Monday, November 19, 2007

Polkinghorne, Perdue and Dawkins: Thoughts on the Confused Debate Over the New Atheism

The renewed religious debates continue apace: John Polkinghorne, in a sympathetic review of a new book critical of Dawkins's bestselling God Delusion (link via), writes:
...Dawkins makes no serious attempt to engage with the academic discussion of religious thought and practice. His book is “as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free from false modesty”. When it asserts that Jesus’ call to love our neighbour referred only to relations between Jews (despite this claim being in clear contradiction to the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan), the only support quoted for this highly questionable statement is a book written by an anaesthesiologist. Over the centuries, theologians have wrestled with how human language can attempt to speak about the nature of God, emphatically rejecting the idea that the deity is simply an invisible object among the other objects of the world. Yet, as Cornwell points out, the God in whom Dawkins disbelieves is a kind of “Great Science Professor in the Sky”, a simplistic notion that any thinking theist would be quick to reject.
There are several points to make here. First and foremost, Dawkins's error about Jesus and the love of neighbors is simply inexcusable; it is this sort of mistake that drives some of Dawkins's critics nuts (see, e.g., Andrew Rilstone). Accuracy is important; as a scientist, Dawkins knows this -- or should. (Polkinghorne himself is not free of this problem: witness his remarks in his article about evolution and altruism.)

But there is a larger point here, too, a common reply to the so-called New Atheists -- one that Sam Harris parodied here -- which is that they are taking on the silliest form of religion; if one is to debate with religion, these critics argue, one should debate with its most sophisticated form.

These debates follow a common pattern, so the New Atheist reply is predictable: theists are ignoring the enormous number of believers who routinely espouse (and the even larger number who silently believe) precisely these so-called "simplistic notion[s] that any thinking theist would be quick to reject". For example, the current governor of Georgia said last week:
Gov. Sonny Perdue wasn't the least bit discouraged Tuesday after his hourlong state Capitol prayer vigil for rain ended with the sun shining through what had been a somewhat cloudy morning.

"God can make it rain tomorrow, he can make it rain next week or next month," Perdue told reporters who asked him if a miracle was on the way.

More than 250 faithful Georgians joined Perdue outside the Capitol to ask for divine intervention to end the historic drought.

"We come here very reverently and respectfully to pray up a storm," Perdue told those in attendance....

The Rev. Gil Watson, pastor of Northside United Methodist Church, urged those in attendance to "pray believing we should have all brought umbrellas.
(Note that a pastor is among the simplistic theologians here -- it ain't just politicians. Link via this characteristically well-done take-down by Publius; read it if it's not instantly clear to you why these ideas are both harmful and ridiculous).

Obviously, as an atheist, I have a biased view here (although so does John Polkinghorne, author of the autobiography From Physicist to Priest). But it seems clear to me that the problem is one of confusion between two notions of God -- one complex, without evidence but also unrefuted (indeed, probably incapable of refutation); the other simple, silly and very widely believed).

Now, some atheists do deal with more complex notions of God -- although their books tend to be academic monographs rather than bestselling manifestos. (A good halfway point between these is Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell -- by far my personal favorite of (what I've read of) the recent spate of "New Atheist" books (and, probably not coincidentally, the one that has sold the least and gotten the least attention.)) But yeah, the simple and widely-believed views rather than the complex and obscure views of theologians tend to be what are critiqued.

But the new atheists tend to rather irkedly point out that if theists want their sophisticated views taken seriously, they need to themselves rebut the simplistic, widely-believed views: and not simply occasionally, in op-eds criticizing atheist books, but prominently and loudly.

Indeed, I think it's fair to say that until sophisticated and theologians begin attacking simplistic theistic ideas with, well, Dawkinsian levels of ridicule and scorn, then atheists will be fully justified in continuing to do so. And while there are exceptions, they are -- for the most part -- very rare, and least in popular discourse (I presume there are obscure academic examples: that's not what I'm talking about here).

