Monthly Archives: September 2007

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Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins quotes a passage he wrote some time ago, when he was incensed at ‘the “sympathy” for Muslim “hurt” and “offence” expressed by Christian leaders and even some secular opinion formers.’ He drew this parallel:

If the advocates of apardheid had their wits about them they would claim – for all I know truthfully – that allowing mixed races is against their religion. A good part of the opposition would respectfully tiptoe away. And it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational justification. The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justifcation. The rest of us are expected to defend out prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’.

Some problems with this:

  • Apardheid was given a religious justification.
  • That did not make many of its critics tiptoe away.
  • The giving of that religious justification provided grounds on which Apartheid could be argued against.
  • Those religious arguments were one reason why Apartheid lost legitimacy in South Africa.
  • It is simply nonsense to say that the ‘whole point’ of religious faith is that it does not depend on rational justification. (Someone obviously forgot, for instance, to tell the Roman Catholic church – which would certainly officially reject this description.)
  • I’ve yet to meet a religious person who regarded it as an infringement of their religious liberty if you asked them to justify their faith. Dawkins is roughing up straw men.

There are two things mixed up together, here. One is the question of ‘offence’ – and the great difficulty which we seem to have in distinguishing between ‘understanding’ and ‘condoning’. I do think it is important to understand the offence caused to Muslim’s by the Rusdie affair, and the reasons why it got stoked to such an amazing ferocity. That is not the same as ‘condoning’, though it might do a great deal to affect what I think appropriate remedies are. Commentators, and their readers, seem all too frequently to be unable to keep this distinction clear.

The second point, though, is the ‘rational justification’ point. And there’s an important distinction here, as well: between foundationalist and non-foundationalist argumentative strategies. Faced with a religious person expressing offence at some event, the foundationalist will say, ‘Can you justify that attitude of yours, starting from axioms that are unquestionable, or shared by all people of common sense and good will?’ The nonfoundationalist will say, ‘What premises do you start from when you justify that attitude of yours? And how do you argue from those premises to that attitude?’ Whatever one thinks of the viability of foundationalist strategies, the nonfoundationalist strategy is always open.

One thing you can be sure of. If you are asking a religious person about their justification for some attitude, idea, or practice x, you can bet that there is a long history of argument about the necessity or propriety of x within that tradition. And even if you do not share the premises from which people who are members of that tradition argue, you can be sure that the very fact that this x is presented as religious means that you will be able to find purchase within that tradition of argument for questioning it, perhaps challenging it and arguing against it. So, if apartheid is presented by someone as ‘Christian’, that means it is being presented as justified on some biblical or theological grounds – and that very fact opens up a whole realm of argumentative strategies that can be brought to bear against it.

Far from removing the prejudice from the realm of argument, the naming of some attitude or practice or idea as ‘religious’ brings it into a realm of argument.

Religious media

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Just a minor point

Dawkins complains about the

privileging of religion in public discussions of ethics in the media and in government…. Why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer, or a doctor?

Now it so happens that a lot of religious leaders are (a) trained to a certain extent in moral philosophy, and (b) experienced at dealing pastorally with many of the ethical situations in question. However, I suspect that has nothing to do with why the media beat a path to their door. Some, perhaps most of that path-beating is no doubt a knee-jerk, rent-a-voice reaction, or the product of a lazy association of religion and morality that Dawkins is right to question. Nevertheless, the media presumably also beat this path because they regard the leaders in question as spokespeople for quite sizable constituencies who tend to have an interest in ethical issues. That is, to the extent that a charitable interpretation of this media habit is possible, I guess the explanation has less to do with respect, less to do with expertise, and more to do with the nature of religions as (loose, complex) affiliations of people into some kind of variegated community.

Irrational Christianity

The God Delusion, ch.1, §§1-2

This isn’t a comment on a specific passage from Dawkins’ book; it’s simply a reflection on where my response has got to. There is one stretch of my argument that I can hear creaking as I walk over it (unless I tread fast and whistle loudly): the bridge between my account of the sophisticated intellectual tradition of Christian theology (which I believe Dawkins’ categories fail to capture) and ordinary Christian believing.

