Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Imaginary Amazon Review

Occasionally I visit the Amazon website for my book to see how it’s doing and to read any new reader reviews that have been posted. The other day, when I checked the site, I noticed two things. First of all, there was a new review up (by someone named “Marco”) that accused me (once again) of simply sidestepping the challenges of the New Atheists by “redefining” religion. Here's how Marco puts it:
Unfortunately in responding to the New Atheists, Reitan followed the
standard strategy of first re-defining religion so that it no longer matches the
target that the New Atheists attack, then defending the re-defined religion, and
then finally claiming that since re-defined religion is so easily defended, that
the New Atheists are therefore wrong.

The other thing I noticed was that an older negative review, which makes a similar argument to Marco's—written by someone pseudonymously named “Greywizard”—had now risen to the top as the “most helpful” review.

A word about this older review. “Greywizard” is a frequenter of Richard Dawkins’ website. I know this because he posted a comment on the page there devoted to attacking my book. (On the Dawkins site, books critical of The God Delusion are called “fleas,” and whenever a new “flea” is discovered, a discussion threat about it is created on the site). Greywizard was one of the more measured voices in the discussion thread. He chastised those who were engaged in raucous name-calling and knee-jerk dismissals of my book based on PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply."

He then pointed out what to me is pretty obvious--that making fun of a book they hadn’t read wasn’t enough. While noting that not every critique of the New Atheists called for a rebuttal, Greywizard maintained that with respect to the more measured replies, “if no response is made, the theists will be in firm possession of the high ground when the dust of battle has cleared.” He went on to stress that there were “strategic considerations here regarding the image that atheism will leave if it keeps repeating the mantra that religion can have nothing to say.” That is to say, it’s good strategy in the war against religion to know which enemies to attack, and then to attack them in an intellectually rigorous way.

A few days later (about a week after his comments appeared on the Dawkins site), Greywizard’s negative review appeared on the website of virtually every major online distributor of my book. Apparently, he’d read my book very quickly, and then felt the need to post a scathing review as promptly as he could and as widely as he could.

When I first read that review I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a nicely packaged and authoritatively written bit of confusion paired with a dollop of fallacious reasoning.” And then I went on with my day.

But now this review has come to be ranked as the top review on the Amazon site.

Seeing this, I found myself suddenly, uncharacteristically mad. How in the world could such an obviously erroneous critique of my book be viewed as “helpful”? Of course, part of the problem is that the people who find it helpful haven’t read the book, let alone read it carefully enough to see where Greywizard goes wrong. They haven’t read the book because they haven’t decided whether to buy it yet…a decision that will be made in part by reading reviews such as Greywizard’s.

I suspect that one reason I got mad was because I want people to buy my book and think about the arguments there, and Greywizard’s review might discourage some of the very people who would most benefit from those arguments.

But the bigger issue is just the frustration of it. The other day a student dropped by after having read my book, and he raised the same confused objection that Marco and Greywizard raise. It took me two minutes to explain where and why this objection goes wrong. The student saw clearly that it was based on a misreading and thus could focus on the real philosophical controversies. What followed was a lively discussion about issues that really matter.

The frustration is this: it would be easy for me to explain to everyone who’s reading Marco’s and Greywizard’s reviews where they go wrong, and so set aside a red herring that only gets in the way of wrestling with the deeper issues and controversies. But to do that—to make sure that readers of these reviews are also exposed to a lucid explanation of how and why these reviewers are confused—I’d need to post my response on the Amazon site, either as a comment on the review (which probably wouldn’t be read) or, more likely, as a “response review” of the sort that some people post on Amazon. But to do either of those things with respect to my own book would be bad form, to say the least.

Then I imagined writing such a review and posting it anonymously—even worse form, and something I’d never actually do. But I wrote it anyway—a third-person review in response to Marco and Greywizard—just as a cathartic exercise. And while I can’t legitimately post it on the Amazon site, I can post it here. So here it is:

Marco and Greywizard are Confused: An Imaginary Amazon Review

It is surprising to me how many reviewers of Reitan’s book critique it by saying, in effect, that he redefines religion so that the term no longer refers to what the New Atheists are attacking. The fact is that Reitan is quite clear from the very start of his book that “religion” is a term that encompasses a range of phenomena, and his problem with the New Atheists is that they attack one species of religion and then apply their conclusions to religion generally.

Dawkins, for example, says up front (on page 36 of
The God Delusion) that he isn’t interested in refuting just one “particular version of God or gods.” He wants to refute “God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” One couldn’t get much more sweeping than that. In response, Reitan sets out to show that Dawkins’ arguments do NOT succeed in refuting the existence of “anything and everything supernatural” and so do not succeed in doing what Dawkins sets out explicitly to do. This is not “talking past” Dawkins as Marco claims.

Furthermore, what Reitan ends up defending isn’t religion “redefined.” It is one kind of religion among a range of options. It may not be the most popular kind, but it exists—in progressive Christian churches, liberal Jewish congregations, Quaker meetings, etc. Reitan’s point is that the New Atheists think their criticisms apply to religion generally, when in fact their criticisms apply only to religion in certain forms.

For example, one of the arguments made by both Sam Harris and Dawkins is that “moderate religion” is complicit in the moral crimes of religious extremists because it teaches that blind faith without regard for reason is a virtue. In this way they try to implicate ALL religion in the moral horrors perpetrated by, for example, the 9/11 terrorists. Both Dawkins and Harris are plain about this. As Dawkins puts it, “The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism” (
The God Delusion, p. 306). “Religion itself” is, according to Dawkins, the problem.

