Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Do you have to read up on Dawkins before thinking he's an idiot?

So I promised you some comments on Richard Dawkins' recent intellectual train crash, and here we are. I admit to being a bit slow off the mark on this one, since the letter which we will take as our text today was originally published on 17th September; indeed, it is possible (if not likely) that our Great Bright Friend has made further entertaining utterances in the intervening time (not least a discussion on the BBC last Sunday, which is safely lurking on my iPod, and to which we may well return at a later stage).

But getting back to the subject in hand: Dawkins' letter to The Independent (which, for the benefit of our foreign viewers, is a respectable British newspaper) entitled Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in them?. The full text of the letter is available here, but, since I haven't read most of the other things he refers to (although it is worth noting that most of the things he tells you to google for will take you to his own website), I shall refrain from comment and confine my remarks to the actual title of the letter.

A little background will help. One of the commonest criticisms of Dawkins' book The God Delusion (apart from the general criticism that it's just a bit crap) is that it rather demonstrates a lack of background understanding.

For example, he tells us on page 95 that "The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen...", quoting Bart Ehrman, a former fundamentalist turned atheist, of whom Dawkins is fond. Ehrman is not, incidentally, renowned for his scholarship. No evidence, no consideration of how this might have been done; we are simply told it, as a fact. He ignores the fact that there is good reason to reject the rejected 'gospels'. Presumably that would detract too much from his argument.

But it is in Chapter 7 ("The 'Good' Book and the Moral Zeitgeist") that Dawkins dwells most fully upon the Bible, demonstrating again that research may not be one of his strong points.

He is at great pains to demonstrate that Christ's command to "Love thy neighbour" actually meant "Love another Jew". It would be fun to analyse his argument here, but unfortunately he doesn't provide one. He does give an actual reference though, a chap called Hartung who quotes Revelation as backup. The verses concerned are presumably chapter 7v4 and 14v1, although finding this out is left as an exercise for the reader. Dawkins point is that these verses talk about 144,000 people in heaven who were 'sealed' from the tribes of Israel, i.e. the Jews. Therefore no one else is allowed in, therefore it's all about being an exclusive in-group, which is a bad thing, therefore religion is bad. It is a little unfortunate that he didn't keep reading as far as, say, the next couple of verses, which in each case describe all the non-Jews who are in heaven as well, for had he done so, he might not have made such a pratt of himself.

Incidentally, Chapter 7 gives a good sense of the structure of the book: having demonstrated his lack of understanding of theology, we have diversions through the Northern Ireland troubles (religion's fault), inter-faith marriages (frowned on by religion), Dawkins' own version of the Ten Commandments (don't ask), an examination of years in which various countries awarded women the vote ('relevance to topic in hand' having clearly been abandoned as a criterion for inclusion by this point), racism (religion's fault) and Hitler (not an atheist, or even if he was, he wasn't bad because he was an atheist, and anyway, he wasn't really all that bad, not if you compare him to Genghis Khan (page 268)). By the time the chapter eventually draws to a close, having not proved anything much, one is nearly ready to just cave in and agree, for the sake of a quiet life.

He's not mad keen on the Trinity either (see pages 34-35), mainly because he can't understand it and no one can explain it to him in a way that makes sense. He gets particularly confused by the way the Catholic church adds in Mary and lots of saints and various legions of angels to the Godhead; he could, of course, have saved himself a lot of angst by actually spending 2 minutes on Wikipedia or talking to an actual Catholic, who could have put him straight on this one (y'know, that Mary is not, actually, considered by Catholics to be God; nor are the saints or the angels), except that obviously he couldn't care less because God doesn't exist anyway so who cares so nah nah nah nah nah.

Well, you started it, Professor.

Anyway, we could go on almost indefinitely, but the point is that whether he is speaking on the Bible or theology or anything of that nature, it is fairly clear that he can't really be bothered and isn't that interested, and therefore he has to pad it out by writing nonsense. And quite a number of people have commented on this: that there is a school of thought which suggests that it might be a good idea to demonstrate that you actually know what you're talking about, before you talk about it.

And so Dawkins has come up with this devastating response: do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in them? He wheels this one out regularly, and appears to think it's actually, you know, quite convincing.

For of course, if God does not exist, why bother to read up on what people have said about him? Why waste one's precious time and effort on learning about a non-entity? Indeed. And in a sense, I couldn't agree more. For example, I don't believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and yet I've never read a single word on Pastianity. But then that's not really the point, you see, because I also haven't written a 374-page book on the subject and tried to pass it off as a form of intelligent argument.

Let us suppose that I decide to write a blog entry on The X-Factor, which I have never watched and have no interest in. And let's suppose that I am trying to prove it's a rubbish programme, and I start by talking about that guy Alphonsus who sang I'll Be Home For Christmas last week, and wasn't he pants and he can't even sing or dance. And then you point out that there's no one on it called Alphonsus and no one ever sang I'll Be Home For Christmas, and then I reply "Well, who cares? I think it's a rubbish programme anyway, why should I bother watching it? You crazy reality-tv-loving madperson, you just want everyone to watch that rubbish programme, because you're too uneducated to see that it's rubbish.". You'd not be best impressed, I'd hazard.

So, Prof Dawkins, you are right. You do not have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in them. But if you're going to write a large book on your disbelief in leprechauns and charge me money for it, a little research would be appreciated. Otherwise I might think you're just a bit of a twit.

6 comments:

QMonkey said...

I’m sure RD has read the bible… what makes us any more qualified to comment on it than him… just because you/we might believe it. One believer rarely agrees with another on what the bible says and what it means… and it rarely stops them writing books about it.

