Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Dawkins Debate

Liberal Leslie has posted on the marvellous Dawkins programme last night, to which I wrote a slightly lengthy response. I would urge people to add their own comments, as I would be interested to see other people's thoughts on the questions raised. While I'm at it, a quick link also to Charlie Brooker's thoughts on the programme - facetious, yes, but also funny. All of which has prompted me to write a post of my own, the general gist of which has been floating around my head for a bit. Full disclosure from the outset: I am an atheist, and I generally think Dawkins is much more right than people give him credit for being.

Dawkins comes in for a lot of lazy criticism nowadays, not least the bizarre claim that he is somehow "just as much a fundamentalist" as religious figures, for sticking to a rational skeptic standpoint. To my mind, there is nothing fundamentalist about taking as a starting point the stance that what most religions today purport to believe requires a good deal of justification; the burden is on the people who believe these things to convince us they are true - either by rational, empirical means, or by convincing us that there are other meaningful means.

The other irritating evasion of Dawkins's arguments that gets thrown around is the idea that he is out of his depth commenting on religion, because he is a theological ignoramus. I went to a talk, not so long ago, by a Christian theologician (Nicholas Lash, since you ask). Its purpose was supposedly to provide a response to The God Delusion. The question asked by its title was "Where does The God Delusion come from?". Like most theistic response to Dawkins, the premise assumes Dawkins to be wrong, and looks to explain why someone might be impertinent enough to even raise the issue. The main thrust of the actual talk, as far as I could tell, was that Dawkins was terribly ignorant of theology, and that frankly nobody had the right to question God's existence without first having spent much of their life bettering themselves by poring over every theological text going.

Dawkins himself answers this and other criticisms pretty well, so I will just quote his response:

I need engage only those few theologians who at least acknowledge the question [of God's existence], rather than blithely assuming God as a premise. 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.

To which I would only add that many of these people seem much happier noisily assailing Dawkins than they are actually taking on the people who have devoted their lives to engaging with their arguments.

Next up: the accusation that Dawkins is a ranting, hate-filled old sod with a chip on his shoulder. Thankfully, this has been answered pretty difinitively now, not by Dawkins himself but by Christopher Hitchens, who has furnished humanity with an example of what such a book might actually look like. Which is not to say that it isn't enjoyable, by the way, just that it really is one for the atheists!

Which leads me to the final point often made about The God Delusion. It is regularly said, indeed it was said today by the TV reviewer in the Telegraph, that Dawkins is preaching to the converted. Again, this is a criticism that does rather better lobbed in Hitchens's direction. Hitchens has written an eminently entertaining, occasionally outrageous and always readable whistlestop tour of the arguments. What it adds to Dawkins's effort is a discussion not just of Judaism and Christianity, but of most organised religions extant today. What it lacks, though, it the clarity of thought and structure. It will likely entertain and fire up the convinced atheist, but I doubt it would convince anyone else.

Dawkins, in turn, is not out to convince the religious, or if he is, I doubt he will get far, though I hope I am wrong. What I felt The God Delusion did brilliantly, though, was preach to the soggy centre. Dawkins's mission should be to convince the great swath of people out there who aren't especially religious that there is nothing dirty about the word "atheist", and no terribly meaningful position to be staked out under the umbrella of agnosticism.

The book does not, indeed cannot, convince people who feel certain about God's existence, who believe in special revelation and all that. Much of the rest of The God Delusion actually deals not with this central question of God's existence, but with much of the apologetics which pass for debate of this question nowadays. "Don't we get our morals from religion?", "Religion gives us purpose", etc.

The important thing it does, though, is make a powerful case to agnostics that the "neutral" position is not some kind of "50/50" middle ground.

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