Scientism, huh?

By Razib Khan | November 26, 2006 8:12 pm

Update: Chris has a follow up post.
Chris leaves nothing unsaid. A sample:

In that talk Dawkins sounds, at times, like a 5-year old with the vocabulary and factual knowledge of a world-renowned scientist….
I find it hypocritcal and, as an atheist, more than a little embarrassing that these fundamentalist, Dawkinsian, scientistic, self-styled free thinking atheists, who know jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology, feel that they can criticize religious fundamentalists for saying things about science (in the evolution-creationism debate, for example) when those religious fundamentalists are clearly ignorant of the science, but have no problem making grand claims about the rationality of religion or its practical implications. I can’t help but think that they feel they’re justified in this because they have a distinct sense of intellectual and, perhaps, moral superiority over the religious….

Well, I’ve stated that a diversity of viewpoints is necessary, and this needed to be said too. I think fundamentally a problem that too many intellectual atheists have, and Chris alludes to this, is to reduce religion to scriptural literalism and the general movement which is fundamentalism. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris argue strongly for a necessary connection between non-fundamentalist monotheism and fundamentalist monotheism precisely because their assault against the latter need not be repeated for the former if you view the latter as simply an extention upon the bedrock placed upont he former. I think this is something of a nasty rhetorical trick myself, I can see where they are coming from, but I feel that their motives are more driven by tactics than strategic sincerity. Additionally, fundamentalist religion in its extoric avowed trappings is not difficult to comprehend for those who are not religious, it is naturally easy to confuse the bare totems of fundamentalist religion, righteous fidelity to text, tight community and a powerful clerical class (in practice, often not in theory) as the essence of religion. But what if it’s not? One can not see the psychology of the religious, one must study it, if one can not partake of it in a direct fashion. And that is where Harris and Dawkins seem to go wrong in their emphasis, they confuse the exoteric elements of fundamentalism for being an increase in magnitude of the vector when it is in fact somewhat orthogonal to the root of basal psychological religiosity.
Ezekiel 16:20-21 Moreover thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters, whom thou hast borne unto me, and these hast thou sacrificed unto them to be devoured. Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, That thou hast slain my children, and delivered them to cause them to pass through the fire for them?

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  • grigory

    I’d be willing to bet $100 that Chris (as well as John Lynch and the other people who’ve criticized Dawkins for not knowing enough about philosophy etc.) haven’t actually read The God Delusion

  • grigory

    whoops… pardon my sloppy writing (see above)

  • writerdd

    “And that is where Harris and Dawkins seem to go wrong in their emphasis, they confuse the exoteric elements of fundamentalism for being an increase in magnitude of the vector when it is in fact somewhat orthogonal to the root of basal psychological religiosity.”
    I have no fracking idea what you just said. But where Dawkins and Harris are right is precisely in stating that religious fundamentalists are given cover and undeserved respect by the moderate factions in religion because the moderates give honor and credence to the holy books from which fundamentalists derive their extremist worldviews. Because it is politically incorrect to criticize these holy books, we are unintentionally giving respect to the literal interpretations thereof.

  • http://combinatorialgames.blogspot.com Tyler DiPietro

    I’ve heard the accusation that atheists in the Dawkinsian camp reduce all religion to fundamentalism repeated ad nauseum, but I’ve never heard it backed up with anything credible.
    What is said, however, is that there is an underlying compulsion, even among the relatively secular, to give faith-based beliefs a pass on criticism because it is politically incorrect to criticize said beliefs. I don’t see how anyone can deny that, or deny that it has a damaging impact on our society.
    Fundamentalist religion is one subset of religion, and a particularly egregious subset for sure, but it is symptomatic of the overall problem. Americans especially have become all too comfortable with the divorce between personal belief and empirical evidence. When Ken Miller, et al. pontificate to their fellow religionists in a way that legitimizes this notion, I don’t see how they can help that problem. They may pull a few over to the side of teaching evolution (or at least not teaching ID) in biology classes, but if it’s only because their fear of such a thing affecting their personal convictions has been allayed, that’s a pretty cheap victory. And given the political savvy the ID movement has displayed, it would probably also be ephemeral.

