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Thursday, January 18, 2007

After Agincourt

Posted by Daniel Green on 01/18/07 at 01:52 PM

To continue this argument:

I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.

Where I think Dawkins goes wrong is that, like Henry V after Agincourt, he does not seem to realize the extent to which his side has won. Setting aside the rise of Islam in Europe, the decline of serious Christian belief among Europeans is so widely advertised that Dawkins turns to the United States for most of his examples of unregenerate religious belief. He attributes the greater regard for religion in the US to the fact that Americans have never had an established Church, an idea he may have picked up from Tocqueville. But although most Americans may be sure of the value of religion, as far as I can tell they are not very certain about the truth of what their own religion teaches. . .

Even though American atheists might have trouble winning elections, Americans are fairly tolerant of us unbelievers. My many good friends in Texas who are professed Christians do not even try to convert me. This might be taken as evidence that they don’t really mind if I spend eternity in Hell, but I prefer to think (and Baptists and Presbyterians have admitted it to me) that they are not all that certain about Hell and Heaven. I have often heard the remark (once from an American priest) that it is not so important what one believes; the important thing is how we treat each other. Of course, I applaud this sentiment, but imagine trying to explain “not important what one believes” to Luther or Calvin or St Paul. Remarks like this show a massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude. . . .


The sneering at Dawkins is mostly just classic theological turf defense; scientists are never supposed to speak on matters of religion because they actually know something about the universe, and make theology look bad by comparison.  That’s why Eagleton suddenly returns to the religion of his youth and becomes an amateur theologian for the course of his anti-Dawkins essay.  There’s also the usual all-purpose bit about how little Dawkins has read.  There’s nothing so calculated to infuriate someone who has devoted his or her life to the study of some system as pointing out that you don’t have to read all of it in order to argue that it doesn’t work.  Eagleton is probably especially sensitive in this regard, after so much of his lifetime devoted to both Marxism and Theory as totemic systems.

I don’t agree with the bit about how Dawkins should focus on Islam, though.  Christianity has far more influence in the society that Dawkins lives in than Islam.  It has massively retreated, sure, but only under pressure, and it hasn’t retreated anywhere near far enough.  I think it’s more likely that Muslims will respond to sceptics from within Muslim-dominated societies at this historical moment than they would to some English guy lecturing them.

By on 01/18/07 at 03:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s nothing so calculated to infuriate someone who has devoted his or her life to the study of some system as pointing out that you don’t have to read all of it in order to argue that it doesn’t work.

<q>Many a man torments himself his whole life long, studies himself frigid and impotent, at unraveling a writer’s meaning.  I admit that it needs a lifetime to unravel the writer’s system and to cleanse it of the dirt and grease of those who have sought to patch and improve it; all this is true, yet it would require only fifteen minutes of wide-awake common sense to see that the whole thing isn’t worth three-halfpence.</q> (Lichtenberg, Waste Books)

By ben wolfson on 01/18/07 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The sneering at Dawkins is mostly just classic theological turf defense; scientists are never supposed to speak on matters of religion because they actually know something about the universe, and make theology look bad by comparison.”

Another classic Rich Puchalsky zinger, which, per the usual, entirely misses the point. It’s almost as if he’s never read this stuff!

By on 01/18/07 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Weinberg writes:

Whatever one thinks of the Muslims who blow themselves up in crowded cities in Europe or Israel or fly planes into buildings in the US, who could dispute that the certainty of their faith had something to do with it? George W. Bush and many others would have us believe that terrorism is a distortion of Islam, and that Islam is a religion of peace. Of course, it is good policy to say this, but statements about what “Islam is” make little sense. Islam, like all other religions, was created by people, and there are potentially as many different versions of Islam as there are people who profess to be Muslims. (The same remarks apply to Eagleton’s highly personal account of what Christianity “is”.) . . . . Dawkins treats Islam as just another deplorable religion, but there is a difference. The difference lies in the extent to which religious certitude lingers in the Islamic world, and in the harm it does.

There are two problems here, I think.

First is Weinberg’s assertion that it is impossible to say for certain what “Islam is.” While it may be true that no two Muslims believe precisely the same thing, Islam is nonetheless defineable. Muslims are that set of people who identify themselves as having in common this thing called Islam, and though its contours may line out differently for each believer, a fair picture of “what it is” can be garnered aggregationally. Though no two self-identified Muslims may have precisely the same set, maybe the belief set can be defined probabilistically: some beliefs are strongly Muslim, others weakly so. There may be few 1.000 beliefs (the existence of a unitarian Allah, say), but quite a few that are nonetheless statistically significant.

