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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, May 23, 2011

Can't post, head spinning (Danger - apologetics!)

Well, since I'm posting this at all ... the title of the post can't be correct can it? All the same, most of my reading for the past couple of weeks has been various works of what amount to Christian apologetics of one kind or another. This will continue for a bit. It's actually quite interesting reading this stuff - interesting from several points of view. I'm interested in what people think, so I like finding out just what bothers individuals like Alister McGrath, John Haught, and Eric Reitan about atheism, not to mention where they stand more generally.

But after a while it reaches the point where I feel saturated with this material. It doesn't help that I'm taking notes as I go ... but what I'm reading is often so murky, and often seems so wrong-headed, that it's difficult nailing down what the argument actually is, let alone knowing where to start in assessing and criticizing it. As to the latter, I could write pages and pages dissecting some pages of these books, and would still perhaps not nail down the problems properly. I must resist that temptation. Please note that I'm not just reading this stuff to find ways of demolishing it; if there are grains of truth there I want to be able to locate and identify them.

The task involves quite a lot of pressing on regardless, rather than getting bogged down to the extent that could easily happen.

Another interesting thing is observing how gnasty these people can get, even though they seem completely oblivious to it. "Nice" moderate Christians like McGrath, Haught, and Reitan can be just as unfair, personal, dismissive, insulting, and angry as any New Atheist, but I suppose they don't realise that that is how their work comes across. Perhaps they are so sure of their own righteousness that they can't believe this of themselves. Or maybe they think it's justified for the sake of their cause.

Not that I'd necessarily want them to write in a different way. By all means, let people write with passion! What I would like is merely for them to understand that the elements of gnastiness that they see in Richard Dawkins (for example) is what happens when people write about something they feel passionate about, and try to put their points persuasively. When McGrath and company do this, they can also end up sounding pretty "strident" to people who don't see things the same way.

Next up is a book by Dinesh D'Souza, who is not a cozy liberal Christian like these guys that I've mentioned. For better or worse, I don't expect any gniceness from him at all.


DEEN said...

I've long suspected the murkiness to be on purpose. It means you can always attack any opponent of misunderstanding you, or even of putting up a strawman argument, while boasting about how "sophisticated" you are.

I wonder if that is why apologists see Dawkins and the New Atheists as such a major threat: they show that these topics can be discussed in clear language. The fact that apologists almost without exception attack Dawkins on his "lack of sophistication" would support this possibility.

DEEN said...

(By the way, this might suggest that it may be a more worthwhile tactic to attack the murkiness tactic itself, than to try and parse the obfuscated mess and refute what you think are its points)

Russell Blackford said...

I tend to be a bit more charitable than that.

Well, I do think that some Christian apologists, some of the time, are simply trying to bamboozle and impress us. I often get that vibe from William Lane Craig. And as for creationists and IDers.

I suspect, though, that it's not so much the case with the three more-or-less liberal apologists I named in the post. For me, the most disingenuous-seeming stuff in the books I've been reading isn't actually the theology, but the way McGrath conflates atheism and communism ... which seems just too crass and dumb to be a mere mistake. But my feeling is that that is how it actually feels to him, based on his personal experience. Our personal life experiences can have a huge effect on shaping what just seems "obviously right" to us (which is something to guard against ... I'm conscious that the same could apply to me).

latsot said...

I don't envy your having to read McGrath. His writing (and speech, for that matter) is almost entirely impenetrable. It's near impossible to locate a point in anything he says and if you manage somehow to achieve it, it's generally so nebulous that arguing with him often seems like splitting hairs: there's just nothing there to get your teeth into.

I struggle to make it through articles and even videos of him, I doubt I'd get very far with one of his books.

DEEN said...

I suppose it doesn't have to be done on purpose. It might just be a style that evolved because it works. Or a style that is adopted because that's how the big-name theologians write. But when I read stuff by Plantinga, for example, my cynical side wonders.

Marshall said...

I think you're being unfair to William Lane Craig. In the debate with Sam Harris, if you recall what was the question - Does Good Come From God? - I think you can see that Craig stays within the question and attempts to grapple with Harris' published positions ... as opposed to eg Harris' peroration, which was a completely irrelevant comment on the evilness of hell. Harris feels somewhat stodgy and old-fashioned, but I see him as trying to argue from a rationalist/positivist stance. If Analytical Philosophy sees that as bamboozlement, maybe that's a comment about the thinness of positivism.

Read Stanford/Plato on any topic you like at all and see how hopeless it is for even highly trained rationalists to argue their way to agreement on anything at all even when they are not playing to the gallery. So how to get at the roots of moral behavior?

Speaking of moral progress, piece in the last-but-one (5/12/11) NY Review about "sensibility", meaning a "heightened sense of sympathy for the autonomy and well-being of other human beings" that arose in the 18th century (apparently a hot topic among Historians) which lead to the abolition of slavery, "rules of war", etc. Rorty defines liberals as those who think that the worst thing about us is our cruelty. An emotional, not just technical, shift.

