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nemo137 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Oct-23-06 07:24 PM
Original message
Eagleton on Dawkins
From the London Review of Books:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they dont believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

What, one wonders, are Dawkinss 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? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; its just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

A molehill of instances out of a mountain of them will have to suffice. Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkinss own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesnt go all the way down for believers, but it doesnt for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that rational means scientific. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Full article here:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html

I don't necessarily buy all of Eagleton's points; some of what he says leaves a bit of a bad taste is my mouth. But I do like his criticism of Dawkins' understanding of theology. I also thought it might be neat to have another view of Dawkins knocked about on this board.
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Random_Australian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Oct-23-06 07:32 PM
Response to Original message
1. Flawed assumption:
"are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate"

I may not have faith but I know a lot about it. Also, many atheists have had faith back in time, and we also have memory like everyone else.

If someone wants to object, I will first point out that while I myself do not hold racist views, I know a LOT about them too.

:)

(I thought I would get the discussion started. FWIW, I don't know or read much of Dawkins, but this seemed like a good kick-off)
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nemo137 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Oct-23-06 07:38 PM
Response to Reply #1
2. True, and I've seen demonstrations of that here on DU
Eagleton goes on to look at Dawkin's concept of God further down in the article.
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bryant69 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 02:02 PM
Response to Reply #1
7. I don't know that Eagleton intended that as a critique on
all atheists but on Dawkins specifically.

There is a gulf between Atheists and Theists, or at least those Theists who have felt the divine. Because that experience with the divine is, for me at least, at the heart of my belief system. But I can't make you have that experience, or give you that experience. And with out it, whatever intellectual framework I build for my beliefs looks a bit shabby. Like a hourse without a foundation I suppose. If you can't see the foundation it looks shoddy and mis made.

Bryant
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Random_Australian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 05:08 PM
Response to Reply #7
11. Like I said, don't forget the amount of people who were religious.
And who thus remember full well what that feeling is.

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bryant69 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 07:56 PM
Response to Reply #11
15. That takes us into some tricky waters
Like what exactly is communion with God - and of course atheists, even atheists who were formarly believers and believers are going to come up with different answers to that.

Bryant
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cyborg_jim Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 05:25 PM
Response to Reply #7
12. Sure you can
But I can't make you have that experience, or give you that experience.


Because despite what theists may want to believe these experiences CAN be induced.
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bloom Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Oct-23-06 08:59 PM
Response to Original message
3. I notice this book review in the NYTimes
It sounds like some similar comments.


There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy. Dawkins fans accustomed to his elegant prose might be surprised to come across such vulgarisms as sucking up to God and Nur Nurny Nur Nur (here the author, in a dubious polemical ploy, is imagining his theological adversary as a snotty playground brat). Its all in good fun when Dawkins mocks a buffoon like Pat Robertson and fundamentalist pastors like the one who created Hell Houses to frighten sin-prone children at Halloween. But it is less edifying when he questions the sincerity of serious thinkers who disagree with him, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, or insinuates that recipients of the million-dollar-plus Templeton Prize, awarded for work reconciling science and spirituality, are intellectually dishonest (and presumably venal to boot). In a particularly low blow, he accuses Richard Swinburne, a philosopher of religion and science at Oxford, of attempting to justify the Holocaust, when Swinburne was struggling to square such monumental evils with the existence of a loving God. Perhaps all is fair in consciousness-raising. But Dawkinss avowed hostility can make for scattershot reasoning as well as for rhetorical excess. Moreover, in training his Darwinian guns on religion, he risks destroying a larger target than he intends.

The least satisfying part of this book is Dawkinss treatment of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. The ontological argument says that God must exist by his very nature, since he possesses all perfections, and it is more perfect to exist than not to exist. The cosmological argument says that the world must have an ultimate cause, and this cause could only be an eternal, God-like entity. The design argument appeals to special features of the universe (such as its suitability for the emergence of intelligent life), submitting that such features make it more probable than not that the universe had a purposive cosmic designer.

These, in a nutshell, are the Big Three arguments. To Dawkins, they are simply ridiculous. He dismisses the ontological argument as infantile and dialectical prestidigitation without quite identifying the defect in its logic, and he is baffled that a philosopher like Russell no fool could take it seriously. He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute. Shirking the intellectual hard work, Dawkins prefers to move on to parodic proofs that he has found on the Internet, like the Argument From Emotional Blackmail: God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists. (For those who want to understand the weaknesses in the standard arguments for Gods existence, the best source I know remains the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackies 1982 book The Miracle of Theism.)

