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Pantheism and metaphor

Ch. 1: ‘A deeply religious non-believer’

Anyone who has been keeping up with the comments will know that I have been having an interesting discussion (interesting to me, at least) with Isaac Gouy about (amongst other things) the right interpretation of Dawkins’ comments on Einstein. (See, for example, the comments to this post, and this one.) It is part of a wider discussion about whether I have identified Dawkins’ target properly: whether Dawkins really is attacking any and all belief in God (at least any worthy of the name).

Since the debate has got to the point where a longer discussion of the details of Dawkins’ text is needed, I’ve chosen to write a post – it’s less cramped than a comment, and easier to do formatting and blockquoted quotations and the like. Apologies that this therefore comes a long way out of sequence – and that it is more than a little anal. Isaac and I have reached a point in our disagreement where, I think, there is no substitute for showing in detail how I read a passage that he reads differently. I should point out before I begin that none of the following is concerned with whether Dawkins is right (e.g., about Einstein); it is simply concerned with sorting out the meaning of what he says.

Dawkin introduces Einstein on p.33 of ch.1 (in the revised Black Swan paperback edition of 2007), three pages in to the first chapter. He has just finished the previous section of his discussion with the line:

[I]f the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship.’

He continues:

Much unfortunate confusion is caused by failure to distinguish what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. (33-34)

A reasonable initial hypothesis, then, is that the purpose of the section on Einstein is to overcome that confusion by making that distinction clearly.

One might also, tentatively, suppose that to use the word ‘God’ in an ‘Einsteinian religion’ sense is on its way to being ‘completely useless’. Dawkins continues with a few references to other scientists who, like Einstein, have sometimes used the word ‘God’ in a way that ‘invit[es] misunderstanding by supernaturalists…’. So Stephen Hawking is not, despite his use of God-language, a religious man; Ursula Goodenough may sounds religious – she even calls herself religious – but she is actually (says Dawkins) ‘as staunch an atheist as I am. The clear implication is that Einstein should be understood in the same way: as non-religious, as a staunch atheist – and, indeed, Dawkins explicitly refers to him ‘atheistic’. So at this point I can refine my initial hypothesis about the text. Dawkins certainly appears to be saying that the Einsteinian religion side of the Einsteinian religion / supernatural religion distinction is to be understood as atheistic, as only using misleadingly using the word ‘God’, and as only misleadingly called ‘religious’. (A little later, Dawkins says the latter part of this explicitly: ‘Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply. This is certainly true of Einstein…’ (35, my emphasis).

Next, Dawkins explains what he means by ‘naturalist’ in this context:

An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural…. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural. (34-35)

This definition appears to be offered as yet another clarification of the ‘Einsteinian’ side of the distinction – certainly Dawkins has not signalled any change in topic – and sure enough, a moment later, he refers to the ‘poetic naturalism’ common to the scientists he has been discussing, including Einstein. So, we now have supernatural religion on one side of Dawkins’ distinction, and, on the other, ‘Einsteinian religion’ that is not properly called religion, that is atheistic, and that is naturalistic. It is ‘poetic naturalism’ presumably because it is not averse to using high-flown rhetoric to express the awe and wonder that ‘the cosmos provokes’.

At the bottom of p.35, Dawkins introduces one more term as a further synonym for the atheist, naturalist side of the distinction: ‘pantheistic reverence’. He says that ‘many of us share’ such reverence (reminding us that he has already provided a description of his own deeply emotional experience of awe at the cosmos – an experience that he told us then (32) ‘has no connection with supernatural belief’ and for which he thinks ‘religion’ is not the right word (33)). (Incidentally, Dawkins seems happy to use the term ‘quasi-mystical’ to describe his experience; he will later quote Einstein firmly rejecting the word ‘mysticism’ as a description of his approach. ‘Mystical’ and ‘mysticism’ are such slippery words that it is hard to see this as more than a terminological difference – just as Dawkins clearly thinks that Einstein’s willingness to use the word ‘religion’ does not signal any real differentiation from his own position which eschews the word.)

On p.36, Dawkins turns to Einstein’s views in earnest. As he does so, he restates his purpose: he us ‘continu[ing] to clarify the distinction between supernatural religion … and Einsteinian religion’. This helps confirm, I think, the reading that I have been giving so far. In the red corner, we have supernatural religion, which is ‘delusional’ (36). In the blue corner, we have atheistic, poetic-naturalistic, pantheistic-reverential Einsteinian ‘religion’ – something that is only misleadingly called religion at all.

Dawkins now gets stuck in properly to saying where he thinks Einstein fits in all this. He has already made that pretty clear, of course, but he now wants to show that Einstein really does belong firmly on the opposite side of the divide from ‘supernaturalist’ religion, despite his use of what looks like real religious language. So Dawkins begins by giving a string of quotations (on pp.36-37) in which, although he uses the word ‘religion’ or ‘religious’, Einstein sounds unambiguously naturalist. So far, so clear.