  • Ahcuah

    How much do you need to know about leprechauns to be an aleprechaunist and criticize the fundamentalist leprechaunists?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory Chris

    Grigory, I haven’t read it, nor have I claimed to. I was commenting on his talk, and the approach he’s been taking to religion for years (in talks, articles, etc.).

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    Because it is politically incorrect to criticize these holy books, we are unintentionally giving respect to the literal interpretations thereof.
    there is a problem with this narrative insofar as the reality is that modernist theistic interpretations were one of the primary reasons for the rise of fundamentalism. that is, critique and reintrepretation are critical parts of many christian traditions. you are correct that if there were no non-fundamentalists there would likely be no fundamentalists, but the problem is that there is no situation where there can be no fundamentalists.
    I’ve heard the accusation that atheists in the Dawkinsian camp reduce all religion to fundamentalism repeated ad nauseum, but I’ve never heard it backed up with anything credible.
    well, i did read a science vs. religion anthopology in the early 2000s where dawkins did come out and assert that he accepted fundamentalism as more authentic than other christianities (specifically roman catholicism) because it followed through on the logical implications of the tenets of the faith. i’ll dig it up and post it sometime this week because i can’t find a reference to this on the web.
    as for the rest of your comment, two points
    1) people have always decoupled between the empirical world and their personal beliefs. this is nothing new.
    2) in The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation there is sociological data which shows that if you divide the american population into 3 groups
    a) religious conservatives
    b) religous non-conservatives
    c) the irrelgious
    in terms of mores, social attitudes, behaviors, etc., b & c tend to cluster together, while a) is the outgroup. this suggests to me that though notionally b) & a) should cluster because of their shared faith (e.g., the core around the nicene creed for example), the reality of day to day life doesn’t reflect that. there is a “christian” subculture, but “secular” culture is not limited to the irreligious, it includes those for whom religion is a part of their life, though not the totality of it.

  • http://combinatorialgames.blogspot.com Tyler DiPietro

    people have always decoupled between the empirical world and their personal beliefs. this is nothing new.
    And? I have never denied that people do this and always have. I do, however, levy criticism at those who wish to protect such beliefs from criticism because of the societal taboo around doing so. Specifically, I’d like to see why Chris (who has already commented) thinks that the ideas that float around theological circles are particularly valuable for something besides the advancement of a political agenda (an advantage that exists, in large part, because of the deficiency I noted above).
    there is a “christian” subculture, but “secular” culture is not limited to the irreligious, it includes those for whom religion is a part of their life, though not the totality of it.
    Perhaps, but the population distribution of the groups listed tells us little about what strategy we should use to aid in such places as science education and church-state separation. Furthermore, it tells us little about causation. There is clearly a disparity between Europe and North America in such demographics, for instance. Why do we have such an excess of religious conservatism here?
    American’s have a particular affection for woo, which is itself not limited to religion. I suspect that at it’s root is the paradigm of “trust your gut”, which seems to define American anti-intellectualism. How to combat this trend? I somehow doubt that Ken Miller’s validation of the very mindset (see the second half of Finding Darwin’s God) is of much help.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    I do, however, levy criticism at those who wish to protect such beliefs from criticism because of the societal taboo around doing so.
    look, i was VP of an atheist group in college. i don’t hide in the closet about my beliefs. i know what moran et. al. are saying, and i don’t accept it. there are different ways to criticize, different tacks to take, and different emphases to make. in some contexts i defend dawkins and harris, and in some contexts i criticize them. it isn’t “with us” or “against us.”
    but the population distribution of the groups listed tells us little about what strategy we should use to aid in such places as science education and church-state separation.
    that’s a different issue. i simply wanted to point out that eliding or deemphasizing the differences between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists will lead us astray.

