Sunday, May 20, 2007


The God Delusion in Paperback - Dawkins responds to objections from atheists

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is now available in paperback. I bought my copy from a branch of Waterstone's, where it was advertised on a board outside as if it were a Playstation 3 or something, and where it was selling for half-price on the summer best-seller's shelf along with Jilly Cooper! The paperback contains a new preface in which Dawkins responds to objections from fellow atheists. This preface was reproduced recently by The Times newspaper. I will interject my comments below...

May 12, 2007

How dare you call me a fundamentalist

The right to criticise ‘faith-heads’

The hardback God Delusion was hailed as the surprise bestseller of 2006. While it was warmly received by most of the 1,000-plus individuals who volunteered personal reviews to Amazon, paid print reviewers gave less uniform approval. Cynics might invoke unimaginative literary editors: it has “God” in the title, so send it to a known faith-head. [Indeed, Dawkins himself made this suggestion in an interview with New Humanist] That would be too cynical, however. Several critics began with the ominous phrase, “I’m an atheist, BUT . . .” So here is my brief rebuttal to criticisms originating from this “belief in belief” school.

I’m an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your shrill, strident, intemperate, intolerant, ranting language.

Objectively judged, the language of The God Delusion is less shrill than we regularly hear from political commentators or from theatre, art, book or restaurant critics. The illusion of intemperance flows from the unspoken convention that faith is uniquely privileged: off limits to attack. In a criticism of religion, even clarity ceases to be a virtue and begins to sound like aggressive hostility.

A politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a soberly reasoning critic of religion employ what would, in other contexts, sound merely direct or forthright, and it will be described as a shrill rant. My nearest approach to stridency was my account of God as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction”. I don’t know how well I succeeded, but my intention was closer to humorous broadside than shrill polemic. Restaurant critics are notoriously scathing, but are seldom dismissed as shrill or intolerant. A restaurant might seem a trivial target compared to God. But restaurateurs and chefs have feelings to hurt and livelihoods to lose, whereas “blasphemy is a victimless crime”. [Of course it is not. For one thing, the adherents of a religion have feelings to hurt just as much as chefs - or chef's friends and family's - do. For another, Dawkins' statement assumes that atheism is true. If God exists, then blasphemy is far from 'a victimless crime'. Judging by his reviewers, Dawkins got closer to shrill polemic than humour. Moreover, whilst a critic may attack a work of art or a meal, Dawkins doesn't merely attack ideas - he attack people, ad hominem.]

You can’t criticise religion without detailed study of learned books on theology.

If, as one self-consciously intellectual critic wished, I had expounded the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope (as he vainly hoped I would), my book would have been more than a surprise bestseller, it would have been a miracle. [Whether or not a given course of action would get in the way of being a best seller is irrelevant.] I would happily have forgone bestsellerdom had there been the slightest hope of Duns Scotus illuminating my central question: does God exist? But I need engage only those few theologians who at least acknowledge the question, rather than blithely assuming God as a premise. [But Scotus did 'acknowledge the question' - propounding a cosmological argument for God's existence - as Dawkins would have known if he had engaged with Scotus!] For the rest, I cannot better the “Courtier’s Reply” on P. Z. Myers’s splendid Pharyngula website, where he takes me to task for outing the Emperor’s nudity while ignoring learned tomes on ruffled pantaloons and silken underwear. Most Christians happily disavow Baal and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without reference to monographs of Baalian exegesis or Pastafarian theology. [But there are no monographs of Baalian exegesis; or Pastafarian theology, the latter being a wholly made-up religion desiged to make a point in the debate about intellgient design theory. There are, however, many books by religious believers concerned to understand and critically engage with the worldviews of other religious and non-religious beliefs. There are acadamic books by Christians engaging with Islam, with Paganism, with cults, with humanism, etc. Take Dawkins' own naturalistic worldview. It certainly has educated proponents of the highest academic calibre. And one can read books by Christians that engage at the highest level with the thought of such proponents. Why won't Dawkins repay the compliment? Several answers suggest themselves.]

