Monthly Archives: December 2007

You are browsing the site archives by month.

The God of the Old Testament

Ch.2, Introduction (pp.51–52).

The argument begins properly in Chapter 2, ‘The God Hypothesis’. Dawkins’ opening riff is to describe the God of the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible, to describe the horrified reactions of decent men to that depiction of God, and then to explain that his argument does not rely on this particular example:

The God Hypothesis should not stand or fall with its most unlovely instantiation, Yahweh…. I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh…or any other specific God….’

We’ll come in the next post to what he is attacking, and the real fun will begin. For now, though, and despite Dawkins’ protest that it is not germaine to his argument, I want to pause with his depiction of Yahweh.

The first level of response would of course be to say, ‘Oh, but what about all the other things that the Hebrew Bible says about God!’ and to chase Dawkins argument on its own territory. There’s a lot that could be said along those lines, but I’ll leave that argument to others. After all, Dawkins clearly does have a point: there’s plenty of unpalatable material to be found in the Hebrew Bible.

I find a second level of response more interesting. It is the response that effectively says, ‘Yes. So what?’ Dawkins’ argument works, it seems to me, if we assume that there is some significant body of religious people for whom ‘God’ means ‘the being whose description can be derived simply by reading the Hebrew Bible through’, or ‘the being whose character description is provided by the Hebrew Bible read as a continuous (picaresque?) novel’. (‘the most unpleasant character in all fiction’, Dawkins says).

Now, some Christians and Jews may say that this is what ‘God’ means, and may say that their understanding of God is derived and supported in this way. It is not true for them, and it is not true for anyone else, nor has it ever been: the role of the Bible in religious identification and description of God is much more complex, and much more interesting.

To put it in Dawkinsian terminology, if Christianity and Judaism are versions of the God Hypothesis, and if one did (unlike Dawkins at this point) want to test those particular versions of the Hypothesis, you wouldn’t discover what those versions of the Hypothesis claimed by sitting down like Randolph Churchill or Thomas Jefferson for a neutral read through and assessment of the whole Old Testament.

(This is one place, by the way, where we see the complex relation between the descriptions of theologians and the practice of ordinary believers. Ordinary believers may – do – claim that something like the ‘neutral read through’ approach is appropriate, and would indeed yield the Christian or Jewish depiction of God. Many ‘sophisticated’ theologians would not. But this is not simply a case of a majority believing one thing and a minority believing another: many such theologians would claim to be providing a description of what ordinary believers do in fact do, and of the traditions of reading to which they are unconscious heirs. Remember what I have said before: ‘What the theologian-botanist thinks he has in his jars…is not God, but what Christians say and believe about God. )

Interim verdict, on The God Delusion, ch.1

Ch.1: ‘A Deeply Religious Non-believer’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins’ first chapter is not where the meat of his argument lies. He uses it for two tasks: an initial clarification of his object, and an initial clarification of his approach. His object will be ‘supernaturalist’ rather than purely metaphorical Einsteinian religion, and his approach will be to peel back the layer of obfuscating ‘respect’ which so often protects religions from serious questioning.

Each part of the chapter rests upon a central distinction: the first on the supernaturalist/Einsteinian distinction, the second on the undue-respect-for-religion/ordinary-human-respect distinction.

My verdict on the chapter, based on all the little bits of analysis and questioning that I’ve undertaken, is that neither distinction quite flies. That is, neither distinction aids us in thinking seriously about religion, or about God, or about our world. Each looks superficially plausible, but that plausibility runs no deeper than the skin. Time and time again, Dawkins examples don’t seem to work in the way that he thinks they work; time and time again his conclusions turn out to be facile. This chapter is an example of bad thinking – bad thinking about God, and bad thinking about religion.

Cartoon analysis

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Richard Dawkins closes the second chapter, on pp.46-50, with a description and analysis of the Danish ‘Muhammad cartoons’ controversy. The primary point of his description is to supposed to be to ‘illuminate our society’s exaggerated respect for religion, over and above ordinary human respect’. The point, though, comes not in the description itself (though that serves Dawkins’ wider purposes in other ways), but in what he goes on to say.