  • http://combinatorialgames.blogspot.com Tyler DiPietro

    Addendum:
    I would agree with Dawkins that fundamentalism is more authentic than the other varieties of religion. That is a simple deduction from the principle in analytic philosophy that we should take what people say at face value and assume they mean it. I don’t see why we should take liberal interpretations of religion at all more seriously than the bizarre obfuscations of “post-modern” academics like Baudrillard (for those unfamiliar, read him to see what I mean). When we need symbolism and allegory we have entertainment media. I’ll take a good movie over church any day. :-)

  • http://combinatorialgames.blogspot.com Tyler DiPietro

    i simply wanted to point out that eliding or deemphasizing the differences between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists will lead us astray.
    It probably will, and for practical purposes only I would say that non-fundamentalists are better than fundamentalists (they don’t fly planes into buildings). I’d take a world full of Ken Millers over a world full of Ken Hams any day of the week. My comment wasn’t meant to downplay the difference between a fundamentalist and moderate (there are differences) but that the emphasis on faith puts moderates on the defensive and renders atheists pretty much irrelevant. Not a good situation, especially given that the fundamentalists have the canon of the faith (the Bible, Koran, etc.) on their side, for the most part.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    I would agree with Dawkins that fundamentalism is more authentic than the other varieties of religion. That is a simple deduction from the principle in analytic philosophy that we should take what people say at face value and assume they mean it. I don’t see why we should take liberal interpretations of religion at all more seriously than the bizarre obfuscations of “post-modern” academics like Baudrillard (for those unfamiliar, read him to see what I mean). When we need symbolism and allegory we have entertainment media. I’ll take a good movie over church any day. :-)
    there is where you and i, and i suspect you & chris, part ways. religion can not be understood via analytic philosophy. it isn’t a series of propositions entailed from axioms. it is mult-textured, with a deep psychological substratum which is totally missed by taking people at face value.
    secondly, fundamentalism as we understand is really a product of the 19th century, and secondarily of the reformation. for most of the history of christianity scriptural literalism was a marginal viewpoint and allegorical interpretation was always considered necessary when the text conflicted with the current state of knowledge (e.g., st. augustine was a young earth creationist of a sort, but mostly because he didn’t know any better, he acknowledged that allegorical renderings of passages in genesis were necessary because it obviously wasn’t all true but had been rendered in a form and language intelligible to ancient people).
    so no, i don’t believe that on a deep cognitive level fundamentalism is more authentic. i simply think it is the form of religion most comprehensible for atheists though because it is presented as a naked set of propositions derived from axioms, even though it isn’t (e.g., literalists do plenty of interpretating of the text to fit their own preconceptions and biases). since other forms of religion are more inscrutable they seem naturally more incoherent…but on the face of it they are.

  • http://amethodnotaposition.blogspot.com Matthew

    Ahcuah wrote: “How much do you need to know about leprechauns to be an aleprechaunist and criticize the fundamentalist leprechaunists?”
    This kind of statement shows a lack of understanding of what more sophisticated religious people mean by the word “God”.
    Everyone agrees that there is a fundamental reality, a ground of being.
    Atheists call this ground of being “natural law”. Sophisticated theists call it “God”. There is some disagreement about the nature of this ground of being – atheists believe it to be unconscious and meaningless while theists believe it to be aware and purposeful.
    But statements about “Leprechauns” and “Flying Spaghetti Monsters” are irrelevant to anything except the most literalist and primitive spiritual beliefs.

