Friday, December 20, 2019

Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity and Striving after Emptiness

I was in my favorite local bookstore today, and found out Richard Dawkins had written another book.  I thought it might have just been released, but it was actually published in September.  And while I won't bother to read it (or comment on it that much), the few reviews of it I found (and Google produced almost none) make it sound like another bite at the apple, another attempt to gain some notoriety.

The arguments he uses are just a rehash of those in TGD, as are many of the illustrations and stories. So we have all the old ones – atheists just worship one god less; evolution proves there is no God; you don't need God for morality; and of course the oldie but goldie, 'who created God, then?'.

He's even got the same old stories and illustrations – the cargo cult, the universe where you have a green moustache, the (mis) citation of Hitler etc.
I'm going to assume the reviewer at Christianity Today has at least basic reading comprehension skills, and accept that as an accurate summation of Dawkins' points, at least.  The entire review is telling if only for the ease with which it dispatches most of Dawkins' arguments without having to venture into theology to do it:

Dawkins pontificates as though he were an expert in subjects which he knows very little about. Space does not permit me to list all the subtle and howling errors. But here are a few of the simplistic lowlights.

People worship Jesus all over the world today because of a historical accident in AD 312; the Trinity is polytheistic. Paul says virtually nothing about the life of Jesus. Until now nobody doubted the Gospels. Revelation was the inspiration for the doctrine of the rapture. There is little or no evidence for the existence of Abraham, David, Moses and perhaps Jesus didn't even exist. If he did, he may have said some cool things but he really was not nice.


If you want to understand how Dawkins works, take this example: "No serious scholar today thinks that the Gospels were written by eye-witnesses."

Here you need to grasp how Dawkins uses language. "Serious scholar" means 'someone who agrees with me'. If they don't they obviously can be neither serious nor a scholar. Which is why he can dismiss, if he even knows about, Professor Richard Bauckham of the University of St Andrews, whose serious scholarly work Jesus and the Eyewitness is an authoritative piece of academic research.

Likewise when Dawkins confidently asserts that no "educated theologian" believes that Adam and Eve, or Noah is history. But I'm educated (two degrees) and I'm a theologian, and I believe they are history. I may be wrong. But Dawkins' simplistic Emperor's clothes attitude – 'any intelligent person will see that the Emperor is wearing the finest clothes' – is easily exposed. 
That, as they say on the Twitter machine, is just science.  Not exactly the arguments I would make, but Dawkins' metaphorical nudity is easily pointed out.  And yet that's the common discourse on matters religious in public print:

Religious people, even if they don’t believe in a literal place called heaven (“white bean bags, 24-hour room service, fat babies with wings”, to quote Alan Partridge), nonetheless believe that what truly matters most in life belongs to the realm of the eternal and divine. The result is “a devaluation of our finite lives as a lower form of being”. Hägglund’s alternative, “secular faith”, insists that our finite lives are all we have – and that this finitude, far from being a cause for regret, is precisely what gives them meaning.

Actually that's an attitude more true for "evangelical" Christians, or maybe Buddhists (I don't know, to be honest; it fits a stereotype, but I don't mean to trust stereotypes).  I don't believe that what matters most in this life "belongs to the realm of the eternal and divine."  I believe what matters most in this life is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless.  The whole "pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by" stuff is the realm of those who think their most important task is to:

At a personal level I am thankful to Richard Dawkins because he opened the door for me and others to proclaim the Good News of Jesus to tens of thousands who would not have heard it otherwise. In fact, I have met more people who were converted to Christ through Dawkins, than have been converted to atheism. I wrote a book called The Dawkins Letters, which the Lord still continues to use. 

I confess I'm a bit humbler than that, too.  I quite sincerely believe that if the Lord uses me at all, it is despite my best efforts, not because of them.  But that enters the area of the "humble brag," and all I can do is put down a marker trying to distinguish me from the caricature "religious believer" and move on.  But it turns out I'm not moving far from the Guardian reviewer:

There’s a glaring problem with all this as a critique of religion, which is that religious believers manifestly do find meaning in daily life, are devoted to their relationships, and care about the fate of the planet. (Hägglund acknowledges as much, but suggests they are acting from secular faith when they do so, risking the weird conclusion that religion isn’t all that religious.) A more interesting question is how far even the secular among us remain locked in the “eternalist” mindset, thereby inadvertently sapping our lives of meaning. Like any good rationalist, I know I’m going to die, but I’m not sure I really believe it; if I did, I probably wouldn’t spend so much time on Twitter. In other words, I can’t say that I live every moment of my life with an awareness that “everything depends on what we do with our time together”. This Life makes a forceful case – via readings of Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Ove Knausgaard, St Augustine and CS Lewis, among many others – for keeping that truth in mind.
Apparently all that reading has not penetrated Hägglund's understanding enough to make him tread more carefully around terms like "faith" and "religious." But then we find out (no fault of the reviewer's) why Dawkins' new book sounds so much like his old book:

