Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Penny Press! that damnable Dawkins!

The London Review of Books is a steady, pleasant publication, far more intelligent than the New York Times Book Review, and far less fiercely complex and involved than the mighty TLS. Its articles and reviews amble about comfortably on the midslopes of Parnassus, so when something really firebrandy pops up, it's immediately noticeable.

This latest issue has one such piece - hoo boy, does it ever.

The piece is by Terry Eagleton, and it's a review of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion.

Eagleton begins promisingly:

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.

He goes on in this vein, much like he's preparing a case:

If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they [most book reviewers] 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.

This is promising stuff, especially if you've already read Dawkins' book, as I have; it looks to be building the case that Dawkins' latest book is a shoddy, tossed-off affair - this is certainly true, and a beginning like this one makes the prospect of a full-length spanking suddenly appealing.

Alas, the prospect is dashed pretty early on. And what takes its place is weirdly unsatisfying. The reader quickly becomes aware of three facts: 1) Eagleton hasn't in fact read Dawkins' book, 2) Eagleton is loopily religious in exactly the same degree and measure that Dawkins is loopily atheist, and 3) Eagleton isn't even prepared to make a coherent case FOR faith BASED on faith. He'd much rather pontificate:

Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster.

Reeling, we move on:

The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God ... they had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.

At which point your loyal reader stopped, looked up gasping at his Chinese waitstaff, and said aloud: "Yes they were."

Transcendence and invisibility are the absolute CORNERSTONES of the Loch Ness monster and the tooth fairy. They're the cornerstones of EVERY human fantasy big and small through all of history.

I believe in you because I can SEE you. I can watch your behaviors, develope a sense of your patterns, rudimentarily predict your actions (Sebastian will always make some unconscious, incredibly condescending comment to waiters in restaurants - like carefully spelling out the word 'soup'; Jeff will always have a practical solution to any problem that turns up in company, whether he's heeded or not; John will always be between ten and three hundred minutes late for any pre-arranged meeting; Pepito will always grow attached to the live chickens he buys for his santeria rituals and end up KEEPING them and giving them snuggly names, etc)

If I couldn't see you, if nobody I'd ever known had ever seen you, if nobody in any reliable record had ever spent a single moment in your presence, you can be damn sure I WOULDN'T believe in you, and nobody else would either. God is not a celestial super-object or a divine UFO? Both descriptions seem pretty near perfect.

But Eagleton isn't nearly done:

God is not a person ... he 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.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claims that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need.

Oh my.

Oh my, my, my.

At the very least, we know conclusively by now that we are no longer reading a book review. This would be interesting in a stretch of autobiography, but it's extremely depressing in the London Review of Books.

But Eagleton, somehow getting all this past an editor, has a LOT more to say:

God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying he did not need to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us.

Somehow, 'oh my' just doesn't seem to adequate at this point.

Love? Where did love come into this? Love, the name that humans append to an EXTREMELY narrow bandwidth of an EXTREMELY narrow emotion? Love? What does the universe know of love?

The universe is a beyond-calculation huge expanse of open space and hydrogen one degree above absolute zero. It knows nothing of love, but that's OK, since Eagleton clearly means '20/21 st century America' when he talks about transcendence.

And what about his wild claim that his hippy-granola lower-g god wants nothing more than to be allowed to love 'us'?

To say the very least, to say the comically least, God - the Jewish God, the Christian God, the Muslim God - wants a great deal more from His believers than simply an invitation to a cuddle-puddle. The God of the Jews tells His followers that they are the chosen people and all others are worthy of contempt or pity. The God of the Christians tells His followers to make disciples of all nations. The God of the Muslims (it STRENUOUSLY bears pointing out that we're talking about the EXACT SAME God here) tells His followers to murder the unbeliever. That's hardly the same as this Facebook friend folderol Eagleton so blandly calls fact.

All of this would be more endurable if Eagleton had actually read Dawkins' book, as I said. But if he can write "Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anywhere or anytime, is worthy of any respect whatsoever," he clearly hasn't. But it's even more alarming that he obviously hasn't read his Bible in quite a while either, as when he writes that Jesus was put to death "because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy, and justice..."

The local lackeys in question (not sure how the Roman-hating elders and chief priests of the Temple would have liked that description, but we'll skip over that) sought the death of Jesus not because they were buzzkills to his love-jones but because he defied their authority by a) denouncing them publically and b) smashing up their concession stands. And the Romans killed him because he declared himself the King of the Jews, which in the Roman world was treason.

OK, so Eagleton hasn't read Dawkins' book, and he hasn't read the Bible ... but what about a feckin newspaper now and then? What but a total ignorance of the world and everything in it could account for a passage like this:

On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he [Dawkins] is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion.

Yeesh. Can Eagleton really be this dense? Attributing the swiftly-approaching Apocalypse to technology is like attributing toast to the toaster. The next time a building blows up, or a city is flattened by a suitcase nuke, or cloud of chemical death is loosed, I guarantee you it will be religion that does it - religion merely USING technology. Religious conflict has accounted for more human death and suffering than any other possible factor or all such factors put together. It takes exactly zero mental work to see this.

But Eagleton is so intent on putting Dawkins in his place that he fails to notice that his own idealogy is equally absurd.

As some of you will know, we here at Stevereads are calmly, 100 percent atheist. We say: of course there is no God, no afterlife, no nothing of any kind. There's this tiny little blip of life, and that's all.

When people assert that the above is true for all other living things that have ever walked the Earth EXCEPT mankind, who at death sends off a carbon-copy ghost that travels to an alternate dimension and lives there forever with consciousness and personality intact, we calmly point out that if you just sat and THOUGHT about that scenario for a second, you'd see how silly it is.

Humans are afraid of dying. Humans have an enormously complex brain, prone to creating fantasies. Put those two things together and do the math yourself.

So, if Dawkins had written an excoriation of the evils of religion that was GOOD, we'd applaud it. And likewise if Eagleton wrote a either a condemnation of Dawkins' book or a defense of religion that was GOOD, we'd love reading it, as we love reading C.S. Lewis.

But as it is, the book and the review are equally dumb and irritating. I'll keep you all posted on the letters page fallout that's SURE to happen.


Gianni said...

Holy #&$(ing $#!^ (literally) I hate the religious argument; I don't like to discuss it AT ALL. I consider myself agnostic until otherwise proven, I just don't think it's something I HAVE to take a side on the matter in the near future or EVER, for that matter. What makes it especially loathesome is the fact that it's a BOOK REVIEW. Get your religious jonesing somewhere else, ya fanatic (Eagleton, not Steve)

lockep said...

Since Stevie T. (or STD to his fans) seems obsessed with hitting a larger target audience ("blogience"?) for stevereads, allow me to offer up a simple editorial fix that will bring a more advertiser-friendly set of demographic eyes to the site.

Simply change:

"Oh my.

Oh my, my, my."


"Oh no you dinnit!"

There. You're welcome.

lockep said...

Oh, and Gianni, you seem like a nice person, and my days of picking fights on message boards (and then crushing my enemies before me and hearing the lamentation of their women) are a good dozen years in the past. (Despite Steve's attempts to call out the "old Locke," I take my cue from William Munny out of Kansas, who killed women and children: "I ain't like that any more.") Still, in all good-natured joshing, let me just say that being "agnostic" is like being "half-pregnant" or "kinda radioactive" -- Let go of the woobie and join the Atheist Team! G/g-od won't mind -- s/he's busy playing dice with the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus!

steve said...

pretty ironic, when you think about it ... that in the same breath as saying you no longer channel the 'old Locke' you'd so effortlessly club a baby harp seal such as this young Gio obviously is (I don't know his identity, I swear to God the Father) ....

Sam Sacks said...

But...but isn't anyone going to dispense with the tee ball and actually take a swing at Richard Dawkins, as is obviously called for by this post? I almost regret never having read him, to not be able to do it myself. (Although if there's ever occassion to wallop Daniel Dennett I'll be delighted to join in.)

Jeff E. said...

Dawkins and Dennett are both worth wholloping for their latest works. If "Breaking the Spell" was printed on post-consumer recycled material, then it was a significant downgrade from the used toilet paper it used to be. That said, Dennett's "Intentional Stance", written back when he used to do philosophy, was excellent. His more popular books ("Darwin's Dangerous Idea", "Freedom Evolves", et al) are shrill, but not horrible. Certainly not worth burning a village over.

Dawkins, similarly, is wonderful when he's doing what he knows: in his case that's evolutionary biology. His magnum opus, "The Ancestor's Tale" is beyond reproach. "The Blind Watchmaker" and "Climbing Mount Improbable" are both wonderful and "The Blind Watchmaker" in particular has been so widely quoted (and misquoted), and its arguments so familiar, that it's hard to read while keeping in mind how original it was.

Dawkins works on science as Man's Greatest Endeavor ("Unweaving the Rainbow", "A Devil's Chaplin") are simply mediocre, and I expect "The God Delusion" to be even worse than that. Steve? How was "The God Delusion"?

JC, JC said...

Y'all can get a pretty good condenced version of the books arguement by going to You Tube & typing in "The God Delusion," the two-part documentary Dawkins made for BBC.

The practice is basically that Dawkins finds the biggest religious lunitic he can get his hands on (one from each faith) and then, angrily, attempts to reason with them.

Jeff E. said...

I hear there's also some filler comprised of Dawkins recapping several thousand years of theological debate. For gawdsake, who the hell needs to rebut Anselm's ontological argument AGAIN?!

Gianni said...

I just don't think (unlike 99 percent of the population) that the religious question is important enough to bother myself with. COULD there be a divine being greater than us all? Sure there COULD be, might also NOT be. I just don't give a damn either way. And Steve, think roommate.

steve said...

OK, Jeff - I agree completely: 'Ancestor's Tale' is a truly great book, bewildering that it should be produced by the same mind that ended up making 'God Delusion' ...

... and Giovanni, regardless of your own (entirely praiseworthy)(entirely atheistic, though you prefer the namby-pamby term 'agnostic')(hint: if you don't believe a God has anything whatsoever to do with human life on Earth, yer an atheist, whether you burn bridges and say so or not) viewpoints, you just HAVE to acknowledge that religious arguments are of vital importance nowadays - virtually ALL of the civil/genocidal wars being fought today are being done so on religious grounds, after all.

As I've pointed out in my blogs proper, pretty much the only motivation LEFT in the world that would cause a young man to smuggle a suitcase-nuke into Times Square is religious. That perforce makes the subject paramountly interesting and important, however incomprehensible we (!) atheists might find it ...

Anonymous said...

steve, why dont you review Dawkins yourself. id read it.

steve said...

That's an excellent suggestion, anonymous, and I'll get right on it - but in the meantime, who are you?

You're not Dawkins, are you (I ask only because of that red-herring 'id' typed by the world's largest 'ego')?

Or more awkward still ... Gawd?