  • http://adversecity.blogspot.com/ Oran Kelley

    Just my two cents:
    I think there are two or three confusions/conflations on Tyler’s side of the discussion:
    1) Anti-PC stance vs. accuracy of Dawkins depiction of religion. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I AGREE that religion has to be discussed seriously, skeptically and publicly. In addition, I think Dawkins oversimplifies religion.
    2) Religion as propositional system vs. religion as social phenomenon. Dawkins is very good at showing that religion makes all kinds of contrafactual claims. But it’s pretty obvious already that religion as a social phenomenon doesn’t depend on accuracy in depicting and expalining the world to thrive. In fact, it needn’t even be very plausible (eg, Mormanism). But having said “religion is quite mistaken,” we’ve not gone very far in expalining it.
    It’s a pervasive social phenomenon with, probably, multifarious and complex psychological and sociological facets that drive it. Calling it a meme (an idea system that replicates itself) is really just a cop-out, in my opinion. The thing obviously does some kind of work for us that probably has absolutely nothing to do with its particular propositions. There is some functional explanation for it which, for whatever reason, Dawkins seems to be uninterested in. (Not to say that it is necessarily adaptive.)
    For me, that functional explanation is really the only interesting thing about religion.
    3) Role of Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, like fascism, is a modern phenomenon. It is not the original, most primitive or most genuine form of religion. Because it IS so obsessively concerned with the propositional value of sacred texts, it makes a pretty easy target for scientific critics. But when you go down this road, you only replicate the mistake fundamentalists themselves make about religion in figuring it as a competitor to science/materialism/modernism. Newton, Erasmus and many other deply religious enlightenment figures would tell you different.
    Literalism/legalism is NOT the locus classicus of religiosity. (Much of the New Testament, for instance, mitigates pretty strongly against this tendency.) Religion existed before texts, and its relationship with texts can be very complex (see spiritual or esoteric traditions of all the big religions).

  • Ahcuah

    Matthew wrote:

    Ahcuah wrote: “How much do you need to know about leprechauns to be an aleprechaunist and criticize the fundamentalist leprechaunists?”

    This kind of statement shows a lack of understanding of what more sophisticated religious people mean by the word “God”.

    This kind of statement shows a lack of understanding about how we actually find out things about the intricacies of the world. What “sophisticated” religious people mean by “God” is irrelevant to that.
    The purpose of the comment was to point out that one doesn’t really need to know a whole lot about religion to know that arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin are fundamentally useless, for they are merely speculation erected on top of speculation, without the least bit of grounding in any sort of testability. All too much of religion consists of something similar (transubstantiation, immaculate conception, original sin, baptism, gay-bashing, lobster-eating, etc..). One does not need to study such things in detail in order to be able to criticize them as, ultimately, pure speculation.

  • Friend Fruit

    who know jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology, feel that they can criticize religious fundamentalists for saying things about science (in the evolution-creationism debate, for example) when those religious fundamentalists are clearly ignorant of the science, but have no problem making grand claims about the rationality of religion or its practical implications.

    John Lynch made pretty much this same argument over at Stranger Fruit. So I will repeat here some of the questions I asked there, which went unanswered:
    Where’s the beef?
    Show me the money!

    What is this substantive content of theology or philosophy with respect to the existence of god(s) which Dawkins is missing out on? Are there any generally agreed upon results in the field of theology as there are in fields of science? Sean Carroll made this point very well over at Cosmic Variance. And since Lynch saw fit to censor my response to his lack of answers, I will repeat that response here (provided you are not equally inclined to censorship):

    No beef. No money.
    No cat, no cradle.
    All hat, no cattle.

  • Friend Fruit

    Atheists call this ground of being “natural law”. Sophisticated theists call it “God”. There is some disagreement about the nature of this ground of being – atheists believe it to be unconscious and meaningless while theists believe it to be aware and purposeful.
    But statements about “Leprechauns” and “Flying Spaghetti Monsters” are irrelevant to anything except the most literalist and primitive spiritual beliefs.

