On Doing Your Homework before Critiquing

Several commenters were surprised by Michael Ruse’s judgment of the overall quality of the New Atheist’s argumentation, which I referenced in a recent post.  This was the meat of Ruse’s rebuke:

But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. . . . Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

Similarly, Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books surmised,

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. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

And Roman Catholic theologian John Haught observes in a Salon interview,

My chief objection to the new atheists is that they are almost completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world of theology. They talk about the most fundamentalist and extremist versions of faith, and they hold these up as though they’re the normative, central core of faith. And they miss so many things. They miss the moral core of Judaism and Christianity — the theme of social justice, which takes those who are marginalized and brings them to the center of society. They give us an extreme caricature of faith and religion.

Rather than spelling out the details here of where the New Atheists often go wrong—at least in relation to arguments for God’s existence—I highly recommend William Lane Craig’s recent article on that topic available here.  An informative (and technical) exchange between Craig and Daniel Dennett on arguments for God’s existence is available on audio here.

Speaking in a different context, but applicable to those authors mentioned above (who are obviously intelligent and capable, but lacking in this area), Ben Witherington writes:

Might I suggest that before you go pontificating on matters about which you are ill informed, that you do a little research first? . . . I suggest you . . .  [not write] again until you have something well-informed, carefully researched, peer-reviewed, and of general value to the public to say.

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18 thoughts on “On Doing Your Homework before Critiquing

  1. Pingback: Top Posts of 2010 « Cloud of Witnesses

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  4. Sentinel,

    I really like that Lewis quote. Thanks!

    Also, I’m honored that you’re familiar with my genus. ;)

  5. Pingback: Richard Dawkins’s Defective Understanding of Religion « Cloud of Witnesses

  6. It’s been some time since I read Dawkins, so forgive me if I’m not clear on some things.

    I don’t think that the main problem is Dawkins’ ignorance of esoteric, academic theology; rather, he doesn’t even seem conversant with the basics. I believe I remember one argument in TGD that God couldn’t exist because he would have had to be more complex than the things he created, and if He were early in the timeline, he wouldn’t have had time to evolve to that level of complexity. Besides the fact that it doesn’t even make logical sense, he seems not to be aware of the fact that many theologians believe that God created time along with the rest of the universe, and is therefore outside of time – and that almost all Christians believe that God is not a biological creature subject to evolution in the first place. These ideas are pretty basic.

    People can go back and forth all day about the good or the evil that is done by organized religions, churches, mosques, etc., and religious individuals. I don’t really think it’s possible to weigh those questions fairly. I am not Moslem, but I can see that there has been much good and much evil done in the name of Islam. I’m not sure how much of each. Either way, it doesn’t tell me whether the teachings of Islam are true. Basically, I don’t think that the question is “Do I like x” – rather, I think that the question is, “What is the truth?”

    • Hi Desmognathus,

      Those are excellent points. You’re right, it’s not just the more advanced theology that Dawkins (and company) is unfamiliar with, but they often muddle the basics. About the issue of God’s complexity, William Lane Craig makes the good point that a mind is, in fact, a simple entity, although it can ponder complex thoughts. So God is actually a “simple” entity — a Divine Mind — and not “complex” in the sense that the universe is complex.

      All the best,

      • Ok then let’s just say that you have “answered” that issue.

        BTW I have redefined and used “answered” in the “sense” that it now means “not answered”.

        Thank you


    • Outstanding points, Desmognathus (or Dusky Salamander, if you prefer)

      I think it was C. S. Lewis who said:
      “Christianity is not true because it is useful. It is useful because it is true.”

      Objective truth, like the existence of God, is not subject to our personal approval. Or to put it another way, God does not cease to exist if we do not believe in Him.

      If He stopped believing in us, on the other hand… :)

  7. Chris,
    No, I don’t think the ‘Sweden’ analogy is a good one.

    I better one would be for a a reader to read a single chapter of any Discworld novel, and then confidently assert that Ankh-Morpork is not a real place.

    Now, there would be a lot the reader didn’t know or appreciate about the wonderful texture and subtlety of Terry Pratchet’s novels, and thereader would be foolish to dismiss them… but he’d still be right. There is no such place.

    You see: the most important point that Dawkins is making is that at the heart of religion resides an important mistake, or untruth: there is, alas, no God.

    Now this isn’t to say that religion has nothing of value to offer humans, of course it does, and perhaps to understand all the subtleties and textures of that I should be a theologian. But that’s not really the point at issue.

    You ask how I came to my ‘belief in atheism’.

