Terry Eagleton on Richard Dawkins

I have a particular dislike of Richard Dawkins and enjoyed this demolition of Dawkins’ latest attack on God. If you read carefully you’ll notice that it’s not done on behalf of religion. It does not presupose religious belief.

The author – Terry Eagleton concedes, having concluded an explication of Christian theology that:

Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy. Most reasoning people these days will see excellent grounds to reject it. But critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever.

Anyway, I commend the article – a lot of fun for those who might want to ponder whether Dawkin’s brand of athiesm is anytihng more than a virulent form of intellectual Philistinism.

55 thoughts on “Terry Eagleton on Richard Dawkins

  1. Speaking of views worthy of no respect whatsoever… if Dawkins is an intellectual philistine, then what are the millions of Americans who “firmly reject” evolution, and thus an entire branch of science?

    They’re the people I take a “particular dislike” to.

  2. There are whole boatloads of people in this world to take a particular dislike to, sometimes it even seems like they could fill a dozen or more islands, and you pick one of the greatest popularisers of science of all time whose books have captured the imaginations of heaps of people and got them interested in some really quite difficult areas of science.

    Your alleged ‘reasonableness’ and your semi-pomo bulldust about ‘listening to the dialogue’ or however you sometimes frame it really leads you into some extremely perverse and outright bizarre positions, Nicholas.

  3. What a ripper of an article! As I recall, eagleton was a marxist literary and cultural critic, and no doubt under the new syllabus his works will be banned and burned in the main street.

    There are, I suspect, three things about religion that no one can really deny.

    The first is that even for us unbelievers the judeo-christian value set provided a guide to life and to relationships (social, personal, business) that was good in the sense that it emphasised care, humility, honesty, and respect for others. As that value set evaporates, we have little to replace it with.

    Second, in a time when some of us wonder about a Grand Unified Theory, about a time before time, about what preceded the big bang and why, there is a whole lot of mystery out there, and it is hard not to have a feeling akin to religiousity about it.

    Third, one of the worst developments of the c20 was the removel of mystery from religion. Priests riding motor scooters and playing guitars, the abolition of Latin, the idea that religion was just really a form of smiling, unctuous, rubbery social work, and that religion had to be relevant (why? why on earth should a god’s ideas be “relevant” to us? Are my ideas relevant to the frittata I made yesterday?) all of these have gutted and filleted religion, and have thrown out with the bathwater the essence of standing before a mystery – which is a sense of humility.

    btw I am not to be understood as arguing for, or accepting, christianity.

  4. I agree strongly with Richard Phillips’ third point.

    Also, any critique of christianity must be tempered with some acknowledgement of the author’s debt to christians and ‘christian’ culture which have played an essential and inextricable role in making the first world what it is today. Notably, such esoterica as democracy and indeed science have flourished in ‘christian’ countries like nowhere else.

    One can argue that the role of christianity in this was limited or even just coincidental, but as N Gruen says, the burden of proof is on such an argument and not the contrary.

  5. Kent, I don’t know whether you really mean that you take a firm dislike to the people or the ideas, but if it’s the ideas I agree with you. Their views appall me and the thought that the world’s largest military power has more than half it’s population believing what it does simply fills me with despair.

    So what?

    Patrick, I didn’t say anything about burdens of proof. Not too sure who should bear the burden of proof, though I guess a lot of the work what one might call ‘vulgar atheism’ is done by smuggling various apparently commonsensical notions of burden of proof into the argument – as if one were going to sort out burdens of proof about the origins of the universe on commonsense. Makes me laugh – and Terry Eagleton it seems.

  6. Sorry Nicholas, my comment was rather boorish. I’ll try again.

    A lot of people believe in ghosts, ESP, astrology, and UFOs (to a Close Encounters of the Third Kind kind of extent). Some of these people are pretty intelligent. The reason they believe in these things is typically because (1) they don’t recognise a lack of evidence supporting them (2) they misunderstand the probability of something happening by chance, and (3) they refuse to recognise that Ockham’s razor is a useful tool much of the time. (I’m hoping you don’t believe in ghosts!) I think the best way to summarise why belief in ghosts, ESP, astrology and UFOs is ill-judged is to say they are paranormal, or supernatural explanations for things would can be explained in normal, or natural terms.

    Dawkins applies precisely this same approach to God. (I haven’t read his latest book, but I think I can guess the spirit of his argument). There isn’t a lot of “evidence” for God that a scientist like Dawkins would credit, and Ockham’s razor does tend to work against the tricky Gods of some theologies (although I recall a previous post here at Troppo where that was at issue), but more importantly, for Dawkins, there’s no need for God. He/she/it is a supernatural explanation for things that Dawkins has a natural explanation for. Some parts of that natural explanation are still lacking – neurophysiology springs to mind – but the basic structure is there. So his disregard for the nuanced and intellectual arguments of theologians, as Eagleton says so huffily, is because he essentially sees them on the same level as astrologers. We don’t credit their field of study because the underlying assumptions are complete fantasy – the lining up of planets and stars is no mechanism for what they claim it performs. Dawkins sees the assumption that there is an anthropomorphic Jehovallah meddling in people’s lives as similarly lunatic.

