I’m working on something that’s taking me a bit longer than I had expected, so the following comprises a bit of a grab-bag of thoughts and criticisms, mainly of things written by Andrew Brown.
Let’s start with someone who is always a fun to pick apart, because he makes it so easy, and, beside, simply doesn’t seem to have his head screwed on quite as tightly as it should be. I’m speaking about the redoubtable Andrew Brown, who keeps publishing nonsense for the Guardian, and seems to be blithely (and perhaps impenetrably) unaware that what he writes makes him look the fool.
Take the latest one, “Dawkins is wrong to call William Lane Craig morally repulsive,” published this morning. Most will remember Richard Dawkins’ article in the Guardian explaining (for the umpteenth time) why he will not debate William Lane Craig. He’s given other reasons before, but this time, he takes Craig’s defence of genocide at God’s command as evidence that the man is morally repulsive — which, of course, it is.
However, Brown — never one to shrink from making a fool’s errand – claims that he is still puzzled by Dawkins’ attack. Why, wonders Brown is it so “wrong to believe the suffering of innocents will be redeemed by going to heaven.” Did Brown read the same article that I, and millions of others read? It seems not, because Dawkins is not arguing that it is wrong so to believe. What Dawkins is arguing is that it is wrong to think it is okay to kill children because, after all, they are innocent and will go to heaven! Dawkins quotes at length from Craig to this effect. Here’s the quote:
But why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel’s part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, ‘You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods’ (Deut 7.3-4). […] God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. […] Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.
Dawkins’ laconic comment is: “Do not plead that I have taken these revolting words out of context. What context could possibly justify them?” In other words, the question is not the redemption of the innocents who suffer. The fact that Craig attempts to justify God’s command to the Israelites to murder innocent children is the outrageous suggestion that Dawkins takes such grave exception to. Dawkins is not dealing here with the general problem of evil, which has difficulties enough of its own. Brown may not believe the stories of the commanded genocides — which doubtless does him credit — but Craig does, and it is Craig’s attempted justification of those commands and those murders that Dawkins finds so repulsive and immoral.
Brown’s lack of reading comprehension does not end there. Yesterday, Brown published a short piece on Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which manages to misunderstand Pinker’s argument entirely. Now, mind you, he acknowledges that he hasn’t read the book, but he suggests, nevertheless, that “[t]he factual errors in The Better Angels of Our Nature destroy Pinker’s thesis, rendering it no more than a bedtime story.” What factual errors does he adduce? Well, let’s take this, for a start:
The whole trick depends on sustaining the illusion that only what’s under the lighting exists. The index here, for example, contains three entries for Columbine high school, and none whatsoever for Christianity.
Whether or not you suppose Christian myth to be true, it is simply impossible to consider the development of ethical thought and practice in the west without understanding that almost all of it has been Christian, and that what comes after Christianity is itself incomprehensible without it.
In one sense what he says is doubtless true. It is impossible to understand the development of ethical thought and practice since the Enlightenment (at least in the West) without comparison and contrast with Christian morality. However, if Brown had been slightly more enterprising, he would have found that under the heading of ‘religion’ in the index Christianity is mentioned several times.
But far more serious is Brown’s shallow reading of what few texts he did turn up at random — one way, incidentally, that many Christians have used the Bible: open it at random, read the first text that strikes your eye, and consider that to be God’s word to you at that moment. He characterises the book in this way:
… a great piece of theatre in which half-truths do battle with straw men while the reader watches in safety, defended by barricades of apparent fact against any danger of actual thought.
For stridency the claim gets an Alpha +, but is it true? Let’s take a closer look.
First, consider the following quotation:
Wars in which a great power tried to hang on to a colony could be extremely destructive, such as France’s attempts to retain Vietnam between 1946 and 1954 (375,000 battle deaths) and Algeria between 1954 and 1962 (182,500 battle deaths). After what has been called ‘the greatest transfer of power in world history’ this kind of war no longer exists.
His completely inapposite comment is that “[t]his news must come as a relief to the inhabitants of Iraq.” But in what sense was the recent war in Iraq (whether you support the war or oppose it) the attempt by a great power to hold on to a colony? Well, then, he asks, as though the Iraq war might not be fairly called a colonial war:
What about the second Vietnam war, you know, the one that Rambo fought in? That cost, he says, 1.6m battle deaths. But it is briskly redefined as “a war between states”. It’s not colonialism when Americans do it, you see.
But again, whatever you think of the Vietnam war, in what sense was it a colonial war? The United States made no attempt to rule Vietnam, and its war aims were not to transform what had been a French colony into an American one.