Reitan takes this argument head-on by arguing that not all “moderate religion” teaches that blind faith is a virtue. He then goes on to offer an understanding of “faith” that can actually serve as a basis for condemning the actions of extremists. That Reitan’s critics ignore this says more about the selective ideological lens through which they seem to be reading the book than about the weaknesses of Reitan’s arguments.

At one point in his review, Greywizard makes his criticism in the following way:

At the end of his book, after redefining religion, Reitan says that "It's now
time to directly consider whether religion IN THIS SENSE 'poisons everything'."
(209; my emphasis) However, this is clearly not a response to Hitchens, because
Hitchens didn't have 'this sense' in mind at all.

Reitan would surely agree that Hitchens didn’t have “this sense” of religion in mind. That, for Reitan, is precisely the problem. Hitchens seems utterly blind to the existence of the kind of religion that Reitan thinks is intellectually respectable and morally benign. And so Hitchens concludes that RELIGION—not fundamentalism, not exclusivist religion, but RELIGION—poisons everything. To show that Hitchens is wrong, one needn’t defend the intellectual and moral credentials of the kind of religion he’s aware of and specifically attacks. One need merely show that there is a kind of religion that isn’t touched by those attacks. Hitchens’ problem is that he’s making a sweeping dismissal of religion as such, based on arguments that just don’t touch at least one important kind of religion—the kind that Reitan wants to call attention to and endorse.

The critics of Reitan would be right if the New Atheists were saying basically this: “We don’t think all religion is bad and we certainly don’t think it is unreasonable or morally bad to believe in the existence of a God defined as the fulfillment of our ‘ethico-religious hope’ (which is how Reitan defines God); but we do think that religious fundamentalism is bad, and we do think that it is unreasonable and wrong to believe in a God who is a big tyrant in the sky.”

But that’s simply not what the New Athiests are saying. They are saying that religion is bad and belief in God is irrational and wrong. Reitan sets out to show that there is a kind of religion that isn’t bad and a species of belief in God that can be rationally defended and may be morally beneficial. If Reitan is right, then he hasn’t committed some fallacy. He’s refuted the New Atheists.

But to be fair, Greywizard offers a follow-up argument to the effect that the kind of religion Reitan seeks to defend just isn’t a
significant kind. He calls it a “shadow religion” that couldn’t exist except by hanging onto the “coat-tails” of the sort of religion that the New Atheists attack.

His first point is that “most religion is not as Reitan describes it, a matter of belief that the universe trends towards the good, and that faith is a matter of trusting in the religious-ethical hope that all the evils and harms of existence will be redeemed by the infinite personal spirit whose essence is love.”

Maybe not. But this is a pretty good description of the religion of Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a rather significant social movement in the 1960’s based on this kind of religion. I suppose if you think the civil rights movement is a trivial historical event, then you’re likely to dismiss as insignificant the religiosity that inspired it. But I happen to think the civil rights movement was one of the most significant events of the 20th Century.

But, again to be fair, Greywizard is not merely saying that “Reitan’s religion” isn’t significant in its impact on human life. He’s saying that it can’t survive without “piggy-backing” on the kind of religion that the New Atheists attack. In other words, he thinks that Martin Luther King’s kind of religiosity—the spiritual vision that inspired his rhetoric and rallied the southern black community behind an astonishing nonviolent campaign—could not exist except as a
parasite hanging onto the religiosity of, say, Pat Robertson.

Unfortunately, Greywizard offers little in the way of supporting arguments for this view. At best, he makes a series of undefended pronouncements about the way that religion HAS to work in order to survive: It HAS to offer certainty and exclusive ideologies; it HAS to establish us-them dichotomies. That is, if a religion is to endure over time, it HAS to be the kind of religion that the New Atheists attack. But, at least in the review, Greywizard offers no reasons to think this is true.

Perhaps, however, Greywizard is gesturing towards the sociological understanding of religion offered by the likes of Durkheim and Marx. If so, then Greywizard has conveniently ignored the final section of Reitan’s book in which Reitan addresses Durkheimian religion explicitly. To put the point bluntly, Greywizard is begging the question against the kind of religion Reitan is endorsing by assuming that religion is essentially a social phenomenon that exists and survives by virtue of the social functions it serves.

While there is no doubt that religion of this sort—religion that is fundamentally a social construct—exists, Reitan’s point is that there is also a religion of another sort—one that has its origins not in social forces which dictate the structure of religious institutions and the content of religious teachings, but rather in the immediate experience of something transcendent (an experience which often challenges the dictates of these very social forces).

In saying that the sort of religion which has its origins in such numinous experience cannot survive apart from the religion attacked by the New Atheists, Greywizard is assuming, among other things, that numinous religious experience is NOT an experiential encounter with the transcendent creator. Because if it were, then its survival would depend on God, not on the cultural forces that determine which social institutions survive and which don’t. Put simply, Greywizard is assuming that there is no kind of religion that exists as a response to the divine impressing itself on human life and consciousness. He is assuming that religion is
always nothing more than a social construct whose survival depends on a cultural analogue to natural selection. In short, he is assuming that there is no God and then critiquing Reitan’s book with this assumption firmly in place.

There’s a name for that kind of thing. It’s called begging the question.


  1. I think you can make comments on Amazon about the review. Maybe not as lengthy as this response, but a dialogue about the review would certainly be helpful - especially if people know that it is the actual author responding.

  2. I agree with CPO, and am curious why you think posting a brief response is out of bounds.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I decided to take your advice (and that of my editor, who read this post), and so I've posted a comment on the review on the Amazon site (essentially a more concise articulation of what's in the "Imaginary Amazon Review").