Monthly Archives: December 2007

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Splitting hairs

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Splitting Christianity by splitting hairs – such has ever been the way of theology. (p.54)

Really? Which divisions ave been the result of hair-splitting? I can think of a couple of alternative hypotheses that we might need to try out on any apparent example before concluding that it matched this description. We might ask whether the hair-splitting distinction was purely epiphenomenal – an inherently irrelevant difference chosen as a shibboleth to mark the distinction between groups whose differences were deeper and greater than that. And we might ask whether the seemingly irrelevant distinction was in fact a real intellectual difference, and a telling one, only because it was one visible rubbing point of a larger tectonic collision.

So, for instance, Dawkins has just been talking about Christological controversies in the fourth century, and specifically about the condemnation of Arius at Nicaea. That’s a good case in point: most decent histories of the conflict will show you that a good deal really was at stake – intellectually, politically, socially, involving everything from individual personalities to imperial politics, via some pretty central theological and philosophical ideas. You could start with Rowan Williams book on Arius if you want a fairly rich example of such an analysis.

You could even look at the most famous case: the debate later in the same century between those who insisted on the formula ‘homoousios’ and those who insisted on a formula that differed only by one iota: ‘homoiousios’ – a difference about which I seem to remember Gibbon had rather scathing things to say. Once again, look at any decent history of the conflict, and you’ll be able to find out what the people involved thought was at stake, and why. You could start with R.P.C. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God.

Or you could stick with the breezy platitude. It’s up to you.

Trinity and rationality

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

If you’ll forgive the plug, I thought I’d mention that next month will see the publication of my textbook on Christian Doctrine (an SCM Core Text). (NB – Beware if you follow that link; the book description on Amazon is wildly out of date.) Amongst other things, it offers a fairly lengthy discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity.

In that book, just as many other theologians have done, I offer a way of making sense of the doctrine. And, as is the norm with theological discussions like this, the account I give is fully open to rational discussion. That is, you can ask me about any bit of it, ‘Why that word? Why that idea? Why that conclusion?’, you can challenge any bit of it (‘Why not say this instead?’, ‘Does that really follow?’, ‘Surely you’ve conflated x with y?’) and I’ll be happy to respond. And if I am shown that my arguments fail, I’ll abandon them. I won’t necessarily be able to prove my account from basic principles that I and my interlocutor share, but I think I can demonstrate that the basic ideas involved are very simple. And, yes, there will be some kind of appeal to mystery in what I say, but I promise that it will not be one that undercuts what I have just said (i.e., not one that undercuts my willingness always to give reasons for what I have said, and to discuss those reasons openly and with as much clarity as I can muster). The appeal to mystery will, rather, appear as a clarification of kinds of knowledge that I am not laying claim to.

You won’t have to believe in God to follow what I say and decide whether it is cogent or not. Nor will deciding that it is cogent turn you into a believer. All that would happen is that you would end up understanding what this Christian doctrine means, and what is at stake in affirming or denying it. I’d go so far as to say – pace Dawkins – that someone who followed my account and accepted it as cogent (even if based on mistaken starting points) would have a ‘distinct idea of the trinity’, distinct enough for reason to ‘act upon’ it. (Dawkins, p.55, quotes Jefferson’s claim that this is impossible.)

In all this, I think I am behaving like an ordinary academic theologian. And I don’t think I will be being ‘characteristically obscurantist’, putting forward ‘unintelligible propositions’, or spouting the ‘Abracadabra of … mountebanks’.

Dawkins on the Trinity

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity (one of the subtopics on his trawl through ‘polytheism’, pp.54-55) Dawkins revels in his ignorance, and invites you to share it.

Arius of Alexandria, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubsantial (i.e., of the same substance or essence) with God. What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking? Substance? What ‘substance’? What exactly do you mean by ‘essence’? ‘Very little’ seems the only reasonable reply.

