Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Emperor's New Cloths: the Atheist Version

By way of Underverse, I just came across an interesting defense of Richard Dawkins, written a few years ago, by PZ Myers of Pharyngula, titled the courtier’s reply.

Myers retells the story of the Emperor's New Cloths in the following fashion:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.
Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

While this argument should give one pause before replying to Dawkins type attacks on theology with a simple” how dare he,” I think Myers, like Dawkins, misses the point. It is one thing to attack theism; intelligent people acting in good faith are going to have different opinions as to the validity of the cosmological, the teleological, the ontological and other such arguments for the existence of God. Apart from this, there is also the separate issue of how one treats the various theologians throughout history, who have argued for the existence of God and have built systems of thought around the hypothesis that there is a God. One can reject the claim that God exists, yet still treat those who believed in God with respect.

As a historian it is of the upmost importance to me that we treat that we study with respect. This applies even to people whose values we disagree with. I do a lot of work dealing on medieval and Early Modern Christian mysticism and scholarship. I have no interest in attacking mystics such as Bridget of Sweden and Teresa de Avila or scholars such as Adrian Reland and Johannes Meyer. Nor do I have any interest in explaining them away through some cheap patronizing form psychological analysis. I want to understand them on their own terms and I will always treat them respectfully as equals. If I believed anything less about them I would not be studying this field.

In this respect Dawkins is a threat not just to theism but to any form of credible intellectual history. Like the clergyman who believes that his high school science education qualifies him to talk about science, Dawkins seems to believe that his high school history education qualifies him to talk about history.

I would recommend to Myers and to the rest of Dawkins’ followers that they read the late J.L Mackie’s the Miracle of Theism. Mackie was an atheist and this book is a scholarly attack on traditional arguments for the existence of God. That being said Mackie treats the thinkers that he attacks, from Anselm to Aquinas to Maimonides to Hans Kung, with respect.

No comments: