Category Archives: The God Delusion

Tidying Up 1: The God Delusion

I’ve been thinking of re-opening this blog after a long, long pause. I therefore found myself clicking idly through old posts – and realised how hard it is to read in order the long post-sequences that make up the majority of the blog’s content. (And yes, I know that is because this is not really what blogs are for.) So here is a directory to the long series of posts on Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion. The series never finished (because I got bored); coverage was widely uneven (as the list below demonstrates); but some of it might still be interesting.

Introductory post:
Sun 2 Sep 2007, The God Delusion

Ch.1, §1
2 Sep 2007, Quasi-mysticism
3 Sep 2007, Darwinian Grandeur
3 Sep 2007, Sagan on Religion
5 Sep 2007, The Supernaturalist God
6 Sep 2007, Einsteinian Religion
7 Sep 2007, Non-Supernaturalist Theology
8 Sep 2007, Sleight of Hand
8 Sep 2007, Naturalism
5 Dec 2007, Teleology
11 Sep 2007, Is Theology a Subject
11 Sep 2007, ‘The Weakness of the Religious Mind’
13 Sep 2007, Folk Religion
16 Sep 2007, Praying to the Law of Gravity

18 Sep 2007, Interim Verdict: On The God Delusion, Ch.1, §1.

Ch.1, §2
18 Sep 2007, Respecting Religion
19 Sep 2007, Holiness and Argument
20 Sep 2007, Ideas and Identity
21 Sep 2007, Religious Conflict
22 Sep 2007, Religious Media
29 Sep 2007, Argument
5 Dec 2007, The Right to Freedom of Religion
7 Dec 2007, Cartoon Analysis

Verdict on chapter 1
24 Sep 2007, Irrational Christianity
8 Dec 2007, Interim Verdict, on The God Delusion, ch.1
19 Mar 2008, Pantheism and Metaphor

Ch.2, Introduction
11 Dec 2007, The God of the Old Testament
15 Dec 2007, The Heart of the Matter
16 Dec 2007, Creation and Explanation
20 May 2008, Essentialist Progression

Ch.2, §1
19 Dec 2007, Polytheism
20 Dec 2007, Monotheistic Chauvinism
20 Dec 2007, Charity Law
20 Dec 2007, Hinduism
21 Dec 2007, Dawkins on the Trinity
22 Dec 2007, Trinity and Rationality
23 Dec 2007, Splitting Hairs
3 Jan 2008, Saints

Remainder of ch.2
9 Jan 2008, Stop It, It’s Silly
25 Jan 2008, Which God?
28 Jan 2008, Theologians and Cosmologists
28 Jan 2008, Richard Swinburne
29 Jan 2008, Miracles and the Virgin Birth
19 Feb 2008, On Being Sophisticated
21 Feb 2008, On Being Dim-Witted
23 Feb 2008, The Great Prayer Experiment

24 Feb 2008, Interim Verdict, on The God Delusion, ch.2

Some general points
20 Jan 2008, The God Hypothesis
17 Feb 2008, Why Bother?
24 Feb 2008, Disillusionment

Ch. 3
25 Feb 2008, Dawkins on Aquinas
18 Mar 2008, Arguments for God’s Existence
18 Mar 2008, Dawkins on Anselm

5 Apr 2008, Interim Conclusion on The God Delusion, ch.3

Ch. 4
6 Apr 2008, Cutting the Taproot: The God Delusion, ch.4
20 May 2008, Creation and Explanation, again

Creation and explanation, again

I’m coming back to this one last time, because in the course of preparing a talk on a related topic, I stumbled across a clearer way of expressing myself.

Here’s a quick creation questionnaire for you:

  1. Do you believe in God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen?
  2. Do you believe that the claim that God is the maker of heaven and earth, if true, provides a good explanation of the existence, or some of the characteristics, of the world in which we find ourselves?
  3. Do you believe that this claim provides an explanation of matters that would otherwise be inexplicable – such that this explanatory power constitutes a good reason for believing the claim?
  4. Do you believe that this claim stands or falls by its explanatory power – such that if it is shown not to have such explanatory power, it follows that it should be rejected?
  5. Do you believe that the meaning of the claim is constituted by its explanatory power, such that ‘God’ essentially means only what is needed to provide this explanatory power, and anything that follows from it?