Actually, we understand pretty well what was going on in those debates, and we understand pretty well what the word ‘consubstantial’ meant. If Dawkins could have been bothered to lift one finger to do some research, he would have been able to answer his rhetorical questions in some detail. True, it’s not a simple matter – making sense of an intellectual debate from so long ago never is – but I could have suggested some reading accessible to first-year undergraduates if he was worried it would be too much for him. But he doesn’t actually care. It doesn’t matter one little bit to him whether he misrepresents or misunderstands this: he knows in advance that it must be rubbish, so actually thinking about it, actually doing some research, actually caring whether he was telling the truth or not would be a waste of his time.

When he gets on to the doctrine of the Trinity proper, he turns once again to the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia – so deep does his research go – and presents a summary statement with no context whatsoever, simply in order to ridicule it. Once again, he simply doesn’t care about what any of this means. He quotes a brief passage from Gregory the Wonderworker (again, with no context), simply in order to be able to say, ‘Whatever miracles may have earned St. Gregory his nickname, they were not miracles of honest lucidity’.* And he is quite explicit that ridicule is his aim (quoting Jefferson to back him up). As I said at the start: Dawkins revels in his ignorance, and invites you to share it.

Once again, Dawkins feels free to be this cavalier because of the underlying model he has: the ‘failed botanist’ model. I won’t repeat the details again – see the last post for a summary. Here, he says:

The other thing I cannot help remarking upon is the overweening confidence with which the religious assert minute details for which they neither have, nor could have, any evidence. (55)

If Dawkins were at all interested in lessening his ignorance, it would be a fairly simply matter to explain to him what the doctrine of the Trinity means, where it comes from, and on what grounds it is argued about. It would turn out that at stake in those arguments are not meaningless invented technicalities, nor gobbets of mystifying mumbo-jumbo, but some fairly deep – and fairly simple – convictions Christians have had about what has happened to them, and about the shape of life they are called to. Of course, those convictions will be ones that Dawkins does not share, but it only takes a little imaginative effort to understand what it would be like to live with those convictions. At no point in the discussion would we need to import anything that looked remotely like (invented) observations from a (deluded) botanist, who had God under observation in his jar, and reported on the marvelous three-fold leaf-structure of his entirely non-existent plant. That’s not what the theologian has in her jar, remember?

If Dawkins were to do that, it would admittedly take some of his time and energy. But – and here’s the key thing – he would put himself in a position to understand what ‘God’ actually means in the Christian tradition, and so would put himself in a position to argue against it, or critique it, more successfully. But if he thinks that revelling in ignorance is a better intellectual strategy, so be it.

* Actually, the comment from Gregory the Wonderworker is a model of honest lucidity. He is simply making the point that to claim (for reasons he does not discuss here) that there is some kind of differentiation within God does not necessarily require him to claim that those diffentiations involve relationships of subordination, or relationships of temporal sequence. Within the terms of the debate that Gregory was involved in, that is a perfectly meaningful and legitimate move – and one that marks a real conceptual advance in the somewhat neo-Platonic intellectual culture of his time. Yes, it’s quite complex and subtle. And, yes, it’s treating questions in which Dawkins has no interest. But it’s not obfuscatory or dishonest.


Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Dawkins says of Hinduism that its proponents might claim that their

polytheism isn’t really polytheism but monotheism in disguise. There is only one God – Lord Brahma the creator, Lord Vishnu the preserver … and hundreds of others, are all just different manifestations or incarnations of the one God. (53-54)

This is, he says, ‘sophistry’.

I’m always impressed with the bravery of anyone who ventures generalisations about ‘Hinduism’, which is almost impossibly varied (and which varies on, amongst other things, precisely the kind of point that Dawkins is trying to make). And I’m probably now going to tumble into the trap after Dawkins – but it seems to me that, once again, one of the models he has in mind does not allow him even to begin making sense of this Hindu claim.

The model in question is the ‘failed botanist’ one, again. I said, in an earlier post, that

Dawkins sees theologians, I think, as a strange kind of failed botanist. They are botanists who study the habitat and foliage of an entirely non-existent plant – so what could they possibly have to say that would be of any interest (except the interest that comes from deluded people revealing the nature of the twists that distort their minds)?