    Matthew appeals to the distinction between the “God of the people” and the “God of the philosophers” to save the less literal religious beliefs. I’m not buying it for several reasons.
    The vast majority of people on this Earth believe in the “God of the people”, who works miracles, answers prayers, offers eternal salavation for the souls (which themselves lack evidence) and commits other actions not compatible to our current scientific understanding of the world. Attempting to prove that some abstract watered-down God is not actually logically incoherent does nothing to save the religion of the masses. The extreme watered-down version you mention, the purported answer to “why is there something rather than nothing” would not get you beyond deism.
    The watered-down “God of the philosphers” is himself not faring well in the intellectual arena, lacking both logical proof and supporting evidence. Dawkins notes the distinction, and addresses both. Setting aside the question of existence, with such homeopathic watering down as you are doing, you will end up with a “God who doesn’t matter.”
    The astounding multiplicity of God-concepts is itself evidence against the existence of any God who would wish to convey a clear impression of who He is. It is as if every believer were making up his/her own god(s).

  • http://adversecity.blogspot.com/ Oran Kelley

    Where’s the beef? Show me the money! What is this substantive content of theology or philosophy with respect to the existence of god(s) which Dawkins is missing out on?
    You unduly limit your question. It simply doesn’t matter that gods don’t exist. I am absolutely convinced they don’t exist, and yet there religion is all the hell over the place. Obviously it doesn’t matter that gods don’t exist.
    You might counter that the operative factor is that people believe gods exist. But why do they belive this? Is it because someone has made a case to them and convinced them that gods exist, a case likely to be effectively countered by Dawkins’ book?
    The answer to this is likely “No.”
    But Dawkins seems often to write as if the answer to this question is Yes. In this he is entirely and obviously wrong, many would argue.
    So if we agree with Dawkins that religion is often a bad thing, and that we ought to work to displace it, we are left to wonder what good his seeming refusal to know the enemy is to that effort and what harm it may be doing (for instance, by making the scientific point of view seem willfully ignorant).

  • Friend Fruit

    It simply doesn’t matter that gods don’t exist.

    Perhaps you could explain that to Matthew.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Oran, I like your posts. I’ve been making similar points over at Mixing Memory where there is a very similar discussion going on. The same issue comes up about the nature of religious belief, and I wonder if there has been any actual research on this: do religious practitioners hold literal beliefs about gods and spirits, or do they think of them as metaphors/stories, or do they fall into some other category of mental state? Obviously there is a spectrum from scriptural literalist to sophisticated theologist, but which is more important in the real world?
    My sense is that religious belief is in its own cognitive category. People believe weird things about supernatural agents, for whatever reason. The majority are content to just hold these beliefs in their heads. For whatever reason, some are moved to try to justify them either by taking them literally or erecting a complex system of philosophical justification. But the majority doesn’t feel the need to do either.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    do religious practitioners hold literal beliefs about gods and spirits, or do they think of them as metaphors/stories, or do they fall into some other category of mental state?
    they don’t think of them as metaphors/stories, but they don’t hold literal beliefs :) see theological incorrectness by d. jason slone.

  • grigory

    To Chris:
    You admit that you haven’t read the god delusion… so how can you conclude that Dawkins knows “jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology”?? If you’re basing your conclusion on his public lectures, then you’re being unfair… not everything can be on display in a lecture; they’re necessarily brief summaries, distillations, simplified for a general audience… you’re calling his hand based on one card only… well, he’s played his hand elsewhere, and you’ll have to take the time to actually read his writings about religion before concluding that he’s uninformed. I have read The God Delusion, and you are wrong, wrong, wrong about him having a shallow understanding. It’s as if you watched Noam Chomsky give a brief talk about politics and said “this guy doesn’t know jack about politics… he’s just a linguist. I don’t need to read his writings to know that he hasn’t bothered to engage the subject matter”

  • http://adversecity.blogspot.com/ Oran Kelley

    I’ve had a fairly long look at The God Delusion, and found it didn’t vary very much from what I had expected having read Dawkins on Religion quite a bit already. But I can’t claim to have thoroughly read the book.
    The more interesting bits, I thought, bore a lot of similarity to this.
    (Just so we have a bit of common ground on which to debate.)
    But, grigory, having read the book, can you give us some examples of what you take to be sophisticated philosophical or theological thought? Or sociology of religion, or even biology of religion?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    re: the god delusion, i think dawkins’ take on the philosophy of religion was rather thin, but i think it was sufficient. there just isn’t that much to really grapple if you don’t presuppose some of the religious axioms beforehand. on the other hand, i think dawkins was really problematic the way he handled psychology & evolution of religion, he exhibits enough familiarity with the literature that his dismissal of its salience in later sections of the book was off putting.

