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Miracles – and the Virgin Birth

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice – or not yet – a decided one. So also is the truth or falsehood of every one of the miracle stories that religions rely upon to impress multitudes of the faithful. (82)

What an odd claim that second sentence makes. If one takes the typical, naive definition of a miracle, it is precisely a particular violation of scientific laws. Science as science may be in a position to say, ‘But that is not possible – it goes against everything we securely know!’, and the naive miracle-defender says, ‘Yes, that’s the point.’ It would be much more plausible to call it an historical question – to do with the evaluation of evidence about the likely course of particular events. (Of course, were Dawkins’ book a translation from the German, and were he really calling it a wissenschaftlich question, which covers both options, we might let him off.)

Let’s think about miracles for a while, though. It is not hard to find accounts of miracle that, like Dawkins critique, focus on (a) miracles as particular exceptions to the laws/regularities of nature, and (b) the supposed probative force of miracles, as demonstrations that there is something beyond nature. That is indeed one way of translating into modern terms a premodern understanding of miracle. I think we can do better than that, however, by focusing on (a) miracles as events that ‘stand out’ against the background of our expectations, such that (b) they are capable of acting as ‘signs’.

Suppose someone learns (as I have been suggesting all the way along) to see the world as coming from a generous, gratuitous, loving source. Particular events might stand out in some way, and display to this person in some particularly intense way this gratuitous, gifted nature of the world. That won’t be probative in some straightforward ‘if you see this, then you must believe that God exists’ kind of way – but it can be one of the doorways into, and supports for, this whole way of seeing the world. (Think of the boy lying on his stomach on the grass, on the first page of Dawkins book: that’s what I’m talking about!)

Now, let’s go further. Someone who saw the world in these terms (and who, in the ways I have suggested, could claim to have good reason to see the world in these term) might appropriately live in hope of these moments of generativity-beyond-expectation. When asked about how that hope meshed with her acknowledgment of the power of science to describe the regularities that structure the world, she might quite properly be somewhat agnostic. Some Christian thinkers have thought that the structure described by science is capacious enough to include this kind of generativity, and who therefore develop accounts of miracle that don’t involve any kind of law-breaking – though their reasons for saying that are unlikely themselves to be scientific (what would that look like?); they’re more likely to be properly theological. Others have insisted that it makes sense, within this whole worldview, to accept the possibility that the generativity that grounds the lawfulness of the universe might sometimes trump that lawfulness – and that miracles in the full-blown naive law-breaking sense might be part of the overall picture. Even so, from this angle the claim that such miracles are possible, or the claim that they do in fact happen, is not primarily going to be a matter of proving something, not a matter of demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt that something scientifically inexplicable has happened. In the end, belief in miracle depends upon belief in God, not the other way around.

Incidentally, I don’t deny that belief in miracles seems to play a large part in many forms of popular theism, but I would hesitate before claiming that there is any strong sense in which popular belief in God rests upon a really or logically prior belief in miracles, even if belief in miracles acts as an important reinforcement.

Dawkins illustrates his claim that miracle claims are of course a scientific matter in the following way:

To dramatize the point, imagine, by some remarkable set of circumstances, that forensic archaeologists unearthed DNA evidence to show that Jesus really did lack a biological father. Can you imagine religious apologists shrugging their shoulders and saying anything remotely like the following? ‘Who cares? Scientific evidence is completely irrelevant to theological questions. Wrong magisterium! … ‘ The very idea is a joke.

Dawkins is right. If some such evidence did turn up, and were thoroughly convincing, I wouldn’t say anything like that. Instead I’d have to admit that I had been wrong: that my understanding of the meaning of the Virgin Birth stories, which didn’t seem to me to involve any claim that there was something odd about Jesus’ DNA for science to find one way or another, now seemed to be mistaken.

