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Dawkins Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching

Terry Eagleton (John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at Manchester University), writes in Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching: “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 don’t 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.”


  1. Tom Morris
    Posted December 29, 2006 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    What a pile of tosh. Dawkins is arguing in the realm of the philosophy of religion. Eagleton upbraids Dawkins for not discussing the intricacies of medieval theologians. It’s not Aquinas and Karl Rahner that informs the faith of the average believer. In a book aimed at a popular audience, it is neither the time nor place to discuss these intricate - irrelevant, even - theologians.

    In the debate over religion, modern theology serves only one purpose - to create large dust-clouds as a distraction. Should the skeptic then spend his time fighting the dust-cloud without disturbing the consciousness of the every-day believer? I think not. It’s a distraction from the important question - what evidence is there that religious claims are true?

    The reason we’ve seen so many breathy responses to Dawkins is that he’s written a book which breaks with the prefatory politeness and gets to the actual point. Dawkins has side-stepped the theological dust-cloud and taken his message to the populace. This is a good thing. Academic theology has become lifeless and mind-numbing (and I say that as someone who is just about to finish a degree studying philosophy, theology and related subjects). Greater public oversight - whether from the perspective of belief or unbelief - has to be a good thing.

    Dawkins puts it this way: “Theology is a respectable discipline when it studies such subjects as moral philosophy, the psychology of religious belief and, above all, biblical history and literature…. But insofar as theology studies the nature of the divine, it will earn the right to be taken seriously when it provides the slightest, smallest smidgen of a reason for believing in the existence of the divine”.

  2. Shawn Anthony
    Posted December 29, 2006 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Hey Tom! Thanks for you thoughts.

    I think the point Eagleton and many, many others are raising has to do with the incredibly large and intolerant brush Dawkins uses to paint all of religion - especially Christianity. Dawkins betrays his own beloved scientific method via a stereotype of such monstrous proportions it boggles the ‘rational’ mind.

    As Eagleton says, Dawkins correctly addresses - and only addresses - a small segment of Christian expression, but he pretends to aim at it all, weather the reckless shot is warranted or not. Dawkins should know better, being the scientist that he is.

    Also, Eagleton is correct - Dawkins is a poor, poor theologian. He could frustrate those few Chrisitans characterized in his book, but serious theologians get a kick out of him, to be honest.

  3. ck
    Posted December 29, 2006 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins is a biologist and that is what he does best. I read the God Delusion and while he certainly does address some philosophy of religion (argument from cause, Bayesian possibilities) it is true that there is much else he could, in more depth.

    I much prefer Dennett for that rigor, but he is a philosopher, which is the difference between them. Too, Dawkins main point is “consciousness-raising”, so although I think he does tilt at straw men, so to speak, there is a point at which his project is to get people asking questions that typically seem “impolite.”

  4. Shawn Anthony
    Posted December 29, 2006 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Well, Dawkins is indeed raising-consciousness, though I think it will prove to be detrimental to his larger cause (i.e., mainstream atheism). Attacking that which the majority of human beings on this planet consider to be incredibly important and beneficial will not win you very many PR points. He will stir a small atheistic base, and they will get all excited, but the grassroots will remain largely unaffected and uninterested in what is begin to look like the rantings of just another fundamentalist.

  5. Wes
    Posted December 29, 2006 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Tom, I agree to an extent that it is good that Dawkins is raising some popular topics to the realm of direct discussion however impolite it may be. However because Dawkins is lacking in ability to talk about core Christian doctrine that has been shaped by medieval theologians he is “pissing in the wind.” In churches people are still shaped by medieval theologians because many of our worship practices stem from that time period. So to claim that Dawkins doesn’t need to know something about worship theology and practices that are still in use today doesn’t make any sense.

    My personal opinion is that Dawkins needs to stick to biology and stay out of theology. If he wants to raise these questions than do it with his friends. The broad brush is not necessary nor valuable. I know more people who just role their eyes at Dawkins than pay him the least bit of attention. In the end for me Dawkins is more comic relief from theology than a serious theologian in any sort of the word. I don’t make claims about biology because I took a high school biology class or read a couple of books, so he shouldn’t try to make claims on things that he doesn’t know. I think he is just doing it to make money and not to accomplish anything. Lets face it people by his books because of what he says.

  6. Shawn Anthony
    Posted December 29, 2006 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Wes. writes. “I think he is just doing it to make money and not to accomplish anything. Lets face it people by his books because of what he says.”

    .. and there it is! You know, it does seem that Dawkins has figured out how to make a huge amount of money selling biology. I mean seriously, how does one sell so many biology books to people not dedicated to the discipline? Now that you mention it, Wes, he does sort of come across as the Mel Gibson of the Biology field. In other words, he knows how to create just enough buzz to turn an otherwise lackadaisical product into a cash cow. Well, in that case he does not come across as so irrational, though he should admit as much lest his biology actually suffer too.

  7. Robin Edgar
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    Richard Dawkins is indeed an evangelical fundamentalist atheist as I have already said elsewhere on the internet.

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