He describes an interview between the journalist Andrew Mueller and Iqbal Sacranie. The latter described the importance that Muhammad has for Muslims. The former responded that Muslim’s respect for the Prophet cannot be imposed on other people: ‘nobody else is obliged to take it seriously’ (p.49). Dawkins notes that it is the threat of violence that forces people to show ‘respect’ – i.e., to keep quiet out of fear.

And the punchline comes when he turns back to ‘decent liberal newspapers’ and notes that whilst deploring the violence, they expressed ‘sympathy for the deep “offence” and “hurt” that Muslims had “suffered”.’ Dawkins thinks this is evidence of the bizarre extra respect for religion shown by our society – hence the point of telling the story at this point.

That’s a strange idea, though, isn’t it? ‘Ordinary human respect’ (to use Dawkins’ expression) presumably allows me to take into account the fact that people have beliefs and emotional attachments, and acknowledge that any offence or upset they feel at my words and actions will be relative to those beliefs and emotional attachments. And if their beliefs and attachments are such that they will experience as a personal attack those of my words an actions that criticise or ridicule something that they are deeply attached to – well, ordinary human respect suggests that I should take that into account. So, if I find that some of my Muslim friends, though abhorring the violent reaction of some other Muslims, nevertheless did find the cartoons upsetting, ordinary human respect suggests that I respond to them in a way which takes that into account. That does not mean that I share the beliefs and emotional attachments that underlie that upset; it doesn’t mean that they expect me to share them. But it does mean that, if we end up discussing the incident, and particularly if I find myself attacking some of the responses of some Muslims to this incident, and even more so if I want to argue for the right of people to indulge their free speech like this, ordinary human tact suggests that I should recognise and perhaps explicitly acknowledge their upset. That’s not about some special kind of respect for religion; it’s about treating my interlocutors as human.

As for the violence of the response – well, Dawkins doesn’t really offer an analysis. But he does insinuate one. His language creates the impression of a monolithic Islamic ‘world’, based in Islamic countries, but with outposts in the West. Indignation was nurtured ‘throughout the Islamic world’, ‘the whole Islamic world’; he quotes Germaine Greer to the effect that ‘what these people do best is pandemonium’. He quotes Richard Mueller referring to ‘any of you clowns’, presumably meaning Muslims, and arguing that, possibly, ‘Islam and the west are fundamentally irreconcilable’. And he finishes his initial description with the sarcastic comment, ‘Fortunately, our political leaders were on hand to remind us that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy.’ This is, for him, about Islam pure and simple. There is no historical or political contextualisation, no differentiation. There is no attempt to ask why some forms of Islam in some contexts are in such a state that this kind of response is all too depressingly predictable. There is no sense that there might be any kind of explanation to give, other than it is the fault of ‘Islam’ – as if this would have happened wherever and whenever the cartoons had been published.

As with so much of the rest of this chapter, I simply find that Dawkins’ analysis simply gets us nowhere. He doesn’t offer me concepts with which I can understand what is going on. And when he does offer concepts or distinctions (like the religious respect v. ordinary human respect distinction), I find that far from getting to the heart of the matter, they blunt themselves making superficial grooves on the skin of things. His is not an account that helps me think.

The right to freedom of religion

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins mentions a U.S. legal case, in which a 12-year-old boy’s parents sued his school for refused to allow him to wear a T-shirt bearing the words ‘Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!’ (p.45). They won their case on the grounds that the T-shirt ban infringed their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Dawkins comments:

[I]f such people took their stand on the right to free speech, one might reluctantly sympathize. But that isn’t what it is about. ‘The right to poke your nose into other people’s private lives.’ The legal case in favour of discrimination against homosexuals is being mounted as a counter-suit against religious discrimination! … You can’t get away with saying, ‘If you try to stop me from insulting homosexuals it violates my freedom of prejudice.’ But you can get away with saying, ‘It violates my freedom of religion.’ What, when you think about it, is the difference? (p.46)

That’s an interesting question. Can we distinguish a right to free speech (i.e., in part a right to form, hold and express opinions, to develop and express ideas), from a right to practice religion (i.e., in part a right to form and maintain a certain kind of polity – a certain kind of community)?