Those statements, however, include Einstein’s insistence that he did not believe in a ‘personal God’ – and that is where it is possible that a question about interpretation begins to arise. On the one hand, we could think (as I do) that this simply adds another description to the distinction Dawkins is making – so that in the red corner we would now have delusional supernaturalist religion which believes in a personal God – and in the blue corner we would still have atheistic, poetic-naturalist, pantheistic-reverential Einsteinian ‘religion’. On the other hand, we might possibly (despite Dawkins’ earlier assertion that Einstein is atheistic) think that this moves us away from a simple two-place contrast (supernaturalist versus Einsteinian) to something more complex: (1) supernaturalist belief in a personal God, (2) some other kind of belief in God – a non-supernaturalist belief in a non-personal God, (3) atheism. As I have indicated, I think this latter supposition is unfounded.

Let’s keep going a while, however, before we try to answer that question definitively. After having some malicious fun with quotations from Einstein’s religious critics, Dawkins resumes his argument proper on p.39. He makes it clear that Einstein was certainly no ‘theist’, and then asks whether he was something else – a deist? a pantheist? Dawkins immediately points us to the latter, quoting Einstein saying:I believe in Spinoza’s God (39). He makes it clear that the theist and the deist both believe in a supernatural intelligence (i.e., that theism and deism are simply variants of delusional, supernaturalist belief in God) – and then he turns to clarifying what he means by ‘pantheist’. He has already, remember, used the term as synonymous with his kind of atheism, and he has already called Einstein atheist as well as pantheist. Now, he makes his position crystal clear: Pantheists (i.e., the camp in which we find at least Einstein and Spinoza), he says, ‘use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfuleness that governs its working’. Synonym: i.e., they use the word ‘God’ as a way of talking about nature; they are talking ‘naturalist’ talk, but using ‘God’ language – the language of religion – to do so. Dawkins is, recall, offering this as his definition of the term he has just used to describe Spinoza and Einstein (‘Let us remind ourselves of the terminology’, he says – i.e., let us provide definitions for the terms I have just used): pantheists like Spinoza and Einstein are, he is saying, people who use the word ‘God’ metaphorically. He says this quite explicitly: the pantheists’ God – i.e., the God spoken of in the quote he has given from Einstein about Spinoza – is a ‘metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe.’ (40)

For a pithy restatement, hethrows in a phrase that has particular resonance for UK readers: ‘Pantheism is sexed-up atheism’. In other words, Pantheism is atheism that has had its linguistic temperature somewhat misleadingly turned up. (There was a long-running dispute in the UK at the time when Dawkins was writing about whether the government had ‘sexed up‘ a particular dossier of evidence on Iraq, ratcheting up its rhetoric misleadingly.)

The case seems clear: Dawkins is not distinguishing pantheism from atheism. He is not going back on his earlier claim that Einstein was an atheist, nor his earlier use of the word ‘pantheism’ to describe a form of atheism. He is continuing to do what he told us he has been doing all along in this section: clarifying his distinction between supernatural religion and Einsteinian religion. And, with apologies for the repetition, that distinction clearly runs like this. On the one hand, there is delusional, supernatural religion that (normally? always?) asserts the existence of a personal God – a ‘supernatural intelligence’ – and that comes in at least theist and deist forms. On the other hand, we have atheist naturalism, which at least sometimes comes in the form of poetic naturalism – i.e., one that tries to express the awe and wonder that the cosmos produces – and that poetic naturalism at least sometimes comes in a form willing (misleadingly) to use the word ‘God’ to express the awe and reverence it feels. Dawkins can use ‘pantheism’ to refer to the whole of poetic naturalism (as on p.35, where he includes himself, as one who feels reverent awe at the cosmos, amongst the pantheists), but he can also (perhaps more characteristically?) use it to refer simply to this latter subset: the atheist naturalists willing to use the word ‘God’ to express or convey this reverent awe. The pantheists are using the word ‘God’ as a metaphor, as a poetic synonym for nature – they are, after all, atheists.

Dawkins next, on p.40, illustrates his point with further quotes from Einstein in which Einstein uses the word ‘God’ for himself (rather than as a borrowing from Spinoza). These are examples of Einstein ‘using “God” in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense’, Dawkins tells us – i.e., they are simply examples of what he has been describing for the last two paragraphs as pantheism. We, the readers, might want to make a distinction between these Einstein quotes (e.g., ‘God does not play dice’) where the word ‘God’ is simply being used as a dispensable figure of speech (Dawkins, rightly I think, says that ‘God does not play dice’ can be translated as ‘Randomness does not lie at the heart of things’), and cases where atheists use God language to express the awe and wonder they feel at the cosmos – but Dawkins clearly feels no need to make such a distinction in this context.

