Category Archives: The God Delusion

Stop it, it’s silly

Okay, this is getting silly. I hadn’t meant to go quite so slowly in my reading of The God Delusion, or write quite so many words. The trouble is, I disagree with just about everything that Dawkins says – and I’ve not been very good at letting the issues go by. This has been very much a ‘spare moments’ pass-time, so it’s not like it’s been eating into time I’d have spent on anything other than, say, Scrabulous and Puzzle Bee on Facebook, but still. So I hereby promise to speed up – and will begin with a race through my main remaining issues with Chapter 2.

Ch.2, The God Hypothesis

Dawkins dismisses feminist theology in a sideswipe: ‘What is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male?’ (57). Nothing, on the failed botanist model of theology. Rather a lot, if you’re actually interested in the lives lived by believing people.

Dawkins finishes the section on Polytheism with a fairly central claim about his subject-matter – the claim that his target is ‘God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural’. I will come back to that one – and say a bit more about my understanding of the ‘God hypothesis’.

He then moves on to a section on Monotheism, giving a whirlwind tour of Judaism, Christianity (founded by Paul of Tarsus, he tells us) and Islam – a page-long description (58) written (successfully) to provoke. He doesn’t care about the details, and doesn’t mind if we know it. He trots on to Deism (59), dishing out a standard caricature. Dawkins’ case does not rest on his having understood these movements, or represented them fairly, or done them any kind of justice. Which is just as well.

There follows a section on ‘Secularism, the Founding Fathers, and the religion of America’. I have fewer criticisms of this section, partly because I (strongly) agree that some prominent Christian ways of mythologising of American origins seriously need puncturing. But I don’t think Dawkins provides any interesting intellectual tools for analysing that situation, and I think he gets caught up on problematic irrelevances, like trying to show that Jefferson was on his side, really. When tells us (60) of the Founding Fathers of the Republic that ‘their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours’, I can’t help thinking that if any one of his opponents were to try a similar form of argument in reverse, Dawkins would eat him for breakfast for spouting meaningless, self-serving tosh.

There are some asides about English Anglicanism on pp.62-3 which it would be fun to pursue – because Dawkins clearly thinks that middle-of-the-road Anglicanism isn’t real religion. As a middle-of-the-road Anglican I think that might be worth discussing at greater length – but another time, maybe. For anyone who wants to think this through anyway, go away and read Timothy Jenkins, Religion in English Everyday Life.

Then there’s quite a bit on the plight of atheists in the U.S., and a question about what they might achieve if they got organised (like, say, the Jewish lobby). That’s something Dawkins has since pursued further, and I wish him luck (truly: I think America could do with a strong atheist lobby). I don’t think he has understood the hill he has to climb, though. If he wants to rival the power of the Jewish lobby, it is not simply a matter of organizing atheists; it is about giving them a sense of communal identity: welding them into a people embodying a shared tradition. And yes, even though it smacks of the ‘proof by prominent scientists’ that Dawkins rightly critiques later on (i.e., the attempts to argue for Christianity by claiming prominent scientists of the past as Christians), his somewhat dubious attempt to assemble a cast of atheist heroes might have to be part of such a quest.

He also passes on anecdotal evidence of the mistreatment of atheists in the U.S. I haven’t checked, but I have no reason to doubt the stories they pass on. They do illustrate well (a) just how violently unpleasant some religious people can be; and (b) how ready religious people can be to mythologise themselves as persecuted minority, even when they hold the power. As I say, there is interesting work to be done – and, in other quarters, interesting work being done – on examining and understanding the religious mythology of the United States.

The section on Agnosticism didn’t really excite me. I had been planning a post on his clarification of the difference between ‘Temporary Agnosticism in Practice’ and ‘Permanent Agnosticism in Principle’, because it does show again that, for him, the God Hypothesis either makes the kind of claim which can be analysed as possessing, on current evidence, some degree or other of probability – or it is meaningless. ‘Either [God] exists or he doesn’t. It’s a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability’ (70). As will, I hope, continue to become clear, I don’t think that’s right at all.

On pp.74-75, he quotes the famous Bertrand Russell canard about celestial teapots. The claim that you can’t disprove the existence of God is compared to the claim that you can’t disprove the existence of a china teapot existing between Earth and Mars. Russell could be an ass from time to time, and this was one of those times. Quick exercise for the reader. Can anyone spot some salient differences between the kind of claim involved in talk about God, and the kind involved in talk about china teapots? Go on, have a try.

I think I will com back to the stuff (77) about ‘Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster’ – Christians, say, are atheists with respect to all these, and Dawkins simply goes one God further. That’s an interestingly misleading claim, so I’ll give it a separate post.

