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.

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  • aethertrekker

    “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?”

    What’s sad about this is that Christians great and small echo this pointless criticism.

    To quote the overrated G.K. Chesterton: ” There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of decadent ages like our own: and already Mr. H. G. Wells has raised its ruinous banner; he has written a delicate piece of skepticism called “Doubts of the Instrument.” In this he questions the brain itself, and endeavors to remove all reality from all his own assertions, past, present, and to come. But it was against this remote ruin that all the military systems in religion were originally ranked and ruled. The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defense of reason.” He then goes on to talk about how the theory of evolution exemplifies thought destructive questioning.

    Chesterton, who did know how to write a good murder mystery, is often considered close to the cream of the crop of Christian apologetics, probably because of his counter-intuitive rhetoric.

    The truth is that it’s especially healthy to question the effectiveness of the brain’s reasoning powers. We need to know what we’re best at knowing and where we tend to err. If I had questioned my brain earlier, I would have discovered more human vulnerabilities to things like statistical sampling errors much earlier, and I probably would have been freed from Christianity much earlier.

  • the chaplain

    For all their prattle about how morally superior their brand of theism is to all other religions and philosophies and, especially, atheism, several prominent Christian apologists habitually obfuscate, lie, misdirect and otherwise speak and behave in morally questionable ways. I agree with you – I’ll take atheists and humanists over these wretchedly poor ambassadors of faith any day.

  • Erika

    The tendency for uncharitable interpretation hit me close to home recently. I posted a quote that I found inspiring in my personal journal.

    If religion was true then the more we studied it the more its truth should shine out, instead the experience of many people is that the more they study it the less sense it makes.

    I did not mean for this to turn into a debate. I just thought it was a neat statement and wanted to preserve it for myself and share it. However, I got responses like the following which makes the tired assumption that scientific reasoning is the only form that atheists will accept

    If religion could be proven or disproven simply by thinking about it, what would the point of faith be? Religion is not science, it should not be treated as such, from both sides of the issue mind you. If you seek religion from the same frame of mind you seek the answers to math problems, no it won’t be very appealing, but then it never claimed to be that way.

    and this one, which interprets the statement in a way it that is clearly over analyzing it

    The first part of that statement is incoherent. It is like saying “If philosophy were true…”. Religion, like philosophy, (and neuro-chemical patterns!) is not the sort of thing that can be true or false. That can only particular said of particular religious or philosophical statements.

    Statements about my atheism are held to a much higher standard of precision than, for example, statements about politics where my friends have opinions that largely overlap with mine. It is annoying to be held to a different standard just because they hold a different set of beliefs.

  • Greta Christina


    I’m sure every atheist blogger has run into this: Christian or other theistic commenters who act as if they’re merely trying to understand and/or to debate, but who are really only interested in playing “Gotcha.” Nitpicking with minor, offhand points you make while ignoring the main point; putting the worst possible interpretation on what you’ve written, and then arguing with that.

    It’s almost as if they’re being deliberately obnoxious and obtuse. And sometimes I think they are. But more often, I think it’s unconscious: they can’t allow themselves to take the larger ideas seriously and debate them seriously, since that might put chinks in the armor of their faith. So they play “Gotcha!” — and think they’ve successfully debated you and defended their faith.

  • terrence

    Erika that quote is absolutely fantastic. Do you have an attribution? Reminds me of another favorite, “If a thing is true, why would you need ‘faith’”? If a thing is not true, no amount of ‘faith’ will make it true.”

  • Erika

    The quote was from a user with the handle Oliver_York on this discussion.

  • virginia

    My friend calls this “the art of missing the point” — so often Christians chooses to miss ANY valid points from whoever opposes their faith, and dig on extremely trivial ones (or they trivialize your importint points).

    In that critique of God Delusion, again a similar trick.

  • silentsanta

    I do recall this article from Dalrymple. At the time, I felt it was a terrible shame, as I have enjoyed a number of his other writings, and I felt his stance here was both pretentious and childish. It hasn’t improved with a second viewing.

  • virginia

    Erika, apart from the tendency of uncharitable interpretation, there’s also another twist, the tendency to throw out numerous interpretation to dilute the most plausible interpretation. My experience is on a post regarding local Christian leaders leaning towards the establishments, and there are years of observations and facts to substantiate — my Christian friend simply “brainstorm” all kinds of interpretation in a attempt to steer away from the sticky part — and when I insist she start with facts, she said I am “obsessed with facts” and that the PERSONS (I mentioned in my post) cannot be undestood without considering the “intentions” — my post never pointed at the PERSONS, and that’s how she tried to dilute my points.

  • Stephen Newport

    well said.

  • Chris Swanson

    I think people like this try to take all these quotes literally, except when they don’t, because they take the Bible literally, except when they don’t.

  • mikespeir


    I visited your site but somebody scribbled all over it. ;) (How’s that for linguistic chauvinism!)

    What you said above hit home with me: ‘…my Christian friend simply “brainstorm” all kinds of interpretation in a attempt to steer away from the sticky part….’ I remember so well doing that myself as a Christian.

  • Adele

    I feel as if I really should mention… the New Ten Commandments on EbonMusings hit so close to my heart when I was still wavering on the issue of religion that I feel as if they were nearly as pivotal to my conversion to atheism as The God Delusion. I would just like to thank you SO MUCH for those – they brought together neatly EVERYTHING I had been feeling and thinking and tied it up in a little package with a beautiful bow. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Marie Louise Noonan

    He does this to his own patients, aka ‘the underclass’. Dalrymple is like the school bully: everyone else in the class cheers him on until he turns on them.