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Manners, Man and God

A reply from the Hierophant's Apprentice to a longish rant

Politeness, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
Ambrose Bierce

Teach a child to be polite and courteous in the home, and, when he grows up, he will never be able to edge his car onto a freeway.

Nobody talks about God as those who insist that there is no God.
Heywood Broun

It’s been brought to my attention that various persons who post to the Fortean Times message board have taken monstrous umbrage at my characterization of Richard Dawkins as an “unimaginative and ill-informed buffoon”. Some seem not to have read with much (as in, any) attention the response I made in the correspondence column of FT 237. I will now try to clarify my position on Dawkins – and politeness in criticism – as unambiguously as possible.

First, I had better say I have no objection to science and none either to the neo-Darwinist theories (there are more than one) of evolution. I think creationism is claptrap and ‘intelligent design’ a snare and delusion. Neither do I have any vested interest in any institutionalized religion. I will admit to a long-standing interest in theology, which is not the same thing. Most religions require me to believe too many things that I consider too unlikely, such as miracles and resurrections and reincarnations and transubstantiations, that I cannot take any of them to heart. But even if particular structures of belief are less than attractive, and call for one to believe things that are often slightly mad, and some have instigated horrors in the name of their faith, by themselves these failings do not provide a respectable philosophical argument against faith in some form or forms of deity or deities.

So while I may despair at what Man has done with and to God, I don’t find the notion of God per se offensive. Nor do I find offensive the idea, in itself, of arguing a case against the existence of God. If it’s any help to say so, I would prefer to see the laws against blasphemy in the UK repealed, rather than extended, as some benighted multi-culturalists suggest. What grates is ignorance (leading to false premises), intransigent stupidity, and faulty logic in a case against God (or gods) – in other words, bad argument. One of the worst examples of Dawkins’s faulty reasoning is his quaint idea that it is up to religionists to ‘prove’ that God (or, I suppose, any particular pantheon) exists. The proposition is not amenable to proof – Aquinas made a terrible mistake in thinking it was – any more than one can prove one is in love or suffering a nasty headache. As I suggested in FT 237, the experience of science is communal, and its impersonality, crucial to its success, rests on mensuration; religious experience, like toothache or watching a glorious dawn, is personal, mediated by language not numbers. Such obtuseness in one’s basic assumptions as Dawkins displays implies a lack of imagination, and bad argument makes a person look like a buffoon.

I hope that this answers the objection of the entity (‘gender unknown’) pleased to call itself ‘Barfing Pumpkin’: “The Hierophant's Apprentice… was eloquent but facile, invoking the old NOMA argument that science should have nothing to do with god because god is ‘beyond science’”. Not that an argument is necessarily bad because it is old. And there was a real misapprehension tacked on to this comment: the Pumpkin says I argue that “there is every reason to accept god as a potentially viable answer to a scientific question if said question does not yet turn up an answer.” I don’t know how my words were taken to bear such a meaning, since I specifically mentioned “those parts of the world as a whole that science cannot address”, and went on to instance the question of why birds sing.

What – perhaps too obliquely – I was getting at was this. Evolution or chemistry or cosmology do not require God (Ockham’s razor applies) for their demonstrations. But they do not exclude, because they cannot, the possibility that some divine designer, or even an indifferent and perhaps irresponsible creator, is in some inscrutable way a motivator of creation. The concept of God remains otiose to the scientific theory, of course, but scientific theory occurs in the human world, which includes a great deal that science does not try to illuminate, because it can’t. Thus there is no real conflict between science and religion, because one can ‘believe in’ both at the same time. If one chooses to do that, however, it’s as well to acknowledge that one’s using different parts of one’s apprehension. Dawkins signally fails to recognize this really quite simple truth, with disastrous consequences for his ‘argument’.

The most excitable of the FT website commentators seemed to consider the words I used à propos Richard Dawkins intemperate – “fundamentally wrong”, and “nasty name calling”. (For some reason this was deemed “pretty rich from someone who hides behind the pseudonym ‘The Heirophant's [sic] Apprentice’: an odd, not to say rich, comment from someone identifiable only as “Evilsprout, Demicabbage of darkness”.) I trust it’s becoming apparent that characterizing Dawkins as an “unimaginative and ill-informed buffoon” was not a gratuitous ad hominem insult but a shorthand sketch of Dawkins’s thinking. Or rather lack of it.

Meanwhile the Demicabbage, which I hope was sliced so as to include more than half a brain, should look again at The God Delusion, in which Dawkins makes a big deal of how, according to him, religionists are treated with unjustified and unjustifiable deference. There is “an unparalled presumption of respect for religion” in our society, which he clearly proposes sturdily to ignore, while paying lip service to a notion of not going “out of my way to offend”.

There is a kind of dumbness apparent even here: it doesn’t seem to cross Dawkins’s mind that for the most part and most of the time we regard people’s religion as their own private business, and certainly none of ours if they won’t eat beef or lobster – unless we invite them to dine (would Richard and Lalla serve pork to their Muslim and Jewish friends on principle?), any more than it’s our business if they like dressing up in rubber or fornicating in hogsheads of herrings. And our own religion is no one else’s business either. Which is why most of us shut the door quickly, and perhaps a little pityingly, on Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon missionaries.