This is important for Weinberg’s overriding point. He believes that it is religious certitude, and nothing else, that explains Muslim fanaticism. His argument, at least as he presents it, rests on the point that Islamic beliefs are not specially fanatical ("I don’t know on what ground one can say that a peaceable well-intentioned person like Abdus Salam was any more a true Muslim than the murderous holy warriors of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad"), though undying allegiance to those beliefs marks the edge.

Now perhaps a study of the substance of Islamic beliefs would show that they are indeed not the root cause of Islamic extremism. But that is not what Weinberg is saying. He is saying that Islam is both unknowable and shapeless. He tosses this off in his last paragraph to clear the board for an argument about religious certitude.

Importantly, though, and this is the second point, the certitude argument is underdeveloped. Weinberg, in the guise of a rhetorical question ("who could dispute that the certainty of their faith had something to do with it?") attempts to slip a very big one by the reader. He has not, shown that Islamic certitude is any more knowable than Islamic being (presumably if the essence of Islam cannot be measured because of all the different kinds of Muslims, all the different kinds of Muslims might also prove an obstacle to knowing their common degree of certainty).

Weinberg’s argument rests on unmeasured variable C (common cerititude). The problem is that C has the same measurement problems as I (Islam is), which he resolutely states cannot be measured.

Either he must withdraw his objection to I, in which case he’s got to add a lot of length to his essay, or remove his support for C.

By the idiot on 01/18/07 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Another classic Rich Puchalsky zinger, which, per the usual, entirely misses the point.

Care to say what you consider ‘the point’ to be here, Anthony?  Or are you having too much fun blowing raspberries at Rich?

By Adam Roberts on 01/18/07 at 05:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony is just flaming away with contentless personal insults as is his habit; JH should just get it over with and ban him.

Straining to find some kind of point to Anthony, I’d say that yes, most theology claims to be independent of scientific knowledge of the universe, in the sense that it’s supposed not to matter what scientists find out.  That’s almost never really true.  Even if it’s not something obvious, like the argument from design, theology almost always ends up affected by the implications of new scientific discovery.

By on 01/18/07 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I find odd about the consternation and anger people like Dawkins and his defenders feel when his lack of expertise (or knowledge, really) in philosophy and theology is pointed out, is that people like Dawkins and his defenders have been arguing for years that people’s lack of expertise in (evolutionary) biology makes them unqualified to criticize evolution. Apparently, science is unique in that it requires expertise in order to enter into serious conversations about it, but philosophy and theology don’t.

By Chris on 01/18/07 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Your ‘style’ as such is always contentless, even if you pretend it is not personal. You play the part of the unacademic intellectual, the person with the real connection to facts and people. That’s fine, but it does get a bit old when you constantly make this assertions while if someone calls you on it you fall back on this notion that you’re just expressing your opinion.

I’m not going to go through the familiar BS about how you’ve not actually studied any of this, because then you’ll come back with the familiar BS about how you don’t need to study it since you’re ‘familiar enough’ with it. It is all so boring, but I had to say something simply because you get on my nerves.

If John wants to ban he can feel free to, it’s his site, but I hardly see what merit you think have for staying. I rarely see an ‘argument’ from you either.

By on 01/18/07 at 07:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was amused to read Dawkins trying to queer atheism:

“I think the parallel is a valid one. Until recently nobody dared admit that they were gay. Now, they’re rather proud to do so. Nowadays it’s impossible to get elected to public office if you’re an atheist, and I think that’s got to change. The Gay Rights Movement raised consciousness. It initiated the idea of Gay Pride. I think we’ve got to have Atheist Pride, Atheist Consciousness. I think it’s pretty clear that a fair number of members of Congress must be lying because not a single one of them admits to being an atheist. The probability that in a sample of over 500 well-educated members of American society, not a single one of them is an atheist, statistically, that is highly unlikely. So, some of them, at least, have got to be lying, and I think it’s a tragedy that they have to.”

