Sunday, October 22, 2006

The God Delusion

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible. - Bertrand Russell (via Ali Sina)

Andrew Sullivan cites Terry Eagleton's review of Richard Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion:
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. 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. 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.

I haven’t read Dawkins’ new book, but I’d like to. If it’s true that there hasn’t been a well-known professional atheist in the UK since Bertrand Russell, then that is a sad commentary on how thoroughly religion has permeated and framed the public discourse there and in the U.S. Arguments of the kind Dawkins makes—that religion is bunk and intellectually dishonest—could not be made by any politician or respected public figure in the U.S., anywhere, ever. Any politician who tried would get a short ride on the Acela back to the private sector at the next election. Meanwhile, conservative politicians commonly deride “godless” liberals, most of whom are themselves publicly professing their religious convictions at every opportunity.

According to a recent survey conducted by University of Minnesota researchers, atheists are America’s least trusted social group. Another recent survey indicates that Americans think only a gay or lesbian would be less likely to be elected president than an atheist.

Eagleton goes on:
Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in.

I agree with Eagleton's last point, at least on its face. If the balance of available evidence suggests belief in God is not warranted, why drape a fig leaf of agnosticism over the unpleasant truth? Also, Eagleton is right—billions of people do not believe in aliens or the tooth fairy, but they do believe in God. Dawkins is asking why. The fact that (according to Eagleton) he has not studied theology extensively probably has something to do with the fact that he does not believe in God. How this would disqualify him from speaking to the prima facie question of whether God exists, Eagleton never explains.

Eagleton continues:
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.

In other words, he is whatever people who believe in him say he is. And unless you believe in him, you can’t possibly understand religious belief and are unqualified to even discuss it. (In another context, I would be somewhat sympathetic to Eagleton's so-vague-as-to-be-meaningless conception of God here, but I doubt it's one many of the faithful in this country share.)

Eagleton takes exception to Dawkins’s description of a God who is vengeful and strict:
Dawkins’s God, by contrast, is Satanic. 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. They cannot accept the scandal that God loves them just as they are, in all their moral shabbiness.

It is nice that Eagleton embraces the warmer, fuzzier God of the New Testament, but Dawkins isn’t alone in this representation of God as a vengeful, sometimes cruel being (if this is, in fact, how he represents God to be—not having read his book, I can't say for sure):
I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen." - Jerry Falwell, speculating on the causes of the 9/11 attacks.

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Thou shalt not bow down thyself to [idols], nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me; - Exodus 20:5 (the 5th Commandment)

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And to the others [God] said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity:

Slay utterly old [and] young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom [is] the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which [were] before the house.

And he said unto them, Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain: go ye forth. And they went forth, and slew in the city. - Ezekiel 9:5-7

Well that doesn’t sound very nice. Eagleton is being disingenuous if he is claiming that Dawkins pulled this conception of God out of thin air. The vengeful, violent, unforgiving God of the Old Testament is a commonly-held depiction of God in many religions and has been for most of recorded history. It is human nature to want to take revenge against those who have wronged you, and it is not surprising that people have wanted to give those feelings of vengeance a divine stamp of approval for a long time now.

Eagleton’s review is a polemic answering a polemic. After raging against Dawkins’ purported ignorance of theology for hundreds of words, in the last paragraph he lets on that he actually agrees with much of what Dawkins has to say:
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.

Shorter Eagleton: “Dawkins is mostly right, but he shouldn’t be so strident about the bits with which I disagree, and he needs to read up on his Bible.” Not much to hang an entire article on, but there you have it.

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