Back at the point: Dawkins, not going out of his way to offend of course, famously launches his second chapter thus:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a mysogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

In the Preface to the paperback edition of his book, Dawkins says his intention here “was closer to robust but humorous broadside than shrill polemic. In public readings… this is the one passage that is guaranteed to get a good-natured laugh”. Well, yes, and a shout of “Off the pig!” would raise a good-natured cheer at an SDS rally in 1969: does Dawkins think his public readings are packed with rabbis, clergymen and mullahs? I do myself find Dawkins quite funny at this point, but then I’ve never been long on respect, even for things I believe in: after all, I am, in my way, a fortean. And in the immediate context it doesn’t matter that this is a caricature and far from the whole of the complex portrait of God of the Tanakh. But Dawkins doesn’t significantly moderate this view in the rest of his book. So it struck me that he deserved a soupçon of his own medicine. And my bluntness is a rather more accurate summation of his blunderings than is his lampoon of the Judaic God – and more defensible.

Like his vegetable associate, the malevolent Sprout also misquotes me: saying I seem “to think that ‘Chistians [sic] do Charity Work’ is a good counter to the ‘evils’ Dawkins writes of…” I didn’t say “Christians do Charity Work” (let alone with all those initial capitals); I referred only to Christian charity. What I had in mind here was less soup kitchens and prison visiting (while not excluding that kind of thing) than charity in its older sense, as discussed by John Bossy in Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford 1985) and Rowan Williams in Lost Icons (T&T Clark 2000). The Archbishop remarks (p54): “Charity is the manifestation of what Bossy calls ‘the social miracle’ – the extraordinary process by which sectional loyalties were from time to time interrupted and overcome by a sense of integration, of belonging to an entire social body extending far beyond one’s choice or one’s affiliations of interest and ‘natural’ loyalty.” To achieve charity in this sense requires a positive, constant, hard-won moral grounding, from which grows a particular alertness to others and their needs: and the understanding that their needs may become demands and supersede one’s own. It was in this sense of ‘charity’ that Christians, even at risk of their own lives, protected Jewish people in Nazi Europe.

I grant that this may not have been obvious from the passing phrase, but given the misquote and, I may presume, the misunderstanding it exhibits, it was worth clarifying here. Perhaps I should have cited the Christian principle of forgiveness – hate the sin but love the sinner – as more easily accessible. Meanwhile I do commend Williams’s book, not only as intrinsically interesting (though not a quick and easy read) but as a demonstration of a deeply moral conscience engaging with the actual world: which Dawkins, gravitating always to parody, seems to think impossible in a religious man.

The Demicabbage again: “The HA also does a disservice by… using his right to reply as an excuse to merely [sic] reinforce his Dawkins-hating in even more detail.” Wrong. I don’t hate Dawkins. While I dislike the absolutism with which he presents his ideas, I would find that unobjectionable if the ideas themselves were not based on such shaky foundations, and it’s the foundations I take against. As for excuses: I was, actually, doing only what the editor of the FT letters page asked me to do – provide my reasons for calling Dawkins naughty names. The exercise could hardly help but reinforce my position.

Not yet done, the world’s Baddest Brassica continues: “And to call Dawkins a bad scientist who ‘lacks imagination’ - it's quite obvious The HA hasn’t given a lot of time to Dawkins’ books on evolution….”

For the record, I have read two of them. But no one was discussing those. I thought we were discussing Dawkins on religion, and whether or not he takes a defensible line against it. I don’t say it’s impossible to make a case against religion, but that Dawkins makes a right shambles of the task he’s set himself – because he can’t think straight about it and makes sundry insupportable assumptions, comparisons, and leaps of logic. Which – let’s leave aside his crap theology – I will repeat, is neither good science nor good philosophy.

Every anthropological study ever done shows that all human societies contain an expression of an apprehension of something – however they envision its manifesta¬tion – that’s meaningful and powerful beyond themselves. In the West we have traditionally referred to that as ‘God’. Dawkins deals with this question of numinous experience reductively and dismissively, as mere hallucination. Obviously, the dog ate his homework.

We don’t know what ‘God’ is: or whether He lit a cosmic blue touch-paper, stepped back, and watched the Big Bang (and then maybe forgot all about it); or perhaps, like space and time, was born with that Bang; or if, as a side-effect of our curious evolution, we humans come uniquely equipped to apprehend such an Existence. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides wisely concluded that we can only say what God is not, not what He is. One consequent point is that He could exist alongside the blind vagaries of the evolutionary process. Another is that, since God is by theological definition outside ‘creation’, there is no science and precious little logic to be done on His existence. Richard Dawkins could do with the good grace to work with thoughtful religionists, instead of treating everyone of faith as if they were brainless idiots. Meanwhile, having set the tone of debate with his own rip-roaring style of calculated insult, he can hardly expect critics not to be equally trenchant in their responses.

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