By on 01/18/07 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was amused to read Dawkins trying to queer atheism

Wow, even as someone who can’t stand Dawkins, I had to follow the link and read that quote for myself, because I simply couldn’t believe that a man who made a name for himself writing about things like probability and selection could make that argument. I mean, his conclusion may be true (there are some closet atheists in congress), but since there’s a selection process (voting!) going on to determine who ends up in congress, and since atheism isn’t very popular, it’s likely to get selected out. That makes his sample hardly representative, and thus the probabilities from the population at large (including the population of well educated Americans) largely irrelevant.

Of course, Dawkins is arguing that the atheists are hiding it to avoid selection on that dimension, but he has to include that as a premise to reach it as a conclusion.

By Chris on 01/18/07 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich does have a certain tendency toward psychologizing the arguments of those with whom he disagrees.  (I simply put this statement forward with no intention of defending it further; readers can decide for themselves whether I fairly characterize Mr. Puchalsky.)

One might point out that there’s a crucial difference between, on the one hand, discussing a topic in which one has no particular expertise (surely a salutary exercise, one in which I engage all the time), and on the other hand, producing a voluminous tome on the topic.  The latter is, for the non-expert, perhaps a bit presumptuous—criticizing him for not knowing enough about a topic to make it worth reading a voluminous tome seems to me to be perfectly fair. 

Similarly, while I find Rich’s rough-and-ready psychology to be charming in its own way despite his apparent lack of expertise on the topic, I would be skeptical if Rich were to write an 800-page book about psychology.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/18/07 at 11:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that only idiots avoid wounds. Nor does it mean scars aren’t funny. But such shallow jesting gets tedious, and, when prolonged, even a bit unfriendly. I had a friend who complained mightily about how horrible food not to her taste was every time any such food was et, and there was very little food to her taste. Those who abhor dead air might’ve considered that a service; others might believe there are worse things than dead air.

Dawkins is right about the dangers of theocracy. That doesn’t mean that switching to spiritual macrobiotics will head off capitalist demagoguery. The snake oil diet he’s peddled professionally doesn’t have such a pristine political record either. In short, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

By Ray Davis on 01/19/07 at 01:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Chris, that argument is almost necessitated by his homage to 1980s style gay activism, isn’t it?  It’s the bit about how gay people are somewhere between 5% and 10% of the population, so in any group of 500 people, a good number must be gay.  Dawkins’ argument is just as good (or bad) as that one was, as far as I can tell; one thing that I found amusing about it was his faithful repetition.  Surely this will lead to the dramatic outing of an atheist Congressperson—perhaps, while pretending to go to church (which one would make the best “beard”?), he or she could be secretly meeting with a sceptical discussion group where Darwinism was practised.

Adam, Dawkins didn’t write a book about theology.  It’s a book about politics.  He’s a good essayist, and some people like polemics on the subject.  The people criticizing Dawkins for not knowing the subject are not complaining that Dawkins’ readers aren’t getting an entertaining book.  Instead, they are engaged in a version of the same thing that neoliberal economists do when a non-economist writes something against free trade.

By on 01/19/07 at 01:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Three points:

I live in Texas, and haven’t seen that much evidence for religious tolerance except in the success of a kind of “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy about atheism.  There are tolerant christians everywhere but the population density down here is pretty low, at least in DFW.

Secondly, before attacking him I must always point out that I am a pretty steady Dawkins, at least of most of his work in biology, as it’s unfairly characterized constantly.  Dawkins is one of those people who is talked about a damn lot more than he’s actually read, as is evidenced even here in our long conversations about this book which nobody seems to have read.

Third, just as God Delusion was coming out, I advised my own mother not to pick it up for reasons similar to the ones decried in this post.  It’s very possible that Dawkins has something interesting to say.  It’s just that people who are very vocal about a position which is not in their area of expertise tend to not know what arguments have been worn out, what we’ve been over before, and tend to come off at best immature and at worst an easy target.
(Somewhat unrelated anecdote, in early high school I invented utilitarianism.  I didn’t call it that and thought it a flawless philosophical position.  I was a very vocal defender of my own solution to all the world’s problems and couldn’t understand why a few of my more philosophically inclined older friends were not so impressed until, thankfully, one let me down lightly.)

By on 01/19/07 at 01:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

He didn’t write a book about theology, but in his book, he did write about theology, often extensively (design arguments and the ontological argument; I believe he just dismissed Pascal’s wager out of hand). I suppose the argument above would be more relevant to this case if it said “chapter” instead of “tome.”

By Chris on 01/19/07 at 01:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Adam, Dawkins didn’t write a book about theology.  It’s a book about politics.”