Hindus, in Dawkins view, believe in the existence of a large number of these plants. Those plants do not exist, so there is no way Hindus can have any information about them – but that doesn’t stop Hindus (like all other religious people) simply making stuff up. The claim of some Hindu theologian that Hinduism is, deep down, monotheistic is like the claim of a deluded botanist that all these (imaginary) plants are in fact shoots from a common root, despite their very different (imaginary) fruit and foliage. What can such a claim be, if it is not simply invention – an invention grown implausibly baroque as the inventor attempts to have his cake and eat it?

However, recall my response to the botanist model:

What the theologian-botanist thinks he has in his jars … is not God, but what Christians [or Hindus] say and believe about God.

And recall what I said about the definitions of polytheism and monotheism:

Polytheism and monotheism are more different than that. They mean different things by the word ‘god’, and the differences go much deeper than number. They are, fundamentally, very different ways of living in and thinking about the world. Those differences show up in, say, different ways of understanding and practicing human universality (i.e., different ways of thinking about and negotiating encounter with cultural difference, different ways of thinking about and negotiating pursuit of common goods). And those differences are constitutive for what ‘god’ means on each side.

Put these together, and you’ll see that we can at least make sense of the Hindu claim: it would be something like the claim that although Hindu practice irreducibly involves forms of devotion that circle around narratives of multiple divine characters, those practices turn out to have a deeper kind of unity to them, and to be readable in ways that look more ‘monotheistic’: the kind of polity formed, the kind of understanding of the religious self and its goals involved, the forms of relationship to other cultures and religions inculcated – all these things, it can meaningfully be claimed, are not in the Hindu case simply ‘polytheistic’.

That may or may not be true; I’m not an expert (and, as I said above, I’m particularly hesitant about claims relating to ‘Hinduism’). However, it is potentially a way of making sense of the kind of claim Dawkins cites, and it is an explorable, testable, arguable claim, not a sophism. And, note that setting about that exploration, testing and argument does not require that the investigator believe in the existence of God or gods in any form, and it does not require any magic spectacles that enable the investigator to see invisible plants. All it requires is curiosity, and a desire to see what sense religious claims actually make.

Charity law

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Dawkins, as an aside, talks about the presumption in charity law that monotheistic religion counted as a public good, and that its promotion could therefore be given charitable tax exemption – whereas polytheistic religions did not. Now, as I understand it, that is no longer the case. Christine Barker wrote in 2003:

While the present exemptions under UK charity law may seem to favour Christian organisations, it is a long-established tradition that charity law does not discriminate between religions. However, until relatively recently there was a widely held view that only monotheistic religions could be charitable. This approach is not one which has been followed in recent years when determining charitable status. Quint and Spring note that not only have Hinduism, Sikhism, the Ravidassian religion and Buddhism been accepted as charitable by both the courts and the Charity Commissioners, but that charities promoting “less traditional religions such as Unitarianism, Spiritualism, the Exclusive Brethren, the Unification Church (Moonies), Jainism, Bahai and (recently) the Seventh Day Adventists, besides many small and local sects, have also been registered by the Commissioners”.

(I think ‘Quint and Spring’ refers to Quint, Francesca, and Spring, Thomas, “Religion, Charity Law and Human Rights”, Charity Law & Practice Review, Vol. 5, Issue 3, pp.153-186 – but I have been unable to check.)

It is also worth noting that there is currently a review of charity law which addresses the need for all bodies granted charitable status to demonstrate the ‘public benefit’ of their activities. A public consultation was held, and they aim to publish new guidance next month. The draft rules include the following definition of ‘public benefit’:

Principle 1: There must be an identifiable benefit

  • It must be clear what benefits a charity’s purposes provide to the public.
  • The nature of the benefit may look very different depending on what the charity is set up to achieve.
  • Charities can provide different sorts of benefits to the public but must not be concerned with fulfilling a political purpose.
  • Benefits must be balanced against any ‘disbenefits’ or harm.