I think I can best get at the problem by asking what it would actually mean for Christianity to be rational. (I continue to focus on Christianity because it is the only example I know well.) For Dawkins, the answer to that question will fundamentally be about the subjecting of a set of ideas (or one central idea) to certain kinds of argumentative testing, and assessment of various kinds of evidence for and against. Ideas, arguments, evidence: these will be the main things that need to be talked about in order to answer the question, ‘Is Christianity rational?’ There will be a peripheral, preparatory role for description of Christianity: enough to establish that the ideas in question are indeed held by significant numbers of ordinary Christians – but on the whole Dawkins thinks that claim obvious enough to need no explicit presentation of evidence or argument.

My answer to the question ‘Is Christianity rational?’ would be rather different, with what is peipheral and preparatory for Dawkins becoming much more central. That is, faced with the vast weave of movements, institutions, practices, habits, tendencies, stories, ideas, sensibilities that we name ‘Christianity’, I would talk about the way that this complex social whole includes practices of ‘sense-making’: moments where individuals and groups within Christianity take a step back and come up (as a secondary but important move within their participation in this whole weave) with some explicit construal, some way of trying to capture ‘what is going on’. And then I would want to talk about the way in which, within certain practics, by certain people, those construals get subjected to various kinds of testing and refinement, and the way in which they what emerges gets offered back to the wider Christian population. That is, I’d want to talk about certain kinds of feedback loop that operate within Christianity – fundamentally social feedback loops. And I’d do all this in order then to claim (a) that it is only together, only in this kinds of social way, that Christianity is rational, and (b) that the ‘sophisticated’ claims of theologians are one such feedback loop that helps keep Christianity rational, and the one that provides something most like the kind of testing that Dawkins wants to see belief in God subjected to. Only once all that is in place can I really get going on discussing what kinds of arguments and evidence are relevant to testing the claims that are made in these sophisticated construals of the Christian thing.

Now, I rather suspect that Dawkins would have none of this. He might see this as a rather dishonest attempt to shift the attention from mainstream, majority forms of belief in God to deeply eccentric minority forms. He might argue that these sophisticated minority forms have little to do with the beliefs and practices of ordinary Christians, and that there is something dishonest or perverse in the attempt of the sophisticated analysts to claim that they are somehow speaking on behalf of those ordinary Christians.

Of course, I’d launch some criticisms back: I’d argue that Dawkins is himself involved in providing a particular, contestable construal of the Christian thing: he construes it (I think) as fundamentally a matter of the holding of certain beliefs, as a system of belief. And I don’t think that’s an adequate construal, I don’t think it does justice to the evidence. It is at very least not a construal that should be allowed to slip past without explicit argument.

However, that argument aside, Dawkins does have a point. Even if Christianity’s rationality did take the form that I have suggested, one might well argue that there has been a breakdown in (or a failure to create) the kind of social connections, the kind of feedback loops, that I have suggested are essential to that rationality. There are fractures both in the connections which are supposed to keep the theologians’ construals faithful to the lives of ordinary Christian believers, and in the connections which are supposed to allow their construals to return to and influence those ordinary believers. (I’d like to argue, for instance, that ‘literalism’ of various kinds is not so much an intellectual error, but a breakdown in polity: a flattening of the intellectual ecology that keeps various different levels and kinds of reading, of sense-making, alive and interacting.)

I think the narrative Dawkins is selling, to the extent that it gets into people’s hearts and minds and begins to structure their responses (whether they accept his narrative or reject it) will make this problem worse. I think that it will make it harder for people to believe in the possibility of fruitful connection between ‘ordinary’ and ‘sophisticated’ belief. And so I think that his attack on Christianity, because of the bluntness and flatness of the categories in which it is couched, has the capacity to make Christianity less rational.

Religious Conflict

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins provides other examples of ‘our society’s overweening respect for religion’:

  • The pusillanimous reluctance to call the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland by their religious names, preferring euphemisms like ‘Loyalist’ and ‘Nationalist; and
  • the description of the Sunni/Shia conflict in Iraq as an ‘ethnic conflict’, when it is ‘Clearly a religious conflict’ (p.43).

Well, in the Northern Ireland case, some of the reasons would be:

  • a desire not to misrepresent those Catholics who are not Nationalist and those Protestants who are not Loyalists – really quite sizable numbers;
  • a desire to name directly the political aims for which the two sides were struggling, rather than using religious names as proxies; and
  • a desire not to give a religious aura to the pretensions of either side (perhaps so as to avoid the ‘undeserved respect’ that such a religious aura would promote!)

Seems pretty reasonable to me.

