Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Case of Atheistic Fundamentalism?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on my “book talk,” which I’ll be giving at various venues in which I’ve been invited to speak on themes related to my book. The process of preparing that talk forced me to immerse myself in the blogging of a rather unsavory character—a man named PZ Myers.

Let me explain. I inaugurated the book talk about a week ago, at a public lecture at Oklahoma State University, and was pleased by the crowd that turned out. But if that crowd was hoping for an overview of my book, they were disappointed. They didn’t get a narrative of the book’s origins or anecdotes about how it’s been received. They didn’t hear me lay out in detail one or more of the arguments found in the book. In short, I didn’t give them the kind of talk that, for example, I saw Bart Ehrman give with such wit and energy a couple of years ago, while he was promoting Misquoting Jesus.

I decided to do something different. You see, about the time that I sent in the first draft of my book to the publisher, the paperback edition of Dawkins’ The God Delusion came out, complete with a new preface by the author. In that preface, Dawkins responded (in a very general way) to a number of criticisms of his book.

One of those criticisms is this: In The God Delusion, Dawkins leaves the familiar territory of biology and treads brazenly into the domain of theology and philosophy…but clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. His ignorance of theology and philosophy is staggering. One of the most prominent scholars to make this charge was the eminent biologist H Allen Orr, of my alma mater, in The New York Review of Books. But it’s also a charge that I level in more than one place in my book.

In the new preface to The God Delusion, Dawkins doesn’t deny that he has little knowledge of theology and philosophy. What he denies is that he needs to be especially expert in these disciplines in order to make the points he wants to make in The God Delusion. In making this case, Dawkins relies almost entirely on a bit of satire written by PZ Myers.

Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris, is perhaps best known as the atheist blogger who challenged his readers to “score” him a consecrated communion wafer so that he could desecrate it (something which he later did, along with pages from the Koran and from The God Delusion, in order to highlight his conviction that nothing should be held sacred). But aside from this incident, his most well-known contribution to the intellectual world is a ribald little elaboration on H.C. Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a piece of satire that Myers calls “the Courtier’s Reply.”

It is this piece that Dawkins leans on, quoting almost in its entirety in the new preface to The God Delusion. In the piece, Myers adopts the persona of one of the emperor’s courtiers, expressing disgust at Dawkins for accusing the emperor of nudity without having read any of the learned treatises on the properties and aesthetic merits of the emperor’s raiment. The point, of course, is that these treatises are just obfuscation, and that one needn’t pay any attention to them in order to see that the emperor is naked.

My book talk is an attempt to explain why Dawkins really does need to be an expert in theology and philosophy of religion—or at least far more expert than he happens to be—in order to develop the kind of case he wants to make in The God Delusion. As such, developing my book talk forced me to take a look at PZ Myers’ blog—which, all things told, I found to be a rather unpleasant experience, something like being forced to have dinner with a boorishly bombastic relative who spends the entire evening leveling eloquent insults against everyone you love.

Now I don’t want to lay out here, in all its details, my response to Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply.” My book talk is a forty minute lecture, and culling it down to a more bloggish size is a project that will take more time than I have available right now. All I’ll say is this: Myers’ Courtier’s Reply likens theology in all its richness and diversity to pandering obfuscation. But this analogy reveals a profound failure to understand the substance and content of the best theology. Theology is not just about describing the properties of God and giving bad arguments for God’s existence. It is more profoundly about offering a holistic interpretation of human experience, an interpretation which differs from a materialistic or naturalistic one in that it draws its meaning from the conviction that there is something vast and important and essentially purposive behind the empirical surfaces that science studies.

When it comes to holistic interpretations of experience, or worldviews, the best way to decide among them is to compare how well they do in making sense of our actual experience (including but not limited to our empirical experience), and in how well they guide us in our efforts to engage the world around us effectively and with integrity. We cannot decide between atheistic and theistic worldviews without doing this comparative work. And we cannot do this comparative work adequately if we ignore the most comprehensively and carefully developed theistic worldviews—especially those that take the lessons of science seriously and incorporate them into the data that our worldview is supposed to explain. In short, we cannot decide whether a theistic worldview is better than an atheistic one without studying the most important works of theology.

Myers might have recognized all of this had he actually read the best theology. But he hasn’t. He doesn’t think he needs to. His argument against reading theology is one of those insular ideological arguments that immunizes itself from criticism by rejecting in advance that which would expose its failings. Its basic aim is to celebrate and justify one’s failure to critically engage in an open-minded way with the most careful of one’s intellectual opponents, and in this respect is just like what Dawkins himself is complaining about when he refers to the “immunological devices” that keep “faith heads” from listening to the arguments of their opponents—the most effective of which he takes to be “a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely the work of Satan.”

Myers replaces warnings with ridicule, and thinks anyone who bothers to open a book like, say, Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, is an idiot, since the book is surely the work of an obfuscating panderer.

But enough of this. My main objective in this post isn’t to offer a detailed counter to the Courtier’s Reply, but to reflect on an exchange I discovered when I went to PZ Myers’ blog, “Pharyngula,” while researching my book talk. As I was reading the pages of comments posted in response to Myers’ satire (most of which were of the form “Hear! Hear!”), I noticed one commentator who questioned whether Myers’ satire really applied to H Allen Orr’s scathing review of The God Delusion.

