Eagleton, Dawkins, and the Category Dismissal

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.

He looks friendly enough, but his pen is filled with bitter ink...

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.

You have an argument? Look at the hair. 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.

I don't need hair to make arguments.

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.

22 comments on “Eagleton, Dawkins, and the Category Dismissal

  1. Jimmy says:

    I think the last illustration you’ve chosen perfectly illustrates the caliber of your arguments.

  2. Jimmy says:

    The only way you can arrive at the conclusions you have is by abandoning the standards of evidence you would use to evaluate any non-religious assertion, and by ignoring every other claim to revelation.

    • Blake says:

      Heal thyself, doctor.

      You started with an insult and then grudgingly gave an assertion that wouldn’t pass for an argument in a freshman high school paper.

      Your comments are designed to stunt response–hence why you started with an insult–and you make no effort to demonstrate their validity. Of course, the escape I expect you will use is that the validity of your arguments is so obvious that only an idiot would ask for a clarification–another attempt at stunting dialogue.

      Should I conclude you wish to make the writer’s point for him?

  3. Phil says:

    This whole article is based on a misinterpretation of Grayling’s remarks, specifically the phrase “when one rejects the premises of a set of views”. It assumes that the premises of religion are rejected for no good reason, and indulges in further confusion based on that assumption.

    Since the original criticism was of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, this is wholly inappropriate, since The God Delusion is largely a critical examination of the premises of theistic belief, and the evidence on which they are based. They are not just rejected outright.

    Eagleton didn’t address these points, but dismissed them on the basis that Dawkins doesn’t understand religion deeply enough to criticise it at all. This vague assertion could be used to defend any nonsense. If I were to make an argument against the basis for believing in astrology, would it be invalid if you could produce a horoscope which I had not read?

    To make matters more ridiculous, Eagleton clearly implies that Dawkins cannot understand religion because he doesn’t believe in it. Effectively he is saying that only people who believe in religion can make valid criticisms of it.

    • Blake says:

      Dawkins only has two chapters of very, very poor argumentation. The rest is back-patting. That’s visible from the table of contents.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      As a counterpoint, would you accept the critique of someone ‘outside’ who wants to make sweeping pronouncements about geology, biology, history, or any other discipline? To offer any educated assessments we need to spend some time inside a given discipline.

      But engaging Eagleton or Dawkins isn’t the main point of the piece. It was to identify the conversation-ending Category Dismissal that Grayling employed, Eagleton predicted, and many New Atheists are guilty of.

      • Phil says:

        Exactly, but this “category dismissal” is misinterpreted. Just because someone rejects the premises of a set of views doesn’t mean they have done so without reason or without discussion. The point of Grayling’s comment is that if you cannot establish the basic premises of a religion, then all the theological details which are derived from these premises are irrelevant, since they are founded on nothing but supposition. The argument that you are not fit to comment if you have not examined every aspect of the religion is invalid. You only really need to examine it enough to establish whether it stands up. If not, the rest doesn’t matter.

        • jmichaelrios says:

          Then the conversation ends, doesn’t it?

          But if you (generally you, that is) insist on using Christian theology as a weapon of argument against Christians, then use it inappropriately, inaccurately, or ignorantly, it’s a pretty cheap defense to fall back on “but I disagree with your premises do it doesn’t matter anyways.”

          The point, maybe the main point, is this: if there is going to be discussion, then Category Dismissals have to go out the window. They aren’t arguments, they’re conversation stoppers.

        • Phil says:

          Any argument used inappropriately, inaccurately or ignorantly is obviously a poor argument. Category dismissals of the type suggested in this article are also poor arguments. And if that were all that Dawkins, Grayling or other atheists had to say, then there is no sensible discussion to be had.

          But this straw man characterisation of atheist argument just isn’t generally the case. It isn’t even the case in the specific example of Grayling’s comment. I’m sure there are straw men out there somewhere that could be used, but this just wasn’t one of them.

        • jmichaelrios says:

          Hey Phil, I don’t believe I’ve characterized all atheist argument as straw men, rather, I’ve identified that where category dismissal is in action, straw men result. If you dismiss the premises, then arguments which use the data of religion are frequently straw men.