No, he wrote a book about politics and religion. Mostly religion though. There are scholars of religion and they do balk at this. God, even his notion of atheism is a bit wacky. If a member of congress says she believes in God but attends neither a church, synagogue, nor mosque and is not influenced by a religious body the same way most are influenced by special interest groups does it really matter? Is there really a dangerous God delusion at work there? What Dawkins wants is a confession of non-faith, which is a kind of theological move already.

The thing about polemic is its rarely worth reading unless you’re in the choir of the good guys already or you enjoy getting pissed off. I think the discussion here has been proof enough of that.

By on 01/19/07 at 01:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In the interest of honesty I will go on record as saying I haven’t read the whole book, only half chapters here and there while looking around Waterstones. I found those bits mostly forgettable. I’ve also watched his television show “Baiting Fundamentalists” or whatever he ended up calling it. I’ve been told, and read recently a review in Radical Philosophy along the same lines, that Daniel Dennett’s somewhat older book Breaking the Spell is much better. Though the argument there seems to be a bit silly too, but it’s quite possible I don’t quite understand meme theory (or buy it – one or the other). Actually a theologian, one I rather dislike, has recently written a review of Dennett’s book where he expresses great hatred. I’ve not read it though (you can find it in First Things – a really disgusting journal in my opinion).

By on 01/19/07 at 03:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm, citing the discussion here as proof that the topic is for people who enjoy getting pissed off is one of the first interesting things I’ve seen from Anthony.  Interesting in its circularity—it’s like someone who doesn’t get the anthropic principle.  Anthony sees boredom and pissedoffedness wherever he goes, and he imagines that this is a property of the universe.

Chris, an understanding of evolutionary biology is entirely relevant to the argument from design.  In fact, it’s more relevant than anything a theologian can come up with, because the argument from design is about the universe and what we see of it, and why.  As for Pascal’s wager, there is every reason to dismiss it out of hand, just as some people dismiss attempts by thugs to make them pay “protection” money.

By on 01/19/07 at 09:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Wow, there is that psychologizing again. And you missed the point again. You have a lot of room for growth Rich, a lot.

You don’t seem bored, yet you see to be in the very choir that is being preached to. So, not sure how you got that I see boredom everywhere. As far as ‘pissedoffedness’ (is that German?), I get pissed at how intelligent people, like yourself, can hold really facile beliefs towards religion. But I don’t see it everywhere.

Perhaps now you could move away from the faux-psychology and be the intelligent grownup I’ve heard you are.

For what it is worth, most theologians don’t make arguments from design. That tends to be theist ‘scientists’ and theist philosophers (like Alvin Plantinga). And I agree with you about Pascal, not only is it not an argument for the existence of God, but it is immoral. That said, religion is actually a challenge to most morality (since, logically, if there is a God he can do whatever the fuck he wants otherwise he a supernatural being but a not-God). The ontological argument, however, is not the essence of religion and so we are way off topic.

By on 01/19/07 at 09:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . .  it’s quite possible I don’t quite understand meme theory (or buy it – one or the other)

There’s not much to understand, hence to buy. That, I’m afraid, is why so many people do buy it, at least casually.

By Bill Benzon on 01/19/07 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps meme theory is similar to evolutionary psychology in that respect—people buy it just enough to use it in casual conversation.

Is Dawkins an expert in politics or religion?  I don’t see how my point is undercut if his book isn’t “about” theology.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/07 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Kotsko does not understand.  I will attempt an extended metaphor.

Imagine that fans of a role-playing game—let’s choose Dungeons and Dragons (tm) for its long and honored history—started to insist that both personal and political decisions should be made by rolling dice first, as is done in the game.  Sceptics might exclaim “Well, it’s stupid to make decisions by rolling dice, as if you were in a game like backgammon—we should have no part of that in our politics.  As for the people using dice as a personal guide, I guess they can do what they want, but they’re deluding themselves if they think it’s a good way to make decisions.”

Now, is it relevant for the D&D fans to reply “Backgammon uses D6’s, and these are D20s!  See, you don’t know anything about what you’re talking about.  Plus if you had studied the history, sociology, and gameology of D&D, you wouldn’t have confused the Basic Set and the Third Edition.”

