The Lout’s Complaint, Revised 2nd Edition

[Originally posted May 27, 2008. This re-post has undergone moderate revision]

Observers of the science/religion wars  may be aware of a rhetorical move called “The Courtier’s Reply.” This device, developed by science blogger PZ Myers, is a reformulation of a common objection to anti-theist tracts like The God Delusion or The End of Faith,which protests that not all of what travels under the name of religion or spirituality is so easily ridiculed. A prototypical example of this objection is Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion, which opens as follows:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.

H. Allen Orr, writing in the New York Review of Books, strikes a similar note:

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way… Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians)… The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

These are clearly-worded cautions against taking the most crude, infantile, or exploitative interpretations of religious thought as representative of all such thought. But this, like some puzzled dog in a Gary Larson cartoon, is what  Myers hears:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk. Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

You get the joke, of course. What good is book larnin’ when there no there there to be larned about! No emperor’s clothes, no god, no silliness whatsoever. It is a form of argument that quickly and easily reduces to it’s extreme form; in the end, the critique amounts to a blanket accusation of deceit covering every theological word ever written. Tillich: liar; Buber: liar; Bonhoeffer: liar; Rumi: liar; Chuang-Tsu: liar.

It is sometimes allowed that these and other religious writers are deluded or mad, but most commonly, in keeping with rationalist skepticism, they are charlatans, as it is much more self-aggrandizing to heroically unmask the perpetrators of a great deceit than to mock its victims. Ironically, the Andersen fable is largely meant to caution on vanity*, but Myers and Dawkins (who endorses the Courtier’s Reply) seem to have missed that. They have zeroed in on the emperor’s credulity, without bothering to investigate its source.

But it is sometimes wise, whenever we are tempted to insist there is no there there,  to consider that the flaw may be in us, rather than in what is presented to us for our inspection: the grapes might not be sour just because we can’t have them. Without the right training and receptivity, a great deal of the world remains unavailable to us. This is perhaps most classically demonstrated in art appreciation, or jazz, or wine, or any of the “acquired tastes.” Considered this way, the “Courtier’s Reply” becomes just another example of “My Kid Could Paint That.” I call it the Lout’s Complaint: Since I don’t get it, someone must be trying to pull one over on me.

Here, for example, is Richard Dawkins’ reply to Eagleton, given to journalist Laurie Taylor:

Somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all. So to me it is like someone saying they don’t believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven’t studied fairy-ology. I think it is as simple as that. I’m all for professors of theology who write about little-known religious texts and study biblical history, but when theology turns to the study of the trinity, then I think it’s a non-subject.

That this is not an off-the-cuff remark is clear from the number of times he has repeated it. But of course, there’s no such thing as “fairyology.” Theology, by contrast, has occupied Western Civilization for millenia. There are difficult, murky–even seemingly specious–concepts in non-theistic philosophy that we might take issue with: Plato’s Ideal Forms, Kant’s Noumenal, Hegel’s Dialectic, Neitzsche’s Eternal Return, Heidegger’s Dasein. Each has been met by critics, to some extent, with a good faith effort to understand them on their own terms. Even the dreaded “postmodernists” are given the courtesy of being read by their scourges (e.g. Sokal and Bricmont) rather than being dismissed out of hand. Are Augustine or John Scotus, then, really not deserving of the same root level of engagement as Julia Kristeve or Gilles Deleuze?

And yet ignorance of theology, generally, leads to quite basic misunderstandings of what theism can mean. Here’s science blogger Larry Moran vainly grappling with the idea that another blogger, James McGrath, could have a non-literal understanding of “god” and still call himself a Christian.

McGrath thinks that theology can be justified because it addresses “life’s inexpressable mystery.” This is [according to McGrath] reason enough to reject atheism even though he denies the existence of any of the classical gods. Furthermore, this is reason enough to call himself a Christian.

I’d like to discuss why he is impressed by some “inexpressible mystery” and why he thinks it’s a “miracle” that anything exists at all. […]

But I’m not allowed to discuss those points, according to McGrath. I can’t enter into a debate with him until I’ve read all of the sophisticated theologians who agree with him. I haven’t done my homework. Until then, I’m just an amateur who doesn’t understand the arguments against atheism and in favor of modern mysticism/theology. [my emphasis]

It is noteworthy that Moran characterizes his own lack of understanding on this score as an obstacle that McGrath has put in his way. In fact McGrath does not attempt to scuttle the conversation based on Moran’s lack of interest in the subject. But at an rate, isn’t it common courtesy to come prepared to an intelligent conversation?

