Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Richard Dawkins: Spell-Checker

Richard Dawkins appeared on the Today program on Radio 4 today, in an ill-judged attempt to head-off an imagined Christian power-grab:


He argues that, whilst a majority of people in the UK self-identify as Christians, they are incorrect about the classification of their own beliefs. He is of the opinion that if someone cannot name certain books of the New Testament, or if they do not think that Jesus was the son of God, they cannot really call themselves a 'Christian' at all.

Dawkins' narrow definition of Christianity seems to exclude all but the most fundamentalist zealots, a fact that belies his own atheistic fundamentalism.

He cannot see the vast and plentiful broad-lands of spiritualities and private faiths, or the accommodations for religious sense cosseted within a matrix of reason common in academics and children alike; he cannot see that reverence of a religious tradition can actually breed ignorance of it (think of Latin in Churches) and that apathy about one's spirituality is so widespread it would qualify as the Great British pass-time, if only it passed any time.

He seems to think that you are only a Christian if you kill people for working on the Sabbath, stone people for saying 'Yahweh', would send your own daughters out to be raped rather than see men get buggered and can recite all the Psalms from memory.

Dawkins, as a fundamentalist atheist, has so caricatured 'The Christian' that he will only accept his own fundamentalist version as being the true Christian. To be fair to him, there are plenty such wack-jobs in Americaland and he spends a lot of time over there. But here in Britain these creatures are a far rarer sight, which is why what he's saying is so self-defeating.

Telling someone that they are not what they say they are is calling them 'a liar' or 'stupid' or 'a fake'. People don't react well to these sorts of insults. Dawkins might say, with some justification, that to be a Christian requires some core beliefs and knowledge. To say 'Christians generally believe Jesus is the son of God" is defensible and sensible. It is quite another thing to say, to the man (lets call him 'Syd') who thinks Jesus was a great guy who lived a good life that Syd wishes in some ways to emulate, that he cannot call himself a Christian.

Oh, but he can, Richard. If Syd says "I'm a Christian because I think Jesus' message was a good one, but I don't believe in supernatural powers or an afterlife or God" then Syd's a Christian. Admittedly, Syd's a very difficult Christian to argue against using science, because he's not making truth claims that can be verified or shown to be absurd. Syd's opinion of a man and his teachings is not quantifiable data, not a pillar of the all-American culture war; it is too elusive a target for Dawkins' barbs.

This is a direct result of Dawkins' own literal interpretation of the Bible. He seems to believe that this, or any other, text can be interpreted in one way alone. The ridiculousness of this view is amplified as it is applied to parables - stories that are expressly meant to be open to interpretation.

Dawkins has no background in the philosophy of religion, so I am well used to his re-hashed and mangled arguments against the existence of God from circa-1760, but I didn't know his idea of textual analysis went no further than a spell-check. He is, in that regard, no more sophisticated than the mega-church charlatans he battles in the US.

Please, Richard, tell the Americans that they can keep their culture war. If you want any further reading, look up 'hermeneutics' instead of reading the results of a study you wrote, carried out by an organisation named after you, that just so happens to produce data that backs up your point of view.

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