Eagleton on Dawkins #1
I wrote to Professor Eagleton after reading the review, and he was kind enough to reply.
At the time Eagleton was John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester. He is now Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University.
2 April 2007
Dear Professor Eagleton
I have to say I did struggle with the main gist of your argument. From the sentence in the sixth paragraph beginning: ‘For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person…’ to ‘Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy’ I was unsure whether you were stating what you think is the case or what you think categories of Judeo-Christian monotheists think is the case. Certainly people believe all sorts of things, and some exercise immense sophistication in articulating those beliefs. But the issue Dawkins addresses is a simpler one: about the grounds for and implications of belief in one or more supernatural entities with sets of features which over the centuries have been ascribed (and are still ascribed today) to gods of various kinds – entities which, most importantly, have an existence and potency independent of the believer.
There are doubtless people who call themselves (say) Christians or Judaists who, if pressed, would deny belief in such an independent supernatural deity. Dawkins may well have been careless in his treatment (or non-treatment) of people in this category. But since they are substantively free of the ‘god delusion’ they are at most peripheral to both his two principal arguments.
The first concerns the rational grounds for belief in independent supernatural deities, with any or all of the familiarly ascribed attributes, when compared with currently available alternative explanations of the phenomena such deities have over the years been posited to explain. Yes neo-Darwinism is just a branch of science, but it is one capable of making the ‘case that science and religion are not in competition’ far less ‘surely reasonable’ than in the past. How ‘arrogantly triumphalistic’ it is to say that may largely be a matter of taste. But a possible reason Dawkins offers so few gestures to the ‘fallibility’ of science is that science is fallible by definition: the essence of the scientific method is falsification.
Dawkins’ conclusion, which I would share, is not so much that belief in an independent supernatural deity is irrational per se, but that in view of the incompatible alternative explanations – and in particular the recently emerging neo-Darwinist thesis – it is irrational to choose the former.
His second, and in some ways more important, argument is about the ethics of belief in an independent supernatural deity. Neither Dawkins nor I would deny that ‘countless millions … have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah’. The key points however are (1) that belief in an independent supernatural deity is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for either ethical behaviour itself or the values defining ethical behaviour; (2) that religions typically promote a view opposite to (1); and (3) this is dangerous.
Again there could be a (different) sophisticated minority of believers who do believe in an independent supernatural deity but who would also agree with (1). (I would not claim – nor do I think Dawkins would claim – that belief in an independent supernatural deity necessarily implied that such a belief was a necessary and/or sufficient condition for either ethical behaviour itself or the values defining ethical behaviour.) But this sophisticated minority would be suffering from such a mild dose of the god delusion that again they would be peripheral to the argument.
Bottom line: what I like about The God Delusion could be exactly what you don’t like – that it targets the god (or range of gods) assumed by familiar discourse in Sunday schools, church services, nativity plays, bible stories, memorial services, weddings, christenings, baptisms, hymns, prayers, Christmas carols, Songs of Praise – and their equivalents in other parallel and mutually incompatible belief systems. This unfortunately is what the ‘god delusion’ still means in the 21st Century, not the god of Don Cupitt or even Kierkegaard. What worries Dawkins is what worries me: the ladders swinging from people’s belts and smashing into things; not the ladders discarded by the sophisticated few who know they cannot climb higher as long as they hang onto them.
Thank you for reading this far!
[The correspondence continues in the next post.]
© Chris Lawrence 2009.