Rebuttal to Terry Eagleton’s Critique of Dawkins’ The God Delusion
Dear Readers, my apologies in advance for a very long post. I’m refuting Eagleton’s critique of Dawkins point-by-point!
London Review of Books
LRB | Vol. 28 No. 20 dated 19 October 2006 | Terry Eagleton
Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins • Bantam, 406 pp, £20.00
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.
In the very first sentence, Eagleton makes the most common mistake: he places theology on a par with science—the study of the unknowable and invisible equivalent to that which has helped humanity understand nature and build the modern world. Dawkins makes no attempt to be an expert on theology, any more than he makes an attempt to be an expert at wizardry. The book is not written as a theological treatise. It is a scientific, rationalistic analysis of what is clearly a human cultural phenomenon—god belief.
Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.
But what is a first-year theology student studying? Other people’s writings and opinions which have no grounding in fact. They can wince all they want, but they are essentially studying the literature, history, and anthropology of believers—nothing more.
Like historians, theologians may fret and split hairs over the accuracy of documents, their authenticity, translations, and the like. But unlike historians, they do not think they are simply studying human civilization. They have made up this other character, about which nothing can be known or quantified. And this character runs like a thread through the entire discipline. And like pulling the needles out of your grandmother’s knitting, theology will come totally unraveled when the “god needle” is pulled out.
The first year theology student is learning to suspend his critical thinking skills, while the historian, anthropologist, philosopher and literature student are sharpening theirs.
The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday. Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree.
How so? Derrida’s qualifications to receive the degree were questionable. His deconstructivism could be read as an attack on the ability to have certainty of knowledge, independent of language, and the existence of any degree of logical positivism. This stance was highly controversial.
Derrida is a far cry from Dawkins, who is wholly non-controversial as a scientist. Dawkins hasn’t tried to give anyone a fake degree. He is staying within his discipline and giving commentary on the physical evidence for the existence of deities, which is to say—none.
Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice.
Do I need to study the entire canon on Alchemy to know that it was bunk?? Maybe I should take up phrenology for 4 years before I can readily conclude that it has been superseded by modern medicine.
For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.
Likewise, Karl Marx or Hitler really need no debunking. Do we need to wade through Das Kapital or Mein Kampf to understand what these men were about? I personally would have more interest in understanding Marx than Hitler. But one need only read the Cliff’s notes to get the picture.
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus?
Does it matter? I’m sure Dawkins doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the difference between Aquinas and Scotus. In The God Delusion, though, he gives a rather swift and stern debunking to Aquinas’ weak ‘proofs’ for the existence of god.
Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher. He is studying religion as a natural phenomenon. He does not need to understand every detail of religious philosophy to comment on it.
Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.
Here we go with the “equally fanatical” charge again. If I’m passionate about bicycle riding, stamp collecting, or a particular microprocessor design, does that make me a fanatic like Oral Roberts? It does matter whether you are being passionate about something grounded in fact or fantasy—unless you are the most vulgar post-modernist.
Besides, theists are free to disagree with Dawkins, and they obviously do. What else would one expect people to say who’ve staked their entire life on something unprovable? The only thing they have to hold onto is the persistence and broad nature of the delusion. The fewer believers, the harder it is for the theists to insist the emperor is wearing clothing.
When I hear the fanatic charge about Dawkins, I scratch my head! Is he out buying weapons to go and assault seminaries? Is he rounding up groups of suicide bombers? Is he trying to stop the distribution of contraceptives, or stop scientists from doing stem-cell research?? NO!! That’s what his opponents are doing. He is working quietly writing books, lecturing, and making TV appearances. Something theologians take it as their god-given right to do. Where does the charge of fanaticism come from?? I don’t get it.
A molehill of instances out of a mountain of them will have to suffice. Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief.
This is what the religious like to tell themselves, that they think critically. Many times it is true. They have highly developed analytical skills and amazing memories for scriptural detail. They think critically about everything except their basic premises. In some ways, I think theists have to work harder because doubts come at them 24/7, and new types of doubts are coming up every day. What a horrible nightmare to have to defend oneself against the knowledge that your invisible world might crumble at any moment. Especially when you have tended this fantasy to the exclusion of all else in your life.
(Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason.
