God’s omniscience and omnipotence being in conflict looked like a variation on the chestnut about God not being able to make a rock that he can’t lift, and the section on the Argument from Scripture was a bit thin and a little off factually. Considering what I had come to expect from Dawkins expounding on religion, though, it wasn’t too bad.

  34. #34 John Farrell
    December 27, 2006

    The ontological argument is deeply confused. Before attempting a refutation, one must first try to figure out what it is saying. It is no surprise that the argument has been interpreted in different ways, and the deep confusion at its core is certainly no evidence of its correctness.

    Friend Fruit, with all due respect, the reason Kant et al may have found Anselm, as you say, “confusing”, is not because it has been interpreted in different ways. As Charles Hartshorne points out in his excellent book, it’s quite simply because no one bothered to read the entire thing. The Proslogion is in three parts. Aquinas, Kant et all, stopped reading after part two. Like John Lynch, I’m not necessarily a fan of apriori arguments for the existence of God, but one thing I did discover, and that’s that “infantile” is not the word any scholar half-aquainted with the complete text would volunteer.

  35. #35 John Pieret
    December 27, 2006

    I am making an a posteriori argument that theology is devoid of demonstrable claims.

    Really? I thought you said it was “formulating beliefs in such an intellectually irresponsible manner that they are nearly guaranteed to be false” not merely that they were undemonstrable.

    Even with that change, question arises: “demonstrable by what method?” If by empiricism, then how are you and Dawkins not engaged in a petitio principii?

  36. #36 Divalent
    December 27, 2006

    John Lynch: “how come Descartes, Kant and Hume (to name only a few) found it necessary to deal with the argument? ”

    Friend Fruit: “Why do professors of evolutionary biology find it necessary to deal with Intelligent Design in their classrooms? Is it the merit of the argument, or something else?”

    John Lynch: “And in a single breathtakingly inane comment, you demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge of how, for example, Descartes uses the ontological argument to further his own. Come back when you have some grounding in the history of philosophy.”

    umm, your observation that “Descartes, Kant and Hume … found it necessary to deal with the argument” was intended as evidence that the argument was meritorious. Fruit Friend’s response seems right on point.

  37. #37 J. J. Ramsey
    December 27, 2006

    Divalent:

    your observation that “Descartes, Kant and Hume … found it necessary to deal with the argument” was intended as evidence that the argument was meritorious.

    No, it was to show that the argument was not trivial. Don’t tell me that you thought Kant agreed with the ontological argument.

  38. #38 Pierce R. Butler
    December 27, 2006

    John Lynch: …philosophers are unlikely to find TGD satisfying.

    Is there any writing that both philosophers and “middlebrows” are likely to find satisfying? Examples, please!

  39. #39 SmellyTerror
    December 27, 2006

    How can you have missed the point so entirely, John?

    The analogy you gave in the OP is not correct. You have a critic of evolution refusing to read the learned books of evolutionary biology – but that’s not the step that Dawkins is fighting on. It’s not what the argument is about.

    Rather, imagine that the critic of evolution is saying “you have no reason to believe there is any such thing as evolution”. Now, if a scientist came along and said “sure, but look at all this great writing we’ve done about it” – well, that would be a wholly unconvincing reply, wouldn’t it? If the only evidence to support the concept of evolution was the deep and impressive conversations we could have about it, then I would hope it would have utterly zero credibility in science, and it would be entirely valid to say so.

    This is *not* about the resultant body of work, however vast and impressive. This is about first principles.

    You can’t defend the existence of god with a body of work that pre-supposes the existence of god, any more than body of work surrounding the theory of evolution is, on its own, a substitute for the observational evidence that is the true underpinning of the science. Imagine evolution had absolutely no experimental or observational evidence, and scientists tried to defend it by pointing to the very big books they’d written on it.

    That’s the argument that’s being fought, here.

