I’m going to assume that anyone who’s interested in Richard Dawkins’ latest spat on Twitter already knows all about it, but in summary, he mocked Mehdi Hasan as a journalist (and the New Statesman for publishing him) over Hasan’s belief (common among Muslims) that Mohammed was carried up to heaven on a winged horse.
Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist—
Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) April 21, 2013
This caused a lot of fuss, with reactions to it ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, before Dawkins posted a more thorough explanation of what he meant by his tweet, without the constraint of a 140-character limit.
I don’t see any benefit in revisiting this in detail, but the question that’s been on my mind, given that there have been various accusations of atheist Islamophobia recently, is how atheists, particularly Western atheists in broadly Christian societies, should handle Islam and the beliefs of Muslims, and when rational criticism becomes prejudice and bigotry.
My position isn’t fully formed, but I take it as a given that all people are equal, and the existence of a different culture shouldn’t, in itself, be a reason for turning a blind eye to dangerous, wrong or unjust things that are going on in that culture. I won’t have any patronising relativistic crap about respecting the brown people’s religion/culture because they don’t know any better. But nor is it helpful or reasonable to criticise an entire religion/culture for the actions of a small minority of its members.
I say religion/culture like that because while they’re clearly different things, in practice they’re pretty much inseparable. Religion drives culture, and to a large extent, culture also drives religion. To accurately and reasonably separate them is a complicated business, so you can probably assume here that any mention of either religion or culture includes the other.
Dawkins is well within his rights to criticise nonsensical beliefs, and he rightly observes that:
If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot” … The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege.
But this is only half the story. Nor would he be called a vile racist bigot if he commented on the views of a Christian journalist who believes in Jesus’ virgin birth, resurrection or ascension, but he didn’t do that. The difference, rightly or wrongly, is that criticising a typical belief of a completely different culture makes the charge plausible, at least.
If Dawkins wanted to discuss the double standards that see irrational non-religious beliefs mocked while equally bizarre religious ideas are respected, as he says, there were better ways to do it – as a scientist, he should understand the importance of eliminating confounding factors. A similar example of a Christian could have served perfectly well to make the same point without bringing the distraction of cultural difference and charges of Islamophobia, justified or not, into the equation.
This is where I think Dawkins gets it wrong. A belief may well be utterly nonsensical and worthy of criticism, but if you reserve your most scathing criticism for beliefs which are foreign to you, in any sense, you may be allowing your unfamiliarity to colour your views, and run the risk of being perceived as prejudiced, whether you are or not.
The difficulty is that we all have cultural expectations. However much I reject my previous beliefs, there’s a sense in which I’m still Christian, Protestant and low church in descending order of importance. That’s my background, what I suppose I’m arguing against, and it influences me in all sorts of subtle ways. In particular, the further an idea is from my former beliefs and experience, the more ludicrous it seems.
It’s easy for me to dismiss transubstantiation, because I never believed it and always regarded it as an alien belief, something “they” believe. Even easier is to mock beliefs that no one I know has ever held, like (for example) winged horses carrying people up to heaven. But from an objective point of view, they’re no more ridiculous than some of the things I once believed, and some of my friends and family still do. The difference is my exposure to the beliefs, and my degree of empathy for people who believe them.
My rule of thumb, as far as I have one, is that specific live issues relating to “foreign” religions like Islam (such as the burqa or Sharia Law) should be addressed on their merits, but general statements about the nature of those religions, something which has become increasingly commonplace with regard to Islam, not least from Dawkins and Sam Harris, are dangerous because of the “foreignness” of the beliefs and the risk of the criticism being misinformed, prejudiced or perceived through the lens of an ongoing culture war.
Islamophobia isn’t a word I like to use, because of its chilling effect on any criticism of Islam. It’s clearly inappropriate in this case, and I’d say that it should only ever be used in the most extreme cases of bigotry, if at all. But mockery isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, and flame wars are rarely good ways of raising issues for discussion. It’s a matter of pragmatism.
However satisfying it may be to lay into beliefs you consider ridiculous or dangerous, aggressive criticism from outside a group is very likely to strengthen those beliefs and make them more extreme. Ironically, strong criticism of Islam prompted by Islamic extremism may itself be responsible for breeding a new generation of extremists.
The one thing I’d like western atheists to do in relation to Islam is to maintain the scepticism they apply to the beliefs, but also turn that same scepticism on their criticisms, and ask whether they’re effective, balanced and helpful.