Finally, Dawkins makes it once again abundantly clear – as if we needed reminding by this point – that he regards it as deeply misleading to use the word ‘religion’ to describe this Einsteinian side of the equation. and just as misleading to use the word ‘God’. He clearly regrets Einstein’s choice of terminology, even if he accords the content of Einstein’s views ‘deserved respect’.

So, let me summarise. In the red corner, we have supernatural religion, which is properly called religion, which really asserts the existence of God – and which is delusional. And in the blue corner we have ‘Einsteinian religion’ which is actually (a form of) naturalist atheism, which is not really religion, which uses the word ‘God’ only poetically and metaphorically – and which we can call ‘pantheism’ if we really want to. ‘Metaphorical’ and ‘pantheistic’ uses of the word ‘God’ are not two different uses of the word God: all pantheist uses of the word are metaphorical, and the only metaphorical uses Dawkins has considered are pantheist.

I simply can’t see any other coherent way of reading the section.

All this means that, certainly at this point in his argument, ‘supernaturalist’ does not, for Dawkins, name a variety of religious belief in God. It is simply his name for religious belief in God. He excludes from it at this point only forms of belief in God that are not properly called belief in God at all – because they use the word God only metaphorically, and are in fact forms of atheism. Later on, he will also exclude religions like Confucianism and Buddhism (59) – because, presumably, they (at least as normally understood) don’t include belief in God at all, and so are simply irrelevant to what he is saying – hence he says that ‘there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life)’ (59, my emphasis).

When Dawkins explains, therefore, that he is ‘talking only about supernatural Gods’ (41), and when he says that he is ‘not attacking any particular version of God or gods [but] God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural‘ (57, my emphasis) the only things that the word ‘supernatural’ is ruling out are any versions of belief in ‘God’ which are really forms of naturalist atheism – forms where the word ‘God’ is only used poetically, metaphorically, and utterly misleadingly. I can simply see no way of reading those statements as meaning that he is excluding from his attack some forms of religious belief in God, some form of belief in God that uses the word ‘God’ appropriately and that desrves to be called religious.

So, when it comes to the question of God (and ignoring discourses or philosophies or so-called religions that say nothing about God): on the one hand we have atheism (which can sometimes, misleadingly, borrow the language of religion, specifically the word ‘God’, even though it is not anything to do with religion). On the other hand we have religion properly so called, which is the realm of supernaturalist belief in God, the realm of delusion – and Dawkins’ target. The latter is defined both negatively (as any discourse about God that is not really naturalist atheism in disguise) and positively (as belief in a supernatural intelligence, as belief in a personal God – and, later, as belief in a delusional form of quasi-scientific explanation). When it comes to the question of God, ‘supernatural’ for Dawkins is synonymous with ‘religion’, ‘religion’ is synonymous with ‘supernatural’.

McCabe on atheism, creation and explanation

Herbert McCabeHerbert McCabe (1926-2001) was a Dominican theologian and philosopher who taught at Blackfriars in Oxford. Reading him is always challenging and refreshing: he had what in older Oxbridge parlance would probably have been called a good mind – a very good mind. Anyway, here are some quotes from his God Matters collection, which say more clearly some of what I have been trying to say in response to Dawkins.

[I]t seems to me that what we often call atheism is not a denial of the God of which I speak. Very frequently the man who sees himself as an atheist is not denying the existence of some answer to the mystery of how come there is anything instead of nothing, he is denying what he thinks or has been told is a religious answer to this question. He thinks or has been told that religious people, and especially Christians, claim to have discovered what the answer is, that there is some grand architect of the universe who designed it, just like Basil Spence only bigger and less visible, that there is a Top Person in the universe who issues arbitrary decrees for the rest of the persons and enforces them because he is the most powerful being around. Now if denying this claim makes you an atheist, then I and Thomas Aquinas and a whole Christian tradition are atheistic too.

But a genuine atheist is one who simply does not see that there is any problem or mystery here, one who is content to ask questions within the world, but cannot see that the world itself raises a question. (7)

When we have concluded that God created the world, there still remains the scientific question to ask about what kind of world it is and was and how, if ever, it began…. Coming to know that the universe is dependent on God does not in fact tell us anything about the character of the universe. How could it? Since everything we know about God (that he exists and what he is not) is derived from what we know of the universe, how could we come back from God with some additional information about the world? If we think we can it is only because we have smuggled something extra into our concept of God – for example, when we make God in our own image and ask ourselves quite illegitimate questions like, ‘What would I have done if I were God?’ (8)