Principle 2: Benefit must be to the public, or a section of the public

  • Who constitutes ‘the public’ will vary depending on the organisation’s purposes.
  • It is not a simple matter of numbers. ‘The public’ can mean groups, communities, society or humanity. It can mean geographical, social or economic communities; it does not just mean people in the UK.
  • Where benefit is not to the public at large, benefit can be to a ‘section of the public’ where restricting the benefit in that way is relevant to the charitable purposes.
  • But, public benefit will be affected where the restrictions are irrational, unreasonable or unjustified.

Principle 3: People on low incomes must be able to benefit

Principle 4: Any private benefit must be incidental

  • There is a ‘private benefit’ where an individual or organisation personally gains from receiving a benefit. In some cases that gain may be charitable; in some cases not.
  • Charities can provide private benefits provided that those benefits directly contribute towards achieving the charity’s purposes and/or are incidental to carrying out those purposes.
  • A charity must provide more public benefits than private benefits.

This looks fairly reasonable to me, though I don’t have enough relevant background to allow me to trust my judgment. It does look like a charter for some interesting debates, though – debates in which I think I can imagine the side that Dawkins will take. But anyway, it looks as if the situation he describes is changing, at least in the UK.

Monotheistic chauvinism

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Yes, there is still plenty of monotheistic chauvinism around (the assumption that monotheism is self-evidently the purest and best kind of religion). And Dawkins’ has found a lovely quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Formal dogmatic Atheism is self-refuting, and has never de facto won the reasoned assent of any considerable number of men. Nor can Polytheism, however easily it may take hold of the popular imagination, ever satisfy the mind of a philosopher.

That’s from their article on the existence of God. I would, though, have preferred it if Dawkins had let on that this is from an encyclopedia published in 1909, and might not be quite at the forefront of contemporary theological thinking. This is a petty thing to mention, I know, but Dawkins fairly regularly gives the impression that he didn’t exactly expend much energy on research, and I can’t help getting irritated by that.


Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

The labels ‘polytheism’ and ‘monotheism’ present one big disadvantage. They might persuade the unwary to think that the difference between the two is one of arithmetic – that polytheism is the assertion that there are multiple examples of the same kind that monotheists believe to have a unique instantiation.

No. Polytheism and monotheism are more different than that. They mean different things by the word ‘god’, and the differences go much deeper than number. They are, fundamentally, very different ways of living in and thinking about the world. Those differences show up in, say, different ways of understanding and practicing human universality (i.e., different ways of thinking about and negotiating encounter with cultural difference, different ways of thinking about and negotiating pursuit of common goods). And those differences are constitutive for what ‘god’ means on each side.

Of course, it is possible to tell a (selective) story about a progression in the Judaeo-Christian tradition from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism – but that trajectory involves precisely these kind of differences in worldview, in social and political practice, in understanding of what the word ‘god’ means. There is no interesting sense in which it is an arithmetical change.

Now, before you object, I know that Dawkins does not actually trade very heavily on claims about the meaning of ‘polytheism’. The whole section is, after all, simply a gesture of impatience with such irrelevant distinctions. Who cares whether you have one god or several? Dawkins’ description of the God Hypothesis covers them all. No, really it does. The differences must be – just must be – trivial subtleties icing over cake made from the same crumbs: explanatory hypotheses for the existence and arrangement of the cosmos involving the efforts of one or more supernatural intelligences. No evidence or argument is needed to substantiate that claim; none at all. It is, apparently, just obvious. As long as you close your eyes.

Essentialist Progression

Ch.2, Introduction (pp.51–52).

Historians of religion recognize a progression from primitive tribal animisms, through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans and Norsemen, to monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam. (p.52)

We have learnt to be suspicious of claims like this, and it’s not hard to see why. A narrative which calmly places Western monotheisms at the end-point of a centuries-long ‘progression’, and shows that we have developed further than all those who are stuck with more ‘primitive’ forms of religion – well, it’s a narrative that rather obviously comes with its own built-in politics.