  40. #40 Christopher Heard
    December 28, 2006

    In the interests of full disclosure, I should begin by stating that I am a biblical scholar (not a theologian–there’s a difference) and would locate myself somewhere between #2 and #3 (is there a 2.5?) on Dawkins’s spectrum that John references in his post. I am in the process of reading and reviewing The God Delusion but have not finished it. I do see a problem with Dawkins’s apparent lack of reading in theology, but not because of any claim that one needs to read widely or deeply in theology before one may reasonably conclude in favor of atheism. I would neither make nor agree with such a claim. However, I do think it’s important to actually understand an argument if you’re going to critique it, and in The God Delusion, Dawkins goes well beyond attacking the God Hypothesis as he defines it in chapter 2 to taking swipes at specific dogmas. For example, Dawkins quotes two lines from the introduction to the article on “The Existence of God” from the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia and claims that with these two lines the CE “dismisses polytheism and atheism in the same insouciant breath.” He doesn’t bother to note that the article from which he is quoting is actually rather long, and that the 1909 CE had an entirely separate 2,300-word article on atheism (never mind that the 1909 CE is 100 years old and has been twice revised since then with new content). The content of the articles may (or may not) be dreck, but the amount of attention devoted to the topic hardly qualifies as a single “insouciant breath.” Yet Dawkins himself, on the matter of the “substance” or “essence” of the Godhead in classic Trinitarian theology (which, by the way, I personally find pretty bizarre, but that’s not really the point), really does dismiss the idea in just a couple of sentences:

    “Substance? What substance? What exactly do you mean by ‘essence’?” “Very little” seems the only reasonable reply. Yet the controversy split Christendom down the middle for a century, and the emperor Constantine ordered that all copies of Arius’s books should be burned. Splitting Christendom by splitting hairs: such has ever been the way of theology.

    Dawkins doesn’t seem to have bothered to find out what theologians think they’re saying when they talk about the “substance” or “essence” of the Trinity. If you want to say that all talk about the Trinity is irrelevant because God does not exist at all (never mind in “three persons,” whatever that means), then you need not concern yourself with specific Trinitarian dogmas. You need only concern yourself with the broader question as to whether God exists at all (the God Hypothesis proper, as Dawkins defines it in chapter 2). However, if you want to say that talk about the Trinity is fatally flawed because specific terms used in Trinitarian dogma are confused or meaningless, you need to deal with the specific terms and show, not merely posit, that the terms are indeed confused or meaningless. In the abstract, there’s no reason why Dawkins should be required or expected to be well-read in specific dogmas–and few specific dogmas are inherent in the generic God Hypothesis. If he’s going to attack specific dogmas, though, he should show that he actually understands what the proponents of those dogmas mean when they affirm and attempt to explain those dogmas.

  41. #41 John Lynch
    December 28, 2006

    For example, Dawkins quotes two lines from the introduction to the article on “The Existence of God” from the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia … never mind that the 1909 CE is 100 years old and has been twice revised since then with new content

    Yes. The whole book smacks of “Research by Google” – the 1909 edition is freely available online, other editions involve library work. Looking at the footnotes to TGD, I’m guessing Dawkins spent more time online than immersed in paper.

    if you want to say that talk about the Trinity is fatally flawed because specific terms used in Trinitarian dogma are confused or meaningless, you need to deal with the specific terms and show, not merely posit, that the terms are indeed confused or meaningless.

    Agreed. And unfortunately some of Dawkins’ followers seem willing to follow the same modus operandi regarding, for example, the ontological argument (see above).

  42. #42 John Lynch
    December 28, 2006

    Pierce,

    My first suggestion would be Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism. He’s an atheist but deals with the arguments for theism in a far more sophisticated manner than Dawkins does.

  43. #43 SmellyTerror
    December 28, 2006

    I want to stress here that I am not going to discuss the truth of the claim that The God Delusion may exhibit Dawkins’ “lack of reading in theology”.

    Oh really?

