This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Honest Mistakes or Willful Mendacity

To prepare for my BBC Radio 4 discussion with John Cornwell, I read Cornwell's book Darwin's Angel: an angelic response to The God Delusion
(,761,The-Fourth-Flea,John-Cornwell). I'm not going to write a proper review of the book, but it set me thinking again about a common phenomenon, which I am finding increasingly irksome. This is a tendency for critics to read what their prejudices expect to see in a book rather than what is actually there. At first, I thought Cornwell was just another example of this. Now, having finished his book, I am wondering whether I was being too charitable. I am now wondering whether he is actively dishonest.

Magnus Linklater's rather effete piece of I'm-an-atheist-buttery
(,1604,Like-any-half-decent-atheist-Im-fond-of-a-bit-of-religion,Magnus-Linklater-Times-Online) is, I suspect, not deliberately dishonest. He writes

[Dawkins] compares those who take comfort from traditional religion to people stuck for the night on a bare mountain, who warm to the appearance of a large St Bernard dog, "not forgetting, of course, the brandy barrel around its neck".

To put it mildly, that gives a misleading picture of the role of the St Bernard in my book. Here's the relevant passage from The God Delusion, and you'll see that the St Bernard was part of a list of the kind of things consolation might mean to anyone. It was a preliminary exercise in tabulating the variety of types of consolation, before I began to tackle the question of whether, as a matter of fact, religion is consoling:

Consolation, in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, is the alleviation of sorrow or mental distress. I shall divide consolation into two types.

1. Direct physical consolation. A man stuck for the night on a bare mountain may find comfort in a large, warm St Bernard dog, not forgetting, of course, the brandy barrel around its neck. A weeping child may be consoled by the embrace of strong arms wrapped around her and reassuring words whispered in her ear.

2. Consolation by discovery of a previously unappreciated fact, or a previously undiscovered way of looking at existing facts. A woman whose husband has been killed in war may be consoled by the discovery that she is pregnant by him, or that he died a hero. We can also get consolation through discovering a new way of thinking about a situation. A philosopher points out that there is nothing special about the moment when an old man dies. The child that he once was "died' long ago, not by suddenly ceasing to live but by growing up. Each of the seven ages of man "dies' by slowly morphing into the next. From this point of view, the moment when the old man finally expires is no different from the slow "deaths' throughout his life. A man who does not relish the prospect of his own death may find this changed perspective consoling. Or maybe not, but it is an example of consolation through reflection.

As you see, I was simply trying to sort out two rather different meanings of the word 'consolation', not saying anything (yet) about religion at all. This should have been made doubly clear from the example of the war widow consoled by the discovery that she is carrying the child of her slain husband. Also the weeping child consoled by strong arms and reassuring whispers. Clearly this type of consolation has no necessary connection with religion at all, and equally clearly I am sympathetic to it, and am in no way sneering at it.

Now look at how John Cornwell handles this. He takes up the second of my two main categories of consolation, the one where we might gain consolation from a new way of thinking about familiar facts. Here is Cornwell's account of my philosopher's point about dying slowly as we progress through life's stages. (Don't be thrown by his use of the second person singular, by the way. The whole book is written in the form of an open letter to me.)

The atheist "philosopher's" view you cite argues that when an old man dies, "The child that he once was "died' long ago. . . From this point of view, the moment when the old man finally expires is no different from the slow 'deaths' throughout his life." Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer, and his family.

Do you see what Cornwell is up to here? First he puts the word "philosopher" in quotation marks, which can only have been intended sarcastically. In a footnote, I attributed the argument to Derek Parfit, who happens to be an extremely distinguished philosopher, author of the book Reasons and Persons, described by another eminent philosopher, Alan Ryan, as "something close to a work of genius". Even if Cornwell didn't see my attribution to Parfit, his sarcastic quotation marks were uncalled-for. How did he know whether I got the argument from a real philosopher that he respects, or not? Why be sarcastic?

Second, Cornwell describes my "philosopher" as an atheist, although I never said he was an atheist and Parfit's point would be just as valid whether he is or not. There never was any suggestion that the argument is an atheist argument, put by an atheist philosopher. That wasn't why I brought it up, not at all. Once again, Cornwell is reading what he expects to see, not what is actually there.

Third, as with the Linklater misreading, Cornwell seems to think that I am offering the (Parfit) argument as an atheistic alternative to religious consolation. Why else would he add the gratuitously sour sentence: "Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer . . ." Once again, I was offering the Parfit argument simply as an illustration to clarify the kind of thing that consolation can mean: the consolation we can derive from a new way of thinking about familiar facts.

Cornwell has a whole chapter called 'Dawkins versus Dostoyevsky'. The entire purpose of the chapter is to reply to what he believes is a misunderstanding, by me, of Dostoyevsky. Here's what Cornwell says:

There can be few people alive today who would boast ethical superiority over the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. You depict the powerful character of Ivan Karamazov, in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, as believing that if God does not exist then everything is permitted. In other words, a world without belief in God is bound to be a world of unbridled crime and sin. It does of course appear rather a crass viewpoint; and it surely seems odd that Dostoyevsky, as you claim, shared in that crassness.