    Well first atheism isn’t a belief. It’s a disbelief, but leaving that aside for a moment I’d say my disbelief in God probably arises in the same way as your disbelief (I imagine) in Thor, or Wotan or Ginesh: I always had it.

    • Hi botogol,

      I don’t think the issue is whether Dawkins rejects God’s existence and religion. That’s clear enough. But the problem pointed out in the post is that he wants to make a stunning case against religion — Christianity in particular — but refuses to attack or criticize the strongest cases or the most articulate defenders. That’s why Eagleton writes,

      “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. . . . If The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right.”

      It would be like if I wanted to write a book criticizing atheism, and I only attacked the arguments or proponents for it I found on the blogs of freshmen and sophomores in college.

      I’m glad to hear you say that it’s not the case that religion has nothing of value to offer humanity. I think it’s a mark of intellectual maturity when you can see the merits in a different point of view.

      About atheism not being a belief, I find that this is a common misconception. Here’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines atheism: “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy reads: “Atheism is the view that there is no God.” This is the standard definition of atheism.

      And this is a positive truth claim — the claim that God does not exist. So, atheism is very much a positive belief and claim. I think this definition is often used to avoid the need to provide arguments for this position. But any person who makes a positive claim bears a burden of proof to establish that claim. So the atheist and theist bear an equal burden of proof to provide evidence or reasons for their beliefs. To simply disbelieve would be to suspend judgment, and adopt agnosticism.

      I suppose I disbelieve in Thor (and others) because I don’t see any good reasons to believe in him, I know no one who says Thor is alive or that he changed their life, and I’ve never experienced him. But God has changed my life and I’ve experienced His presence, guidance, and peace. I have good reasons to believe God exists, but none to believe that Thor (et al) exists.

      But it sounds like you’re saying you never had any religious faith, even from childhood. I didn’t either, until I was a teenager. I met God then, and my life was never the same.

      • Chris,

        >>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?<<

        Well, I would bet that less than 0.001% of *christians* have heard of any of them!

        Academic Theologians who are happy discussing the esoteric finer points of doctrine are a tiny sub-sect within the christian church, not at all representative of the millions of ordinary christians out there, nor even the hundreds of thousands of clerics out there, few of whom could, say, provide an ontological argument for the existence God, or are aware of the significance of the filioque controversy.

        If we are going to debate a motion like 'Christianity has, on balance, been a good thing for human society' then we would need to concern ourselves with the deeds and actions of mainstream Christians, not with the loonies at the fringe, but neither with the acadamics in their ivory tower seminaries.

        On the positive side is the organisation, community cohesion and good works done by the churches most of whose members are hazy (to say the least) on doctrine, but feel they belong to something worthwhile, and generally are on the side of the angels.

        On the negative side is the palpable evil that is done by organisations everywhere that are closed and feel a complete and dangerous certainty that they have moral right on their side – this is what leads to the the child rape problems in the catholic church, and the general misogyny of the anglican church (and of course, before you say it, such moral certainty also causes similar problems in secular organisations)

  8. Well, if Dawkins really didn’t understand then I think his arguments and books would be easy for the Godly to shrug off, rather than being very widely perceived as a threat to faith.

    [Aside – I know a religious couple, friend of mine, who won’t have the God Delusion in their house for fear their children might read it and be corrupted. I don’t think this is uncommon. Mind you, they are same couple who were astonished to find a bible on my bookshelves. Perhaps they even over-estimate the power of books]

    Anyway –
    Ruse’s comments seem to me childishly ad hominem. I have more time for Eagleton and Haught, but both of them seem to be going to the familiar trope of the religious:

    “oh no, you’re attacking the *false* religions and *false* understanding of religion practiced by all those other millions of misguided people over there. No wonder you are confused. If only you would learn about *my particular* interpretation of *my particular* faith then you would see all is different”.

    Which is a shifting-sands kind of argument.

    religion is what religious people do.

    • Hey botogol,

      Thanks for those thoughts. My worry with Dawkins is that a lot of people are being misled by his mischaracterizations of religion. It really is very one-sided. I’ve spent some time dialoguing with atheists on Facebook the last few days, most of whom think of Dawkins as a hero, and I find the same shallow, distorted views of religion coming from them. It would be like if I bought a guidebook to Sweden, skimmed through it and never visited the country, and then went around telling everyone how backward and simplistic the population is. That’s why there’s almost a consensus (among nearly everyone outside of the new atheist circles) that Dawkins’s treatment of religion is a hatchet job.

      If you don’t mind me asking, how did you come to your belief in atheism?


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