Sunday, April 20, 2008


Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a gloriously deaf and absurd contribution to the debate about belief from a book titled Excerpt of God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, and written by John F. Haught.

Haught argues that:

In preparing treatises on a-theism, one would expect that scholars and journalists would have done some research on theism, just to be sure they know exactly what it is they are rejecting. It is hard to be an informed and consistent atheist without knowing something about theology. And yet, aside from several barbed references, there is no sign of any real contact between the new atheists and theology at all, let alone studious investigation. This circumvention is comparable to creationists rejecting evolution without ever having taken a course in biology.
This approach is not new, and was memorably lampooned in a piece that purported to be a review of a (non-existent) Dawkins book The Fascism Delusion:
[Dawkins’s] sense of ‘Fascism’ is lamentably error-strewn. Dawkins has only a superficial knowledge of Mein Kamf Kampf, or the poetry of Marinetti; and he seems entirely ignorant of the much more subtle and intellectually stimulating work of Fascist philosophers such as Hermann Graf Keyserling, Alfred Baeumler, Martin Heidegger, Giovanni Gentile, Rafael S├ínchez Mazas, Alain de Benoist and many others. Only somebody who has mastered the complete works of all these thinkers could even conceivably be in a position to advance an anti-Fascist argument. The lack of that necessary body of knowledge fatally undermines Dawkins’s right to attack Fascism in the first place.
But if Haught's approach is fundamentally unoriginal and absurd, he does make one innovation, and it is one to treasure. He identifies atheists with creationists, believers with scientists, and theology with biology. This is one of the road-crashes between reality and metaphor that plague religious apology, and have done since at least the eighteenth century.

It's a road crash because it mixes the two things together, equivalent to saying "People who think apples are unlike oranges should imagine for a moment that this apple is an orange and this orange is an apple". Dawkins is a biologist. Haught is a creationist, even if he is a more sophisticated* one than some of the Intelligent Design people.

There is something charming about the tone of weary patience adopted by people who advance these ridiculous arguments. But fundamentally they miss the point. Theism is not the default position, atheism is. The onus is not on a disbeliever to prove their case, it is on a believer. If it weren't for the malevolent contemporary influence of religion on the world, people would feel less moved to write these books.

*The word 'Sophist' might serve equally well.


Longrider said...

One doesn't need to research theology to be an atheist - Haught's assertion is absurd. Atheism my be summed up rather simply in that we merely ask the theists to prove their case. Nothing more, nothing less.

So far, they have failed to do so.

Anonymous said...

I'm an atheist in the precise sense that I've never met a God I can believe in. Christians almost agree; they don't believe in Odin, or Jupiter or Ahura Mazda or Vishnu..... We agree to beyond the 95% significance level. But they don't half talk blethers about Jehovah.

Anonymous said...

I am an atheist because I feel no need for a supernatural explanation of the universe, and therefore have no reason to posit one. I have a friend who is a devout Christian because he feels the need for the supernatural. He is making an assertion - God exists - and I am not. Saying "What God?" is not an assertion, it is a request for an explanation of someone else's position.

Anonymous said...

People have argued about the existence of God for tens of thousands of years. From Plato to Russell via Aquinas and Descarte. I don't think it's too much to ask that someone who wants to argue about the subject, actually demonstrates some knowledge of what people have said previously.

I don't think that Dawkins is particularly strong on that point and it is surely right that someone points out this failing.

Reading some philosophy doesn't compel one to agree with the philosopher. It used to be known as standing on the shoulders of giants.

It's notable that Dawkins' rationalism fails him when he is asked to consider the failure of secular rationalisms such as communism and fascism. Claiming they are like religions is no argument. If rationalism can descend so easily into religion then how will we know when Dawkins has descended to religion?

PS: I am an atheist.