More by faith than reason?? This is one of the sickest of the theist arguments. When they can’t win with reason, they have to try to devalue reason to the level of faith. It’s like a perpetual inferiority complex. The only way to deal the feelings of inferiority is to turn it around—claiming equivalence. Trouble is, if reason is nothing but faith, and theists are dismissing reason, then how can they claim to value faith?
It is the perfect recoil argument, similar to that which easily defeats post-modernism: namely that the statement that "all knowledge is relative" is itself an absolute statement, therefore it fails its own criteria.
When theists pull the “reason is faith” card, they have the same problem, and you know they have run out of arguments.
We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ’scientific’.
Care to cite examples of non-theistic beliefs which have no rational justification and are still reasonable to hold??
Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it.
Everything is reducible. It’s the only way of understanding complex things. It is a particularly vexing brand of obstinacy which declares ANY knowledge or beliefs off-limits, or tries to claim they are not reducible. This ends any possible discussion. Why? Everything else in the world has an explanation. If something is so important that the greater portion of humanity walks around believing in it and shaping their lives by it, is it not important enough to critically analyze it? If not, why not?
For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.
No. We understand love as a biological phenomenon. We understand that it is not always rational. In fact, love is considered colloquially to be “blind.” When science explains to us the chemistry behind the feelings of love, in no way does it invalidate our euphoric, subjective experience. The bank manager doesn’t “agree” with the person who is in love—he is not having the experience. He simply understands that his customer is in the grip of what otherwise might be described as a temporary insanity.
Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist.
How is it not?? He simply asserts this without proof. It seems to me to be EXACTLY like belief in aliens or the tooth fairy. In fact, ask a Christian if they believe in Kuan Yin, or Zoroaster as living spiritual beings, and they will tell you that it is indeed like believing in the tooth fairy. So why is their god any different?
God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster.
“His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is.” Asserted with absolutely no proof, and conveniently out of reach of any proof.
This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal.
The “Jesus is God” position is not even universal in religion. The bible claims Jesus was the son of god. Other texts claim that Jesus was simply a human being, and all human beings have the ability to reunite with god, just like he did. There are as many positions about Christ as there are Christian denominations. What do any of them prove, and how is anyone to authenticate any of them?
The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe - even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you.
Pure bunk. I know a person exists because I see them standing in front of me. I don’t have to have “faith” in them.
They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.
We have now lost all meaning of the term “scientific hypothesis.”
Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. 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.
This is a huge straw man!
For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.
If god is the entire universe, then what business does Eagleton have discussing the nature of god, since his concept of the universe is entirely limited to what can be observed from this planet. If god is everything, then how can one know god without traveling to the furthest reaches of the universe. In any case, what further meaning does the concept of “god as the universe” have, than simply declaring that the universe is natural? We reach the same conclusion: it is unknowable to us–except through our instruments and methodical study. Interior subjective knowledge doesn’t count!
This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning.
Assertion without proof. God sustains all things? Care to provide some evidence?
To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need.
Nonsense. Who says the universe was even created? And if god did it, then who created god?
The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect.
Really? He claims to dismiss cause and effect with a wave of the hand?
Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago.
Now he is ascribing feelings and motivations to his imaginary friend?? This is beyond intellectually disgusting. He’s simply stating his opinion. What does it say about humanity, if god regrets having created humans. Is this guy a misanthrope?
The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.
More opinions—derision for science and research.
Because the universe is God’s, it shares in his life, which is the life of freedom. This is why it works all by itself, and why science and Richard Dawkins are therefore both possible. The same is true of human beings: God is not an obstacle to our autonomy and enjoyment but, as Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. Like the unconscious, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is the source of our self-determination, not the erasure of it. To be dependent on him, as to be dependent on our friends, is a matter of freedom and fulfilment. Indeed, friendship is the word Aquinas uses to characterise the relation between God and humanity.
This is pure sermon. Praise the Lord!!
Dawkins, who is as obsessed with the mechanics of Creation as his Creationist opponents, understands nothing of these traditional doctrines. Nor does he understand that because God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying that he did not have to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us.
Allowed to love us???? Poor god, all he wants to do is LOVE us, and we’ve REJECTED him. BOO-HOO. If god is omnipotent, then can’t he love us whether we like it or not?
Dawkins’s God, by contrast, is Satanic.