Now, contemporary organized religion is in many ways different from D&D—it has higher social standing, a longer history, a grandfathered-in academic discipline to give it intellectual credibility, hierarchies of specialists, and so on.  But so what?  Those are all arguments from power.  They don’t make the game any less an arbitrary social framework for those who don’t want to play it.

As for theology, any social practise engaged in by sufficient numbers of people becomes, as a matter of humanist definition, a worthy subject for academic study.  And anything can be studied in depth.  I’m sure that you could amuse yourself for a lifetime picking out the antecedents of Grayhawk, or the implications of the shift in belief in efficacy of a turn-based rather than segment-based time system, or the question of the turn to diceless roleplay and how it can be reconciled with traditionality.  But so what?  For someone who doesn’t think the game is worthwhile, its details are not of abiding interest.  And it’s not like there is any intrinsic need to know the material.

By on 01/19/07 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t understand writing a huge book about a topic you don’t think is worth knowing about!  Yes, I understand that people think religion is worthless, and they’re “allowed” to think that—it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to decide that it’s just not worth your time and even to think that people who do spend their time on it are deluded in some way.  But we’re dealing with someone who wrote a huge book on the topic!

It would be like me thinking (as I do) that D&D is a waste of time, then writing a huge book criticizig it in detail and getting the details wrong.  To use the terms of your masterful metaphor.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/07 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem with Dawkins is not that he needs to bone up on theology, but rather that he expresses such unmitigated disdain for the naive, simple folk who happen to have a spiritual bone or two in their body.  It’s discouraging when “enlightened” atheists act like the unenlightened, doctrinaire savages they claim to have replaced.

By Michael on 01/19/07 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I have no stake in this argument, but Adam, I believe Rich’s point is that details don’t matter in Dawkins’ rejection of religion.  He’s rejecting its “first principles,” so even if he gets the minor points wrong, he’s already swept them down the chute with the major points.

My question, though, echoes one already posed above: who’s the audience for this thing?  Atheists already agree, so a polemic is useless, and what they could probably use is a careful defense of atheism rather than an elephant dance through a garden of delicate ideas.  Believers, of course, will avoid the book.  Agnostics might read it, but they will only be persuaded (by appeals to ethos and pathos), not carefully reasoned to.

Book reviewers seem to be tending toward nit-pickery.  Recently I read the LRB review of Hitchens’ book on Paine, which contained the kicker that Hitchens used *Rights of Man* and *The Rights of Man* interchangeably.  Meanwhile, no one seemed to ask whether the world needed a tiny volume on Paine by Chris Hitchens or whether his work added anything to the world’s knowledge of Paine. 

Then again, Jameson’s *Postmodernism* refers to “Linda Hutcheon” as “Lynda Hutcheon,” while Amy Elias’s *Sublime Desire*—in perhaps the best mistake I’ve seen lately—refers to Marxist geographer “David Harvey” as “Steve Harvey.” If only Steve Harvey wrote Marxist geography!

By on 01/19/07 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dawkins doesn’t think that politics is worthless.  When religion imports itself into politics, you have to deal with it even though you have no intrinsic interest in it.  And insofar as religionists are trying to force others to agree that it’s important, not learning the details is a gesture of resistance just by itself.

The part of my metaphor that you ignored is the first sentence.

By on 01/19/07 at 12:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I confess that I did in fact ignore the first part of your metaphor.

Further, every human being has a right to opine about politics in whatever forum they choose, be it blog comments or voluminous tomes.

But it still remains the case that Dawkins is making claims specifically about religion that go beyond simply asserting that its effects in politics have been uniformly bad (which would be an extremely tendentious claim given MLK, etc.).  He is making claims that religion as religion is bad, and if he doesn’t seem to have much expertise in religion, that would undercut some of those claims.  Saying you don’t want to study religion because it’s worthless is completely fine, but again—he wrote a voluminous tome.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/07 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So in your metaphor what is ‘dice’ in the real world? Seeing as how the Bush administration doesn’t base its policy decisions on the Bible that can’t be it. Nor do they base it in any orthodox theology. Some could argue that there is a strain of dominionism they use, but I hardly think anyone in the actual administration holds this particular marginal and heterodox view. They do latch onto it, but you can easily replace God with “History” or “Reason” in dominionism (which is essentially what the neo-cons do).

Your whole view on this is really simplistic and not a little idealistic. Let’s talk some empirical facts!

By on 01/19/07 at 01:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Praised be God, and not our strength, for it! What is this castle call’d that stands hard by?