I claim that

  • these questions are semi-independent (in the sense that each question only arises if the previous question has been answered with a ‘Yes’, but that answering ‘Yes’ to the previous question does not determine the answer to the next question);
  • Dawkins’ presentation of his argument is directed against those who give a ‘Yes’ answer to all five questions, though his argument only really relies on a ‘Yes’ to the first four.

I also claim that

  • Any remotely orthodox Christian theology must answer ‘Yes’ to the first question
  • There are orthodox Christian theologies that answer ‘No’ to both question 2 and question 3, some that answer ‘Yes’ to 2 and ‘No’ to 3, and some that answer ‘Yes’ to both.
  • Any remotely orthodox Christian theology must answer ‘No’ to the fourth and fifth questions

Cutting the taproot: The God Delusion, ch.4

Claim 1: Chapter 4 is central to Dawkins’ argument.

In Chapter 1, as I have argued, he specified his target: religion properly so called, which is the realm of supernaturalist belief in God, defined both negatively, as any discourse about God that is not really naturalist atheism in disguise, and positively, as belief in a supernatural intelligence.

In Chapter 2, he gave that target a definition: the ‘God Hypothesis’ is that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.’ Religion properly so called involves belief in a supernatural designer.

Dawkins finishes Chapter 2 by saying, that ‘before proceeding with my main reason for actively disbelieving in God’s existence, I have a responsibility to dispose of the positive arguments for belief that have been offered through history.’ Chapter 3 then attempts this disposal, and with Chapter 4 Dawkins turns to his ‘main reason’ for disbelieving in God’s existence. This argument is, he says at the start (137) ‘the big one’. By the end of the chapter, Dawkins is saying, ‘If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God Hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. This is the main conclusion of the book so far.’ Given what he has said in chapters 1 and 2, I think we can take this quote absolutely seriously: Dawkins thinks that the argument of ch.4 undoes the knot that holds all real religion together. The rest of the book can proceed on the assumption that this job has been done, and that other questions about religions origins and impact can now be treated without any lingering question about whether its claims about God are true.

So, it seems fair to say that Chapter 4 is central to Dawkins’ overall argument – that this chapter is not simply an attempt to tackle some particular variants of belief in God, or some particular aspects of belief in God, but to go straight for the taproot of all real belief in God (all belief in God that is not really some form of naturalist atheism in disguise). If Dawkins’ argument here succeeds as thoroughly as he thinks it does, belief in God will be in real trouble. If his argument here fails, the whole book gets holed below the waterline.

Claim 2: Dawkins’ argument is a successful attack on creationism.

I have to admit that I found chapters 1 to 3 a very disappointing read: I disagreed with so much that Dawkins said, and had such strong doubts about the quality of the concepts and arguments he deployed, that persistent irritation overwhelmed any pleasure that the wit and clarity of Dawkins’ prose might otherwise have generated. Chapter 4, by contrast, is mostly a pleasure to read. Dawkins has returned from unfamiliar territory to home ground, and the difference in intellectual quality is astonishing: the assurance and incisiveness of his arguments is of a whole different order of magnitude. It helps, of course, that I agree with nearly everything in the chapter. Dawkins takes on creationists (including the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd) and knocks them out of the ring: it is a real joy to watch. Dawkins’ summary of the argument, given in advance at the end of ch.3, gives the gist (‘A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right’); chapter 4 simply fills in the detail. If chapter 4 were simply presented as an attack on creationism, I’d be able to applaud, and leave it at that.

Claim 3: Dawkins’ argument misses its wider target.

Let me clarify. In a comment to another post, I distinguished various differing claims that a believer in God might make:

(1) A theologian may believe that God created the world.

