02 September, 2013

Bizarrely Unsatisfying

Richard Dawkins

I was curiously disappointed in Dawkins in this book. For some years i have read about him ~ i think i've read one or two of his previous works, but i can't be certain ~ and read a number of refutations of him and, more particularly, this work, and he has been built up as a great and terrible foe of the Church, of God (or any god) and of religion. I expected, then, to be challenged, to be logically argued into submission, to read strong and convincing prose of a scientific nature. Not what happened. In fact i found that Dawkins wrote in a fashion that, to my perception, is surprisingly close to what he stands against with all his force: The book reminds me of nothing so much as an evangelical preacher ensuring that the choir stay convinced and and strangers in the congregation are whipped along into following him. I'm afraid that his arguments generally were, to say the least, unconvincing, and he attempted to cover that up by using rhetoric designed to bludgeon his readers into agreeing. Let me explain.

Towards the beginning of the book Dawkins writes that he amused himself by noting in the margin of a book he was reading the false arguments used by one or other of his opponents; i have a healthy respect for books, and library books in particular, so i did not actually do so, but i noted in my mind at least a dozen times during Dawkins debating points at which i would have written BISS in the margin as a comment on the paucity of his argument: It solely consisted of “This is so, Because I Say So”, which really is not at all convincing as a means of persuasion. He does this, for example, in dismissing the idea of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) as suggested by Stephen Jay Gould, among others. He does not really argue against NOMA, other than to say that there is no reason to think that, if there are questions science cannot answer, they may be questions religion is capable of answering ~ or even exploring. There are, as i indicated above, a number of occasions on which Dawkins uses this argument from authority; it's simply a shame that the authority he uses ~ his own ~ is not actually sufficient to support the argument he makes. It is possible that NOMA is a poor idea, but not possible to discover that by reading this book; as far as Dawkins' argument goes, there is nothing wrong with NOMA at all ~ except that he doesn't like it.

The second point at which i found the book frustrating is the style. I likened him earlier to someone preaching to the choir; to explain that image a little let me point out that he uses rhetorical devices which are frequently and usefully used by preachers on Sunday mornings in church services to carry the congregation along a path they already believe and travel willingly: humour, exaggeration, straw man arguments, appeal to authority, and others. The most annoying, maybe offensive, was the use of humour; i find it offensive, i'm afraid, from a couple of perspectives, because it feels as though i am being patronised since he clearly believes i'm stupid enough to be convinced something is wrong if i can be made to laugh at it, and because on many occasions his humour is more vitriolic than funny, especially when he is relating anecdotes (and when did a personal anecdote become a strong logical argument?) about how he either has or should have demolished his opponents with his wit. It may be the case, as has been argued elsewhere, that harm to someone else in one or another form is the basis of all humour; when taken to extremes, however, it serves no purpose other than to make me uncomfortable and to rather dislike the instigator.

To be honest, quite a lot of the book seems surprisingly personal to Dawkins, as though he takes it as a personal affront that anyone should disagree with him (i suppose that this links back to my feeling that BISS was his major argument). That this is so is illustrated by the anecdotes i mentioned above as well as by the authorities he tends to appeal to. It may not be that they are the most common in the book, but certainly high among his authorities are Carl Sagan, admittedly a scientist, though more of a science-explainer than an active discoverer, and Douglas Adams, an author (non-scientific) and comic. The two primary reasons Dawkins seems to appeal to them are that he liked them personally, and they both agreed with his point of view. Neither of these is a sufficient reason.

A further way in which the book seems personal rather than reasoned is the way in which Dawkins seems to go out of his way to be offensive to theologians for no other reason than that they are theologians. He argues that there is no reason to be polite about religious beliefs, that religion is given a free pass in society because people are not willing to offend one another over their God and faith. The truth, of course, is that, in fact, there are all sorts of things people do not say to one another (i cannot imagine, for example, that Dawkins would be comfortable saying to a stranger, “Goodness, your wife is ugly”, or “What a stupid daughter you have”), because we have evolved (within the species, genetically, or in society, through trial and error, i do not know) a certain self-censorship over what we say in order that society may function. Religion falls into this category of Things We Are Polite About, yet Dawkins is attempting to remove from the category with no explanation or justification. Indeed, he treats it as falling in the opposite category, Things We Can Be Vitriolic About, as he all but personally insults theologians. Not, i am afraid, the actions of the reasoned, reasoning man he would portray himself as.

In the end, as i mentioned above, i found reading this book disappointing. I expected a real challenge to my thinking capacity, but what i found was similar to a secondary school level response to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian ~ from the other perspective, of course! Less than satisfying, i'm afraid.

1 comment:

catieeliza said...

I got sick half way through one of his earlier books for the same reasons. i just got really frustrated... it's like when you see an interesting headline in a newspaper and you pick it up and read the article and it turns out the headline was grossly misleading, and you feel cheated. haha xx