Castle? You cannot castle, for you have already moved from your original squire.

No, no! Yonder castle, in whose bearing I now point.

Ah, I see. It is no longer call’d by that name, but is call’d a rook.

It is Rook Castle, then?

No, I beg your leave, but ‘tis a rook call’d, not a castle.

It is not the black carrion-bird to which I refer, knave, but the large structure beyond it.

That, milord, is the King’s Rook.

Though we have won upon the field this day, I make no claim to Rook Castle as ransom, only to extend dominion over that which is entitled by rule.

The rules are quite clear on this, milord, and you are not permitted move or capture beyond adjacency.

By nnyhav on 01/19/07 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Atheists already agree, so a polemic is useless, and what they could probably use is a careful defense of atheism”

Why does atheism need a “careful defense”? Why does it need a defense at all? It’s the religionists who are making claims--God exists, He should be understood in this way, etc.--and further claims based on the original claims--Society should be organized according to God’s laws, and these are those laws--and it’s they who should need to defend them. Is it the atheist’s fault that he finds himself essentially at the mercy of forces he finds literally absurd, a collective figment of the imagination that has been taken for reality?

By Daniel Green on 01/19/07 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it seems like Rich and I have stated our respective cases as clearly and persuasively as we’re able to, and neither of us is likely to be convinced by the other.  Accordingly, I hereby declare the conversation between us to be officially “over” and leave it to posterity to decide which, if either, of us is correct.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/07 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “My question, though, echoes one already posed above: who’s the audience for this thing?  Atheists already agree, so a polemic is useless, and what they could probably use is a careful defense of atheism rather than an elephant dance through a garden of delicate ideas.  Believers, of course, will avoid the book.  Agnostics might read it, but they will only be persuaded (by appeals to ethos and pathos), not carefully reasoned to.”

So much for agitprop?  I know that I’m sounding like a broken record here with “it’s about politics”, but really, attempted political movements don’t work by careful defenses.  Dawkins himself tried to identify atheism with 1980s gay rights in the quote higher in the thread.  The slogan wasn’t “Silence = well, silence at this historical moment, with so many of us dying from AIDS, is almost like death.  Not *literally* death, of course.  But in a metaphorical sense in which one leads to the other.”

Dawkin’s book seems to be doing exactly what it seems to have been intended to do: heartening atheists and giving them something to coalesce around, pissing off believers, making people in the middle think about where they want to be, at least within the small group of people who actually read such things.  It’s a foregone conclusion that most of the people who think that Dawkins is wrong primarily because he’s being a big meanie are mostly going to end up on one side or the other, either radicalized or reactionary.  And that’s fine.  The people who seriously think that Dawkins is wrong because he once confused hit points with spell points are politically irrelevant.

By on 01/19/07 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The people who seriously think that Dawkins is wrong because he once confused hit points with spell points are politically irrelevant.”

Shorter Rich Puchalsky: All religious people are like people who believe that the world of D&D is the real world and all religious people attempt to make political decisions with dice.

Atheists need to coalesce around something, so why not ‘pissing off believers’? Not that atheists need to prove anything though, because their enemies are literally like imbeciles.

Wow. Who can argue with that!

By on 01/19/07 at 03:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, Sneer all you want—but you continue to refuse to deal with the simple fact that religion is to blame for all violence and destruction in the world.  Idiot.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/07 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, we can divide design arguments into two types. The first type are biological arguments that make scientific claims. For these, it’s important to know evolutionary biology to see that they are not only invalid, but their conclusions are empirically false regardless of the premises used to argue them. The second type are philosophical arguments that are as old as western philosophy itself, and which don’t make empirical claims about specific biological structures, and aren’t in competition with empirical knowledge about evolution. So understanding evolutionary biology won’t help at all in understanding, much less refuting, the second type.

And I’m not sure Dawkins has actually read Pascal’s wager, or knows the form it takes or its context. Actually, I’m not sure you do either.

By Chris on 01/19/07 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Chris, the “philosophical arguments as old as western philosophy itself” are mostly going to be demolished by physics, not biology.  The thread connecting all the various design arguments is the observation of order.  When it comes to observation, and explanations for observation, you’re probably living in one of the last few generations that can still hold on to those age-old arguments as having anything but historical value.  Not that we will know the answer, as if there is a final answer, but the old questions will have been answered and we will have new ones.