(2) A theologian may add to (1) the idea that this claim offers a good explanation for some otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena, such that the existence of those phenomena, and their inexplicability on other grounds, constitute good reasons for belief in God.

For some who hold to (2), they will take it in its weak form,
(2a), where the explanatory argument is a secondary aspect of the theologian’s claims about God – such that dismissal of this explanatory argument would not do serious damage to the theologian’s belief in God or account of the nature of God, even if it damaged his or her attempts to commend that belief to others.

For others who hold to (2), it will take form (2b), where this explanatory argument is taken as a primary aspect of the theologian’s claims about God, such that his or her account of God looks like it stands or falls by the success of this explanatory argument. In the strongest cases of (2b), God is presented as an explanatory hypothesis: the theologian believes in God because of the explanatory work that the God-claim does, and the content of the God concept is primarily dictated by the explanatory argument.

Dawkins’ chapter 4 presents a strong argument against claims of form (2); I accept that happily. But he presents this as cutting to the heart of belief in God per se, so appears to be assuming (2b) as the standard form of such belief.

Now, pretty much all Christian theology involves some version of claim (1). Quite a bit of Christian theology involves claims of some form like (2). Creationists are among those who present those latter claims in a form like (2b), and it is no surprise to find that they are the main (though not the only) antagonists cited in the chapter. Yet I think, as I have explained elsewhere, that (2b) is and can be shown to be a misrepresentation of Christian beliefs about God (and that includes being a misrepresentation of creationists’ own belief in God).

Personally, I accept (1); I am unconvinced so far by any form of (2) in its weaker form (2a), and I reject (2b). I can happily accept Dawkins’ attack on explanatory arguments of form (2), without finding it relevant to my belief in (1): my belief in God, and a creator God at that.

Claim 4: Dawkins’ argument can be partially salvaged – but the result is less immediately devastating to belief in God.

It is possible, however – and there are some hints that he sees this – to detach Dawkins’ claims about God’s complexity from the wider argument about explanatory strategies of form (2), so as to make his argument an attack on claims of form (1) as well. The argument then would simply be that any claim that God exists is a claim that something of unprecedented complexity and power exists – and so a claim that something exists which is even less explicable than the natural world. That is, it is an argument about the inherent implausibility of theistic belief, rather than an argument about its explanatory power. Recognising this implausibility will demand from theologians a high level of justification for such belief – and (clearly, given Chapter 3) Dawkins thinks no such high level of justification exists.

In this salvaged form, however, we get thrown back on issues I’ve touched on earlier:
(1) I don’t think Dawkins does a good job of understanding what ‘God’ means for at least the strand of Christianity that I belong to – so his detailed account of the implausibility of the God hypothesis sits a little oddly with me;
(2) In particular, because he thinks so much in terms of explanation, Dawkins sees reference to ‘mystery’ simply as a hand-waving refusal to think seriously, whereas it is quite central to my account of God; and
(3) I don’t think Dawkins does a good job of understanding the kinds of justification for belief in God that make sense to me.

So, in the strand of Christian theology that I belong to, God cannot literally be described as a designing intelligence; using such language to talk about God is at best analogous. And that caveat rests upon an account of God’s incomprehensibility or mystery, which is not a hand-waving refusal to argue, but is actually a pretty central (and carefully argued) part of this tradition’s account of what the word God means. (And, yes, that means that reference to God is bound not to be a very good explanation for anything.)

More importantly, I think that the account of God-and-the-world that includes this belief in a mysterious, non-explanatory God actually provides an intellectually powerful way of making sense of the world we live in. It claim, as I discussed in an earlier post, that it provides a coherent, resilient and habitable way of making sense – and that, as I said in another post that it is a way of making sense that is thought-enabling rather than brain-deadening.

All this is to say that, if we try to salvage Dawkins’ central argument by de-linking it from explanation, there is a more interesting debate to be had – but it is not really one that, in the present book, Dawkins pursues.

