Politics: September 2006 Archives

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]

In the wake of my internal criticisms of the religious right (which in turn were spurred on by Joe Carter's), Jollyblogger offers some of his own thoughts. I pretty much agree with all of his major points.

Joe Carter has a beautiful post on the religious right that I feel compelled to echo. Joe and I both consider ourselves part of the religious right under a broad reading of that term. We're both political conservative, religious conservative, and evangelical Christians. His post is what follows the 'but' in a "yes, but..." attitude that he frequently finds himself having in response to what many on the religious right have to say.

I especially appreciate his desire to see people on the religious right beginning to recognize that things that are of political importance should not be equated with the primary purpose of Christians, who ought (according to the words of Jesus and several apostles) to consider their primary identity in the kingdom of God, which is the rule of God in the lives of believers in a way that influences society but is not about making people carry the outward trappings of faith without the faith itself. Several ways the religious right leaders express themselves seem to me to contradict the very purpose for God to have believers engaged with non-Christian culture, and sometimes I think actual views (or at least emphasis on certain views and not on others) stands in stark contrast to biblical views or emphases (with homosexuality as the most obvious case, something I wish Joe had said something about, but I'll come back to that at the end).

A couple places I might say things differently (or perhaps you could think of these as my "yes, but ..." back to Joe):

The top Vatican bioethicist has spoken out against the new stem cell method that seems to be able to produce embryonic stem cells without killing embryos. [hat tip: Mark Olson] One might expect pro-lifers might be cautious in case the facts are not as they have been presented. Still, this sort of criticism is a little surprising. Is this really the standard Catholic view? It seems to me to be based on very strange reasoning.

As far as the article reports, this is the reasoning. This method relies on in vitro fertilization, which the Roman Catholic Church opposes in general. I understand the argument that in vitro fertilization if immoral as it's often practiced, with far more embryos created than are implanted to be developed. A consistent pro-life view will oppose that practice. But opposing in vitro fertilization in principle? That just seems irrational. The explanation seems to be that in vitro fertilization necessarily replaces conjugal relations in a way that artificial insemination may or may not do so. So artificial insemination can be ok or wrong, depending on whether it replaces conjugal relations. But in vitro fertilization always replaces conjugal relations.

This argument makes absolutely no sense. How many people who engage in in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination do so to avoid having sex? The only people I can think of are single moms who have someone donate sperm without engaging in sex, but I would hope the Catholic church doesn't oppose unmarried people not having sex. The ordinary married couple who uses in vitro methods to conceive is not doing so to avoid sex. They're doing so because sex is insufficient to cause conception in their case, and they're hoping in vitro methods will succeed. That doesn't mean they've abstaining from sexual relations. People do abstain from sexual relations for reasons other than prayer if they're using natural family planning to avoid conception, and that does go against biblical teaching, but that isn't what goes on in the ordinary case of in vitro fertilization. This objection just doesn't make any sense.

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