Thursday, December 14, 2006

A.C. Grayling attacks Terry Eagleton

A poster on my yahoo group kindly brought A.C. Grayling's reply to Terry Eagleton's deprecatory review of The God Delusion to my attention. The original review and Grayling's letter are in the London Review of Books.

Grayling's letter is probably the most embarressing document to fall from the pen of a so-called philosopher since Ayn Rand hung up her quill. One of his points needs to be annihilated because it shows Grayling misunderstands science, experiment, reason and argument. In his review, Eagleton takes Dawkins to task for ignoring almost all the best theology and religious scholarship in favour of bashing fundamentalists and erecting strawmen. Grayling says that Dawkins is quite justified in neglecting any sort of academic theology because, as he writes,

if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one's character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies.

Well no. Professor Grayling seems to imagine that Dawkins has carried out a rational investigation of religion by concentrating on easy targets. he hasn't. If I wanted to carry out such an investigation of astrology, I would not pick up the Daily Mail and analyse the mutterings of Jonathan Cainer, their resident sage. Rather, I would research the topic and seek out the best possible exemplars that I could find. I would ask whether sidereal or tropical astrology gave the best chance of a positive result, or whether I should prefer planetary astrology to sun signs. I would give astrology every chance to win me over, subject to not fiddling the results. To test astrology, I must allow it to present its most promising case, rather than only paying attention tobog-standard horoscopes on the grounds that most people just read their sun signs.

Dawkins only investigates the religious equivalent of a tabloid horoscope and Grayling thinks this is fine. This sort of reasoning is a disgrace from people who claim to be at the forefront of rational investigation. They wouldn't know what it was if it bit them on the nose.

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


Daniel Schealler said...


Now here is a blast from the past!

Stumbled on this during random Googling - I was trying to find any kind of response from A C Grayling on the recent, somewhat one-sided storm-in-a-teacup between John Shook and Jerry Coyne. There might be a blog post for you guys on that topic.

Back to the topic of this thread, however: Theology.

I'm (clearly) no expert. But occasionally a believer will direct me to a theologian or a theological argument. Kalaam Cosmological, Ontological, Fine-tuning, and (urgh) Pascal's Wager seem to be the most commonly recurring themes.

Whenever I pick up a work of theology I start out feeling a mix of curiosity, trepidation (this might be the one to prove me wrong, oh no!) and an uncertain amount of intellectual bloodlust.

Whenever I put down a work of theology, I'm usually left with a mix of frustration at having wasted my time, along with a certain amount of smug schadenfreude.

Each piece of theology I've read has had multiple flaws; but there is one flaw in particular that I've found to be common to all of them.

They have all assumed God's existence as a premise. Oftentimes as a hidden premise, particularly in the cases of arguments from analogy. But all the same, the assumption is there.

Well... To be fair, I suppose that last statement isn't entirely true. Pascal's Wager doesn't contain that particular fallacy of assumption. But there are plenty of reasons for dismissing the Wager anyway - it's not the most inspiring of exceptions.

Any theological argument that relies on this fallacy can only become persuasive after someone is a believer. Such arguments are not themselves good reasons to believe.

Again: I'm hardly an expert on theology, far from it. I'm novice-armchair level at best. I don't deny the existence of good theological arguments that don't commit this fallacy. I just don't know what they are.

That said - I've often asked believers to give me an example of some theology that doesn't fall prey to a fallacy of assumption in this way. Mostly they give me a blank look, being even less familiar with theology than I am.

The ones that do give me a response usually give the same old dusty arguments I've come across time and time again. They might be polished up in academese, but the shape of the furniture doesn't change just because you drape an attractive sheet over it.

If a theological argument assumes God's existence as a premise, then I don't need to engage with it to dismiss it for being logically unsound as an argument that attempts to conclude with God's existence.

If there are any theological works that don't commit these fallacies of assumption, where should I look? Again: I don't deny that such an argument might exist. It's just that no believer has ever offered me one yet, and I've been asking for a while now.

Also: If a believer doesn't require an understanding of advanced theology to justify their belief, then why must atheists require a similar understanding to justify their non-belief?

Very interested to hear any responses.

Daniel Schealler said...
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Daniel Schealler said...
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Daniel Schealler said...
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Henrik said...

Not that I'm an expert either, but in what sense do, say, the Kalam and the fine tuning arguments assume God's existence as a premise? I've never seen God's existence as a premise to any of these arguments, so clearly either I or you have misunderstood these arguments completely.