Posted by: trev0rclark | February 8, 2009

A Project in “Intellectual Contempt”?


While I was home over break and began to familiarize myself with the various writings and viewpoints of the New Atheism and their respondents, I ran into an interesting book titled The Devil’s Delusion. It seemed clear to me that this book was a response to Dawkin’s The God Delusion, but I was interested on what grounds it would seek to fight the Dawkins book. While reading the back panel, I came across a quote (I must admit, I can’t remember whether it was from a critic or the book itself), which stated “Dawkins’ book is a project in intellectual contempt” or something similar.  I thought this to be a rather harsh statement and, though I hadn’t started to read the Dawkins book, believed that this person was probably some religious fundamentalist or unsophisticated simpleton. Thus, when I began reading The God Delusion I came with a very sympathetic ear, eager for Dawkins to prove these people wrong.

Unfortunately the first chapter, “A Deeply Religious Nonbeliever” already has problematic consequences for my early goal. His methodology, deeply rooted in rhetoric, makes his claims (many of which are legitimate points), less substantive. In this post, I’ll attempt to illustrate some of these rhetorical devices.

The first chapter is structured into two simple parts: “Deserved Respect” (where Dawkins points out concepts of God that are “reasonable”), and “Undeserved Respect” (which seeks to point out how the world lets people of faith get away with murder). The first task on Dawkins’ agenda is to take some of the great scientists who have been previously known as religious scientists, like Einstein and Hawking, and illustrate that their viewpoints more closely resemble Pantheism. Pantheism, as Dawkins explains it, is a “sexed up atheism” that poetically describes the awe-inspiring rationality of the universe as god, but does so with a firm belief that there is no real deity. By quoting Einstein, he seeks to illustrate the unfair claim that many theists make on Einstein as a person of faith. This is clear—Einstein has most certainly denied the idea of a personal God publicly on many occasions. However, Einstein did have a clear respect for the mapping of the universe, which Dawkins shares. However, the new evolutionary biologist wants to say that this “god” and “religious” language is misleading, so scientists just ought to avoid it so the incompetent theists won’t stake claim to it.

The second half of the chapter illustrates the many occasions in which religious followers have been excused of their downright absurd behavior based on the freedom of religious expression. Between the riots in the Middle East after the prophet Mohamed was depicted in a Danish cartoon, the U.S. Supreme Court allowing cults in New Mexico to use otherwise illegal hallucinogens, or a school being sued for sending a student home who had arrived with a T-shirt condemning all homosexuals to Hell, its evident that religions hide behind a very thick wall of respect. This respect, according to Dawkins, is the greatest problem facing modern thinkers who have come to the obvious conclusion that God is simply a myth. How does one appropriately criticize religion when to do so is seen as such a harsh attack on a person’s personal space? Dawkins seeks to immediately tear down this “undeserved respect” in order to approach these topics in fairness. He concludes that religious and secularists alike should be forced to explain their ideas, conclusions, and prejudices.

However, how does he intend to approach such issues? I would argue that Dawkins’ quest for truth is one buried heavily under egoism and snide rhetorical devices. Early on the preface, he immediately addresses one of the major responses he receives from the God Delusion: “I don’t believe in the God you deny.” The professor argues he is not guilty of the major logical fallacy the “straw man” (where one poorly characterizes the opposing argument in order to easily destroy it), but his first chapter he compares a clergyman’s authority on God to a fairy expert’s authority on wings. By caricaturizing religious thought, it becomes easier to dismantle. As John Lennox puts it, “No wonder you think God is a delusion!”

Additionally, Dawkins acts as a kind of intellectual bully—shaming many faithful out of their beliefs or by forcing agnostics to take sides. In the first chapter, he tells the story of how he forced one of his interviewers to admit that his Jewish religious heritage was more of a cultural phenomenon than an actual movement of faith. He will also use the logical fallacy of the “false dilemma,” where he seeks to make his readers chose between to extreme positions (he does this pretty regularly—but the most evident FD is “science or religion”).

Perhaps the most noted rhetorical device is Dawkins’ references to Einstein and Hawking, two well-known and beloved minds in the American intellectual community. By quoting these two scientists, Dawkins is hoping to make atheism seem hip, cool, or contemporary. I would argue that this could be the only benefit of quoting two first-class intellectuals, as the quotations themselves don’t really add much to the conversation philosophically, but also because the quotations are out of context and poorly characterize the viewpoints of their proponents. For example, Dawkins puts forward the notion that he and Einstein share the same kind of “religiousness,” that is, an awe-inspired respect for the universe and its organization, which would best be described as Pantheism. However, the very text which Dawkins pulls the quotes from in support of this claim also quote Einstein in saying this: “I am not an Atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a Pantheist.” In fact, many quotes from Einstein and Religion point to a much more nuanced position in the Einsteinian understanding of God. Dawkins is correct in saying that Einstein was not a theist, but it is equally as unfair to call him an atheist or a pantheist.

What does this battle over Einstein prove? The actual position of Einstein on religion is not particularly important to the conversation of God, but one must note how Dawkins approached the text. By ignoring many of Einstein’s quotes against being a proponent of atheism, Dawkins took a great deal of material in Einstein’s texts out of context in order to support his own viewpoint. It is not likely that this is a simple mistake, as the book Einstein and Religion is riddled with quotes that illustrates the great scientist’s complicated view of God. One must therefore conclude that Dawkins intentionally characterized Einstein’s viewpoints unfairly in order to move his argument forward. If his project as a writer and as a scientist is to find the buried truth, why would he do this? Does this show a certain amount of contempt for his readership? Perhaps this is what that critic was pointing to when (s)he said that Dawkins’ book was a project in “intellectual contempt.” In any case, all of these rhetorical devices should be kept in mind as we approach the remainder of the book, as well as Dawkins’ other speeches, debates, and texts this semester.


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