Russell Blackford said...

Thing is, McGrath has an odd manner that makes him rather, um, off-putting as a speaker. But he can write perfectly good formal prose. I actually enjoyed the first half of The Twilight of Atheism - of course I didn't agree with everything, but I don't agree with everything in what Dawkins writes, or what Sam Harris writes, or whatever. I'm happy to read stuff that I don't agree with.

In the second half of the book he alienated me because the whole argument started to depend on his equation of atheism and communism.

Still, it was worth reading to the end to see how his mind works. I wouldn't have realised that he has this very strong intuitive equation of atheism and communism, based on his own communist background, if I'd relied on his talks. My own strong intuition is completely the opposite, but that's partly based on my own life experience (as described briefly in my 50 Voices of Disbelief essay. I.e. my rejection of belief in God has precisely nothing to do with communism.

David M said...

"I've long suspected the murkiness to be on purpose. It means you can always attack any opponent of misunderstanding you, or even of putting up a strawman argument, while boasting about how "sophisticated" you are."

I think there's a risk in that. Some things just are complicated/sophistcated and hard to talk about. I'm reading chunks of maria Baghramian's aboslutely awesome book, Relativism, and there's just sections, both of her writing, and of some of the other philosphers she quotes, that are just really freaking dense and complex.

I don't know, it just seems like a risky glass house to be in.

(You could surely make the same argument for various specialist scientific disiplines/writing.)

Having said all that, certainly the argument could be made that it is the very fact that there are complex/sophisticated things that just are complex and hard to talk about - but are no less legitimate for it - that makes housing wishful thinknig and guesses and untruths in a similar sort of language a useful tactic. The question probably becomesis the person writing legitimately attempting an honest explanation, or trying to delude themselves or others?

I'm happy with Russell's idea of staying charitable until strongly proven otherwise.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Marshall, you'd have to know just what bits of WLC I had in mind. I actually agreed with a fair bit of what he said in the debate with Harris. After all, I disagree with Harris about the objectivity of morality, and WLC made some of my points. OTOH, his explanation of how the divine command theory is supposed to work seemed to have a lot hand-waving.

But anyway, he really seems to me to abuse probability theory in his debate with Bart Ehrmann.

David M said...


Case in point for opaque writing in the sciences.

godsbelow said...

Russell, I found Craig's performance in his debate with Ehrman deplorable.

I don't know much (well, anything, to be honest) about probability theory, but I do know a bit about how professional historians approach historical questions involving the likelihood of events reported by ancient authors. I've never encountered the use of probability theory in ancient history, and can state categorically that Craig's formulae, clever as they are, would never find a publisher in any academic journal on ancient history or Biblical philology. Historians calculate the probability of past events having occurred base primarily on the reliability of the sources that describe them, taking into account cultural context and, naturally, scientific reality. This is the approach Ehrman took, and his conclusion was soundly based a) on the unreliability of the gospel accounts, and b) on the absence of any scientific evidence for unassisted postmortem reanimation.

Craig almost completely failed to engage with Erhman's argument: he offered no reasons for why anyone should consider the gospels accurate, taking their mere existence as evidence enough for the authenticity of their accounts. (I suspect he doesn't give the same kind of credit to the accounts of the journey of Muhammad to Jerusalem, or the life of Apollonius of Tyana.) Then he presented slide upon slide of formulae, as though this somehow disproved all scientific evidence or bolstered the reliability of some discrepant and unattributed mystical texts.

Craig might have proved an outstanding debated on other occasions, but in this case he didn't even offer his opponent a debate. Instead, ignoring Ehrman's arguments, he resorted to a cheap trick to overawe his opponent and impress his already sympathetic audience.

Bad show.

Marshall said...

I meant to comment (only a bit snarky) on WLC's methods, not so much his content. I can see why "God's Essential Nature" would be handwavy for you! Unconvincing! Looking quickly at the Ehrman debate tx I have to admit WLC is much weaker than in the two recent.

Abuse, yes. It's foolish to talk probability when there's only one event, and that mysterious. It's foolish to assign likelihood values to unknowable unknowns. WLC certainly carries the mail, but Ehrman is saying the same thing: "Historians try to establish to the best of their ability what probably happened in the past." I would say, Historians make interpretations of documents (and suchlike), interpretations which might be credible or not. The past, whatever it was, was what it was. I say Ehrman's point should have been that the Resurrection according to the Nicene Creed is an incredible interpretation.

I think Dawkins himself started it: talking about how Atheists are ready to believe in orbital teapots if they saw one: "What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't) but whether his existence is probable. Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things." (GD p77, italics in original). But if you replace probable by credible here, his argument collapses to a tautology: Atheists don't believe in God because they find him incredible.

... And FWIW I very much applaud your comment otherwhere about finding gems even in the midden heaps.

Marshall said...

I shouldn't have said Dawkins started the trope; rather he was an early adopter among the Gnustics. Possibly Pascal, who more or less invented probability, started it with his famous Wager.