Daily Archives: September 18, 2007

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Respecting religion

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Having in the first section of the chapter established that his target is supernatural religion, Dawkins’ second section explains that he does not believe that the religious views he will be examining should be handled with kid gloves: they can and should be examined and criticised as thoroughly and with as hard a head as one would use to examine any other kind of claim. He denies that

religious faith … should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.

I’m broadly in agreement, here. Paradoxically, I think that the kid-glove approach to religion is actually part of its marginalisation in modernity. Religion has largely been relegated from the sphere of public argument to an inviolable private sphere, and even when it reemerges into public still smells of the sanctuary of the private.

However, I do have three comments.

The first is simply that ordinary human respect suggests to me that I should tread more carefully when criticising ideas that are more closely bound up with some person or community’s sense of identity than I should when criticising things that are, for them, peripheral. That isn’t to say that I shouldn’t criticise those ideas, if there is pressing reason to do so – if, for instance, I think those ideas are doing harm. But it would be sensible to recognise that in discussing these ideas I can’t avoid discussing the people who hold them.

The second is that this is going to be even more sensitive when I am discussing ideas central to the identity of some group that perceives itself to be marginalised, under threat, attacked on all sides. There will be no way that what I say about the ideas will not also be taken to be a comment on the group’s right to exist as a distinctive group with a particular cultural identity and heritage. So if, say, I discuss the nature of Islam in Britain today, I will tread particularly carefully – not because there is some mystic curtain of ‘respect’ that I dare not penetrate, but because I hope I’m not stupid enough to think that my words are uttered in a vacuum. Incidentally, I’m not saying that I’ll keep quiet because of some perceived threat of violent reaction. I’m saying that my words about ideas cannot avoid being political words: they cannot avoid being commentary on the contested rights, relationships, and identities of groups in my society – and I should therefore make sure that I tread as carefully as I would if I were making direct political statements.

The third is that our society has developed contexts, procedures and ‘etiquette’ for handling some forms of political disagreement. We know, on the whole, what can and cannot be said; we have arenas for conversation and argument. That we have such things is by no means automatic: it has taken time (and trouble) to evolve. For various reasons (the privatisation of religion is one of them) we have not evolved similar contexts for discussion of religious ideas. Dawkins is right to identify this as a problem, and like him, I do not want religion to hide behind an impenetrable wall that makes discussion impossible. Neverthereless, when we do debate religion in public, and when we do realise that what we are saying cannot avoid being political contentious in a broad sense, we will also have to recognise that building a context in which all this can be discussed productively is going to take a long time, and a lot of patient labour.

Interim Verdict: On The God Delusion, Ch.1, §1.

So, where have we got too so far?

The key element of this first section is Dawkins distinction between supernaturalist and Einsteinian religion, or between theism and atheism. My interim finding – a proposal to be tested by the rest of the book – is that this is a piece of bad thinking. I don’t mean simply that it is a bit heavy-handed, that his presentation of it involves the misrepresentation of details, flattences nuances, tramples over fine distinctions. I mean something stronger than that.

This distinction is presented in this section (and in what I have read so far of what follows) as a basic framework, a grid for organising Dawkins arguments. It is not so much something that he argues for, as the setting out of the terms in which he will make his arguments. It is, one might say, the conceptuality he offers for making sense of religion, and he seems to think that it offers a pretty obvious, common-sense framework. However, such frameworks are worthwhile precisely to the extent that they enable perceptive judgment. They are worthwhile to the extent that they go beyond superficial initial plausibility, beyond ‘common sense’, and enable intellectual work to be done, making possible good description, good explanation, further distinctions. They are worthwhile to the extent that they promote the labour of understanding. (And, yes, my echoes of some descriptions of scientific method – vageuly Kuhnian – are deliberate.) And my argument is that Dawkins’ basic framework, which organises a good deal of what he has to say, is not worthwhile. It is a piece of bad thinking.

