Dawkins’ and Grayling’s wilful ignorance

I don’t normally trouble myself with Richard Dawkins’ diatribes against religion, I must admit – but some of the response to his latest book has been fun. Terry Eagleton has written a review in the LRB which is a good read. Along the way, he says of “card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins” that

If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

A.C Grayling – another of those rationalists who switches his considerable brain off when it comes to religion – replies in a letter the next week:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises (LRB, 19 October). For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Grayling, like Dawkins, does not see that if they make claims about what the ‘premise’ of religion is, or the claim that religion is “the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers”, they would do well to check that those claims are true – that they have got the premise at least roughly right, and that they have made half-way respectable claims about what “religion” is. Until they can be bothered to do that, they will continue talking culpably misleading nonsense.

Grayling also launches an attack on another thing Eagleton says. Eagleton wrote:

Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves.

In Grayling’s hands, this becomes:

God does not have to exist … to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist.

Grayling is a well-informed philosopher, and I would suspect him of deliberate dishonesty at this point if I didn’t know that his brain reboots in safe mode every time he encounters religion. Eagleton had said “in one sense of that word”, and you don’t have to know very much about contemporary discussions of medieval philosophy to know that there can be an intelligible debate about the different grammars possible for existence claims, and the strange things that happen to that grammar when one tries to speak about the existence of the ground of the possibility of the existence of any and all particular things – strange enough that for some ways of using the word “exists” it would be truer to say that the ground does not exist than that it does. This may all be mistaken; it may even be nonsense – but one might actually have to argue about it to prove that point. Grayling is another Johnson, thinking he can refute Berkeley by kicking a stone.

3 Thoughts on “Dawkins’ and Grayling’s wilful ignorance

  1. I’ve read some of Dawkin’s book (and Sam Harris’ book – which is much the same) and what struck me was the incessant positivism – which seems to underlie the view of many scientists – which shouldn’t be surprising, I guess.

  2. Ah, excellent: a space to think. Nice one, Mike. Do we need something like this on the SST website?

    I really struggle with some of this. When I hear myself saying things like “God is not a thing”, and “you can’t use the word ’cause’ in the same way when applying it to God”, I get a little worried.

    If I were to hear this on the lips of others, I would be concerned about private languages and jargon. It seems that we can only speak the truth insofar as we are making sense to each other. So talk about God is validated by a language/rationality community.

    I suppose Grayling would ask me what would happen when that community fizzles out? When we can no longer rely upon the assumptions made in the Middle Ages? We cannot just posit those assumptions. We can only be faithful to them.

    So I end up steering all too close to fideism, which I am not comfortable with.

    I’ve just read Badiou’s book on Paul, about how the central task is not the proof of the resurrection, but fidelity to it. Am I right in thinking that this is also a view of faith that resembles fideism?

    And is the answer to Christianity or theism basically the same as my response to most Freudian thought – “Well … no.”

  3. To say ‘God is not a thing’ is not a withdrawal from public discourse. It is a proposal about how Christians might best contribute to that discourse. That is, it is a proposal (both to Christians and to those with whom they debate) that the best ways to see what difference Christianity makes, and make judgments about its truth or appropriateness, are not going to take the form of establishing the truth of some particular matter of fact and then asking about its consequences. So the debate about whether Christianity is true and what difference it makes will not take the same form as the debate about, say, whether a particular asteroid is on a collision path with the earth, and what we should do about it if so. And to say ‘God is not a thing’ is also a proposal to Christians suggesting that they recognise that when they get involved in apologetic debates which do take this particular-fact-establishing form, they are doing something secondary and questionable rather than something central and essential.

    So the question about fideism becomes twofold: (a) are there forms of engagement in public discourse that don’t take this fact-establishing form? and (b) is there still a Christian community that can plausibly see itself as not having fact-establishing-apologetics as an essential and constitutive element of its discourse about God? On both fronts, I’m pretty optimistic.

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