Thursday, May 15, 2008

Response to Dave L

This is a response to some of Dave L's criticism of my recent post on Dawkins. His criticisms are in the comments.

I hope I represent his position correctly, but if not I'm sure he'll correct me.

Dave L charges that I did not bother to remind readers that elsewhere Dawkins discusses an evolutionary explanation for morality. Dave L wrote:
I'd say you did pretend that that is Dawkins' only argument that he put in his book; your post's title is, 'Is that all there is?' for Chrissakes. If you are referring to three specific pages of his book, and you ignore even the other pages in the very same section, then duh, yea, that's all there is, but it's very deceptive and again close to a quote-mine to do so.

You said, "The counter theory is that morality evolved. Dawkins did not refer to any of the actual theories...,". Are you trying to imply that your second sentence does not refer in any way to the former? It must not, since he specifically talks about morality evolving.
There is some truth in that, but it is a technical admission only. At the start of my post, I wrote "let's zero in on this section." I don't know how I could be clearer. And contrary to what Dave L asserts I did not ignore anything in that section (pp. 259-267) that pertains to a different argument. (More about what I did ignore in that section, anon.)

Dawkins created a subdivision of his own text, and I found it to be a particularly odious subsection, and so I went after it. I am under no obligation to remind people of the obvious, that elsewhere Dawkins supports evolutionary explanations, which is tantamount to the absurd requirement that I remind readers that Dawkins supports evolution. But true, to be more precise, I could have written: "The counter theory is that morality evolved. Dawkins did not refer to this theory in this section.".

Furthermore, this criticism is diversionary. I think it is clear that the gist of my post was not a desire to claim the manifestly untrue: "Gee, Dawkins doesn't even know that his camp claims morality evolved! What a bozo!" but rather to attack the simpleminded argument he attributed to Christianity.

A question for Dave L. May I assume that when people criticize God's cruelty in the Old Testament, when they take a section from the conquest of Canaan to demonstrate how "nasty" God is, that you are consistent in your moral outrage? That is, do you insist that they remind their readers of other places in scripture where God appears to be nice?

Actually I did leave some things out of my criticism of that section, but it would have just resulted in pointing out more of Dawkins's poor argumentation. There is nothing in that section that rescues him.

For example, to bolster his argument that Christians behave under fear of punishment or hope of reward, Dawkins quotes Einstein: "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed."

Indeed, Einstein is correct though not as Dawkins intends. Christian theology affirms the point over and over. One nearly universal claim across denominations is that salvation is by grace, not by works. Another is that God sanctifies believers, believers do not sanctify themselves by good deeds. Another is that the Holy Spirit guides us, he does not tag along to watch where we go.

Dawkins wrote his question, placed it in the mouth of a virtual patsy Christian, and provides his fatal response. Well, good scholarship demands that he should at least let his imaginary fall guy say: wait a minute Professor, that's not Christian doctrine, there is actual Christian doctrine known as Common Grace. That is our real response, not the canard you invoked.

And then Dawkins could try to address what is wrong with the doctrine of Common Grace. But he couldn't be bothered. Cue the Courtier's Reply.

[Aside: the Wikipedia explanation of Common Grace is pretty good. One excerpt:
In man's conscience - The apostle Paul says that when unbelieving Gentiles "who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, . . . They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them" (Rom. 2:14-15, ESV). By God's common grace fallen mankind retains a conscience indicating the differences between right and wrong. This may be based on the fact that human beings, though fallen in sin, retain a semblance of the "image of God" with which they were originally created (Gen. 9:6: 1 Cor. 11:7).
(end aside)]

Dawkins also quotes Shermer, who writes "If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder', you reveal yourself as an immoral person, 'and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you'. If, on the other hand, you would admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good."

Same bad argument; same boat missed, same caricature of Christian theology. As a Christian I do not say that in the absence of God I would commit heinous crimes, but rather everyone would. Christianity does not teach that Christians behave because they are under surveillance, but rather that Dawkins behaves because God has given him a moral compass.

Dawkins also repeats his own argument, writing (p. 259):
It seems to me that to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no charity, no generosity,…
In fact, I should have led with this quote because it is surpassingly stupid. If God vanished from the world, then yes. If belief in God vanished, then no, because the answer, again, is not that baseline morality comes from being under surveillance, but from Common Grace.

If Dawkins is correct, then a Christian mantra should be: look at the repulsive atheists. They never do charitable acts! They don't love their children! They cheat at every opportunity! They would steal the possessions of a beggar without giving it a second thought! In fact, what you are more likely to hear in Christian discussions is a lamenting and embarrassment that in many cases regarding charity and behavior we often don't measure up to the atheists.

Now a little later in the section (p. 264), Dawkins admits, more or less, that his imaginary Christian was perhaps a wee bit too dumb. He ramps up the argument to the ever popular "only religion can provide absolute standards of morality." But this argument, which is Dawkins's way of bending over backwards to make sure he addresses a "sophisticated" religious response, is equally bad and subject to the same criticism: it does not resemble actual Christian theology.

Dave L wrote:
Again, you don't seem to dispute that there are many theists (and face it, there are many theists who are not even close to being as intellectual about their theism as you are) who mean this question in the 'policeman' sense, and Dawkins makes it clear that that is the version he is answering to in the section you zeroed in on.
Then why didn't he use that question as his section header?

I can only speak from my experience. I have ready many books and attended many sermons and Sunday Schools and have, most importantly, read the bible. While there is no question that God is watching, while there is no question that it behooves us to remember that God is watching, the unambiguous teaching is that of grace, not merit. I have never read anywhere nor heard in any sermon state: "behave because God is watching!" but rather "strive to be an imitator of Christ." No doubt such literature exists, but if so it does not reflect mainstream teaching, and mainstream teaching is what Dawkins should address. All those bracelets remind people to ask themselves What Would Jesus Do? not Be verrryyy careful, I'm watching your every move!

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