A point well missed, and then some…

Stephen Hawking’s foreword to a ‘A Brief History of Time’ contains a brief but quite illuminating note on the attitude of the publishing industry towards ‘popular’ science books, one in which he relates how he was advised by the editor assigned to his book that each mathematical equation he incorporated into the text would cut his ‘audience’ (and his sales) by half.

In the end, Hawking made do with only one equation, Einstein’s famous mass-energy equation E=MC2, and the book went on to become an international best-seller. Quite how many people actually read the book, finished it, and understood its content is unknown (I did, but then I started the book from the position having a pretty good grounding in physics, anyway, so I’m probably not that representative of the book’s total audience), but one suspects that figure to be far less that the book’s sales as, even when presented in a simplified form and stripped of its complex mathematical abstractions, cosmology is still a tricky subject to grasp well and one that requires a considerable amount of imagination.

It’s been noted before that there are a few bloggers out there who’re prone to the occasional sense of humour failure (read the last paragraph), not least Tom Hamilton, who should perhaps give being a little less sensible a try from time to time.

Tom seems to be a bit of a snit over my recent snark at Jonathan Derbyshire for taking a horribly pretentious and desperately over-intellectualised shot at Richard Dawkins and his current best-seller, ‘The God Delusion‘. Do go and read Tom’s comments, please. They’re well worth reading as an object lesson in the dangers of taking yourself far too seriously.

Tom’s complaint, such as it is, seems to be that I didn’t put forward a ‘good argument’ in response to Derbyshire’s comments on Dawkin’s book and resorted instead to taking the piss in this passage:

Dawkins’ arguments in the ‘God Delusion’ may well be philosophically unsatisfying, but then he is writing for an audience, some of whom may well own precisely two books – The Bible and (if they have children) The Children’s Illustrated Bible.

Either way, they’re unlikely give a toss about whether Dawkin’s ignores “the Wittgensteinian dilemmas” in his book, largely because many of them have never even heard of Wittgenstein, save for a few fans of Monty Python who may know that he played in midfield for the German Philosopher’s XI behind a front two of Heidegger and Nietzche.

And there’s no denying that I did, indeed, take the piss – but that doesn’t mean either that there isn’t a good underlying argument in there. In fact there are several ‘good arguments’ in there if you take the time to look for them.

Whatever else might be said of the The God Delusion, the simple fact remains that Dawkins, in writing that book, was writing for a popular audience. Many in that audience will have only the vaguest of notions as to who Wittgenstein was and what he might have been about (aside from man-marking Plotinus) and most of those are unlikely to give a shit about him or his work anyway – a good test of that argument, if it could be contrived, would be to put a Wikipedia search box at the end of Derbyshire’s article and see just how many of those stumbling across his remarks wound up having to look him (Wittgenstein) up just to figure out exactly what Derbyshire was maundering on about.

It’s not necessarily the case that Dawkins’ audience for the God Delusion are incapable of understanding Wittgenstein, although I’d venture that many would find his work, like that of most philosophers, to be overly abstract, obtuse and pretty intractable – and the same could be said for most philosophers and philosopical works. It’s rather more the case that a large proportion of that audience simply don’t see the relevance of Wittgenstein (and his arguments) to the overall pattern of their daily lives, lives in which they get on perfectly well without him, while Dawkins, in writing for popular audience, is attempting to attain precisely that level of relevance in order to reach his audience.

Its a matter of simple practicalities: Joe Public no more ponders on the “grammatical differences between the use of religious language and ordinary language” while watching Songs of Praise than Wayne Rooney takes a quick mental run through Newton’s laws of motion and gravity before stepping up to take a free kick. That’s the real world.

Derbyshire’s arguments, as with most of the response to Dawkins’ book from within religious/academic circles, derive from a standard tactic that one might happily characterise as the ‘Muggeridge Defence’ in which any popular/populist assault on the status and privileges of orthodox religion is immediately attacked for its alleged lack of intellectual rigour and its ‘misunderstanding’ of the nature of religion by, in the case of the Anglican Church, a roving coterie of tame Oxbridge-educated Christian intellectuals – or, in the case of the Catholic Church, they just field the Jesuits.