But, for heaven's sake, I did not claim any such thing. Quite the reverse. Here's what I actually wrote:

It is widely believed that Dostoevsky was of that opinion, presumably because of some remarks he put into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov.

I should have thought the irony in my words would be obvious. Isn't it clear from "widely believed" and "presumably" that I was signalling my own scepticism at the widely believed notion that Dostoevsky himself agreed with Ivan.

After a long quotation from Ivan, I wrote:

Perhaps naively, I have inclined towards a less cynical view of human nature than Ivan Karamazov.

But now look at Cornwell's traducing of what I said:

You are happy to inform your readers, with the neat disclaimer -- "Perhaps naively' -- that you have inclined towards a less cynical view of human nature than Dostoevsky.

See what Cornwell has outrageously done? He has replaced "Ivan Karamazov" in my sentence with "Dostoevsky" in his paraphrase, in order to fit in with his allegation that I attribute Ivan Karamazov's view to Dostoevsky himself. What do you think, is that an honest mistake or deliberate mendacity? Either way, he bases an entire chapter on this one misreading of what I wrote, putting me straight, as he thinks, on Dostoevsky. He even has the cheek to say:

There seems to be a misunderstanding between you and the great novelist, perhaps as a result of your misreading of his work . . .

My misreading? My misunderstanding? Please!

But if that is irritating, the following is gratuitously offensive. Cornwell is talking about Dostoevsky's reading of nineteenth century thinkers. He mentions Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Utopian Marxism, and "a set of ideas that you would have applauded — Social Darwinism." Does Cornwell seriously imagine that I would applaud Social Darwinism? Nobody nowadays applauds Social Darwinism, and I have been especially outspoken in my condemnation of it (see, for example, the title essay that begins A Devil's Chaplain).

My final example from Cornwell's book may seem trivial, but I think it is indicative. In TGD I needed, in passing, to explain the phenomenon known as genetic linkage. Having done so, I wanted to point out that, in this particular case, the technical term and the colloquial term happen to be identical. The way I chose to put this was by jesting allusion to the proverbial medical doctor's fondness for technical jargon: "You are suffering from what we doctors call a bellyache." So I borrowed this jocular idiom and said "We doctors call that kind of linkage linkage'. My 'we doctors' construction was an obviously facetious way of saying "The technical name for this phenomenon is 'linkage." Now see what Cornwell does with it:

You refer to believers as "faith sufferers", and you refer to you and your associates as "we doctors".

Tell me, is that or is that not a clear case of out-and-out dishonesty? At very least, it certainly looks suspiciously like petty malice: trawling my pages to find something unpleasant to say. Surely Cornwell could not possibly have been unfamiliar with the doctor idiom that I was parodying. Even if he was, since the topic under discussion was genetic linkage and nothing to do with religion, the implication of his censorious remark is preposterously inapproriate. This is only a small example, but a man who can do that . . . can you trust anything he says? And now, if you look back at the other examples I gave, doesn't it make you less inclined to excuse them too as honest mistakes?



Viewpoints: Why is faith falling in the...

- - BBC News Comments

A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.

Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The...

- - human rights first Comments

Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions”

Update - Too crazy even for the...

Ed Kilgore - Political Animal Comments

update - too crazy even for the evangelical right
Barton’s Fall From Grace

David Barton says his documents prove that the Founding Fathers were deeply religious men who built America on Christian ideas - but do his sources check out?

Pussy Riot's closing statement

Cory Doctorow - BoingBoing Comments

Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich has given a tremendous closing statement, which is a masterful summary of Russian oligarchy

Refuting Richard: Dawkins Doesn’t “Get”...

Graham Veale - Saints & Sceptics? Comments

Refuting Richard: Dawkins Doesn’t “Get” God

Witchcraft-based child abuse: Action...

- - BBC News Comments

The government has launched an action plan to tackle child abuse linked to witchcraft or religion in England.



Rats Manipulated to be Attracted to Cats

Richard Dawkins - Comments

Rats Manipulated to be Attracted to Cats

No Precedent? Then Set One!

Richard Dawkins - Comments

No Precedent? Then Set One?

Why I won't take part in debate with...

Richard Dawkins - for the Press and... Comments

I was invited several months ago to speak at the Faclan Book Festival in Stornoway and I was delighted to accept, as I have a great affection for the Highlands and Islands but have never visited Lewis and have heard such good things about its beauty and about the friendliness of the islanders.

It's What Moral Philosophers Do

Richard Dawkins - Comments

It's What Moral Philosophers Do

You don’t need God to be good . . . or...

Richard Dawkins - - Comments

Freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists – whatever name non-believers go under, they are not America’s most popular minority.

The Descent of Edward Wilson (with...

Richard Dawkins - Prospect 188 Comments

Richard Dawkins's review of The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O Wilson (WW Norton, £18.99, May) - (with Polish translation)



Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment