MacDonald on Orr on Dawkins: Part II

May 28, 2011 • 11:04 am

Over at Choice in Dying, Eric has put up the second and final part of his defense of Dawkins’s The God Delusion against its critique published by Allen Orr in The New York Review of Books. And MacDonald defuses the most important issue that has occupied—nay, obsessed—Dawkins’s critics:

Perhaps Dawkins could have profited by a deeper acquaintance with the thoughts of theologians — even meticulous ones — for then he would have had graphic evidence of the irrelevance of so much that passes itself off as profound and important. If Eriugena has something important to say about subjectivity, as Terry Eagleton alleges, then it belongs to philosophy, not theology. But Rahner on grace? In the absence of some reasonable assurance that there really is a god, and that this god visits the faithful with his/her/its grace — well, there’s not much room for fruitful discussion here. . .

. . . Orr is simply mistaken in my view. He takes theology altogether too seriously. He accuses Dawkins of not paying enough attention to the meticulous argumentation of theologians, but he has not given us one example of how attention to this meticulous argumentation would have contributed to his project.

Having read the “meticulous reasoning” of more sophisticated theologians (as I know Richard has), I can’t see how their inclusion would have changed or improved the book one iota. Just thinking about the theologians I’ve read lately—the likes of Eagleton, Haught, C. S. Lewis (Ceiling Cat help me) and Polkinghorne—all Dawkins could have done was to present their mushy arguments and rebut them.  That would have added nothing to the book.   Absent new and more convincing evidence for god, or for the nature of His being, none of which is provided by these authors, all we would get is lengthy rebuttal of tedious and unproductive theological masturbation.  In separate comments to Eric’s post, though, both Tim Harris and I have asked him to discuss whether or how The God Delusion might have benefited from tackling theology more extensively.

Eric also deals with Orr’s criticism that the twentieth century’s “experiment in secularism” (read Mao, Stalin, and Hitler) showed that atheism is by no means less disasterous than religion.

42 thoughts on “MacDonald on Orr on Dawkins: Part II

  1. Terry Eagleton isn’t a theologian (or if he is, so are you, and so am I, and so is everyone who comments here). He’s a “literary theorist.” Period. He has pretensions to being a philosopher and a universal expert, but they are only pretensions.

    The same is true of Lewis, who was a good literary scholar, period.

    I guess all the people in your list were writing theology, in some sense, but they didn’t have The Certificate.

    Is there such a thing as an atheologian? Can I be one of those? I don’t have a Certificate.

      1. Super. You didn’t mention that you just have to replace Ophelia’s name with your own in the URL and print. I didn’t even know what all my powers were (since they’re upside-down) till I’d consecrated myself.

        1. Sure says something, donnit, when a rank amateur, in her very first attempt at infallibility, outdoes all the previous professionals combined.

          For an encore, could you maybe give us something on the proper mode of interaction between priests and children? Or — even better — optimal career choices for collared men?



    1. I’ve corrected the spelling, by the way (profitted – profited), and a few others. I thought I had already spell-checked it.

      As for being an atheologian. Yes indeed, you may be an atheologian, Ophelia, and for that you don’t need A Certificate!

    2. The original French title of Michel Onfray’s book ‘Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam’ is: ‘Traité d’athéologie’ (atheological treatise). Maybe you will find in Onfray a kindred soul? I myself read his book with great enthusiasm.

  2. Sounds like Orr is falling for the classic, but silly like of argumentation. I am shocked, considering you worked with Orr in the past (still do?). How have you not rubbed off on him more!?

  3. I can’t see how discussing theology would have made the blindest bit of difference to the effectiveness of TGD.

    The one thing that those bleating about “sophisticated theology” like to NOT talk about is how almost no Christian (seeing as that & maybe Judaism are the most prolific producers in this area) has ever even picked up a tome on theology, let alone read it.

    Theology isn’t even relevant to the majority of Christians, why on earth should atheists take it seriously?

    1. Theology isn’t even relevant to the majority of Christians, why on earth should atheists take it seriously?

      Because it would keep us too busy to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain.



    2. Yeah that’s the problem I always have with this. Religion doesn’t take theology seriously, in our society, so why should the non-religious?

      Now, if they think this is a bad thing, then they should feel free to complain about religious leaders who don’t do a good job of teaching the “sophisticated theology”, or those that work against it.

      But atheists are basically reacting to the common religion that exists in our society. Nothing more, nothing less. If the common religion is wrong, it’s on them to change it, not on us to not criticize it.

    3. This reminds me of the way so many christians say “The god I believe in isn’t like that.” (Doesn’t send tsunamis and the like) As though their god has adapted his/her/its nature to suit their beliefs.

      1. Well it has, of course, which is a tacit admission that there’s no real reason to believe anything about it, so you might as well believe whatever you like.