  • grigory

    Oran, you ask:
    “But, grigory, having read the book, can you give us some examples of what you take to be sophisticated philosophical or theological thought? Or sociology of religion, or even biology of religion?”
    I don’t think the onus is on me to point out particularly good passages in order to refute Dawkins’ critics! The onus is on those critics to show where Dawkins falls short. Presumably you agree with Chris and John Lynch? It’s not clear from what you’ve written… but if so, then your request is kind of like saying “Dawkins’ knowledge of religion is insufficient, and I’m right unless you can disprove that.” The people who are vaguely criticizing Dawkins for not knowing enough are the people who you should be demanding specific examples from. Chris and John Lynch have both said that Dawkins doesn’t know enough about religion/philosophy… how about asking them for specific examples? He has presented his argument, and they have dismissed it without addressing it. They’re the ones who “don’t know jack” in this situation.

  • mjb

    For Christians I know, it is their ‘personal relationship with God’ that matters most. This is a moral thing, but much more personal, progressive and transformational than following a code of conduct. They also believe in scripture, and it informs and supports their faith, but without the ‘spirit’ the letter is empty.
    Yes, what is in the Bible is in a sense BS, and it is legitimate to point that out. And I often stand in the place from which fundamentalism appears more authentic than religious ‘moderation’. But this vantagepoint completely misses something also.
    Many religious people would give up their dogma if they thought they could maintain the health of their ‘relationship with God’ without it. And they would be less hostile to atheists like Dawkins if they understood that this ‘relationship’ was not under attack. But many atheists seem blind to it. (I have read The God Delusion by the way.)
    This reminds me of Thomas Paine’s statement that Christianity is as near to atheism as twilight is to darkness. I would paraphrase and say, half jokingly, that Dawkin’s atheism is as near to biblical literalism as twilight is to darkness.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory Chris

    For examples of where Dawkins gets it wrong on theological/philosophical issues, you might try looking at Siris. Check the November, and perhaps the October archives. There are at least half a dozen posts on this stuff. As a Christian, and a philosopher (historian of philosophy would be more accurate, I suppose), Brandon definitely knows what he’s talking about. I don’t think he’s read Dawkins’ book in its entirety, but he’s read enough (the BBC had several extended passages online)>

  • http://quantumghosts.blogspot.com matoko_revert

    hmmm…perhaps Dawkins just lacks the biological basis for “religiousity”…i guess I would have designed the test for generalized superstition tho.
    Eight hundred years ago, when everyone had to believe in god, Dawkins would have been Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and had to work hard on believing.
    Since god-belief is uncompelled in modern cultures…the question of god is moot, for Sir Richard. He cannot experience god even if there is one. ;)
    Or maybe…there is just some slick organic mechanism that allows reconciliation of science and god-belief for some…im a believer, even after sucking down all that Atran, Boyd/Richerson, Sperber, Boyer, Cavalli-sforza, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hamilton. ;)

  • Friend Fruit

    It simply doesn’t matter that gods don’t exist.

    Daniel Dennet now has a “review” of The God Delusion posted:

    Both Dawkins and I have to deal with the frustrating problem of the game of intellectual hide-and-seek that “moderate” believers play to avoid being pinned down to the underlying absurdities of their traditions. “Don’t be so literal-minded!” they chortle, marveling at the philistinism of anyone who would attempt to take them at their word and ask them for their grounds for asserting that, for instance, God actually answers prayers (here, now, in the real world, by performing miracles). But as soon as you start playing the metaphor game with them, they abuse the poetic license you have granted them, and delight in dancing around the truth, gettin away with all sorts of nonsense because they are indeed playing intellectual tennis without a net.