The minor side of this is what I believe to be Dawkins’ misinterpretation of Einstein. I have done a small amount of digging (not a great deal, so I still don’t want to put too much weight on this side), and what I have found so far seems to confirm my suspicion that Dawkins has not quite got Einstein right. I have perhaps made too much of this, and I don’t mention it again in order to score points (as it were, on the level of pointing out a grammatical mistake or an incorrect date). I mention it again because I think it illustrates the point I am trying to make. I think that the basic distinction that structures Dawkins’ ways of thinking prevents him from understanding Einstein. This is one of the examples which shows Dawkins’ distinction to be bad thinking. The way he thinks this whole thing called religion works means that he is bound to see Einstein as on his side rather than on the supernaturalist side, and so he is bound to think that anything in Einstein’s comments that doesn’t sound like vanilla naturalism must be purely metaphorical and poetic, a fluffy coating for an insight that is best expressed quite otherwise. His key distinction has deadened his thought.

I may be wrong about Einstein (though I must admit that I would like to see what Dawkins would make of Spinoza, if he looked more closely). I feel myself on firmer ground when I leap to the other side of Dawkins divide. I take it that the worth of Dawkins distinction will show itself – will consist in – the ‘success’ of descriptions of religion that take this opposition as central or basic (where ‘success’ means succes at organising detail, at putting together multiple examples that would otherwise seem disparate, at uncovering deep patterns of thought and behaviour that would otherwise remain hard to name). And that is simply not the case. My strategy in most of my posts so far has been to point to the fact that conversations between positions that straddle Dawkins great divide are possible within a recognisably religious/theological tradition – within a mainstream monotheistic, Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition. Or rather, I have hazarded a description of forms of religious thinking that seem to me to fall more on the Dawkinsian than the supernaturalist side of his great divide, without denying for a moment that those forms are theologically debatable, and stand in some tension with other, less Dawkinsian forms of religious thinking – but have offered those descriptions precisely in order to suggest that this tension, this debate, is one that is perfectly legitimate and intelligible within monotheistic religion. If I am right about that, it calls into question the success of Dawkins’ central distinction at capturing what is going on in monothesitic religion. It suggests, again, that his distinction, far from allowing him to make good sense of what he sees, blinds him to it: it is a piece of bad thinking.

(I have, by the way, a couple of subsidiary theses that I want to test against the rest of the book. One of them I have sketched already: I think that the initial plausibility of Dawkins distinction is in part due to a deeper rift in Western culture, a dissocation of sensibility, between (to put it crudely) head and heart. That is a much deeper, older, and more various split than the split between atheism and theism or between science and religion – and it has been as much a split within religion as a split between religion and something else. The other subsidiary thesis is that Dawkins more-or-less identifies theistic religion and creationism – or at least takes creationism as the defining case of religion. If that is the case (and I am merely suggesting it here) then Dawkins is taking as his central example of religion a fundamentally modern phenomenon that represents a drastic thinning and distorting of religious thought and language. But that’s an argument for another time.)

There is another interim verdict to set out at this point, however. It seems to me that for Dawkins religion has fundamentally to do with assent to various propositions. Religions are collections of people who hold certain ideas, who cleave to certain truths. This will come up more explicitly later on, and at the moment is no more than an attempt to specify a rather vague sense of the way his language, his use of examples, and his arguments tend. All of it makes more sense if you assume that being a member of a theistic religion of some kind is more like being convinced of the truth or applicability of a theory than it is like, say, being a member of a culture or the citizen of a country. As I say, we’re going to be coming back to this, but I’ll set out my stall now: I think this is another bit of bad thinking. I think that, if you make an assumption like that as a basic part of the intellectual machinery with which you approach religion, you won’t be able to make much sense of it. And I don’t simply mean that there will be lots of things that don’t make sense to you, but that there will be lots of times when you can’t see what sense religious behaviours or forms of language make to the practitioners. It will leave you with no account to give of why religious people do what they do, of what they take themselves to be doing – it will simply leave you, perhaps, with sneers about the weakness or dishonesty of the religious mind: comments that because they can explain anything actually explain nothing.