You ignore the best of religion and instead . . . “you attack crude, rabble-rousing chancers like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than facing up to sophisticated theologians like Bonhoeffer or the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

If subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that decent, understated religion is numerically negligible. Most believers echo Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men. The world needs to face them, and my book does so. [I'd like to see the evidential basis of Dawkins' remarks about the 'numerically negligible' status of 'decent... religion.' The trouble is, Dawkins seems to see no middle ground between Fundamentalism and Liberal theology. For example, he confuses evangelical Christianity with Fundamentaslist Christianity. They are not the same thing; or at least they are not in Britian. If Dawkins wants to write a polemic against fundamentalism, that's fine by me - but his polemic is not so tightly prescribed. After all, Dawkins spends much of his time attacking belief in God, a belief shared by fundamentalists and evangelicals, and even by some liberals I believe! So what Dawkins appears to give with the one hand, talking about 'decent religion', he takes away with the other. Moreover, in attacking religious belief Dawkins focuses his attention upon fundamentalists as if they represented all religious believers, or at least all believers besides those so liberal that they are actually agnostics if not atheists. Fundemantalists may need confrunting, but you can't confrunt fundamentalists and assume that you have thereby confrunted all the members of the Evangelical Alliance...]

You’re preaching to the choir. What’s the point?

The nonbelieving choir is much bigger than people think, and it desperately needs encouragement to come out. Judging by the thanks that showered my North American book tour, my articulation of hitherto closeted thoughts is heard as a kind of liberation. The atheist choir, moreover, is too ready to observe society’s convention of according special respect to faith, and it goes along with society’s lamentable habit of labelling small children with the religion of their parents. You’d never speak of a “Marxist child” or a “monetarist child”. So why give religion a free pass to indoctrinate helpless children? There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents. [I basically agree with Dawkins here. Children should not have labells thrust upon them in ways that might limit their freedom to choose their worldview and religious beliefs. 'A child of atheist parents' is much better than 'an atheist' if the child has not decided to be an atheist. If the child has decided to be an atheist, then they should be accorded the respect that will call them an atheist. Likewise for Christians.]

You’re as much a fundamentalist as those you criticise.

No, please, do not mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Passion for passion, an evangelical Christian and I may be evenly matched. But we are not equally fundamentalist. The true scientist, however passionately he may “believe”, in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will. [Dawkins says here that evidence would make him change his mind - but when one reads the arguments he uses in his books one discovers that his belief in evolution has much more to do with deductions made from a naturalistic worldview than it has to do with inferences from evidence. On this basis, I think it is at least an open question whether or not Dawkins would ever allow evidence to convince him that evolution was false. The term 'fundamentalist' has other connotations besides a tendancy to allow a priori philosophical dogma to trump a posteriori empirical evidence. For example, it can mean a narrow minded failure to engage with alternative beliefs at anything more than a superficial level; it can mean a lack of scholarly decorum in polemics, and so forth. On such counts one can see why Dawkins might merit the appelation.]

I’m an atheist, but people need religion.

“What are you going to put in its place? How are you going to fill the need, or comfort the bereaved?”

What patronising condescension! “You and I are too intelligent and well educated to need religion. But ordinary people, hoi polloi, Orwellian proles, Huxleian Deltas and Epsilons need religion.” [But is it true?] In any case, the universe doesn’t owe us comfort, and the fact that a belief is comforting doesn’t make it true [or false]. The God Delusion doesn’t set out to be comforting, but at least it is not a placebo. I am pleased that the opening lines of my own Unweaving the Rainbow have been used to give solace at funerals.

When asked whether she believed in God, Golda Meir said: “I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God.” I recently heard a prize specimen of I’m-an-atheist-buttery quote this and then substitute his own version: “I believe in people, and people believe in God.” I too believe in people. I believe that, given proper encouragement to think, and given the best information available, people will courageously cast aside celestial comfort blankets and lead intellectually fulfilled, emotionally liberated lives.

[I personally think it is very unfortunate that Dawkins is convinced that to live an intellectually fulfilled and emotionally liberated life one must cast aside what he sees as the celestial comfort blanket of belief in God. As I argue in my book 'I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism', I think this is a false dilemma, and indeed the only way to coherently live a life of intellectual fulfillment and emotional liberation is to acknowledge the existence of a deity who grounds the objective worth, intelligibility and purpose of one's existence.]

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