It is doubtful that many people come to believe in God because of logical arguments, as opposed to their upbringing or having heard a call. But such arguments, even when they fail to be conclusive, can at least give religious belief an aura of reasonableness, especially when combined with certain scientific findings. We now know that our universe burst into being some 13 billion years ago (the theory of the Big Bang, as it happens, was worked out by a Belgian priest), and that its initial conditions seem to have been fine tuned so that life would eventually arise. If you are not religiously inclined, you might take these as brute facts and be done with the matter. But if you think that there must be some ultimate explanation for the improbable leaping-into-existence of the harmonious, biofriendly cosmos we find ourselves in, then the God hypothesis is at least rational to adhere to, isnt it?

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/22/books/review/Holt.t.h...
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beam me up scottie Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 06:54 PM
Response to Reply #3
13. No kidding. Jim Holt is a rabid fundamentalist.
:eyes:

Considering what Jim Dolt thinks about abortion and other issues, I'm even MORE thrilled to be one of the "Dawkins fans" than I was before.
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BurtWorm Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 12:23 AM
Response to Original message
4. Interesting challenge to Eagleton in a review of his review
"I have no idea why Dawkins book gets Eagleton, by the evidence of his review, so worked-up and cross (would make first-year theology student wince ill-informed shoddy old travesty not even the dim-witted cleric who knocked me about at grammar school thought that grotesquely false and so on). Hes certainly entitled to disagree; that goes without saying. But he doesnt address one key question that is central to Dawkins polemic. In a nutshell its the question whether religion is true. Is the assertion that there is a God true or false?"

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/terry_eagleton...
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muriel_volestrangler Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 10:55 AM
Response to Reply #4
5. I agree with quite a lot in that article
In particular, its criticism of Eagleton that he starts to define 'God' in a way that I don't think the majority of people in the world would accept, such as

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or existent: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.


and

God is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects


Eagleton's definition of 'God' seems to abandon the commonly-held aspects, and take refuge in an undetectable god, that I suspect is what Eagleton would like to be 'true', without ever having had any good reason for thinking so.

If the criticism of Dawkins is just that he only argues against the beliefs of all the organised religions of the world, and the majority on mankind, fair enough. He's still taken on a large task, and seems to have done pretty well. To someone whose main definition of god is "the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever", I'd say: "So what? How does that affect my physical, mental, or ethical outlook in any way?"
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BurtWorm Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 11:02 AM
Response to Reply #5
6. I seem to remember (perhaps incorrectly) from my days as an Enlgish major
Edited on Tue Oct-24-06 11:05 AM by BurtWorm
that Eagleton was once a notoriously dogmatic historicist critic, rigidly Marxist in every interpretation. Can that be right? If so, what the hell happened to him?

PS: I did remember correctly. From Wikipedia's entry on him:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Eagleton

Terry Eagleton (born in Salford, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester), England, on February 22, 1943) is a British literary critic and philosopher.

Eagleton obtained his PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. Having spent some years at Oxford at Wadham College, Linacre College and St. Catherine's College, he is currently Professor of Cultural Theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester.

Eagleton was the student of the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams. He began his career studying the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Then he switched to Marxist literary theory in the vein of Williams. More recently Eagleton has integrated cultural studies with more traditional literary theory. He was, during the 1960s, involved in the left-wing Catholic group Slant and authored a number of theological articles as well as a book Towards a New Left Theology. His most recent publications have suggested a renewed interest in theological themes. Another significant theoretical influence on Eagleton is psychoanalysis and he has been an important advocate of the work of Slavoj iek in the United Kingdom.

Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983, rev 1996), probably his best-known work, traces history of the contemporary study of text, from the Romantics of the 19th century to the postmodernists of the last few decades. Eagleton's thought remains firmly rooted in the Marxist tradition, and he has written critically on more recent modes of thought such as deconstruction. As his memoir The Gatekeeper demonstrates, Eagleton's Marxism is far from being a solely theoretical interest. He was active in Marxist organisations (notably Alan Thornett's Workers Socialist League) whilst in Oxford. He continues to provide commentary on political events in publications such as the New Statesman, Red Pepper and The Guardian.

After Theory (2003), indicts current cultural and literary theory, and what Eagleton sees as the bastardization of both. However, he does not conclude that the interdisciplinary study of literature and culture is theoretically without merit; in fact, Eagleton argues that such a merging is effective at addressing a wide range of significant topics. His indictment centers on theorists' and postmodernity's rejection of absolutes. He concludes that an absolute does exist: Every person lives in a body that cannot be owned because nothing was done to acquire it and nothing (besides suicide) can be done to be rid of the body. Our bodies and their subsequent deaths are now an absolute around which humankind can focus its actions. Terry Eagleton has also completed a trilogy of works on Irish culture.
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Goblinmonger Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 02:11 PM
Response to Reply #6
9. Yeah, that's him
I guess I forgot to mention that in my reply to the OP just below us. My life as an English major made me blind to the reality that not everyone had to read Eagleton. Which is what prompted me to write the hypocrisy comment--like a literary critic is somehow better equipped to talk about god than Hawkins?
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nemo137 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 09:41 PM
Response to Reply #4
16. Thank you.
I read the article, and found it, like you said, interesting. I really don't think, whatever the weaknesses of his article, Eagleton was trying to set up a new Pascal's Wager, though. His comments about "the richest and most enduring..." were, I think, trying to set a context for discussion religion, instead of the simple "Science proves that God does not exist and therefore any discussion of religion, except as a malicious meme, is useless" that Eagleton seems to be responding to.
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Goblinmonger Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 02:07 PM
Response to Original message
8. What a maroon.
Edited on Tue Oct-24-06 02:09 PM by Goblinmonger
He doesn't even get his own hypocrisy. Let's just change a couple words (I'll put them in bold) and see if this is any different:

