Rowan on Richard

In the Telegraph today is an article entitled Rowan Williams hits out at atheist Dawkins:

“The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams responded to critics of religion by arguing that atheists had missed the point and failed to understand what Christians really believe in. . . In a fierce attack on the Oxford professor and other leading atheists, he said: "There are specific areas of mismatch between what Richard Dawkins may write about and what religious people think they are doing." . . . He suggested that Prof Dawkins, the author of the best-selling The God Delusion and a leading Darwinist, was a good scientist but a poor philosopher.”

It's rather difficult to imagine softly-spoken Rowan Williams' being fierce. Perhaps Jonathan Wynne-Jones meant "fierce by Rowan's standards". Attacking Dawkins as a "poor philosopher" is standard apologetic fare. I do not know how well Dawkins would fare if he were to shift from writing for lay audiences to writing for philosophers. However, I consider it unwise to judge a writer's philosophy solely from material written for a lay reader. Judging Dawkins by this lay-writing standard might lead one to assume that "his knowledge of evolutionary science was not up to snuff", and this is clearly false in view of other evidence. Christian apologetics has, in any case, already been effectively refuted by professional philosophers, so the burden of atheism does not fall on the shoulders of Dawkins or Hitchens.

Unfortunately for his argument, the Archbishop of Canterbury did not explain exactly what Christians really do believe. (At least, not as reported in this article.) This is an important point because different Christians believe in a bewildering complexity of sect-contradictory nonsense. The most obvious belief, which runs an individual gamut from vague acceptance to obsessive insistence, is in the existence–nature undefined–of an interfering supernatural agent.

Dr Williams appears to be ignoring the fact that atheism is absence of belief in vague supernatural deities for which religion claims an existence. The burden of proof lies with the theologians–and they have failed. In fact, when religious types exhort their congregations to have faith despite the lack of evidence, then they are admitting that they have failed to find any evidence for existence of the supernatural and, by extension, that theological philosophy has failed to fill the vacuum.

“In a message to the critics, he said: "Don't distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or irrational form of explanation."”

And don’t distract us from the real arguments by diminishing the atheistic argument to a mere two of its components!

“He said: "When believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, we may feel as we turn the pages: 'This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it's not actually what I believe in'."”

Yes, but what exactly do the religious actually believe in? Perhaps this article will provide a clue to Rowan's thinking: Of course this makes us doubt God's existence. Rowan snipes at Hitchens, but the bulk of his remarks, as quoted in this article, attack Dawkins, whom Williams concedes is a "lively and attractive writer" and a "good scientist ".

“He told the audience he wasn't simply interested in defending his beliefs, but also in upholding the principle of intellectual debate.”

The difficulty, of course, being that religion rests on complete lack of evidence coupled with failed apologetics. On the other hand, scientific knowledge is an edifice that rests on abundant evidence comprehended by way of internally consistent logic. True intellectual debate demolishes unempirical-emotion-and-illogic based religious dogma.

“The first argument against religion he looked at was that of it being explained as an evolutionary survival strategy, passed on through generations.”

Dr Williams appears to be a kindly, intelligent, well-educated fellow (if one can consider theology to be a leading out of critical thought rather than a putting in of nonsense). Surely Dr Williams is aware that this is not the sole argument against religion so much as it is a description of how one competing religion survives rather than being replaced by a competitor. Perhaps he is not aware that childhood indoctination is essential for the perpetuation of belief in religious doctrine. If he is not aware, should we assume that the Church of England is planning to refuse religious instruction to any children born into Anglican families?

“Dr Williams said that Darwinian theory had wrongly been used as a way to interpret culture, not just biology, by Prof Dawkins.”

Irony 101: Darwin’s immensely important and insightful idea of natural selection was inspired by the work of Anglican country parson, geographer, and mathematician, Thomas Malthus:

“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.” (EconLib-1826: An Essay on the Principle of Population)

Indeed, Darwinian theory, while tremendously useful in advancing understanding of evolutionary biology, has been misapplied by various sociopolitical theorists, philosophers, and religious conservatives. This misuse of the Malthusian meme is not the responsibility of Malthus, Darwin, Dawkins, or a host of evolutionary biologists who recognize the importance of natural selection.

"He rejected Prof Dawkins's theory which assumes culture is transmitted in a similar way to biology, through "memes" as opposed to genes, and added: "I find this philosophically crass and undeveloped at best, simply contradictory and empty at worst."

Making derogatory comments based on a personal apologetic position does not constitute refutation. How else, I wonder, does culture propagate by Dr Williams reckoning? I doubt that he would, for the sake of defending religion, go so far as to say that ideas are not transmitted from person to person via various media (speech, writing, audiovisual). I doubt that Dr Williams would deny that the Anglican church relies upon speech, writing, and audiovisual media for its own survival. Perhaps his failure can be attributed to lack of imagination insofar as he can't visualize a better post-pandemic world.

“Dr Williams added that to see religion as a survival strategy was to misunderstand it.”

Perhaps we ought not to view religion as purely a physical “survival strategy”. If not, then what? The church could not survive without religion, church incomes would vanish without religion, believers who have been indoctrinated might fear that they were doomed to hell without religion. And hasn’t this fear of hell that religious teachers continue to inculcate into the vulnerable minds of children proven to be the greatest survival meme of religion? Madison Avenue has nothing on the churches when it comes to not merely selling a product but making people afraid to switch product.

The Telegraph article gives the last word to Dawkins:

"Prof Dawkins has been scathing in his assessment of Christian theology, which he has described as vacuous. In a Channel 4 programme, The Enemies of Reason, in August he said: "There are two ways of looking at the world — through faith and superstition, or through the rigours of logic, observation and evidence, through reason."

Yet today reason has a battle on its hands. Reason and a respect for evidence are the source of our progress, our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth. We live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground and rational science is under attack."

View a streaming video presentation of Rowan William's lecture on the University’s website here.

Blogs Elsewhere : Rowan Williams and the 'New Atheists' :

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