Your pragma ran over my dogma

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, has discovered that Richard Dawkins is actually a liberal Anglican (see her blog post for more).

Meanwhile, Andrew Rilstone has been writing his Sceptic’s Guide to Richard Dawkins, a lengthy series of articles which, among other things, re-iterates other reviewers’ arguments that Dawkins is not addressing the sort of God that Christians actually believe in (by the way, The Valve and respectable astrophysicist Sean Caroll both have good responses to Eagleton’s review).

I think that this argument is one of Rilstone’s weaker ones (he’s on much stronger ground pointing out Dawkins’s gaffes when talking about the details of religion). Dawkins responds to critics who say he only speaks about unsophisticated verisons of Christianity by saying that understated religion is numerically negligible. I agree, but my perception may be influenced by the circles I moved in when I was a Christian. As an evangelical, I believed in a personal, supernatural (in the sense of “beyond or outside nature”) God who created the universe (using evolution as a tool, admittedly, as I’d not entirely taken leave of my senses). That’s just the sort of God that Dawkins has in his sights. While there are lots of Christians who aren’t evangelicals, my perception was and is that most of them believe similar sorts of things. Yet Rilstone says he and many Christians believe something else, something more subtle. isn’t very helpful in determining who’s right, since it’s hard to link denominational affiliation to a place on the spectrum between “God is the existential ground of our being” (or Gledhill’s bizarre “God is String Theory”) and “God is a white-bearded daddy in the sky”. I’d be interested to know of any other surveys which could help out here.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter how many people believe in the “existential ground of our being” version of God, because if that’s the strongest version, that’s the one an atheist has to beat. However, Dawkins is not writing philosophy, but polemic. If you want to change the world, you’d better aim at where most believers are starting from. If you don’t make them atheists but do move them towards more understated religion, that’s at least some sort of progress (although if you’re a true New Atheist, you want them to abandon religion entirely, of course).

I must confess that I have very little idea about what this moderate religion actually asserts, or how one would practice it while knowing that you’re basically making it up as you go along. Rilstone argues that God is more like an author than a fellow character in our universe, but this does not seem to excuse God from titles like “creator” or “person”, which puts you right back in the path of Dawkins’s argument that such a creator is itself complex enough to require further explanation.

Gledhill has a different sort of moderation. When she gets excited about Dawkins’s concession that there might be a gigantic intelligence in the 11th dimension (my layman’s understanding of string theory is that it’d actually have to be a very small intelligence, but never mind), she’s so keen to hear Dawkins talk in those terms that she misses his statement that such an intelligence would need some explanation like evolution, and that such an intelligence is a very long way from the Christian conception of God, whether it’s my old one or Rilstone’s author. Whatever they are, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.

I think Rilstone gets closer to the heart of moderate Christianity when he says that Dawkins thinks religion is all about belief, when it’s really about practice, or cultus as Rilstone puts it (gjm11‘s response to that is worth reading). Rilstone writes of Dawkins’s eulogy addressed directly to Douglas Adams in The God Delusion as the sort of religious practice that Dawkins fails to understand in the rest of the book.

When Dawkins writes to his dead friend, or Feynman to his dead wife (“Please excuse my not mailing this – but I don’t know your new address”), you’d need a heart of stone to be unmoved, or to berate these scientists for their departure from rationality.

But suppose that they continued to build a practice around writing to their lost friends, an edifice of thought to explain how their friends could read the letters, and a society they could go along to every week to meet with other people who also write letters to the dead. We might regard that as a little odd, and question them about the evidence for the dead reading their letters. Suppose some of them responded that, on reflection, they weren’t really sure their letters were really read by their intended recipients, but they were carrying on with the society anyway. That’s where the religious moderates lose me, because I do not understand on what basis they continue. God is dead. Best to move on, I think.

8 Comments on "Your pragma ran over my dogma"

  1. But suppose that they continued to build a practice around writing to their lost friends, an edifice of thought to explain how their friends could read the letters…
    I think writing letters to dead people is fine. Although rationally we know they won’t read them we might find it comforting. Our brains are hardwired by evolution to find certain things comforting and certain things upsetting even though rationally it might not make sense. As long as there are no serious consequences of doing the irrational thing I see no good reason not to do so.

    Ultimately a society where people only behave in ways which are rational might be preferable, but to achieve this we’d either need people to be less happy or to genetically engineer all the irrationality out of people (which might be a good thing).


    1. I don’t think it’s wrong to continue to write letters, I just find it strange that someone would continue do so, and to make an entire system based around that, all the while knowing (or at least suspecting) that they’re making this stuff up.

      Where it does become wrong is when the society decides that Binker has been writing back and hates fags, or whatever.


