Friday, July 13, 2007

Alister McGrath on Calvin: It's Polemic but I Like It

Polemic appears to be the literature of choice at the moment. No one should be surprised that Christian responses to Dawkins and Hitchens have been rather polemical in themselves. Both sides use rhetorical devices that include accusing the other of being ignorant, not checking their facts and erecting straw men. These tactics all go back at least as far as Cicero and probably to Democritus.

A correspondent called Dan Bye has alerted me to some work he has done on Alister McGrath’s polemic The Twilight of Atheism. Now, less than two years after it came out, McGrath’s book looks like one of the least appropriately titled books of the decade. It’s right up there with Glassman and Hassett’s Dow 36,000 which came out in 1999, just before the tech-bubble burst.
Bye correctly shows that McGrath makes some mistakes in his comments on the fictitious quotation from Calvin referring to Copernicus. Regular readers will remember that the commonly quoted words of Calvin from his Commentary on Genesis “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus over that of the Holy Spirit?” were not written by him. Bye is not claiming that Calvin actually wrote these words. Rather, in trying to find out where the quotation came from, he shows that McGrath praises Thomas Kuhn for tracking down a source that Kuhn knows nothing about and, arguably, paraphrases Bertrand Russell unfairly. For me, the most interesting point that comes out of all this was to find that Kuhn believed Andrew Dickson White’s utterly unreliable History of the Warfare between Science and Theology to be a valid historical authority.

You might shrug. But Bye lets McGrath have it with both barrels for not having an iron grip on his facts while simultaneously accusing others (well, atheists) of being shoddy with the truth. The point is well made although we remain within the bounds of rhetoric rather than genuine argument. If Dawkins had made such a mistake, would I point it out as gleefully as Bye castigates McGrath? Of course. I’ve probably done it already. Would I rather that McGrath hadn’t made any slip ups. Absolutely, although I know how hard it is to eliminate errors completely.

Bye also discovered a possible source of the quotation in some early-modern controversial religious literature. It is ironic perhaps that this quote, so often used as an atheist weapon, should have been created for religious debate. Even three hundred years ago they didn’t check their facts when writing polemic.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

No comments: