“Philosophy,” Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed, “is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” It is a battle, he might have added, that we are both unsure we can win and unsure we want to win. To call something “specious” is to say it has a false look of truth – from the Latin speciosus, meaning beautiful. It is, in a way, a complement. As poets and tyrants have long known, beauty has a way of making things look true; while there is in all of us the suspicion that it may matter more to appear honorable, kind and intelligent than it does actually to be these things. Despite and because of this, I will in this occasional column be looking at some of the species of speciousness that throng our media. These anatomies will, I hope, be hotly disputed and/or derided by Prospect readers, that most discerning brand of truth-seekers.
While unconditionally equating faith with bad thinking is one of today’s most common God-bashes, equating atheism with blind faith is one of its most elegant ripostes – and is equally inadmissible as argument. Yet almost every critic of the God-haters has succumbed. Here’s a perfect example. According to former philosophy tutor Barney Zwartz, writing for The Age back in November 2006, Richard Dawkins “is on a relentless crusade against religion in any form, but cannot see that his own scientistic materialism is as much a dogmatic form of fundamentalist faith as those he despises.” As Prospect’s philosophical campaigner in residence, AC Grayling, would doubtless point out, this is a false dichotomy. Atheism is not the opposite of religious belief, because nothing is not the opposite of something, and believing in the absence of something is not at all the same as believing in something. Declaring, for example, that the world was not created by a dwarf called Boris does not make you a dogmatic, fundamentalist anti-Boris-ist.
Dawkins may well be a gross oversimplifier of facts – and even a practitioner of the straw man fallacy – but this does not make him a fundamentalist. Especially as his thesis is that “God” is an absurd and unlikely concept, rather than that “non-God” is an absolute truth which has been imparted to him by unassailable texts. And how many fundamentalists make believing in the possibility that God does not exist a cornerstone of their faith?