      1. Creating a system around it isn’t inherently bad either as long as you realise what you’re doing isn’t actually *working* (e.g. dead people reading the letters). For instance, I went through a long period of not walking on cracks in the pavement because I felt it was unlucky, or even now I try not to open a packet of crisps ‘upside down’ because “all the luck will fall out”. I know these things are irrational, and generally I try to change myself so I stop doing them. If I continued to do them but realised they’re just some stupid thing I was told when I was a kid and aren’t really true, but did them anyway because it stopped me feeling distressed then I think that would be ok.

        So perhaps I don’t think these people are quite as strange as you do. As long as they realise the true nature of what is going on.

        It’s clearly very bad if Binker starts saying things back. It’s also bad (more generally) if people doing irrational things start to believe they’re no longer irrational, and really really bad when they start to try to encourage/impose their irrational beliefs on the rest of society.


        1. Are irrational rituals to relieve anxiety OK?

          The problem is the sheer amount of time and effort taken up by these kind of rituals when taken to extremes, for example in obsessive compulsive disorder.

          Quoting from :

          “To some degree OCD-type symptoms are probably experienced at one time or another by most people, especially in times of stress. However, the illness can have a totally devastating effect on work, social life and personal relationships. The World Health Organisation (WHO) even ranks OCD as the tenth most disabling illness of any kind, in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life.”

          “in general, sufferers experience repetitive, intrusive and unwelcome thoughts, images, impulses and doubts which … cause the person to perform repetitive compulsions in a vain attempt to relieve themselves of the obsessions and neutralise the fear. …

          “Sufferers try to fight these thoughts with mental or physical rituals…

          “Most sufferers know that their thoughts and behaviour are irrational and senseless, but feel incapable of stopping them. This has a significant impact on their confidence and self-esteem and as a result, their careers, relationships and lifestyles.”



          1. Hello mysterious S.

            Are irrational rituals to relieve anxiety OK?
            Yes, unless… the sheer amount of time and effort taken up by these kind of rituals [are] taken to extremes.

            Also, “irrational rituals” != OCD.

            I was at a debate recently where one of the debaters asked the audience “How many of you have kissed a photo?” About 80% of the audience put their hands up (me included). His point was that it’s part of being human to do ‘irrational’ things. Most irrational things that we do are not harmful.


            1. I’m pw201’s S only I didn’t log in.

              Most of our everyday lives is irrational in some sense I suppose and kissing a photograph sounds fine to me.

              By irrational rituals I was thinking of things like:

              – not standing on pavement cracks because you’ll get eaten by bears
              – leaping into bed from a long way away so the tigers underneath won’t get you
              – making bargains like “If I touch every railing all the way down the street then it will be a good day”
              – kissing a photograph every morning to ensure that you won’t get run over on the way to work
              – sacrificing a goat every Thursday so that the crops will be good, [despite knowing rationally that goats and weather patterns are not related in a simple way]

              ie, linking the repeated performance of an action to something it’s really not related to at all EVEN THOUGH YOU KNOW THIS. Most people do this sometimes, especially in childhood, but even if it’s not taken to OCD-like extremes, it still has a cost.


      2. I think you have to ask why people write letters and is it for the reasons that everyone supposes? I should preface this with “I am an atheist” and I used to be a councillor. My Grandmother died eight years ago this year, I still write to her, not because I have any faith of belief that my grandmother will read them or is capable in any way of understanding what I am saying or even still exists in any form. I do not write the letters for her, I write them for me. You could accuse me of playing a game of “Lets pretend” and in many ways I guess that I am. But in my head I am having a one sided conversation with someone that I related to in a particular way because I don’t feel that talking to anyone else will allow me to say the words I want to say. Words that I need to get out of myself for myself. I think that this is the same basic mistake that people make when dealing with grief, people assume that you are grieving for the person who has passed on, but this is not so, you are grieving for yourself, it is you who will miss that person’s company. If you are religious then presumably you believe that your fiend has gone to a better place, if you are an atheist then you know that your friend is no longer capable of comprehending any grief or sadness, you may also grieve that they will never again experience joy but as they no longer know what that is this is futile. And so I do not see that writing a eulogy to a dead friend is any more strange or inconsistent with my beliefs than going to see “The Ten Commandments” and enjoying it, for a moment I am suspending my disbelief isn’t that what I’m suppose to do when looking at magic or art? This is the problem I have with the argument that Dawkins secretly likes the creation story because he likes Bach, why can Dawkins not suspend his disbelief for the purposes of entertainment? I have to try to do this every time my girlfriend makes me watch “Big Brother”, I have to pretend that I don’t hate reality television. I do have problems with “The God delusion” but the ones outlined in Andrew Rilstone’s article are not they.


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