I get irritated when people throw the word ‘definitive’ around. So ignore the headline which is – in the words of Lady Bracknell – altogether too sensational.
But in a recent post of mine that seems to have found its way into the side bar of recent comments for a surprisingly long period of time, Ingolf has drawn our attention to what I think is a bloody marvellous review of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion
I began talking about Dawkins book by linking to another negative review of Dawkins by Terry Eagleton. I thought Eagleton’s review hit various nails on the head but of course I agreed with it. Not surprisingly, it’s stridency made a very poor impression – as stridency generally does – on those who are not already converted. Now H. Allen Orr argues the same line, in greater detail, with greater lucidity but from the same essential perspective.
Here are some of the most telling extracts but read the whole thing, and go have a read around some of Orr’s other articles and scraps in the NYRB.
Dawkins’s first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), was a smash hit. . . . Best of all, Dawkins laid out this biology¢â¬âsome of it truly subtle¢â¬âin stunningly lucid prose. (It is, in my view, the best work of popular science ever written.) . . .
The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur. I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.
The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. . . .
You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).
Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer, both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein¢â¬âboth of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan. . . .
Exercises in double standards also plague Dawkins’s discussion of the idea that religion encourages good behavior. Dawkins cites a litany of statistics revealing that red states (with many conservative Christians) suffer higher rates of crime, including murder, burglary, and theft, than do blue states. But now consider his response to the suggestion that the atheist Stalin and his comrades committed crimes of breathtaking magnitude: “We are not in the business,” he says, “of counting evils heads, compiling two rival roll calls of iniquity.” We’re not? We were forty-five pages ago. . . .
C.S. Lewis, in perhaps the most widely read work of popular theology ever written, Mere Christianity, conceded the possibility. Emphasizing that the Gospel was preached to the weak and poor, Lewis argued that troubled souls might well be drawn disproportionately to the Church. As he also emphasized, the appropriate contrast should not, therefore, be between the behavior of churchgoers and nongoers but between the behavior of people before and after they find religion. Under Dawkins’s alternative logic, the fact that those sitting in a doctor’s office are on average sicker than those not sitting there must stand as an indictment of medicine. (There’s no evidence in The God Delusion that Dawkins is familiar with Lewis’s argument.)
In any case, there are some grounds for questioning whether Dawkins’s project is even meaningful. As T.S. Eliot famously observed, to ask whether we would have been better off without religion is to ask a question whose answer is unknowable. Our entire history has been so thoroughly shaped by Judeo-Christian tradition that we cannot imagine the present state of society in its absence. But there’s a deeper point and one that Dawkins also fails to see. Even what we mean by the world being better off is conditioned by our religious inheritance. What most of us in the West mean¢â¬âand what Dawkins . . . means¢â¬âis a world in which individuals are free to express their thoughts and passions and to develop their talents so long as these do not infringe on the ability of others to do so. But this is assuredly not what a better world would look like to, say, a traditional Confucian culture. There, a new and improved world might be one that allows the readier suppression of individual differences and aspirations. The point is that all judgements, including ethical ones, begin somewhere and ours, often enough, begin in Judaism and Christianity. Dawkins should, of course, be applauded for his attempt to picture a better world. But intellectual honesty demands acknowledging that his moral vision derives, to a considerable extent, from the tradition he so despises. . .
The reason Dawkins thinks he has something to say about God is, of course, clear: he is an evolutionary biologist. And as we all know, Darwinism had an early and noisy run-in with religion. What Dawkins never seems to consider is that this incident might have been, in an important way, local and contingent. It might, in other words, have turned out differently, at least in principle. Believers could, for instance, have uttered a collective “So what?” to evolution. Indeed some did. The angry reaction of many religious leaders to Darwinism had complex causes, involving equal parts ignorance, fear, politics, and the sheer shock of the new. The point is that it’s far from certain that there is an ineluctable conflict between the acceptance of evolutionary mechanism and the belief that, as William James putit, “the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe.” Instead, we and Dawkins might simply be living through the reverberations of an interesting, but not especially fundamental, bit of Victorian history. If so, evolutionary biology would enjoy no particularly exalted pulpit from which to preach about religion.
None of this is to say that evolutionary biology cannot inform our view of religion. It can and does. At the very least it insists that the Lord works in mysterious ways. More generally, it demands rejection of anything approaching biblical literalism. There are facts of nature¢â¬âincluding that human beings evolved on the African savanna several million years ago¢â¬âand these facts are not subject to negotiation. But Dawkins’s book goes far beyond this. The reason, of course, is that The God Delusion is not itself a work of either evolutionary biology in particular or science in general. None of Dawkins’s loud pronouncements on God follows from any experiment or piece of data. It’s just Dawkins talking.
Finally a quote from Orr commenting on some earlier Dawkins attacks on religion.
When Dawkins attacked the “different dimensions” view of religion defended by Stephen Jay Gould and others, he assailed a variety of religious thinking that had already rejected miracles as literal events. Indeed he attacked a body of thought that holds that religion must surrender all pretense of describing the physical world. Now I don’t know if this different dimensions view is entirely defensible¢â¬â and I certainly don’t claim it’s common among the faithful¢â¬âbut I do maintain that Dawkins’s attacks on it were less than cogent. In the end, we scientists must guard against our own kind of literalism: it is one thing to ridicule religious persons for believing in virgin births; it is another to continue snickering after they’ve said they don’t hold that belief literally.