The first to state his case first seems right, until the other side examines him
- Proverbs 18:17
In keeping with possibly my favourite Bible verse, one of the few that could claim to be self-evidently true, my next project on completing The God Delusion was to read a response to it, to hear the case for the defence. I knew of Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion, and intended to read that as he has a pretty good reputation, but it seemed so flimsy when I picked it up (the text stretches to just 65 pages, and falls short of 80 even with the addition of notes and further reading) that I decided to augment my selection with Deluded by Dawkins? by Andrew Wilson (a comparative shelf-strainer at 112 pages), for no more reason than that it was next to it on the shelf.
Even together, these books total less than half the length of The God Delusion, which surprises me. The authors are clearly confident that their brief critiques will serve to dismiss Dawkins’s arguments, and McGrath explicitly acknowledges that he picks certain points to challenge (he calls them “representative points”, without offering evidence to support this assertion) in the hope that victory on his chosen battleground will be extended to the rest of the book. Seeing that he seems to agree with much of what Dawkins says (including the obligatory insistence that he doesn’t believe in the God Dawkins rejects either), I’m unsure how this is meant to work.
The first thing I noticed about these books is that between them, they seem to manage a full house of the points Dawkins deals with in the preface to the paperback edition, although the “I’m an atheist, but…” views are naturally quoted with approval, rather than being the position of the authors. The second thing was that they both draw on a very similar (small) selection of authorities to disparage Dawkins. Stephen Jay Gould is no surprise, seeing that Dawkins criticises his idea of NOMA at length and is known to disagree with and even dislike him on several levels, but we also see Terry Eagleton, Francis Collins and Martin Rees added to the list. I find it hard to tell whether the similar sources should be put down to a few outstanding critiques, or a lack of alternatives.
Both writers also seem to think that Dawkins set out to write an academic thesis, rather than a popular polemic. At least, this is the only explanation I can come up with for a number of complaints, the most bizarre of which is McGrath’s suggestion that Dawkins relies on William Shakespeare as a source, because he quotes Romeo and Juliet to illustrate a point. A wish for accuracy is more than justified, and there are points where they rightly take him to task, but this sort of argument does McGrath no credit.
I found Wilson’s book, which I read first, the weaker of the two. This may reflect the fact that I don’t easily fit into his target audience – he’s a deacon of New Frontiers International’s church in Eastbourne which suggests a very conservative charismatic evangelical approach, and sure enough, many of his arguments draw so heavily on the Bible that they would be better suited to sermons. He makes some good points, but as often as not seems to miss the point Dawkins was making.
To give him credit, he does home in on some areas where Dawkins allows his rhetoric to run away with him a bit. He observes that omnipotence and omniscience aren’t necessarily as contradictory as a strict literal understanding would indicate (although his attempt to bolster this argument with a reference to Biblical inconsistencies left me baffled), and he’s justified in picking Dawkins up on the matter of textual copying. I feel Dawkins would have been on safer ground concentrating his fire on the long period before the NT texts were written down, rather than picking on the relatively minor alterations after that point.
Wilson clearly considers his trump card to be the resurrection, and for which he claims overwhelming evidence and a complete absence of plausible alternatives. To apply his own style of argument, this clearly displays his supernaturalist presuppositions. He returns to this theme throughout the book, finally addressing it in full towards the end, where he states “There are four main theories to explain how the tomb became empty”, dismisses three in perfunctory fashion, then proclaims that therefore, the resurrection happened.
You’ll have noticed the bait-and-switch between the identification of four main theories and the Holmesian conclusion following elimination of three of them. Like all such arguments, he also (while paying lip service to the idea of error) assumes that the gospel accounts are substantially accurate. Seeing that he appears to view evidence as nothing more than a numbers game (at one point, he acknowledges a historical source that disagrees with a gospel account and rules the result a score draw), I find his engagement with opposing viewpoints less than satisfying.
McGrath, on the other hand, never once mentions the resurrection, whether through considerations of tactical strangth or relevance, although he does mention Jesus quite a bit, not least when addressing the accusation of picking and choosing from the Bible. His identification of Jesus as an interpretive framework for troublesome OT texts succeeds in complicating the issue, but not in demonstrating a truly objective standard for interpretation. Despite the much shorter length of his book, he certainly appears to take a much more serious approach to what Dawkins actually wrote, even if there are points where he seems to be attacking a passage in isolation, rather than the book as a whole, something I previously identified as a possible mistake.
McGrath bases his argument on probability on Dawkins himself calling our existence very, very unlikely, and concludes that as we most obviously exist, probability says nothing about existence, so however improbable God may appear to be, he could still exist. This betrays a lack of understanding of conditional probability, and a lack of attention to Dawkins himself, who covered just this in his book. (In the same section on probability, McGrath also strangely attempts to equate a Grand Unifying Theory with God, as both may be considered a sort of ultimate explanation, hoping to skewer Dawkins with a charge of hypocrisy.)