    Whether he’s right or wrong is obviously another question, and my earlier comment was a bit silly when I consider that more than 90% of people think there is indeed an anthropomorphic God – so Dawkins is out on a limb to consider it a looney. But then a majority of people (I suspect, I have no numbers) seriously believe in ghosts and astrology too, so.

    That’s why he ignores theology, anyway. Same reason physicists ignore astrology.

  7. “they are paranormal, or supernatural explanations for things which can be explained in normal, or natural terms.”

    And the point of my comment, which seems to be missing, is that he isn’t a philistine. He’s just aggressive, attacking a system of thought at its base because it’s easier for him that way.

  8. Kent,

    I think there are all sorts of metaphysical assumptions hiding in your distinction between “supernatural explanation” and a “natural explanation”.

    At bottom both stories of the way the universe is are metaphysical phamtoms. One is based on our commonsense and so feels ‘natural’. The other is much stranger to our commonsense which is why I like it and respect it, though it saddens me to say that I can’t say I believe it.

  9. Richard and Patrick, IMO that sort of mysterium tremendum is precisely the most objectionable thing about religion. I detest the noble lie argument, first popularised by Plato and a staple of conservatives ever since, that “of course religion is not true but it is necessary for social order” – ie to keep people in their place.

    As for Dawkins, yeah he’s militant, but so what? He’s not speaking obvious nonsense, and god knows there are enough religious militants pushing obfuscation, with infinitely worse results for the world.

    Nic, untruths should not be respected (though, yeah, they can be liked). It allows believers to continue believing untruths. If you can’t believe this stuff then you should not respect it, any more than you should respect a proposition in economic policy that you believe to be illogical and wrong.

    Which is exactly Dawkins’ approach.

  10. DD: mate thanks for the serve, but I’m not saying “religion is not true but it is necessary for social order”. I am saying that the claims for objectivity and truth and omniscience that are touted about by those who replace god with science are a bit shaky, and that there is still a lot of mystery out there. I am also saying that if a belief system – whether Newtonian physics or christianity – has been around a fair while and has been pondered over by a lot of people cleverer than me then it gets some sort of benefit of the doubt, and you don’t just sneer it out the window.

    Also that it is as dopy to “prove” or “disprove” religion – which is based on one leap of faith – by science – which is based on another, as to judge the marmalade at the royal easter show by the lamington criteria.

    And of course, christianity has, over all, been better for the social order than, say, marxism, with all its claims for scientific objectivity and the rest.

    btw nothing in this is to be read as supporting some of the excesses coming out of the usa at the moment, such as the intelligent design theory.

    Having said all that, isn’t eagleton a terrific prose stylist and polemicist?

  11. DD,

    I’m with you – just explain what the universe is and I’ll give away all those noble lies. Is the universe made of love (whatever that means) – Christianity; spirit or ideas (whatever that means) – Hegel, or matter (whatever that means) – Materialism?

    And no metaphysical assumptoins.

  12. Religion’s based on faith. You either believe or you don’t. It’s about time you arrogant, proselytising tossers got over it.

  13. I certainly don’t believe in ‘noble lies’!! Dear me no! I guess I agree less with the first sentence of that third paragraph than the last – to be clear: I think that a sense of humility before our inadequacy is an essential part of a humane society.

  14. I can’t agree with you on this one, Nicholas. Dawkins is a brilliant expositor of science, and his criticisms of religion are spot on. So what if he isn’t an expert on theology? Here’s a challenge: if you read a scathing and hilarious critique of astrology written by an author who wasn’t himself steeped in astrological wisdom, would you really be cross and indignant about all the simplifications and strawman demolitions in the book?

    The only people who are going to get upset about this book are ones who have an emotional loyalty to religion and can’t stand seeing it rubbished. This obviously applies to Eagleton, and I can’t for the life me understand why you say ‘it’s not done on behalf of religion’. A bit of googling on Eagleton tells me he is or was religious.

    Nor do I agree, being as objective as I can(as an admirer of Dawkins) that it’s a particularly clever or persuasive review – far less with Richard Phillipps conclusion that it’s a ‘ripper’. It’s bad tempered and unreasonable, and quite incoherent in key places where it’s pretending to clinch the argument. What on earth does this mean, for example:

    He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.

    And this doesn’t seem to make any sense at all:

    Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.

