Even early in the piece, Wood has this passage, which contains some sharp insight, at least until the final quoted sentence:
We know that plenty of people hold religious beliefs that are also propositions – they stand up and recite creeds on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; they can tell you who will be punished in hell, and how; they believe that Allah is the one God, and so on. Prayer itself is a proposition: it proposes that God exists, and can be communicated with. Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs.And yet, and yet ... alas, yes, Wood does seem a little wrongheaded. As a commenter pointed out in the equivalent thread to this one over at Jean Kazez's place (Jean loved Wood's piece), you can hardly claim that someone like Richard Dawkins is "dead to metaphor", as Wood ends up doing; au contraire (as Jean more or less acknowledges), Dawkins is very much alive to metaphor. In fact he is a master of metaphor - he has become such a fine and successful writer partly through his skill in employing vivid metaphors to explain conceptually difficult subjects ... and to make them far clearer to a wide audience. This is where his profound appeal lies.
Jean responds, on her thread, that Dawkins is nonetheless not sensitive to what goes on in the heads of actual believers, or many of them, who may be operating day-by-day with all sorts of doubts and inchoate hunches, with meaningful images that they can't explain in literal propositions, and so on.There's a point here: I suspect it's true that this complexity of belief (with all the doubts, reversals, and so on) is not emphasised in a book like The God Delusion. I can't say I remember this getting much atttention. (Dennett's work, however, may well be another matter.)
But in any event, is it fair to condemn The God Delusion for being what it is - a rather polemical work, albeit an urbane, complex, and often funny one - rather than a literary novel? Isn't there room for such works, especially in a world in which the kinds of religion that are its chief targets still have a great deal of social and even political influence?
Is it really fair for such a work, no matter how urbane, complex, humorous, and varied in its tone - sometimes, to be sure, forthright and provocative, but at other times meditative, gentle and even conciliatory - to be characterised as if it is one-dimensional, emotionally and linguistically flat, and intellectually narrow? It's a pity that Wood is not prepared to read Dawkins with the same charity and the same kind of sensitivity to nuance and language that he gives to the various European and post-colonial novels that he discusses.
There's clearly an important place for novels of character that explore how religious people - or, indeed, non-religious people touched by religion - think and feel. Wood has made me want to go back and re-read Moby Dick, To the Lighthouse, and other works that he mentions or explicates. He makes me want to read some novels that I have yet to broach for the first time, such as the work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (which I don't know at all) and that of J.M. Coetzee (whose oeuvre I've dipped into only slightly, much to my, ahem, disgrace). That's all impressive, and surely it's (part of) the task of a skilled literary critic to make me respond like that.
But Wood's piece would be stronger if he concentrated on the strengths and beauties of the novels he discusses - leaving the New Atheists out of it altogether - or if, alternatively, he were willing to bring the same critical sense of tone, style, and complexity to the work of Dawkins, Dennett, and others, as he does to works of prose fiction. Dawkins' books, to stay with that prominent example, are far more complex in their language, sensibility, and understanding than Wood would have us think, and considerably more justified than Wood accepts when their author does, indeed, make simplifications: these are inevitable in the writing of non-fictional exposition and polemic, and it's not as if they are hidden or unexplained.
There's a job waiting, for whoever wants it, of examining the published work of Dawkins, in particular, as literature - admittedly a somewhat polemical body of literature. That would make an excellent topic for a PhD, or perhaps for a monograph with at least some appeal beyond an academic audience. The job would require a scientifically literate, sympathetic critic - perhaps Wood could carry it out as well as most, but he'd need to do away with some preconceptions. I'm not volunteering for this particular job, but I do wish critics like Wood would treat the New Atheist books with some of the care and sensitivity that they call for and extol ... even as they tend to caricature, over-simplify, and diminish.