There is a broader point, though – one that I rather suspect we will be coming back to. And that is Dawkins’ confident belief that the conflicts he mentions are ‘religious conflicts’, and that this means something fundamentally different from calling them ‘ethnic’ or ‘community’ conflicts.

Now, there are two routes that we could take, here, but each is going to make it difficult to make sense of Dawkins’ comments. On the one hand, we could define religion as a set of interconnected institutions, practices, and stories that embody and express the basic organizing categories for the culture of a particular group, and connect that culture to some sense of the way things most deeply are. So to talk about religion is to talk about the way of life of a community or a people, and the ways in which that people come to see their way of life as natural, proper, or legitimate. To speak about ‘religious conflict’ in these contexts is precisely to speak about community or ethnic conflicts: a clash between ways of life, between ways of seeing the world, between pervasive ways of organising human life.

Heading in that direction, however, does not seem to me to capture the specificity of Dawkins insistence on calling his examples religious rather than communal or ethnic – his belief that the latter forms of words hide the real nature, the real roots, of the conflicts in question. Yet if we go down the root of focusing on religious belief of the kind that Dawkins’ book attacks – belief in God, belief in the supernatural – it becomes far less clear that it is appropriate to describe these conflicts as in some sense inherently religious. That is, it is far from obvious that the roots, progress, ferocity, and outcomes of these conflicts connect specifically to the beliefs in and about God of the protagonists.

As I say, I suspect we’ll be coming back to this, so I assume Dawkins’ will eventually present some arguments about the religious nature of these or similar conflicts – and my guess (I haven’t reached the relevant chapters, yet) is that we’ll end up arguing about the function of religious beliefs and practices in strengthening or exacerbating the sense of identity, of legitimacy, of entitlement of the groups involved in conflicts. For now, however, all I can do is register my sense that the argumentative moves that Dawkins is making at this point don’t quite possess the breezy and transparent common sense that his rhetoric suggests.

Ideas and identity

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins provides a set of examples of “society’s overweening respect for religion”. The first has to do with pacifism:

By far the easiest grounds for gaining conscientious objector status in wartime are religious. You can be a brilliant moral philosopher with a prize-winning doctoral thesis expounding the evils of war, and still be given a hard time by a draft board evaluating your claim to be a conscientious objector. Yet if you say that one or both of your parents is a Quaker you sail through like a breeze, no matter how inarticulate and illiterate you may be on the theory of pacifism or, indeed, Quakerism itself.

I do not for a moment want to defend the actions of the draft board; the treatment of conscientious objectors of all stripes has often been pretty appalling. I’m interested, however, in the difference between the moral philosopher and the Quaker (or child of Quakers). The former, clearly, has a well thought through personal conviction that has been subjected to various forms of intellectual scrutiny and has emerged as that person’s own, settled, relatively independent position on the matter. Simply as shorthand, let’s say this is a matter of an individual’s (settled, tested, adamant) ideas. That is (to me) clearly something that a draft board should take into account, and ‘respect’ – though I can imagine them somewhat naively thinking that if someone’s views were justified by a set of of public arguments, there was a chance that they might change that person’s mind by entering into the arguments. It is easy to see how ‘rational’ might be read as ‘tractable’ in this context.

What of the other person, though? His or her pacifism is a matter of the way he or she was brought up, the mores of his or her ‘people’, his or her ‘community’ (to use a word that Dawkins is about to grimace at). Simply as another bit of shorthand, let’s say that this is less a matter of of an individual ideas, and more a matter of (communal, inherited, nurtured) identity. And it is easy to understand a draft board thinking that there was not a lot of point in arguing with such a person: argument is, after all, unlikely to change someone’s parentage. They were faced with a fait accompli.

Now, I have no idea whether or not draft boards faced with Quakers or the children of Quakers refused even to ask some basic questions. I don’t know whether they looked for evidence that the person they had in front of them really was defined by his membership of Quaker communities in the way I’ve suggested.

I’m not sure, however, whether that is Dawkins’ problem (i.e., that the aura of ‘respect’ due to religion prevented even some common sense questioning) , or whether his problem is a deeper one. I wonder whether his problem is that what I am calling ‘identity’ should have been accepted as a good reason for conscientious objector status in the first place, amongst those who did not or could not back it up with individual ideas. That is, I’m not sure whether Dawkins objects (as I do not) simply to the fact that ‘identity’ was accorded substantial moral weight.