          Also, to clarify, I wasn’t accusing Grayling of a straw man, I was accusing him of ad hominem. He dismisses Eagleton then accuses him (if you read the original London Review piece) of not knowing enough philosophy to talk about arguments. In other words, he doesn’t deal with Eagleton’s words, he attacks Eagleton’s character/qualifications. Classic ad hominem. Also a conversation ender.

          Thanks for continuing the discussion.

        • Phil says:

          “I’ve identified that where category dismissal is in action, straw men result”
          As you’ve characterised it, that would be true, but it doesn’t represent atheist argument as I’ve ever encountered it, which is why I’m saying it’s a straw man. You’re talking about rejecting the premises of religion on the basis of unreasoned beliefs or feelings. Graylings comments were not a defense of that. In fact, immediately after the section you quoted he went on to make that abundantly clear.

          “If you dismiss the premises, then arguments which use the data of religion are frequently straw men.”
          There’s no reason why that should be the case. You could refute a religion on the basis of its premises being unfounded, then refute it further on the basis of it being internally inconsistent, or immoral, or some other failing. In a strictly rational sense, the latter is redundant (though not invalid) if the former has already proved its point, but in the real world it’s more effective to make your case from as many angles as possible.

          “Thanks for continuing the discussion.”
          My pleasure, though I fear the page format is about to squeeze it out of existence ;)

  4. Face Palm says:

    “In his review, Eagleton argues that Dawkins’s assessment of Christian theology is, at best, fourth-rate”.

    This statement alone makes the article not worth reading. 4th rate knowledge of theology? lol He knows more about theology than 98% of Christians who have not read the bible.

    • Blake says:

      Have you seen him debate McGrath? He gets circles run around him. Largely because he doesn’t understand theological argumentation.

    • The clearest indication that Dawkins has no idea what he is talking about is when Dawkins attempts to refute Aquinas Five Ways. When Dawkins asks, “Who created God?” it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the argument itself, the derivation of an Uncaused Cause.

      Dawkins literally has no idea what he is talking about.

  5. Jeff Fuller says:

    I just find it tragic that people who are ostensibly champions of “free thought” barely tolerate it in others. Believing in freedom of thought is not just a “you can believe what you want, WRONG though it may be,” sort of nothing, but is more active than that. At its root, freedom of thought begins with the sobering realization of human errancy. Your thought may be valid because mine may be invalid. Dawkins and his kind (and plenty of Christians, too, it must be said) give lip service to freedom of thought, but their actions do not bear out that conviction.

  6. Deathray says:

    Eagleton’s screed against Dawkins was one long mouth-foaming tantrum from start to finish, and your post is in the same vein. Both are dishonest on several levels. First of all, Eagleton knows damn well that not one christian in 10,000 has read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope, or any of the other names in his orgy of name-dropping. Secondly, Eagleton has no hesitation in dismissing out of hand the theology of every other religion on earth, however little he knows about it. Anyway, if I reject the premise that the emperor is wearing clothes, there is no point in my engaging in a debate about the transcendental qualities of his flounces and brocades. Likewise, since christian theology takes it as axiomatic that a god exists and is the christian god, and Dawkins rejects this axiom, it would be the height of stupidity to try to engage him in a debate about the relative merits of neo-scholastic vs. Lublin Thomism. This point is so simple and obvious, I really cannot imagine that you have honestly failed to grasp it. Finally, it seems ironic that the same people who tell atheists, “shut up, you’re not entitled to disbelieve in god because you don’t have a PhD in theology”, are the ones complaining about Dawkins taking away their free speech.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Ray, thanks for taking the time to respond.

      I think it comes down to a matter of respect and common terms in an issue of debate. If Dawkins or anyone) wishes to dismiss Christians using Christian theology, or, rather, make sweeping pronouncements about the Christian religion using Christian theology as his weapon, then he needs to use that theology appropriately. Otherwise everything is either straw men or ad hominem. For example, I’m not a Mormon, but if the substance of my debate with a Mormon was, “I disagree with you. Furthermore, you wear special underwear, which is absurd.” Now, I might disagree with the Mormon, but to use that point of Mormon belief as a tool for attack is inimical to dialogue. If I’m going to have a dialogue, it must be on common ground, employing terms we can both use effectively. (For example, we’ll talk about things like revelation and the nature of faith, which, I believe, is the heart of the real disagreement.)

