A number of reviews of The God Delusion have demonstrated scant sympathy for either Dawkins’ views or his methods. Some, like Steven Weinberg’s, show not only a sympathetic understanding of his “amateur” philosophy (as it is often characterised by those who disagree with him), but share Dawkins’ belief that religion just is the kind of problem that Dawkins takes it to be — a danger to children, society and peace and good order in the world — and that we would be far better without religion and its unfounded beliefs. Kenan Malik, in his review of The God Delusion — I Don’t Believe in Richard Dawkins — argues that Dawkins is weakest on the reasons why people continue to believe.
Less persuasive [he writes] is his attempt to explain what faith is and why people continue to believe. So great is his loathing for religion that it sometimes overwhelms his reasoned argument.
This may perhaps be so, and even if you regard as callow his understanding of religious belief and how it functions in individual lives, Dawkins’ deliberate attempts to shock and discompose the religious by expressing his dislike for and concern about the effects of religious believing on individuals and society is a genuine attempt to force people to look more objectively on modes of life and varieties of thinking which still, ten years after the events of 9/11, are by no means resolved in favour of a peaceful outcome for humankind. The threat is still there, and it is still very real. The fact that religious believers and compromising atheists do not seem fully aware of the problems that religions threaten in a world where weapons are more abundant than ideas is a clear sign that, however successful Dawkins may have been in giving humanity a good shake in an effort to wake them up to dangers which continue to threaten, there is a great deal more of the same yet to be done.
But let me just interject a remark of my own. It is widely thought that being forthright and deliberately offensive about the poverty or religion makes it impossible for Dawkins, and those who think like him, to engage in cooperative efforts with so-called “people of faith”. Since liberal religious believers often remark that Dawkins is overturning god beliefs which they do not themselves hold, there is no reason why this should be so. Even if Dawkins thinks that these “believers” belong to the Neville Chamberlain school of apologetics, enabling the worst kinds of religious believing to do their damage to others and to the world at large, there is no reason for them not to make common cause with Dawkins in an effort to diminish the harm that religion can do. If they do not think that extremist forms of belief, even mildly extremist forms of belief, are dangerous, then they are simply a menace to the future of humanity. If they do not want to be a menace, they should forthrightly say why they reject such forms of belief, and why they cannot associate with them, or allow their own more liberal beliefs to be a flag of convenience for extremists who claim to speak in the name of the religion they apparently share.
I used to say, as an Anglican priest, that if anything would convince me not to be a Christian it would be what most Christians apparently believe. My wife Elizabeth used to say that she was not a Christian but an Anglican, until even that became personally and morally compromising to admit. Religious believers need to be extremely careful of the message that their “faith” sends to other people. Unfortunately, too few of them do that, and extremists sail with impunity through waters that are, from their own point of view, filled with apostates, but apostates who supinely allow themselves to be used as a cover for extremist views. Dawkins is right, in my view, to take a very hard line on this, and to insist that, if you are going to be a believer, you must, to avoid identification with extremists, clearly state where you differ from them. (Many Catholics, for example, favour the free availability to abortion. How many? We don’t know. And this allows the Roman Catholic Church to present itself as solidly opposed to abortion, when, it seems, by a count of heads, it simply is not. Can Catholics afford to allow the official church to define who they are and what they believe?) If this were done, the religious world, which looks much more monolithic than it is, because of the Neville Chamberlains of pious accommodation, might make it able to see that there are varieties of religion to defend, instead of the bold front of unity that is too often on display in response to the criticisms of unbelievers.
This digression responds, in fact, to one of Orr’s criticisms, whose review in The New York Review of Books is the subject of this post. (I hope that Jerry Coyne, who urged me to consider this review, will find it helpful.) Orr says that Dawkins does not “engage religious thought in a serious way,” and that he treats religious thought cavalierly. “[H]e cannot,” Orr says, “tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians.” Now, this might be a genuine criticism if the issues with which Dawkins has to deal are really ones where this meticulous reasoning is relevant, but it is not clear that it is. This is the same criticism that Terry Eagleton (in his London Review of Books review of The God Delusion), with rather smug self-satisfaction, levels at Dawkins, writing bumptiously:
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?