    Whether he can – or even should – effectively criticise deeper questions of theology is a differenct issue altogether to whether he can question the fundamental grounding of it all. Which is what the post here is complaining about, isn’t it?

    Similarly, Dawkins needs to first prove the equivalence of theology [X] and “fairyology” [Y]before he can use his stock reply to deflect criticism.

    The theology/fairyology defence relates to the irrellevance of theology if the underlying assumptions are false anyway. It means that theology doesn’t need to be addressed.

    Rather, the criticism we seem to have moved to is that his treatment of the specifics of theology is flawed (after showing that he didn’t need to deal with theology, he went and did it anyway – poorly). Fine, I completly agree, but that’s not what the “flippant” replies were about, and not what the original post is talking about.

  44. #44 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Pierce R. Butler: “Is there any writing that both philosophers and ‘middlebrows’ are likely to find satisfying? Examples, please!”

    The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, by Robin Lane Fox. Ok, this is more of a popular-level biblical scholarship than philosophy per se, but it is a very good example of writing that is readable for the layman, but still reasonably in-depth. Dawkins got a little bit more cred with me when he cited it.

    There’s no reason that in-depth has to mean inaccessible.

  45. #45 Friend Fruit
    December 28, 2006

    This is getting quite tiresome. You’re like a little yapping dog.

    Imagine then, how tiresome it is never to have the challenge addressed by those who continue to post on the topic anyway.

    Read Proslogion (and of course the Reply by the Fool)

    I’ll put them on my list of things to read on a perfect island.

  46. #46 Harold Henderson
    December 28, 2006

    What Christopher said. And thanks to John for focusing the debate above the usual level of shooting creationist fish in a barrel. One thing you learn from working as a journalist: you don’t need advance notification that something is more than you expect, before you go out and ask questions about it. It’s just part of the job if you want your blog post, article, or book to be taken seriously.

  47. #47 Michael Kremer
    December 28, 2006

    Christopher,

    Thanks for a rational comment.

    I look forward to reading your review — where and when will it appear?

  48. #48 Abigail
    December 28, 2006

    I think the teleological argument is suitably destroyed in Dennet’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. (I haven’t read his most recent book yet.)

    I love Dawkins, but The God Delusion is quite clearly not going to convince many people.

    Those of us who teach history of philosophy appeal to the principle of charity. Simply put, it asks students to realize that though an argument may look easy to refute (or just plain wrong), there is probably something philosophically worthwhile contained within. So, applying the principle here, I will claim that any confusion perhaps comes from your reading rather than Anselm.

    You’re admitting here that you give theological arguments presupposed importance. Why? I can’t think of anything except the Argument from Authority.

    This discussion is sharing traits with arguments with postmodernists I’ve witnessed. Basically, instead of presenting the philosophical arguments themselves, and attempting to explain the ideas, its simply a list of “read these fifteen authors, and get back to me.” If scientists can make quantum physics and genetics understandable to the lay reader, why can’t theologians make their philosophical arguments so?

    I used to assume philosophy was a bunch of hand-waving rubbish, but reading Dennet I’ve gained new respect for it. It can be a very powerful tool for making complex ideas understandable. But I’m inclined to believe these ideas must be grounded in reality. I think philosophy is a very strong tool.

    But philosophy for its own sake seems pointless, and thats all most theology seems to be. There’s no evidence to be examined; it all just goes around in circles. X says this, Y says that, Z says X said that but he’s wrong because Y said that… and so on.

  49. #49 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Lynch to Friend Fruit: “Those of us who teach history of philosophy appeal to the principle of charity. Simply put, it asks students to realize that though an argument may look easy to refute (or just plain wrong), there is probably something philosophically worthwhile contained within. So, applying the principle here, I will claim that any confusion perhaps comes from your reading rather than Anselm.”

    Abigail: “You’re admitting here that you give theological arguments presupposed importance. Why? I can’t think of anything except the Argument from Authority.”