      So, the point of my article stands. To use a category dismissal (as Grayling has done) is a conversation ending argument, and not in a good way.

      • Jeff Fuller says:

        I think Ray has a point, though. Unfortunately for dialogue, debates about religion and similar matters start with an unspoken question that screams for category denial: the question of the existence of God. Atheists reject it without proof; Christians affirm it without proof. Both would say they have evidence to support their rejection/affirmation, and from their varying perspectives, both are correct. The answer to that first question dictates most of what comes after. I’ve read plenty of Nietzsche, for example. He makes a lot of sense, if you accept that there isn’t a God, or even that God is unknowable. If you reject that, his arguments are those of a raving lunatic. I’ve read the Bible quite a bit, and the more I read, the more it makes sense, but I can’t deny that part of the reason for that is that I have categorically rejected the non-existence of God. Can any of us be totally objective? I’m not sure. But that itself is part of the reason why other views need to be respected. I think a lot of Christians are already respectful (a lot aren’t), but I know a lot of anti-theists who need to learn the knack. Their ‘anything but religion’ position is as dogmatic and illiberal as any theology.

        • Jeff says:

          No honest atheist claims to have proof that there is no god. Atheists reject it because it’s rational to reject the incredible without evidence. There is no proof either way. There doesn’t need to be. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We make no absurd claims unless you believe requiring evidence before accepting the illogical and incredibly unlikely as fact is absurd.
          There are few religious people respectful of people who practice other religions and even less for those who know better than to practice any. The lack of respect atheists show the religious is appropriate. Just as you would show no respect to a supposedly intelligent adult who claimed that the Tooth Fairy was real. Absurd is still absurd even if it is widely accepted as true. Our “anything but religion’ position is as dogmatic as your ‘anything but the flat Earth theory’ would be and for one very important reason. Reason.
          The simple fact is religious belief is supported by absolutely no verifiable evidence and rational minds don’t accept the blatantly illogical just because we were taught it by people we trust.

  7. O says:

    Spectacular nonsense, this.

    In a nutshell, the reason Dawkins doesn’t feel that he needs to swot up on theology in sufficient detail to please the likes of Eagleton is that his central argument against the truth claims of theology is that they have absolutely no evidence to support them. Not a shred. Possessing a sound understanding of theology as a subject might have won him a few brownie points in debates with theologians, but his central premise can be summed up as: ‘I reject any conclusions which might be derived from a theological approach to understanding the world/reality/(non) existence because the basic premises on which all these formulations are based lack any evidence to support them’. That’s not ad hominem, that’s sound reasoning.

    It angers me to read the sort of nonsense the humanities are allowed to get away with sometimes. I study literature and admire much of what Eagleton has to say on Marxist theory, but part of the reason we get branded, as a faculty, for indulging in wishy-washy nonsense is that some of our more zealous representatives try to interfere in subjects which, by their nature, demand logical rigour without even bothering to adapt their argumentative technique.

    To take this a step further, Eagleton’s argument is rooted in critical theory. The basic premise of his argument against Dawkins, it seems, is that Dawkins’ New Atheism is inextricably tied up in a ‘liberal’ Humanist position, whose political connotations are dangerously close to those of liberal capitalism. Why couldn’t he stop there? I’d love to read Eagleton arguing about science as dogma, rationalism and capitalism, politics, culture – the sort of thing the Humanities exist to explore and defend.

    Instead, we end up with this bizarre attempt to equate fundamental aspects of human nature – things scientists simply aren’t interested in to the same extent – with the Christian faith. I don’t care how noble your principles are, if they are derived in any way from the belief in a supernatural deity then I simply cannot accept them. It boils down to a theological argument Dawkins actually addresses rather well – ‘any gap left by science and reason must be plugged by The Imaginary Friend’.

  8. Ludwig says:

    > 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.

    Wrong. Grayling responds with this: X does not need to
    study Y because Y (as demonstrated by Dawkins and others
    elsewhere) is false.


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