Claim 5: There’s also a problem with Dawkins’ account of the ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ question.

One final aside. I still don’t think that Dawkins understands the nature of the ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ question. I don’t think that asking that question gives a proof of the existence of God, so I don’t think anything very much stands or falls by what I am about to say. Nevertheless, I think Aquinas was right inasmuch as this can only be understood as a metaphysical question, a question whose answer simply cannot be any natural phenomenon or process, and a question whose answer (if there is one) must be deeply, irrevocably mysterious (in order to be an answer). If you think ‘God’ means what Dawkins seems to think it means, then of course God doesn’t help you at all with this question – but that may not be our only option.

Interim conclusion on The God Delusion, Ch.3.

There’s plenty more in Dawkins’ ch.3, ‘Arguments for God’s Existence’ than the material on Aquinas and Anselm – the arguments from beauty, from personal experience, from Scripture, from admired religious scientists, Pascal’s wager, and Bayesian (probabilistic) arguments. I’m not going to work through any more of it in detail, however – I don’t have any candle to hold for the arguments Dawkins discusses, and (however engaging his own presentation) he doesn’t discuss interesting forms of any of them. I want to move on. A couple of comments before I do, though.

  1. What I have said with respect to Dawkins’ comments on Aquinas and Anselm remains true of the whole chapter. Whenever it is possible to discern what Dawkins takes these arguments to be about – what kind of ‘God’ they are seeking to prove or disprove – it looks like he is talking about one more contingent thing that there might be, and a thing pretty closely resembling a human intelligence, albeit much more powerful.
  2. Perhaps inevitably, in a popular book – but nevertheless disappointingly – Dawkins is not a good guide to real debates about God’s existence. First, he doesn’t try finding or tackling the strongest versions of any of the arguments he looks at – he presents the kinds of arguments you might find on an average internet discussion board, and doesn’t find it difficult to dismiss them. Second, though, he doesn’t latch on to the fact that the whole project of proving God’s existence in this kind of way is controversial within (at least) Christianity. I’ve talked in an earlier post about a rather different approach, for instance, one which is not particularly eccentric – and which does not rely at all on the kinds of Dawkins is discussing.

On both these grounds, the chapter simply isn’t about anything that I (as one kind of fairly traditional Christian believer in God) hold dear.

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)

Dawkins on Anselm

Ch. 3: Arguments for God’s Existence

Dawkins and AnselmDawkins’ misrepresentation of Anselm is as interesting as his misrepresentation of Aquinas. Here, too, I agree that Anselm’s argument does not provide a successful proof of the existence of God (in the sense that Dawkins is discussing), so it’s not that I disagree with Dawkins’ conclusion. Nevertheless, his way of arriving at that conclusion is instructive.

Let’s get the uninteresting aspects out of the way first. Dawkins’ primary weapon is ridicule. He explains the argument in such a way that it is impossible to see how anyone could be convinced by it for a moment. He then notes that Bertrand Russell said both that it is quite difficult to work out why the argument does not work, and that he himself, in 1894, had become convinced that the argument did in fact work – though Dawkins has already made it impossible for us to see how either of these claims could be true. He is tempted to attribute the latter, in particular, to Russell being exaggeratedly fair-minded, over eager to find worth in something clearly worthless. I rather suspect that, if the quotes form Russell show us anything, they show us that the argument must be more interesting, and more complex, than Dawkins’ ridiculing summary suggests: Dawkins has again substituted derision for argument.

However, he is quite explicit about his reason for this, and that’s where the more interesting aspect of his account lies. He makes it clear that, as a scientist rather than a philosopher, he simply can’t begin to imagine that an argument that draws on no empirical data- that deals simply in words, in logic – could prove something factual about the universe. And that, I think, confirms the impression I was left with by his treatment of Aquinas: that, for Dawkins, the question of the existence of God is the question of the existence of some particular thing – one thing amongst all the things that exist: some kind of empirical reality. He is understandable unwilling to believe that a purely philosophical argument could establish, without any kind of looking the existence of such a thing.