There are difficult questions here for a liberal society. On the freedom of speech side, the ‘right to poke your nose into other people’s private lives’ might be a combination of a right to form opinions about the morality of differing sexual behaviours, the right to express those opinions publicly, the right to campaign for the wider public acceptance of those opinions, the right to campaign for the political adoption and enforcement of those opinions, and even the right not to believe in the same public/private split that Dawkins refers to. All that might be something that a liberal society might (reluctantly, as Dawkins says) allow on the grounds of freedom of speech – though it will need to balance that with vigilance against (at least) incitement to violence, and there will be all sorts of interesting situations where this right might need to be curtailed.

But what about the right to form a community, a polity, that embodies those opinions? Is there a right for, say, conservative Christians who agree together that homosexuality is a sin to band together not simply as a collection of people exercising their common right to free speech, but as a community that shapes its common life accordingly? A community where that message is taught, where the claim that homosexuality is a sin is embodied in practices of confession and absolution, where children are brought up in that belief, and so on? What then?

I do not at all think it easy to answer these questions. That is, I think it fairly important that we should uphold some such right (however reluctantly, in particular cases); I also think that just as the right to freedom of speech is appropriately modified by a ban on incitement to violence, so there will appropriately be all sorts of caveats surrounding any right to form and participate in identity-forming polities.

Nevertheless, I think that such a right is not quite reducible to freedom of speech, nor even freedom of speech plus freedom of association. ‘Freedom of religion’ has to do with the right to participate in identity-forming polities – to become defined as a member of such a polity, and to go freely through the wider world identified as a member of such a polity.

Having said that, however, I can’t quite see how such a right extends to allowing the wearing of offensive T-shirts in school.

The only information I can find on the T-shirt case suggests that it was in the end fought on freedom of speech grounds. See here and here (some way down the page).


Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41) – a brief addition.

A quick clarification.

In a post some time ago, I said that theology was very likely to claim that there was some ‘purpose or goal, some kind of teleology to the world’ but that ‘it does not have to do so in such a way as to get into a direct argument with scientific explanation.’

All that I meant was that it would be perfectly coherent for a theologian to claim both that the world and its development could be wholly and accurately described in terms of efficient causality, with no gaps left in the explanation that might require recourse to some other kind of explanation – and that the same theologican could claim that this explicable world nevertheless also can be read as travelling towards some goal. And it would be possible for that theologian to speak of that goal as the goal for which the world was created, without that claim in any way undercutting or interfering with the comprehensiveness and completeness of the description of the world in terms of efficient causality. Of course, there are all sorts of questions about whether a theologian could have good grounds for making this sort of claim – I don’t deny that. Nevertheless, I don’t see anything logically preventing the theologian from making it should he or she believe that there are such grounds. I am also not claiming that this is exactly what theologians will or should want to say – I was simply setting it out as a possibility.

And relax…

I’ve come home from my last bit of teaching this term (an evening class on the Reformation), and am already beginning to feel whispers of relaxation drift through me. What with the pile of unprepared teaching, taking on the School Learning and Teaching Committee brief, and the RAE, it has been – well, busy, I guess. There were some days where I briefly considered not going for coffee, it was that bad.

Anyway, over the next couple of weeks I plan to write a paper on Psalm 2 – Christological and historical-critical readings, and what on earth they might have to say to one another. That’s for the Truro Theological Society in January. And I’d quite like to sketch out a paper on John the Baptist at the beginning of Mark, and on the idea of a ‘tradition’. (Don’t ask; it makes sense in my head.) And I plan to do some more God Delusion blogging. Of course, there’s also some marking and a bit of preparation for a new course on Aquinas, but you never know.