This is where the parallel, often made by the proponents of sophisticated theology, between theological and, say, scientific views break down. Theists often say that it's as silly to judge theology on the opinions of simple folk just as it would be to judge (say) evolution on the opinions of simple folk and not of, say, biologists. But of course biologists routinely (and loudly) try to correct the views of the mistaken; theologians don't do the equivalent with the simple believers.

This is, I think, for two main reasons.

First is what Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, calls team spirit, or belief in belief: a lot of believers (maybe even most believers) belief in the value and importance of belief, a belief that is separable from their belief in God -- if any: as Dennett points out, many people believe in belief who (sometimes secretly) don't believe in God. Indeed, one plausible reading of the recent religious debates is that it is largely about the value of belief in belief as much as about belief in God.* Because of this belief, sophisticated theists are reluctant to do anything (or at least anything loud and sarcastic) which might harm or diminish people's beliefs -- even beliefs that they hold to be patently ridiculous (they sometimes attack beliefs that are actually directly malevolent, but those are a small subset of the ridiculous).

But there's another reason too -- one which Dennett also discusses, by the way -- which is that -- historically and textually if not intellectually -- sophisticated theism is grounded in simplistic theism. The Bible -- read for its surface meaning, what we Jews would call "pshat" -- clearly supports a theology that theologians would call ridiculous. But because they are committed, for a wide variety of reasons, to that text -- even those who don't think it was literally inspired -- they have to go into backflips to make the text try and say something more sophisticated. Now, I am on record as saying that I think those backflips to explain silliness (and contradictions) are part of what make theology -- contra Dawkins -- such an interesting and intellectually rich subject: unlike in mathematics, starting with a contradiction is a great way to get a conversational ball rolling.

But, at the same time, it means that the Polkinghornes of the world can't too blatantly scorn the Perdues. They are committed to the same text; they are committed to the same labels ("God" and its many synonyms), regardless of how many different intentional objects those labels point towards; they are committed, basically, to the sanctity of a tradition that began in anthropomorphic versions of God which clearly show Him as either impotent or malevolent, as acting crudely in the world, etc, etc. And so they have to be careful about those who speak most loudly the still-prominent modern version of their traditions' beginnings.

Thus it is left to the Dawkinses of the world to ridicule the Perdues. And this is unlikely to change any time soon. To the detriment of us all.

* And on this issue, Dennett departs significantly from those whose names are frequently linked with his as New Atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and (if reviews (or even the title) are to be believed, as I haven't actually read his book) Christopher Hitchens. Harris, Dawkins and (reportedly) Hitchens spend a lot of time arguing, not that religious belief is false, but that it is harmful. Whereas Dennett's whole point in Breaking the Spell is that we simply don't know enough to say, broadly, whether or not religious belief is harmful. (My agreement with Dennett, against Harris et. al., on this point is (just one) of the reasons his book is my favorite of this group.)

Personally, while I agree with Dennett that more study would be good, I don't think it will ever settle the issue, since I think the question is fundamentally vague and ill-formed -- and I don't think it's the sort of question that can ever be well-formed. Which is why I personally would like to see a teaming up of atheists and sophisticated theists (or, not quite the same thing but close enough, what I've elsewhere called reality-based theists) against harmful theologies -- or (again, not synonymous terms) reality-defiant theists.

But, then, I'd also like world peace, a Nobel Prize, a second season of Firefly, and a pony. (Maybe not a pony.)


Anonymous said...

I don't want to jump the gun too much, here...have not yet read through all your links (and can't find the Sam Harris one)...


But the new atheists tend to rather irkedly point out that if theists want their sophisticated views taken seriously, they need to themselves rebut the simplistic, widely-believed views

Do they, indeed? I don't know...this doesn't sound like "pointing out" anything to me, unless it's possible to "point out" an ultimatum. But why should "sophisticated theologians" fight any of the New Atheists' battles for them, at all? If their work deserves to be taken seriously, it should be so taken, with no strings...and if it doesn't deserve to be taken seriously then it shouldn't be, regardless of how much anybody has helped anybody else's religio-political cause.