What you’re really saying is… he’s wrong… and he will realise he’s wrong if he studies and thinks about it a little more … and applies more intellect to it… he might see that actually Jesus did do miracles and stuff (how many non-believers study theology at length ? cant be too many – therefore in your logic no-one but a true beliver is qualified to comment/critic faith)
How smart do you have to be to realise the truth? Smarter than RD? really? Or should we just accept things on a lower grade of evidence?

The ‘you just don’t understand it’ argument…is a poor defence/riposte. As is the…. ‘There are so many flaws in the book to mention’… etc etc it feels like protesting too much. I haven’t read it, but I know people who have and think it’s excellent… intelligent thoughtful people… non-believers though (maybe they haven’t spent enough time in bible college to understand how RD is a numpty)


http://maryquitecontrary.wordpress.com/2007/12/13/how-smart-does-one-have-to-be-to-know-jesus/

whynotsmile said...

You see, it's not that I think I'm more qualified to understand the Bible than Dawkins is. It's just that he comments on it and says things that are just plain wrong. Like the 'Heaven is only for Jews' thing, where he clearly just picks out the verse that (out of context) backs him up. The next couple of verses would prove that that's not the case.

Or the 'Love thy neighbour' means 'Love thy fellow Jew' - he doesn't even bother giving an argument for that, but it's clearly nonsense.

And he does basically dismiss the notion of the Trinity because he says it doesn't make sense.

The thing is, none of this is central to his argument about God not existing anyway, so why bother including it?

And I'm really not sure he has read the Bible. Bits of it, yes, all of it, no. But again, that's fine and you can disbelieve in God without reading the Bible - but then why write a book about it?!

I do think you can disbelieve in God without reading up on theology (as Dawkins puts it), but you can't write a book about theology without at least having a passing interest in the subject.

QMonkey said...

I DO give way to you somewhat on reflection… that its not helpful to delve in to theology without being a theologian. Saying that 'Love thy neighbour' means 'Love thy fellow Jew' is theology… and if you don’t accept the validly or reliability of the bible… why wade into this kinda thing. It’s a mistake. In saying that… he’s as entitled to his reading of it as you… he’s not ‘just plain wrong’ you are ‘just plain wrong’ to say that he’s ‘just plain wrong’.  ( I think he does it to expose hypocrisy… but as you’ve shown, its counter productive)

I think the key thing which always comes up in this specific area… is where the burden of proof lies. You say ‘its ok to disbelieve, without reading the bible’ … personally I think that axis skewed – how can you do anything BUT disbelieve in Christ/resurrection/messiah stuff without fully understanding the bible… and coming to a reasoned view on why its propery to belive jesus was the son of god (something the vast majority of the reasoned rational jews at the time didn’t) surely you would then be guilty of making a huge leap based on shaky evidence… which im sure you would say is a mistake (if you lower your standard of evidence then you’re susceptible to fall for any myth/scam/theory/religion that comes along)

I concede your main point though – don’t make seemingly informed theological points if your not a theologian. I haven’t read it… but from my reading of reviews and comments I don’t think the main thrust of it is anything to do with interpretation of the bible.. its more about the human delusion of god (in general)

whynotsmile said...

I see. I disagree that he's as entitled to his reading of it as me, when his reading of it patently contradicts what it says, but obviously in matters of interpretation either of us could be wrong (although again, I'd at least appreciate a reasoned analysis of why he decided on that particular interpretation, rather than a bald 'This is right').

There are methods for interpreting texts, such as reading them in context, looking at why they were written, etc etc. Someone who does that is more qualified to comment than someone who doesn't bother, in my over-exalted opinion. And Dawkins doesn't appear to bother, he just picks out bits that suit whatever he happens to be saying.

When I talk about how one can disbelieve without reading the Bible, I mean disbelief in God - I think one can disbelieve in God on a kind of philosophical level - which is essentially what Dawkins does in the first few chapters. The Bible is of course essential once you get to the more specific stuff about Jesus being the Messiah and so on, but Dawkins doesn't really touch on that (other than to dismiss it out of hand).

It just would have made for a better reading experience if he'd stopped after about chapter 4, rather than adding a lot of waffle which isn't relevant and is largely based on misinterpretation.

That's all.

QMonkey said...

I DO give way to you somewhat on reflection… that its not helpful to delve in to theology without being a theologian. Saying that 'Love thy neighbour' means 'Love thy fellow Jew' is theology… and if you don’t accept the validly or reliability of the bible… why wade into this kinda thing. It’s a mistake. In saying that… he’s as entitled to his reading of it as you… he’s not ‘just plain wrong’ you are ‘just plain wrong’ to say that he’s ‘just plain wrong’.  ( I think he does it to expose hypocrisy… but as you’ve shown, its counter productive)

I think the key thing which always comes up in this specific area… is where the burden of proof lies. You say ‘its ok to disbelieve, without reading the bible’ … personally I think that axis skewed – how can you do anything BUT disbelieve in Christ/resurrection/messiah stuff without fully understanding the bible… and coming to a reasoned view on why its propery to belive jesus was the son of god (something the vast majority of the reasoned rational jews at the time didn’t) surely you would then be guilty of making a huge leap based on shaky evidence… which im sure you would say is a mistake (if you lower your standard of evidence then you’re susceptible to fall for any myth/scam/theory/religion that comes along)

I concede your main point though – don’t make seemingly informed theological points if your not a theologian. I haven’t read it… but from my reading of reviews and comments I don’t think the main thrust of it is anything to do with interpretation of the bible... its more about his theory that god is a delusion (in general)

QMonkey said...

dunno why my post came through twice... i thought i was only 'editing'

anyway...

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

and a happy new year of blog fodder for you, i hope