McGrath also attacks Dawkins on the matter of religious violence and extremism, pointing out that the secular Tamil Tigers invented the suicide bomb. I made a note of this very point myself when reading the book, before Dawkins addressed my concerns in Chapter 8. I don’t blame McGrath for picking up on the apparent claims on religious violence in Chapter 1, nor for his disagreement with the later clarification, which still left me feeling that Dawkins was overreaching, but to refuse to even acknowledge this nuance is very poor, and suggests at best a lack of care with the text. This impression is strengthened when he hangs a whole argument on the use of the word “accidental”, whose use Dawkins explains and clarifies, in relation to genes and the origins of religion.
But despite these criticisms, McGrath does land some telling blows on Dawkins. His examination of Dawkins’s assertion that Jesus perpetuated “out-group hostility” with reference to the Good Samaritan is a welcome corrective, although it would have been much stronger had he engaged with texts like the healing of the Canaanite woman which appear to support Dawkins. He also makes good points on the claim of relentless moral and scientific progress, and most tellingly, he constructs a strong argument on the difficulty of defining a religion, and how it differs (or not) from a worldview.
I can’t finish without commenting on the curious fact that both of these books concluded by speculating that Dawkins may be revealing a lack of faith in his atheism, and that he could even still be searching for answers or open to conversion. I have no idea what to make of this, or how to respond to it. It would be just as valid to wonder if these authors feel the need to say such a thing to shore up their wavering faith in the face of a powerful assault. Unfortunately, it served to remind me that they share a very clear agenda. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it makes it very obvious that these aren’t disinterested responses.
I probably come across as fairly critical of these books, and I suppose I am, but that isn’t the whole story. They make some good points which are valuable in assessing The God Delusion, and even some important corrections, which I’m glad to have read. And while some of the arguments are overstated, the same could be said of Dawkins’s work, which I was quite positive about. I think what I find dissatisfying is that these books are specifically picking on certain points, and purporting to knock them (and by extension the whole book) down. When they don’t measure up to this claim on their chosen grounds, and when they introduce slippery arguments of their own, it’s hard to take them seriously as rebuttals.
I’m still on the lookout for a more substantial response.
Okay, I’m only six years late to the party, but I’ve finally got around to reading it, so here are my thoughts on a book I’ve been avoiding more or less since it was published – The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
First, I should say that I read the paperback edition. This may be important, as it included a new preface, which helpfully dealt with a number of common responses to the book (such as “I’m an atheist, but…”, acceptance of religion as a fact of life, and descriptions of Dawkins as a fundamentalist equal to those he criticises), and mentioned that a few other unspecified changes and corrections had been made to the text. I found it a useful addition, heading off common objections before getting down to the substance. In some cases, I think people would benefit from reading this preface more than the actual book.
And the book’s nothing if not ambitious. It attempts to show that God doesn’t (or almost certainly doesn’t) exist, explain why religion is nevertheless so common, deal with common questions about belief and morality, make the case for religion in all its forms being dangerous, persuade that religion should be excluded from education and upbringing, and finally inspire at the majesty of a world viewed from a scientific perspective. Any of these could be the subject of a short book on its own, and a comprehensive treatment is obviously impossible, but the book holds together well within the limitations of space.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting to encounter – I had a vague expectation that the book would be 400 pages of angry ranting about sky-fairies – but from the very first page, I was pleasantly surprised by Dawkins’s openness and humour. He marshals his arguments well, dealing with them thematically in a well-planned progression, and both anticipates and deals with possible objections with a perception and understanding that I’d been led to believe he lacked. More than once, I read his arguments thinking “what about…” only to find him addressing my question a couple of pages later.
Dawkins also injects a good amount of balance – he may be arguing his case, but he isn’t just throwing every available weapon against religion. Unlike many outspoken atheists, he recognises the overwhelming likelihood that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, even while mentioning that arguments to the contrary have been attempted. And he goes out of his way to defend the Roman Catholic church on the subject of child abuse, giving the scandal a wider perspective which has been generally lacking. He may be arguing a case, but it’s encouraging that he also seems to care very much about fairness and honesty.
