Terry Eagleton, Richard Dawkins and the Book of British Birds

“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.”
This is a much quoted line from Terry Eagleton’s review of the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
It deploys a common accusation that’s made against atheists in general: that their knowledge of theology is so superficial that it renders their arguments worthless. This line of attack as an attempt to neutralise atheism should be used with care, as I suspect that quite a few atheists, including Dawkins, do indeed have a very respectable understanding of the philosophies underpinning theology – thus making this particular argument against them worthless itself and showing the argument up for the petty barricade-building that it is.
What’s more, the argument can be turned round. It has to be taken into account that, due to the fact that there are only twenty four hours in a day in which to study anything at all, anyone who’s totally immersed in any one subject must be have an impoverished knowledge of others. The consequence of this is that anyone who has found the time to become fully conversant with all aspects of theology will be sadly lacking in knowledge of other subjects, such as the biology that Eagleton mentions. And a deep knowledge of other subjects, such as biology and all other sciences, is surely essential in order to put theology into perspective. The upshot of this is that an expert on theology is thus rendered unqualified to speak on theology. Following my reading of Eagleton’s argument at any rate.

Eagleton’s declaration of Dawkins’ lack of knowledge prompts the following question: how much knowledge of theology do you actually need in order to form an opinion on its veracity?
To answer this it may be an idea to reframe the question in Eagleton’s own entertainingly rhetorical style.
How much theology (or biology) do you have to know to realise that the Book of British Mythological Creatures is a work of fantasy?



Filed under Philosophy, Religion/atheism, Science

4 responses to “Terry Eagleton, Richard Dawkins and the Book of British Birds

  1. Michael

    Eagleton himself doesn’t profess extensive theological knowledge, so the premise of this argument is weak, it seems to me. His principal claim is that Dawkins is so ignorant of the ABC’s of the theological tradition (for whatever it may be worth) that the thing he argues there isn’t one of, is something Catholic fifth graders of Eagleton’s day were *also* taught to believe there isn’t one of. It in fact takes two or three days of study to see that no passingly orthodox church affirms what Dawkins spends so many hundreds of pages denying. Try “How to be an Atheist” by D. Turner.

  2. victor

    The question to Richard Dawkins or to you perhaps, should be, what do you know about Jesus Christ and would you really want to know?
    Inquiring non-theological minds want to know.

  3. Andre Forget

    You make a couple of quite interesting points. First, in your discussion of Eagleton’s critique of Dawkins, you argue that Dawkins and other atheists do, in fact, have a reasonably good understanding of the philosophies underpinning religious (and particularly Christian thought), and that Eagleton is essentially dodging the bullet by “barricade-building.” I think that this is, perhaps, a little unfair. First of all, Eagleton’s comments in his review for the LRB are based on the representation of religious thought that Dawkins puts forward in his book; therefore, regardless of what Dawkins actually knows, Eagleton is responding to Dawkins’s failure to show in his writing that he has correctly understood orthodox Christian positions. He is not trying to neutralize atheism so much as he is urging atheism to respond to the actual particulars of Christian belief rather than a straw man devised for polemical reasons. As far as Eagleton’s barricade building, that comment assumes that Eagleton is actually a religious individual interested in defending the faith. Although I do not actually know what Eagleton believes about religion, I do know from what I’ve read of him (particularly in After Theory, but also Sweet Violence and Literary Theory) that he is also deeply critical and skeptical about religion. He often comments on his Catholic upbringing, but it was an upbringing that I believe he left behind him, although as I said I am not sure where he stands at this point in his life. Based on my experience of reading Eagleton, I would argue that while he often cannot resist a cheap shot, when it comes down to the line he has a highly critical mind which is interested in taking on all kinds of intellectual folly, both of the liberal/materialist/atheist sort and of the right wing/fundamentalist sort. Which is, I believe, where we should all be.
    The second point that you bring up, your argument about specialization, is also, I believe, a little too straightforward. As you point out, there is only so much time for study (alas!), and so there is a certain degree of specialization which is inevitable. So, a doctorate in theology will be acquainted with the nuances of religion in a way that a doctorate in biology will not be, and the biologist in turn will be privy to knowledge that that theologian will not have. This is true, and that is why it is important for people like Dawkins and Eagleton to write books (not that Eagleton is a theologian, but you get the idea). Dawkins writes as he does in order to disseminate the knowledge he has spent many years getting in a way that is accessible to the lay person – instead of taking a degree in biology, I can spend a couple of weeks reading a book and have a fairly good idea of the basics. In this case, however, Dawkins is treating something he has no formal education in (theology). Eagleton’s argument is not that Dawkins shouldn’t do this, but rather that Dawkins should do it more responsibly; there are plenty of valid criticisms of religion to be made, but they require a certain degree of nuance, subtlety, and an understanding of the philosophical basis upon which religion is founded, as any good criticism does. To argue that no one can write about a discipline they are not completely immersed in is, I think, too limiting, and ultimately leaves us all stranded in our particular disciplines and unable to speak with each other. But, if I want to investigate the current economic situation from a philosophical point of view, I had damn well better bone up on my economics; I don’t need to get a ph.d, but I should at least read some books by the movers and shakers in economics and get an idea for what that field looks like, and the arguments within it. Eagleton is, when you cut through his sometimes too grandiloquent rhetoric, simply saying that Dawkins’ argument was too narrow in its understanding of it’s subject matter to apply in any significant way; whatever legitimate philosophical disagreements Dawkins might have with religion (his opinions sound like those of a philosophical materialist, springing the the British empiricist movement of the eighteenth century, whereas most religions are of a more platonic bent, or at least predicated on general Realist notions) his failure to actually to properly name those disagreements in a way that religious people would be able to see themselves in his representation of them hampers his ability to actual make the criticisms he wants to make.
    As for your comment about how theologians need to understand biology in order to talk about theology, I am inclined to agree. However, there are a number of theologians who are cross-trained as biologists or scientists (John Polkinghorne, for example, or Robert Russell, or Ian Hutchinson, or Theodosius Dobzhansky). Their arguments about science and theology tend to understand science and theology as complimentary rather than competing discussions of the human condition. Their work is fascinating, and I think quite sophisticated. Which is merely to say that this sort of interdisciplinary work does happen, albeit rarely.
    This has been a long response to a short comment, for which I apologize. I simply felt that your discussion of the whole Eagleton/Dawkins mess could benefit from some nuance. I welcome your own response.

  4. Richard Dawkins and his way of speaking has helped me make a nice clean transition from superstitious thinking and illogical religious belief to rational thinking and reason. My life has never been better.

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