    Read more carefully. Lynch is somewhat backhandedly applying the principle of charity to Friend Fruit.

  50. #50 John Lynch
    December 28, 2006

    I said: Read Proslogion (and of course the Reply by the Fool)

    Fruit said: I’ll put them on my list of things to read on a perfect island.

    That more or less sums it up, doesn’t it? Why read the original argument when you can have Dawkins interpret it for you.

  51. #51 MJ Memphis
    December 28, 2006

    By my definition, any island containing a book of apologetics is not a perfect island.

  52. #52 Abigail
    December 28, 2006

    JJ, I wasn’t responding to his actual point, I was responding to this “principle of charity” idea. Lynch assumes that FF doesn’t understand the argument. Maybe FF does, maybe he doesn’t. To decide, you should discuss the actual argument.

    The principle of charity, as I see it (I admit almost no knowledge of philosophy), says that FF should find the best, clearest explanation of Anselm’s arguments. Instead of saying “You must not understand the argument”, why not ask “How do you interpret his argument?”, explain your own interpretation, and go from there? Its entirely possible Anselm was just incoherent. The very fact that apparently few people have “gotten” what he meant is evidence for that fact.

  53. #53 Pierce R. Butler
    December 28, 2006

    John Lynch: My first suggestion would be Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism.

    I haven’t read this, but from seeing it dscussed (usually in a Dawkins-related context) it strikes me as serious slogging, particularly for those of us not fully at home in philosophy jargon. As Dawkins explicitly steers people towards Mackie in The God Delusion, does this perhaps partially excuse him from reciting Mackie’s arguments?

    In pondering my own question again, as to where the sets of middlebrow (defined roughly as bestseller-reading) lit and “sophisticated” philosopher-satisfying books might overlap (and bearing in mind that neither of these categories finds me visiting regularly), the only specimen that comes to mind is Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – which I suspect most philosophers would concede to be worthy only in that it might lead a few readers to “the real stuff” rather than for its own merits.

    In short, aren’t you asking Dawkins to write a different book, for a different audience?

    Again: what, if anything (on any topic), has ever been published that might satisfy both philosophisticates and Grisham-philes?

    J. J. Ramsey: The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, by Robin Lane Fox.

    As it happens, I just read that in October, with very mixed reactions. While I did pick up some things I hadn’t known before, I also noted that Fox screwed the pooch in certain regards, particularly regarding the Book of Esther (he missed the Babylonian origin of this entirely) and the Gospel of John (most scholars seem to regard this as the least historically-reliable gospel, not the most). He also seems oblivious to important findings from archeology (see, e.g., Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts and from studies of Greek and Egyptian influences on biblical texts (try Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth). Both of these titles, fwiw, are layperson-friendly but very well-informed and non-theistic.

  54. #54 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Abigail: “Instead of saying ‘You must not understand the argument’, why not ask “How do you interpret his argument?”

    Because Friend Fruit has showed that he was ignorant of the argument. He had implied that people had problems with the ontological argument because it was ambiguous and hard to parse, which is not the real problem with it.

    BTW, I looked again at Dawkins take on the ontological argument. What’s interesting is that he seems to have misread Kant’s “existence is not a predicate” argument, and instead attributed to him an argument different from Kant’s and arguably weaker, which is that existence is not a kind of perfection.

  55. #55 Larry Moran
    December 28, 2006

    Could someone please describe those sophisticated arguments for the existence of God that Dawkins omits? I’m not talking about discussions of the Trinity (i.e. whether the Emperor’s cloak has fine gold filigree or not). I’m talking about genuine arguments that address the issue of whether God is a delusion.

    Also, for all those people who criticize Dawkins for not being well-versed in Christian theology, do they claim to be well-versed in the philosophy of all other religions or are those rejected out-of-hand? In other words, do they hold themselves to the same standards that they apply to atheists?

