Marilynne Robinson attacks strawmen (part 2)

A commenter recently raised some objections to my critique of Marilynne Robinson’s 2010 interview with the Globe and Mail, in which she spoke about the conflict between religion and science.

From her interview, my impression was that she didn’t really know what the New Atheists were actually saying in their books, so many of her objections were leveled at straw men.

The aforementioned commenter noted that Robinson read and reviewed Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” here, and that I should look over her review. That is the purpose of this post.

Rather than reproduce large parts of Robinson’s piece here, I will simply reproduce the first few words of each paragraph for orientation. I recommend that her review be opened in another window.

Paragraphs 1 through 6 (“Richard Dawkins is an Oxford professor …” to “… done a great deal to trivialize or disgrace themselves lately”)

In this section of the review, Robinson says very little about the God Delusion, directing her ire at Dawkins himself. Given that she’s off topic, I’ll move right along.

Paragraph 7 (“The gravest questions about the institutions of contemporary science …”)

Here, Robinson complains about what’s missing from the book, namely a closer critique of science. But this was not Dawkin’s remit in writing the book – his purpose is to critique religion, not science. Nonetheless, it may be worth rebutting what she says on this matter all the same. She says religion is better than science because its leaders don’t have the skills to make weapons of mass destruction, whereas scientists do. This is a rather bizarre view of morality, which I think most people would agree is a matter of intent, not a matter of ability. Is someone immoral simply because they own a gun capable of killing people?

Robinson also gets her target wrong: science is a tool, it is not a moral agent. If I forge a sword upon an anvil, and stab someone with that sword, is it right to blame the anvil for causing this injury? I think not. The moral agents are the people who use the tools – who use science, not science itself. And I agree that there are (probably quite rare) cases in which scientists should be held morally responsible for designing weapons. Most of the time, I suspect that scientists who develop weapons do so because they believe that these weapons will be used to defend their own people in the event of an attack from another country. I wonder if Robinson is averse to all military defense?

I also wonder if Robinson is averse to all the modern trappings of science around the house and home. If she ever uses a microwave, drives a car, or communicates with a cellphone, then presumably she’s not against science as such, but against certain uses thereof. If this is the case, then why does she direct her objection toward science generally rather than those people who use it for nefarious ends?

Paragraph 8 (“There is a pervasive exclusion of historical memory…”)

Robinson asks why Dawkins mentions the divisiveness of the Jewish tradition without mentioning the intermarriage that it supported. Fair enough point. She then blames science for colluding in anti-Semitism by giving it a genetic basis.  Once again, she’s blaming the tool for the damage done by its abuser.

Science, as a cultural endeavor, does not advocate harm or cruelty. It also does not advocate compassion or happiness. It is independent of morality.

Paragraph 9 to 12 (“Dawkins deals with all this in one sentence. Hitler did his evil…” to “… the more alien it appears to every known strategy of comprehension.”)

Robinson notes that science is vulnerable to the influence of cultural prejudice. This is precisely what I’ve been arguing in this post. She is admitting that the moral responsibility lies not with science itself but with the cultural prejudice that abuses it. But I would go further and argue that religion is often the source of that cultural prejudice. Science is not in the habit of dividing one social group from another (in fact it tends to have the opposite affect, since it allows communication, education, and cultural mixing). Religion, on the other hand, is one of the oldest sources of social division. It creates in and out groups based on rigid, often arbitrary rules. Many of these rules often call explicitly for division and conflict, something science does not do.

I respect Robinson’s appeal that if we are to consider “authentic” science only, we should compare it to “authentic” religion. The problem is, Robinson does not tell us why all the nice stuff about religion should be considered more authentic than the bad stuff. With science, the criterion is clear and obvious: authentic science is science that actually comes up with the truth, not some twisted version of it. What’s the criterion for finding “authentic” religion?

Paragraph 13 (“The odd thing about Dawkins’s work, considering his job description …)

This paragraph doesn’t make much sense to me: Robinson seems to be claiming that Dawkins implicitly supports some sort of dualism in his description of how matter comes together to make people, but then later denies dualism explicitly. However, I’m reasonably sure that Dawkins isn’t supporting dualism, he’s simply making the point that it’s quite a profound thought that the atoms making up our body have no special physical characteristics that set them apart from other atoms. Instead, what makes us human is the way in which these atoms interact, something they do for only a blip on the cosmic time scale.

