Saturday, December 23, 2006

Jason Rosenhouse Reviews Orr's Review of Dawkins

Read it at Orr on Dawkins. Good job, Jason. Orr looks like one of them appeaser scientists who have to bend over backwards to defend religion against atheism. I especially like the argument that it's okay to believe in magic and superstition as long as you couch it in sophisticated, intellectual language.

24 comments :

  1. One of the things that amuses me when critics of Dawkins point out he doesn't address "sophisticated theological arguments" is that for the most part, your rank-and-file Sunday-go-to-meetin' Christian is not exactly acquainted with advanced theology either. As Jason points out, TGD was written for a popular audience, not a scholarly one. There are better atheist books out there -- Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God remains a favorite of mine -- but Dawkins' book is a good primer that can get interested readers started, so that they can then go on to the more advanced works.

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  2. Martin Wagner: "One of the things that amuses me when critics of Dawkins point out he doesn't address "sophisticated theological arguments" is that for the most part, your rank-and-file Sunday-go-to-meetin' Christian is not exactly acquainted with advanced theology either."

    Dawkins wants to show that belief in God is a delusion. If he wants to demonstrate his case, should he not show that one can take down the best that Christians can offer?

    Moran: "I especially like the argument that it's okay to believe in magic and superstition as long as you couch it in sophisticated, intellectual language."

    Do you have to introduce a straw man in every post you make on religion?

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  3. J.J. Ramsey asks,
    Dawkins wants to show that belief in God is a delusion. If he wants to demonstrate his case, should he not show that one can take down the best that Christians can offer?

    Help us out here, J.J. What's the best Christian argument for the existence of God that's missing from The God Delusion?

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  4. Help us out here, J.J. What's the best Christian argument for the existence of God that's missing from The God Delusion?

    I'm still waiting for a public library copy that isn't checked out or on order, so anything I say about the book is subject to that caveat. All that said, from what I've gleaned, Dawkins has discussed the classical arguments for God, but he hasn't dealt much with the historical arguments, i.e. arguments trying to point out the reliability of the Bible and working from there. Considering that I can point out plenty of flaws in the historical arguments, it isn't very kind of me to call them the best that Christians have to offer. Whether that is what Orr had in mind, I don't know. I suspect that what Orr has in mind are philosophical musings that impress moderate and liberal Christians far more than they impress me. However, since the theists who would be open to what Dawkins has to say are the more moderate and liberal ones, he is going to have to address what those Christians think is the best that they have to offer, even if it is to point out that he can easily make an end run around them.

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  5. I think the book does make one theme consistently clear: it's that anyone who considers a god to be a necessary explanation for life, the universe and everything finds themselves in the unenviable position of then having to explain that god, where it came from, etc. Couch it in whatever theological legerdemain you like, God still constitutes a bigger mystery than the one He is meant to solve.

    I don't think the "philosophical musings" that impress the moderate and liberal Christians that you mention are all that deep, when you get right down to it. People seek meaning in a vast universe by projecting themselves upon it. Imagining an all-powerful father figure provides some comfort to people who, without such a figure, would probably freak at the idea we're all alone floating on a dust speck in a nearly infinite vacuum. I don't think most believers think about their beliefs that much; they simply believe their beliefs. And they get away with such a shallow approach to their religion because we live ina culture in which religion has always been one of those things you don't talk about so as not to offend anybody.

    While it certainly would have made TGD a more scholarly and academic work, it's absurd of Orr to attack the book as it's written (for a mainstream, non-academic audience) on the grounds that Dawkins isn't intimately familiar with the likes of William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The vast majority of Christians filling up those arena-sized megachurches have never heard of those guys at all; I'd venture Dawkins has at least heard of them, but didn't consider a familiarity with them necessary in order to reach his target audience.

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  6. Where does this idea come from that indulging in the fantasies of theologians would make the book more scholarly? "Scholarly" is not a synonym for foolishness, usually.

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  7. PZ: "Where does this idea come from that indulging in the fantasies of theologians would make the book more scholarly?"

    Where do you get the idea that Orr is talking about indulging in the fantasies of theologians rather than disassembling them?

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  8. but he hasn't dealt much with the historical arguments, i.e. arguments trying to point out the reliability of the Bible and working from there.

    Yes, he deals with that. It is a very simple task. Writings about errors and contradictions in the Bible have been around at least as long as it has been possible to publish them without forfeiting one's life. See Voltaire and Paine for some early modern examples. He then proceeds with the abstract philosophical arguments.

    There are a surprising number of people who appeal to the immense variety of god-concepts as an ill-targeted defense: "Sure he attacked the logically inconsistent 'God of the people', but there are a few theologians hiding in a closet somewhere trying to come up with a god-concept that is not actually logically inconsistent". Hogwash. The variety of god-concepts is evidence against any god(s) who would wish mankind to have a clear conept of who he is and what he wants from us.