    Hat tip to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wares

  • Friend Fruit

    “Your comment has been held for approval”? Getting tighter on the censorship, or is that just because of the number of links in my post?

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    Getting tighter on the censorship, or is that just because of the number of links in my post?
    links. i always get stuck in the pending box all the time myself, itz a bitch. sue me, i’m not god.

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon

    Some commenters have been asking ‘Where’s the beef?’ so it might be useful just to point out a small handful of some of the more obvious bits of flubbing by Dawkins. As Chris notes above, I haven’t read the whole book; but I have read parts of it, and it isn’t actually difficult to find cases where Dawkins shows himself to be out of his depths.
    One of the mistakes made by a number of commenters on this subject is to assume that to say Dawkins doesn’t really know what he’s talking about means simply that Dawkins isn’t proficient in the finer point of theology; whereas the claim is much broader than that, and includes several different sorts of issues, e.g.:
    (1) false factual claims about what people actually believe;
    (2) false logical claims about the structures and flaws of arguments;
    (3) use of objections as definitive that have well-respected and well-publicized responses;
    (4) generalization from a small group to everyone in a larger group without justification of the generalization;
    and so forth (although these are sufficient for our purposes), which if taken only singly in single instances might just be an ordinary mistake, but if found together in several different cases argues poor research and reasoning. (And note, by the way, that none of these is a particularly theological problem; problems of type 2 aren’t theological in any sense of the term, and problems of the other types are problems whether the topic is theological or not.) Most of the discussion above is about (4). But there are instances of the others. To take a relatively minor case of (1), Dawkins suggests that Catholics who believe in the dancing sun at Fatima believe that the earth was wrenched out of orbit; whereas a more common view among Catholics believing in the miracles at Fatima is that of Stanley Jaki, who argues that it was a purely meteorological phenomenon. Dawkins’s mistake here shows that he hasn’t actually done any basic inquiry into Catholic claims about Fatima, and suggests that he isn’t aware of the Catholic distinction between supernatural and preternatural miracles.
    On its own, there would be no problem with this whatsoever. Yes, it would have been better to have researched the matter a bit more before mouthing off about it, but on its own it could just be dismissed, and reasonably, as a slip such as anyone might make — Dawkins might just not have realized that matters were more complicated than he thought, or he might just have been misled by someone he thought knew what they were talking about, or some such. But it’s not the only case of flubbing. With regard to problems of type (2), I can think of several off the top of my head, but one will suffice. Dawkins gives as a criticism of Aquinas’s first three Ways that they make the unwarranted assumption that God is immune from regress. But (i) it is clearly false, since even a basic regimenting of the argument as Aquinas actually gives it shows that Aquinas provides a brief argument for the termination of regress; (ii) the argument primarily concludes to termination of regress, i.e., that there must be something beyond which the regress can’t extend; that this something has attributes we consider divine is argued later on by Aquinas; here he only notes that, whatever this something is, it’s the sort of thing people have called divine; (iii) even basic research into these arguments would have alerted Dawkins to the fact that the Five Ways are summaries of arguments, and that many of the issues in those arguments are dealt with elsewhere; for instance, Aquinas argues at great length for the need to terminate the regresses found in the first three Ways in the Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and the Commentary on Aristotle’s De Caelo.
    A basic example of (3) is his appeal to Hume and Kant against Anselm’s argument. Setting aside the fact that Hume and Kant were arguing against a family of ontological arguments that are rather different from Anselm’s, and whose relation to Anselm’s are disputed, there is a rather large literature showing that both responses are untenable in the form actually given (at least as usually understood) and discussing whether they would be salvageable in some more developed version (or understood a different way).
    And these are only a few of the more basic and obvious examples.
    People who want to read an atheist on these subjects who really does, in general, know what he’s talking about, should read William Rowe’s introductory work, Philosophy of Religion; people who want serious criticisms of Aquinas’s Five Ways should read Anthony Kenny’s book on the subject; both are controversial in parts but are scholarly, carefully argued, and to be taken seriously. Dawkins’s is none of these things. Anyone who does take it seriously is not only doing a disservice to the religious thinkers caricatured by Dawkins; they are doing a major disservice to atheists like Rowe and Quentin Smith who have actually done rational, well-researched work on these topics instead of writing what is little more than a poorly argued, poorly researched essay of the type a Philosophy 101 instructor might get from a bright but intellectually lazy freshman.

