[SL: G is a lurker and occasional commenter on this blog who describes himself as an 'amateur theologian'. I'm not sure what he means by that, because he seems pretty knowledgeable to me. His home blog is here.
In this piece, he turns his mind to Richard Dawkins's popular piece of God-bashing, The God Delusion. For those who found Terry Eagleton's review of this book a mite bitchy (there's interesting discussion at LP here and at Troppo here on this issue), G makes some of the points that Eagleton made, but without the pomposity and arrogance, and from a genuine believer's perspective, not from the perspective of a Marxist moonlighting as a believer.
When I finally got around to reading Dawkins' book, I do remember being shocked at his assertion that there have never been mass killings in the name of atheism. Of course, the argument that Hitler was an atheist has always been silly, but Stalin clearly was, and much of the persecution visited upon the churches and their adherents in the old Soviet Union was given real animus by atheism. I'm an atheist and skeptic, but I really don't like the thought of atheists sweeping their ugly bits under the rug.
G's focus isn't empirical, though, but philosophical. Enjoy].
The book aims to put the ‘scientific’ boot into ‘religion’. In this respect, its author knows he is doing nothing new. Since the 1800s, popular works have been written which have described how ‘science’ should render ‘religious’ beliefs and practices obsolete. Dawkins is in some ways a sophisticated contributor to this discourse – though this can be explained for the most part in terms of the competence of his rhetorical sleights of hand, whether intentional or not – and in a number of ways disappointing.
For a start, his thesis is not that science ‘disproves’ religion. That would be – according to his own criteria of judgement – something he could only show by publishing in a peer-reviewed scientific journal evidence to that effect. And Dawkins does not claim to possess such evidence. So, the author is careful throughout to avoid using scientific jargon to describe the project he’s engaged in. Herein lies the book’s rhetorical sophistication. It presents itself as the argument of a scientistic rationalist. But it does not attempt to root its assertions concerning the non-existence of God (it is 99.99% that he does not exist, we are told) in scientific proofs.
That leads to an interesting fact about the book. You’re not reading science; you’re reading philosophy (and, dare I say it, theology). Dawkins knows these aren’t his fields. He’s curiously damning about one of them (‘theology’) and doesn’t really mention the other (‘philosophy’). This is an important fact I’ve discussed elsewhere. Interestingly, all of the God Delusion’s ‘philosophers’ are atheists or agnostics, whereas all of its ‘theologians’ are theists. This rhetorical tactic of separating people into ‘philosophers’ and ‘non-philosophers’ on the basis of their belief in God is hardly charitable. Especially when you consider how many of the greatest ‘philosophers’ the world’s ever seen have been theists: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel and, amongst modern day philosophers, e.g. Plantinga. The failure to explore the relationship between philosophy and theism in the book is baffling.
Now it’s true that there are lots of atheistic philosophers too. Everyone knows about Bertrand Russell and David Hume. But the God question didn’t just disappear when their arguments appeared – at least, not in the minds of very many of the world’s best philosophers. Is this important fact considered by Dawkins?
No, not really … he’s more interested in pursuing the unsophisticated arguments of unsophisticated theists (his highly questionable claim to have refuted the cosmological and ontological arguments for the existence of God apart). And that, for most people (including perhaps himself) will be satisfactory. Fundamentalist believers make easy targets for many people, and it hardly takes an Oxford professor to take a swipe at them for most people to believe they’re pretty nuts. What you might expect from an Oxford professor, though, is a little more respect for and awareness of the nature and history of philosophical argumentation, especially if that’s what he’s engaging in.
Many very eminent scientists are theists – contrary to what Dawkins implies in his book – and he doesn’t confront in the God Delusion the kinds of ideas they might seek to offer in opposition to his. Check out John Barrow, John Polkinghorne, Freeman Dyson or Arthur Peacocke. And as for the philosophers, you’ll hardly hear a peep from Dawkins about Plato, Hume, Aquinas or Kant. And that seems rather a shame, because these are the guys many of the philosophical academy would turn to if they want to get serious about the history of theism and philosophical arguments for or against it.
Philosophy, however, can’t and doesn’t work like science. Atheism and ‘Reason’ won’t be true bedfellows until it can. And it’s worth emphasising that very many philosophers – including very many atheists – see no reason to believe the harmonisation of ‘science’ and ‘philosophy’ will ever happen. But why?
Philosophical ideas constitute ‘evidence’ (one of Dawkins’ favourite words) of a very peculiar kind. It’s not easy to twist them into irrefutable proofs about the external world, as centuries of logicians have found out (often to their dismay). Words and ideas are very tricky customers. It’s very difficult to know what they can and can’t tell us about what’s true, what’s real. How good a job can they do? To take a simple example: if there were a God (and how would we know for sure that he was there?), how much could words and arguments do to describe ‘him’ and how much would it be beyond their power to describe? Any answer to such a question relies on the individual insights of the person who answers. If a person makes the decision beforehand that ‘God’ cannot possibly be describable in language, then it’s no surprise if the person doesn’t end up believing in a God knowable only through words and arguments. If, on the other hand, one begins with the premise that a certain combination of words and arguments could ‘prove’ God’s existence or character, then investigation into the presence of such a God could proceed. But the ground rules have to be established. That’s what Dawkins (writing in his new role as a philosopher) fails to understand and it’s one reason why his academic reviewers have been so unimpressed by his book.
Consider the following: someone decides that ‘God’ must be the character described with complete accuracy in the pages of the Bible OR just a big fantasy. You choose either one or the other, if those are the only options, don’t you…But should these be the only two options? For centuries, Christians (and Jews) have opposed simple minded interpretations of the Bible and have fully admitted that it’s riddled with problematic statements and self contradictory claims. It doesn’t stop them believing in God. God is more than the Bible. The Bible is first and foremost an important historical record. Only once it is interpreted as history can it be used for the purposes of philosophy or theology. But these sensible, considered positions aren’t addressed by modern anti-religion polemicists such as Dawkins. And the failure to address them makes the God Delusion inadequate as a work of philosophy. And since it is not ‘science’ either, what is it?
Well, it’s certainly a crowd pleaser. Witness the statements of applause in the dustjacket of the book. But is ‘truth’ being conveyed to the crowd in a ‘reasonable’ way which handles the ‘evidence’ fairly? Hardly. If it were, the book would be in a top scientific journal. Whole areas of philosophy would have become no-go areas. The great religious institutions (all of which pay attention to the findings of science, at least in their modern incarnations, despite Dawkins’ suspicions) would have closed down. And yet none of this has happened.
The best conclusion to draw is that the God Delusion fails in its most basic ambitions – to show that all ideas of ‘God’ should be considered as species of ‘delusion’ – but nevertheless succeeds as an entertaining but extended rant, whose chief value is in undermining naive kinds of theism (the kinds, the author insists, which persist amongst almost all ‘religious’ people). For those who continue to seek God, however, the ‘God Delusion’ will not offer an insurmountable barrier. Dawkins himself sees the attractions of Jesus. ‘Atheists for Jesus’, he advocates. Well, if Jesus was God or the son of God (whatever we take these words to mean), he’s clearly not far away from ‘getting God’ after all. His real truck is with unthinking, dishonest fundamentalism. This is something he has in common with many of the world’s most religious people. The real ‘delusion’ is that of the insufficiently thoughtful.