Can’t have god without the devil, now, can we!!!
Satan (’accuser’ in Hebrew) is the misrecognition of God as Big Daddy and punitive judge, and Dawkins’s God is precisely such a repulsive superego. This false consciousness is overthrown in the person of Jesus, who reveals the Father as friend and lover rather than judge. Dawkins’s Supreme Being is the God of those who seek to avert divine wrath by sacrificing animals, being choosy in their diet and being impeccably well behaved.
Dawkins is only speaking of how religions have been observed in a historical anthropological sense. He is not attempting to describe god ontologically—if that were even possible.
They cannot accept the scandal that God loves them just as they are, in all their moral shabbiness. This is one reason St Paul remarks that the law is cursed. Dawkins sees Christianity in terms of a narrowly legalistic notion of atonement - of a brutally vindictive God sacrificing his own child in recompense for being offended - and describes the belief as vicious and obnoxious. It’s a safe bet that the Archbishop of Canterbury couldn’t agree more. It was the imperial Roman state, not God, that murdered Jesus.
The brutally vindictive god has been created by humans. That is what Dawkins is talking about. According to a Baylor university study, a large percentage of believers think god is this way. Of course, we only have to look at the Old Testament.
Dawkins thinks it odd that Christians don’t look eagerly forward to death, given that they will thereby be ushered into paradise. He does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide. The suicide abandons life because it has become worthless; the martyr surrenders his or her most precious possession for the ultimate well-being of others. This act of self-giving is generally known as sacrifice, a word that has unjustly accrued all sorts of politically incorrect implications.
Here comes the insidious religious position on suicide: If you take your own life for your own reasons, and hurting no one, it’s not OK. If you give your life for OTHERS, or even better, for GOD, then you will be rewarded. And that philosophy, my friends, is what makes people willing to become suicide bombers.
Jesus, Dawkins speculates, might have desired his own betrayal and death, a case the New Testament writers deliberately seek to rebuff by including the Gethsemane scene, in which Jesus is clearly panicking at the prospect of his impending execution. They also put words into his mouth when he is on the cross to make much the same point. Jesus did not die because he was mad or masochistic, but because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy and justice, as well as at his enormous popularity with the poor, and did away with him to forestall a mass uprising in a highly volatile political situation.
If the historical Jesus really existed, he ran afoul of the authorities and died in a political murder. It took him a couple of days to die, far less than the multitudes of political torture victims who have died slowly at the hands of despotic regimes throughout history. Christians make way too big of a deal about this small suffering by Jesus.
Several of Jesus’ close comrades were probably Zealots, members of an anti-imperialist underground movement. Judas’ surname suggests that he may have been one of them, which makes his treachery rather more intelligible: perhaps he sold out his leader in bitter disenchantment, recognising that he was not, after all, the Messiah.
Whatever–Who cares? Betrayal is a part of life—it happens to everybody.
Messiahs are not born in poverty; they do not spurn weapons of destruction; and they tend to ride into the national capital in bullet-proof limousines with police outriders, not on a donkey.
The entire biblical account of Jesus, with its story of the meek carpenter, is suspect.
Jesus, who pace Dawkins did indeed ‘derive his ethics from the Scriptures’ (he was a devout Jew, not the founder of a fancy new set-up), was a joke of a Messiah. He was a carnivalesque parody of a leader who understood, so it would appear, that any regime not founded on solidarity with frailty and failure is bound to collapse under its own hubris. The symbol of that failure was his crucifixion.
Here we go again—theistic promotion of the virtues of weakness, bolstered by misplaced faith in an all-powerful god who doesn’t intervene. If god wouldn’t intervene for his son, Jesus, then why are all the other poor fools who aren’t even god’s son convinced he’s going to help them when they pray?
In this faith, he was true to the source of life he enigmatically called his Father, who in the guise of the Old Testament Yahweh tells the Hebrews that he hates their burnt offerings and that their incense stinks in his nostrils. They will know him for what he is, he reminds them, when they see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away. You are not allowed to make a fetish or graven image of this God, since the only image of him is human flesh and blood. Salvation for Christianity has to do with caring for the sick and welcoming the immigrant, protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not a ‘religious’ affair at all, and demands no special clothing, ritual behaviour or fussiness about diet. (The Catholic prohibition on meat on Fridays is an unscriptural church regulation.)