Much more interesting, of course, would be historical evidence. Suppose that, by some remarkable set of circumstances, archaeologists and historians were to turn up evidence that very convincingly showed that Jesus was the son of Mary and a Roman soldier called Panterus… or, suppose that by a similarly remarkable set of circumstances, archaeologists and historians were to turn up evidence that very convincingly showed that Jesus’ bones were lying in a gave near Jerusalem (perhaps also unearthing detailed records that showed us how the resurrection stories had got into such wide circulation). Those would be more interesting challenges. I know forms of Christian belief that would crumble with either; I know forms that would survive both; I know forms that would sail serenely over the first but hit big difficulties with the second. And I don’t know any way of seriously discussing the differences between those forms, or their relationship to earlier Christian tradition, except by getting stuck in to theological debate.

Richard Swinburne

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

Dawkins takes Richard Swinburne as his key exemplar of the way theologians think (82). This may be our problem. Whilst Swinburne’s books are undeniably popular, and while there is one variety of philosophical theology in which he is a mover and a shaker, I’m afraid that to think he speaks for theologians in general is simply laughable. It is probably fair to say that most of the theologians I know in the UK have no time for him at all – precisely because they don’t recognise the God he talks about. And when it comes to Swinburne’s theodicy (of which Dawkins makes much on pp.88-89), nearly every theologian I know would agree: Swinburne’s views are grotesque.

I wonder how much of Dawkins’ book can be explained by his imagining Swinburne every time he hears the word ‘theologian’?

Theologians and cosmologists

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

When faced with the question, ‘Why does anything exist at all?’, Dawkins can’t begin to see why on earth a theologian might be thought to have anything to offer (79). Remember, he thinks that the ‘God’ of Christian theology is one of the things that there is: a particular, complex bit of empirical reality. And if you think that, or anything like it, then of course it is palpable nonsense to think that God names a card in the ‘Why anything?’ debate, or that there could be any proper sense in which the existence of God is not a matter for scientific adjudication.

The thing is, theologians have over the centuries done quite a bit of thinking about what if anything might count as an answer to the question ‘Why anything?’, and about what kind of question it is. They have asked whether it is possible to conceive positively of some kind of answer to that question that would not immediately itself be question-begging, or (failing that) whether it is possible to say anything negatively about the limitations that one faces when trying to speak about such an answer. And they have asked whether, if one is abiding by those limitations, there is any sense in which it is nevertheless possible to speak about such an answer in such a way as to assign to it the kind of attributes that religious people have wanted to attribute to God.

These kinds of discussion are nothing like cosmology in the sense in which I think Dawkins is using the term; theologians are not, when engaged in this kind of discussion, engaged in anything like the kind of empirical, scientific conversation that cosmologists are engaged in. Nor are these kinds of discussion at all like the debate over the existence or non-existence of Russell’s orbiting teapot, nor (I think) like the kind of debate where Dawkins’ sliding scale of probability (p.73) is at all relevant. These discussion are part of a different kind of conversation (though I’d need to know more than I do about what Stephen Jay Gould meant by the phrase before I used his terminology, ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ to describe that difference in kind). And, yes, they are questions at the interface or overlap between theology and philosophy (an interface or overlap whose existence Dawkins, captivated by an inadequate picture of God-claims, denies (79).

Dawkins tells a horribly smug little story as an aside at this point:

I am still amused when I recall the remark of a former Warden (head) of my Oxford college. A young theologian had applied for a junior research fellowship, and his doctoral thesis on Christian theology provoked the Warden to say, ‘I have grave doubts as to whether it’s a subject at all.’ (79)

Should any defender of Dawkins ever read this (I realise this is unlikely!), perhaps they can now understand how depressing this little story is? It may look to Dawkins like a no-favours regard for honest, upright truthfulness and sense. From over here it looks like someone who simply doesn’t know what he is talking about – who has a mistaken model in mind which prevents him from seeing what kind of claims people are making – cheerfully making ignorant decisions that affect people’s lives. I can’t tell you how weary this suddenly makes me feel.

Which God?

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods, I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (57)

I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further. (77)

The picture Dawkins is operating with appears to be this: that all claims about the existence of some particular God are claims that there exists a distinguishable instance of a particular kind of reality (and that all other supposed instances do not exist) – and that while religious believers fritter away their remaining brain cells arguing about which instance is the right one, Dawkins cuts to the chase and tackles the kind itself – the characteristics which all supposed instances share.

