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.