Daily Archives: January 9, 2008

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Stop it, it’s silly

Okay, this is getting silly. I hadn’t meant to go quite so slowly in my reading of The God Delusion, or write quite so many words. The trouble is, I disagree with just about everything that Dawkins says – and I’ve not been very good at letting the issues go by. This has been very much a ‘spare moments’ pass-time, so it’s not like it’s been eating into time I’d have spent on anything other than, say, Scrabulous and Puzzle Bee on Facebook, but still. So I hereby promise to speed up – and will begin with a race through my main remaining issues with Chapter 2.

Ch.2, The God Hypothesis

Dawkins dismisses feminist theology in a sideswipe: ‘What is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male?’ (57). Nothing, on the failed botanist model of theology. Rather a lot, if you’re actually interested in the lives lived by believing people.

Dawkins finishes the section on Polytheism with a fairly central claim about his subject-matter – the claim that his target is ‘God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural’. I will come back to that one – and say a bit more about my understanding of the ‘God hypothesis’.

He then moves on to a section on Monotheism, giving a whirlwind tour of Judaism, Christianity (founded by Paul of Tarsus, he tells us) and Islam – a page-long description (58) written (successfully) to provoke. He doesn’t care about the details, and doesn’t mind if we know it. He trots on to Deism (59), dishing out a standard caricature. Dawkins’ case does not rest on his having understood these movements, or represented them fairly, or done them any kind of justice. Which is just as well.

There follows a section on ‘Secularism, the Founding Fathers, and the religion of America’. I have fewer criticisms of this section, partly because I (strongly) agree that some prominent Christian ways of mythologising of American origins seriously need puncturing. But I don’t think Dawkins provides any interesting intellectual tools for analysing that situation, and I think he gets caught up on problematic irrelevances, like trying to show that Jefferson was on his side, really. When tells us (60) of the Founding Fathers of the Republic that ‘their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours’, I can’t help thinking that if any one of his opponents were to try a similar form of argument in reverse, Dawkins would eat him for breakfast for spouting meaningless, self-serving tosh.

There are some asides about English Anglicanism on pp.62-3 which it would be fun to pursue – because Dawkins clearly thinks that middle-of-the-road Anglicanism isn’t real religion. As a middle-of-the-road Anglican I think that might be worth discussing at greater length – but another time, maybe. For anyone who wants to think this through anyway, go away and read Timothy Jenkins, Religion in English Everyday Life.

Then there’s quite a bit on the plight of atheists in the U.S., and a question about what they might achieve if they got organised (like, say, the Jewish lobby). That’s something Dawkins has since pursued further, and I wish him luck (truly: I think America could do with a strong atheist lobby). I don’t think he has understood the hill he has to climb, though. If he wants to rival the power of the Jewish lobby, it is not simply a matter of organizing atheists; it is about giving them a sense of communal identity: welding them into a people embodying a shared tradition. And yes, even though it smacks of the ‘proof by prominent scientists’ that Dawkins rightly critiques later on (i.e., the attempts to argue for Christianity by claiming prominent scientists of the past as Christians), his somewhat dubious attempt to assemble a cast of atheist heroes might have to be part of such a quest.

He also passes on anecdotal evidence of the mistreatment of atheists in the U.S. I haven’t checked, but I have no reason to doubt the stories they pass on. They do illustrate well (a) just how violently unpleasant some religious people can be; and (b) how ready religious people can be to mythologise themselves as persecuted minority, even when they hold the power. As I say, there is interesting work to be done – and, in other quarters, interesting work being done – on examining and understanding the religious mythology of the United States.

The section on Agnosticism didn’t really excite me. I had been planning a post on his clarification of the difference between ‘Temporary Agnosticism in Practice’ and ‘Permanent Agnosticism in Principle’, because it does show again that, for him, the God Hypothesis either makes the kind of claim which can be analysed as possessing, on current evidence, some degree or other of probability – or it is meaningless. ‘Either [God] exists or he doesn’t. It’s a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability’ (70). As will, I hope, continue to become clear, I don’t think that’s right at all.

On pp.74-75, he quotes the famous Bertrand Russell canard about celestial teapots. The claim that you can’t disprove the existence of God is compared to the claim that you can’t disprove the existence of a china teapot existing between Earth and Mars. Russell could be an ass from time to time, and this was one of those times. Quick exercise for the reader. Can anyone spot some salient differences between the kind of claim involved in talk about God, and the kind involved in talk about china teapots? Go on, have a try.

I think I will com back to the stuff (77) about ‘Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster’ – Christians, say, are atheists with respect to all these, and Dawkins simply goes one God further. That’s an interestingly misleading claim, so I’ll give it a separate post.

I’ll also come back to the stuff (77-85) on Non-Overlapping Magisteria – and Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that science can’t adjudicate on the God question – and Dawkins sceptical response. Unlike Dawkins (and although I don’t quite agree with Gould), I think it probably is worth more than ‘a moment’s thought’ (79). And that will include Dawkins’ depressing comments (again) about theologians and their lack of real subject matter. (And we’ll also touch on Dawkins’ avowed willingness to make decisions about other people’s lives on the basis of complete ignorance. Ho hum.)

In fact, from about that point on – p.77 – a set of issues crop up which I’d like to take a bit further: Teleology, moral philosophy, miracles, the Virgin Birth – and Richard Swinburne. So I’ll probably slow down again, even though the bit I’m itching to get onto is in Chapter 3, and the games Dawkins plays with Aquinas and Anselm…