I have several problems with this. I do not think that all God-claims are of the same kind. I do not think that even if one limits oneself to the various differing God-claims of the major monotheistic religions those God-claims do relate to one another as do claims about distinguishable supposed instances of a single kind. And I do not think that Dawkins has succeeded in identifying the essence even of those mainstream monotheistic God-claims.

So, first: not all God-claims are of the same kind. I don’t think it is obvious that, say, an ancient Egyptian worshipping Amon Ra was doing the same sort of thing as a medieval Sufi was doing. Given the vast differences in language and practice that surround the two different claims, the onus of proof would seem to be on those who claim that they are each instances of a common genus. More precisely, I would be very surprised if the kind of analysis I have given earlier in my discussions of Dawkins – the more-or-less non-supnernaturalist account of Christian God-claims, the not-quite-a-worldview account of Christian belief in general – travelled well. I doubt it is applicable to all sorts of things that we describe under the heading ‘religion’, or that get called ‘God’.

Second: I do not think that even if one limits oneself to the various differing God-claims of the major monotheistic religions those God-claims do relate to one another as do claims about distinguishable supposed instances of a single kind. I hardly know where to start here. I don’t want to get too deeply into this at present – so suffice it to say that there are deep and fascinating debates about how different kinds of God-claim relate to one another. There are accounts that make things look as Dawkins suggests they look. There are accounts that argue that differing God-claims are all claims about the same reality (e.g., that Allah and YHWH are ultimately one); and there are all sorts of models and arguments that are more subtle and more interesting. And, to head off a Dawkinsish criticism: the debate between them does not take the ‘deluded botanist’ form that Dawkins might expect it to: It is perfectly possible to make the vast majority of the debate, and the basis of the judgments made in it, intelligible to an atheist audience: it is about understanding the kind of claims that religious people make or imply, and about analysing their deeper implications and relations.

Third, I do not think that Dawkins has succeeded in identifying the essence even of those mainstream monotheistic God-claims. I won’t go on about this again too much here. I do not think that all, or most, claims about the existence of God arose as primitive attempts to provide the kinds of explanation that scientific explanation now provides. I do not even think that all religious doctrines of creation arose as primitive attempts to provide the kinds of explanation that scientific explanation now provides. There is a neat story that goes something like this: a pre-scientific person faced with the vagaries of the weather (for example) asks ‘Where does this wind come from? Why did that storm happen?’ Unable to arrive at an answer, but desiring not simply to live with meaningless arbitrariness, the person invents a God to whose caprice he can attribute the phenomena. Then along comes science, and provides a real explanation, in terms of air pressures and temperatures, the effect of the sun, the heat-stores of the oceans, the rotation of the globe, and so on. Primitive God-centred explanation gives way to scientific explanation. It’s a very neat, very plausible story. But that doesn’t make it true. I think, for instance, that you could provide a detailed history of the emergence of Christian ideas of a creator God, delving way back into the Jewish pre-history of those ideas and beyond, without stories like that playing any kind of starring role. I may be wrong: this is something that can be investigated in real detail, and cases made on the basis of the available evidence. But it is certainly not obvious that Dawkins’ picture is correct.

So, no, I don’t think Dawkins is talking about any and all Gods. I think he’s talking about creationism, and mistaking that for talk about something interesting.

The God Hypothesis

An old friend from Cambridge days e-mailed me about my claim that God is not an explanatory hypothesis. We have argued about it on e-mail for a while (reliving GROGGS debates of yore), and he has convinced me that I need to clarify and qualify that claim. I’m going to do so in two stages, the first of which will be simpler to precisely the extent that it is less true, second more difficult and more accurate.

The first stage, then, is to claim that Christian faith is something like a ‘worldview’. That is, it is a pervasive way of looking at anything and everything: the lens through which a group or individual sees the world – or through which the world is constituted as a world for them; it is that without which one would not have anything that counted as meaningful experience, being instead an empty recipient of streams of uninterpreted data. Of course, Christianity is not actually a worldview – but bear with me.