    Similarly, have all Christian apologists immersed themselves completely in atheist–or Christian, for that matter– literature before they criticize atheism? I don’t see it in books by Ken Miller and Francis Collins but surprisingly, they seem to escape criticism. Isn’t that strange?

    Perhaps some of you could point me to your devestating critiques of Miller and Collins?

  56. #56 J Daley
    December 28, 2006

    Similarly, Dawkins needs to first prove the equivalence of theology [X] and “fairyology” [Y] before he can use his stock reply to deflect criticism.Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing

    It strikes me that from a purely scientific standpoint – that is, testable evidence etc – fairyology and theology are equivalent. Regardless of what detached philosophers or detached folklore anthropologists have to say about either, there remains no testable, scientific evidence for the existence of fairies or gods.

    Isn’t this Dawkins’ point as well?

  57. #57 Christopher Heard
    December 28, 2006

    J. Daley commented:

    It strikes me that from a purely scientific standpoint – that is, testable evidence etc – fairyology and theology are equivalent. Regardless of what detached philosophers or detached folklore anthropologists have to say about either, there remains no testable, scientific evidence for the existence of fairies or gods.

    Isn’t this Dawkins’ point as well?

    I’m not sure that this is Dawkins’s point–or, at least, it shouldn’t be, if he’s being consistent. In The God Delusion, Dawkins explicitly says in chapter 2 (several times) that the existence of God is a scientific question. I think he should have chosen the word empirical rather than scientific, but that’s another matter. Dawkins seems to want to say that science can in fact “test,” or at least assess probabilities for and against, the God Hypothesis.

  58. #58 J. J. Ramsey
    December 28, 2006

    Larry Moran: “Could someone please describe those sophisticated arguments for the existence of God that Dawkins omits?”

    For the existence of God, I’d say that Dawkins has covered the bases. How well he has covered the bases is another story.

    One thing which was not covered well was the reasons why fideism is wrong. Strictly speaking, this does not pertain to the existence of God, but rather more generally to the rationality of believing in God. However, many of the more sophisticated theists are at least de facto fideists, and will happily believe by faith that Jesus has risen even if they also believe the body had rotted. This makes no sense to me, but it’s a real phenomenon, and while Dawkins has here and there in TGD indicated that he believes fideism to be nonsense, he never quite explained why he believed so.

    Larry Moran: “Also, for all those people who criticize Dawkins for not being well-versed in Christian theology, do they claim to be well-versed in the philosophy of all other religions”

    Most of us here probably don’t, but most of us aren’t writing a book on the subject, nor are we making comment on the finer points of other religions. If we were making comment on the finer details, as Dawkins did on occasion with Christianity, then we had better be well-versed.

    Larry Moran: “Similarly, have all Christian apologists immersed themselves completely in atheist–or Christian, for that matter– literature before they criticize atheism? I don’t see it in books by Ken Miller and Francis Collins but surprisingly, they seem to escape criticism.”

    Escape criticism from who? Both Miller and Collins have been criticized for their theistic views, by both PZ Meyers and you. (Mind you, I criticized your review of Collins, but that is because you snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by resorting to caricaturing his mental state, even when you were so close to a takedown of his actual arguments, which were indeed bad.)

  59. #59 Russell Blackford
    December 28, 2006

    Well, I’m sure Dawkins is well aware of the difference between a theologian and a philosopher of religion (though the two sets clearly overlap). The God Delusion shows that he has a good working familiarity with philosophy of religion and a healthy respect for such philosophers of religion as David Hume and J.L. Mackie.

    Some of the criticism he has been copping has been over not showing the same familiarity with more strictly theological writings on issues other than philosophical argument about the existence of an orthodox God. That criticism might have a point if Dawkins had been saying that all theology is dangerous or shoddy, or something of the sort, but that is not how he argues the case.

