The Rule of Uncharitable Interpretation

Although it was written in late 2007, I only just came across this review of The God Delusion by Theodore Dalrymple of The City Journal. Most of it simply repeats the usual red herrings, which I won’t bother with. However, it does mention one section of Dr. Dawkins’ book that is near and dear to me:

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for atheists, which he obtained from an atheist website, without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at all, let alone precisely ten of them, nor does their metaphysical status seem to worry him.

There is nothing special or magical about the number ten. I explain this clearly in my essay: my new ten commandments were intended as an update to the antiquated Judeo-Christian decalogue, a rebuttal to those apologists who claim that no other list of ten commandments could equal or surpass the original. I consider that not only possible but easy, so I wrote this by way of demonstration.

As far as atheists requiring commandments, I explained this in my post “No Commandments“. We have no commandments in the religious sense, as in a list of unquestionable edicts handed down from on high, but we do have moral rules that are based in reason and that govern how we should treat each other to produce the greatest happiness for all. That’s why my essay discarded the “Thou shalt nots” and instead gave justifications for each rule. Dalrymple would know all of this if he had read it.

The last of the atheist’s Ten Commandments ends with the following: “Question everything.” Everything? Including the need to question everything, and so on ad infinitum?

Again, Dalrymple is tripped up by the fact that he failed to read my essay before criticizing it. I explained this clearly:

This commandment does not call for an epistemologically hopeless solipsism or a nihilistic skepticism where all knowledge dissolves into a fog of uncertainty. On the contrary, we should recognize that there are some truths that, while they cannot be proven, are so basic and important to our knowledge of the world (for example, the efficacy of induction) that it would be futility itself to discard them. Instead, this commandment calls for the questioning of everything that can be profitably questioned, every proposition that has the potential to be replaced with something better.

What Dalrymple does not grasp is that I am not calling for perpetual questioning. I intend that questions be asked so that answers may be found. Although truth is never proved beyond all possibility of doubt, there does come a point when an answer may be provisionally accepted, unless and until future evidence turns up that should cause us to reevaluate our beliefs. It would be foolish, as he envisions, to try to disprove George Washington’s existence, because the evidence is so strong.

Really, this is the most ordinary, reasonable interpretation of what I wrote. Dalrymple’s complaint arises only because he is determined to be uncharitable to myself and the other New Atheists. Like a crooked lawyer scrutinizing a contract for loopholes, he parses everything we’ve written, trying to find even one interpretation – no matter how unreasonable – that would give him an excuse to attack or condemn us.

He does this to other atheists as well. Sam Harris comes in for the usual ignorant treatment, as Dalrymple reads his famous sentence – “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them” – and decides that it is an endorsement of genocide. Again, in context, Harris’ point clearly is in reference to the fanatics who think their faith gives them a right to violently impose their will on everyone.

Dalrymple also whines about Christopher Hitchens’ line, “Religion poisons everything”, saying that it has not poisoned Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or the Cathedral of Chartres. Only the most deliberately obtuse interpretation of Hitchens could make this a valid rebuttal. This is not, as he imagines, a claim that every single thing connected to or inspired by religion is bad. It is a claim that religion has had negative effects on every area of human relations, creating potential for division, intolerance and violence where none would otherwise exist.

Dalrymple’s piece ends with a question of who sounds “more charitable, more generous, more just”. Since Sam Harris and the bishop he quotes are talking about different things, this hardly seems like a fair comparison. But in general, if he wants a contest of eloquence, I’ll take him up on it any day. I have already done so, in “The Errors of Faith“. If he wants to know who is more profound or more humane, I’ll take atheists and humanists any day over the awful violence and hatred still enshrined in the pages of our supposedly sacred books.

Repost: So Wrong For So Long: On Liberal Biblical Reinterpretation
Repost: Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Repost: The World Is Changing and the Churches Are Afraid
Repost: If I Were an Unethical Atheist
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.