Today’s Quote

April 10, 2007

This is from an essay about the criticisms aimed at three recent booksBreaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and The End of Faith by Sam Harris — that argue against religion:

. . . the problem with arguing with a religious person, say a Christian, or to be even more specific, say a Catholic, is that you have no idea what she actually believes. If I tell you that I believe science is correct, you can be pretty sure about a lot of my very detailed beliefs. You can be sure, just to beat this example to death, that I believe that sodium and chlorine can combine to form table salt. You know that I believe that the Earth is close to four billion years old, that the sun is a star, etc., etc. You can be fairly certain that I don’t pick and choose my beliefs in some arbitrary fashion: “Yes, sodium is real, but uranium is just a figure of speech!” On the contrary, as soon as one begins to corner a religious person about one of their more egregiously silly beliefs, they weasel out with some version of “Oh, but I don’t take that literally!” Transubstantiation may be literally true to some, and only a metaphor to other Catholics. Same with pretty much everything, so it is just not possible to examine every way to conceptualize even just the concept of God, which is just one of the things that theology has spent centuries doing. Religious concepts tend to be slippery as they need not cohere even with each other, much less experience, or dare-I-say-it, reality. The constraints (if any) on how one conceptualizes God, or the afterlife, or hell, or sin, are very loose. No one can be expected to argue with every single one of these conceptions that an army of theologians may have produced over millenia.

But maybe they have produced some particularly significant arguments or ideas worth grappling with. Yeah, sure, maybe they have. What are they? It is remarkable that for all the times this objection, that writers such as Dennett and Dawkins and Harris are ignoring sophisticated theologians, is raised, not a single actual idea or argument due to these theologians is ever mentioned. Why not just say, Mr. Eagleton, what exactly in Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Eriugena, Rahner, and Moltmann refutes Dawkins’s arguments? Unless this is an empty and desperate display of erudition, why not bring up how these subtle examinations of grace and hope might confute Dawkins? Orr can scarcely believe that Dawkins has written a whole book about religion without bringing up William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example. Well, Professor Orr, he chose not to, but you are certainly free to show us how James and Wittgenstein weaken Dawkins’s case. Why don’t you? No, really, just think about it: suppose you are trying to argue that astrology is nonsense, and someone keeps piping up that you haven’t read this or that work by this or that astrologer (especially if there are millenia worth of output from “astrologians”). What will you say? I would say, you bring it up. Show me how what someone wrote weakens my case.

You can read the whole thing at 3 Quarks Daily.

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3 Responses to “Today’s Quote”

  1. geoff Says:

    Dawkins’ book I can’t comment on–I haven’t read it yet (an instance of the choir not needing preached to). But as an avowed atheist, I still maintain that The End of Faith is shabbily reasoned, and one need not stoop to counting angels on pinheads to prove it; there are plenty of pinheads footnoted as authoritative in Harris’s craptastic volume. Anyone who sources Fareed Zakaria and Bernard Lewis to make generalizations about Islam and Moslems can’t be taken too seriously, and could easily work for Doug Feith’s Office of Special Plans. Anyone who quotes Alan Dershowitz on torture or as a rebutter of Noam Chomsky is immediately suspect as a gullible buffoon. Sam Harris does all of these things, and sprinkled throughout his book are more instances of suspect reasoning than in an entire section’s worth of community collge freshman comp essays.

    Of course chunks of that book are quite good–including his passionate plea to replace the religious traditions of the West and Middle East with a kind of mysticism without deity, a la Stephen Bachelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, and his blanket condemnations of organized religion are eloquent and accurate.

  2. Rix Says:

    A lot to mull over in that essay, which I just quickly read. Haven’t read the books, probably won’t. It isn’t in the area of “rational” science that religion most offends me, but in human rights. Conservative American protestanism isn’t leading the opposition to global warning science; for that, look to the fossil fuel energy companies. The religionists are tools & fellow travellers. But nearly all of organized religions, even the mainstream, moderate denominations, are inhibiting if not actively opposing human rights through the examples of their beliefs & structure. In the cases of, say, the United Methodist Church, this creates a double-standard; when gays cannot be fully included in the life & leadership of the church, the denomination’s support of civil rights for gays has a hollow ring. Likewise for women in other denominations. That’s why admire the United Church of Christ & Reformed Judaism.

  3. Caveat Says:

    I hadn’t thought about it that way before, ie, that all the religious people are following wildly different subjective guidelines, whereas what we hold true is universal.

    Thanks for posting that.


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