Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The New Atheists

Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. The new atheists. Sooner or later, I'll read Dawkins and Hitchens' books. I've seen them in many interviews and I've read many of their shorter essays on religion. I don't know anything about Dawkins' actual body of scientific work, but I have read a lot of Hitchens' journalism. Hitchens is clearly a smart man and he is one of the best in his chosen profession.

This being said, the new atheists have waded into deep waters, and their water wings are leaky.

I've been meaning to write posts on this subject for sometime, but have had a hard time putting my thoughts together. So, I'll use Terry Eagleton to give me a running start.

In his review of The God Delusion entitled "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching", Eagleton properly puts Dawkins in his place. Rather than choosing and defending a side on the stupid old atheist/theist continuum, Eagleton simply cuts Dawkins off at the knees by pointing out that one can't set Dawkins' naive scientific matirealism against one of the most ubiquitous and productive forms of human life.

Check out the first three paragraphs, at least.

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.


dan said...

Hey Mike,

I'm looking forward to hearing more about what you think of "the new atheists." I also thought Eagleton's comments on Dawkins (and Dawkins' book) were bang-on.

By the by, one thing that puzzled me a bit when I first read Eagleton's review (and it still puzzles me now) is the reference to Lacan. If Eagleton's assertion is true, why is it that academic psychologists dislike Lacan so much?

Mike said...

I'd only be able to guess at the answer to that, since I don't know much about contemporary psychology.

I do know a bit about Lacan's views on American ego psychology, though. He tended to see them as engaging in nothing other than behaviour modification, altering their egos to be more "in tune" with their enviroments. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, only seeks to bring the analysand into a particular kind of relationship with their unconscious. Screw the ego. There's a pretty big gap there.

I'd also expect psychologists to be much more interested in biological facts, drawing on disciplines like neurology, while psychoanalysis takes a far more philosophical approach. It'd be the difference between developing a science of homo sapien behaviour and an originary thinking of the subject.

In other words, psychologists use "hard data" to develop pragmatic plans of action while Lacanian psychoanalysts are wishy washy idealists. Probably hedonists and nihilists.

dan said...

Hey Mike,

Thanks for your response. I wondered if the diffence had something to do with the divide between "clinical" psychiatry and Lacan's version of psychoanalysis -- it's just that Eagleton's use of the word "academic" sort of threw me off (Lacan, after all, feels much more "academic" than, say, "pragmatic").

I never really realised how deep this clinical/theoretical divide was until I began reading Lacan and getting excited about his stuff. Since I work in a social service agency, I have a number of co-workers who are doing graduate degrees in psychology and I started asking them about Lacan. I quickly discovered that none of them have even heard of him (or Zizek, who seems to be doing a fine job of at least popularising Lacan's name).

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I get the impression that Lacan is pretty obscure outside of the academy. I had a look at the New York State psychanalyists' association's website, and Lacan is no where to be mentioned.

I'll talk more about Dawkins et al once I've actually read the God Delusion.


dan said...

Hey Mike,

Just came across a review of "God is Not Great" that I thought you might find interesting. It is here: http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/print_format.php?id_article=1962. Also there's a review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by one of the leading theologians today, that can be found here: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=5394. I think you might enjoy them, as they both reminded me of Eagleton's take on Dawkins.