H. Allen Orr and Daniel C. Dennett clash over Richard Dawkins

Last month, H. Allen Orr wrote a critical review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in the New York Review of Books:

Orrphoto_2The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins’s cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. 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). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

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?).

Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow…

Rest of the review here.  Dan Dennett then wrote a letter to the NYRB defending Dawkins:

Ff_182_atheism4_fH. Allen Orr, in “A Mission to Convert” [NYR, January 11], his review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and other recent books on science and religion, says that Dawkins is an amateur, not professional, atheist, and has failed to come to grips with “religious thought” with its “meticulous reasoning” in any serious way. He notes that the book is “defiantly middlebrow,” and I wonder just which highbrow thinkers about religion Orr believes Dawkins should have grappled with. I myself have looked over large piles of recent religious thought in the last few years in the course of researching my own book on these topics, and I have found almost all of it to be so dreadful that ignoring it entirely seemed both the most charitable and most constructive policy. (I devote a scant six pages of Breaking the Spell to the arguments for and against the existence of God, while Dawkins devotes roughly a hundred, laying out the standard arguments with admirable clarity and fairness, and skewering them efficiently.) There are indeed recherché versions of these traditional arguments that perhaps have not yet been exhaustively eviscerated by scholars, but Dawkins ignores them (as do I) and says why: his book is a consciousness-raiser aimed at the general religious public, not an attempt to contribute to the academic microdiscipline of philosophical theology. The arguments Dawkins exposes and rebuts are the arguments that waft from thousands of pulpits every week and reach millions of television viewers every day, and neither the televangelists nor the authors of best-selling spiritual books pay the slightest heed to the subtleties of the theologians either.

Who does Orr favor? Polkinghorne, Peacocke, Plantinga, or some more recondite thinkers? Orr brandishes the names of two philosophers, William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and cites C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, a fairly nauseating example of middle-brow homiletic in roughly the same league on the undergraduate hit parade as Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (1998) and transparently evasive when it comes to “meticulous reasoning.” If it were a book in biology—Orr’s discipline—I daresay he’d pounce on it like a pit bull, but like many others he adopts a double standard when the topic is religion…

H. Allen Orr replied in the NYRB:

Daniel Dennett’s main complaint about my review is that I held Dawkins’s book to too high a standard. The God Delusion was, he says, a popular work and, as such, one can’t expect it to grapple seriously with religious thought. There are two things wrong with this objection. The first is that the mere fact that a book is intended for a broad audience doesn’t mean its author can ignore the best thinking on a subject. Indeed it’s precisely the task of the popularizer to take this best thinking and present it in a form that can be understood by intelligent laymen. This task is certainly feasible. Ironically, the clearest evidence comes from Dawkins himself. In his popular works on evolution, and especially in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins wrestled with the best evolutionary thinkers —Darwin, Hamilton, and Trivers—and presented their ideas in a way that could be appreciated by a broad audience. This is what made The Selfish Gene brilliant; the absence of any analogous treatment of religion in Dawkins’s new book is what makes it considerably less than brilliant.

The second thing wrong with Dennett’s objection is that it’s simply not true that The God Delusion was merely a popular survey and “not an attempt to contribute to …philosophical theology.” Dennett has apparently forgotten that the heart of Dawkins’s book was his philosophical argument for the near impossibility of God. Dawkins presented his so-called Ultimate Boeing 747 argument in a chapter entitled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” branded his argument “unanswerable,” and boasted that it had stumped all theologians who had met it. I can see why Dennett would like to forget about Dawkins’s attempt at philosophy—the Ultimate 747 argument was shredded by reviewers—but it’s absurd to pretend now that The God Delusion had no philosophical ambitions. It also won’t do to claim, as Dennett does, that Dawkins’s book was concerned only with arguments “that waft from thousands of pulpits every week and reach millions of television viewers every day.” Dawkins explicitly stated that he was targeting all forms of the God Hypothesis, including deism, and insisted that all were victims of his arguments…

Full text of both letters to the NYRB here.  Now, Dan Dennett has written a fairly heated open letter to H. Allen Orr at Edge.org in which after rebutting several of Orr’s points, Dennett throws down a challenge for another response from Orr:

As I write this message, I am reminded of your earlier trashing, more than ten years ago, of my book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, first in Evolution, which does not permit rebuttals from authors, and then, slightly enlarged, in the Boston Review, which does. You leveled very serious charges of error and incomprehension in that review, and when I challenged them, you responded with a haughty dismissal of my objections (in an exchange in the Boston Review). Quoting an example, dealing with the speed of evolution: “Now I’ve been in the population genetics business for some time and, frankly, I have no idea what Dennett is talking about. And-I can find no polite way of putting this-it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Dennett has no idea what he’s talking about either.” (1996, p37) Now that was rude-even ruder than your reply this time. When I explained then in a private letter to you what I had meant, you conceded to me in your private response that you had not seen my point in the light I intended, and that my claim was not in fact the blunder you had said it was-but of course you never chose to recant your criticism in print, so your uncorrected accusation stands to this day. Such a gentleman and a scholar you are! But times have changed. We now have blogs, so this time you can readily respond in public to my open letter…

Full text of Dennett’s letter here.

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