    Is he really saying that Dawkins’ faith that, say, his wife is not really is biological sister, is on a par with religious faith simply because neither is ‘unimpeachable?’

    And where does Eagleton stand, anyway? Does he think that belief in the God of Moses is any more reasonable than in Baal or Zeus? If so, on what grounds? If not, would he take exception to an uninformed attack on any of these beliefs?

  15. Emphatically what James said. Beat me to the punch.

    First, I haven’t read Dawkins’s book. But Eagleton’s review wouldn’t dissuade me from doing so.

    I thought generally a poor review as a book review. One example from his own “molehill” is that he doesn’t tell us what Dawkins’s intentions are. Perhaps it is a piece of agitprop aimed at refuting and ridiculing the more common, in both senses of the word, religious falsities prevalent. The “pinhead” differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus may not just be relevant to this task.

    Further Eagleton’s postivie views don’t really illuminate. Why is belief in God not like belief in the tooth fairy? Asserting God’s “transcendence” doesn’t help nor saying that it is a “condition of possibility” and that it sustains all things “by love”. More or less these are things attributed to the old guy in the sky with the white beard, so I’m happy to lose that image.

    El Tel, however, does give a good description of my favoured view of Jesus as basically an “A.D.” hippie preachin’ peace’n'love Baby. Was he a vegun as well? Probably not given the “loaves and fishes” supposed pretidigitation.

  16. Terry Eagleton comes to us with a track record of obscurantism in his own field and it is a big ask for him to illuminate scientific issues that Dawkins lives and breathes.

    Of course it is not really the scientific aspect of the Dawkins book that attracts his attention, it is more the rhetoric of theology and the various arguments about the existence of god.

    The whole thing looks a bit like a storm in a theological teacup. Like the robust atheists in the now-defunct Rationalist Society of NSW who attempted to tackle religious believers on their own ground of theology and biblical exegesis. But those of us in the Humanist Society who were concerned with social issues were inclined to call ourselves agnostics and we generally left the theological game to others until they come up with something that makes a difference to either scientific theories about the way the world works, or moral and political theories about what should be done along policy lines.

  17. “just explain what the universe is” – Nic
    But Nic, by definition the universe is what is.

    My position is that certainly there are many, many things that are unknown – and possibly (who knows?) unknowable, at least in the sense that they will never become known. We try and build up models of the world from what we know. In general, the more we know the better the predictive power of the models.

    But that doesn’t authorise us to make up stories about what we don’t know simply so we can pretend to knowledge. Still less should we expect others to respect these stories. That goes double for stories that are exploited to keep people in subordination.

    As for the Christianity as objectively useful meme – well we don’t have a counterfactual, do we? We can only speculate. F’rinstance had Constantine not seen immediate military advantage in adopting Christianity, and his successors not seen the political advantages of a uniform faith for the Empire, I reckon we might have arrived at the Enlightenment much sooner.

  18. DD,

    Here’s Charles Sanders Pierce on the unique nature of the idea of God as an hypothesis.

    The hypothesis of God is a peculiar one, in that it supposes an infinitely incomprehensible object, although every hypothesis, as such, supposes its object to be truly conceived in the hypothesis. This leaves the hypothesis but one way of undersanding itself; namely, as vague yet as true so far as it is definite, and as continually tending to define itsel more and more, without limit.

    In fact I think you could use R.G. Collingwood’s approach and say that God an/dor a religious world view is a ‘metaphysical presupposition’ or ‘absolute presupposition’. It’s not really there as something to be proven or disproven. Now at this stage I expect you migtht say ‘yes that’s my problem’.

    But the same is true of all systems of thought. I think Collingwood would say (and if he wouldn’t lets say I try it on for size) that what Pierce says of the ‘God’ hypothesis is true of the absolute presuppositions at the base of all world views.

    Materialism teaches that effects have causes, and certainly that causes have effects. That’s a more or less absolute presupposition and we then interrogate the world and see what we turn up with it (and a whole bunch of other related presuppositions – like there is this thing called matter and we’ve got a bit of an idea of what it is). Such absolute presuppositions can change over time. They’re not completely immune from reason or from empirical evidence, but their relation to both is highly problematic.

    My main concern with what I’d call ‘vulgar atheism’ (which I’m accusing Dawkins of) is that it is metaphysics masquerading as something other than metaphysics. It’sVulgar atheism has not come to terms with how unsatisfactory its own knowledge is. In science this is not much of an issue – indeed science’s great merit is that it gives up the quest for anything ultimate – in favour of what works – theories and technologies either work better or worse than their competitors. But it doesn’t work all that well when the questions become more fundamental. Nothing much does, but at least some approaches are more aware of themselves than others.

    I accept that a lot of people on this thread (and Dawkins) are expressing their displeasure at the peddlers of religious ideas that are anything but self aware. That’s fine. But I’ve been directing my concerns elsewhere – on this thread anyway.