But still, for Dawkins’ purpose, this narrative matters not because it preserves memories of Empire, but because it helps underwrite his core essentialising move – his claim to know what religion, belief in the divine, belief in gods, belief in God are really about. The God Hypothesis as he has described it is the essence and end-point of religion: deal with that, and you have dealt with religion.

I’m going to get on to the specific problems with Dawkins expansion of this brief quotation in subsequent entries. But I wanted to point out in passing that this is one of the passages that does make Dawkins sound like he’s from the nineteenth century. When people make that kind of criticism, they’re not simply making up random insults (or at least some of them are not): Dawkins essentialising move here, and the attendant breezy analysis of differing forms of religion, really does make him sound like someone from a different era. That in itself doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course – but it doesn’t make it easier to take him seriously.

Creation and Explanation

Ch.2, Introduction (pp.51–52).

It is worth dwelling a little longer on the claims I made in the last post. Richard Dawkins claims that central to the meaning of the word ‘God’ are explanatory claims about the existence and arrangement of the cosmos – that God is (the content of) an explanatory hypothesis. I claim that Dawkins is in error – at least, he is in error to the extent that he takes himself to be stating something essential about Christian (Jewish, Islamic) understandings of God.

What kinds of investigations would be necessary to adjudicate between us, though?

There are historical investigations that we could undertake – from deeply speculative examination of the earliest emergence of ideas about God or the gods, through discussions of the development of the idea of creation in pre-Christian Judaism and its borrowings from other cultures, on into the debates about creation that took place between gnostic and catholic forms of Christianity in the early centuries after Christ, and the interactions with neo-Platonism and other strands of thought, and on into the more philosophical discussion of creation in medieval Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and then the transformations of the doctrine that began to take place with late medieval nominalism/voluntarism, and accelerated in the early modern period… and so on. I only really know this story from the time of Christ onwards, but for that section of it there are some good resources out there: Gerhard May’s Creatio ex Nihilo, David Burrell’s Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions and Faith and Freedom, Michael Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism, and Kathryn Tanner’s God and Creation in Christian Theology, for instance. My claim – one which you can follow up using these and other resources – is that God-as-explanatory-hypothesis is a late and ambiguous arrival on the scene, rather than the obvious core of religious beliefs about God.

There are, however, other kinds of investigation that we could undertake. We could call in the sociologists of religion, and ask them to tell us the results of opinion surveys of religious believers. I suspect that we would find that there is a good deal of ‘God as explanatory hypothesis’ stuff out there now, because that kind of claim, and forms of apologetic argument supposed to back it up, have become very popular in recent decades. It is by no means universal, of course, and may not even be quite the overwhelming majority position that some of Dawkins’ remarks might suggest, but it will certainly be there in strength.

However, I think we can dig deeper than that. My claim is that, although that kind of argument has become popular as a defensive mechanism, it’s prevalence does not actually tell you a great deal about what ‘God’ actually means in contemporary Christianity. One can, I claim, imagine (as a thought experiment) Christianity stripped of that particular apologetic reflex, and one does not need to make many other changes to one’s picture of Christianity in order to do so. Most of the ways in which most Christians talk, think and practice in relation to what they call ‘God’ have, I claim, little to do with ‘explanation’ – certainly little to do with the kinds of explanation that Dawkins is talking about. In order to pursue that argument further, however, we would need to ask questions about how Christian belief works – about how Christian ideas hang together, about how they are embedded in different forms of Christian life, about what their presuppositions and implications are, about how they draw upon and relate to scriptural and traditional sources, about what forms of testing, questioning, and change they are open to, and so on. In other words – we might need to talk to some theologians.

When I say that Dawkins’ misrepresents Christian belief, I do not mean that he is missing nuances, or that his view is too harsh, or insensitive, or that it lacks proper respect. I mean something much more central than that. Dawkins’ description of the God hypothesis should itself be treated as a hypothesis – the hypothesis that it is appropriate to describe God as an explanatory hypothesis. And Dawkins’ implicit hypothesis should be tested appropriately. There are relevant bodies of evidence, argument and expertise that can be drawn on in order to test Dawkins’ implicit hypothesis – most of which you can find in a good theology department.

