Eagleton on Dawkins; me on astrology

 points us to Terry Eagleton’s review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, from the London Review of Books back in October. It won’t surprise you that I am on Eagleton’s side of this debate; since I’m up early due to B waking us at 5.30, I have been looking through the ‘net for other reactions. Marilynne Robinson did a less polemical, longer, and more intellectual takedown of Dawkins for Harper’s. Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, writing for The Times, defends Dawkins:

Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.

Actually, that’s not what Eagleton is saying; expressing opinions is fine. Everybody votes, but I would prefer to read a book on politics by someone who is professionally engaged in it rather than someone who just happens to have strong views. Most people in the world have formed their opinions on religion without reading Aquinas or even Dawkins first. But before you write a book-length essay debunking something, you should make the effort to understand it in its own terms; otherwise you run the risk of becoming polemical and cartooney, as Dawkins appears to have done (I haven’t read his book or seen the TV series, and don’t feel especially inclined to, based on what I’ve read from both supporters and opponents).

And this applies also to astrology. As it happens, I have studied astrology, and do know how to cast a horoscope; my M Phil dissertation was on a twelfth-century text by the little-known scholar Roger of Hereford. One of the best known astrologers and mathematicians of his age, he argued for a rigorous mathematical approach to the subject. As a result of my in depth research, I am even more convinced than I ever was that astrology is bunk; but also because I went to the trouble of getting into Roger’s mind and trying to understand what he thought he was doing, I would like to feel that my views are better informed, maybe even more authoritative. I wrote this history of astrology for this encyclopedia many years ago, but the best analysis I have read is this book, taking it on its own terms and demonstrating its utter inconsistency.

Dawkins’ failure to engage with religion and theology on similar terms is to his discredit.

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