Interim verdict, on The God Delusion, ch.2

Chapter 2 of The God Delusion convinced me that when Dawkins hears ‘theologian’, he thinks of two things: creationists, and Richard Swinburne. And that he revels in his ignorance of the religious tradition that he thinks is represented by such theologians.

Perhaps more importantly, the chapter simply does not engage with what ‘God’ means in some strands of religious belief that are not well represented by either creationists or Richard Swinburne. And, as I said much earlier, I do not mean that his account misses some nuances, or tramples on some nice decorative features of the understanding of ‘God’ in those strands. I mean that it misses them completely. And I happen to think that those strands of Christianity that Dawkins misses are at least as faithful to the historical Christian tradition as either creationism or Richard Swinburne.

Overall, the thing that strikes me most forcefully – and that has made working through this chapter so depressing at times – is the lack of real curiosity that Dawkins demonstrates. He really doesn’t care about understanding how any of the stuff he’s talking about works. He really doesn’t care what the people who disagree with him say. He’s just not interested. And, no, I don’t mean that he ought to like it more; I don’t mean that he ought to show it some kind of pious respect. But without rather more attention to whether his descriptions actually apply as universally as he thinks they do, it’s unsurprising that those descriptions fail to be particularly penetrating.

Oh well.

2 Thoughts on “Interim verdict, on The God Delusion, ch.2

  1. GordonAckerman on March 19, 2008 at 12:27 am said:

    As I have been trying to dicuss Dawkins on my own blog I have been coming to the conclusion that he is not really trying that hard. He does not really seem to be attempting to change the mind of the believer, he hardly discusses the real issues.

    I have been coming to the opinion that perhaps all he is doing is trying to be some sort of “champion” for the atheist cause. One that other atheists can look up to and say, “Dawkins defeated that theist lot.” And they will never notice that he didn’t because they never really looked at his arguments, or lack of them.

    He seems instead to be trying to construct a narrative for the atheist, the tired arguments that mean nothing that they will trot out, the trivialising tone that they will copy and the common paranioa that they will adopt to help them huddle together.

    So I am thinking that perhaps it is worth while engaging in this discussion and just saying, “No, he didn’t slay us at all; in fact all he shot was his own foot.”

  2. I know what you mean, I think, but I’m not sure I quite agree. That is, I think that although the effect of the book might in part be just as you say, I’m not sure I see Dawkins’ intention in quite the way you do.

    I do think Dawkins has been sloppy in his research, and that there are places where he ‘revels in ignorance’, or substitutes ridicule for argument. But I also think that, given some of the basic assumptions he is making, those apparently slipshod approaches make good sense on the peripheries of his main arguments. He can afford to be sloppy in his research, and resort to ridicule, where he is convinced that what he is discussing is simply fatuous – the spoutings of ‘fairyologists’ which would be given an inappropriate air of considerability and intelligibility were one to start arguing with them in detail. If you think theologians are like fairyologists, there’s no need to do careful research on what they say about God being somehow three-personned; it is enough to hold it up and say ‘Look at this! This is where fairyology gets you.’ (Someone who tried to argue in detail that fairy wings were aerodynamically insufficient to produce the patterns of flight that fairyologists claim to see might well be thought to be taking it all too seriously: all he really needed to do was to quote the fairyologists in public, and show how pathetic their scribblings look when exposed in the light of day.) And, as I say, the matters in question are, in any case, entirely peripheral parts of his strategy (from his point of view): they do not really touch the heart of his central, Darwinian argument against the existence of God.

    So I don’t think that he is deliberately trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes: I don’t doubt his seriousness and integrity. (I also don’t doubt that there are plenty of Christian apologists who confirm all his worst suspicions about the integrity and worth of theology.)

    I’m more interested in trying to uncover the basic conceptual moves that allow someone of intelligence, wit and integrity to write this stuff that I find so deeply frustrating: what does he have to believe for this way of proceeding to make sense for him, when it makes so little sense for me? So some of my blog has consisted of my trying to point out where he proceeds in ways I find frustrating, part of it in trying to understand why he proceeds in those ways, and part of it trying to sketch some alternatives.

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