Thursday, September 28, 2006

Dawkins the Literalist

Jeremy points out that the BBC has put up selections from Dawkins's The God Delusion, and makes some salient comments in a post fittingly called "Richard Dawkins the Literalist". I don't really have much to add; the arguments in the selections put up aren't very good.

You can tell something about just how bad the argument is from the fact that Dawkins refers us to an argument by Spong as if it were worth taking seriously; Spong, of course, is the world's best-known upside-down fundamentalist -- he thinks like a fundamentalist, talks like a fundamentalist, argues like a fundamentalist, but for positions opposite to those usually considered fundamentalist, and is notorious among conservatives, moderates, and most liberals for doing so. In point of fact, pace Dawkins and Spong alike, even most rigid fundamentalists have a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to take the Bible literally than Dawkins and Spong think. This is because, even when they muddle it up a bit, their understanding of 'the literal sense of Scripture' is (1) holistic, since all parts of the book have to be understood, or understandable, in light of all the other parts; (2) guided by at least some simple exegetical principles that require taking passages in historical and literary context (even if their understanding of such contexts is very basic or even crude and false); and (3) organized, since no one takes every passage to be as obviously enlightening as every other. This is not to say that fundamentalist readings are very good -- in many cases they demonstrably are not -- but it says something (and something not very good) when fundamentalists read the text with more sophistication than some of their more prominent critics.

He also repeats, without much critical examination, Sam Harris's claim that Osama bin Laden wanted to destroy the World Trade Center because, "as it has been patiently articulated ad nauseam by bin Laden himself," he reads the Qur'an literally. Actually, if you take the trouble to read the guy's speeches, it's easy enough to see that what Osama "patiently articulates ad nauseam" is that he became convinced, e.g. by Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, that Israel and the U.S. deliberately make it part of their policy to kill innocent women and children in order to further their ends; and that the West in general is engaged in the deliberate and systematic impression of Muslim people everywhere. He occasionally makes a casual reference to the Qur'an, but for the most part his speeches are filled with political grievances. Not that he's a particularly reliable or truthful source for his motives, of course, but if you're going to appeal to what the man says, you should take the trouble to show that that's actually what the man says. And bin Laden, I think, is not unusual in this respect; most Islamist actions are defended in political rather than religious terms, because the extremists aren't usually thinking about the faith. Instead, they are thinking about the reconstruction of a pan-Islamic civilization, which in their eyes the nations of the West (and everyone else who opposes them) are deliberately suppressing out of fear and selfishness. It can reasonably be called a religious motivation, I suppose, given how vague and amorphous the term 'religious' is; but here, as elsewhere, the most corrupt religious motivation is thoroughly a matter of the tail of reactionary politics wagging the dog of doctrine and practice. So it seems to me, anyway; and it would take more serious and thoughtful arguments than those proposed by Harris and Dawkins to persuade me otherwise.

I am also wary of the claim that the extremists have "a total and unquestioning faith." It has alternatively been proposed, here and there, that almost the opposite is true, that they are chiefly characterized by desperation, and this has something to be said for it, given the byzantine conspiracy-theory thinking in which so many of them engage. When are we by human nature most likely to allow just about any actions against a population we regard as our enemies? When we regard our enemies as so thoroughly corrupt that no compromise is admissible, and as having such a clear and almost invincible upper hand that there's no hope for ourselves unless we are willing to do what would otherwise seem unthinkable. After all, where is the total and unquestioning faith in thinking that the Omnipotent needs the assistance of human bombs? And if you compare the extremists to (say) some peaceful Sufi groups, the former don't seem to have a particularly impressive faith at all. In any case, regardless of the precise motivations that we think are probably generally true, we must avoid simplistic stereotyping here, and especially must avoid using terms like 'religion' and 'faith' in the slippery manner Dawkins does. What, for instance, does it mean to "faithfully pursue what one's religion tells one"? This is a tricky figure of speech. Religions, of course, don't literally tell anyone anything; so what is being pursued? Presumably some sort of transmitted teachings; but teachings come in many different forms, and as Dawkins insists so strongly elsewhere, they aren't all consistent with each other. Since no one can faithfully pursue an inconsistency, there must be picking and choosing going on. And Dawkins, in fact, elsewhere spends considerable time harping on this, too. So why do we get all these pronouncements against religion in general, when there are clearly many different things meant by it. But it's silly not to make distinctions between clearly different things just because they can be given the same label. Must evolutionary biologists forever be saddled with responsibility for 'social evolutionism', merely because people can't or won't make a distinction between different things covered by the term 'evolution'? Must everyone who has a religion in some sense be saddled with responsibility for everything that fits under such a vague term, just because it does fit under that term? Must everything that can be called 'faith' be treated as having the properties of every other thing that can be called 'faith'? One of the problems I have with a lot of talk about 'religion' these days -- and this includes discussions that favor it as well as those that oppose it -- is that there is too much failure to make distinctions that can clearly be supported by reason. And the failure to make reasonable distinctions is the very essence of uncritical thinking.

I suppose I had more to say about the selections than I thought.

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