Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book Review: The Dawkins Letters

The Dawkins Letters is a short book by David Robertson, a Christian minister and a man with a serious chip on his shoulder.  This is evident before you open the book: the blurb on the jacket makes veiled accusations against Richard Dawkins for some unfathomable reason.  You see, Robertson feels he is “the intelligent Christian response” (he actually says this of himself) to The God Delusion and he posted an open letter on his website explaining some of his objections to that book.  As the book jacket says “This, somehow, found itself onto Dawkins’ own website”.  By this, of course, the text means that Dawkins linked to it.  There’s nothing nefarious about this, despite what the jacket seems to suggest; the RDF site frequently links to articles featuring views opposed to Richard’s and quite rightly so.  The letter was open, after all.  You’d have thought Robertson would have enjoyed the traffic and the publicity; his letter surely reached an enormously wider audience than it would other have done.  He did not.  He objected to some of the comments the post generated.  I find it hard to get excited about comments on websites.  At least, not for long.  But Robertson was offended by the harsh tone of some of the comments and was prompted to write The Dawkins Letters, which contains the original open letter and some other ones, which address other points made in The God Delusion and in the comments to his original letter.

Robertson’s chip is evident again from page 1.  His passive aggressive tone is wearisome and I’ll try not to dwell on it, but it’s worth mentioning that for someone who seems to be so concerned with tone, his own is rather poor.  He begins by stressing that unlike Dawkins, he isn’t a famous professor with no fancy book-learnin’, but…. well…. nothing.  This is another theme we encounter from Robertson all along.  It’s frequently necessary to read paragraphs several times because he doesn’t actually make a point.  This opening paragraph seems genuinely to be a snipe at Dawkins for having made a success of his life, which is surreal.  Actually, that’s unfair.  Robertson also launches straight into a lie.  He says that Dawkins has stated that he will not have discussions with people who believe in the supernatural.  This is breathtakingly, self-evidently untrue.  In his various television programmes, for example, Dawkins does exactly that, for all to see.  So Robertson’s characterisation of Dawkins as some high-falutin’ arrogant professor who won’t speak to dissenters is simply and deliberately false.  Perhaps Robertson is referring to Richard’s policy of not publically debating creationists on the subject of evolution.  This is a sensible policy on Richard’s part.  First, as he’s stated, it looks a hell of a lot better on their CV than on his.  Second, it doesn’t really get us anywhere, especially since creationists invariably claim victory regardless of the actual outcome. Third, they frequently cheat by misrepresenting the nature of the debate or changing the subject after it has been agreed, informing the creationist right away and the evolutionist only at the last moment.  So you can see why Dawkins doesn’t debate creationists.  But he does speak to believers in the supernatural and Robertson’s claim that he doesn’t is simply a lie.

I feel I’ve laboured this point rather a lot, but it’s important to remember that this is halfway down page one.  It’s hardly a great start.

His next ploy is a rather tortured analogy.  Dawkins speaks of people who have come to their atheism through reason as having had their consciousness raised.  This is demonstrable.  For instance, Richard’s own gradual letting go of religion was fuelled in part by his realisations that religions all contradict each other so they can’t all be right and that religious people are almost always members of their parents’ religion.  This is a realisation about religions as a whole rather than a regurgitated view from within one.  It is consciousness demonstrably raised.  Robertson disagrees, likening the claim that atheists have raised consciousness to the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  That’s all.  He doesn’t explain why Dawkins is wrong and he’s right.  He just tells the tale and says “You see? That’s atheists that is.” and leaves it at that.  Well, leaves it at that other than to mischaracterise Dawkins’ position again.  He attributes to Dawkins the view that atheists are necessarily more intelligent, rational and honest than religious people.  A view, needless to say, that Dawkins does not hold.  This is characteristic of Robertson’s arguments by hyperbole.