It’s often said that Dawkins has an aggressive tone, and I found the section on Intelligent Design to be both interesting and helpful in considering this reputation. ID is most definitely something that Dawkins knows a lot about (he can construct his arguments without ever leaving his area of professional expertise), and it’s a subject on which I (and most moderate believers) would agree with him wholeheartedly. I found him to be very fair and balanced on this, but couldn’t detect any difference in style between this section and the rest of the book, suggesting that any criticism of his tone may be caused by sensitivity to criticism of dearly-held beliefs, rather than an objectively aggressive manner.
I confess I found some sections rather longer than they needed to be. Maybe it’s an indication that I’m not completely convinced by the idea of memetics, but 50 pages of often evidence-light speculation on the origins of religion seemed to drag a little, and I might have skipped to the next section if I hadn’t been wanting to cover the full text. I’m glad I persisted, because the part at the end covering cargo cults was very interesting, adding a lot of detail to an idea I was familiar with. Obviously, a book of this type will never cater for all tastes or needs, and others will undoubtedly have found this useful, but personally, I’d have been happy to see some ruthless editing in this area.
In some cases, Dawkins appeared to be making a statement which made me sit up and make a note of a quibble or objection, only to conclude much later on the basis of further passages that he wasn’t saying what I thought he was saying, or that his view was rather more subtle than I’d appreciated. I’d be surprised if I was alone in that, and it should serve as a warning to anyone intending to quotemine his book for ammunition. It could be argued that he should be clearer, and I’d have some sympathy with that, but he covers a lot of ground for a relatively short book, with a style that’s generally more polemic than academic, so I wouldn’t want to make a big deal of it.
Bearing that in mind, there were some points where I thought Dawkins was overreaching. His view that religion is uniquely responsible for all manner of conflict is plausible, but I’m not convinced that all (or even most) conflicts wouldn’t be justified in other ways in the absence of religion. And I can’t let it go that he quotes the NAS statistics I recently picked apart. He contrasts them with the general population, which is a more justified comparison than the prison survey, but depending on whether respondents were questioned on labels or specific beliefs, you can get very different responses, as Dawkins knows. That’s a more recent survey, though, and he goes on to give a lot more supporting data, which makes this a minor infraction.
And there were other areas where I found that I didn’t entirely agree with his arguments. Some of his opinions on various sorts of agnosticism fall into this category, I’m not convinced that a truly deist God is a question science can answer (although this is academic as such a God is functionally useless in the real world), and as something of a pragmatist, I feel naturally drawn towards the sort of strategic alliances and recognition of common ground that he decries in his section on NOMA. But if he argues his case well, as he does, he’s entitled to serious consideration, and I’ll probably be chewing over his views for a while yet.
It’s a good book, probably a great book. It doesn’t offer the final word on any of the subjects it covers, but as a single work covering all of them, it’s hard to imagine anything much better. If I have a complaint, it’s that Dawkins has covered a whole load of subjects that I was intending to address, and better than I would do, so if I write about them having read the book, it’ll look like I’m crudely rehashing his material. That’s not a problem with the book, but from a selfish point of view it’s very annoying.
I’ve rather painted myself into a corner here, having said that I expected everyone to judge the debate based on their own prior standpoint and preconceptions. I might have got away with that on its own, but as I also said how I expected the debate to go, I have the choice of admitting that my prediction was wrong, or leaving myself open to a charge of merely confirming my own expectations, as I somewhat critically suggested others would do.
Fortunately, I’ve been saved from having to cover that in too much detail, because there’s one issue that’s dominating discussion of the debate – Richard Dawkins’ self-description as agnostic, putting himself at 6.9 on his Spectrum of Theistic Probability.
Sadly, most of the comment on this has been rather hysterical and misinformed. So let’s clear a few things up: Dawkins is not backsliding on his atheism, and he’s certainly not about to suddenly convert to Christianity. His position has consistently been that he’s confident of the non-existence of God, and although he’s unable to prove that and must hold the possibility of God’s existence open, he does so in much the same way as the tooth fairy or Russell’s Teapot.
In fact, I find it ironic that some of the people who are claiming this “uncertainty” as some terrible admission are the same people who have previously castigated him for what they perceived as his dogmatic certainty, and refusal to admit that he could be wrong. He loses either way – he’s portrayed as arrogant and dogmatic, or else he’s so uncertain in his beliefs that they’re clearly not worth discussing, because even he isn’t really sure and doesn’t have the courage of his convictions.
As I’ve previously highlighted, this exposes an obvious weakness in the most commonly used terms to describe beliefs. I suspect Dawkins’ beliefs are getting so much attention not because of his degree of belief (he’s explicitly described himself as a 6 to 6.9 many times before), but because of the label he assigned to that position. It seems natural that an agnostic should be genuinely uncertain, rather than simply acknowledging the impossibility of being 100% certain – calling Dawkins an agnostic just feels wrong.
