As a mountaineer knows, the problem with working in a rarified atmosphere is that you tend to end up being laid low with oxygen starvation.
Here’s Jonathan Derbyshire on the limits of necessary disrespect…
Dawkins’ attempt to explain away centuries of religious belief by comparing it with childish credulity, for instance, is deeply unsatisfactory. And if this kind of genetic explanation is laughably weak, Dawkins’ grasp of the phenomenology of religious belief is non-existent. Here Wood turns to Wittgenstein, who insisted that there are “grammatical differences between the use of religious language and ordinary language” (this is Wood’s gloss on some of the things Wittgenstein says in the notes collected as Culture and Value). Wittgenstein’s claim (anticipated by Kierkegaard and, interestingly enough, Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ) is that religious language is not referential (it’s not about some substantive reality) but modal – in other words, that it gives expression to a “form of life” or way of being in the world.
And his conclusion:
But despite the fact that some of Wittgenstein’s acolytes have wrongly supposed that the master’s doctrines relieved them of the need to justify belief in God, Wood is right to suggest that the “jauntily unphilosophical way in which most popular atheistic writing simply ignores the Wittgensteinian dilemmas is disappointing, and explains why its explanations of the sources of religious belief are so jejune.”
This is George… say hi!
Now, George is a born-again Christian of the variety that tends to consider The Bible to express the literal truth and despite doing fairly well for himself, he’s also not really renowned for being, shall we say, the sharpest tool in the box.
So, despite being fairly atypical in many ways, in some respects he is very typical of your average to below-average follower of an exoteric religion.
Richard Dawkins is a man who provoke a modicum of controversy with his views and the manner in which he expresses them. To some, he is not to their personal taste. Some find him a little too agressively polemical in his approach and some think him rather boorish.
One of Dawkins’ day jobs is that of holding the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University - note the operative words in that statement, ‘public understanding‘. His job is to talk to the public. That’s his primary audience.
So let’s imagine, for the moment, that you were having a conversation with George, a man whose understanding is very public, and you said to, quite casually:
“What relevance do you think Wittgenstein has to the public discourse on atheism and religion?’
Do you think George will reply?
A) Well, I think the jauntily unphilosophical way in which most popular atheistic writing simply ignores the Wittgensteinian dilemmas is disappointing, or
B) Wittgenstein? Mmm. Is that anywhere near Berlin? I think I went to a Bierkeller there once, while visiting that nice Mrs Merkel?
Dawkins’ arguments in the ‘God Delusion’ may well be philosophically unsatisfying, but then he is writing for an audience, some of whom may well own precisely two books - The Bible and (if they have children) The Children’s Illustrated Bible.
Either way, they’re unlikely give a toss about whether Dawkin’s ignores “the Wittgensteinian dilemmas” in his book, largely because many of them have never even heard of Wittgenstein, save for a few fans of Monty Python who may know that he played in midfield for the German Philosopher’s XI behind a front two of Heidegger and Nietzche.
I think the discontinuity here is, therefore, just that bit obvious.
UPDATE: Vistors arriving here by way of Tom Hamilton’s ‘defence’ of Joanthan Derbyshire’s comments, to which this post relates, might like to read this, which rather put matters in their proper context.