  19. Nicholas, interesting last comment but I’m a little puzzled by your penultimate para as I’m not sure what you mean by saying that metaphysics has not come to terms with how unsatisfactory its own knowledge is. And also what the “it” is that doesn’t work well for fundamental questions.

    Also, I still don’t see how “presupposing” God advances one’s metaphysics. God’s existence is a respectable question for “special” metaphysics. And I suppose general metaphysics tries to strip away any presuppositions in inquiring into the nature of being or existence.

    Similarly with causes and effects. While these may “presuppose” each other by virtue of their respective meaning, causation itself doesn’t as a metaphysical inquiry. For example, Hume, on one view, thought causation merely a case of constant conjunction than strict cause and effect.

    Metaphysics sure does get some bad press, probably a remnant of the pejorative use of this term by the logical positivists and Popper (he says mentioning this “definite description” with some trepidation).

  20. Gaby, I think Nicholas was alluding to the meaninglessness of being dogmatic when dealing with “ultimate” questions. It’s all very well to flay the more literal religious or spiritual reponses that merely paste a poster called “God” over the void, but in doing so one is no nearer to answering the questions for which these various belief systems have through the ages sought to be an answer. The simple truth, at least as I see it, is that not only do we not know the right answers, we don’t even know the right questions and are unlikely to ever do so. As Nicholas says, the very least this realisation ought to engender is some sense of humility.

    On my reading, the more sophisticated forms of all the major spiritual traditions have throughout the ages been only too aware of the absurdities and dangers lurking in any and all attempts to define God. Indeed, many of them prefer to avoid doing so altogether. The awe we properly feel before the sheer immensity of our ignorance can at times combine with a sense of transcendence, a pull towards the divine that lies at the core of all spirituality. (Both these concepts are of course equally difficult to define but not perhaps always so hard to feel).

    Any determined atheist is in my experience at least as much in the grip of a belief system as the most fervent believer. For the scientist who feels no sense of the divine — which is obviously just fine — agnosticism seems to me the only honest stance. It is Dawkins’ fanaticism that many, including me, find so disagreeable, that and the way he arrogates to himself the cloak of reason, not aware, it would seem, of the inherent absurdity of his own position.

  21. If you agree it’s ‘absurd’ to define God, but also absurd to be an atheist, then perhaps you wouldn’t mind stating what specifically are the core beliefs that your sophisticated believers hold to, and which your sensible agnostics refuse to discount. Any atheist can be awed by the immensity of his ignorance and most of us are capable of feeling mystical in the right circumstances – trekking in the Andes, say, or listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata op.111. These don’t qualify as beliefs in God. (Putting inverted commas around God, by the way, doesn’t make Him any more plausible, nor his devotees more sophisticated.)

  22. Gaby,

    The ‘it’ above was ‘vulgar atheism’ not metaphysics. Sorry for foggy expression.

    My computer is very sick, so the twenty minutes or so of further explication has been consigned to the flames (well the blue screen of death actually). When my computer is in a better state (I’m writing this on my daughter’s laptop

  23. Gaby,

    The ‘it’ above was ‘vulgar atheism’ not metaphysics. Sorry for foggy expression.

    My computer is very sick, so the twenty minutes or so of further explication has been consigned to the flames (well the blue screen of death actually). When my computer is in a better state (I’m writing this on my daughter’s laptop) if I have time I’ll try to return to the fray.

  24. Isn’t one of the problems many Christians had with evolution way back when that it made us no better than a monkey, thus not central to God’s creation or anything in particular, and so forced us to feel a sense of “humility in our inadequacy”? And I think Dawkins often makes the same point as James: that he finds a sense of mystery and humility in contemplating the universe.

    I don’t buy this religion gives people a sense of humility argument. Maybe that’s where some find it, but certainly not all. For me, one of the earlier turnoffs of religion was the pomposity and arrogance of the most devout religious individuals I knew. You could say they were bad Christians, or unsophisticated Christians, but overall I don’t think there’s a positive correlation between belief in God and humility. (Proviso: likely big selection issues, correlation doesn’t imply causation.)

  25. James, it seems my comments have come across to you very differently than I’d intended. I was simply trying to convey my view that our efforts to grapple with these ultimate questions tend to founder because both our language and reasoning lack the necessary reach. And perhaps always will. Hence my comment that we don’t even know the right questions, much less the right answers.

