Richard Dawkins the Literalist

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The BBC has put up some excerpts from Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion. I could say a lot about his screed [Update: see Siris for some of that], but one thing struck me as worth a quick post. In the second excerpt, Dawkins takes on the very idea of calling terrorists evil, because I guess he doesn't think it's possible to try to understand why someone does something while calling what they do evil. I guess he can join some in the religious right on that one. Explaining someone's actions and evaluating them as good or evil are two entirely different tasks. Anyway, in that context Dawkins decides he should complain about the phrase "war on terror". He thinks those using this phrase are thinking "as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own".

One academic I know fairly well has made fun of the president for speaking of evil as if it's a great force that we are at war with, and I think Dawkins has made the same mistake. Dawkins complains of people who take the Bible literally in the first excerpt of this book. In the second excerpt, he makes fun of people in a way that shows that he's taking something literally that was never intended to be a literal statement. No one thinks that Western nations have engaged in a war with some abstract force with a mind of its own. That's not what anyone thinks the war on terror is. It's an example of a very common literary form called metonymy.

But here's what's interesting about Dawkins' statement. I've never seen him make fun of people who engage in a crusade against breast cancer, as if breast cancer is some abstract spiritual force that takes over people's bodies and makes strange things grow where they shouldn't be. I don't see snide remarks against those who engage in the war on poverty, as if poverty is a spirit with a will. I haven't even found any comments on the war on drugs, although I'd be less surprised to see those. Dawkins isn't really serious about this linguistic claim, or he'd be applying it more universally. I think he's simply saying anything he can when it comes to his pet issues, because he knows it can be rhetorically effective among the civilized crowd (i.e. the ones who don't take the Bible very seriously and don't admit that anything is evil once you can explain why people do it). The problem is that he has to sound linguistically insensitive to score such points. I don't consider that a good trade.

Update: Terry Eagleton's review of Dawkins' book is here. I can't do justice to it by summarizing, but he gives the book a real thrashing.
Update 2: Here's another review [hat tip: Trent Dougherty]

6 Comments

"In the second excerpt, Dawkins takes on the very idea of calling terrorists evil, because I guess he doesn't think it's possible to try to understand why someone does something while calling what they do evil."

A more charitable possibility: He assumes that the essence of evil is a de dicto motivation to do wrong, which jihadists (along with everyone else) presumably lack.

Textual support: "they [terrorists] are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them."

(Though I think these can count as evil motivations in a 'de re' sense. That is, it is evil to be motivated to violence by religion, even if it isn't one's appreciation of the evilness that is doing the motivating.)

But does anyone really think what they're doing is wrong? Maybe I'm just too Platonic on that issue, but I think we deceive ourselves into thinking we're not really doing what's wrong.

Either way, it's clear that he doesn't think they see it as evil, but I just don't see how that makes it not evil.

Yeah, I agree. I think we should simply use the word 'evil' to mean 'gravely immoral'. But it does seem that many people instead reserve the term for those who would do wrong for its own sake, like the villains in epic fictions with their "I'm going to destroy all that's good in the world, bwa-ha-ha" attitude. The fact that this attitude is never found in real life is precisely why some (apparently including Dawkins) deny that there is any 'evil', in this sense. I'm sure they all agree that there is grave wrongdoing, however, so this seems merely a terminological dispute.

It's a terminological dispute about what we should use the word for, and that's a fine dispute to have. My problem is that it's a linguistic mistake to assume that what he wants to reserve the word for is what everyone uses it for. So maybe it turns out that both of the things I was complaining about are linguistic mistakes, though mistakes about very different kinds of linguistic facts.

Hi Parableman,
I can hardly bare to read any of Dawkins propaganda, but I have always wondered how he defines evil -assuming that his universe is stricly a closed materialistic affair,what is his definition of evil?
Surely evil cannot exist in such a universe, just the compulsion of chemical forces ?
Any standard adopted would be arbitary and relativistic -so an 'evil' would depend on the time it occurred in -for as Francis Schaeffer used to say what is unacceptable today becomes acceptable tomorrow.Standards are relativistic.
Cheers,
Mike

If evil is some supernatural force, then of course he doesn't believe in it. But if it's just immorality, he can accept an account of that. It wouldn't be an account that connects evil with anything like rejecting God's commands, but most ethical theories don't do that.

I agree that it would be arbitrary in the sense that you can't argue for it in a way that isn't question-begging. But that certainly doesn't amount to relativism. Since I just had this conversation, I won't repeat it here. See the comments on this post from Jonathan's September 26, 2006 12:59 PM comment through my September 26, 2006 07:29 PM comment.

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