Thankless Theology: More on the Alleged God Delusions of Dawkins

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers links a Godwinizing but still bitingly satirical take on the many reviews of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” that whine about Dawkins’ shocking failure to address theological esoterica. Now, I’ve hinted before that I have my own complaints about “The God Delusion,” and I’ll touch on them a bit at the end of this post, but the sheer awfulness of these sorts of critical reviewers keeps crowding out my own quibbles. So, them first.

The most pretentious and annoying of these critical reviews often fail to even acknowledge that Dawkins legitimately dismisses most of their complaints right upfront: he’s not talking about the reserved God concepts of scientific deism. Nor is he going to address every obscure “sophisticated” theology under the sun. But doesn’t he have to?

Well, no. There are two reasons why Dawkins can legitimately discount the sort of rarefied theology his horrified critics think is indispensable.

The first is simply that the vast majority of real world believers have never heard of, much less read, most of these theological views: they are almost irrelevant to the basic fact of Biblical or Koranic belief as practiced by most believers. Worse, I have the feeling that if many everyday believers did read these guys, they would be anywhere from bored to downright disgusted by the elaborately geeky and obscure God concepts therein. Imagine Paul Tillich going door to door like a Jehovah’s witness and, upon being greeted, stating:

God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.

I expect that just as many Southern Baptists as non-believers would roll their eyes, find some excuse as to why they can’t sit down for a chat, and send him on his way. This has nothing to do with elitism either: it’s just that very few people have any interest in parsing that sort of word-salad. And I say that as someone who, personally, does go in for that sort of stuff sometimes, provided that it doesn’t veer off into Sokal hoax territory.

The second reason is simply that the vast bulk of theological argument really only appeals to those who are already believers: there is little in them that is convincing or compelling (aside from a sheer interest in ideas) if you are not. I know many theists find this shocking, but then I doubt most believers have had much experience looking at theology from our perspective. If you don’t already have a preoccupation with weaving a God into the very fabric reality, many of the elaborate philosophical constructions just seem like modern art: have fun if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s just not something I’m going to hang in the den, sorry.

The thing is, though, this latter point really is a key weakness for Dawkins’ “God Delusion” as well. His criticisms and refutations of even basic theistic arguments really are on the level of a few good friends chuckling over beers rather than something which would convince a practiced believer. There are just too many obvious counter-arguments to his claims and alternative formulations of the ideas he criticizes. And you don’t need to know who Karl Rahner is to see them.

Is this a problem? Yes and no. As Michael Shermer says, “God Delusion,” especially in light of its commercial success, is a powerful piece of awareness raising: belief is not the only option, believers are not the only people on the planet. Nor is it entirely fair to fault Dawkins for descending into multiple levels of argument and counter-argument in a popular book: while there are, as I said, many obvious complaints about his arguments, many of those complaints have easy and even more obvious answers.

Unfortunately, Dawkins’ admittedly quite excellent defense of reason as a method still inevitably implies a rigor that his book can’t live up to. Fair or not, anyone claiming to defend reason as a method is going to come under especially close scrutiny as to their own usage of it: being fun and flippant isn’t going to come off well. And that really is a problem here: if you try to read the book with an aggressively critical eye, then it really is pretty thin stuff.

Now, as I’ve noted, many critics are actually as stupefyingly sloppy as they allege that Dawkins is. Alister McGrath’s “Dawkins’ Delusion” gets kicked around a lot as a supposedly powerful refutation, but as many have pointed out… it’s just terrible.

But not everyone is so completely off base. Take the example of blogger Andrew Rilestone and his “A Skeptics Guide to Dawkins.” This is a better example of exactly what I was saying before: anyone looking to criticize the book on the basis of it being especially convincing or even impressive in its handling of the subject matter is not going to lack for material.

Of course, I have little doubt that Rilestone could give the same sort of treatment to a telephone book and end up condemning it just as roundly: elevating minor differences uncertain implications to outrages, reading off the cuff remarks in whatever light makes them look worst, and approaching the entire endeavor with dismissive hostility. But that’s sort of the point: almost all theists are going to read it that way. And Dawkins makes it far, far too easy.