    Whatever words we use are in my view as likely to obscure as clarify. When, for example, you say that the mystical sense we can feel in response to a piece of music, or nature, doesn’t qualify as belief in God this is of course true but I’m not so sure we can’t say it’s something in us responding to what might be called the divine. Whatever that might mean. Or, for that matter, whatever the word “God”

  26. Ingolf, I’m happy to accept that you don’t want to sound superior. But what’s the difference between what you are saying and, say, this:

    These people who snigger at the Loch Ness Monster are breathtakingly arrogant and shallow. Of course I don’t myself necessarily subscribe to any particular definition of the ‘monster’, let alone insist on its physicality as such. And I don’t of course take any of those photos or reported sightings seriously. But how could any but the most soulless and incurious person, on contemplating the blackness beneath the mist that arise from Loch Ness, feel any certainty about lurks in its unfathomable depths? Far wiser men than I have speculated on what might inhabit those murky depths, since man first gazed upon the lake 10,000 years, and who am I in my humility to say there is no ‘monster’?

  27. Interesting and thoughtful comments, Ingolf. I disagree with them profoundly, but they were still nice. And I disagree with them for pretty much the reasons given by James’s incisive responses.

    But just a few quick points. I think the relevant questions are well known and well specified and not of inconsiderable longevity. And the potential answers. But,as in all philosophy, the arguments and evidence are at large.

    We atheists are not trying to “define” God. We are just taking a few of the common characteristics attributed to him by religion. That is sufficient for our purposes.

    The question is does God exist. As Quine said, to exist is to be the value of a variable of an existential quantifier. This is a distinct question as to what the term “God” may mean. The direct analogy is to “unicorn”.

    As it is an existential question, it comes down to belief on the basis of evidence. Belief by faith is another matter altogether.

    The God I know best is the Catholic one and as far as I am concerned there is no evidence for a belief. I just don’t believe the anthropomorphic nature of this god, it is just too much fashioned in our image. I don’t believe that he routinely intervened in our world circa 4000 to 2000 years ago and hasn’t been seen or heard of since.

    I don’t think that Jesus was his “son” or that he was in any way divine. Christ knows what the Holy Ghost is supposed to be! I think Jesus had brothers and sisters. I believe that because the Bible says so and because his brother James was “immortalized” as “Jimmy Christ” by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their brilliant sketch, called the “Second Coming” I think.

    I reckon the doctrines of the “Immaculate Conception” and of the “Virgin Birth” are really attempts to “sex up” the dogma. Sort of accretions to belief for the credulous. Or to avoid the charge of single motherhood being levelled at the Madonna.

    There is no evidence that god is a necessary condition for my, or any, existence. There is no reason that god is necessary as a ground for morality.

    I believe the onus is on a believer to provided evidence for belief. If the ground of belief is faith, then there is no longer any point to arguing.

    Therefore, I feel justified in my atheism. I have been given no reason to doubt this position. So I don’t need to retreat to an agnosticism ( which raises a nice parallel here because the word was coined by T.H. Huxley, Charles Darwin’s “bulldog”).

    As James said, I can feel awe with the best of them, stoned or not. I can lie on the beach at night and look at the firmament and try to comprehend the immensity of space and that I am looking back in time. At times like these I think I feel a feeling that must be something like Kant’s sublime.

    James, which is the op.111?

    By the way, Mozart’s “Requiem” inspires in me feelings of awe, the sublime and that there is an intrinsic order in the Universe. Funny that…

  28. I’d also like to pick up on Nicholas’s characterization of Dawkins’s atheism as “vulgar”. Now I want to stress that I haven’t read his book, or even anything by him on god.

    But rather than vulgar perhaps a better description Dawkins is a militant atheist.

    If we allow Dawkins his meme “meme”, then perhaps he sees himself as a partisan in a struggle of ideas among memes, just as Darwinian evolution by natural selection relies on a struggle for existence.

    And so some “red in tooth and claw” arguing is appropriate given his opponents and some of the crude and dishonest ideas he may be confronting. I’m thinking in particular of the recent upsurge in creationism.

    And of course I’m also thinking of more “sophisticated” gambits like the recent speech of the Pope in criticizing Kant in order, I think, to begin to reinstate god as a part of scientific and metaphysical discourse.

  29. Well, I really am doing a terrible job of communicating, it seems.

    With the possible exception of your comment that the ultimate questions are well known (see below), I feel comfortable with everything you wrote, Gaby. I also entirely agree that any belief in God (however defined) is a matter of faith, not of proof. This whole discussion was sparked by Nicholas’ distaste for Dawkins’ absolutism on a question where in his view — and mine — neither positive or negative proof is possible.

    And therein, I think, lies the difference between your lovely parody, James, and the case for leaving open the ultimate questions. The existence or otherwise of the Loch Ness monster can be settled by scientific verification. Plus of course there’s hardly a compelling reason to postulate its existence in the first place. How “it all” began, and when, and perhaps even why, on the other hand, are not questions that can be easily avoided. Nor do I see how they can ever be definitively answered. Of course we’ll continue to learn more and more about the origins of the universe etc etc, but behind every such gain in knowledge these core mysteries will still stand. Infinite regression, conceptual gridlock. Some choose to call the hypothetical answer to these mysteries God, or Allah, or the Great Spirit . . . and so on.