Now, I confess that I’m a little interested in his chosen label from a narrow perspective of practical theology, but seeing that his actual degree of belief hasn’t changed, I don’t see that it warrants the attention it’s been getting. Maybe there are more theology geeks than I’d realised.
The reports are half right, though – Dawkins is known for describing agnostics as feeble-minded fence-sitters, or at least partly agreeing with his school preacher who did, so he must have shifted his position. Except he hasn’t – the relevant passage in The God Delusion describes two types of agnosticism: Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP) and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP). Dawkins reserves his scorn for the PAPs, and says:
Agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability
So it’s right there in his most famous “atheist” work, actually in a chapter on agnosticism – he strongly believes there is no God, but we are currently unable to answer the question with certainty in either direction. Even there, surely the first place you’d look to find out his views on agnosticism and certainty, it’s clear that he acknowledges a lack of certainty. He’s also unable to be entirely certain about the non-existence of fairies, unicorns or anything else.
So Richard Dawkins is, always has been, and almost certainly always will be confident that there is no God, but he nevertheless remains aware that he is unable to answer the question with absolute certainty. The only news here is that people (especially journalists) jump to conclusions without checking their facts, and that lots of them have never really paid attention to what Dawkins was saying.
Come to think of it, that’s not really news, either.
In the blue corner, all the way from Kenya, the meme-tastic Richard Dawkins! And in the pinko corner, from Wales, the Bearded Wonder – Rowan Williams! Right, gentlemen – I want a good clean fight. No begging the question, no false dichotomies, and no beard-pulling.
Yes, Messrs Dawkins and Williams are going to have a debate on Thursday, on the subject of “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin”, and I promise to ease up on the boxing metaphors now. I plan to watch it, and will probably blog about it afterwards (yes, I really live on the edge), but I expect it to be a rather damp squib.
Dawkins will most likely land some weighty blows, and Williams will dodge many more with some liberal and almost meaningless redefinitions of what Christianity is. The Archbishop in turn will almost certainly advance arguments that the enduring nature of religion is evidence in its favour, which Dawkins will bat away.
What prompts me to write about this now is that I wonder if there’s any point in having the debate, because just about everyone has already decided who’s going to win. In atheist circles, it’s a question of how stupid the beardy bloke in the dress is made to look. Among Christians, there’s widespread agreement that if Dawkins makes any arguments, they’ll be low blows, because he doesn’t fight fair or even understand religion, and his criticisms are always rather shrill.
In fact, this supposed shrillness has become a common theme in any criticism of Dawkins, along with stridency, being trotted out with startling regularity. But I’ve never noticed him to be at all shrill, and when asked for evidence of this quality, there’s rarely any offered at all, certainly not the mountain of quotes you’d expect to support such a widespread belief.
It’s true that Dawkins has occasionally said things which have caused a media storm far beyond the context in which they were said, but he’s hardly alone in that, as Williams himself would attest. A frequently-(mis)quoted example expressed the view that imposing beliefs on a child, and identifying that child by the religion in which it has been brought up (not a choice it has made), is a form of mental abuse. You may agree, you may not. You may even find such a view shrill or strident, although in the context I think it’s a fair, if provocative, point to make. But it’s surely not sufficient to explain this widespread belief.
But even if, for the sake of argument, we acknowledge that Richard Dawkins is (or can be) shrill, strident or any other negative description you might care to use, why does that matter to his opponents? I can understand that his supporters might feel frustrated if these qualities were deterring potential converts (although this criticism always seems to come from the “other side”), but surely his opponents should be quite happy to knock his arguments down and let his unpleasant manner (if indeed it is unpleasant) alienate waverers?
I suspect this criticism betrays a fear of Richard Dawkins and what he stands for – anything that challenges the dominant and privileged position held by religion is seen as a threat. So Dawkins is set up as an “Atheist Pope” so that the entire movement can be attacked by attempting to discredit him as the messenger. The accusations of shrillness are a part of this, as are other, stranger smears.
I think there’s also an element of special pleading and defensiveness on the part of believers – they often seem to view any criticism, rather than mere silent disbelief, as an unconscionable and aggressive assault on them personally. As with the secularism debate, the people in the position of power, or at least cultural dominance, do everything they can to shut down challenges to the status quo which suits them so well.
Bear this in mind when the debate is reported, and ask yourself whether you’d expect anything else from the source. I’ll be surprised if there’s a single case in which you couldn’t predict the verdict just by checking where it appeared.