Now we’re cherry picking church teachings to say which ones are canonical and which ones are not. Tough job being a theologian.
Jesus hung out with whores and social outcasts, was remarkably casual about sex, disapproved of the family (the suburban Dawkins is a trifle queasy about this), urged us to be laid-back about property and possessions, warned his followers that they too would die violently, and insisted that the truth kills and divides as well as liberates. He also cursed self-righteous prigs and deeply alarmed the ruling class.
I don’t know that Jesus was such a revolutionary, but maybe. From this description, he sounds like a self-contradictory mixed bag–a hippie, a relativist, a Marxist, and a populist.
The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life - but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.
At the very most, the resurrection holds as a metaphor for renewal. But why isn’t the Phoenix an equally good one? Why are the trappings of human blood and a violent death necessary? My theory is that these were designed by early Christian scribes specifically for their sympathy value—the better to play on the feelings of everyman.
The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people. It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.
Marx saw the awesome manipulative power of religion on the human psyche, and concocted his own religious fantasy—of a worker’s paradise–to massive worldwide destructive effect which persists to this day.
If Dawkins is “Lunging, flailing, mispunching” then why do theists hate him so much? He must have touched a nerve. This is the typical defense, that Dawkins is not a nice guy. But I’ve yet to hear his detractors effectively argue with him. I’m halfway through the God Delusion now, and I’ve yet to see this kind of sloppiness in evidence. In fact, Dawkins seems to maintain a good sense of humor throughout, especially given the nature of the subject matter.
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. [Emphasis added]
NOW, FINALLY, THOUSANDS OF WORDS INTO THE REVIEW, DO WE GET THE ADMISSION OF TRUTH!!! HA!
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.
Cultural relativism. Argument from popularity. Flat earth? Phlogiston? Ether? Earth as the center of the universe? Do we need to examine those cases as well at their most persuasive?
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. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism.
Beliefs should only be respected for their truth-value, not how we feel about the people who hold them.
Some currents of the liberalism that Dawkins espouses have nowadays degenerated into a rather nasty brand of neo-liberalism, but in my view this is no reason not to champion liberalism. In some obscure way, Dawkins manages to imply that the Bishop of Oxford is responsible for Osama bin Laden.
THIS IS THE MOTHER OF ALL STRAW MEN!!
His polemic would come rather more convincingly from a man who was a little less arrogantly triumphalistic about science (there are a mere one or two gestures in the book to its fallibility),
By definition, science is fallible. It thrives on constant revision.
and who could refrain from writing sentences like ‘this objection [to a particular scientific view] can be answered by the suggestion . . . that there are many universes,’ as though a suggestion constituted a scientific rebuttal. On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent.
Now he’s arguing from result. Science just is. What people do with it is another matter, and a purely political problem.
Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.
And chemical warfare is most likely to be waged in this day and age by religious fanatics.
Such is Dawkins’s unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false.
Arguing from result again. Religion has had doubtless anthropological benefits as it has been observed in every human culture. But so have rape, murder, and war. Does that mean we want to take these forward with us into the future?
The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history - and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry.
Here we go with altruism again. People are altruistic when it serves them, and this has been a product of human evolution and social development—not religion.
He is like a man who equates socialism with the Gulag. Like the puritan and sex, Dawkins sees God everywhere, even where he is self-evidently absent. He thinks, for example, that the ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland would evaporate if religion did, which to someone like me, who lives there part of the time, betrays just how little he knows about it. He also thinks rather strangely that the terms Loyalist and Nationalist are ‘euphemisms’ for Protestant and Catholic, and clearly doesn’t know the difference between a Loyalist and a Unionist or a Nationalist and a Republican. He also holds, against a good deal of the available evidence, that Islamic terrorism is inspired by religion rather than politics.
Conflicts would not evaporate—that’s sure. But if the Islamic world were educated classically instead of steeped in the quran, we’d have a hell of a lot easier time talking to them. There’s a reason why the imams burn down schools and shoot teachers—their belief system cannot survive rational education. Nor, it seems, can Christianity long survive Dawkins and Harris.