There are deep waters here, and I’m unwilling to launch into them when I’m not quite sure of the nature of Dawkins’ positions. Suffice it to say that passage is making me think about fundamental differences in anthroplogy (i.e., in answers to the question, ‘What is a human being?’) and in moral vision (i.e., in answers to the question, ‘What is moral weight anyway, and what should be accorded it?).

Holiness and argument

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins quotes the late, great Douglas Adams:

Religion … has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it […] But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’.

The idea that nobody gets aggrieved by political discussion is interesting, but not as interesting as the example Adams gives. He is, I presume, referring to Jewish laws about the Sabbath. And it is an unfortunate example for Adams to pick, because if there is one thing that has characterised the Jewish legal tradition, it is argument. Sabbath regulations are, in that tradition, pervasively and constantly argued over. Yes, that tradition speaks of the law as holy, or as sacred, but that absolutely has not meant an absence of discussion.

There is more here, though, than an unfortunate choice of example. Turning back to the Christian tradition, I find it hard to think of anything that has not been discussed at great length, with real differences of opinion, within that tradition. As Alasdair MacIntyre aptly said, a living tradition ‘is an historically extended, socially embodied argument’.

Nevertheless, there is something to Adams’ statement, because he is not talking about argument within a tradition, but argument between those who inhabit a tradition and those who stand outside it. And such argument is fraught with problems.

(1) In the first place, argument between different intellectual traditions too often takes place on a ‘darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night’. Differences in background assumption, in styles of argument, and in acceptable warrant, all too often mean that what sounds on one side like a plausible argument sounds on the other like ignorant shouting. So, someone might approach the orthodox Jewish upholder of the Sabbath and say, ‘Surely it’s ridiculous to believe that a benevolent God like the one you claim to believe in wants you to sit in darkness on the Sabbath, or that it is somehow unholy to use electricity. In any case, electricity wasn’t even invented when the law was written!’ The Jewish respondent might well find themselves at a loss to know how to answer, not because the criticism was so damning, but because it engaged so little with Jewish understanding of, and reasons for, sabbath observance.

I don’t mean to suggest a strong version of incommensurability, and say that conversation between traditions is impossible. However, a prerequisite for meaningful conversation is an effort at understanding. You can only produce interesting criticisms of Jewish sabbath observance if you understand what that observance means in the context of Jewish life. You will need to understand something of the stories that Jews tell about themselves, about God, about the law, about the Sabbath; you will need to understand something of the way in which law-observance actually functions in Jewish life. It’s not that you need to be ‘sensitive’ in some fluffy ‘please tread softly when walking on my dreams’ kind of way, but you need to understand what you are talking about in order to make sense, in order to land your punches on a real rather than an imaginary target, in order not to talk nonsense.

And if one does look for this kind of understanding one will, as I said last time, discover that one is not simply discussing the appropriate way of treating light switches on a Saturday, but is talking about the way of life of a people, that people’s history, their sense of identity. And whilst that certainly does not mean that one cannot argue about it, it does mean that one should handle the debate with appropriate sensitivity if one actually wants to have a real conversation. And ‘respect’ might be one name for that sensitivity, I suppose.

(2) In the second place, there is the fact that many of the religious people with whom one might wish to have this argument will not thought through for themselves the meaning of and reasons for the religious practice or belief that you wish to criticise. So, to keep up with the Jewish example, you may well find yourself talking to an observant Jew who behaves this way on the sabbath because she has been brought up this way, because it is what her people do, because it is part of being a member of this culture. She may rely on the fact that there are others in the community who have thought it through, who are the ones who engage in argument about it.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – until one reaches a situation where the connection between this ordinary believer and the members of the community who do engage in serious argument becomes attenuated, or breaks altogether. Confidence in the ability of the community as a whole to respond to criticisms that one cannot meet as an individual gives way to anxiety about one’s own ability to respond – and the anxious individual believer may well end up playing the ‘private’ card (that’s my personal faith, who are you to criticise it) or the ‘sacred’ card (how dare you treat these things as matters that can be argued about!). Adams is right, that does indeed happen – but it is arguably more a breakdown within religion than a necessary facet of religion.

Respecting religion

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Having in the first section of the chapter established that his target is supernatural religion, Dawkins’ second section explains that he does not believe that the religious views he will be examining should be handled with kid gloves: they can and should be examined and criticised as thoroughly and with as hard a head as one would use to examine any other kind of claim. He denies that

religious faith … should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.

