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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.