As for Pascal’s wager, you’re rather rude to not just say whatever you want to say about it, and instead sneer that I must not have read it.

But I can make my point using that text if you want.  Look at the Pensees Section III.  All of the elements that I’ve objected to are there—the presumption that unless someone has really really tried through all the modes approved by the church, they haven’t looked, the insistence on a finite stake as against infinite gain, the threat of hell near the beginning (imagining a sceptic saying “I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be for ever assigned” and at the end (239).

But look for something else in this text.  Try, say, 208: “Why is my knowledge limited? Why my stature? Why my life to one hundred years rather than to a thousand? What reason has nature had for giving me such, and for choosing this number rather than another in the infinity of those from which there is no more reason to choose one than another, trying nothing else?” Hmm, this looks suspiciously biological, doesn’t it?  I mean, we now have very good ideas about why a person’s knowledge is limited, and their stature, and their life.  There isn’t an infinity of options to choose from; these factors are biologically limited.

Or look at 222: “Why cannot a virgin bear a child? Does a hen not lay eggs without a cock? What distinguishes these outwardly from others? And who has told us that the hen may not form the germ as well as the cock?” Going through 223: “And if they had never seen any species of animals, could they have conjectured whether they were produced without connection with each other?”.

But Pascal was a scientist, after all, and the next step is to say that none of this biological or physical question-asking would be engaged in by a more canny theologian.  Should I take that one as read?

By on 01/19/07 at 10:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pascal’s wager does not seem convincing to me.  The finite vs. infinite thing seems to miss the point—since we only have one life to live, the stakes are effectively “total.” If there’s nothing after this life, it makes a really significant difference to have wasted it—the underlying assumption that it’s not that a big deal to waste it presupposes that there must be an afterlife.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/19/07 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel, it’s not that atheism require defense moreso than religious belief.  I simply meant that what would serve atheists today well is a handbook of arguments and evidence, not a rallying of the clique by mocking the doofus.  Those arguments and evidence would spread out via readers in real-world argument situations (at the cafeteria, in blogs comments boxes, in newspaper editorial pages, etc.).

Mocking the doofus might have the undesired effect of leading to smugness, complacency, the attitude that “we’re right and I’m simply refusing to engage the doofuses.” Which is essentially quietism.

By on 01/20/07 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An atheist catechism!

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/07 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good one, Adam. Me, I always objected to Pascal’s false modeling of the problem. One doesn’t just “choose belief”; one chooses to believe one particular thing among many other possibilities. Faith isn’t a coin toss but a state lottery in which every ticket but one will condemn you to hell. As the number of choices approach infinity, the value of choosing one over not participating declines precipitously. (In this, I’m proud to note that I anticipated Homer Simpson.)

Luther: “My question, though, echoes one already posed above: who’s the audience for this thing?  Atheists already agree, so a polemic is useless....”

It’s not preaching to the choir if you don’t have a choir in your neighborhood. Since, you don’t need a church to be an atheist, atheists can feel pretty damned isolated in their communities. The God Delusion seems to have been a great comfort to a relative of mine whose wife is Catholic, who lives in a largely Mormon suburb, and who doesn’t work in academia. And I’m sure I’m not the only heartland hick to have been heartened by Mark Twain’s Bible-thumping.

I dislike Dawkins, and I dislike the close-mindedness of many of his book’s online supporters, but his book probably has its place. That place just doesn’t happen to be New York City.

By Ray Davis on 01/20/07 at 01:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops, overlap! Valve moderators, my comment doesn’t make much sense given Luther’s last, so please delete it if you will....

By Ray Davis on 01/20/07 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s an interesting pile of comments about science and religion over at The Edge. This seems to be some discussion in the wake of a conference held at the Salk Institute: Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival. Note that Scott Atran has done extensive work on the cognitive psychology of religion and has also done anthropological fieldwork among Islamic terrorist groups.

Here’s a bunch of sound-bites:

Noam Chomsky: On the ordinary problems of human life, science tells us very little, and scientists as people are surely no guide. In fact they are often the worst guide, because they often tend to focus, laser-like, on their professional interests and know very little about the world. [more...]

Carolyn Porco: Imagine my shock to see my tongue-in-cheek call for a ‘Church of Science’ taken with utter seriousness by Atran, and publications such as The Boston Herald, i.e., as a call for an organization as dogmatic and as unaccepting of criticism as most formal religions are today....I meant nothing of the kind. [more...]