Whichever strand of Christianity you happen to be dealing with, the objective, in all cases, is broadly the same – to drag the debate up into the rariefied atmosphere of academia to a point where the majority of the audience collapse due to oxygen starvation and drop out of the discussion. This isn’t about debating the arguments that Dawkins actually has with orthdox religion – I’ve no doubt as an academic he’s more than capable of holding his own in such an environment – but about deliberately and conciously pulling the debate into areas of intellectual abstration that exclude the majority of its potential and, as Dawkins would argue, necessary audience.

This is why much of theologically-driven assault on The God Delusion has concentrated on his characterisation of religion as being ‘childish’. As an obvious ‘straw man’, its an easy line of attack for Christian intellectuals and professional theologians because, at an academic level, discussions of theology, philosophy and metaphysics are anything but childish or simplistic. But that ignores the reality of exoteric religion and the manner in which the Church excludes the vast majority of its adherents from such arguments and ‘sells’ its worldview to its own popular audience in terms of blind faith and an often rigid adherence to the belief in the literal truth of the contents of the Bible, a view of religion that is not only childish but deeply and deliberately infantilising. Dawkins may be making use of a straw man in his arguments, but its one that was originally constructed, stitched together and well-stuffed by exoteric religion, and all of its own volition and contrivence.

Therein lies the central hypocrisy of the religious ‘fight-back’ against Dawkins and his arguments in The God Delusion – they attack Dawkins for peddling gross oversimplifications and for a lack of intellectual rigour while knowing full well that the brand of religion that their own faith purveys from the pulpit every Sunday morning is no less a gross oversimplification and no less lacking in genuine intellectual content and argument than anything that Dawkins may be pitching to his audience – unless, of course, I’ve got that wrong and I missed the episode of Highway in which Harry Seacombe debated Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

That’s what’s really pissing off the Church establishment here. In pitching The God Delusion to a popular audience, Dawkins is doing no more than playing Christianity at its own game. His arguments against religion (and for atheism) may be a little simplistic in places and they may well be presented with the kind of polemical fury more usually associated with sermons from an evangelical pulpit, but his arguments are pitched to a mass popular audience and presented in the language of ‘ordinary’ people, crossing the long established (and heavily protected) demarcation line into territory that the Church has long considered it own priivileged and exclusive preserve.

Just as Hawking’s publisher understood that liberally sprinkling the text of ‘A Brief History of Time’ with the complex mathematics of cosmology would kill the book’s mass market potential, so we can be sure that Dawkins and his publisher would have understood that detailed discussions of Wittgensteinian dilemmas would have had the same effect on The God Delusion – and we can also be sure that that’s also well understood by those currently attacking Dawkins’ work for its philosophical ‘limitations’, hence the amount of general whinging that the book’s spawned amongst the denizons of Christian academia and the Church establishment, who’s real issue with Dawkins is that he is successfully reaching out to a mass audience with a line of argument they’d much prefer to see safely confined to academic journals or the kind of book that cost £50 from the Oxford University Press and reach a total audience of 150 academics, all of whom know the arguments forwards, backwards and sideways already. Anywherre, so long at its keep well away from Joe Public, who might read it and then start asking a few awkward questions about the (unmerited) privileged position and status afforded to religion in wider public life.

The choice of ‘Pseud’s Corner’ for the title of my original snark at Jonathan Derbyshire was not a reflection on his intellectual abilities but on the general hypocrisy of his strand of critique – ‘pseud’ in this case refers specifically to the affection of intellectual superiority and unmerited assumption of the cerebral ‘high ground’ by those (in general) who know full well that Christianity is no less assiduous in, or averse to, ‘dumbing down’ its own message for public consumption and to reach a mass audience than Dawkins has been in publishing his own arguments. It is, unequivocally, a false position and one founded on a deep-seated and conscious hypocrisy, one practiced (and near-perfected) by exoteric religion over the course of many centuries.