Maybe it goes without saying that reflections on building a meaningful secular life are absent from Outgrowing God, Richard Dawkins’s latest fulmination against religion, this time aimed at a young adult audience. Like other luminaries of what we should probably now be calling the nearly new atheism, Dawkins’s goals are demolitionary. And so a familiar liturgy, recited in a familiar tone of exasperation, fills the book’s first half. Since you already don’t believe in “Jupiter or Poseidon or Thor or Venus or Cupid or Snotra or Mars or Odin or Apollo”, why randomly believe in one other god, the bearded old man of the Bible? Don’t you realise there’s no evidence for Jesus’s miracles, and not much evidence for the rest of the story? Besides, what kind of mean-spirited deity would drown almost every living thing he’d created, sparing only “Mr and Mrs Giraffe, Mr and Mrs Elephant, Mr and Mrs Penguin and all the other couples” admitted to Noah’s Ark? It’s possible, I suppose, that younger readers will find this less condescending than I did. It’s also possible that they won’t. 
Although in the end, the limits of human knowledge, or rather the power of narrative, stand in the way of real understanding:

As for Dawkins himself, his career in evolutionary biology might stand as an exemplar of the kind of life Hägglund urges us to live – a finite existence, devoted to the fragile and collaborative human endeavour of expanding scientific understanding. But atheism alone can’t explain why it should matter to spend your time that way. For that you need secular faith, a belief in the value of our finite projects as ends in themselves. And Dawkins, however intensely this might irritate him, gives every sign of being a true believer.

It's a popular myth that Richard Dawkins has expanded scientific understanding.  The same myth attaches to Carl Sagan, for much the same reasons:  they were both authors of popular books.  Between his books on genetics (wrong, all wrong) and his books championing atheism, Richard Dawkins has shown no more interest in expanding human understanding, scientific or otherwise, than Donald Trump.  The issue of secular faith, however, is an acute one; and worth paying attention to again at this time of year. I won't belabor my disagreements and dismissal of Richard Dawkins as anything but an empty bladder of air (but I will shamelessly link to them),  but I have to add this as almost a footnote, if only to provoke some humility in us all.  It's the opening paragraph of the CT review, and it's probably the most disturbing set of facts in this discussion:

Although its readers were to name him one of the top three intellectuals in the world, Prospect magazine gave a scathing review to Richard Dawkins' anti-religion polemic The God Delusion, writing at the time, "It has been obvious for years that Richard Dawkins had a fat book on religion in him, but who would have thought him capable of writing one this bad? Incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory, it has none of the style or verve of his earlier works." That did not stop TGD becoming a multi-million copy bestseller.
To name Richard Dawkins a top intellectual is, to return to the current political situation, to name Donald Trump one of the greatest Presidents in American history.  It doesn't say much, in other words, about the readership of Prospect magazine (a magazine I am otherwise unaware of).  Of course, TGD made Dawkins a household name again (in some households, which is enough for most fame), and that's a disturbing fact, too.  But discussions of faith that take the issue of "trust" (which is all faith is) seriously enough to point out the reality of "secular faith," and which include a man of such poor accomplishment being considered a top intellectual of our time, should be enough to humble us all and make us think on our own sins and shortcomings before we make so bold as to declare we have a handle on any "truth."


  1. I'm curious to see how much of a splash he makes with his former fan boys and gals but who decided he had cooties. I'm guessing this one won't sell as well.

    I'd compare him to a scribbler who gets talked into writing a detective series of ever diminishing inspiration for the money. It's the pattern, only they're no one done its. Azimov, Sagan, Dawkins, . . .

    1. The book's been out for five months and I could barely find any reviews of it, if that tells you anything.

  2. Oh, "The Dawkins Letters"? I'm guessing a play on The Screwtape Letters? C.S. Lewis isn't my favorite by a long shot but Dawkins is no C. S. Lewis. And I see at the link it says Dawkins cribs Russell but Russell cribbed earlier atheist hacks. I think popular atheism has to be about the most recycled of pseudo-intellection in the history of the West.