Perhaps he’s on safer ground in Afghanistan. The following is not intended as a knowledgeable summary of what took place, only a few snippets that I have picked up over the years. However, in characterising the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan it is important to ask about their purpose, and the justification for their being there. The story, not surprisingly, is extremely complex. Russia has been involved in Afghanistan for centuries, certainly, ever since the “Great Game” was played out in that country between Britain and Russia in the 19th century. But the immediate presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s was at the request of the Marxist-Leninist government of the country which took over the government of the country in 1978, after the so-called Saur Revolution, which deposed the military dictatorship of Mahammad Daoud Khan. Daoud Khan had already introduced a number of secularising reforms, which were only intensified by the new government which introduced a number of modernising marriage, land and financial reforms which were thought to be anti-Islam. The result was internal division within the ruling party, and widespread rebellion by the mullahs and other conservative forces. The Soviet Union’s intervention, which lasted 9 years, was not unlike the present intervention by NATO forces, though not as cautious about collateral damage, civilian casualties, or (at least the appearance of) democratic rule. The point is that there is no clear sense in which this was an old-style colonial war. Indeed, like Korea and Vietnam it was to a great extent a proxy war between the great powers: Soviet troops faced mujahideen warriors armed largely by Western powers.
The problem with Brown’s criticism — as is common with practically everything written by the man — is that it is superficial and poorly thought through. He says, with considerable aplomb:
I didn’t comb through the book to find mistakes. I just opened it at random a few times and looked for references to subjects I know something about. It wasn’t hard. His range is wide. But the factual errors, although they destroy his thesis as a serious piece of history, point up its attractive weakness as a comfort blanket for the smug.
His confidence in his own expertise is misplaced. In order to criticise Pinker, he will have to do much better than this.
I also want to point you in the direction of a few things written by David Calquhoun on science, philosophy and religion. Jerry Coyne has a post on DC (as he calls himself on his blog: DC’s Improbable Science) this morning which is worth reading. DC is a pharmacologist at the University of London whose chief online métier is the refutation of pseudoscience and alternative medicine. However, in one of his articles (linked above) he takes good aim at those who claim that Dawkins and the new atheists are too strident. Not to David Calquhoun. Indeed, as he points out, this is the only way you’re going to be heard. In his struggle against the foolish British practice of granting BSc degrees in pseudoscience like homeopathy (“the medicine that contains no medicine”), he has had no luck by writing civil letters to university chancellors. “The only thing that has worked,” he says, “is public derision.”
Jerry Coyne’s take on “the stridency argument” deserves to be quoted at length:
I’m getting pretty tired of the stridency argument. I challenge anyone who
makes this argument to produce a list of offensively strident comments from,
say, God is Not Great, The God Delusion, The End of Faith, or Breaking the Spell, and then I’ll make a list of equally (or more) strident statements from theologians and preachers. What offends me is how accommodationists—even the atheist ones—focus exclusively on the former and completely neglect the latter. It’s another example of the hands-off-faith position, in which “lack of faith” isn’t given the same consideration.
I have noted this again and again. People like McGrath, Craig, Feser, Haught, David Bentley Hart …, and the list could go on, are far more strident, caustic and impolite than the published new atheists. It is absurd to pillory Dawkins for stridency in the face of the militant posturings of so many of the religious opponents of the new atheism. However, the attention that the new atheism has received, and its success in helping unbelievers to step out of the closet, should convince anyone that putting things bluntly, and without polite circumlocution, does work.
DC’s hard-hitting essay on “Why Philosophy is largely ignored by science” is also worth reading. Although myself an exponent of philosophy and the philosophical clarification of concepts, philosophy can often seem (and be) too focused on minute problems that have no significance or relevance outside of the realm of professional academic philosophy. Greek philosophy was a discipline that had an immediate impact on the lives of thoughtful people. Much philosophy today is often locked away in journal articles that no one ever reads, or, if read, are often read with dismay. However, when scientists like Hawking and Mlodinow begin their book, The Grand Design, by asserting, on the first page, that philosophy is dead, and then go on to do philosophy themselves by going into some detail about what they call “model-dependent realism” (vide, e.g., 7 and 42-43), it has to be said that perhaps the reason for scientists’ jaundiced view of philosophy is that many philosophers of science are not themselves closely enough related to the sciences to do helpful philosophical work, so that some of it is left to scientists themselves to do. But clearly, if Hawking and Mlodinow are anything to go by, scientists do not ignore philosophy itself — which is an integral part of any conceptual enterprise — so much as they ignore what many philosophers – at least those who are not themselves at work at the coalface of science – think is philosophically interesting about science. Whatever one’s conclusions about this, DC’s comments are worth reading, and philosophers should take note that, if they are to be of any use to science, they must be in conversation with it.