Where Dawkin’s differs from the Church establishment, however, is in his intent.

Dawkin’s may have simplified his arguments to reach a mass audience but, as a scientist, one can be sure that his intention, hope and, indeed, desire for The God Delusion is to spark off and encourage intellectual inquiry amongst its readership; to raise doubts, spawn questions and challenge his readers to seek their own answers and fill in the gaps in his own arguments (as presented) by their own efforts. By contrast, in all but the case of the would-be Christian intellectual, who can be safely sequestered away from a mass audience within the Church heirarchy or the rarefied confines of academia – but for the occasional ‘Bishop of Durham’-style escapee who succeeds in blabbing something embarrassing within the media’s earshot – the primary objective of the exoteric religion is to suppress intellectual inquiry and enforce a conformity of faith and belief on its followers, from which it derives its temporal authority, its privileges, status and its considerable wealth. Don’t just take my word for it, ask Gallileo.

Be all that as it may, by far most amusing aspect of Tom’s post is that, having criticised my own comments about Derbyshire’s post, the style and tone of which were obviously intended to be facetious, not only does he fail to recognise that that post did actually make a serious point about the style adopted by Dawkins in The God Delusion, but his own counter-argument consists largely of a stream of piss-poor Ad-hominem remarks none of which have any particular relevance to the point I was actually, if sarcastically. making.

Unity’s response is to say, “Look! He said ‘Wittgenstein’! What a pseud!” Worse, it’s to say, “Look! Stupid people don’t know who Wittgenstein is!” Even worse, it’s to accuse other people of stupidity while putting an apostrophe in the word “Dawkin’s”.

I mean, for fucks sake, if you’re reduced to putting up counter arguments based on typos then not only do you not have a good argument to advance, but you really don’t have an argument at all.

To conclude his remarks. Tom lays the following charge:

This is an argument which begins by refusing to engage with the substantive content of someone else’s position, and ends by appealing to the ignorance of people who you think are stupider than you. I can’t think of many things more worthy of Pseuds Corner than that.

Which simply drives home the point that I was making – that a significant majority of Dawkin’s critics are, themselves, ‘refusing to engage’ with the ‘substantive content’ of his position, as laid out in The God Delusion, by refusing to acknowledge the Church’s own conscious (and longstanding) manipulation of public ‘ignorance’ to suit its own ends and avoiding, like the plague, any possibility of being drawn into debating Dawkins’ arguments at a level that is accessible to a mass audience, other than on those occasions where they choose, instead, to whine incessantly about the lack of public ‘respect’ (by which they really mean ‘deference’) afforded to religious belief. Like those who wave Wittgenstein in the public’s face as a counter argument to Dawkin’s thesis on religion and atheism, Tom is, here, responding to the points he wishes I’d made and not those that I actually posted.
In fact, its rather more than that because exoteric religion not only manipulates public ignorance, it deliberately fosters and encourages it for its own benefit – religion is nothing without its legion of complient followers, and anything that cuts into that cosy little arrangement, like a mass-market atheistic polemic that tops the best-sellers list, really pisses on their over-privileged chips.

My own comments were not an ‘appeal to ignorance’, as Tom is trying to suggest, but an attack on elitism and the hypocrisy of those who couch their critique of Dawkins in terms of intellectual abstractions while knowing full well that their own faith not only makes extensive use of the same ‘methods’ adopted by Dawkins to promote his own ideas, but actually invented them.

The last word, on this, I’ll leave to H L Mencken:

“I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking”

Yep. I can certainly go for that…

6 thoughts on “A point well missed, and then some…

  1. Pingback: Ministry of Truth
  2. “If we never get rid of Christianity, the Germans will be to blame.”

    — Friedrich Nietzsche The Anti-Christ

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