Monthly Archives: February 2008

You are browsing the site archives by month.

Acceptance of media law by British legal system is ‘inevitable’…

I liked this. (Hat tip: Clare Bryden.)

Dawkins on Aquinas

Ch. 3: Arguments for God’s Existence
Aquinas and DawkinsIn Chapter 3 of The God Delusion Dawkins seeks to dispose of supposed proofs for the existence of God. He turns his attention first to the famous ‘Five Ways’ of Thomas Aquinas. And I’m afraid that this is one of those points where I simply can’t be polite about Dawkins. His presentation is just dreadful. It reads like it is cribbed from a passing schoolboy – one who wasn’t listening in the relevant class, and so had to cobble together an essay based on a reading of a text some way beyond his limited intellectual level. Since Dawkins is clearly not that stupid, I can only assume that he, knowing in advance that he’s right and that people who disagree with him are wrong, simply didn’t think it worth bothering trying very hard to understand something written in a somewhat foreign idiom.

Anyway, look on the bright side: this presents a nice opportunity to grapple with the Five Ways myself. (Okay, that’s a bright side for me. You’ll have to find your own.) But I’ll start that in a new post, once I’ve got a moment to get my thoughts straight – and I hope it will show you why I’m not overly impressed with Dawkins’ account.


This God Delusion stuff is not really much fun any more. I’ve written 48 posts on the first two chapters, which I realise was kind of obsessive. But my anger and frustration with the book, which fuelled all those posts (even though I hope that most of the time I managed to convert anger into analysis) has slowly turned to solid weariness. So, here’s the plan. I intend to write three posts on chapter 3: one on Aquinas, one on Anselm, and then one on the whole thing. And then I’ll do two posts per chapter for the remainder of the book: one of bullet-pointed gripes, one of more organised response. And then I’ll put it away and do something that doesn’t make me feel quite so gloomy (and add yet another item to my list of projects not quite carried through…)

Interim verdict, on The God Delusion, ch.2

Chapter 2 of The God Delusion convinced me that when Dawkins hears ‘theologian’, he thinks of two things: creationists, and Richard Swinburne. And that he revels in his ignorance of the religious tradition that he thinks is represented by such theologians.

Perhaps more importantly, the chapter simply does not engage with what ‘God’ means in some strands of religious belief that are not well represented by either creationists or Richard Swinburne. And, as I said much earlier, I do not mean that his account misses some nuances, or tramples on some nice decorative features of the understanding of ‘God’ in those strands. I mean that it misses them completely. And I happen to think that those strands of Christianity that Dawkins misses are at least as faithful to the historical Christian tradition as either creationism or Richard Swinburne.

Overall, the thing that strikes me most forcefully – and that has made working through this chapter so depressing at times – is the lack of real curiosity that Dawkins demonstrates. He really doesn’t care about understanding how any of the stuff he’s talking about works. He really doesn’t care what the people who disagree with him say. He’s just not interested. And, no, I don’t mean that he ought to like it more; I don’t mean that he ought to show it some kind of pious respect. But without rather more attention to whether his descriptions actually apply as universally as he thinks they do, it’s unsurprising that those descriptions fail to be particularly penetrating.

Oh well.

The Great Prayer Experiment

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

Dawkins writes a lot about the ‘Great Prayer Experiment’ – a scientific study designed to test the efficacy of intercessory prayer. The experiment’s results did not show any efficacy. Dawkins, expreses a good deal of distaste about the whole thing. Fair enough.

He asks, however, whether, had the experiment instead proved the efficacy of intercessory prayer, ‘a single religious apologist would have dismissed it on the grounds that scientific research has no bearing on religious matters? Of course not.’ (90) Whereas the right answer is ‘Of course!’ I can think of all sorts of Christian thinkers who would have rejected it. There’s a debate in Christian theology on precisely this issue – a debate whose varying sides all argue on terms that make some sense within the Christian tradition, some of them just as fervently attached to the view of prayer assumed by the experiment as Dawkins’ targets, some at least as dismissive of it as Dawkins himself.

