Daily Archives: December 20, 2007

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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.