  • Friend Fruit

    Some commenters have been asking ‘Where’s the beef?…

    Yes, and a closer inspection will show that this was specifically directed at claims that Dawkins does not have sufficient familiarity with theology, and any portion of philosphy that deals with the existence of God. Thus, the whole bit about Fatima is off-target.

    But (i) it is clearly false, since even a basic regimenting of the argument as Aquinas actually gives it shows that Aquinas provides a brief argument for the termination of regress; (ii) the argument primarily concludes to termination of regress

    So Aquinas demanded, “I get to cheat, and you don’t.” I don’t see that Dawkins’ failure to take such piffle seriously is a substantial criticism. Is this argument generally considered to be convincing in philosophy today? No it is not.

    A basic example of (3) is his appeal to Hume and Kant against Anselm’s argument. Setting aside the fact that Hume and Kant were arguing against a family of ontological arguments that are rather different from Anselm’s, and whose relation to Anselm’s are disputed, there is a rather large literature showing that both responses are untenable in the form actually given (at least as usually understood) and discussing whether they would be salvageable in some more developed version (or understood a different way).

    Before attempting a refutation, one must first try to understand what the argument is claiming. The ontological argument is deeply confused. Various people since have interpreted it in different ways, and so have made different efforts in their refutations. That the argument is deeply confused is not an argument that it is true. Is the ontological argument generally considered convincing in philosophy today? No it is not. Are any of the logical proofs for God’s existence generally considered convincing in philosphy today? No, not a one. Does Dawkins have to exhaustively catalog and rebut a whole closet full of failed proofs?
    Daniel Dennett says:

    …But this is well nigh impossible when the arguments you wish to rebut are too flimsy. For one thing, you fear that hyper-patience will appear patronizing and simply drive other, swifter readers away. For another, we are dealing here with arguments that in most instances no longer have identifiable living exponents. Who stands by the Ontological Argument today? There are historians of philosophy and theology aplenty who will lovingly teach the argument (and its variants and rebuttals and the rebuttals of the rebuttals) but with few exceptions they don’t defend it. It is treated as a interesting historical example, a Worthy Attempt, a jewel in the treasure-house of religion and philosophy, but not as a consideration that demands a response in today’s arena of argument. That being so, giving the argument the Full Rapoport Treatment would be misplaced effort, comically earnest. Still, what are we to say to those who, not being experts on the arguments themselves, have often heard them spoken of highly, and may well feel entitled to a more patient account? I think I can imagine mustering the good will, the humor, and the pedagogical doggedness to satisfy them, but I certainly couldn’t find the strength to do it now, and on present showing, Dawkins couldn’t either.

    If someone without the proper expertise in molecular biology attempted to comment on that field, I could point out their errors. Central Dogma, Meselson-Stahl, yada yada yada. The current theories and the evidence for them. Is there any such body of generally-agreed upon results in theology? Even after several millenia of “research”? That is what I meant by “Where’s the beef?”

  • http://adversecity.blogspot.com/ Oran Kelley

    Friend Fruit, Brandon-
    As for myself, I don’t care much about the arguments for and against the existence of god, but rather the bits that deal with what religion is, how it functions and what might inspire it assuming there is no god. That’s where I think Dawkins is a bit lacking.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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