Paragraph 14 (“I do not wish to recruit science to the cause of religion…)

This is a classic straw man. Robinson claims that Dawkins’s writing is “reminiscent” of logical positivism, and then she attacks logical positivism.

Paragraphs 15 to 17 (“The chapter titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God” reflects …” to “… has failed to impress the theists.”)

The best Robinson has to say against Dawkin’s claim that God must be extremely complex to have created the universe, is as follows: “That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology.” I guess theologians are permitted to take as given anything they please. The question is why should we believe them – what evidence do they have that their “givens” are not simply ad hoc? Furthermore, Robinson declares that God cannot have formed by evolution because he existed “outside” of time, and time is required for evolution. But if not evolution, then what? And what does it even mean, if anything, to say that something “exists outside time”? Robinson’s position is, as far as I can tell, incoherent.

Paragraph 18 (“The God Delusion has human history and civilization…”

This paragraph contains a rather shameful example of the ad hominem fallacy known as guilt by association. Robinson notes that Dawkins supports a paper written by someone who positively reviewed another paper that might have contained some dubious, possibly anti-Semitic views. Seriously? Is this meant to be a review of The God Delusion, or an attack on Dawkins’s character? Looking back at the first six paragraphs of Robinson’s review, I’m beginning to think the latter.

Paragraphs 19 and 20 (“Dawkins says, “I need to call attention …” to “… dissipates under the slightest scrutiny.”)

Robinson makes a very reasonable point here: Dawkins misses a key statement in the OT about people being told to love foreigners as themselves, which may not fit with his statement about “much” of the moral consideration in the OT being about Jews alone. (In fact, he misses a scripture that Robinson does not include in her review, namely Leviticus 24:22, which says “You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born.”).

Paragraph 21 (“Nor is Dawkins’s argument from history impressive…)

Robinson argues poorly against Dawkin’s claim that people are becoming more moral (the moral Zeitgeist is changing). She does this by looking at only one example, anti-Semitism, which appeared to be a mere “fad” in the late nineteenth century. She’s missing the larger picture, though. Dawkins isn’t arguing that anti-Semitism has been on a steady decline over the age, he’s arguing that there is a more general recent decline in bad moral behavior. And although he does not provide a lot of evidence in support of his idea, plenty of evidence has been accumulated elsewhere, most notably in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Paragraphs 22 to 24 (“If the only bad effect of the notion…” to “…No, he wasn’t joking.”)

Here, Robinson attacks T. H. Huxley, who believed that blacks were mentally inferior to Europeans, and once again this may be a decent point, but it loses the forest for the trees. Of course there have been exceptions to the progress of the moral zeitgeist, but progress has nonetheless happened. Robinson seems to deny this progress, almost as if she’s forgotten that slavery has, in fact, been abolished.

Paragraph 25 (“Dawkins allows that our upward moral drift …”)

Robinson disagrees that people would never go to war “for the sake of an absence of belief”, as Dawkins claims. She cites wars for which the absence of belief was, on her view, the whole purpose. But as I’ve said here, it takes more than the absence of belief to wage war – it requires specific beliefs about religion, be they negative or positive. But these beliefs are not necessary parts of atheism, just as violent and exclusivist ideas in the Bible are not necessary parts of belief in god (there are some religions, like Buddhism for instance, that are more inclusive and peace-centered than Christianity).

Paragraph 26 (“Indeed, Dawkins makes a bold attack on tolerance …”)

Here, Robinson attacks Dawkins’ dislike of the Amish. She notes that he is not being tolerant, and that tolerance is especially warranted in this case considering the pacifist ethos of the Amish, which poses no threat to our own way of life. She does not say, however, why we should be tolerant of what the Amish do to their children. Could Dawkins be right that they are harming their children, or at least putting them at a disadvantage? I’m not convinced, personally. I suspect that Amish children are just as happy and fulfilled as any other children, despite their unusual, “time warped” culture. Dawkins may well be wrong on this point.

Robinson’s final paragraph (“Yet Dawkins himself has posited…) makes a lot of sense. It may take a diversity of memes to ensure resistance against “eccentricity and arrogance”. But this is not an idea that Dawkins argues against in his book. He is not promoting homogeneity of thought. He is (in the Amish example, at least) simply arguing against the mistreatment of children in the name of diversity.


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