I don't know who's tried to say that Dawkins et. al. should refrain from heaping scorn on simplistic belief; me, I guess I'd be a hypocrite to say he should refrain, because I heap scorn on the appalling scholarship and naively imbibed gee-whiz prejudices of the New Atheists (which -- I think tellingly -- are not confined to religion by any means) all the time. "New Atheists"? What on earth do we need new< ones for? Our old ones are far better than this new bunch. They can attack the simple all they want, but as long as they do it so poorly, I don't see why they should be defended.

I'm non-religious, by the way.

Geoff Klock said...

I was going to write about how much I enjoyed this post of yours Stephen. But I only read your post and not the links, and I do not know much about the larger context. I am afraid that right after I comment here GOD WILL COMMENT and call me an IDIOT and a DILL.


Anonymous said...

Indeed, I think it's fair to say that until sophisticated and [?] theologians begin attacking simplistic theistic ideas with, well, Dawkinsian levels of ridicule and scorn, then atheists will be fully justified in continuing to do so.

Karl Barth wrote the multivolume Church Dogmatics to correct what he thought were the deleterious misunderstandings of various theological issues on the part of his Protestant predecessors and contemporaries, as I understand it, a number of which might have characters similar if not identical to the better-suited-to-the-Golden Bough theological thinking of the peckerwoods praying for rain.

I think, though, that that is not quite what you have in mind, as devastating and shocking as Barth's views seem to have been at the time (based on the fairly extended introductions to his book on the letter to the Romans, Barth sounds like a very polite juggernaut). What you seem to have in mind (and please correct me if I am, as I assume, wrong) with "Dawkinsian levels of ridicule and scorn" is an enterprise to make us all as Oxbridge-common-room contemptuous and tiresome as the Brits. Or, I suppose, as inclined to endorse killing people for their beliefs as Sam Harris.

In any clash other than the one of theist and atheist, I doubt anybody but bloggers would say that the minimum qualifying mode of engagement had to be the wisecracking, buzz-wording idiom of the Joss Whedon fan.

Stephen said...


That comment is unworthy of you. I trust that my opposition to Sam Harris-style endorsing of murder -- or any other endorsing of murder -- goes without staying. (I've written before on Sam Harris specifically). Nor am I calling for Whedonesque, or Oxfordian, wit. Straightforward engagement with the worst parts of naive theology -- such as praying for rain in a drought -- would do.

(The issues here are complex, and I don't have time to hash them out; but my views are well represented by this post, I think.)

Anonymous said...

Flattering, Stephen. Let me rein in my previous comment to this: What Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris seem to have in common, and in common additionally with the typical Republican, religious "values" voter, is the application of the language of the mass media to religion, and Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris demand, and you seemed to second the demand for, engagement of the Republican religious right in the same language as the only satisfactory way to engage them. For some, though, the language of the mass media is as unsuited to the subject as it is to communicating about the value of poetry, if any. Even Saint Paul disparages successful preachers.

In other news, we are extremely old. A woman from our class stopped me on the street the other day and I was astonished by the changes time had wrought to her appearance in 14 or 15 years.

Stephen said...

Put that way I see your point. Of course the language of the mass media (damning phrase!) is not my preferred language for discussing religion: see my religion posts for that. Also my endorsement of Dennett, whose language is far more that of an analytic philosopher (albeit one writing to a popular, not scholarly audience) than the mass media.

But I think that the language of Dawkins et. al. is perfectly understandable (not preferable), to say nothing of inevitable, as long as religious moderates provide cover for the lunatic ideas of the reality-defiant theists... and as long as religion is so privileged in the public sphere -- which these days is, for better or for worse, the mass media. (And the internet: hence my writing about it.)

I guess what I'd say is that engagement in the current public sphere is important given our current discourse. No, it's not a good language for religion (or much of anything really); but that doesn't mean it's not necessary.

If the religious right wants to take religion out of that language -- and, as a necessary part of that, out of politics, the culture wars, etc, more generally -- and talk about it solely in other terms, I would be more than happy to agree to that d├ętente (even if, I suspect, Dawkins et. al. might not).

In other news, we are extremely old.

Yeah, I've noticed that too. I noticed it at our tenth reunion; I suspect at our fifteenth reunion (which I may or may not go to -- no decision as yet, although probably leaning towards not) it'll be even worse.