via Jerry Coyne
There is a video up of Michael Ruse describing a particular criticism he has of Richard Dawkins that has been getting some attention lately. It’s not exactly anything new, but it does highlight what Ruse thinks is a major problem with the “New Atheists,” particularly Dawkins, in their treatment of Christianity. In short, he thinks they fail to take seriously the arguments put forth by Christian thinkers. If that’s true, then that’s a pretty powerful criticism. Contrary to what some other people have written about this issue, it is not appropriate to simply ignore arguments by your opponents simply because you already think they’re wrong. Indeed, this is a common tactic now used by some of the pro-science and non-theistic crowd, and it is clearly wrong-headed. In fact, it is exactly the kind of argument used by creationists and fundamentalists of all sorts against various positions with which they disagree. They think that it is irrelevant what your arguments for, say, evolution are since they already know that you are wrong. They do not even need to listen. In fact, it is a predetermined conclusion that all scientific data, if it has any validity, must cohere with a literal reading of their holy book. That is how we are able to end up with absurdities like the Creation Museum (see my posts on this nonsense here, here, here, and here). And that is exactly why it is important to seriously consider the arguments of those with whom you disagree. With that in mind, if it is the case that Ruse is correct, then the New Atheists should be called out for their intellectual laziness. But I do not think that is the case at all. In fact, I think Ruse misses the point entirely, especially in terms of the intended audience of Dawkins’ books, when he levies the criticisms he does. A more severe mistake, however, is that he does exactly the thing of which he accuses Dawkins.
Let me say on the outset that I do not think Ruse is the only one who misses the point of Dawkins’ books on atheism. Lots of writers do, including other atheists. There is a clear misconception that Dawkins has intended to write some sort of complicated philosophical treatise detailing the various issues concerning the traditional arguments for God’s existence. However, this is clearly not his intent, and such clarity is evident from the kinds of treatments he gives the standard arguments along with his addressing what he thinks are the “real” arguments people use for God. Dawkins is writing for a general audience, and he addresses the general kind of arguments given by the general public. As Dawkins himself points out in various books and articles, there are so-called sophisticated theologians who, when he addresses an argument for God, complain “but that isn’t our God!” And that’s fine. But it is God for the majority of people who call themselves Christians. I have spent a lot of time around a lot of very devout Christians, I have attended more services than I can count, and I have discussed theological issues with laypeople, deacons, and ministers. Not a single one of them has ever given some “sophisticated” theological response to the various issues surrounding Christian belief. None of them have given the kinds of responses that I hear “sophisticated” theologians suggest are appropriate for Dawkins’ arguments. All of them use exactly the kind of reasoning that Dawkins addresses in books like The God Delusion. Now, does that mean that I think that there are not, in fact, any people who believe this the sophisticated God? Of course not. My point is that Dawkins is not writing for those people. There are journals that deal exclusively with that kind of material, and that kind of stuff just is not read by the general public. The vast majority of practicing Christians has no idea what “aseity” even means, and, if you told them, still would not get it without lengthy explanation. I believe that the overwhelming majority of practicing Christians would be surprised and, most likely, even upset to hear these kinds of arguments made in their name. They believe what they believe, and the fact that sophisticated theologians find those beliefs indefensible is of no consequence to them. They likely would not think that such theologians were “True Christians” themselves. In light of all that, Ruse has simply made a mistake when he talks about Dawkins’ handling of theological arguments. He has misunderstood the target audience, and, worse, he is condescending and patronizing to that audience by suggesting that their arguments are somehow not worth addressing.
That’s part of what is truly ironic about this issue. It is not Dawkins who is failing to take arguments seriously! On the contrary, Dawkins is addressing exactly those arguments and justifications used by the overwhelming majority of practicing Christians. In fact, it is the philosophers and theologians in Ruse’s camp who fail to take seriously the arguments and justifications put forth by the majority of Christians. Now, likely this is because they find such arguments naive and unsophisticated, and I would agree with them. However, that does not change the nature of the arguments themselves. They are what they are, and pretending that they are something else is condescending and, worse, exactly the kind of action of which they accuse Dawkins. It is they, not Dawkins, who have failed to take seriously the arguments used by Christians. It is they who need to reevaluate their position and come to grips with what most Christians believe.