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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, January 08, 2007

I'm bored with the anti-Dawkins backlash

Since the publication last year of Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, I've been aware of a mounting backlash against Dawkins, whose views have not merely been challenged on their merits (which of course is open to anyone to do in a free society), but typically dismissed for showing a lack of arcane theological knowledge that is really of little relevance to debates about either the truth or the social usefulness of religion. Worse, many attacks on Dawkins have become quite personal, reading his words in distorted, uncharitable ways to make him out to be, for example, a totalitarian monster who wants to prohibit parents teaching their religious beliefs to children, a philistine devotee of "scientism" (a word that has acquired so much baggage that its use in argument is now a signal that the person using it is some kind of irrationalist), or even the sort of mad scientist who would favour coercive experiments on human beings.

I've read most of Dawkins' work and I have a good enough sense of it to conclude with confidence that he is none of these things. Moreover, he is a lot more subtle than the clumsy readers who are currently attacking him.

What is especially annoying is watching other secular thinkers seeming to trip over each other in a terrified scramble to dissociate themselves from Dawkins.

I'm getting bored with this. Folks, a strong dose of hard-nosed rationalism is actually good for us all, so Dawkins deserves thanks for providing it. It's okay to criticise religion, even trenchantly. What's more, you can review a book that does so without running the risk of becoming an enemy of the people unless you condemn it.

Dawkins' books are best-sellers because he communicates brilliantly on topics that thinking people care about. The God Delusion is no exception. When the smoke clears, it will be apparent that this is an important book - sure, it may not make a terribly significant contribution to academic philosophy of religion (though I do not consider it negligible, even in that regard), but it has made a strong, clear, and thoughful contribution to public debate on immensely important issues to do with how religion should now be viewed, and what its future ought to be.

Its key message - that there is something horribly wrong, even creepy, about labeling a young child as, say, "Christian" or "Muslim" - is surely correct. Young children are in no better position to understand, and agree to, bodies of religious doctrine than to understand economic or political doctrine, but no one would point to some three year old and say, "Hey, look at that little libertarian girl" or "... at that Keynesian boy" or "... that Marxist kid."


Blake Stacey said...

What's more, you get to review a book that does so without becoming an enemy of the people unless you find some clever way of condemning it (demonstrating your urbanity and erudition in the process).

I'm pretty sure I grok the content of this sentence, but something seems oddly phrased about it.

Russell Blackford said...

Alas, it's probably just too convoluted. If I saw someone else write it at Wikipedia I'd probably turn it into two sentences.

Russell Blackford said...

I decided to simplify the thought.

Blake Stacey said...

Ah, I'm glad my parsing of that sentence was basically correct. Thanks for the simplification.

For the sake of the historical record, it might be a good idea to specify those parts of TGD which, in your view, do make a contribution to "academic philosophy of religion". If the book is, as you say, not entirely negligible in that regard, future generations might benefit from knowing what those contributions are. I'm sure one could get a blog post/master's thesis out of that analysis (depending on the density of footnotes).

I recall you mentioning that you would be reviewing TGD for Cosmos Magazine, but it doesn't look like that review has appeared yet. Is it forthcoming?

This may be a good time to state for the record that I have not yet read The God Delusion — remodeling my home and earning a living came first. This would not, apparently, bar me from writing a review of it. However, once the number of backlash pseudo-reviews passes a certain threshold, I will probably make time to see just what it is that is upsetting everyone so badly!

Occasionally, the Interblag does deliver some substantive criticism, which always makes me happy. The latest entry in this (all too select) club is Mark Trodden at Cosmic Variance.

My only quibble with the first part of the book is when Dawkins takes a few pages to go beyond the evolutionary explanation of the illusion of biological design to describe the possibility of a similar explanation of the illusion of design in the values of the fundamental physical constants — the anthropic principle.

The discussion of the actual anthropic principle is perfectly fair and the cursory sketches of how various hypotheses about quantum gravity (the string theory landscape and eternal inflation, or Smolin's proposal that black holes may spawn daughter universes with different values of the constants) might provide a mechanism through which to invoke it, are also fine. However, Dawkins does take a somewhat dismissive attitude to physicists who are thus far unconvinced by these suggestions.

Assuming the quotations he selects are accurate and representative, I'd agree with Trodden's evaluation. That said, it does appear to be a minor point which, for all I know, could be addressed with a rephrasing and a footnote in the second edition. I note, mournfully, that the comment thread rapidly devolves into retreading the same territory trampled over a thousand times elsewhere, instead of discussing the interesting (though admittedly peripheral) point which Trodden raises.

