Daily Archives: December 16, 2007

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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.