Further to this post on Terry Eagleton's LRB review of Richard Dawkins, a reader draws my attention to a sneeringly unpleasant letter to that publication from A.C. Grayling (scroll down). Beyond the sneering, the letter contains just one argument. It's this:
Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one's time to address what is built on those premises...Grayling might like to explain how, then, principles of intellectual tolerance work, how it's possible to hold one's own views in a way that leaves them open to possible correction or supplementation from the resources and insights of other outlooks or belief systems, how, in a nutshell, you can sometimes learn from others who think differently from you and even differently in ways that you regard as wrong.
How could any of this happen if we all treated it as simply a waste of time to attend to anything built on premises we reject?
I am not well read in the philosophy of religion, but some years ago I did a bit of reading in post-Holocaust Jewish theology. I wanted to see how religious believers dealt with some of the issues that the Holocaust and other terrible calamities raise - the problem of evil for instance, the question (as some would say) of where God was at Auschwitz. Nothing I read persuaded me that there is a good answer to this question or a persuasive way of dealing with the problem of evil on the basis of religious premises; and nothing I read convinced me of those premises. But the reading wasn't a waste of my time. I found it interesting, for example, that many of the same issues that have been addressed in altogether non-religious terms by historians, philosophers and other scholars have their parallels within post-Holocaust theology. This suggests that large bodies of ideas, traditions of thought, are related to one another in more complicated ways than... that this one is simply true and useful while that one is wholly false and worthless.
It is rather odd that someone laying claim implicitly to the wisdom of philosophy should be willing to trade on so simple-minded an idea as the one Grayling proposes here. And he is so laying claim. He feels it appropriate to point out that Eagleton 'is no philosopher' - as if this might disqualify the guy from holding an opinion on Dawkins's book; or as if being a philosopher were any guarantee of anything.
Grayling also writes that Eagleton's views 'explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge'. Now, there's a philosophical principle for you: trying to discredit a writer's viewpoint on some matter by summoning up something strictly irrelevant to the assessment of that viewpoint - as I might, for example, discount anything else A.C. Grayling has ever written because of this fatuous letter of his to the LRB. A thing I would never do. (Thanks: BrS.)
Update on November 20: See now the exchange between me and A.C. Grayling here.