Dawkins, the Bible, and titles

Richard Dawkins was recently on a BBC radio affiliate where he cited a poll which showed that only 35% of British Christians could identify Matthew as the first book of the New Testament. From this (in part), he was making the point that people in his home country aren’t as religious as most people think. That’s a fine argument, but I will leave it for now. I want to focus on the response he got from another guest on the show, Giles Fraser, former canon chancellor of St. Paul’s in London. Fraser asked Dawkins to recite the full name of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Dawkins responded:

“‘On The Origin Of Species’ … Uh. With, Oh God. ‘On The Origin Of Species.’ There is a subtitle with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

That’s pretty close. The actual title is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, which is more than a mouthful. But it wouldn’t matter if Dawkins couldn’t get past the first part of the title everyone knows. The poll he was citing in regards to Christians asked them a simple factoid, a mere piece of trivia. One would expect a high number to know it; to call oneself Christian is to profess a belief in a book. And not just any belief(s). We’re talking about the most profound beliefs a person can hold. It is not unreasonable to expect people to be familiar with a book on which they have placed their eternal salvation.

And there’s the difference. Dawkins’ has not placed some holy importance on Darwin’s work. He obviously views the man as tremendously important to scientific and human history – and rightly so – but that has nothing to do eternity. It has nothing to do with salvation. The Bible does. That makes it logically invalid to compare a biologist’s specific knowledge of a long-string of words to a Christian’s general knowledge of what Christians profess to believe as a matter of determining what happens to their soul.

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12 Responses

  1. Though you must admit, it is a little chuckle-worthy that Dawkins couldn’t remember.

    Dawkins forgetting the long-form name of Origin is a bit like forgetting mercury’s atomic number or the name of the first primary school you attended: It’s no big deal because you can always look it up if you need it. Since our immortal souls and our relationships with the divine and eternal are presumably at stake with the Bible, forgetting parts of it is more akin to forgetting your wife’s name – not immediately lethal but definitely not something which will get you in anyone’s good books.

  2. This is a pretty funny incident. When I saw that poll, I was amazed that 35% of Christians did know the first book of the book. After all, we’re talking about mere order of chapters in the book; it’s not as if they mixed up Jesus and Satan.

    By the way, you can have the same fun asking Econ nerds what’s the full title of The Wealth of Nations. Hortensio, can you name it without looking it up (mine was just just as garbled as Dawkins)

  3. Hmm.

    I came up with: ‘An Inquiry Into the Wealth of Nations’.

    SoI only missed about . . . half of the words. Dang it. >.<

  4. Do you regard knowledge of the names of and order of the books in the New Testament as trivia or a profound belief? If you would answer the former then why would you regard ignorance of trivia as damning of a person’s professed Christianity? If you would answer the latter then please explain how such knowledge is a profound belief central to Christianity.

    If one accepts atheism, Christianity cannot possibly be said to concern the most profound beliefs a person can hold. The incarnation, the resurrection and the atonement, for example, are profound beliefs from a theistic viewpoint but insensible nonsense from an atheistic viewpoint. Which one do you agree with?

  5. It’s trivia, but it’s trivia which is directly connected to a profound belief. I would expect more than 35% of Christians polled to get the answer right. That isn’t to say that 65% are therefore not devoted to their beliefs, but it does call into question their familiarity with their beliefs. At any rate, if you look at the other poll results you can see that their devotion is called into question; I think Dawkins should have used a different result to illustrate his point.

    To answer your second paragraph, I am an atheist. However, I don’t see what relevance that particularly holds here.

  6. You interpret the data much more carefully than Dawkins did then; Dawkins went much further than you in his conclusions.

    How is the particular piece of trivia you reference directly related to a profound belief? What belief?

    My second paragraph is certainly relevant. In fact combine it with your answer and it completely decimates the point you attempt to make in the post. You distinguish between Dawkins’s Darwinism and the Christianity of the survey respondents on the basis of profundity. That Christians have a responsibility to know all the facts, even the trivia, about Christianity because they stake their souls on it, seems to be one prong of your argument. Simultaneously you argue that there is no such onus on Dawkins because he doesn’t stake his soul on the truth of Darwinism. This is a facile point. Dawkins doesn’t believe he has a soul. His Darwinism however is utterly wedded to his ‘most profound’ belief, his atheism.

    His incorrect answer, therefore, did matter. It caught him in his own trap. HIs Darwinism is such a central tenet of his atheism that his on the spot ignorance of the title of the book in question should, by his logic, invalidate his claim to be a Darwinist. Of course this is a stupid conclusion, he’s one of the foremost Darwinists alive, but it’s inescapable based on his logic.

  7. I have only heard Dawkins go so far as to say a particular group of UK Christians are not as Christian as one might think. I don’t think he is being reckless with anything he is saying; look at all the other results he got.

    Every piece of the Bible is directly related to the profound beliefs of Christians. I don’t expect them to be scholars on every section, but I expect them to be familiar with it. That they weren’t is telling.

    Again, Dawkins does not stake his life on Darwin’s seminal work. Christians, on the other hand, stake eternity on their holy book. That is a significant difference.

    Your point about Dawkins not believing he has a soul isn’t going to fly. You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too. ‘Why, we can’t compare the importance he places on a book to the importance Christians place on their book because there is a fundamental difference in why each places such importance where they do. Oh, but we can compare the importance they place on each book. Ya know. When it suits me.’