Card-carrying theists like Eagleton, ... are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they do believe there is something there to be understood, or at least something worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of atheism that would make a first-grader wince.


Oh, yeah, Dawkins is a biologist and not the pope so he certainly hasn't given religion and theology ANY thought.

on edit: messed up one of my bold markers-twice.
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cyborg_jim Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 03:07 PM
Response to Reply #8
10. You've got to love it really
We can easily see who is qualified to talk on scientific matters.

Just what makes someone qualified to talk on theological matters?
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beam me up scottie Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Oct-24-06 07:05 PM
Response to Original message
14. whine snivel sniff waaaaaaaaah haaaaaaaa haaaaaaaaa!


A renowned scientist and one of the greatest minds of our time doesn't believe in my personal pet mythical deity!

:rofl:


Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.



What a marvelous reich wing fundamentalist talking point!

And so original!



Oh yeah, Dawkins is the ignorant one here.






*forgive me for posting similar words in two separate threads but it's more than appropo for both.
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AliceWonderland Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Oct-27-06 03:57 PM
Response to Original message
17. I am an admirer of Dawkins and Eagleton both
Edited on Fri Oct-27-06 04:37 PM by AliceWonderland
I just found out about this article last night in class, and ran home to read it, hee. With Eagleton, it's always going to be a good time. More heat than light, as is Eagleton's bent, but I like him -- actually, I'm doing my seminar research paper on Eagleton and the democratization of literary theory. True, sometimes he gets on my nerves after awhile, but he has an interesting mind. And, the above characterization of Eagleton as a "rigid Marxist" is incorrect, though he is in the general basket of neo-Marxist cultural theory and yes, he studied with Raymond Williams.

That being said, I don't think Eagleton did a very good job with his critique. He didn't grapple with the question of American religious networks -- which are more fundamentalist and much more politically powerful than those in the UK. I'm glad Eagleton has such fond memories of congenial church-going, but when faced by politically significant networks in the US who want to make decisions about social policy and science policy based on their holy book... the congeniality slips away. Eagleton even ends his essay by noting that HALF of Americans are waiting around for the rapture, but his problem is that Dawkins is *bitchy* about that. Good grief, I feel pretty dang bitchy about that myself.

As an aside, I don't know effective it is to criticize an argument for its snippiness... snippily. If it's fair to attack Dawkins for his tone, then it rather feels like Eagleton responded in kind, and lowered the tenor of the debate another notch. And, the suggestion that Dawkins' disdain for fundamentalism carries less weight because he has never expressed an equal disdain for capitalism is bizarre. I get Eagleton's point, and I agree -- corporate globalization does feed poverty and structural violence, which in turn feeds extremism. But one can critique the psychology of religion and make some good points without necessarily getting into capitalism.

Moreover, Eagleton does a hachet job on religion himself. He waxes eloquent on warm, open-minded, thoughtful Christianity, and calls that "mainstream" -- if that is the case, it is the fringe that calls the shots in America, and the fringe has concrete power. Oh, and a great deal of the world does indeed think that its monotheistic god is a "chap," no matter how Eagleton would like to cast god as "the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever."

I do admire Eagleton, and I do think Dawkins could be taken to task on some points. Personally, I might start with Dawkins' suggestions that if one is irreligious (to use Freud's term), the question of a purpose for life is meaningless. However, this particular essay fell short.
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Goblinmonger Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Oct-27-06 08:02 PM
Response to Reply #17
18. I like Eagleton, too
as a literary critic. I just think it is funny of him, a literary critic, to say that someone who is a biologist shouldn't criticize religion. I always thought Eagleton would be smart enough to realize the contradiction in his argument. Guess I was wrong.
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TheBaldyMan Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Oct-27-06 08:33 PM
Response to Original message
19. If what Eagleton asserts is true, it's damning of creationists who argue
from a position of ignorance about science only moreso. Theology is a nebulous and imprecise fudge, it has to be because of the nature of the subject.

Terry Eagleton has fallen into the pit-trap so many arts professionals find unavoidable, he's trying to debunk a rational, science-based argument without using rationality and the scientific method to do so. He even accuses of Dawkins of arguing 'from a position of faith'.

Eagleton's arguments are self-defeating and wooly.
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