Scott Atran: And while I’m on the subject of religious beliefs and their contents, and how they are transmitted, let me address the view, first proposed by Dawkins and popularized by Dennett, that religions are composed of memes. [more...]

Daniel C. Dennett: Scientists who are atheists — surely a much larger proportion than the general public realizes — have a difficult unsolved problem of how to balance their allegiance to the truth against their appreciation of the social impact of some truths and hence the need for diplomacy and reticence. Not surprisingly, most scientists “solve” this problem with silence, but silence can be just as culpable as lying. [more...]

Sam Harris: Atran makes insupportable claims about religion as though they were self-evident: like “religious beliefs are not false in the usual sense of failing to meet truth conditions”; they are, rather, like “poetic metaphors” which are “literally senseless.” How many devout Christians or Muslims would recognize their own faith in this neutered creed? [more...]

Nicholas Humphrey: Scott Atran’s warning against scientific triumphalism is interesting and persuasive — and a wonderful piece to have on Edge. [more...]

Scott Atran: I find it fascinating that brilliant scientists and philosophers have no clue how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. [more...]

By Bill Benzon on 01/20/07 at 01:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: But why do atheists need “a handbook of arguments and evidence”? It seems to me that atheism is the default position (intellectually speaking), short of “arguments and evidence” being presented by theists to support their own claims. Christian theology in particular is especially byzantine (no pun intended) and inscrutable, so if anyone needs to put themselves into an “argument situation,” it’s the theologians.

By Daniel Green on 01/20/07 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesingly, Pascal’s wager was, in part, an argument that from reason alone, neither atheism nor theism is the default position.

Anyway, I really just came back to link to some passages on the wager. They’re here.

By Chris on 01/20/07 at 05:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Chris, if you bothered to read replies to you, you’d see that I already linked to section III of the Pensees.  You’d have also read about why I think it’s a bad argument; increasing scientific knowledge has already eaten away at the basis for Pascal’s uncertaincy.  Pascal wasn’t using “reason alone”; the basis for the decision that he was setting up was, implicitly, the knowledge available in his time.

By on 01/20/07 at 06:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: “what would serve atheists today well is a handbook of arguments and evidence, not a rallying of the clique by mocking the doofus.”

That’s one political strategy; Dawkins has another.  Are you an atheist?  I mean, is this the usual kind of advice to be reasonable that people in a self-defined group get from people outside that group?  Because it appears to me that Dawkins is both better placed to judge what would serve atheists today.

Note: I’m not an atheist.  But I’m not criticizing Dawkins’ book for not being what I want it to be rather than what he evidently wanted it to be.  From what I can tell, Dawkins’ strategy appears more likely to achieve his goals than yours.  If atheists really were casually discriminated against, then maybe what they would need is a careful defense.  But they aren’t, so what they need in order to become a political grouping is mocking the other, followed by the other’s overreaction, follwed by self-definition of the people who didn’t much think about God but are willing to think of themselves as atheists once they see the fundies attack atheism.  Just as Gay Rights, to some extent, taught people that they were gay, Dawkins has to create his demographic.

Of course many people don’t like this.  Many people don’t like democratic politics, basically.  It’s crude, and the people who drive it have a regrettable disinclination to look at a matter from all sides.

By on 01/20/07 at 07:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, Your claim not to be an atheist surprises me.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/07 at 07:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My “claim” not to be an athiest?

By on 01/20/07 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I did not intend for “claim” to come across as loaded.  Let’s try again: “Rich, I’m surprised you’re not an atheist.”

By Adam Kotsko on 01/20/07 at 09:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I could go on about the nuances of my personal belief, but why bother?  The issue is rather like that of what to do about the Iraq War—if what you really think is that the U.S. should leave in 12 months, you don’t keep bringing that up all the time when someone says that the U.S. should leave now.  Getting the U.S. to leave at all requires that leaving become the default position rather than staying.

By on 01/21/07 at 08:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

From yet another Dawkins interview:

“As an exercise in consciousness-raising it may hardly be analogous to Stokely Carmichael arousing a black audience with the declaration that “black is beautiful”, but it does suggest that Dawkins was very astute when he described his new book as an invitation to atheists to come out of the closet and publicly declare their disbelief.”

I really think that this repeated use of atheist :: gay is key to understanding what Dawkins is trying to do.

By on 01/25/07 at 02:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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