If Christianity were a worldview, a way of making sense of the world, the whole world, there would be an extent to which one might appropriately describe this worldview as a ‘hypothesis’: as a proposal for a way of making sense, that should be judged by its ability to make good sense of things. What does ‘good’ mean, in this context? Well, one might appropriately ask whether this worldview was coherent (though one would need to be careful to adopt a definition of ‘coherent’ that made intrasystematic sense, of course); one might appropriately judge whether this worldview was capacious – that is, whether it was capable of making some kind of sense of wide swathes of the world, finding some kind of place for more-or-less anything one encounters; one might appropriately judge whether this worldview was resilient – that is, whether it was capable of generating (in its own terms) responses to those criticisms that can actually be made telling in this worldview’s own terms. In other words, one might appropriately judge the habitability of this worldview.

Now, were Christianity in fact a worldview like this, what might a Christian say to the sceptic who inhabited a different worldview? There may be arguments that the Christian can mount that are based on particular problems within the sceptic’s worldview, and which demonstrate that the Christian worldview contains resolutions to those problems. But those in themselves will not decide the issue between the two worldviews; the most they can do (if such arguments can be found at all) is to persuade the sceptic that it is worth entertaining the Christian worldview. But that further step – ‘entertaining’ – remains necessary: learning how things look from inside this worldview; learning to see the world through the lens that it provides; learning what the questions and the answers are that make sense in terms native to this worldview – and beginning to explore this worldview’s coherence, capaciousness, resilience, its habitability.

I am not saying that the sceptic is faced with the need to abandon rationality and to adopt the Christian worldview, in some blind step of faith. I am describing what it might take for the sceptic to go on being rational in the face of this kind of proposal. I have, however, deliberately chosen the word ‘habitability’ to indicate the strange kind of rational testing that might be proper to a worldview-sized claim. The form taken by really rigorous rational testing of this kind of hypothesis will be the discovery of whether lives can be lived, individually and corporately, that make sense in this worldview’s terms. Attention to the forms that believing life takes, and the exploration of what form such life could take for oneself, will lie at the heart of a rational testing of Christianity’s claims.

What, then, does the Christian say to the sceptic? Well, if the Christian cares about rationality, she will say, ‘Come on in, the water’s lovely!’ The ‘hypothesis’ involved in Christianity is, I am suggesting, not some particular fact-claim: it is the whole worldview – and the sort of ‘entertaining’ that I have just been describing is the only way of properly, rationally testing such a thing.

Let me give a weak analogy. Consider the idea that the workings of the universe can be described in mathematical terms. Some such claim is (quite appropriately) at the heart of a modern scientific worldview. And it is curious, because it is not in any simple way a matter of blind faith, because that claim is sustained by the ongoing discovery of just how habitable this worldview is. But nor is that claim the kind of straightforward hypothesis that could be disconfirmed in some punctiliar way. The failure of this worldview – the disconfirmation of the hypothesis – would involve, I think, something like the slow demonstration that on multiple fronts those who tried to live by this claim were finding it impossible to go on. That is a real form of testability, a real form of intellectual responsibility, but it is by no means a simply one. And the only way of pursuing such a testing (the only way of treating the mathematisability of the world as a hypothesis) will be by devoting one’s life to work on the assumption that it is true: to the attempt to make mathematical sense of the world. I am, I claim, talking about a kind of hypothesis that has some structural similarities to this mathematical example. (Someone might say, ‘Ah, but the mathematisability hypothesis has more to do with the general structure of things, than with the existence of some particular thing‘. At which point I would cheer, and say, ‘Yes – and so does the God hypothesis, in its classic monotheistic forms…’)

I think, by the way, that it is worth noting the form that ‘losing faith’ normally takes. I have yet to meet anyone, however rational they took themselves to be before or after such a transition, for whom the crucial driver in a loss of faith was one particular argument, or one punctiliar disconfirmation. Rather, such people more often experience broad-based, creeping failure of the plausibility, the habitability of their faith. And that is just what one would expect.

