Thursday, July 12, 2007

"The God Delusion" - my reaction (2)

I want to look at the preface to the paperback edition of Dawkins' new book, and particularly at Dawkins' reactions to atheists who he feels haven't approved of it in clear enough terms. One of the reactions that Dawkins comments on is:
I'm an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your shrill, strident, intemperate, intolerant, ranting language. (The God Delusion, paperback edition, p.16)
I find Dawkins' response to this intriguing. His defence is basically that we take in our stride other shrill, intemperate language - "when listening to political commentators for example, or theatre, art or book critics." He adds that religious faith seems to be "uniquely privileged: above and beyond criticism".

As evidence he firstly offers a series of restaurant reviews, which I agree are strongly worded. However, surely Dawkins can see that there is a substantial difference between journalism and writing this sort of non-fiction. Surely he can see that there is a stylistic difference necessary between commentary on a historically particular event (a meal, a play, a book) and serious treatise on something universal (whether or not there is a God). Again, bear in mind that Dawkins is here complaining not about theists' reactions to his book (whose opinions, I would suggest, he has already discounted), but those of atheists who are protesting that he has gone too far. If this is his genuinely thought-out position on this matter, he can hardly grumble about intemperate reviews from anybody - he must also expect to take them in his stride.

Then he offers the 1915 anti-German opinions of MP Horatio Bottomley (!). But he acknowledges that those words - written in the context of one of the most dreadful wars of the modern era! - were likely "ridiculous and ineffective as rhetoric even in its own time". I certainly wouldn't take such views in my stride, and apparently he hasn't either. So why does he use them in defence of his own writing?

Then he says "a politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity." But there are limits there as well. Use of "unparliamentary language" - which extends even to describing another parliamentarian as a liar, or drunk, even when they may in fact be so - may lead to suspension from the house. So again, given that there are limits in the political arena, how can this provide a defence for his shrill, intemperate language?

What this last point leads to is that, even if shrill, intemperate language is acceptable in this form of literature, doesn't a civil society demand politeness? It isn't a question of religion being accorded a more privileged position than anything else - it is simply that as a matter of common courtesy: you treat opponents in all matters as you would wish to be treated yourself. Dawkins hopes to demonstrate that atheism offers a new dawn for civilisation - and yet even one of the approving reviews quoted in this edition of his book describes Dawkins as cajoling and bullying (Sunday Times, Perth). Is that how the new dawn is to be brought in? It is hardly surprising that religious groups act in a defensive manner, when this sort of intimidating language is brought to bear on them.

He also adds that the opening sentence of chapter 2 - a charge sheet of the crimes of the God of the Old Testament - "is the one passage that is guaranteed to get a good-natured laugh, which is why my wife and I invariably use it as the warm-up act to break the ice with a new audience." What kind of justification is that? Could a racist or sexist comedian or social commentator use the same argument to justify their use of an offensive joke to "warm up" a new audience by getting a cheap laugh? I have little doubt that Dawkins would say no. So how can he use it to justify his own behaviour?

Perhaps Dawkins might possibly go on to argue, "Well, they started it" - indeed, later, he quotes with some apparent resentment from the Psalms - "The fool says in his heart, there is no God." However, again we have the fact that The God Delusion is a different form of literature - it claims to be a treatise containing a definitive case in support of a particular argument, whereas it claims that religious texts are pretty much self-invalidating. So why behave like one? And again, if Dawkins' aim is a new dawn of civilised society, what better way of demonstrating that than rising above the sort of behaviour he expresses such dislike for from religions?

What is apparent from this section alone is that, far from being the case that religion is uniquely privileged, Dawkins feel he has a unique privilege to behave boorishly. The accusations against him stand, and his defence, at least in this preface, is self-justifying and shallow. It is hardly surprising, since he has implied in the past that ultimately it is only his understanding of the world that could possibly be right - "I really don't think I'm arrogant, but I do get impatient with people who don't share with me the same humility in front of the facts." Of course, this will matter little to those people who choose to align themselves with him - people like P.Z.Myers, who he also quotes in this preface, who have suggested breaking out the jackboots to overcome the religious forces of darkness.

"Oh, brave new world ..."