Daily Archives: December 15, 2007

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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.