Counterpoints: The God Delusion, Ch. 1
Dawkins uses the first section of chapter 1, “Deserved Respect” to set up some things; first, good religion and bad religion. For Dawkins, good religion is what he calls “Einsteinian” (aka pantheism, or natural theology), and “supernatural religion” (aka theism, or supernatural theism, a la Borg) is bad. Dawkins liberally, and glowingly, quotes Einstein embracing “naturalism” (belief that nothing exists beyond the material world, also called “materialism”) and thrashing “supernaturalism”.
He then goes on to quote letters from people implied to be Christian leaders to expose the “weakness of the religious mind.” He chooses a sample of writers that in no way reflects the intellectual elites of Christianity to compare to the genius of Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking. This seems like a slightly unfair comparison. Why not sample writings from C.S. Lewis or Alister McGrath? Why not find some people with M.Div.’s from Princeton and Yale? It’s simple, Dawkins is trying to (not-so)subtly set up his second point: that smart people are atheists and Christians/religious people are dumb.
The letters Dawkins samples are perfect for his purpose. They are the product of undereducated, overzealous people trying to protect their mistaken beliefs. They use poor logic and non-Christian theology to attack Einstein. One is far more nationalist (not to mention hateful) than Christian. But is this really an accurate representation of Christians? I don’t have to answer that , do I?
Toward the beginning of this argument he says this:
The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned. That clergyman presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a ‘fairyologist’ on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings. Both he and the bishop thought that Einstein, being theologically untrained, had misunderstood the nature of God. On the contrary, Einstein understood very well exactly what he was denying.
There are several things in this passage that are of note for me. First of all, though Dawkins ridicules the field of theology, he references great philosophers and philosophies. What’s so different between philosophy and religion, from an atheist perspective? Both would boil down to views on existence, thought, and how to live. That’s not a big thing for me, though, because if you’re saying that religion is a bunch of make-believe, then you’re obviously not going to accept that.
Next, “fairyology” could be a real field. If a person was dedicated to studying portrayals and descriptions of fairies in literature and art, they could be called an expert fairyologist. People can be experts in all kinds of stuff.
The final statement is a key for me. One side says that Einstein “misunderstood the nature of God,” the other says that he “understood…exactly what he was denying.” The thing that Dawkins would be loathe to acknowledge is that not only are the two not mutually exclusive, but they are both true. Just like Marcus Borg (see here), Einstein is denying an incorrect perception. He’s disagreeing with something that isn’t true to begin with.
One of my issues with atheistic and liberal (Christian and otherwise) apologetics is the intellectual dishonesty involved. They build up a stereotype or the actions of a few confused souls as a straw man, so that their target becomes an easy kill. Here Dawkins builds a small, two-part argument for atheism: “Many” smart people are atheists, so you should be, too; and “most” (or “all”) Christians are unintelligent and poorly educated, so you shouldn’t be one.
If Einstein’s rejection of Christianity was based on beliefs similar to those displayed in these letters, he wasn’t rejecting Christianity at all. Atheists, secularists, Unitarians and the like use the improper and imperfect actions of some Christians to discredit Christianity when they should be looking at the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.
Building an argument against Christianity based on a person who confuses Christianity with nationalism or with racism is like building a case against the internet based on pedophiles or against sex(marital and otherwise) based on unwanted pregnancies or STDs. It just doesn’t work.
Dawkins saves his better stuff for the second half of the chapter, “Undeserved Respect”. The general idea of the section can be summed up with this statement: “A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the non-religious included – is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.”
This section is about undue privilege given to religion in society. While I’d prefer not to see the tax breaks given to ministers and churches disappear, I would understand. Dawkins makes some great points in this portion. He cites several stories that are perfect examples of people giving too much deference to religion without good reason.
The flagship anecdote, the recent controversy involving the 12 cartoons of Muhammad (along with the coverage of conflicts in Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia removing any references to religion), seems to me to be more of an indictment of liberal media outlets than society in general. If you think about it, who was expressing “‘respect’ and ‘sympathy’ for the deep ‘offence’ and ‘hurt’ that Muslims had ‘suffered'”? (Dawkins even identifies them as “decent liberal newspapers”)
I agree with the H.L. Mencken quote at the end of the chapter:
We mus respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children are smart.
I appreciate Dawkins’ sentiment that he “shall not go out of [his] way to offend, but nor shall [he] don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently that [he] would anything else.” Bring it on.
Ryan’s post here.