Blogging has opened up a surprisingly leisurely and thorough subgenre of criticism — I wouldn’t call it “fisking” because it’s more civil, but it’s related. One good example I’ve seen is over at Higgaion, where Christopher Heard is reading (actually, listening to) Richard Dawkins’s best-seller The God Delusion and making astute commentary. If you’re like me — interested in the book but unlikely to have time to read it — Heard’s critique is clear and detailed and seems unaffected by his ultimate allegiance. No other review I’ve seen comes close to this one in quality, at least as far as it goes. And because it’s so thorough it also puts the question to those who defend Dawkins’s every move, no matter how foolish.
Here’s part of Heard’s commentary on Chapter 3, Part 1:
“At this point in the chapter, Dawkins pauses to take a swipe at the concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. Before analyzing Dawkins’s comments, I should reveal that I have no great love for either term. The concepts of omniscience and ominpotence are, from my point of view as a student of the Hebrew Bible, Johnny-come-latelies who have little to do with the biblical portrayal of God…. With that bias out on the table, you will understand why I am not going to try to defend the concepts of omnipotence and omniscience as such against Dawkins’s snarky ‘critique.’
“Neither, however, am I going to affirm that Dawkins has put forward a strong critique of either notion. He hasn’t (at least, not at this point in chapter 3). Dawkins’s entire aside consists of a thin claim that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. ‘If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent’ (2:38:26). That’s the entire substance of Dawkins’s argument against these concepts (at least by this point in chapter 3). It is by no means incumbent upon Dawkins to oppose these concepts at all in order to disprove (or stack up large probabilities against) the God Hypothesis, since the God Hypothesis as Dawkins has stated it does not apply either label, much less both, to the creative intelligence that it does posit. Here again we have a red herring. On the other hand, if Dawkins is going to take swipes at specific theological dogmas, he needs to understand them.
“The philosophical-theological literature teems with controversy over just how omnipotence and omniscience are to be understood. The incompatibility that Dawkins asserts is only a genuine incompatibility if one defines omniscience as a factual knowledge of every actual state of affairs, past, present, and future, and if one defines omnipotence simply as the power to do anything at all. Some theologians have written entire books objecting to one, the other, or both of these simplistic definitions.”
Way too many unbelievers in the blogosphere respond like party hacks when faced with this sort of criticism. Most guilty is PZ Meyers of the popular blog Pharyngula, whose forte is shooting creationist fish in a barrel. Equally disappointing, though more polite, have been Mark Trodden at Cosmic Variance and Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog. (These bloggers were responding to short published reviews that made the same point, though perhaps not as clearly; to my knowledge none of them has paid Heard any attention, but I could’ve missed it.)
PZ Meyers asks, “Why the hell should anyone have to take the frilly excuses of theology seriously?” If you’re convinced (as he is) that religion is evil and should be eradicated, then you have to undertake the same unpleasant task that you would if you sought to eradicate the uncritical worship of George W. Bush. You have to understand why and how it happens. Randomly thundering against it in general, focusing on side issues instead of the main one (and misunderstanding them), and claiming you don’t need to know anything about it, are unproductive strategies. They’re unproductive in themselves, and they make even sympathetic observers conclude that you’re not serious.