Dawkins does admit that there are some theologians who have rejected the whole basis of the experiment. He discusses Richard Swinburne again, as if he were a representative of Christian theology in general (he’s not; he’s really not!). And he notes that an American religious leader, Raymond Lawrence, was granted a ‘generous tranche of op-ed space in the New York Times‘ to reflect on the negative results of the intercessory prayer experiment. In the space of a few lines, he manages to insinuate (without evidence) that Lawrence is a hypocrite (he disowned the study only ‘after it failed’; ‘Would he have sung a different tune if the … study had succeeded…? Maybe not, but…’ – and then the quote I gave above, a paragraph later, which decisively erases the ‘maybe not’. Dawkins tells us nothing about the arguments Lawrence used – simply mining his article for one quoted story about a distasteful incident – leaving the reader to guess whether Lawrence approved or disapproved of the incident (he disapproved, by the way).

It’s hard to avoid, some of the time, the sense that Dawkins believes that anyone who disagrees with him on this sort of topic simply must be both stupid and dishonest. It’s even harder to avoid, a lot of the time, the sense that Dawkins is simply blithely unaware that there are long-standing, complex, varied, and robust ongoing arguments within mainstream religious traditions, about many of the topics he touches on – and that the criticisms he launches against religion are often rather facile echoes of criticisms made within the religious traditions themselves.

The tragic importance of theology

Writing the last two posts has made me think about the introduction to John Milbank’s The Word Made Strange (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

John MilbankToday, theology is tragically too important. For all current talk of a theology that would reflect on practice, the truth is that we remain uncertain as to where today to locate true Christian practice. This would be, as it has always been, a repetition differently but authentically, of what has always been done. In his or her uncertainty as to where to find this, the theologian feels almost that the entire ecclesial task falls on his own head: in the meagre mode of reflective words, he must seek to imagine what a true practical repetition would be like. Or at least he must hope that his merely theoretical continuation of the tradition will open up a space for wider transformation.

Look closely: those words ‘tragically’, ‘uncertain’, ‘almost’, ‘meagre’ and ‘merely’ are important; far from marooning him on the shores of astonishing arrogance, they actually leave Milbank within sight of space I have been describing as the theologian’s: the place of the dim-witted sophisticate. (Okay, you really need to read the previous post, ‘On being dim-witted‘ if that sounds like a rather arbitrary insult.)

I can’t quite make Milbank’s words my own, however. Of course, there are days when the fragility, the cliff-edge precariousness, the mottled patchiness of ‘true Christian practice’ is all that I can see. And there are even more days when it is hard to see what on earth is supporting the true Christian practice that I have found (or that has found me): it is flourishing despite everything: it is flourishing despite the brackish cultural, conceptual, and ecclesiastical water that it is forced to drink.

But I take it that one of my tasks as a theologian – one, I may say, that I perform astonishingly badly – is, in the face of that deep uncertainty as to where true Christian practice is to be found, to look. And that is, perhaps, the note I miss in some of Milbank’s work: looking, in expectation of a gift.

On being dim-witted

I’m with stupidIn the previous post, I began answering Dawkins’ question about ‘Why any circles worthy of the name of sophisticated remain within the Church’. I tried to distinguish between remaining within a club for the like-minded and remaining within a tradition of moral and intellectual formation. In the former, what counts is the intellectual sophistication already achieved by members; in the latter, what matter is what is made possible – whether this is a conversation, an argument, worth participating in.

In that answer, however, I accepted the terms of Dawkins’ question – and so treated myself as a ‘sophisticate’ whose relationship to those in the Church less sophisticated than myself needed justification. And although I meant what I said, I now want to dig a bit deeper, and to call the terms of that question into question themselves. I really don’t think they are the right way to think about why someone like me ‘remains’ in the Church.