These are not just the views of an enraged atheist. They are the opinions of a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist. Reading Dawkins, who occasionally writes as though ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness’ is a mighty funny way to describe a Grecian urn, one can be reasonably certain that he would not be Europe’s greatest enthusiast for Foucault, psychoanalysis, agitprop, Dadaism, anarchism or separatist feminism. All of these phenomena, one imagines, would be as distasteful to his brisk, bloodless rationality as the virgin birth. Yet one can of course be an atheist and a fervent fan of them all. His God-hating, then, is by no means simply the view of a scientist admirably cleansed of prejudice. It belongs to a specific cultural context. One would not expect to muster many votes for either anarchism or the virgin birth in North Oxford. (I should point out that I use the term North Oxford in an ideological rather than geographical sense. Dawkins may be relieved to know that I don’t actually know where he lives.)
Post-modernism and religion are different branches of the same tree, I’m afraid: Subjectivity.
It is relativism that allows religious belief to flourish in the first place. The position: “Respect my beliefs.” Or “That’s your truth, that’s not my truth.”…statements to that effect…. Albeit this is a paradox most religious people would reject, since they look at their scriptures in absolutist terms. (I don’t know how they reconcile their differences with other scriptures.) But they consider atheists to be the relativists, about morality and a host of other things. The whole discussion is highly ironic and stupefying.
There is a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh and taste, and The God Delusion springs from, among other places, that particular stable. At its most philistine and provincial, it makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann. The secular Ten Commandments that Dawkins commends to us, one of which advises us to enjoy our sex lives so long as they don’t damage others, are for the most part liberal platitudes. Dawkins quite rightly detests fundamentalists; but as far as I know his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism. Instead, as the obtuse media chatter has it, it’s all down to religion.
It’s all capitalism’s’ fault? Sounds like what Marx said. Here we have the Jesus-Marx connection of so-called ‘liberation theology.’
It thus comes as no surprise that Dawkins turns out to be an old-fashioned Hegelian when it comes to global politics, believing in a zeitgeist (his own term) involving ever increasing progress, with just the occasional ‘reversal’.
That’s pretty much what you are going to hear from any scientist, or from anyone who lived to see the incredible progress made in the 20th century, and the even greater progress we’re making now. According to Kurzweil, we are on a double exponential of progress. At today’s rate of progress, the entire 20th century was only 25 years worth. At that same rate, the 21st century will be 20,000 years of progress. If this sounds incredible, please refer to Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near.
‘The whole wave,’ he rhapsodises in the finest Whiggish manner, ‘keeps moving.’ There are, he generously concedes, ‘local and temporary setbacks’ like the present US government
Which has as its center a highly religious president—does Eagleton really miss this point????
- as though that regime were an electoral aberration, rather than the harbinger of a drastic transformation of the world order that we will probably have to live with for as long as we can foresee. Dawkins, by contrast, believes, in his Herbert Spencerish way, that ‘the progressive trend is unmistakable and it will continue.’ So there we are, then: we have it from the mouth of Mr Public Science himself that aside from a few local, temporary hiccups like ecological disasters, famine, ethnic wars and nuclear wastelands, History is perpetually on the up. Apart from the occasional perfunctory gesture to ’sophisticated’ religious believers, Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass. The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals. As far as such outrages go, however, The God Delusion does a very fine job indeed. The two most deadly texts on the planet, apart perhaps from Donald Rumsfeld’s emails, are the Bible and the Koran; and Dawkins, as one the best of liberals as well as one of the worst, has done a magnificent job over the years of speaking out against that particular strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism, whether Texan or Taliban. He is right to repudiate the brand of mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people’s silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people’s. In its admirably angry way, The God Delusion argues that the status of atheists in the US is nowadays about the same as that of gays fifty years ago. The book is full of vivid vignettes of the sheer horrors of religion, fundamentalist or otherwise. Nearly 50 per cent of Americans believe that a glorious Second Coming is imminent, and some of them are doing their damnedest to bring it about. But Dawkins could have told us all this without being so appallingly bitchy about those of his scientific colleagues who disagree with him, and without being so theologically illiterate. He might also have avoided being the second most frequently mentioned individual in his book - if you count God as an individual. -
Eagleton’s misguided summation basically boils down to the idea that Dawkins is vain and mean. His critique fails intellectually on all counts.