I’m broadly in agreement, here. Paradoxically, I think that the kid-glove approach to religion is actually part of its marginalisation in modernity. Religion has largely been relegated from the sphere of public argument to an inviolable private sphere, and even when it reemerges into public still smells of the sanctuary of the private.

However, I do have three comments.

The first is simply that ordinary human respect suggests to me that I should tread more carefully when criticising ideas that are more closely bound up with some person or community’s sense of identity than I should when criticising things that are, for them, peripheral. That isn’t to say that I shouldn’t criticise those ideas, if there is pressing reason to do so – if, for instance, I think those ideas are doing harm. But it would be sensible to recognise that in discussing these ideas I can’t avoid discussing the people who hold them.

The second is that this is going to be even more sensitive when I am discussing ideas central to the identity of some group that perceives itself to be marginalised, under threat, attacked on all sides. There will be no way that what I say about the ideas will not also be taken to be a comment on the group’s right to exist as a distinctive group with a particular cultural identity and heritage. So if, say, I discuss the nature of Islam in Britain today, I will tread particularly carefully – not because there is some mystic curtain of ‘respect’ that I dare not penetrate, but because I hope I’m not stupid enough to think that my words are uttered in a vacuum. Incidentally, I’m not saying that I’ll keep quiet because of some perceived threat of violent reaction. I’m saying that my words about ideas cannot avoid being political words: they cannot avoid being commentary on the contested rights, relationships, and identities of groups in my society – and I should therefore make sure that I tread as carefully as I would if I were making direct political statements.

The third is that our society has developed contexts, procedures and ‘etiquette’ for handling some forms of political disagreement. We know, on the whole, what can and cannot be said; we have arenas for conversation and argument. That we have such things is by no means automatic: it has taken time (and trouble) to evolve. For various reasons (the privatisation of religion is one of them) we have not evolved similar contexts for discussion of religious ideas. Dawkins is right to identify this as a problem, and like him, I do not want religion to hide behind an impenetrable wall that makes discussion impossible. Neverthereless, when we do debate religion in public, and when we do realise that what we are saying cannot avoid being political contentious in a broad sense, we will also have to recognise that building a context in which all this can be discussed productively is going to take a long time, and a lot of patient labour.

Interim Verdict: On The God Delusion, Ch.1, §1.

So, where have we got too so far?

The key element of this first section is Dawkins distinction between supernaturalist and Einsteinian religion, or between theism and atheism. My interim finding – a proposal to be tested by the rest of the book – is that this is a piece of bad thinking. I don’t mean simply that it is a bit heavy-handed, that his presentation of it involves the misrepresentation of details, flattences nuances, tramples over fine distinctions. I mean something stronger than that.

This distinction is presented in this section (and in what I have read so far of what follows) as a basic framework, a grid for organising Dawkins arguments. It is not so much something that he argues for, as the setting out of the terms in which he will make his arguments. It is, one might say, the conceptuality he offers for making sense of religion, and he seems to think that it offers a pretty obvious, common-sense framework. However, such frameworks are worthwhile precisely to the extent that they enable perceptive judgment. They are worthwhile to the extent that they go beyond superficial initial plausibility, beyond ‘common sense’, and enable intellectual work to be done, making possible good description, good explanation, further distinctions. They are worthwhile to the extent that they promote the labour of understanding. (And, yes, my echoes of some descriptions of scientific method – vageuly Kuhnian – are deliberate.) And my argument is that Dawkins’ basic framework, which organises a good deal of what he has to say, is not worthwhile. It is a piece of bad thinking.

The minor side of this is what I believe to be Dawkins’ misinterpretation of Einstein. I have done a small amount of digging (not a great deal, so I still don’t want to put too much weight on this side), and what I have found so far seems to confirm my suspicion that Dawkins has not quite got Einstein right. I have perhaps made too much of this, and I don’t mention it again in order to score points (as it were, on the level of pointing out a grammatical mistake or an incorrect date). I mention it again because I think it illustrates the point I am trying to make. I think that the basic distinction that structures Dawkins’ ways of thinking prevents him from understanding Einstein. This is one of the examples which shows Dawkins’ distinction to be bad thinking. The way he thinks this whole thing called religion works means that he is bound to see Einstein as on his side rather than on the supernaturalist side, and so he is bound to think that anything in Einstein’s comments that doesn’t sound like vanilla naturalism must be purely metaphorical and poetic, a fluffy coating for an insight that is best expressed quite otherwise. His key distinction has deadened his thought.