Myers responded by quoting a passage from Orr’s review, a passage that he said “falls squarely into the pigeonhole of the Courtier’s Reply.”

But then something interesting happened. A commentator whom I’ll call JR examined the very passage from Orr’s review that Myers quoted, and he argued that the nature of Orr’s complaints in this passage could not be dismissed by a simple appeal to the Courtier’s Reply. In effect, JR claimed that Dawkins was doing more in his book than simply arguing that there probably is no God—that he was also making claims about the dangers of religious faith, for example. And some of Orr’s complaints related to Dawkins’ failure to consider theological ideas relevant to these other concerns.

So, how did Myers reply to JR? He replied by shutting him down. He pointed out (accurately) that JR had admitted on another blog to having not yet read The God Delusion. And then he told JR to “toddle off”—or Myers would block him from posting on the site.

And then he launched into the following angry outburst:

This is a bad thing: criticizing books at length that you’ve never read. It really pisses me off, too, because I at least try to read the other side. I’ve read Collins (execrable), Miller (half bad/half good), Wilson (not bad), Roughgarden (pretty awful), and even Coulter (gibbering insanity)...what is it with people who think it’s OK to tear into Dawkins on 2nd or 3rd hand echoes of what he actually wrote? It’s intellectually dishonest.

Now, I agree that it is bad to criticize what you haven’t read based on hearsay about its contents. For example, it’s a really bad thing just to assume that the great works of theology have no bearing on Dawkins’ claims in The God Delusion when you’ve never actually read these works. I’m happy to agree with Myers wholeheartedly on this point. It’s intellectually dishonest. Shame on Myers and Dawkins for doing it.

But the thing is, JR wasn’t doing it. He wasn’t talking about The God Delusion, but rather about Orr’s review of it and Myers’ dismissal of that review. JR was pointing out that the claims made in Orr’s review couldn’t be dismissed by an appeal the Courtier’s Reply.

Myers never answered this challenge. He never even tried. Instead, he told JR to shut up and go away or he’d silence him. And he did it on the basis of an essentially irrelevant ad hominem attack.

This kind of behavior may be a pretty good way to ensure that the comments section of your blog is populated mainly by yes-men. But it is not the way to promote a serious intellectual conversation that engages opposing views and arguments fairly.

Now there may be times and places in which it might be appropriate to end a conversation with someone, perhaps to ask them to leave your parlor or your blog site, because they are interfering with the productivity of the conversation rather than contributing to it. But what prompted Myers’ injunction to “toddle off” was a single post—a post which, I might add, raised an issue worth raising. What’s on display here is not exactly what I’d call a free thinker who cares about reasons and arguments and a careful consideration of their merits. But isn’t that what Myers wants to be?

One gets the sense that he does, especially when he protests that at least he tries to read the other side. But I think his list of the works on “the other side” is instructive. Francis Collins, Ken Miller, E.O. Wilson, and Joan Roughgarden are all biologists like him, all of whom have written books addressing the relationship between science and religion in a manner sympathetic to religion, all of whom wrote with a general audience in mind. Some of their books are very good ones taken in these terms, but none of these authors is expert in theology or the philosophy of religion. None of their books displays the rigorous treatment of the subject that you’d find in an academic work written by an accomplished philosopher or theologian. Ann Coulter, the last name he mentions, is a lawyer and a conservative political commentator (to put it charitably). What expertise she brings to the table is, I think, a mystery to most.

If Myers wants a reading list of truly important works on “the other side,” I’d be happy to give him one. It would likely include classics by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Hermann Lotze, as well as more recent books, such as the provocative Agnostic Inquirer by Sandra Menssen and Thomas Sullivan, and the game-changing analysis of naturalism (simply titled Naturalism) by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro. I suppose I’d narcissistically include my own book as a more accessible introduction to the philosophical and theological grounds for challenging Dawkins and the other “new atheists,” but I wouldn’t recommend it as an alternative to reading the more detailed academic works and the classics in philosophical theology.

But here’s the thing. I want to have conversations that are thoughtful and careful, conversations that make a serious effort to understand and respond to opposing perspectives, conversations in which all parties are open to being moved—if not moved to abandon their beliefs, then at least to modify them in the light of important criticisms.

I’m not opposed to conversations that get passionate. Let’s let everyone in the conversation be human—and part of what it means to be human is to care so much about what you’re saying that you sometimes get carried away. You say things that aren’t fully thought through, or you say them in a way that isn’t all that nice. Let’s have patience with each other when this happens. But let’s not indulge our capacity for vitriol. And let us, above all, strive to listen to each other with charity.

I think there’s something to be said for conversations of this sort. But to have them, there are some things we need to set aside. Among them are “immunological devices” that justify our refusal to take seriously what others have to say. Reliance on such devices seems one useful definition of "fundamentalism."

And it seems to me that it isn’t just religious fundamentalists who are prone to making use of such devices.


  1. As a media researcher, what strikes me is the line about "making sure your comments line is populated by yes-men". A phenomena I have observed several other places. Maybe it shows that in today's media society a blog is a place to establish oneself as a "brand name"/celebrity/authority more than a place for discussion?