I contend that Dawkins’ implicit hypothesis fails, and that this failure undermines the saliency of his overall argument. And I also claim that one of the big problems with Dawkins’ book is that he appears not to realise that there is an argument to be had here, and appears to be ignorant of the resources that might be brought to bear on resolving that argument. And, lastly, I claim that the misrepresentation of the nature of belief in God that Dawkins promotes here is closely related to the misrepresentation promoted by creationists, and that in this limited but important respect Dawkins is their ally.

The heart of the matter

Ch.2, Introduction (pp.51–52).

Here is Dawkins’ statement of the God Hypothesis:

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

In other words, Dawkins thinks ‘God’ names an explanatory hypothesis for the existence and nature of the universe. That is, for him, the core of what ‘God’ means, so that to dispense with this hypothesis for explanatory purposes is to dispense with God.

If you’ve been holding your breath, wondering whether Christian claims about God are going to receive a devastating blow from Dawkins’ arguments, this is the point where you can breathe again, deeply and slowly. This is the point where it turns out that Dawkins is not talking about what we mean by ‘God’ at all. Speaking for Christian theology (but this would be true for Judaism and Islam as well), God is not an explanatory hypothesis.

Let me say it again:
That’s not what the word ‘God’ means, it’s not the taproot of belief in God. This is a sideshow.

Let me be more precise. We know when the idea that ‘God’ named an explanatory hypothesis really took hold: it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And it’s not hard to show that this particular idea about what is meant by God is (a) a drastic thinning and reshaping of what had traditionally been meant, in the great monotheistic traditions, and (b) a misrepresentation of the God actually believed in even by those Christians who lived after this shift. (That is, while it might have become a popular apologetic argument, and have assumed centrality in some explicit modern Christian accounts of what ‘God’ means, it has never been a particularly good way of getting at the God implied by actual Christian practice.) Christians can stand shoulder to shoulder with Laplace, and say ‘I have no need of that hypothesis!’ – and in doing so they will be standing up for core, orthodox, mainstream Christian belief in God, not some mealy-mouthed invention of a handful of sophisticates in headlong retreat from the battalions of science.

Let me say it again: God is not an explanatory hypothesis. Dawkins’ version of the God Hypothesis may be a hypothesis but it certainly isn’t about God. Dawkins is firing at …

… well, what is Dawkins firing at? Dawkins has, in effect, taken some form of creationism as paradigmatic for all belief in God. Creationism may be nuts, from Dawkins point of view, but it seems to be the movement that (at last) clearly, firmly and honestly defines ‘God’ properly.

No. No, no, no, no, no.

Creationism is an irrelevant sideshow. It doesn’t get you anywhere near the heart of what the great religious traditions have meant by ‘God’. It doesn’t even get you anywhere near the heart of what creationists, once they are off their apologetic soapboxes, mean by ‘God’. Dawkins (bizarrely enough) accords it far too much power and significance. Let me say it one more time: God is not an explanatory hypothesis.

There are other problems with Dawkins’ God hypothesis as well. It appears to assume that the word ‘God’ names one more thing that there is in the total list of things there are: you count all the things in the universe, and then there is one more: God. And it appears to assume that there is no problem, on the side of the defenders of this hypothesis, in defining this extra thing literally and quite straightforwardly as a designing, creative intelligence. (These assumptions have to be embedded in Dawkins’ version of the God Hypothesis, I think, for his alternative hypothesis to make any sense: that is, his claim that a designing, creative intelligence such as is postulated by the God hypothesis can in fact only emerge as the product of a long process of evolution.) Trouble is, you don’t have to look very hard to find theologians (Jewish, Christian or Islamic) who will tell you that the falsehood of both these assumptions is a core part of what the word ‘God’ means.