The rather excellent Heresiarch posted a piece yesterday about his disagreement with Dawkins. I think that slight twitching feeling I’m getting might be the beginnings of an opinion about something. Let’s see how it turns out.
Howard Jacobson recently presented a documentary on Channel 4 in the UK, looking at the history of the Bible. I didn’t watch it, partly because of the feature on him in the Radio Times, in which he trotted out the kind of uninformed straw-man attacks on Richard Dawkins and the atheist movement generally that I’m so tired of hearing by now. The “He says I’m wrong about something, therefore he’s being closed-minded” level of nonsense and caricature. It put me off the whole thing, and judging by the Heresiarch’s report I was wise not to waste my time.
But having said that, Heresiarch then moves on to discuss a Times article written by Dawkins, in which the man himself supposedly sounds more like the caricature that he’s so often made out to be.
I’m going to go some way toward defending Richie D here, at least against phrases like “remarkably stupid”.
The criticism starts from Dawkins’ opening paragraph:
We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, unpremeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.
Which seemed innocuous enough to me at first glance. The particular criticism levelled against it is that it is “extraordinarily facile”. The first thing I notice is that this accusation doesn’t seem to deny that any of what Dawkins says is true.
The second thing I notice is that Dawkins is writing primarily in response to Pat Robertson, and others of his ilk, who spared no time in declaring this natural disaster, like so many others, to be a divine retribution for some sort of ungodly behaviour. If you’re looking for a facile argument, I’d say that’s a more obvious place to start.
And that’s the context in which Dawkins is writing here. He’s not an expert political analyst, and so he doesn’t speculate in detail on the “moral complexity of a global capitalist economy”, as Doug Chaplin seems to want him to. There are certainly many interesting and important things to be said about the Haiti earthquake from that perspective, but Dawkins isn’t the guy for that.
Also, lingering on that Doug Chaplin article longer than I’d intended, something else he said winds me up somewhat, where he talks about Dawkins’ “shopping list of disasters that disprove the existence of God”. Well,
A) disproving God by any means is not something that Dawkins has ever claimed, either in this article or in any of his books, and
B) these kinds of natural disasters aren’t a negligible problem, theologically speaking. It’s not like reconciling this amount of suffering with the notion of a loving god is easy. I’ve still never seen it done convincingly. So if he did want to argue that these things disprove God’s existence entirely, it wouldn’t be an argument entirely without merit. I’m not saying it’d hold much water, but it’s not an idea worthy of quite such dripping sarcasm.
The bulk of Heresiarch’s criticism, though, is about Dawkins’ assertion – to paraphrase rather coarsely – that Pat Robertson is the one who’s really doing Christianity properly, and that the more moderate, liberal Christians who decry all his bullshit about pacts with the devil are being hypocritical.
And, well. Yeah.
Is it even possible to read the Bible without being selective? Surely Ned Flanders is the only person who really took the whole thing at its word, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. Of course Robertson seems to be ignoring a lot of what might broadly be termed the “good stuff”, like the things about loving people. (Though God has some funny ideas on how to treat the people he loves.) But the moderate liberals really are picking and choosing just as much. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out:
There’s no Hell mentioned in the Old Testament… It’s only with gentle Jesus, meek and mild, that the idea of eternal torture for minor transgressions is introduced.
Which is often conveniently overlooked by people keen to emphasise how lovely Christianity is, how loving Jesus was, and how ridiculous it is to suggest that God would ever visit atrocities upon us as retribution for our sinful existence.
I’m being rather jumbled and disordered here, but Heresiarch also writes that “natural disasters pose challenges… that are very much the province of religion” – in that they raise questions about the nature of God, and the afterlife, and posit suggestions and explanations that may be meant to provide comfort in times of despair. He tells Dawkins:
[Y]ou must surely admit that people who are suffering are looking for something more substantial than a lecture about the workings of tectonic plates.
And yes, I don’t doubt they are, but
A) I’m not convinced that this makes it okay to sanction any kind of religious speculation, and shield it from criticism, on the grounds that these religious ideas may be what people are turning to for comfort right now, and
B) he’s not offering a lecture about the workings of tectonic plates to the people who are suffering. He’s offering it to people who’ve been hearing about their suffering and are in a position to receive a counterpoint to Pat Robertson’s own lecture about pacts with the devil.
And for the people who are suffering, he’s set up a page on his site to donate money to Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Which won’t involve trying to tell anyone who needs help digging their family out of the rubble about plate tectonics, or that there is no god and this was just a random act of uncaring nature. He just wrote an article to us about some of those things, and he’s not entirely wrong.
I’d redraft this and have a better idea what overall point I was trying to make if I were a proper writer. Well, I guess I nearly had an opinion, at least.