In the October 19, 2006 issue of the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton published a scathing review of Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion.” It is not my purpose today to address either Eagleton, Dawkins, or Dawkins’s book, but rather to treat with a single, troubling argument that came from it. It’s what I’ll call, “A Category Dismissal.”
In his review, Eagleton argues that Dawkins’s assessment of Christian theology is, at best, fourth-rate. Allow me to quote his opening paragraph:
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. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.
Eagleton presents several arguments in this paragraph that are worth clarifying. First, that Dawkins’s theological knowledge is woefully inadequate given his declarations about theological truth. Second, disbelief in a theological system cripples Dawkins’s judgments regarding that system. Third, this combination (lack of knowledge plus lack of belief) produces the “vulgar caricatures” which permeate Dawkins’s prose (as well as that of other New Atheists). Fourth, the strong emotions of religious rejection fuel the process further. And fifthly, in any other discipline such ‘reasoned’ thinkers would feel obligated to study their subject in far greater depth.
In short, because Dawkins’s arguments are funded on a combination of both ignorance of and contempt for theology, he produces a vast array of easily crushed straw men which pass for arguments. Consequently, because Dawkins argues ignorantly, his arguments reflect more his own personal issues than anything particular about his favorite subject, religion. We can assert, in a sense, that Dawkins has found in Christian theology a favorite punching bag for his own anger issues (at which point we can observe that Dawkins’s arguments and methods say a great deal more about Dawkins than they do about Christianity, but that is beside my main point today).
Now, I asserted at the start that my point here is not to engage with Eagleton or Dawkins per se, but rather to identify a curious kind of argument that occurs within this debate. It is a problem that Eagleton identifies in his opening paragraph, and it is one that, ironically, the very first commentator on this article perpetuates. At the end of Eagleton’s piece, one A.C. Grayling from the University of London writes the following:
Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises.
And there you have it—the category dismissal in action. I have denied your premises before you stated anything, Mr. Eagleton, therefore dealing with your religious arguments is tantamount to nonsense. Case closed.
This is an argumentative twist that ought to raise our rhetorical alarm flags sky high. It is an argument that says, “I don’t have to listen to you because I disagree with you.” It is an argument-ending argument of the same order as, “Because I told you so.” There’s nothing to say in response because one of the parties isn’t listening to the other at all.
Let’s dig into this little rhetorical twist a bit further and see if, by taking a step backward into abstraction, we might better decipher what happened in this argument. Eagleton asserted that Dawkins has not studied enough theology to make useful judgments regarding the subject. Grayling made the counter point that you don’t need to study theology to judge it when you reject its premises. Let’s abstract this further for more clarity: Eagleton says this: X has made judgments about subject Y. X has not studied subject Y sufficiently to substantiate his judgments. Grayling responds with this: X does not need to study Y because X rejects Y.
Viewed this way, it becomes clear that the “Category Dismissal” I’ve identified here is really just a subtle and grand form of ad hominem. Eagleton has made an argument, and Grayling has asserted in response that the fact of disagreement is sufficient argument in matters of religion. “I disagree with you. Therefore you are wrong.” Or, in the spirit of the straw-man ad hominem, “I disagree with you, therefore you are an idiot.” Eagleton has argued for complexity, and Grayling has rebutted him by saying, “You are not worth addressing.” It is a refusal to engage the subject of religion on its own terms due to a priori judgments about religion. It is a highly biased and unethical approach to discourse. It is pervasive in atheist/Christian dialogue.
Eagleton anticipates this argument in his opening paragraph. After all, if someone (especially a scientifically motivated New Atheist) were going to make a judgment about a given subject, that person, consistent with his/her commitment to scientific inquiry, is bound to research the complexities of the subject before pronouncing a judgment on that subject. But Grayling (apparently) has made his judgments about Eagleton’s assessment of Dawkins without needing to read what Eagleton wrote. This is a move that is (either ironically or tragically) entirely within the spirit of the Category Dismissal. After all, why deal with what is built on premises you disagree with if you disagree with those premises? And what a liberating philosophy of human discourse this is! Under its auspices I can grade papers without having to study them, write book reviews without having to read the books! I can even pronounce judgments on criminals without having to investigate the evidence! Life really is much simpler when I can declare people guilty without having to listen to them.
But this is clearly both unethical and dishonest. If the rhetoric of science is to be consistent, then each claim it encounters must be examined in all its fullness and complexity. If I, an otherwise reasonable person, came to you and assert that, “Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.” You have two options. First, you can dismiss me outright as an idiot because “you disagree with the premise that anyone can rise from the dead and therefore whatever I say in regard to that premise is worthless.” Or you can consider the claim, examine the evidence, consider the source (that I appear to be a reasonable person, not prone to believing in conspiracy theories, alien abductions, or the tooth fairy), and then make a determination on whether or not you will believe my claim that Jesus Christ lives. Only one response is consistent with scientific methodology. The other is stark judgmentalism.
What stands behind the Category Dismissal (to my estimation) is the thoroughgoing materialism that continues to drive the modern scientific worldview. Having made an a priori decision that nothing immaterial exists (which, note, is an impossible claim to verify), any argument or system which treats of the immaterial is therefore (at best) suspect or (at worst) dismissed outright. But as long as there is an a priori dismissal of any kind of evidence, the scientific mindset will be closed off to what is unexpected. It will only see what it is looking for, and never what it is not looking for. But in the same way that shutting one’s eyes doesn’t make one invisible, so shutting out evidence because you believe it doesn’t exist has no power over the actual evidence. Declaring something impossible does not make it impossible.
In the end, the rejection of evidence by way of the Category Dismissal is rude, unethical, unscientific, arrogant, and above all wrong. Unless this kind of dishonest rhetoric comes to an end, there will be no fruitful discussion between atheists and Christians. But this very observation sheds light on what is most unnervingly ironic about atheist/Christian dialogue: a profound absence of reason within it. And here, perhaps, what we must see is that the declaration, “I disagree with your premises,” is not an argument; it is a statement about the feelings of the arguer. And this statement reveals the deeper problem: if the atheist admits that your religious arguments are admissible then in some ways he has opened the door to the possibility of God. Perhaps, then, unfair argument is a kind of last defense, a prickly, irritating, and irrational response to protect the atheist mind from the possibility of God. What that would imply is that what the Christian is up against in discussions with atheists is the irrational—a childish, infantile reaction to the possibility of God. “I deny your premises”–the Category Dismissal–is then the last-defense argument against the possibility of God.