Marilynne Robinson attacks strawmen

A fiction novelist, Marilynne Robinson, fancies herself as someone who knows enough about the philosophy of science and religion to write an entire book about it. In “Absence of Mind”, she takes the New Atheists to task for what she sees as their denigration of the human mind.

She conducted an interview with the Globe and Mail earlier this year, and I thought I would provide my own rebuttals to some of her comments.  Her remarks appear in italics below.

Ms. Robinson is asked about the assault of science on religion: Has science in fact assaulted religion? Or is it only that the prestige of science has been appropriated in order to make an argument against religion appear authoritative?

Why doesn’t Ms. Robinson answer her own question, and tell us what she thinks? This is a bit like FOX News running a ticker that reads “Obama a Muslim?”. It plants an accusation in the mind of the reader while protecting the accuser from having to answer for herself.

Somehow it seems to have been accepted by people on both sides of the question that religion stands or falls on the literal truth of one reading of Genesis I.

This is a straw man if ever there was one. I’ve read the God Delusion. It’s central theme is not Genesis I. Nor is Genesis I the central focus of any other New Atheist approach.

It could as well be argued, for those who attach importance to such things, that the Genesis account is surprisingly consistent with the Big Bang, with the emergence of life in progressive stages, and with the remarkable phenomenon of speciation.

The Bible can be interpreted to mean almost anything, and it is. That’s why we have thousands of Christian denominations today, each of which is incompatible in small or large ways with its cousins. Why should this lend it any scientific weight?

When asked about religious extremism, Ms. Robinson talks about “scientific extremism”: The implications of cloning, surveillance and any number of other facts of contemporary life that are entirely the work of scientists remind us of the excesses of which science has proved itself capable. Those who idealize science dismiss these expressions of it as somehow beside the point…

Hang on a second. How is surveillance the work of scientists? It isn’t scientists who are putting cameras up on every street corner, it’s organizations like the British government. And how, exactly, is cloning an excess? An excess of what?

The reason science is “beside the point” is because it is amoral. Science has exactly zero to say about what is right or what is wrong. Science is a tool, not a moral theory. And yes, it certainly is important to make sure we (i.e. scientists and non-scientists alike) apply the products of this tool in an ethical fashion. I can’t see any New Atheist or any posivitist disagreeing with that.

Religion, on the other hand, is an explicitly moral phenomenon. It makes direct moral prescriptions. It can therefore be directly blamed for immoral acts performed in its name.

Robinson is asked about the New Atheists: All their books repeat one argument, which could have been written in 1890. Their emendations, for example that famous ‘selfish gene,’ are conservative strategies for shoring up old ideas. There is rarely a hint that they proceed from data or observation, and never a sign that anything can surprise them. Dogmatists are not given to flights of imagination or to the creation of new syntheses. Scientists are.

Has Ms. Robinson actually heard of Sam Harris, one of the four “horsemen” of the New Atheists? Harris is a neuroscientist – he is deeply immersed in new ideas about the brain. Dawkins, too, is a scientist, and one who writes passionately about the wonder and complexity of nature, and how this gives him inspiration. Again, I have the feeling Ms. Robinson has not actually read the God Delusion, or any of the other books she so confidently attacks.

As to citing arguments that could have been written in 1890, that may be true. Arguments against the existence of God have existed for a very long time, and they are just as valid today as they were then. It’s too bad that they still need repeating, but they do.

The human mind, wonderful and terrible, is the great fact. To minimize its power, its complexity, its loneliness and radical individuation, is to evade every essential question.

Another straw man. People like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett are constantly reminding us of how powerful and complex the mind really is. Rather, it is the religious view of the mind – an invisible homunculus pulling the strings – that makes a mockery of the mind’s complexity, turning it into a children’s fairy tale.

But people who claim to be scientists ought to be especially active critics of their assumptions. This is how they attempt objectivity. This is the reason for the scientific method, the disciplines of experiment and observation. The new atheist argument would fall to the ground if they were to own up to merely proceeding from a clutch of favoured assumptions.

Once again, is she not aware that Dawkins and Harris are, themselves, scientists? What are these favored assumptions, exactly? It is easy, in a limited interview such as the one Ms. Robinson made this remark in, to make broad, substanceless attacks. But that is all they are.

To conclude, it seems that Ms. Robinson has been fed a certain distorted interpretation of the New Atheist movement, which she has swallowed whole. She has then considered it worthwhile to write an entire book refuting this view. What a sad waste of time. If she wishes to contribute something meaningful, she should first sit down and read the God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, and other works of New Atheists from cover to cover. She might be surprised.

5 Responses to Marilynne Robinson attacks strawmen

  1. Jay says:

    Yes, she has read the God Delusion. She wrote a scathing and–to my mind, admittedly– brilliant review of it some years ago. She has also reviewed Harris’s work. You may not agree with her ideas, but she is an extremely well-read and well-informed critic.

  2. Keith says:


    If she has read those books, then she certainly fails (in the above interview) to demonstrate a good understanding of what they contain. Instead, she attacks straw men that Harris and Dawkins themselves would never defend.

  3. Keith says:

    And your point is taken, too.

    I will gladly – and with considerable interest – take a look at the review you have linked to.

    • Jay says:

      That would be great, Keith. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the essay…whether they be good, bad, and/or ugly. 🙂

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