    In all the circumstances, I think that his hobgoblinology analogy is quite apt. Hobgoblinology may be a fascinating field of study, and the folklorists who work in this field may have gained some socially useful insights. I’d love to study their work if I had time, but I don’t need to do so to be sure that there are no actual hobgoblins.

  60. #60 Christopher Heard
    December 29, 2006

    Michael Kremer wrote:

    I look forward to reading your review — where and when will it appear?

    Michael, it will be serially posted on my blog, chapter by chapter.

    Russell Blackford wrote:

    In all the circumstances, I think that his hobgoblinology analogy is quite apt. Hobgoblinology may be a fascinating field of study, and the folklorists who work in this field may have gained some socially useful insights. I’d love to study their work if I had time, but I don’t need to do so to be sure that there are no actual hobgoblins.

    Russell, the last clause of the quotation above is undoubtedly true. However, if you were to criticize specific tenets of this or that debated aspect of hobgoblinology, you really ought to be familiar with the claims and arguments on all sides of that particular dispute–which would require you to read widely and/or deeply in hobgoblinology.

  61. #61 SmellyTerror
    December 29, 2006

    Christopher: I think we can all (?) safely agree that when Dawkins goes off to criticise specifics of theology, he makes himself look a bit of an ass thanks to a fairly poor understanding of the subject.

    But that’s not what the original post is about. The line of Russell’s that you agree with directly contradicts what John said in the original post.

    To use the Courtier’s Reply: Dawkins, after claiming that the Emperor has no clothes, then goes on to discuss the foolishness of lace and ruffles, and the inconsistency of wearing plaid with stripes. It is apparent to all and sundry that his grasp of Imperial fashion is pretty damn poor, and he’s called out on it.

    Th which he responds: “Well, he’s got no clothes anyway, so it doesn’t matter”.

    Does he look a little foolish? Yes. But the main argument stands.

  62. #62 Russell Blackford
    December 29, 2006

    Maybe I need to read the book again, but I actually remember little discussion of specifics of theology. Maybe it’s there somewhere and I took little notice of it because it seemed peripheral. All granted.

    But I largely had in mind Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion, which basically castigates the book for not taking into account a theological position that Eagleton describes at length, and which he attributes to “millions” of people. In essence, the complaint is not that Dawkins somehow gets this sophisticated, perhaps humane – but I must say rather fuzzy – position wrong. It is more that he ignores it.

    Eagleton himself concludes as follows:

    “The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals. As far as such outrages go, however, The God Delusion does a very fine job indeed. The two most deadly texts on the planet, apart perhaps from Donald Rumsfeld’s emails, are the Bible and the Koran; and Dawkins, as one the best of liberals as well as one of the worst, has done a magnificent job over the years of speaking out against that particular strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism, whether Texan or Taliban. He is right to repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people’s. In its admirably angry way, The God Delusion argues that the status of atheists in the US is nowadays about the same as that of gays fifty years ago. The book is full of vivid vignettes of the sheer horrors of religion, fundamentalist or otherwise. Nearly 50 per cent of Americans believe that a glorious Second Coming is imminent, and some of them are doing their damnedest to bring it about. But Dawkins could have told us all this without being so appallingly bitchy about those of his scientific colleagues who disagree with him, and without being so theologically illiterate. He might also have avoided being the second most frequently mentioned individual in his book – if you count God as an individual.”

    It seems to me that everything apart from the first sentence here, and the last couple (all of which I’ve given for context) is pretty much right. For some reason – perhaps revealed in the last couple of sentences – Eagleton thought it important to concentrate on Dawkins’ alleged crudity in not acknowledging the (or “a”?) position of super-sophisticated, theologically well-trained believers, but I see nothing in the position he describes as going anywhere near to saving religious belief from the sorts of attack on its foundations which Dawkins develops (quite well), nor anything that gainsays the necessity for someone having the guts to come out and say (and say very well indeed!) that Christian fundamentalism – which is far more popular and powerful than the theological position Eagleton describes – needs to be denounced and given no respect.