Now, the Christian way of making sense involves pervasive and unavoidable reference to God. Talk about God is not a dispensable or decorative feature of this worldview: it stands at its heart. Excise that reference to God, and the whole worldview collapses into fragments. But this is also, I think, true the other way around: any attempts to specify what ‘God’ means (and so any attempts to state what the ‘God hypothesis’ is) that are detached from this whole worlview will not make any kind of Christian sense. Such attempts are, in Christian eyes, bound to be mis-identifications of what ‘God’ means – even if they are in certain respects interesting approximations to Christian belief. (So, for example, Dawkins’ statement of the God hypothesis is in some ways an interesting approximation to Christian belief – even if it is equally clearly a misidentification.)

The only way of properly explaining what ‘God’ means is by seeing God as lynchpin of this whole worldview. So to test whether what is said about God is coherent, capacious, resilient, habitable is equivalent to testing whether this worldview is coherent, capacious, resilient, habitable. That does not mean that belief in God is a matter of blind faith, of rationality abandoned and disparaged. It is simply to state the form that rational testing must take, in this case. (And the force of that ‘must’ comes from the form of the hypothesis, and from that alone.)


Now, all this is well and good, and I think that there is some truth to it. It does, however, suffer from one small problem. I don’t actually think that Christianity is a worldview. It would be more adequate to call it a tradition, if by that we meant something like ‘an ongoing process of argumentative worldview formation and re-formation’. And to the extent that Christianity has a heart or an essence, that heart or essence does not take the form of the skeleton of a worldview, but of a set of resources that have the capacity to drive the formation of worldviews: passed-down stories, resilient worship practices, a recorded history of argument about multiple worldviews related to those stories and practices, narrated exemplars of Christian lives lived well… and so on. And whilst I think that much of what I have just said about habitability can survive the transition to this second stage, there is no doubt that the appropriate criteria become even harder to talk about if one is asking about the habitability of a whole tradition.

Stop it, it’s silly

Okay, this is getting silly. I hadn’t meant to go quite so slowly in my reading of The God Delusion, or write quite so many words. The trouble is, I disagree with just about everything that Dawkins says – and I’ve not been very good at letting the issues go by. This has been very much a ‘spare moments’ pass-time, so it’s not like it’s been eating into time I’d have spent on anything other than, say, Scrabulous and Puzzle Bee on Facebook, but still. So I hereby promise to speed up – and will begin with a race through my main remaining issues with Chapter 2.

Ch.2, The God Hypothesis

Dawkins dismisses feminist theology in a sideswipe: ‘What is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male?’ (57). Nothing, on the failed botanist model of theology. Rather a lot, if you’re actually interested in the lives lived by believing people.

Dawkins finishes the section on Polytheism with a fairly central claim about his subject-matter – the claim that his target is ‘God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural’. I will come back to that one – and say a bit more about my understanding of the ‘God hypothesis’.

He then moves on to a section on Monotheism, giving a whirlwind tour of Judaism, Christianity (founded by Paul of Tarsus, he tells us) and Islam – a page-long description (58) written (successfully) to provoke. He doesn’t care about the details, and doesn’t mind if we know it. He trots on to Deism (59), dishing out a standard caricature. Dawkins’ case does not rest on his having understood these movements, or represented them fairly, or done them any kind of justice. Which is just as well.

There follows a section on ‘Secularism, the Founding Fathers, and the religion of America’. I have fewer criticisms of this section, partly because I (strongly) agree that some prominent Christian ways of mythologising of American origins seriously need puncturing. But I don’t think Dawkins provides any interesting intellectual tools for analysing that situation, and I think he gets caught up on problematic irrelevances, like trying to show that Jefferson was on his side, really. When tells us (60) of the Founding Fathers of the Republic that ‘their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours’, I can’t help thinking that if any one of his opponents were to try a similar form of argument in reverse, Dawkins would eat him for breakfast for spouting meaningless, self-serving tosh.

There are some asides about English Anglicanism on pp.62-3 which it would be fun to pursue – because Dawkins clearly thinks that middle-of-the-road Anglicanism isn’t real religion. As a middle-of-the-road Anglican I think that might be worth discussing at greater length – but another time, maybe. For anyone who wants to think this through anyway, go away and read Timothy Jenkins, Religion in English Everyday Life.