What if, however, the question of the existence of God were more like a question about the conditions for the existence of all particular things? Would it be more plausible to think that a philosophical/metaphysical argument might be capable of establishing the necessity of something more like that? Some people have thought, for instance, that it is possible to prove philosophically that the universe could not be infinitely old; I happen to disagree, but it is, I think, easier to see why someone might think that something like that might be susceptible of purely philosophical proof, than why someone might think that the existence of the planet Jupiter might be susceptible of such a proof. What if the God that Anselm and Aquinas talk about is not best understood as a particular thing, a specific empirical reality, and instead is something that in some respects is more like a basic condition for all particular things?

Note that I am not saying that I think Anselm’s argument works – at least, not if we take it as a proof of the existence of God in the sense we’re discussing. But might it be possible down this route to see why it is interesting, and why versions of it have (however briefly) convinced people as brilliant as Russell?

Once again, we come down to differing understandings of the word ‘God’ – and to the inadequacy of Dawkins’ version of ‘supernaturalism’ to cover some of the things that ‘God’ has meant.

Dawkins on Aquinas, again

Ch. 3: Arguments for God’s Existence

Aquinas and DawkinsJust in case you can’t be bothered to work through my posts on the Five Ways (I won’t hold it against you), here’s a quick summary of what I think is wrong with Dawkins’ presentation of Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God. It is not, by the way, that I think Dawkins gets to the wrong basic conclusion: I too think that the Ways don’t quite work as a proof of the existence of God. But I find Dawkins’ mistakes in presentation interesting.

First, the minor points. I would have liked Dawkins to have the grace to acknowledge that the mysterious Fourth Way might have made more sense in Aquinas’ intellectual context than it does in ours – and to have done the minimal research required to know that the examples he (Dawkins) gives are not the kinds of gradation Aquinas was talking about. Once again, Dawkins is all too eager to represent a religious thinker as incoherent buffoon. I would also have liked him, purely for the sake of conceptual hygiene, to note that the Fifth Way is not quite the standard design argument (it’s not about things ‘looking designed’, but about apparently purposive action) – even though it is, I think, very nearly as vulnerable to Darwin.

The major point, though, is that Dawkins simply misses one major strand of Aquinas’ argument. Dawkins’ main complaint is that Aquinas arbitrarily invokes God as the end of the regress that the first three ways point to. Whereas, in fact, Aquinas argues at great length about what would count as an end to those regresses – and Dawkins doesn’t even hint that he’s aware of that part of Aquinas’ account. Far from simply asserting, Aquinas argues, in detail and at length – and Dawkins has missed that completely. (As for his aside about omniscience and omnipotence: well, if he had read on in Aquinas’ account, he’d know that whatever the silly little argument he offers is about, it isn’t about the God discussed by Aquinas.)

Aquinas, by the way, would clearly have thought Dawkins’ own answer – that we can terminate the regress with the big bang singularity or some other natural phenomenon – quite as vacuous as Dawkins’ thinks his, and that the supposed analogy with the natural termination to the divisibility of matter was wholly beside the point. To say that we can’t, in fact, go on dividing matter for ever is not quite the same as saying that at some point we can’t go on asking Why? Dawkins, in Aquinas eyes, is giving up on the intelligibility of the universe.

Note two things. First, I think this is a place where Dawkins fails to see the necessity for philosophy. That is, he thinks that the regress is going to be answered by a scientific discovery, by some physical concept – whereas I’m with Aquinas in thinking that once we get to questions like, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing’, we are inevitably beyond physics, and in the realm of metaphysics.

The second, I think that Dawkins regards Aquinas’ argument as an obvious failure because, unlike Aquinas, he is operating with a picture of God as one particular kind of thing – one of the things that there is – which is therefore clearly just as contingent, just as question-begging as any other particular thing. Aquinas and Dawkins don’t just disagree about whether God exists; they disagree about what ‘God’ means.

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…)