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On Atheistic Overconfidence

John on September 8, 2007 at 11:05 am

The London Times asked Richard Dawkins to review Christopher Hitchens’ Christian bashing book God is not Great. This is a bit like asking a quarterback to also be the referee, but I guess the Times wasn’t interested in anything but a stellar review full of atheist backslapping and a general air of triumphalism.

Jeremy at Parableman has some good thoughts on Dawkins’ as it relates to his own book  (which I’m reading now) and this review in particular:

Saying that Dawkins or Hitchens rants does not in any way come from an assumption that all who criticize theism are ranting. It’s simply an observation that they use very harsh language to criticize while hiding behind unfair and ignorant representations of their target rather than dealing with more representative or more reasonable positions or people. Harsh, passionate language directed against a group one is not being all that fair toward isn’t all that far from ranting.

Some examples right in this piece:

1. Thinking that someone must be a half-hearted religions apologists for thinking God isn’t some old man with a beard.
2. Calling the Bible Belt a reptilian brain, whereas the coasts are the cerebral cortex.
3. Connecting the Bush Administration with something he’s calling know-nothing theocracy, which either (a) waters down theocracy to the point of being unrecognizable or (b) amounts to real paranoia and conspiracy theorizing. See also #8 below.
4. Equating the thoughtful with those who would receive Hitchens well.
5. Presenting without argument a view about biblical reporting of events in Jesus’ life that shows no awareness of contemporary evangelical views (I don’t mean that it disagrees; he couldn’t assert what he says and be fair to those who disagree without some awareness of and response to good work by real scholars like Richard Bauckham, R.T. France, Darrell Bock, Craig Evans, and Craig Keener, who are generally recognized by skeptical biblical studies specialists as good scholars).
6. Relying on a pretty hideous straw man version of penal views of the atonement.
7. Presenting those who hold to the Ten Commandments as believing that this was God’s first revelation of any moral content to humanity and as thinking that special revelation could be the only source for any moral knowledge, when the Bible itself discusses the particular command he picks out (not to murder) long before the Ten Commandments arrive (explicitly in Genesis 9 and implicitly in Genesis 4), and the Bible itself treats the first murderer as having been responsible despite never being told not to do it (as far as the text reveals).
8. Referring to this view of interaction with God by saying “the President of the most powerful nation on earth takes his marching orders directly from God” and then connecting that point with the worst examples of religious justifications for atrocities.

Now it’s true that some of this is merely summarizing Hitchens’ views, but Dawkins does so approvingly, and he seems to think that the kind of thing he and Hitchens both do is not ranting. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not based on an accurate assessment of the most thoughtful of religious people, and it often uses pretty harsh language indiscriminately in a way that’s hard for me to see as remotely fair to those being criticized. If that’s not ranting, then surely it’s something in the ballpark.

I’d just add to #7 that Paul has an entire chapter of Romans in which he explains that the moral law is written on the heart of every person. Dawkins and Hitchens routinely invoke this in debate. If we know what’s right without the Bible, why do we need the Bible at all? What the Bible says, essentially, is that though we often know what is right we never can accomplish more than a tiny amount of it because our will has been so thoroughly corrupted.

But yes, Dawkins and Hitchens both enjoy the sound of their own voices and are having a great time burning straw men on the public stage. Notwithstanding the fact that there really are some Christians who need the straw knocked out of their heads, I suspect the overall impact will be modest.

Atheism is popular because at this moment in world history, people are afraid of religious fanatics (and with good reason). So they’re looking for mental resources to combat the threat around them and the celebrity atheists and their supporters in publishing and media have stepped in to offer their unique solution to the problem. It’s certainly not the only solution or the best one in my view, but there it is. Every dog has his day, even if he’s all bark and no bite.

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