Dawkins’ “stock reply”
Congratulations to P Z Myers on this brilliant piece of satire. It applies not just to Allen Orr’s review in NYRB, but to all those many reviews of TGD that complain of my lack of reading in theology. My own stock reply (“How many learned books of fairyology and hobgoblinology have you read?”) is far less witty.
Far less witty indeed. And also somewhat problematic.
I want to stress here that I am not going to discuss the truth of the claim that The God Delusion may exhibit Dawkins’ “lack of reading in theology”. I will merely note that Dawkins does not reply by claiming to have read theological works. One must assume either (a) he hasn’t engaged with such works, or (b) he has but instead of demonstrating that fact would rather give a glib “witty” reply. Take your pick. Either way, I ask you to consider the following:
A common critique of those that see Darwinism [X] as a secular mythology [Y] is that they fail to engage with the primary literature. One can conceive of a creationist dismissing such criticism by using the same “stock reply” as Dawkins, i.e. “I believe X to be the epistemological equivalent of Y. Since you don’t read learned books on Y (or such books don’t exist), you cannot criticize me for my lack of reading in X.”
Now, I think we can all agree that this would be an unsatisfying reply to the criticism at hand. Obviously, our creationist would have to first prove the epistemological equivalence of X and Y. Similarly, Dawkins needs to first prove the equivalence of theology [X] and “fairyology” [Y]before he can use his stock reply to deflect criticism. Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing – and that involves reading the theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion. Note that I am making a distinction between the writings of theologians – who obviously have a commitment to the religious claims in question – and those of philosophers of religion who may or may not be religious (consider, for example, that Hume was a philosopher of religion, as was Nietzsche). The question remains, does The God Delusion demonstrate such an engagement? Defenders of Dawkins (following Dawkins himself) will perhaps claim that it does not have to, especially considering the work is a popular argument for atheism. Others may find that defense unconvincing.
[And before this gets out of hand, I’d like to make it perfectly clear where I stand. I am situated at milestone #6 of Dawkin’s typology (p. 51 of TGD). I agree that “I cannot know for certain but I think that God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there” but disagree whether that makes me a “De Facto atheist” or an agnostic, I also have no time for NOMA.]
One assumes that Dawkins read the primary texts (“scriptures”) of the monotheistic religions he is critiquing. One would hope that he engaged with the “secondary literature” of theological writings which attempt to interpret and justify these texts. Whether The God Delusion offers evidence for a serious engagement with the philosophy of religion is a question for another day.