I am going to travel towards my point in rather rambling fashion, beginning from a point I discussed a little while ago. I talked about Christianity being in some respects something like a ‘worldview’. (That description also breaks down in important ways, as I said in that post, but it will do for now.) I talked about the ways in which a worldview might appropriately be judged, according to its coherence, resilience, and habitability – terms I explained a little more fully in that post (though at this abstract level of discussion they’re not really fully defined criteria, but gestures in the direction of whatever analogous criteria will make proper intrasystematic sense within a given worldview). To ask about the rationality of a worldview is to ask these kinds of questions.

If, however, we’re talking about the processes by which such a ‘worldview’ takes hold of someone, or lets them go, we might need another category. When someone slips away from Christian faith, for example, it seldom happens by means of one knockdown argument. Often it seems to involve a slow leeching away of that faith’s plausibility. ‘Plausibility’, here, is closely connected to the ‘habitability’ of that faith, – but now that habitability as compared to the habitability of other worldviews that are available to the person in question – other worldviews that he or she also partially inhabits. And this comparative habitability has to do with the ease, the facility, with which Christian ways of making sense come naturally and forcefully to hand as compared to some other way of making sense.

The leeching away of plausibility is the process by which this worldview shifts from being the water in which one swims to being a game that one plays, and from being a game that one plays to being a set of artificial moves that no longer form a whole – moves that sit oddly within some other context that has itself now usurped the aura of plausibility. In the other direction, a ‘worldview’ that ‘takes on the aura of plausibility’ will move from being a set of disruptive ideas, to being a game worth playing, to becoming invisible: the tacit rules that structure how one sees and moves.

Now, I live in a world in which Christian faith is counter-cultural (even though, in many contexts, ‘faithiness‘ is not). That is, I live in a world where what I am calling the Christian worldview tends only to flourish where people take pains over that flourishing, and where there is a background alternative worldview – in many ways inimical to Christianity – ready to take up the slack should faith weaken. Put it this way: I live in a world in which it is quite easy to stop participating in the eucharist, or reading the Bible, but rather more difficult to avoid shopping in supermarkets and watching Hollywood films. The disciplined practices that tend to sustain the Christian worldview are easier to avoid than the disciplined practices that tend to sustain one alternative.

Now: with that machinery in place, I can begin to approach my point. I spend a lot of my time skirting the edges of unbelief. For me, what I have been calling the ‘plausibility’ of Christianity ebbs and flows – and the sea of faith is not at high tide right now, and hasn’t been for a long time. In part, that has something to do with specific questions and problems that I have – specific matters of this worldview’s coherence and resilience. But only in part – and only in a pretty small part, if I’m honest. It is more a case of what I have been describing: the slow leeching away of plausibility. I spend quite a lot of my time at the ‘game that I play’ level of plausibility; on bad days I’m at the ‘set of artificial moves’ level. Only some of the time am I swimming in water that is truly transparent.

Now, an atheist observer might think that I simply lack courage to take the final step away from belief to unbelief – that I am held back by loyalty, by inertia, by fear, by cowardice. Come on, he might say, admit it: admit that faith has gone, and learn to celebrate that fact. (To be frank, though, it’s not so much Dawkins whose voice I hear at this point as Nietzsche, speaking in The Gay Science of the ‘freedom of the will [by which] the spirit would take leave of all faith and every wish for certainty, being practiced in maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and possibilities and dancing even near abysses.)

That, however, is to beg the question. It is a description of my state (and a proposal of a solution) that only makes sense in terms of the atheist’s worldview – not in the Christian worldview. I cannot accept it as a reason for moving from the latter to the former without already having decided to move.

Instead, working still with the descriptions that make sense within Christianity (whether they come naturally to me, today, or seem artificial) I diagnose my plight differently. What do I expect, my faith tells me, in a life that sits so lightly to the disciplines that sustain faith’s plausibility? What do I expect in a life where the strings of prayer, of worship, of any form of devotion, are so very frayed? Any worldview (the atheist’s included) is sustained by disciplines of thought and practice; what do I expect from lack of discipline if not the leeching away of faith’s plausibility? Under such a description, the leeching away of plausibility does not tell me something uncomfortable about the Christian worldview, it tells me something uncomfortable about myself.