One has a right to ask, after something like this is said, how Eagleton thinks that Rahner on grace or Eriugena on subjectivity would have contributed to Dawkins’ argument. Failing that, this is just so much elaborate hand waving.
But should Dawkins have written a theological book? Orr claims that we will
… find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).
And then he goes on to accuse Dawkins of having written a distinctly “middlebrow” book. (At the same time, I would want to challenge the claim, frequently made, that Augustine rejected literal interpretation. Like all biblical critics, to this day, Augustine could be as selectively literal as Pat Robertson. It depended on what “truth” he was trying to ground in the biblical witness.) The charge is very complex, and once again we have to ask what a study of these very complex questions and historical issues would have contributed to the task which Dawkins undertakes in The God Delusion. For instance, in the very next paragraph Orr says that
Dawkins’s discussion of religion’s power to console … is interrupted by the story of the Abbott [sic] of Ampleforth’s joy at learning of a friend’s impending death …
The point, though, surely, is that, like the early martyrs, many Christians have seen dying as a passage to a better life. Someone was quoted to that effect recently in relation to the silly prediction of Judgement Day on 21st May this year. The person, obviously disappointed, believed that heaven would be a better place. And if we are, as Paul says to the Corinthians, “longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling,” and that that would be far better than groaning in travail here, in what way is it unreasonable for Dawkins to think that Christians ought to be thrilled on learning that they are going to die? As a priest it was impossible for me not to notice the contradiction between what I often said in church and how I lived the rest of the week. That is simply unavoidable, and anyone who is a religious believer is often struck by the inconsistency between life as it needs to be lived, as, it seems, it can only be lived, and life as one’s religious beliefs demand that it should be lived. There are all sorts of fudges used to hide the inconsistency, but it would be foolish to deny that the inconsistency exists. The inconsistency, of course, leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and sense of failure, which is why, no doubt, at the centre of the Christian liturgy lies the acknowledgement of sin and the desperate appeal for salvation.
But, as for the subtleties and meticulousness of theological argument, for which, Orr alleges, Dawkins substitutes personal reminiscence, “extraneous quotation, letters from correspondents, and, most of all, anecdote after anecdote,” let me consider, for a moment, a chapter in Marilyn McCord Adams book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. The title of the fourth chapter is “Divine Agency Remodelled.” It consists of a discussion of ways of conceiving god which would help to circumnavigate the issues that are raised by the problem of evil. Take this as a representative passage:
Parties to the debate Mackie spawned seem mostly to agree both that only persons are moral agents, and that any and all persons — no matter whether human, angelic, or Divine — are moral agents, networked into a system of mutual rights and obligations. One sure way to skirt his logical problem of evil, along with the tangle of “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” estimates of God’s moral obligations, would be to deny that God is personal at all (in the sense of an agency that acts through thought and choice). 
Now, my point is this. Here is a kind of theological argumentation. A philosopher takes the standard understanding of god as a personal being who acts, whose purposes are benevolent, and who is all-powerful. Given that understanding, the problem of evil appears insurmountable (as I believe it is). So, what must the theologian do? Simple. Just redefine god. Call god the ground of being, or, as one theologian does, “secure a distinctive locus for Divine personal agency by deploying the spatial metaphors of distinct axes, planes, or levels,” (68) and — what do you know? — problem solved! I don’t want to overdramatise the point, but clearly the theologian believes that, whatever else god is, the concept of god is to an astonishing degree a plastic one which can be moulded into various shapes in order to deal with objections that are brought to bear against this or that aspect of god when seen in relationship to earthly things and happenings. I don’t want to deny that theology may, like the study of any myth, provide insights into the depth of what it means to be human; but that does not help the theologian qua theologian, who is endeavouring to say something that is true about a being (or being itself) which it calls god. Models of god may help us to skirt the issues raised by philosophers, but without any means of assessing whether the model is actually a model of something — even if this some “thing” does not exist in the ordinary sense as one entity amongst others, but underlies them as their ground — does theology have a subject matter? I don’t think Orr or Eagleton (and others) take this problem with sufficient seriousness.
As to Orr’s more substantial concerns, I remain unimpressed. For instance, he suggests that Dawkins’ central argument about the improbability of the God Hypothesis suffers from two major flaws. Take one:
… if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis must be right. Buit since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data?