Then there’s quite a bit on the plight of atheists in the U.S., and a question about what they might achieve if they got organised (like, say, the Jewish lobby). That’s something Dawkins has since pursued further, and I wish him luck (truly: I think America could do with a strong atheist lobby). I don’t think he has understood the hill he has to climb, though. If he wants to rival the power of the Jewish lobby, it is not simply a matter of organizing atheists; it is about giving them a sense of communal identity: welding them into a people embodying a shared tradition. And yes, even though it smacks of the ‘proof by prominent scientists’ that Dawkins rightly critiques later on (i.e., the attempts to argue for Christianity by claiming prominent scientists of the past as Christians), his somewhat dubious attempt to assemble a cast of atheist heroes might have to be part of such a quest.

He also passes on anecdotal evidence of the mistreatment of atheists in the U.S. I haven’t checked, but I have no reason to doubt the stories they pass on. They do illustrate well (a) just how violently unpleasant some religious people can be; and (b) how ready religious people can be to mythologise themselves as persecuted minority, even when they hold the power. As I say, there is interesting work to be done – and, in other quarters, interesting work being done – on examining and understanding the religious mythology of the United States.

The section on Agnosticism didn’t really excite me. I had been planning a post on his clarification of the difference between ‘Temporary Agnosticism in Practice’ and ‘Permanent Agnosticism in Principle’, because it does show again that, for him, the God Hypothesis either makes the kind of claim which can be analysed as possessing, on current evidence, some degree or other of probability – or it is meaningless. ‘Either [God] exists or he doesn’t. It’s a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability’ (70). As will, I hope, continue to become clear, I don’t think that’s right at all.

On pp.74-75, he quotes the famous Bertrand Russell canard about celestial teapots. The claim that you can’t disprove the existence of God is compared to the claim that you can’t disprove the existence of a china teapot existing between Earth and Mars. Russell could be an ass from time to time, and this was one of those times. Quick exercise for the reader. Can anyone spot some salient differences between the kind of claim involved in talk about God, and the kind involved in talk about china teapots? Go on, have a try.

I think I will com back to the stuff (77) about ‘Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster’ – Christians, say, are atheists with respect to all these, and Dawkins simply goes one God further. That’s an interestingly misleading claim, so I’ll give it a separate post.

I’ll also come back to the stuff (77-85) on Non-Overlapping Magisteria – and Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that science can’t adjudicate on the God question – and Dawkins sceptical response. Unlike Dawkins (and although I don’t quite agree with Gould), I think it probably is worth more than ‘a moment’s thought’ (79). And that will include Dawkins’ depressing comments (again) about theologians and their lack of real subject matter. (And we’ll also touch on Dawkins’ avowed willingness to make decisions about other people’s lives on the basis of complete ignorance. Ho hum.)

In fact, from about that point on – p.77 – a set of issues crop up which I’d like to take a bit further: Teleology, moral philosophy, miracles, the Virgin Birth – and Richard Swinburne. So I’ll probably slow down again, even though the bit I’m itching to get onto is in Chapter 3, and the games Dawkins plays with Aquinas and Anselm…


Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Dawkins has fun with saints. He refers to a Catholic list he has found of 5120 saints, ‘together with their areas of expertise’ (i.e., the fields of which they are patron saints). He stirs in a list of different kinds of angels, and finishes by saying

What impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along. It is just shamelessly invented. (p.56)

I take it that, in Dawkins view, the list is meant by its compilers to be a list of the real abilities of a whole set of mini-deities – the sort of thing that could be discovered about these mini-deities by some method of observation or inference if the mini-deities in question actually existed, but which in the necessary absence of such information must be wholly invented. It is, he thinks, a bewilderingly baroque collection of fiction – and makes as much sense as does the bloke down the road who claims that there are seventeen different fairies at the bottom of his garden, and that they all have different coloured ears.

Suppose, for a moment, that we were actually interetsed in what is going on with such a list. Suppose, that is, that we were interested in understanding where such a list comes from, and what it purports to be. Suppose, for instance, that we took the view that some kind of social or cultural anthropologist or historian (as secular as you like) might take. We might find that patterns of devotion to saints has been, and to an extent still is, an important part of the way in which one kind of Christian polity worked – say, a way in which the universal and the local are held together. That is, these devotional practices might function to help create as it were local subcultures within the broader Christian culture, allowing particular communities of people to find how to adapt the broader structures of Christianity for their own particular situations.