    I suspect most, maybe even all, of our apparent disagreements are semantic. Perhaps to Nicholas’ phrase “vulgar atheism”

  30. But we still differ, Ingolf.

    I didn’t say that belief in god is a matter of “proof”, but of evidence. Proof is not to the point. Hence, I would say James’s pointed counter-example is still relevant. The purported proofs of god’s existence are unsound. And I don’t know how to begin a “proof” of god’s non-existence.

    And I don’t think that our disagreements are semantic. On the contrary, I am arguing that they are of substance.

  31. I confess I’m a bit lost now, Gaby. Clearly I’m missing your point, or perhaps you mine.

    I’ve not suggested there could be any such thing as “proof” of God’s existence, much less offered one. Nor have I put forward any evidence beyond — in passing — the mystical feelings we all have from time to time and that I fully accept may well mean nothing. Indeed I don’t understand how one actually could put forward either evidence or proof and I wouldn’t know where to begin in theoretically describing a hypothetical God. My only contention throughout has been that the ultimate questions — however one is to try to frame them — seem best left open because they are probably unanswerable.

    Can you enlighten me as to our disagreements of substance?

  32. I don’t see any problem with your theological position as stated in the last couple of emails, Ingolf.

    However, the point is that Dawkins’ critique is not directed at nebulous agnosticism of your variety, but rather at people whose faith consists of specific doctrines. Now, you might argue that, as long as the doctrines don’t inspire harmful actions, there is no need to go around writing insulting polemics against them. That seems fair enough. But as Dawkins sees it, the trouble with this approach is that, when you create an environment in which arbitrary beliefs in general must be respected, it becomes harder to challenge specific arbitray beliefs that do actually threaten to cause harm. When there emerges a campaign to introduce Sharia Law, or creationism in biology classes, are you content to respond by saying ‘I respect your belief but it doesn’t personally suit me, so I’m going to resist it’, or do you prefer to go further and appeal to the zealots to analyse their assumptions and try to be more rational? If the latter, shouldn’t you apply the same standard to anyone who subscribes to arbitrary beliefs, including harmless ones?

  33. Good questions, James. I’m inclined to leave others entirely in peace with their beliefs providing, as you say, they don’t inspire harmful actions. Any other approach, however rational when viewed from one perspective, seems to me likely to encourage unnecessary division and can so easily itself drift into issues of control. If they’re not unduly stirred up, I think most of these sorts of issues tend to sort themselves out over time. However, in our society at least, if a religous group tried to impose its views on our institutions or laws I would certainly oppose those efforts.

    Richard Dawkins is of course no less free to fulminate than anyone else. My negative reaction, by the way, is not based on having read his latest book but on a radio programme I listened to a while back celebrating his career (a sort of intellectual roast if you like). Religion and God received the expected bashing — which was obviously fine — but I remember being surprised at the shallow, almost sophomoric quality of many of the comments. Could have been a bad night for he and his mates and may also have been a poor representation of his more fully articulated views but it added to the distaste I’d occasionally felt reading a few of his books many years ago.

    Anyway, enough — from me at least — on Mr Dawkins. My initial few words yesterday, which I thought would pass without comment, have grown and multiplied far too much.

    Thanks for a good exchange. Time to listen to that piano sonata, me’thinks.

  34. Thanks James. I haven’t heard so I’ll definitely go and search it out.

    I’ve enjoyed the chat too, Ingolf. So thanks to Nicholas for his original post too.

    Ingolf, you asked me about what our disputes of substance may be. Well our differences are not about meaning, e.g., the meaning of “God” or the meaning of the proposition “god exists”.

    But rather about the truth of, or justified belief in, the proposition “God exists”. This to me is a difference of substance in the sense that it depends on how the world is.

    Also, I interpreted your use of “proof” to be a reference to the standard philosphical arguments or proofs of god’s existence.

    Finally, I suppose I don’t find this issue as mysterious or ineffable as you. If god is so ill- or un- defined that it is difficult to ask even these simple questions of his nature or existence, then so much the worse for believers.

  35. All good fun, above. But I still can’t see Ingolf’s point – if we don’t know the answer to a question because we cannot get evidence to distinguish between the truth of possible answers, shouldn’t we just say we don’t know rather than insist one of those possible answers is ‘the truth’?

    And if someone comes to me insisting that this, and only this, possible answer is the true answer to this unanswerable question (“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”) then aren’t I entitled to cry “bulldust”? Especially when, as is usually the case, the insistent dogmatist then slides from positions on unanswerable questions to positions on questions which are capable of an answer but where they don’t like the best answer.

