I have mentioned before Richard Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion. While familiar with some of his earlier work, I have yet to fully read this latest offering from the Oxford scientist, evolutionist and atheist. Until I do, I can rely on the reviews of others to get a good idea about how this book will unfold. Indeed, given his earlier writings, it is not hard to guess what the book will be like.
Terry Eagleton of Manchester University in the UK has penned a good critique of it in the October 19, 2006 London Review of Books. Eagleton is certainly no bosom buddy of religion. He is a philosopher, literary critic and Marxist theorist. Yet he finds this offering of Dawkins to be juvenile and presumptuous.
This is how Eagleton begins his piece: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be.”
The rest of the review continues in similar fashion. Dawkins simply offers a broad brush approach to an immensely complex topic, and thinks he is doing us a favour. He offers a straw man version of belief, knocks it over, and thinks he has won a major intellectual battle. Says Eagleton,
“What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.”
Dawkins simply sees all religious adherents as country bumpkins, rabid fundamentalists, and brainless zombies. That may be true of some believers – and some non-believers as well – but not all. But Dawkins is not one to fine tune his argument. “Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.”
Given that he is an unbeliever, Eagleton has a better grasp of theology than do many Christians – and certainly better than the shallow caricatures thrown up by Dawkins. Consider just one example: “Because the universe is God’s, it shares in his life, which is the life of freedom. This is why it works all by itself, and why science and Richard Dawkins are therefore both possible. The same is true of human beings: God is not an obstacle to our autonomy and enjoyment but, as Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. Like the unconscious, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is the source of our self-determination, not the erasure of it. To be dependent on him, as to be dependent on our friends, is a matter of freedom and fulfilment. Indeed, friendship is the word Aquinas uses to characterise the relation between God and humanity.”
Eagleton even has a pretty good grasp of what the Christian life is all about. “Dawkins thinks it odd that Christians don’t look eagerly forward to death, given that they will thereby be ushered into paradise. He does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide. The suicide abandons life because it has become worthless; the martyr surrenders his or her most precious possession for the ultimate well-being of others. This act of self-giving is generally known as sacrifice, a word that has unjustly accrued all sorts of politically incorrect implications.”
There have been plenty of skeptics before Dawkins who despised the notions of ‘pie in the sky’ and spoke of religion as being the opium of the masses. “It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.”
He continues, “Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy. Most reasoning people these days will see excellent grounds to reject it. But critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism.”
The distortions and misrepresentations of belief by Dawkins can simply be put down to his intense and overriding hatred of religion. He just cannot find a good thing to say about faith or religion. “Such is Dawkins’s unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false. The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history – and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry. He is like a man who equates socialism with the Gulag. Like the puritan and sex, Dawkins sees God everywhere, even where he is self-evidently absent. He thinks, for example, that the ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland would evaporate if religion did, which to someone like me, who lives there part of the time, betrays just how little he knows about it.”
Eagleton agrees with Dawkins that there is much about religious fundamentalism in all forms that is abhorrent. But he argues that religion is more than just what the fundamentalists make it out to be. Thus he concludes, “Dawkins could have told us all this without being so appallingly bitchy about those of his scientific colleagues who disagree with him, and without being so theologically illiterate. He might also have avoided being the second most frequently mentioned individual in his book – if you count God as an individual.”
Believers of course will not agree with everything that Eagleton has to say in this lengthy and important review. But they will find much to agree with him about. There is nothing wrong with atheists making their case against religion. But it is hoped that a better case will be made than the one made here by Dawkins.