(Let me stress that I do not mean to suggest that doubt is sin. But some forms of doubt – if that is in any case a good word for this plausibility deficit – can be a symptom not of serious questioning and exploration, but of sloth: of having lazily allowed the fabric of faith to wear so thin that it frays.)

I do not mean this to be an ever-so-humble admission designed to place me in a good light, even though I know that there is no way of avoiding this being self-serving, no way of avoiding this itself being an appeal to you to marvel at my moral seriousness and clear-eyed self-scrutiny. I’m not talking about anything very interesting – nothing that involves any agonising or moral heroism or struggles at my personal Jabbok Ford. I’m talking about forgetfulness, about being bad at forming good habits, about boredom, about being easily distracted, about having will-power as strong as well-cooked spaghetti. It’s not going to make a good movie, believe me.

‘Sophisticated’ I may be, but I am not one of those in whom the Christian ‘worldview’ has remained second nature. I am not one of those who inhabits and embodies it deeply. And I am therefore – because these things do go together – not someone anyone should look to for the marks of those who do know this worldview more deeply: real discrimination, real judgment, real graciousness, facility and penetration.

I may be a good reader of texts on choreography, but you really wouldn’t want to see me dance.

So, ‘sophisticated’ I may be, but I think I count as one of Christianity’s ‘dim-witted’: those who labour to make out what others simply see; those who have to work at what for others has become second nature; those who know how to do this stuff in theory but fall over when doing it in practice. And I don’t think I can get away with some facile intellectual/practical distinction here, as if I’m good at the head stuff but bad at the body stuff. The facility, the grace, the judgment that those who more deeply inhabit the Christian worldview have – it’s a matter of what they see as much as a matter of what they do.

The real ‘sophisticates’ of Christianity are those who show Christian sophia: Christian wisdom. My sophistication is all second hand. I’m a a repairer of borrowed clothes

So, why don’t I leave the Church? Because these are my people: these are the anchors of my faith. Without them any version of Christianity that I tried to weave would be all thread and no fabric.

On being sophisticated

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

Why any circles worthy of the name of sophisticated remain within the Church is a mystery at least as deep as those that theologians enjoy. (84)

Dawkins is, I think, genuinely puzzled as to why people who show all the normal signs of being intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable members of society persist in associating themselves with the Church. Partly, I take it, this is simply another way of expressing his fundamental incredulity: How could anyone believe anything so patently vacuous, so ill-grounded and confused, so improbable and easily refuted, as the existence of God?

Richard HarriesThe sentence I have quoted comes after Dawkins’ discussion of the silliness beyond parody of Catholic beatification processes – a process that he assumes must be an embarrassment to ‘more sophisticated circles within the Church’. Then comes the line I started with: in context, a throwaway jibe. But although it is a throwaway line, a taunt rather than an argument, it echoes a more serious question that I have heard Dawkins ask, in his curiously engaging interview with Richard Harries, then Bishop of Oxford (pictured). Dawkins describes Harries as liberal, then asks whether it might not be the conservatives who are truer to the real nature of religion; Harries comes back (not quite answering) with an explanation of why he thinks the liberal direction he has taken makes sense, prompting Dawkins to say, ‘This of course is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering why you stick with Christianity at all.’ There’s a comment on the page I’ve linked to which puts it more pithily: ‘Imagine how awful it must be for [Harries] to look out over a world full of people who, in a sense, share his faith, but who inevitably come across as thundering morons’ (Comment by ImagineAZ).

I have two contrasting answers to this question. In this post, I’ll concentrate on the one that assumes that I count as one of the ‘sophisticated’ – because I do things like writing this blog. In a later post, I’ll call that idea into question, and suggest a different answer, but for now I’ll assume that I have the credentials to get into the sophisticated club. I can, after all, give Brains-Trust, ‘it depends what you mean by…’ answers at the drop of a hat.