Well, but this is not an argument. Dawkins is not saying that the naturalistic hypothesis is confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, for he begins with it. He takes Darwinism for granted throughout. Recall that Hume thought the religious hypothesis was wrong, but didn’t have the means to show it. He hovered on the verge of evolutionary theory, but could not think of a mechanism by which apparently designed beings came to be without a designer, so Philo caved in to Cleanthes. Once you know that the apparent design of the universe, including life, has a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation, the question of the designer — no longer necessary — becomes a question of how likely it is that a designer should exist.
Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging — as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?” — cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem.
Doubtless that is true, but if you are setting out to explain something, and there is reason for holding that your explanation itself needs an equivalent explanation, then, in the absence of any evidence that the regress simply stops — viz., that it just is a brute fact that it does — the explanation explains nothing. Orr asks in rebuttal:
Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question begging?
Well, perhaps it is, but Dawkins is not saying that the explanatory task is complete. There is no doubt more to know. Abiogenisis, for instance, is still a question of some importance. Some religious believers want to hang their religious belief on the supposition that how life began is somehow inexplicable without god, but that is truly question begging, just as Dembski’s irreducible complexity is. It is an invitation to stop looking. Dawkins is not begging the question in that way. The scientific quest goes on. It is not clear that theology is a quest.
Next, Orr criticises Dawkins for lack of imagination, for thinking of religious believers in quite unqualified, simplistic terms, as though American fundamentalists, with their theocratic right-wing views and literalist understanding of the Bible, are representative of religious believers as a whole. More nuanced possibilities escape him, such as “varieties of deism, mysticism, or non-denominational spirituality.” Indeed, poverty of imagination is not all that Orr finds troubling about Dawkins’ criticisms of religion:
It’s hard to resist the conclusion [he writes in the peroration to the third section] that people like James and Wittgenstein struggle personally with religion, while Dawkins shrugs his shoulders, at least in part because they conceived possibilities — mistaken ones perhaps, but certainly more interesting ones — that escape Dawkins.
A Luddite or a cultural Philistine, then, who is simply not interested? Yet Dawkins would have taken “Mache dich mein Herze rein” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion to his desert island. (TGD 86) This does not seem like someone incapable of nuance or imagination, nor, if you read his wonderful books, like The Blind Watchmaker, is there any sign of lack of imagination and wonder. Perhaps Orr is just not paying attention to what Dawkins is trying to do, and who he is appealing to. There are, I should think, at a rough estimate, millions of people who are caught between the devil and a hard place, people for whom religion is empty and meaningless, but who are bound to religious traditions and religious affirmations which they dare not, for many reasons, publicly question. If doubt is an essential part of religious faith, as so many of Dawkins’ detractors claim, then this doubt must have carried many of them over into real, corrosive doubt, even though they remain trapped within networks of beliefs and believers which they feel unable to escape. Providing subtle distinctions in such a context would not help. It would bind the believer that much more inescapably to the wheel of affirmation and reaffirmation, however desperate they may be to escape the trammels of religious belief and the sometimes cloying web of religious community.
I will not follow Orr into the last section of his review. It is important, but we can come back to that another time. Whether a world without religion would be a better one is certainly worth asking. Whether Dawkins is a bit naive in supposing that it would be greatly better may certainly be discussed. But that religion is now, at this present time, a threat to world peace and human rights, seems to me irrefragable. I write this blog because I want to see laws regarding assisted dying become the norm. I believe that opposition to reasonable and compassionate assisted dying legislation is almost entirely religious — though there are some outriders in secular movements which, for inadequate reasons (see my own criticism of Jennifer Michael Hecht), oppose assisted dying legislation, or at least would limit it in serious and, I believe, unjustifiable ways. This is only one example of religious regressive effect on law and society. It is a simple one, but it is characteristic. The religious believe that they have final answers to some of our most pressing social and personal problems. For some, obviously, religious answers do provide the basis for personal revaluation and change. The real problems arise when religion interferes uninvited in the lives of others, and the problem is that religion simply cannot help itself. Since it believes in moral absolutes which must be applied whatever the consequences, religion is in the forefront of forces which would limit human freedom and subvert open societies. These are things which I believe that Orr does not see as clearly as he should.