    You have no understanding of most atheists, including Dawkins, if you think his atheism has been “wedded” to the fact of evolution. His atheism, like the atheism of many people, is wedded to a need for evidence. Since there is no evidence for any gods, atheism is the default.

    You also have no understanding of his argument if you think his premise was that Christians are not Christians because they don’t know certain trivia. He was presenting one piece of evidence that they aren’t as devote as one might expect. I agree with him that 35% is an awfully low number for such a routine piece of trivia.

  8. ‘Every piece of the Bible is directly related to the profound beliefs of Christians. I don’t expect them to be scholars on every section, but I expect them to be familiar with it. That they weren’t is telling.’- This doesn’t answer my question. How does knowing that the book of Matthew is the first book in the New Testament relate to any of Christianity’s profound beliefs?

    ‘Your point about Dawkins not believing he has a soul isn’t going to fly. You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too. ‘Why, we can’t compare the importance he places on a book to the importance Christians place on their book because there is a fundamental difference in why each places such importance where they do. Oh, but we can compare the importance they place on each book. Ya know. When it suits me.’ ‘- I fail to see how this is representative of what I’ve said. At no point have I implied Dawkins’s beliefs stemming from his Darwinism cannot be compared in ‘scale’ to the Christian beliefs. That is your contention and it’s nonsense. Both are, in a sense, attempts to answer the question of whether there is a God.

    ‘You have no understanding of most atheists, including Dawkins, if you think his atheism has been “wedded” to the fact of evolution.’- This is actually tiresome, just trust the man himself:

    “…although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
    – Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (1986), page 6

  9. I certainly did answer your question. It isn’t that a few lines from the Bible or a couple of sections are important to Christians. The whole thing is either the word of their god or inspired by their god. That makes the entire book fundamental to their view on eternity. Again, one might expect them to be familiar with it.

    You have said we cannot compare the importance Dawkins places on On the Origin versus the importance Christians place on the Bible because Dawkins doesn’t believe he has a soul nor does On the Origin pertain to such a fundamental belief anyway. Then, without a bit of irony, you go ahead and link evolution, atheism, and Dawkins. And none of this is to speak of the fact that you haven’t even understood his argument in the first place.

    Your quote of Dawkins does not support your contention. Even without Darwin, atheism is still the logical choice since there is no evidence for the other choice. Evolution allows us to have a degree of satisfaction since we have an answer not previously imagined, but atheism does not rest upon it. Not for me, not for most atheists, and certainly not for Dawkins.

  10. ‘I certainly did answer your question. It isn’t that a few lines from the Bible or a couple of sections are important to Christians. The whole thing is either the word of their god or inspired by their god. That makes the entire book fundamental to their view on eternity. Again, one might expect them to be familiar with it.’ You obviously think you’ve answered my question but you haven’t. Tell me what fundamental belief of Christianity is related to the knowledge that Mattew is the first book of the New Testament. Saying that the Bible is very important to Christians, considered an inspired work even, and that you would expect them to be familiar with it is not an acceptable answer.

    ‘You have said we cannot compare the importance Dawkins places on On the Origin versus the importance Christians place on the Bible because Dawkins doesn’t believe he has a soul nor does On the Origin pertain to such a fundamental belief anyway. Then, without a bit of irony, you go ahead and link evolution, atheism, and Dawkins.’- Show me where I did this.

    YOU don’t seem to have listened to Dawkin’s argument. 54 seconds into the interview (linked on my blog):

    ‘Dawkins: Even the 54 percent who identify as Christians, even most of those are NOT REALLY CHRISTIAN AT ALL (emphasis mine).’

    I could have been clearer two comments back. I conflated atheism and Darwinism when I didn’t need to. Dawkins’s Darwinism is a supporting column of his atheism, witness how often he uses it as evidence against the existence of God, but for our purposes that’s not entirely relevant. His belief in Darwinisn is what, on his stupid logic, is refuted by his failure to anwer the question.

  11. FYI, if you wish to put things in quotes, do this [blockquote] and close it with [/blockquote], but instead of brackets, use < and its opposite.

    You keep asking an answered question. I'm not going to entertain you further on the matter.

    I don't even have to link separate posts of your to show what you've argued:

    This is a facile point. Dawkins doesn’t believe he has a soul. His Darwinism however is utterly wedded to his ‘most profound’ belief, his atheism.

    It appears you’re backtracking a couple of a posts, but at any rate, you said: ‘Dawkins: Even the 54 percent who identify as Christians, even most of those are NOT REALLY CHRISTIAN AT ALL (emphasis mine).’

    I never said this wasn’t an argument he was making. In fact, I explicitly described this as his argument in my opening post.

    Dawkins’s Darwinism is a supporting column of his atheism, witness how often he uses it as evidence against the existence of God, but for our purposes that’s not entirely relevant.

    First, it isn’t “Dawkins’ Darwinism”. It is a fact of life. Second, his atheism is a default position premised on the notion that evidence is needed for positive beliefs. Third, evolution is a satisfying answer to a question once unanswerable; there was no justification in using a God of the Gaps argument in the first place, but it’s good that we actually have an answer which matches up with atheism. Fourth, he uses evolution as evidence against a designer. There could still be a hands-off deity floating around somewhere. (We would just need evidence for it, is all.)

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