Trodden's co-blogger, Sean Carroll, also had a worthwhile post (partly a riposte to Terry Eagleton's negative review, which might have been the first in the Courtier's Reply genre).

(In all the sound-and-fury, people seem to be overlooking Carl Sagan's book from beyond the grave, The Varieties of Scientific Experience. My thoughts on and stimulated by the book ended up here.)

Russell Blackford said...

At this rate, I'll have to read the book again ... but that is going to be down the track because I'm snowed under right now. The amount that I am blogging and commenting on other people's blogs is an indicator that I am (theoretically) working very hard and thus generating a lot of avoidance activity.

I suspect that real philosophers of religion are going to find TGD naive, or kind of argumentatively thin, but I haven't seen anything from those quarters as yet. I've also been reading Graham Oppy's much more sophisticated (and less accessible) Arguing About Gods, but haven't had a chance to talk to Graham about either book. However, Dawkins' discussions of fine tuning and the ethics of belief are worthy of philosophers of religion grappling with, IMO. His discussions of the more traditional arguments for the existence of God are fine for their purpose but don't say anything new.

Cosmos is bi-monthly, so there's been no time for the review to appear since I wrote it. Hopefully, it'll still appear. At least I've been paid for it, but it's getting to be stale news. It's quite a brief review, and written before a lot of other stuff appeared, so don't hold out any great hopes for it!

Russell Blackford said...

By the way, Blake, in answer to a question you asked me elsewhere, you might be interested to have a look at Douglas Walton's book, Slippery Slope Arguments.

Michael Anissimov said...

Dawkins and his militant atheism are a godsend (no pun intended). He exemplifies what atheists know they should be, but are afraid to be. He is my Person of the Year 2006.

Russell Blackford said...

Mine, too, I think.

Anonymous said...

May I digress?

"Hey, look at that little libertarian girl"

If 3 is too young, is 14? I once knew that girl.

Lately I've been sensitized to the magic age fallacy in discourse. 18 is an adult, but 17 years 11 months 27 days is a child. This fallacy keeps imposing sharp boundaries on smooth continua, and also disregards the differences between specific individuals. Mary was adult at 14, while Dan was not at 24, and in many ways Craig will never reach adulthood.

Anonymous said...

Regarding that problematic sentence, I don't think you have yet made it as clear as it should be. I suggest reordering the clauses, perhaps like so:

What's more, you can review a book that does so, not condemn it, and still not be an enemy of the people.

I would say "... not condemn it, and still not get burned at the stake.", but I love hyperbole.

Russell Blackford said...

Hi Craig - ha, it's probably too late to reword anything now. But yeah, I have nothing against a teenager who really does understand and advocate, say, Randian libertarianism being referred to as "that libertarian girl".

I'm always worried when I see it assumed that teenagers are stupid or thoughtless. Some are, some aren't. In my own case ... well, I certainly had a lot of ideas of my own - about religion, politics, etc. - by the age of 14. I probably even had some (admittedly unsophisticated) ideas about those things at the age of 6 or 7 - but I was not typical of my peer group at any of those ages.

Recognising that there are some smart, mature teenagers around, and feeling some resentment, on their behalf, when they are patronised by adults, is one thing. I'm all for that. But that's not the same as categorising little kids on the basis of the parents' beliefs, as we tend to do now.

Drew said...

I think a lot of critics misunderstand Dawkins discussion of those philosophical issues precisely because they only read excerpts and not the book. His point is not to prove that this or that alternative to a religious argument is true, but that there are plenty of equally plausible possibilities to all of these problems that completely undermine the religious claims to "know" what various philosophical issues prove about the existence of god.

The fine-tuning argument is probably the silliest of these, especially because its aided and abetted by scientists who poorly bridge the gap between knowledge and philosophy. It's one thing to note that the universe appears fine tuned for life (or at least, for the very very low amount of life and very low amount of order the universe does sustain), but in dicussing things like the current constants, scientists simply forget the issue of possibility: we have no ideas what they are. We have no idea what other possible constants there could have been, how much they can vary, what the actual ranges of possibility are. The answer is, and may always be, a very very fundamental we don't know. For all we know, our universe could be extremely unordered chaotic, and barren of life compared to what is actually possible for a universe to be (and I am not invoking multiverses here: just the idea of possibility for the one universe we know about). In fact, it could be SO barren and chaotic that in fact we need to invoke a creator who hates life to explain why it is so! In other words, the fine tuning argument is far more empty philosophically than I think most critics realize.