“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?