Monday, October 15, 2007

Richard Dawkins, Mystery Religion

Richard Dawkins has already taken some flak, both from believers and non-believers, about the shoddy philosophical work he tries to do in his book The God Delusion. I was particularly interested, however, in reading a recent review of the book by fellow evolutionary biologist and atheist, David Sloan Wilson, available here. According to Wilson, Dawkins is right that religion is an evolved trait, but he is quite wrong about the mechanisms involved in the evolution of the trait. The disagreement between them ultimately boils down to a disagreement regarding the plausibility of group selection in a variety of cases, but it is interesting to note that, according to Wilson, Dawkins does a remarkably bad job of putting together a plausible just-so story about the development of religious belief. Taken along with the even worse job he does of telling a coherent philosophical story, one begins to wonder just who is buying and enjoying this book so much. Perhaps the reptilian brained Americans living in the north and along the coasts, one might waggishly suggest, thus parodying Dawkins' description of the American south, but apparently his book sales have been doing very well in the south as well, and, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal, Dawkins was received very politely recently when he participated in a debate with mathematician John Lennox in Birmingham, Alabama. I suspect that the interest in Dawkins' book is rather like my own interest in books like Babylon, Mystery Religion Ancient and Modern, by Ralph Woodrow, an amazingly hilarious anti-Catholic screed published in Riverside, California by--surprise!--the Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association. It has lots of funny pictures of the Pope wearing his mitre next to picture of ancient priests of some mystery cult also wearing mitre-like hats. If you needed more proof that Roman Catholicism is just warmed over paganism, you must be living on the moon. So I suspect that most folks just want to look at Dawkins' book for the same reason: they need a good belly-laugh every now and then.


Carl Olson said...

I think many people are buying Dawkin's book out of curiosity, while some of them are certainly motivated by the desire to appear "intellectual" and "in the know" about "the God delusion." I know that here in Eugene, Oregon, where I've lived since 1995, books such as The God Delusion likely do well, based on anecdotal evidence of an overflowing abundance of bad thinking, as found in local newspapers, student rags from the University of Oregon, and such.

Enjoyed the Babylon Mystery Religion reference, having been raised in said nonsense. To be fair, Ralph Woodrow eventually renounced that book (see his explanation on his website), wrote another work refuting it, and has actually been rather ecumenical in recent years. Sadly, I know folks who still adhere to that mumbo-jumbo. Why, Dr. Tim LaHaye swears by it, as he told me in an e-mail exchange a few years ago. Yikes.

John Farrell said...

Remember back when Hawking's book a Brief History of Time was the rage? After a while, it became a common quip to refer to it as the book everyone bought but nobody read.

In Dawkins' case, however, I think a lot of concerned churchgoers are reading him because they really do want to engage his argument. And if they find for themselves how sloppy his scholarship, that will be a good thing.

I only had to sample his chapter on Anselm and Aquinas to get a sense of just of shoddy his scholarship for this tome was, and it's clear it stung--everyone blogger from PZ Myers was whining and defensive about the harsh reviews by Nagel, Eagleston and H. Allen Orr, to name just a few of the other underwhelmed atheists/agnostics who reviewed GD....

Carl Olson said...

I only had to sample his chapter on Anselm and Aquinas to get a sense of just of shoddy his scholarship for this tome was...

At least he refers to Aquinas. I haven't read Dawkins' book or Christopher Hitchen's screed. But I did read Sam Harris's The End of Faith, and found it be exceedingly humorless and humorous (and not for the right reasons)—and evidently written by something with next to no knowledge of basic Christian doctrine or essential Christian theologians and philosophers. In a little rant I wrote a few weeks ago, I stated:

In glancing through The End of Faith once more, I noted how much it resembles a bad magic act, with the magician (the atheist author) trying to confuse the audience with a flurry of clumsy distractions (name calling; straw men; rapid fire accusations; emoting; whining) so they won't notice that how poorly he performs the "trick" (makes God disappear). It is curious, for example, that a 336-page book with extensive endnotes, written by someone with a degree in philosophy who supposedly relies occasionally on philosophical arguments—and which describes Catholic doctrine and beliefs as "suggestive of mental illness"—does not contain a single reference to Thomas Aquinas. Or John Henry Newman, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Claudel, Josef Pieper, von Balthasar, Mortimer Adler, Hans K√ľng (a man I often criticize, but whose 800-page book, Does God Exist?, makes Harris's look like third-rate graffiti), Guardini, Richard Swinburne, Rahner, William Lane Craig, Michael Novak, etc., etc. Augustine is mentioned a few times, mostly to call him an anti-Semitic "sadist." Of Pascal: "That so nimble a mind could be led to labor under such dogma [regarding the divinity of Jesus] was surely one of the great wonders of the age." (Funny how bullies only pick on the weak kids when the bigger kids aren't around.) Imagine if a theist wrote a book titled The End of Disbelief and failed to mention, say, Hume, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, Comte, and Sartre, with only passing reference to Darwin, Freud, and Singer. It would be roundly and rightly criticized. By Christians!

I think John is onto something significant: the growing interest of more and more Christians in engaging directly with the ideas of anti-Christian thinkers. Tis a great thing, so long as they can stomach loads of silliness and sullenness.

Mike L said...

Mike L said...

Sorry, the previous comment's link got cut off.

My new post on God and evolution might be of interest.


The Doctor said...

I think that irrespective of ones personal theological beliefs Dawkins needs to be challenged and challenged very seriously.

As a Prof. of the “Public Understanding of Science” he not only frequently presents unsound arguments, he is actually misrepresenting science.

By applying the term “scientific” to his arguments, he implies a certain credibility that in actuality is unwarranted.

My own irritation over these matters has led me to devote some time to a new blog:

I will strive to not personally debate too much in this blog, but rather catalog and discuss what I see as serious weaknesses in his arguments on a range of topics.

I have not placed any restriction on who may comment either.