Shooting your own horse

There seems to be a new debating tactic among adversaries of the New Atheists, and one Colin Tudge gives us a good example.

Richard Dawkins has no sense of irony. He rails endlessly against fundamentalists yet he defends old-fashioned, Thomas Gradgrind-style materialism as zealously as the Mid-West Creationists defend the literal truth of Genesis. He accuses others of misrepresentation yet he seriously misrepresents religion. Also, which is irony writ large, he misrepresents science, in whose name he is assumed to speak. He condemns the Catholics for filling the heads of children with a particular view of life before they have had a chance to think for themselves – and now, in The Magic of Reality, written for readers as young as nine, he has done precisely that. As somebody said of Miss Jean Brodie, it’s time he was put a stop to.

Sounds like a pretty spirited opposition, right? Full frontal assault, reinforced by famous people (or famous names at least) like Spinoza and Schrödinger, and appeals to both modern science and modern theology. And then there’s this.

Religions do not depend upon their myths and miracles. They are there as illustrations.

Bam.  You’re coming around the first turn, the crowd is cheering, you’re ready to make your big move to overtake the leader, and you pull out a large revolver and shoot your own horse dead. True religion, you see, is religion without the supernatural. All those myths and miracles and such are merely illustrations, not meant to be taken literally. To understand why Dawkins is wrong, you have to understand Christmas without the Virgin Birth and the Nativity story, Easter without the Resurrection, Christianity without Christ. Then you’ll see why Dawkins’ criticisms are off base.

For all his smug condescension, Tudge seems to have missed the point that his real conflict is not with Dawkins but with conservative fundamentalists whose religion not only depends on their myths and miracles being literally true, but seeks to impose its own dogmatic standard of truth on every one else. Tudge even admits agreeing with Dawkins.

Yet I do agree with Dawkins on what is ostensibly the main point of his book: “Science has its own magic”. So it does – for it is helping to show just how wonderful the world in which we live really is. But the notion that the revelations of science are necessarily at odds with religion does no favours to either. Indeed, the 17th-century founders of modern science – Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Boyle, John Ray – were all devout. For them, to explore the wonders of the world through science was to glorify God. Bach said the same about his music. Dawkins’s ultra-materialist view of life is crude by comparison. How can we not believe in miracles, when stuff like this is presented as a serious contribution to the education of our children?

It’s not quite clear what point Tudge thought he was making with that last line, but it’s really rather moot. A religion that throws away its own distinctive dogmas in order to lean on scientific discoveries for its substance is a religion that vindicates the point Dawkins is trying to make. So thanks, Mr. Tudge. I guess.


  1. Ray Fowler says

    You know, I’m really tired of these people smugly proclaiming that, since scientists of the 17th century were devout, THERE IS NO CONFLICT between science and religion or some other hogwash.

    For starters, if you were atheist in the 17th century, you were generally hounded and/or at risk of being put to the stake. As a result, all intelligent people were “devout” enough to avoid that fate.

    Secondly, prior to the publication of “The Origin of Species”, there was no solid, intellectual underpinning for atheism. And without some logical notion that man was not uniquely created, then disabusing oneself of a belief in special creation required a leap of faith. In other words, pre-Darwin atheism was just as faith-based as theism.

    If someone wants to make a solid case for theistic scientists, then they have to start with the 20th century, after evolution had become an established scientific theory.

    • Nentuaby says


      I have to say I find your argument bizarre. Without denigrating Darwin as a pillar of modern empiricism, there were plenty of other pillars already in place at the time. The majority of fundamental philosophical work was already done. Methodological naturalism was already well established as the cornerstone of rational inquiry.

      Old Earth thinking had been percolating through the scientific establishment for nigh-on a hundred years, and quite mainstream for over a decade. Biology, chemistry, and physics were quite advanced enough that we could see that there certainly wasn’t a god with his finger in any detectable pie at present, and little reason to think reality had been fundamentally different some few thousand yeas ago.

      Beyond a doubt, the lack of explanation for the origin of life made it much more difficult to come to the atheist conclusion; but if a gap like that meant that only faith could be supported, we’d be in trouble today. After all, we don’t have either abiogenesis or the beginning of time sorted yet; these are *at least* equally large chokepoints as the rise of humanity in our timeline. So is atheism still as much a religion as fundamentalism?

      I do, of course, submit that this is not the case. </understatement>

    • Stevarious says

      I also strongly disagree that atheism before Darwin was a ‘faith-based position’. It does NOT require faith (of any kind) to reject someone else’s claim.

      By that logic, you would still have to claim that atheism is faith-based today, because science doesn’t know what came before the big bang (or even if the phrase ‘before the big bang’ has meaning).

  2. fastlane says

    Not that this wasn’t a good post, but really, you could have just linked to the Courtier’s Reply and added ‘same shit, different day.’ 😉

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Yeah, that was my first reaction too, but then I noticed the argument at the end where he basically shoots his own horse and I thought that made it a little more unique. But not quite—I’ve seen the same approach elsewhere too, and I think it’s kinda funny. Maybe it’s a new trend.

  3. says

    Of course if those founders of modern science were around today and could actually benefit from the knowledge science has accumulated over the last 300 years, they might rethink that religious stuff. Funny how the apologists always bring up the beliefs of the founders, and not the current practitioners of science. It’s almost like they want the scientific stamp of approval without all those pesky advancements.
    Oh, and the church was paying Bach’s salary. Then, as now, musicians liked eating.

  4. evilDoug says

    Religions do not depend upon their myths and miracles. They are there as illustrations.

    This is completely self-evident. Why remember Dr. M and the Case of the Catholic Crispy Cracker, and how all the theists just giggled for days about those silly atheists who thought the cracker ritual was actually serious. All the rolling in the street and laughing about the cartoons of Mo. And Lourdes – Oh lord, don’t they know what a great vacation destination it is?
    Unsophistimacated unbelievers, the lot of them.

    • says

      “Dr. M and the Case of the Catholic Crispy Cracker” — Hilarious. But I do recall there were Christians (Protestants, mostly) laughing about the cracker uproar. Theists laugh at other theists’ crazy beliefs all the time with no sense of irony, perhaps none so much as Southern Baptists when confronted with Mormonism.

    • noastronomer says

      Yes, “Dr. M and the Case of the Catholic Crispy Cracker” had me chuckling too. Could add in the strange events surrounding Pastor Jones and the koran that didn’t get burned in the night.

  5. Nemo says

    Illustrations of what, exactly, Mr. Tudge?

    I thought maybe the answer was just being left out of the summary here, so I checked the original article, but no, it’s not there either.

  6. mikespeir says

    Yeah. How many Newton-like scientists and Bach-level composers are devout nowadays? Sure, sure. There’s probably a fallacy in there somewhere, but it does make you wonder.

  7. John Q. Public says

    Funny, I thought the pronouncements of the 13th Council of Trent session were still official Catholic dogma.

    CANON VIII.-lf any one saith, that Christ, given in the Eucharist, is eaten spiritually only, and not also sacramentally and really; let him be anathema.

    Canons I–IV hammer home the same theme: “This is not the tiniest bit figurative, we mean it absolutely literally, and if you don’t, you’re not a Catholic.”

  8. Ibis3, féministe avec un titre française de fantaisie says

    You know what they call someone who thinks that myths and miracles should only be seen as metaphors (at best)? An atheist.

  9. paulmurray says

    Robert Ingersoll beat you to this one. never attempt to explain a miracle, gentlemen. A miracle explained is no longer miraculous, because the only way to explain somethingnis to account for it in terms of things that you already understand.

    I recommend the library at . Ingersol is in the “historical” section.

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