To the question why I, as a soi-disant sophisticate, cast my lot in with the lumpenchristians, I might simply say, ‘Because I believe the Christian faith to be true.’ But remember, I’m the kind of person who says ‘It depends what you mean by…’ a lot, and Dawkins’ question is really about whether the resemblance between my beliefs and those of the broad mass of Christianity is strong enough to justify my staying with them. My real answer begins the moment I say, ‘No, no – Christianity is not a community of the like-minded, held together simply by the resemblance of our opinions. It’s something different: it’s a people. And one of the things that I believe is that I am called to be a member of that people – that I am made a member of that people.’

Let me spell that out a little more.

  • When I look at the church, I don’t say, ‘These people think as I do’; I say, ‘They are my people.’ I belong to this people. They’re not my choice (no, really, they’re not): they’re given to me (and I to them, poor souls).
  • But, in part, what I am given I am given qua sophisticate: I am given something that speaks to me and captivates me as an intellectual.
  • When I look at the church, I don’t primarily see a body of beliefs – I see (amongst other things) the preservation of a set of practices and stories, habits and relationships, that make something possible. All living and thinking is shaped by the spaces in which it takes place – and these practices and stories, habits and relationships create a certain kind of space for thinking and living well.
  • When I look at the church, I find that the practices and stories, habits and relationships it provides create a home in which a possibility of thinking well is preserved. They create a vocabulary, a grammar which enable me to pose and pursue questions – to go on asking, and thinking, and questioning, and revising, and discovering, and changing, and developing. I find here the possibility of being confronted with, and helped to do some justice to, aspects of the ways things are to which I suspect I would otherwise be numb.
  • When I look at the church, I find that the practices and stories, habits and relationships it provides create a home in which a possibility of living well is preserved. That is, they create a vocabulary, a grammar – a set of building blocks which allow for certain kinds of pattern of life. And I am captivated by the possibilities for such patterned life that I find here.
  • When I look at the church, I find that the practices and stories, habits and relationships it provides create a home in which a possibility of ‘living well’ and ‘thinking well’ is preserved, even though in that same church there is much bad thinking and bad living (including much of my own). But those possibilities still captivate me and call to me, and the people amongst whom they are preserved and betrayed, preserved and betrayed, preserved and betrayed, are my people: I stay because despite everything they keep the possibilities alive, and I stay to help keep those possibilities alive.

I’m not making comparative statements. That is, I’m not here saying that parallels or equivalents to the things I find here can’t be found elsewhere. But I am saying that I do find them here – and that the water is deep enough for a ‘sophisticated believer’ to swim in. Or, to change the metaphor: the church is not prose to the sophisticate’s poetry: it is rhyme-scheme and metre.

The only problem is, I’m not sure that calling myself a ‘sophisticated believer’ will do. But that’s another story…

Why bother?

Richard DawkinsAnyone who has ended up reading this blog because of my posts on Rowan Williams and sharia should probably know that with the next post I will be returning, like the proverbial dog, to my long-running series on Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

To answer the obvious question: No, I don’t think the book inherently deserves this level of attention.

I do, however, think that my colleagues’, students’, and fellow-citizens’ fascination with the book makes this worth doing. And my hunch is that even if some of his specific arguments are idiosyncratic, when it comes to his basic, unquestioned assumptions about what religion is, and what ‘God’ means, he is speaking for many (including not a few within the Christian church).

So, think of these posts as my attempt to jump through a portal that Dawkins has opened into the errorsphere: that pulsating network of distorted concepts that powers our surface world. (This is the bit of the blog that will most need the help of Industrial Light and Magic once the film rights are sold.)

I should also, by the way, say that I plan to leaven this some time soon with (a) a return to the Gospel of Mark, and (b) a detailed reading of something more interesting. Any suggestions for the latter – something that it would be fun and productive to read slowly online – are welcome. Anyway, on with the show.

Williams and Sharia: Coda

I’m not planning on writing any more about Rowan Williams – at least, not any time soon. But I did want to point to a few other good discussions of the episode available elsewhere on the web.