I believe in my left foot
October 22, 2006
Strange article in the London Review of Books by one Terry Eagleton lambasting Richard Dawkins.
Starts like this:
“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding.”
I like the ‘in one sense’; in another sense, to my mind the more sensible sense, they are the best-equipped to understand what theology is about since they have not surrendered their reasoning powers to a blind faith in God.
Eagleton, who is obviously a very clever fellow, develops his argument further:
“What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope?”
Apparently unless you have you are not qualified to address the issues raised by theology. Measured by this yardstick I am hardly qualified to open my mouth on anything as I have read neither Mr Dawkins nor Harry Potter and the last time I read Aquinas I was only just out of short trousers.
Mr. Eagleton then turns to the reason-faith question.
“Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. ….Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain…. While faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it.”
Sure, we all believe things we can’t prove for ourselves. I believe that the North Pole exists though I’ve never been there and that I’m in some ways intellectually superior to my cats. I even (against all the odds) believe in true, reciprocated love. But I’m pretty sure that either someone else can come up with good evidence for these things or that they fit the facts as I’m aware of them. So far any omnipotent omni-benevolent beings out there have been noticeably slow to make any signs in my direction.
It’s on this point that the very brainy Mr Eagleton really loses me, when he demonstrates the reasonableness of believing in God.
“Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”
I hope one day that someone will explain all this to me. In the meantime I will continue to exercise my mind on matters of more consequence like why my bike makes a funny scrunch scrunch scrunch noise every time I change gear.