    4. “Theology isn’t even relevant to the majority of Christians, why on earth should atheists take it seriously?”

      Not sure if that is actually a fair criticism. C.f. “Information theory isn’t even relevant to the majority of computer users, so why should non-computer users take it seriously?” Just because the person in the street doesn’t know about the abstrusities [a perfectly cromulent word] of something they are involved with, doesn’t mean its basic principles are faulty.

      If (a thought-experiment) there is a God of the sophisticatedly theological kind, then we would need to understand the sophisticated theology to properly appreciate the proof/s of his/her/its existence.

      And yes, if the King really is wearing raiment that only wise men can see, then pursuing wisdom is part of the strategy of learning to see them. (If, on the other hand he is buck nekkid, then you can pursue as much as you like….)

      But I think it is fair to ask the sophisticated theologians to present their case in plain English and falsifiable terms. They seem very ready to retreat to the language of “God, in whom we live, move and have our being” at the drop of a mitre.

      1. Devil’s advocate here:

        But I think it is fair to ask the sophisticated theologians to present their case in plain English and falsifiable terms

        It could be like a study of very difficult subjects, such as quantum physics, where one needs at least 4 years University training to even be able to grasp the basics.
        Mind you, Quantum Physics ‘brings home the bacon’, as it were. Theology has yet to achieve anything concrete, (apart from a comfortable parasitic existence for its practitioners).

        1. Furthermore, quantum physics didn’t drop out of thin air. It is based on our understanding of electrons and protons etc, which is based on our understanding of atoms, which is based at least in part on straightforward experiments which children do at school.

          Theology isn’t based on anything distinguishable from fantasy.

  4. He accuses Dawkins of not paying enough attention to the meticulous argumentation of theologians, but he has not given us one example …

    This is surely the key point. I must have read five or six reviews of Dawkins offering similar criticism. But the total number of sophisticated theological arguments they actually offered for the existence of God was exactly zero.

    They always want us to believe there are good arguments for the existence of God (or, for that matter, the existence of a historical Jesus) out there somewhere, but they never quite get around to telling us what they are.

    1. Well, these sophisticad arguments seem to be ways of making God’s existence somehow different from existnece as we know it, so that to say he exists or (more important for the theologists) doesn’t exist is meaningingless. Yet a few sentences further on, you’ll find that the emperor has put is new clothes back on and is marching as proudly as befoe.

      1. Apologies if I’m the three-hundredth person here to realise this, but it just occurred to me to look in the dictionary. The third definition of sophist is “a captious or fallacious reasoner” and that of course is the sense in which theologians are sophisticated.

        1. I use “sophistical” for that sense. “Sophisticated” does have positive meanings (but to speak of “sophisticated theology” is to abuse them).

          It was apparently Groucho Marx who pointed out that “military intelligence” is a contradiction in terms. I would say the same of “true religion”.

        2. Sophistry has a long pedigree, replete with mongrels & scrupulous panegyric show-winners.
          It really refers to the skill to state one’s case couched in the most positive light for the target audience.
          Some call it ‘spin’, others call it ‘leadership’, and yet others refer to it as ‘lying’.
          Take yer pick…

  5. I just think that the Emperor’s school system was at fault. If that little boy (Richard, I think)watching the imperial procession had had a more sophisticated understanding of fashion and of the different colours and textures of magical fabrics then he wouldn’t have so rudely expressed such a naive view.

  6. Mao, Stalin and Hitler, secularists? Moa had such a strong belief in his Chinese version of communism that it was a religion and he its God, so he coud do no wrong. Stalin studied for the priesthood and when in power beleived he was God, God killed millions so he was justified in doing the same for “the cause.” Hitler was Catholic to the end and believed his killing of the Jews and any other non-aryans, aided by Pious XII, was justified because they all, the non-belivers, had killed a non-existant Jesus Christ.
    Secularists do not have “causes” that promote one idea, they look for scientific facts.

    1. Funny that when the deluded trot out the mass murderers as an example of secularist experiments, one never hears anyone make so much as a peep about Sweden.

      1. Funny that. I mean, I’ll concede that toxic and deadly philosophies can exist by putting a honest-to-goodness living (or dead) human being or an abstract ideal at the top of hierarchy rather than a god. That covers Stalin and Mao, and probably a lot of imperialist and fascist beliefs.

        BUT, when you throw in Sweden and much of northern Europe, all you really get is that theism is not required to have a moral state. And that shutting down reason in favor of in-group and out-group identification and believe in a charismatic figure is bad, regardless if the figure may or may not exist.

        Mentioning atheism in the context of Stalin or Mao is misleading as an example of what secularism does to the state*. Throwing in Hitler is just plain lying or being willfully ignorant.

        * Now, if you want to show that not all despots worshiped God X, that’s a different argument. Except possibly if Good X was ‘my own badassedness’. Also, diversity in examples is great — we have a whole world and thousands of years of people being horrible to one another on large scales.

      2. Well, Sjöwall and Wahlöö did have quite a bit of critique of late 60es early 70es Sweden. The SäPo has often been considered fascistoid, I think.

  7. Eric spends a good deal of time addressing the calumny that Stalin’s atheism was the driving factor behind his Purges.

    To me, the accusation is as undefined as division by zero. If only Stalin had abandoned his atheism, fallen on his knees, and welcomed the loving embrace of Quetzalcoatl, Russia would have been spared the Purges. Had Mao let the light of Ares shine through him, China would have been a pacific utopia. All that was necessary to prevent the Killing Fields was the wisdom of Wotan that Pol Pot so scornfully rejected.

    Of course, the theist making the accusation isn’t claiming that it’s the person’s lack of belief in any god that was to blame; it’s the person’s lack of belief in the theist’s own favorite pantheon that’s at fault. It’s pure jingoism, and not very well veiled at that.



    1. Ah yes: but to arrive at those conclusions demands mentally recondite & unfettered educated attention coupled with fairly deep thought processes.

      Something of which should the traditional theist be capable, they should immediately cease to be a theist.

  8. The trouble I find with theologians is that they are all convinced, not that their arguments prove A god exists, but that their arguments prove that THEIR god exists. They never appear to grasp that, were their arguments true, they would be proving ANY god exists.

    I think that’s why real thinkers don’t take any notice of their inane ramblings.

    1. Actually I think the mistake is “cleverer” than that.

      Theologians seek only to make an apology for a [any] god. Then, by standard religious special pleading, it is their god/gods that are the “right” one/ones.

      No need to assume apparent incompetence, when actual incompetence (for a rational argument) is an explanation.

    2. Make that, “…they would be proving that ANY god/dess/es exist.” I have never seen a good argument that the number of god/dess/es must be one. Did they fight to the death?

  9. Quite apart from the theology, and MacDonald’s defense of the Enlightenment, I note that biologist Orr tries a typical religious mis-portrayal of science:

    “Scientists’ interest in religion seems to come in waves. One arrived after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Another followed in the 1930s and 1940s, inspired by surprising revelations from quantum mechanics, which suggested the insufficiency of conventional physical theories of the universe. And now …”

    Quantum woo makes [conventional] physical theories “insufficient”!

    Well, the same could be said for atomic theory, that made [previous] physical theories of matter (say, thermodynamics) “insufficient”. And what about that corner stone of standard cosmology, general relativity, that made [previous] physical theories of gravity (newtonian gravity) “insufficient”? That list can be made very long.

    I note that even in Orr’s chosen subject, these things tend to happen with some regularity. Why, cellular theory made [previous] biological theories of organisms “insufficient” long before Darwin upended religious belief.

    Now I know what an Orr-oneous view of science is.

    1. That’s bass-ackward. Religion’s interest in science comes in waves, after a discovery that either closes the door on God (Darwin), or seems to open the door to religion (quanta), and science responds (in a rather Newtonian way, with an equal and opposite reaction.

  10. As a long term student of phenomenology, I’m surprised that this term isn’t used. Psychology has a rich literature to account for many of the religious experiences and the poets have captured the rest of it. Constructs which assume that our values, ideals and motivations must have a sacred source, are just hypotheses which will never be proved. It is so easy to come to a lovely secular place with ‘the good, the true and the beautiful’ as our Greek thinkers put it, that we have no need for god hypotheses; however we need, poetry, art, and great prose to nourish our secular souls.

    1. Yes I was asking Eric about that at his place, but I didn’t think to call it phenomenology. That’s what I meant though. I’m curious about the phenomenology of for instance a sense of god’s presence. (I suspect that for a lot of people it’s just a kind of assent rather than a real experience. But we’re good at convincing ourselves that something has happened inside our heads.)

  11. Sigh… ‘Sophisticated theological arguments’ are not any more useful than Duesberg’s ‘sophisticated HIV denial’ arguments. I’ve read enough of them over the years and they’re all rubbish as they, in the end, all work from the presupposition that there is a God-Made-of-Plastic they can bend and fit in their tiny little boxes of “what God is…”

    And no matter what you do and say, their infinitely plastic God will simply bend to fill in the spaces. AKA, some version of the “God of the Gaps” argument.

  12. He accuses Dawkins of not paying enough attention to the meticulous argumentation of theologians, but he has not given us one example of how attention to this meticulous argumentation would have contributed to his project.

    Quoted for truth!

    I’m sure astrologers would feel aggrieved if someone arguing against astrology looked to astronomy, biology, psychology, sociology, and history in order to dismiss their ideas – for how could they dismiss astrology without even knowing how to make a birth chart or understand the significance of Pluto’s position in Capricorn? But really, what would change in the reasons to dismiss astrology if one spent time learning astrology from an astrologer’s perspective?

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