Daily Archives: January 28, 2008

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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.