    On entheogenic music, there’s a scene in Aldous Huxley’s “Point Counterpoint” where someone tries to convince an atheist of the existence of god simply by playing the 2nd movement – the Heilige Dankgesang – from Op 132. If you want profound and moving music you can do a lot worse than any of those late quartets – 35 years after I first heard them they’re still capable of evoking tears when I’m in the right mood.

  36. Derrida Derider, totally agree about Ludwig’s late quartets, especially Op.132 for me too.

    I’m not good on opus numbers, but I think there is an Op.135 that is a personal fave.

    And “Point Counterpoint” is a good read too.

  37. Gaby, somewhere in what I wrote I’ve clearly left an unintended impression since both you and Derrida Derider express similar disagreements with me. In an earlier post, I wrote:

    My only contention throughout has been that the ultimate questions –

  38. “Gaby, somewhere in what I wrote I’ve clearly left an unintended impression since both you and Derrida Derider express similar disagreements with me…

    “For my own further education in the pitfalls of communication, would one or both of you let me know whether this is where your impression of my position –

  39. I can’t speak for Gaby or DD, but in may case the answer is very straightforward.

    From time to time one encounters a bitter denunciation of something called militant atheism, on the basis that it involves some kind of double standard. The militant atheist is portrayed as no less dogmatic than the religious believers he scorns, and no less reliant on faith – His faith being different only by virtue of being negative.

    I thought I detected this meme, to coin phrase, in your first post. If I was mistaken, then you might well agree with the following.

    The trouble is that the militant atheist is a strawman. There may have been a time when an atheist was defined as someone who claimed that the non-existence of God could be formally demonstrated, while an agnostic believed that neither His existence nor his non-existence can be demonstrated. But by these deninitions hardly anyone, not even Dawkins, would be atheist, and indeed a good many believers would be agnostic. In contemporary usage, an atheist is simply someone who doesn’t believe in God, while an agnostic ‘isn’t sure’. All the self-proclaimed agnostics I have known were strongly tempted by the idea that there is some kind of conscious being ‘out there’. Atheists are not.

    It’s obvious why religious people want to put atheists on the back foot, by exposing their alleged double standard. In the case of agnostics, however, I find it a bit puzzling. I guess it just boils down to a sensitivity to ridicule. But I don’t think Dawkins wants to rubbish anyone’s private spiritual experiences. On the other hand, when believers claim some degree of authority in matters of moral or natural philosophy, on the basis of those experiences, he takes that as a licence to cut and slice.

    Gaby: I remember being in stiches over that sketch too, but had long forgotten it. Was it from ‘Not the 9 0′Clock News’ or later?

  40. Fair enough, Gaby. I think I understand your position. Thanks for taking the time to resolve my confusion.

    In terms of the kind of God presented by conventional religions I’d also have to classify myself as an atheist. It wasn’t for this that I felt the intellectual door should be left open. It’s more about nourishing a sentiment, an underlying openness that permeates Taoism, say, or some of Buddhism, or much of the thinking of Paul Tillich.

    There’s a rather lovely — if slightly lengthy — quote from Henry James’ “The Will to Believe” which in a way encapsulates this whole business from my point of view:

    “When I look at the religious question as it really puts itself to concrete men, and when I think of all the possibilities which both practically and theoretically it involves, then this command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait, acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true — till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough, — this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave. Were we scholastic absolutists, there might be more excuse. If we had an infallible intellect with its objective certitudes, we might feel ourselves disloyal to such a perfect organ of knowledge in not trusting to it exclusively, in not waiting for its releasing word. But if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we may wait if we will, — I hope you do not think that I am denying that, — but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed. In either case we act, taking our life in our hands. No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another’s mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.”

  41. Well thanks a lot for that Ingolf.

    The Pierce that I quoted and the James that you quote are very clearly of a similar sensibility. Perhaps the air they were breathing was a bit full of spiritualists and cranks for my liking (though certainly Pierce was strident against the cranks of his age, religious and otherwise.)

    It’s been an odd but good debate I think – between about five non-believers. I’ll stick to ‘vulgar atheism’ for Dawkins, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time to explicate further right now. I doubt it will make much difference but I have a slightly different take on it to Ingolf and will try to have one more go if I have a bit more time soon.

  42. Well, I’m not into bitter denunciations but I do think there can be some truth in that meme, James. As I said earlier, I haven’t read Dawkins’ book but he has in the past struck me as leaning towards the dogmatic camp. This excerpt from a NYT review of the book sums up — presuming it’s accurate of course — much of what I’ve tended to dislike about Dawkins:

    The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy. Dawkins fans accustomed to his elegant prose might be surprised to come across such vulgarisms as “sucking up to God”

  43. Nicholas as the Scarlet Pimpernel?

    Ingolf, nice quote, but I think it is William James, not Henry.

