No matter what else you think of it, The God Delusion undeniably accomplished one thing: people are still arguing about it–not just the general issues the book discusses, but the book itself–four years after its publication. I’d cite examples, but just skim the recent posts at Ophelia’s or Jerry’s and you’ll find plenty. Malcolm Gladwell can only dream. So I won’t feel bad about posting what is basically a four-years-late book review.
I’m going to focus on what may be the most often heard criticisms of Dawkins: his ignorance. In a sense this is obviously right: Dawkins is an expert on biology, not religion. I would even agree that it shows in some ways in The God Delusion. The discussion of Aquinas’ Five Ways and the ontological argument feels cribbed from a undergraduate philosophy textbook. His discussion is also far from systematic: there’s a nice swipe at Richard Swinburne’s position on the problem of evil, but it isn’t part of a discussion of the problem of evil; rather, it’s part of a series of swipes at Richard Swinburne. He even lets on that he feels out of his depth: he suspects Stephen Urwin’s 67% chance of God wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, but Dawkins doesn’t trust his judgment enough to ignore Unwin entirely.
In spite of these complaints, I’m glad Dawkins’ book was published, if only because the works of Bertrand Russell weren’t going to make the best seller lists any time this century. As Jason Rosenouse put it:
And I suspect that Dawkins’ intention in writing this book had little to do with a desire to put shiny new ideas down on paper for the first time. Probably his reasons were more prosaic: He has a view of this subject that is not well-represented in mass-market literature, especially in this country, and he has the clout and the recognizability to actually get such a book published.
Now, while I would agree with Dawkins’ self-appointed opponents if all they were claiming was, “Dawkins isn’t an expert, and it shows,” they don’t stop there. Rather… well, I’m not always sure what’s beneath the rhetoric of some of Dawkins’ critics, but the thought seems to be something like “Dawkins is a Very Bad Man for writing about religion as a non-expert.”
One version of the complaint works like this: “I think Dawkins should have talked about X, and surely he would have talked about X if he knew what he were talking about, so the lack of a discussion of X in The God Delusion makes the book worthless.” This complaint quickly veers into self-parody:
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? (from Terry Eagleton)
But there are plenty of books on religion written by experts that don’t discuss these things, for the simple reason that one can never discuss everything. The “you left out X” criticisms only make sense if there’s a specific reason why X is highly relevant to the discussion (which Eagleton doesn’t provide). Indeed, I’m certain that there are respected scholars of religion who haven’t read Erigena on subjectivity either, simply because they aren’t specialists in the history of theology of that period.
The less-obviously-laughable version of the “Dawkins is ignorant” line goes like this: because of his ignorance, he make arguments based on a misunderstanding of the views he’s attacking. If that claim were right, it would be a serious criticism of Dawkins. However, I’m convinced that criticisms of this sort are rarely if ever right. It’s important that atheists say so. The Courtier’s Reply is a perfectly fair response to the likes of Eagleton, but I think its overuse gives the false impression that critics are generally right about Dawkins’ ignorance.
And not only do I think these criticisms are wrong, many of them are absurd on their face. Think of the people who say, “Dawkins doesn’t realize that sophisticated theologians nowadays don’t think God has anything to do with the physical world.” The truth is that in The God Delusion, Dawkins makes perfectly clear that he knows some people claim this, and makes the compelling counterpoint that Richard Swinburne, widely regarded as a sophisticated religious thinker, does think God can act on the physical world (cf. the people who think they can refute Dawkins’ criticisms of Gould simply by quoting Gould).
Another oft-heard criticism of Dawkins’ “Ultimate Boeing 747″ argument is that Dawkins is ignorant of the fact that God is simple. In spite of the large number of apparently smart people who take this claim seriously, I think this criticism is just as bad as the “sophisticated theology” line. Truth is, anyone who’s read Dawkins carefully knows he’s perfectly aware that many theologians have claimed God is simple. He just doesn’t find the claim plausible. He says why right in the chapter on “Why there almost certainly is no God,” towards the end of the section headed “The anthropic principle: cosmological version.” His criticisms of the claim may not be compelling, but it’s just false that he’s unaware of it.
The irony here is that when critics claim Dawkins misrepresents theology by ignoring the doctrine of divine simplicity, it’s the critics who are misrepresenting Dawkins (hence the title of this post). In fact, while Dawkins is no expert on medieval theology, in general he shows that he knows perfectly well what people in sophisticated British circles have to say in defense of religion. I wish his defenders would say this more often.
(Note: I’m curious to know what other points readers know of where Dawkins has been accused of ignorance. I know Aquinas’ five ways is one, which I may address in another post. But what else is there?)
(Second note: I say “British circles” because The God Delusion is a very Anglo-centric book. I don’t know why I don’t hear people comment on this more often.)