    Well then, it would be a good idea for you to get a hold of the book before you comment further.

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  9. Mustafa Mond: "Yes, he deals with that. It is a very simple task. Writings about errors and contradictions in the Bible have been around at least as long as it has been possible to publish them without forfeiting one's life."

    I'm heartened that you mentioned that he does deal with the historical stuff after all, although the bit about "It is a very simple task" is worrying. I've seen people attempt to write about errors and contradictions only to get sloppy about it. Does he handle the job like a decent biblioblogger or does he get into "Skeptic's Annotated Bible" territory?

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  10. Mustafa Mond: There are a surprising number of people who appeal to the immense variety of god-concepts as an ill-targeted defense: "Sure he attacked the logically inconsistent 'God of the people', but there are a few theologians hiding in a closet somewhere trying to come up with a god-concept that is not actually logically inconsistent".

    I don't think that's quite the problem. The complaint that I see in many of Dawkins' detractors is more like, "The God that Dawkins attacks is not the God that the sophisticated theists believe in." Whether that's true or not, I'll have to see, though what I've seen and read of Dawkins so far (e.g., the Gerin Oil article, the Root of All Evil documentary, interviews) hasn't made me too optimistic, which is why Dawkins' book has been on my "rent, don't buy" list. Unfortunately, the people who seem to be the most enthusiastic for Dawkins also have a penchant for dubious arguments on religion, so it is hard to let their remarks slide while I wait for a chance to check it out from the library. (The quality of Dawkins' enthusiasts doesn't make be too optimistic, either.)

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  11. I don't think that's quite the problem.

    i had a specific example in mind.

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  12. I'm heartened that you mentioned that he does deal with the historical stuff after all, although the bit about "It is a very simple task" is worrying. I've seen people attempt to write about errors and contradictions only to get sloppy about it. Does he handle the job like a decent biblioblogger or does he get into "Skeptic's Annotated Bible" territory?

    I'm not sure what a "biblioblogger" is, but the few times i have viewed the SAB I was not impressed. SAB seems more like teenage snark than serious argumentation. Dawkins gives specific examples of problems with the Bible. I don't have my copy of TGD with me right now so I cannot expound on which specific examples he chose. I have seen sufficent dissection of the Bible elsewhere that I am not dependent on how well Dawkins carried off the argument, so perhaps I am not the most critical audience.

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  13. (The quality of Dawkins' enthusiasts doesn't make be too optimistic, either.)

    If you're going to go that route, you can go back to The Courtier's reply, an argument that has been used by nearly every critic of TGD I have come across. I see you've already been marked for disemvowelment on that thread for not having read the book.

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  14. Mustafa Mond: "I see you've already been marked for disemvowelment on that thread for not having read the book."

    And the irony of that is that the issues I originally raised were, strictly speaking, independent of what Dawkins wrote and had more to do with PZ's bastardized take on Orr. I could have and should have been more careful about assuming that Orr's take on Dawkins was accurate, but regardless of that, PZ's argument was a strawman of Orr's position, period, regardless of Orr's own faults.

    (What's doubly ironic is that in the post on that thread dated December 24, 2006 05:20 PM, I acknowledged that I had gotten Dawkins wrong on the issue of whether he had "follow[ed] philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions" and stood corrected. But I further digress.)

    BTW, a biblioblogger is someone who, well, blogs on the Bible. Ususally, they are either professionals or educated amateurs. Here are a few good ones:

    http://www.ntgateway.com/weblog/
    http://lorenrosson.blogspot.com/
    http://earliestchristianhistory.blogspot.com/

    The biblioblogs that I look at now and again tend to be either the secular or the "laudably heretical" ones (to borrow Jacques Berlinerblau's turn of phrase).

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  15. The Bible hasn't changed all that much in the last 700 or so years, except for new translations. I should think it would make a dull topic for blogging, and that books would be as informative as blogs. Ehrman is widely respected for his textual scholarship.

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  16. Mustafa Mond: "The Bible hasn't changed all that much in the last 700 or so years, except for new translations."

    Yeah, but the people who look at the Bible definitely have changed, as has the level of background knowledge about the cultures of the Ancient Middle East. Older manuscripts have also been recovered. Modern psychology also helps to some extent. Try reading the New Testament through the eyes of Leon Festinger.

    Mustafa Mond: "and that books would be as informative as blogs."

    The blogs can be helpful for finding interesting books. Two that I found that way are The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide by Theissen and Merz, and Resurrecting Jesus by Dale Allison. The latter is a pretty interesting read, and curiously enough, though Allison is a believer himself, he provides quite a bit of ammunition for the other side.