Likewise, a few months after the Courtier’s Reply posting, PZ Myers complained that an article recommended by another science blogger as “lovely, lyrical, and wistful” is in fact “the same old nonsense.”

The article in question, by Peter Bebergal, takes a position that rationalists can, sadly, only see as “obfuscation”: that while fundamentalist and literalist religious doctrines “induce religious stupor and cripple imaginations,” we nevertheless need to reserve a portion of our language to address non-rational understanding. To Myers, non-rational is synonymous with irrational, and all that is irrational is a danger to humanity. He writes:

Bebergal is waving his hands frantically, trying to justify irrationality as a power for human happiness rather than an impediment. There is no true power there… [I]t can … make us feel good to give in to comforting myths. But this is not good for us. [my emphasis]

To demonstrate his point Myers analogizes the religious impulse in humans to lab rats trained to press buttons to stimulate their pleasure centers with abandon. But religion, in the form that Bebergal describes, is not a form of addiction. It is not intended for the gratification or exaltation of the practitioner; just the contrary, it is a way of contextualizing the practitioner within a social and cosmic order so that the meaning of her or his life will not be reduced to pleasure-seeking. (This is exactly the role of the “higher power” in 12 steps groups–and it works).

It’s not a complete surprise that Myers can only conceive of religion, spirituality, or mysticism as a comforting, ego-stroking enterprise, because that tends to be all that rises above the background noise of our popular culture: AM radio sermons, megachurches, and televangelists are almost impossible to avoid, and most of them tend to exploit (consciously or not) the same feelings of anxiety and insecurity that are so effectively targeted by television commercials. It’s easy to see why all religious expression would appear to be univocally ugly.

But that’s why we have books. That’s why Eagleton and Orr and others are exhorting Dawkins et al to read them. Not just (or even) theology, but any the challenging disciplines of assembly: philosophy, literary theory, philology, cultural studies. Even a cursory command of these fields might help Myers think twice before writing something that imagination is “a cognitive randomizer,” or–my favorite from this piece,–“science has taught us … that our imagination is pathetic.” This is a confusion of categories along the lines of “I can’t be overdrawn, I still have checks!” As Marilynne Robinson writes of Dawkins in her review of TGD, noting that he encounters no difficulty in the naive copy theory of reality, “he has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information.”

Myers closes his piece with a paragraph so hateful I don’t know how to maintain any hope in the possible increase of his understanding. Making sure we understand that, like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, he will allow no moral or intellectual distinction to be made between fundamentalists and so-called “moderate” churches, he writes:

It’s time we saw through the con game of these lying leeches, and that goes for the local liberal church as well as the most outrageous televangelist. The moderate church may be bad because it can lead congregants to the vilest exploiters, but it is also definitely bad because it is misleading you right now. [my emphasis]

Perhaps this was a heat-of-the-moment remark that would have been scrubbed from a print manuscript in the cooler, more rational clarity of the revision process. But taking it at face value, how are we to take seriously anyone who would characterize Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, Bonhoeffer, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, Martin Buber, the Dalai Lama, and Bishop Tutu–all of whom had a profound social impact inseparable from their religious beliefs–as “lying leeches”? (Let alone the weird “gateway drug” logic that even if they were innocent of chicanery, they would still “lead” others to more virulent and exploitative fundamentalism.)

A picture begins to form of the sputtering realist as something of a reactionary; grossly uninformed, either through fear or incuriousity, and so agitated by the various threats to his or her sense of certainty that he or she is reduced to Dalek-like alarm calls. EX-TER-MIN-ATE!

Unfortunately this alarm call tends to rise to the top of our conversation, like those of the religious fundamentalists, or the anti-intellectuals sneering at modern art and fancy wines. Our scientists used to offer us more. They can again if we refuse to accept Hooliganism as an acceptable form of discourse about the world, and our place in it.

* Ironically, it is in this sense an especially Christian moral fable.


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