Category Archives: The God Delusion

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.

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.

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.