I may be wrong about Einstein (though I must admit that I would like to see what Dawkins would make of Spinoza, if he looked more closely). I feel myself on firmer ground when I leap to the other side of Dawkins divide. I take it that the worth of Dawkins distinction will show itself – will consist in – the ‘success’ of descriptions of religion that take this opposition as central or basic (where ‘success’ means succes at organising detail, at putting together multiple examples that would otherwise seem disparate, at uncovering deep patterns of thought and behaviour that would otherwise remain hard to name). And that is simply not the case. My strategy in most of my posts so far has been to point to the fact that conversations between positions that straddle Dawkins great divide are possible within a recognisably religious/theological tradition – within a mainstream monotheistic, Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition. Or rather, I have hazarded a description of forms of religious thinking that seem to me to fall more on the Dawkinsian than the supernaturalist side of his great divide, without denying for a moment that those forms are theologically debatable, and stand in some tension with other, less Dawkinsian forms of religious thinking – but have offered those descriptions precisely in order to suggest that this tension, this debate, is one that is perfectly legitimate and intelligible within monotheistic religion. If I am right about that, it calls into question the success of Dawkins’ central distinction at capturing what is going on in monothesitic religion. It suggests, again, that his distinction, far from allowing him to make good sense of what he sees, blinds him to it: it is a piece of bad thinking.

(I have, by the way, a couple of subsidiary theses that I want to test against the rest of the book. One of them I have sketched already: I think that the initial plausibility of Dawkins distinction is in part due to a deeper rift in Western culture, a dissocation of sensibility, between (to put it crudely) head and heart. That is a much deeper, older, and more various split than the split between atheism and theism or between science and religion – and it has been as much a split within religion as a split between religion and something else. The other subsidiary thesis is that Dawkins more-or-less identifies theistic religion and creationism – or at least takes creationism as the defining case of religion. If that is the case (and I am merely suggesting it here) then Dawkins is taking as his central example of religion a fundamentally modern phenomenon that represents a drastic thinning and distorting of religious thought and language. But that’s an argument for another time.)

There is another interim verdict to set out at this point, however. It seems to me that for Dawkins religion has fundamentally to do with assent to various propositions. Religions are collections of people who hold certain ideas, who cleave to certain truths. This will come up more explicitly later on, and at the moment is no more than an attempt to specify a rather vague sense of the way his language, his use of examples, and his arguments tend. All of it makes more sense if you assume that being a member of a theistic religion of some kind is more like being convinced of the truth or applicability of a theory than it is like, say, being a member of a culture or the citizen of a country. As I say, we’re going to be coming back to this, but I’ll set out my stall now: I think this is another bit of bad thinking. I think that, if you make an assumption like that as a basic part of the intellectual machinery with which you approach religion, you won’t be able to make much sense of it. And I don’t simply mean that there will be lots of things that don’t make sense to you, but that there will be lots of times when you can’t see what sense religious behaviours or forms of language make to the practitioners. It will leave you with no account to give of why religious people do what they do, of what they take themselves to be doing – it will simply leave you, perhaps, with sneers about the weakness or dishonesty of the religious mind: comments that because they can explain anything actually explain nothing.

Praying to the law of gravity

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

To add weight to his distinction between Einsteinian ‘religion’ and supernatural religion (religion proper), Dawkins again quotes Carl Sagan:

if by ‘God’ one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying … it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.

I’ve been arguing that Dawkins’ Einsteinian / supernatural distinction is an unhelpful one, that leads to him misunderstanding material that he finds on both sides: he does not, I think, understand Einstein, and he does not understand some fairly mainstream bits of monotheistic theology, which simply do not fit his descriptions well. Sagan’s comment about prayer gives me exactly the same reaction.

I immediately thought of Simone Weil (and not just because she wrote about Gravity and Grace…), and her discussion of prayer as attention. And from there it is a short leap to contemplative prayer in general, arguably the dominant meaning of prayer in the history of the Christian tradition, and one which has little to do with the answerability of the way things are to prayer, and much more to do with the answerability of the one praying to the way things are.