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  17. Check out Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. His scholarship really is top notch, and his writing is also very good. I have not read that particular book, but I have read other work of Ehrman's. He's put out some widely-used textbooks on the New Testament.

    If it matters to you, Ehrman started out very religious, but through his textual research has worked himself up to agnosticism.

    Here's a line from a review at Amazon: "Ehrman could well be the best known Biblical scholar today." That's from a three star review by Timothy Kearney.

    Ehrman has also written about some of the gnostic texts.

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  18. I know it's Christmas, but it's a lazy day and I'm a bit bored. Anyway ...

    "Check out Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman."

    I checked out an earlier work of his, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture just to get a feel for what he was like. It was maybe a little dry (but then, it was a more technical work), but I agree that he's solid.

    "If it matters to you, Ehrman started out very religious, but through his textual research has worked himself up to agnosticism."

    I remember reading about that in the Washington Post, which is why I looked up his work. Someone else got the great idea of checking out Misquoting Jesus before I did, so I looked up his older books. While he is certainly more learned than I, I found his path from evangelical to agnostic personally familiar.

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  19. I agree with PZ that theology is intellectually vacuous. What I meant was that if Dawkins had gone into more detailed theological critiques in TGD, then the book would be more "scholarly" only in that he would have spent the time reading those works and refuting them in detail (and I'm not sure why PZ thinks of that as indulging them -- is it only "scholarship" when you are in agreement with the point of views you're researching?), and a book like that would appeal more to an audience of academics rather than the general public.

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  20. Martin Wagner: "I think the book does make one theme consistently clear: it's that anyone who considers a god to be a necessary explanation for life, the universe and everything finds themselves in the unenviable position of then having to explain that god, where it came from, etc."

    It's more accurate to say--and indeed, this came out in the comments of Rosenhouse's review--that anyway who who considers a god to be a necessary explanation for life, the universe and everything has to have a hefty weight of evidence to justify why they accept an explanation that involves such difficulties. The catch is that creationists think that they have such justification, facts be damned. :-(

    Actually, I wonder how hard it really is to tackle the "sophisticated theological arguments." Aside from the new spins on some of the classical arguments (e.g. ontological, cosmological), which can be dispatched by the original rebuttals to the classical arguments, most of the "sophistication" seems to fit in either the categories of either elaborate justifications for believing on insufficient evidence (e.g. separating "religious propositions" from "ordinary things") or just sheer obscurantism (e.g. "God is not a being; he is the source of all being").

    AFAIK, Dawkins did indeed knock down the classical arguments. One of the commenters in the The courtier's reply thread had noted that he had dealt with the elaborate justifications. I don't know if Dawkins had done the last bit, but it isn't as if he hasn't touched on that before. That last part, if he hasn't done it already in the book, could even have been given a satirical touch.

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  21. If Biblical arguments are your idea of a sophisticated theology, you just provide evidence that there are no sophisticated theologies.

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  22. Markp: "If Biblical arguments are your idea of a sophisticated theology"

    Actually, they are less theological arguments, at least in the philosophical sense, and more just straight-up arguments about whether God intervened in history. Usually, the trick is to argue that the accounts of the supernatural in the Bible are dismissed by liberal biblical scholars only because they beg the question on the existence of miracles, and then to argue selectively from the evidence that the Biblical documents are at least reasonably reliable. Notice that this need not require inerrancy, which of course sophisticated theists don't believe anyway. :-)

    These arguments tend to work well on laymen who don't know the messy state of the real Biblical evidence. This is also abetted by those who act as if they were begging the question on miracles. Natalie Angier saying that the virgin birth contradicts everything known about mammalian reproduction is a case in point, and even Fogelin, who wrote A Defense of Hume on Miracles, had believed that Hume himself begged the question, because he misunderstood how Hume was using the word "proof." (Hume used the word more as a synonym for "evidence.") As Bart Ehrman could tell you, I'm sure, the more you learn about the background of the Bible, the less convincing it is as evidence, but most people don't know that much.

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  23. Me: "This is also abetted by those who act as if they were begging the question on miracles."

    I might add that a way to do an end run around slogging through details of biblical problems (e.g. the Masoretic text of the book of Jeremiah "fixing" a prophecy in the LXX version of the text to make it fit with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah) would be to simply do a robust argument against miracles, possibly coupled with pointing out how prophecies are vague or created after the fact.

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  24. Damn. Got up to Chapter 6 in The God Delusion. He's a lot better than I expected. Certainly some nits to pick, but the nits have plenty of good content in between. Discussing the cargo cults works pretty well as a way of expressing the unreliability of religion.

    I expected the book to be a grossly ill-reasoned hack job, but while I don't think it's perfect, it's looks like it's worth a cautious recommendation.

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