And we might, in the course of such an investigation, find that adding a saint to the list does not really involve anyone making a deluded claim to have discovered the existence and atributes of a mini-deity. It may be, rather, that the core claim is that a particular set of stories – the stories of a particular person’s life – have been found to crystallise for people in a particular situation something of how Christian life can be lived in that situation. It is to see that particular life as, in that sense, a revelation: a showing of something, a making visible of something. Of course, there may be all sorts of examples of this sort of devotion where that central idea seems to be rather tenuously observed, or to have been lost sight of altogether, but it might be the case that the core examples which really sustain the idea of devotion to saints do have this form.

I’m speculating: this is not an area I’ve looked into. But it wouldn’t surprise me if some kind of analysis like this held water – and all I’m trying to do in this post is sketch out a possibility.

If something like that is what is going on, then (a) devotion to saints need not be a form of polytheism, but might be one of the ways in which a monotheistic polity can function without turning into strait-jacketed uniformity. And (b) the cult of saints might well be making claims that can be discussed skeptically, but they might not the kind of claim that Dawkins has identified. That is, it might be that the cult of saints does not involve, in its core forms, simple invention of imaginary mini-deities in the way that Dawkins thinks: it might have to do with how people make sense of their encounters with the lives of those who seem to demonstrate something essential about how life can be lived well.

Now, I say all this as someone who doesn’t live in close contact with forms of Christianity in which you’ll find much devotion to saints. I find it quite foreign, and often offputting. And one of the aspects that baffles me most is the part Dawkins goes on to talk about: the process by which claims to miracle-working on the part of a putative saint are an important part of the beatification process. I can see it has something to do with a process by which these local, popular foci are authorised centrally, and about how that authorisation is claimed not simply to be the arbitrary imposition of a political power, but a process of recognition of these foci as gifts from God. So I can see that something quite central to the whole sense that saints make is going on, even if I too find the particular form that takes somewhat bizarre and implausible.

In other words: there is sense to be made here. It is possible to ask what is going on in these forms of devotion that seem so odd. It is possible to see where they fit into a broader framework of religious thought and practice, and to begin making some judgments about what the important claims are at the heart of these practices (e.g., claims about lives that show how Christian life can be lived in particular situations) and what seems to be more peripheral (e.g., authorisation by miracle). Seeking such understanding, seeking the sense that such practices might make, is not a matter of showing them ‘respect’ of the kind Dawkins rejects: it is, rather, the attemt to discern what claim is actually being made – an important step in any critique that wants to be taken seriously. And one need not be any kind of religious believer to undertake this kind of serious investigation. One simply needs to be interested in understanding what one talks about.


On p.56, Dawkins goes on to talk about Pope John Paul II’s claim that our Lady of Fatima protected him when he was nearly assassinated. Again, my initial reaction (coming from the kind of Christian background that I come from) is to find such a claim bizarre and deeply unconvincing – just as Dawkins does. But I’m willing to bet that the Pope did not mean (as Dawkins assumes that he must) that a specific mini-deity called Our Lady of Fatima had popped along and intervened. From little I’ve read, it seems to have something to do with how the Pope interpreted his mission in context of struggles with communism, and something to do with his conviction that he was spared for that mission (a conviction that could be anything from a belief that some force did, by some efficient causal intervention, prevent him from dying, through to a conviction that his continued life was a gift that he must spend wisely); and a willingness to interpret that mission in the light of the strange Fatima prophecies (which again might be anything from a willingness to believe that those prophecies were miraculous predictions of the struggle with communism through to the belief that they provided a graphic image by means of which that struglle could be understood, and its costs and consequences faced). In order to test my initial skepticism, I’d need to know a whole lot more than I do about the Pope’s theology, about his understanding of miracle and prophecy and all sorts of things. I suspect that I would find myself still unconvinced and somewhat dismayed at the end – but at least I’d know what I was talking about.