In the Spinozan-Einsteinian cosmos (and even, to a much more limited extent, in the thinned-out Dawkins–Sagan version) something recognisably akin to prayer as it has often been understood in the Christian tradition remains possible. The distinction Dawkins has tried to erect is not as airtight as he thinks.

(I’ll be coming back to the idea of God as ’emotionally satisfying’ later, I think. I can hear St. John of the Cross revolving in his grave…)

Folk religion

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

[F]or the vast majority of people, ‘religion’ implies ‘supernatural’ (p.40).

Don’t worry, I’m nearly at the end of Ch.1, §1 now: there’s just this post, one on ‘praying to the law of gravity’, and a summary to come. And I’ll start speeding up, after that. Promise.

Suppose belief in God were the same kind of thing as scientific belief. I mean, suppose that it made sense to regard belief in God as being a scientific hypothesis, subject to fundamentally the same kinds of analysis and judgment as scientific claims. How then would we handle what ‘the vast majority of people’ believe?

Consider a scientific theory like quantum mechanics. For ‘the vast majority of people’, ‘quantum mechanics’ has something to do with stuff being random, indeterministic, imprecise, and woolly at the edges; it has to do with cats being alive and dead at the same time; it has to do, perhaps, with atoms or whatever being kind of smeared out and wavy. Clearly to launch into a critique of the theory as I found it in this popular form, and think that I was actually critiquing quantum mechanics, would be a mistake. Rather, if I wished to critique quantum mechanics, I would go to the experts; I would find the best accounts. And, instead of a whole load of vaguely New Age waffle, I would find a mathematical model of great power and complexity, the applicability of which to physical world has been confirmed experimentally to extraordinary levels of precision.

If belief in God were that kind of thing, if it were something like a scientific theory, my response to Dawkins at this point would be easy. Who cares what ‘the vast majority of people’ believe, I might say; let’s look to the experts. Let’s look at the people who present the most subtle, the most complex, the most sophisticated accounts of the God hypothesis. Let’s look to Spinoza, Maimonides, Ibn Sina, Aquinas. Only if you have wrestled with the complexity and subtlety of their thought can you claim to have tested the God hypothesis, rather than its popular distortions.

That won’t quite do, though, will it? On the one hand, Dawkins’ target is most of all the kind of popular religious belief that shapes all of our social and political lives. Of course, he also thinks that the critique of that popular belief also captures most of the more sophisticated versions (since he thinks he has zeroed in on essential features that popular and sophisticated accounts share). Any sophisticated versions that his comments do not capture are, he seems to think, so different from popular belief they have no business describing themselves with a theological vocabulary that has been so strongly claimed and defined by popular belief. After all, most people who talk about quantum mechanics in popular contexts acknowledge that that language has its real home in labs and lecture halls: they acknowledge that ownership of the language lies elsewhere. But most people who talk about God in popular contexts seem to claim that the home of the language is in their unsophisticated churches and holy books – and if they think about sophisticated interpreters at all, they are likely to think of them as at best irrelevant and at worst traitorous.

On the other hand, the account of theology that I have already given (in answer to Dawkins ‘fairyologist’ accusation) is one that ties itself quite closely to ordinary religious believing. ‘What the theologian-botanist thinks he has in his jars, or the theologian-physicist thinks she has in her particle accelerator’, I said, ‘is not God, but what Christians say and believe about God.’ The Quantum Mechanics analogy does not really hold up, here.

So, instead of a response to Dawkins that simply says, ‘Ignore popular belief, look at more sophisticated accounts’, I’m going to need something a little more subtle. And the best way to get at what I want to say is to start with a fairly bold claim. Christianity is not best thought of as a set of ideas, or as a group of people who assent to a particular set of ideas. Christianity is not a belief system. Christianity is a way of life (or set of ways of life); Christianity is a people (or set of peoples): a folk.

And yes, it is full of stories, statements, claims, declarations, ideas, and opinions, and the play of them shapes this people, this way of life, holding it together, dictating much of how it develops and splits and reacts and evolves and coheres. Faced with this kind of reality, one can, of course, take the claims out of this social mess, treat them as simple, contextless declarations of fact (which is, most of the time, what Dawkins does). If you do so, you will find support in the fact that, in many ways, Christians do bandy the claims about in such a way as to ask for this kind of treatment. But you could also look at the role that those ideas, claims, stories and statements play in forming Christian life, individually and socially, and then ask what claims that life as a whole makes: what needs to be true for that life as a whole to be a meaningful, truthful way of living in the world; what needs to be the case for this way of life to be possible without delusion. And it is this latter turning that much ‘sophisticated’ theology takes.