    It was more important for someone to write a book attacking the targets that Dawkins does attack successfully, even on Eagleton’s own admission. Even if I had Eagleton’s views on every single point (and I actually think he is wrong about the prevalence of the view he describes), I would have emphasised what is good about the book rather than adopting the tone that he actually did.

    It really looks as if Eagleton has attempted a hatchet job out of irritation over relatively minor points (such as Dawkins’ allegedly making much mention of himself, something that I didn’t even notice except that I sort of raalised he was drawing a lot on his life in a journalistically useful way). Such a review goes nowhere near to shooting down the value of the book, but the mythology will be that Eagleton has somehow refuted Dawkins by pointing out his “theological ignorance”. This claim won’t sustain intellectual scrutiny, but it’s the impression that seems to be getting around. In my view, Eagleton’s review should have been weighted very differently, even if he was correct on every individual point.

  63. #63 Pierce R. Butler
    December 29, 2006

    There’s an interesting specimen of Dawkins-bashing at http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/the_godless_fundamentalist/ .

    Written by former Alternet blogger Lakshmi Chaudry, much of it is the standard ad hominem distortion: …bullying, berating and heckling the devoutly faithful he encounters along his way.; some of it has a grain of truth: …that crusade does give aid and comfort to fundamentalists everywhere by affirming their view of faith: one, science and religion are mutually opposed and exclusive worldviews…; all of it carries an undertone of personal hurt and emotionality.

    Perhaps most telling is its conclusion: The antidote to fanaticism is not a new puritanism of reason, but the contradictory, ambiguous, compromised reality of ordinary human experience. We (the human race) may be making some progress when the “alternative” to atheism is considered to be, in so many words, humanism.

  64. #64 Daryl McCullough
    December 29, 2006

    For those who want to look at the original (in translation), Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God is found here.

    I just read it, and on my first reading, I didn’t find anything that went beyond the various paraphrases and simplifications I’ve heard through the years. The gist of it is still that “that being greater than which cannot be imagined” must necessarily exist:

    Thus even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought. And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater.

    It seems to me that he is introducing a concept: “That being greater than which canot be imagined.” The question is whether the concept has any referent—that is, does it refer to anything that actually exists?

    Anselm seems to be taking the original definition

    P(x) == nothing can be imagined that is greater than x

    and splitting it into two subcases:

    Q(x) == P(x) and x exists (in the real world, as
    opposed to just in the imagination)

    R(x) == P(x) and x does not exist (that is, it exists
    only in the imagination).

    At this point, Anselm argues that we can imagine something satisfying Q, and that anything that satisfies Q must be greater than something that merely satisfies R. So something that merely satisfies R is not greater than anything that can be imagined.

    So, Anselm is actually arguing that

    P(x) implies Q(x)

    If anything satisfies P, then it must necessarily exist.

    Anselm claims that of course God exists, if only in our imagination, so there is something satisfying P(x), and by our implication, it also exists.

    To me, what is wrong with this argument is that Anselm is failing to distinguish two different claims:

    1. We can imagine that something exists satisfying P.
    2. Something exists in our imagination that does satisfy P.

    These are not the same thing. We can imagine that God might exist, but that doesn’t mean that God exists in our imagination. The concept of God might exist in our imagination, but the concept doesn’t have the properties of being God. We have no reason to believe that anything exists (even in our imaginations) satisfying Anselm’s definition of God.

  65. #65 Russell Blackford
    December 29, 2006

    I hope Graham Oppy is going to buy me a drink because I’ve been plugging him a lot lately while I’ve been involved in this debate about The God Delusion. Anyway, for those who want it, he has an exhaustive discussion of the ontological argument readily available on-line in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    By comparison with the work of professional philosophers of religion, Dawkins does a fairly coarse-grained job, but (1) he’s writing for a popular (if educated) audience, not trying to make headway in a debate among professional philosophers, and (2) he usually gets the essentials right.

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