After a little more pointless sniping including holding Dawkins accountable for what other people have said about The God Delusion, Robertson reaches his point: he didn’t like the book.  While he agrees that it was well and passionately written, he feels that logically and intellectually it isn’t up to snuff, that Dawkins’ arguments are of ‘sixth-form-schoolboy variety’ and he complains that in an anti-religious book, Dawkins has the temerity to say anti-religious things.  And here we are on page 3 and Robertson is already comparing Dawkins to Hitler.  What is the nature of this comparison?  The Nazis put out propaganda blaming Jews for all the ills in the world.  Dawkins, according to Robertson, blames religion for the majority of the ills in the world (he doesn’t) and therefore it’s fair to compare Dawkins with Hitler.  It’s starting to look as though perhaps we can’t trust Robertson’s assessment of Dawkins’ logic since his own seems to be of a rather low standard, but we have a great opportunity here.  Robertson is going to take apart Dawkins’ logic!  Since he’s the intelligent Christian response, he alone has seen the flaws in Dawkins’ logic and he’s going to reveal them to we, the readerm in a tiny little book!  I bet you can hardly wait.

He doesn’t do this in his first letter though.  He gloats that sometimes atheists become religious, uses his own personal experience of not letting go of religion to show that it’s actually perfectly easy for anyone at all (except Muslims) to leave religion and does a fair bit of accusation by supposition: for example, he asks whether Dawkins would disown his daughter if she became religious, clearly intending to suggest he would.  And what if he did, by the way?  What point would Robertson actually be making?  He doesn’t say.  He engages in a bit of cherry-picking as well, to answer Dawkins’ point that atheists are discriminated against.  One of his examples is Dawkins’ television programme The Root of all Evil?  When has anyone, asks Robertson, had the opportunity to write a book decrying the evils of atheism?  This inability to understand even the playing field, let alone the game, is another of Robertson’s hallmarks.  That programme was in part a response to the institutionalised nature of Christianity in the UK.  The school system is dominated by religion.  We have a national church.  We have programmes like Thought of the Day which are (almost always) restricted to religious commenters.  Whenever a moral issue is debated in the news, the first person journalists contact is a vicar, as though a vicar has special insight into morality.  I doubt that many atheists in the UK feel oppressed, but we are acutely aware of religion’s enormous and unwanted influence on our lives.  Robertson ignores the fact that the commissioning of The Root of all Evil? was surely based on the enormous commercial success of The God Delusion, as well as his past experiences and success at writing and broadcasting.  I have little doubt that a similarly successful book on the evils of atheism by someone with a similar media profile would attract a television company.  Besides, it’s simply untrue to say that there are no recent TV programmes which are not religious or even anti-atheist in tone.  We’ve had Songs of Praise since before I was born.  The BBC recently produced Around the World in 80 Faiths (not until after Robertson wrote his book, however).  I recall with some dismay programmes by deluded individuals who claim to have found the remains of Noah’s Ark or that the Turing Shroud belonged to Jesus.  I seem to remember that Tony Blair made a show about his faith.  He certainly spoke a lot about it in the News for weeks, and so did Ann Widdicome when she converted to Catholicism.

And on the other side, we have one programme by Richard Dawkins, yet Robertson conjures up an elaborate conspiracy of atheist propaganda.

He ends the first letter, as you’d expect, by comparing Dawkins’ atheism to religious fundamentalism. This has been debunked with much eye-rolling many times and I hardly need to comment except to say that atheism is a position of evidence: specifically that there’s none at all for any god and therefore no good reason to believe in one.  It requires no faith except in the highly dubious sense of faith in the power of evidence.  Religion is a position of faith and could not be more different.  Religion denies, ignores or lies about evidence to make it fit their facts, whereas if proper evidence for god turned up then I have little doubt that the majority of atheists would admit they might have been wrong.  I would, although it’s difficult to imagine what evidence could exist that was sufficiently convincing.  A 900 foot Jesus loudly announcing he’s the son of god wouldn’t do it.  This isn’t because I’m closed-minded, but because such an extraordinary claim would require spectacularly extraordinary evidence.  I’m happy to admit that I’m unsure what could constitute parsimonious evidence for the existence of a god.  Hopefully I’ll know it when I see it.

I’ll deal with Robertson’s second letter shortly.

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