Such theology is not, as it were, expert knowledge of God as opposed to popular knowledge of God. It is not the real knowledge gained by people who have proper access to God in their labs, as opposed to the distored knowledge that trickles down from the experts to the hoi polloi. If theologians have expertise, it is in the interpretation and testing of the claims about God implied in the whole way of life of Christians, which will certainly be closely related to, but will not simply be identical to, the stories, statements, claims, declarations, ideas, and opinions explicitly present in that way of life.

Let me give you an example. Take popular statements about Jesus of Nazareth being the incarnation of God. If you look at popular stories, statements, claims, declarations, ideas, and opinions about this, you might come up with a picture suggesting that, at a particular point in time, some part of God came down from heaven, and turned into a human being. Taken at face value, as something like a literal description of a state of affairs, it is hard to take this story seriously for very long, because it is very hard to make any sense of it that doesn’t slip away the moment you press it, and very hard to see how it coheres with some of the other things Christians tend to say about God. Press people on their understanding of this, ask them to explain or justify it, or to respond to criticisms, and you’re likely to discover a confusing, implausible mish-mash of ideas.

  1. But those stories, statements, claims, declarations, ideas, and opinions help to underwrite and shape a way of life in which people relate to the stories of Jesus in certain ways, construct their lives individually and communally in relation to Jesus in various ways, see the world through Jesus-coloured spectacles in various ways, and so on.
  2. And, it turns out that if you look carefully at the history of incarnational belief, and at sophisticated contemporary discussion of it, incarnational doctrine makes considerably more sense as an account of what is claimed or assumed or implied by that whole way of life – what that life implies about the world, about God, and about Jesus of Nazareth.
  3. Nevertheless, the more sophisticated account helps one see that the popular ideas do not simply play a functional role, but are pictorial, partial ways of making some of the claims that sophisticated versions of the doctrine make, so that there is something a little analogous to the relationship between popular Quantum Mechanics and real Quantum Mechanics going on, even if it is not the main part of what is going on, and even if the link between the two is more complex in this case.

I haven’t given you any content to that example: I’m not trying to explain or justify the doctrine of the Incarnation at this point; I’m simply trying to help you understand how I see the relationship between sophisticated, philosophically complex discussions of theology and what ‘the vast majority of people’ believe.

All this leaves me with a ragbag of further comments to make.

  1. All this gives a little more content to the comment I made about ‘generous interpretation’ when I was asking whether theology was a subject. ‘Generous interpretation’ involves the attempt to do justice to the whole weave of Christian life, and to give as careful account as possible of what is really claimed by that life as a whole.
  2. There is an interesting complication to all this. Many Christians acknowledge that their own ideas are but partial and inadequate grasps of something they don’t know how to talk about with precision – and, in this view of things, that is not an admission of any kind of failure on their part: being a Christian is not primarily about understanding a set of claims well. However, some Christians do not make any acknowledgment like this, explicitly or implicitly: they do behave exactly as if their ideas were literal, accurate and fully graspable pictures of what is going on. And some of those who do treat their ideas as gestures in the direction of something they do not grasp may think that theologians achieve greater clarity and precision about what they themselves grasp only dimly, but some will not. None of that stops me interpreting what all these Christians do and say – but it does make the whole thing a bit messier.
  3. The pusillanimous quote from the president of a New Jersey historical society that Dawkins gives on p.38 fits right in here. (a) The writer is clearly not convinced that his doubts, his attempts to think through and clarify his beliefs about God, are worth very much – which is the same as his assuming he doesn’t really know how his convictions work. And (b) he clearly has more of a concern with how what he says is going to affect people (shape their lives, rock their boat) than with his ability to argue for or against his conclusions. I am not saying he has drawn the right conclusions, or understood what honesty and integrity require of him, still less that his saying this about himself gives him ground from which to criticise Einstein. I’m simply noting that I think more complex things are going on than is seen by Dawkins (who simply says ‘What a devastatingly revealing letter! Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.’)
  4. One last comment. I do not claim at all to have shown the connection between ordinary Christian life and the kind of theological tradition (Aquinas, Maimonides, Spinoza, et al) I have begun to sketch – which isn’t to say that I don’t think the connection is there, or that I’m not going to end up droning on about it ad nauseam at some point soon.