    James, I totally agree, atheism certainly doesn’t rely on a “proof” of non-existence. I tried to explicitly disavow that in my comments.

    But then I think an atheist is not waiting for the “bell to toll”. I read the W. James as an exhortation to decide, and not wait, if justified. So this gives no specific warrant for an agnosticism.

    “Sodomites over there against the wall”. On to weightier matters, the Atkinson sketch is from his one man show. I’ve got it on an old cassette, “Live in Belfast”. Brilliant show. His straight man was Angus Deayton I think. Saw a version of the show in the late ’80′s or early ’90′s.

    Also, fell asleep last night to the op.111 piano sonata. Found I had it on a cd. Only got to about 4 minutes of the first movement, and not a reflection of the music. Looking forward to listening to the rest.

  44. Gaby, I’m an equal opportunity grump about all this, just as unhappy with a tub thumping evangelist as a proselytising atheist. In fact, probably more so since they’re much more likely to be genuinely dangerous. It’s just shooting down fundamentalists is such common sport that it seems worth having a bit of a go when an evangelical atheist pops up.

    And you’re quite right, of course, it’s William. As you say, James would very likely put a determined agnostic — if that’s not a contradiction in terms — at the bottom of his scale.

    Nicholas, glad to see you back. I’m not sure I’ve done anything like a decent job of defending your initial thesis — at least as I read it — in your absence but it’s been interesting. Look forward to whatever comments you may find time for.

  45. Eagleton writes ‘At its most philistine and provincial, it makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann.’

    If you want to really insult somebody, always turn to terms of racist abuse derived from the Bible.

    Eagelton has just betrayed how much hatred and racism religion has inspired , in one cute Freudian slip.

  46. The Philistines were a group of people in the Bible.

    The term ‘Philistine’ is now a term of abuse.

    Abusing people by saying that they belong to one particular group of people is racism.

  47. Thanks Steven. But surely you jest?

    I think you are well aware of how philistine is used in common parlance and that it has nothing to do with race (or even circumcision)

    “Race” itself is a modern social construct.

    Philistines in the Old Testament were not a race. In Old Testament genealogy they were descendants of the Casluhites, who where descendants of Ham one of the sons of Noah (Gen 10). They were avowed enemies of the family and then group of clans who later became the nation of Israel. In later references Philistines simply were the people who had settled in a particular area in the South West of Canaan with five principal cities Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath. Like we who live in Australia are Australians. Want to call us a race?

    The origins of the Philistines is still debated – probably Mycenean – they disappeared in the time of the Neo Babylonian empire.

  48. I agree with the writers who critique Eagleton’s infantile repsonse to Dawkins. Do I have to read volumes on astrology or witch torture to see that the premises underlying both are flawed? In the case of theologians, if their major premise (that God exists)is flawed then the arguments that flow from that premise are also flawed.

    Dawkins (and my) atheism essentially stem from two basic tenets which are derived from the scientific method:
    1. He who makes the claim needs to provide evidence to support the claim. The burden of evidence is upon the claim maker. Theists claim that God exists made the world etc. They need to provide evidence that supports this claim. Atheists simply state that the evidence for a personal God is lacking. Additionally, an inability of the listener to provide evidence against the claim DOES NOT constitute evidence for the claim. Dawkins outlines this idea well with his discusion of the spaghetti monster and the celestial teapot.
    2. When a hypothesis is being tested (a personal god exists, created the world and intervenes in human activity), an alternative hypothesis needs to also be considered (evolution, carbon dating, fossil record, etc. etc. which are agreed upon by 99% of the people who understand these concepts – scientists)
    Proof of a personal god falls short on both these criteria.

  49. I am not going to comment on the god vs ‘militant’ non theism…debate… .. except two things , it looks something like comparing poetry with prose .

    Re early (and still going) objections to Darwin’s theory .
    There are three (continuing) fundamental propositions to the Origin of the Species:
    1)Survival of the fittest- Natural selection
    2) heritability of traits
    And
    3) that nature produces far more ‘babies’, than can possibly survive to reproduce, much more than are needed

    The first two tenets did not bother many; selection of the best i.e improvement of breeding stock and like- were uncontroversial. And heritability -that Oak seeds grow into Oak trees was also not controversial.
    It was the 3rd tenet that caused the most controversy , the idea of a creation that was so causally profligate ,’ produced kittens that were doomed to be drowned’ bothered many.

    One of the funny things about all this is that historically the most wide spread, and effective, organised rejection of Darwinism took place in the Soviet Union under Lysenko.

    PS the discussions between Jonathan Sacks and Alain de Botton are more interesting , well a bit less Punch and Judy, Q&A style set-pieces.
    http://youtu.be/VXPA0BGSWLI

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