Now, Rilestone isn’t going getting off the hook here: some of his arguments about how Dawkins supposedly neglects the reality of “cultus deserve a fisking of their own. I’ll get to that in another post. He also, like virtually all such critics, focuses on the failings of the book but ultimately dodges its core thesis: that there is a distinct thing and method called faith which cannot forever escape criticism, or even claim to be ubiquitous and culturally inevitable. I’ll get to that as well.

But still, “The God Delusion” isn’t something I’d hand to a believing friend: not someone I respect. Not someone I’d want to come to understand atheists better (Dawkins’ discussion of the nature of atheism was actually sort of bumbling, and I thought his construction of “certainty levels” just further confuses issues of knowledge and belief rather than clarifying them). And certainly not someone I’d want to convince. Insofar as this is a book mainly to awaken latent atheists and help disparate non-believers focus their thinking, ok: I too read it and enjoyed it and maybe I was the target audience so… great. But even so, it’s odd for the book to spend so much time and effort establishing the unsavoriness of faith to a target audience that doesn’t have it in the first place.

If even moderate faith really is a serious problem (for enabling fundamentalist excess), then it’s going to take a heck of a lot more than this to convince any of them.

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4 Responses to Thankless Theology: More on the Alleged God Delusions of Dawkins

  1. TauHecht says:

    Yes. This is the first thing I have ever read on the internet that I have agreed with 100%. This is amazing. You are amazing. You should get a medal. I’m gonna give you a medal. It is going to say: the first person that has ever managed to be completely reasonable on the internet. It’s almost unholy. Your sanity could almost be seen as a poison to the noisome well that is the free flow information. To preserve the sanctity of the internet, I present a rebuttal: u r a ducheebayg i hop u die n a fire dawkins iz a genious he proovs tht god (lol) isnt ture u iz jst branewashed.

    Thank you for your grotesque rationality, I will treasure you always.

  2. “His criticisms and refutations of even basic theistic arguments really are on the level of a few good friends chuckling over beers rather than something which would convince a practiced believer.”

    Excellent analogy. I genuinely hope you see our debate in the same light.

    Very well written post.

    -smith

  3. Smith says:

    Actually, I thought Eagleton’s piece was rather well written. “As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it……He is right to repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people’s……But Dawkins could have told us all this without being so appallingly bitchy about those of his scientific colleagues who disagree with him, and without being so theologically illiterate”

    Isn’t this basically what I’ve been saying all along?

    BTW, you look great in a Spiderman costume. ;)

    -smith

  4. Bad says:

    I wish I could say that that was me… but click on the picture and you’ll see that it is not. :)

    Eagleton does write well… but that doesn’t make me think his arguments are any more credible (I feel the same way about Hitchens: he’s a masterful writer, but that doesn’t keep me from thinking that his arguments are often shallow and misleading).

    In fact, I’m still not sure what his actual arguments boil down to, other than that Dawkins should keep his mouth shut about some absurdities but not others based on whether the targets think themselves sophisticated or not: there’s a lot of florid runaround and name dropping, and not a lot of substantive rebuttal. As I noted, the fact that Dawkins doesn’t address rare and academic theologies is hardly a weakness of his critique, nor are those theologies particularly any more compelling in my opinion anyway (one can lacquer on all the literary interpretation on a belief you want: that doesn’t explain the obsession with that particular story or the belief that it and all sorts of supernatural corollaries are true).

    Eagleton does get Dawkins in a worthwhile place on, say, his claims about religion in Ireland and so forth (and that’s exactly the sort of glib sloppiness I was talking about), but none of these sorts of points really address the issue of faith or why telling stories and inventing theological handwaving on the fly is to be respected as an activity (I agree that people are to be respected, but that’s neither here nor there when discussing whether a given view is justified or not).

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