Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Courtier's Reply

"...The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?)."

From Dawkins' website:

"I'm afraid that when I read H. Allen Orr's criticism of The God Delusion in the NY Review of Books, all that popped into my head was a two-word rebuttal: Courtier's Reply. You would be amazed at how many of the anti-Dawkins arguments can be filed away under that category.That's all you'll get from me on Orr's complaint—it's another Courtier's Reply. If you want a more detailed dissection, Jason Rosenhouse provides it.

The Courtiers Reply


VTPOET said...

Yes, this is such a beautifully witty reply that I'm tempted to leave it at that, but the "Courtier's Reply" begs the question: What was Dawkins writing about?

If it was just that God does not exist, then "The Courtier's Reply" would be apt. However, rejecting theism is child's play. This isn't the central thesis of Dawkins's book and to read it as such is to read it as a child.

What Dawkins does is to equate religion with evil. He makes this crystal clear when he compares raising children under religion with child abuse.

Now, if you're going to equate Religion with evil, it is not enough to say:

1.) God does not exist

2.) Belief in God is irrational

3.) Irrational belief is evil

4.) Therefore religion is evil.

This is idiotic and well deserves Orr's criticisms.

The question of God's existence and the evil of religion *are in fact*, two separate issues. It does not follow that because ones beliefs are false, that how one acts on those beliefs will therefore be corrupt.

By accusing Religion of being evil, Dawkins is making a philosophically based statement (not a statement based on any kind of scientific scrutiny). And as such, a failure to engage the philosopher's of religion (the theologians) must be considered a fundamental failure in his thesis.

It is in this sense that Orr's criticisms are apt and the "Courtier's Reply" misses the point. The question is not whether the theologians might have been capable of defending a belief in God (which they could not have), but whether they might have been capable in defending the value of religion (which they might have). Since Dawkins never chose to address this deeper question, his book *has* to be viewed as a amateurish effort.

//It should be obvious that the atheistic regimes were themselves types of religions complete with hero-worship and devout dogmatism.//

That is my point also, except that I don't go so far as to consider "religion" as being, by definition, fundamentalist. What these secular regimes had in common with religion was fundamentalism and dogmatism.

//Was it really atheism itself that made these people this way?//

No, it was the flawed mindset of the fundamentalist, the idealogue; and this fundamental human flaw does not seem to be anymore rampant in religion than secularism. It is a diseased way of thinking. Conflating the fundamentalist mindset with the religious mindset is a critical error.

I know I sound like I'm defending religion. I'm not. What I'm defending is a clear-eyed recognition of the source of the evil that Dawkins so facilely places at the foot of religion.

Even Harris, I'm beginning to think, is making a mistake in conflating the fundamentalist's psychosis with the religious impulse.

I say this having read Andrew Sullivan's latest book and having read George Lakoff's various books. I say this believing that fundamentalism is far more endemic in the "Christian Right" (who we usually refer to when we refer to the "religious") than even Dawkins or Harris acknowledge.

Fundamentalism is the illness of which humanity must be cured -- and it is a virus that infects all beliefs, philosophies and political systems.

Bush is a fundamentalist. So was Frist. So is William Krystol -- who is not overtly religious.

Aaron said...

I don't think Dawkins ever deduced that religion itself was evil. In fact I suspect the word "evil" is deemed just as useless to Dawkins as it is to me. It connotes something metaphysical. Religions are memes, some better than others (Dawkins invented the concept of memes in 1976 to describe cultural replicators analogous to genes which are naturally selected based on their ability to survive, and which provide human behaviours that sometimes run counter to certain genetic influences). As Sam Harris points out, the religion of Jainism for example trumps the entire morality of the bible in one single sentence imploring that no harm be done to any living thing. Now, I have no doubt that Dawkins and Harris would not consider such a religious creed "evil". Harris has said however that a such a creed may still be "irrational".

Your 4 point logic does not really fit with what I read from the book. Dawkins comes down hard on theists. His arguments against deists and pantheists are not nearly as harsh. I was even surprised by the fact that he admits in the book that it is not unreasonable to postulate a deistic or pantheistic viewpoint (of course right after saying this he gives reasons for why he strongly disagrees with deism and pantheism), and he does not try to paint subscribers to these beliefs as fools. I was also surprised to see that he admits readily that the "multiverse theory" (that explains how we could have a universe such as ours where the constants are so exact for life to form as we know it), is "far fetched" as an explanatory device. He also intones that it isn't an impossible stretch to think an intelligence designed the universal constants, but quickly points out that such an intelligence would have itself evolved.

Overall, I truly didn't find anything "amateuristic" in the book. The first part of the book is more of a philosophic rundown of the arguments for god and their refutation. The second part of the book is mostly an analysis of the harm theism does, and frankly, if you are going to attack something as infantile as theism with it's infantile arguments, you may end up sounding a little petty and infantile yourself. If Dawkins is guilty of that, it is only because us nontheistic people observe shaking our heads that well reasoned evidence must be defended by irrational faithism at all.

I think the truth of what Dawkins believes can easily be surmised by listening to his numerous interviews and God Delusion book tours. I've listened to just about all of them available on the internet and I haven't come across anything that struck me as being juvenile or even dogmatic. He's an Englishman. Debating forcefully is as natural to him as euthenizing a fruitfly.

VTPOET said...

I would rather have Dawkins's and Harris' books, than not have them, especially Harris. I have not one, but *two* copies of his book "End of Faith" -- both editions.

But I still think Orr's critique of Dawkins has some merit for the reasons I gave. Dawkins is saying that the world would be better off without religion, and that's a different argument than saying that a theist God doesn't exist.

If you are going to insist that the world is better off without religion, then you can't be ignorant or ignore the deeper philosophical arguments *for* religion. Dawkins didn't do it. If anything, the Courtier's Reply characterizes the defenders of Dawkins as much as it does the defenders of Religion. Their arguments are both irrelevant.

Ultimately, you and I would both rather see the world without religion, but I think the more pernicious virus is fundamentalism. This is the foundation on which religion sits. Dawkins is on the track when he aims his hottest barbs at fundamentalism.

Aaron said...

I think I understand the point you are making, but looking at this realistically, there's no possibility of ending religion suddenly just via wonderful logical arguments, and we all know that.

I believe that the world would be better off without theistic religions that make senseless claims that can only be accepted by ignorance, denial and faith.

I do not think that people *need* these types of religions. I don't think that societies *require* these religions to cohere. What if we just jettisoned (hypothetically) all the dogma, leaving the former fundies as speculative spiritualists instead who were at least more tolerant. Half a crazy ass religion (moderation) does not make any more sense than *all* of a crazy assed religion, but it is saner.

Neither Dawkins nor Harris believe that religion is the cause of everything bad or that it is the only form of irrational dogma, or that all religious beliefs are identically problematic etc... In this sense I don't understand the complaint that Dawkins is dogmatic at all. The only part of his book that I thought partially rang of dogmatism had nothing to do with theistic details, it had to do with his canned reply to the statement "god is outside of space/time", which is "isn't that just so easy! You get away with that", and insisting that the only way something complex could exist is if it formed through a process of evolution. Since the origin of space/time must be something else (as far as a human mind can tell), there's no reason to adhere to such an idea. But as I say again and again, the question of universal origins is an entirely different one than whether religions are true or whether consciousness survives. This point is lost on near all theists.