I’ll also come back to the stuff (77-85) on Non-Overlapping Magisteria – and Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that science can’t adjudicate on the God question – and Dawkins sceptical response. Unlike Dawkins (and although I don’t quite agree with Gould), I think it probably is worth more than ‘a moment’s thought’ (79). And that will include Dawkins’ depressing comments (again) about theologians and their lack of real subject matter. (And we’ll also touch on Dawkins’ avowed willingness to make decisions about other people’s lives on the basis of complete ignorance. Ho hum.)

In fact, from about that point on – p.77 – a set of issues crop up which I’d like to take a bit further: Teleology, moral philosophy, miracles, the Virgin Birth – and Richard Swinburne. So I’ll probably slow down again, even though the bit I’m itching to get onto is in Chapter 3, and the games Dawkins plays with Aquinas and Anselm…


Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Dawkins has fun with saints. He refers to a Catholic list he has found of 5120 saints, ‘together with their areas of expertise’ (i.e., the fields of which they are patron saints). He stirs in a list of different kinds of angels, and finishes by saying

What impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along. It is just shamelessly invented. (p.56)

I take it that, in Dawkins view, the list is meant by its compilers to be a list of the real abilities of a whole set of mini-deities – the sort of thing that could be discovered about these mini-deities by some method of observation or inference if the mini-deities in question actually existed, but which in the necessary absence of such information must be wholly invented. It is, he thinks, a bewilderingly baroque collection of fiction – and makes as much sense as does the bloke down the road who claims that there are seventeen different fairies at the bottom of his garden, and that they all have different coloured ears.

Suppose, for a moment, that we were actually interetsed in what is going on with such a list. Suppose, that is, that we were interested in understanding where such a list comes from, and what it purports to be. Suppose, for instance, that we took the view that some kind of social or cultural anthropologist or historian (as secular as you like) might take. We might find that patterns of devotion to saints has been, and to an extent still is, an important part of the way in which one kind of Christian polity worked – say, a way in which the universal and the local are held together. That is, these devotional practices might function to help create as it were local subcultures within the broader Christian culture, allowing particular communities of people to find how to adapt the broader structures of Christianity for their own particular situations.

And we might, in the course of such an investigation, find that adding a saint to the list does not really involve anyone making a deluded claim to have discovered the existence and atributes of a mini-deity. It may be, rather, that the core claim is that a particular set of stories – the stories of a particular person’s life – have been found to crystallise for people in a particular situation something of how Christian life can be lived in that situation. It is to see that particular life as, in that sense, a revelation: a showing of something, a making visible of something. Of course, there may be all sorts of examples of this sort of devotion where that central idea seems to be rather tenuously observed, or to have been lost sight of altogether, but it might be the case that the core examples which really sustain the idea of devotion to saints do have this form.

I’m speculating: this is not an area I’ve looked into. But it wouldn’t surprise me if some kind of analysis like this held water – and all I’m trying to do in this post is sketch out a possibility.

If something like that is what is going on, then (a) devotion to saints need not be a form of polytheism, but might be one of the ways in which a monotheistic polity can function without turning into strait-jacketed uniformity. And (b) the cult of saints might well be making claims that can be discussed skeptically, but they might not the kind of claim that Dawkins has identified. That is, it might be that the cult of saints does not involve, in its core forms, simple invention of imaginary mini-deities in the way that Dawkins thinks: it might have to do with how people make sense of their encounters with the lives of those who seem to demonstrate something essential about how life can be lived well.

Now, I say all this as someone who doesn’t live in close contact with forms of Christianity in which you’ll find much devotion to saints. I find it quite foreign, and often offputting. And one of the aspects that baffles me most is the part Dawkins goes on to talk about: the process by which claims to miracle-working on the part of a putative saint are an important part of the beatification process. I can see it has something to do with a process by which these local, popular foci are authorised centrally, and about how that authorisation is claimed not simply to be the arbitrary imposition of a political power, but a process of recognition of these foci as gifts from God. So I can see that something quite central to the whole sense that saints make is going on, even if I too find the particular form that takes somewhat bizarre and implausible.

In other words: there is sense to be made here. It is possible to ask what is going on in these forms of devotion that seem so odd. It is possible to see where they fit into a broader framework of religious thought and practice, and to begin making some judgments about what the important claims are at the heart of these practices (e.g., claims about lives that show how Christian life can be lived in particular situations) and what seems to be more peripheral (e.g., authorisation by miracle). Seeking such understanding, seeking the sense that such practices might make, is not a matter of showing them ‘respect’ of the kind Dawkins rejects: it is, rather, the attemt to discern what claim is actually being made – an important step in any critique that wants to be taken seriously. And one need not be any kind of religious believer to undertake this kind of serious investigation. One simply needs to be interested in understanding what one talks about.


On p.56, Dawkins goes on to talk about Pope John Paul II’s claim that our Lady of Fatima protected him when he was nearly assassinated. Again, my initial reaction (coming from the kind of Christian background that I come from) is to find such a claim bizarre and deeply unconvincing – just as Dawkins does. But I’m willing to bet that the Pope did not mean (as Dawkins assumes that he must) that a specific mini-deity called Our Lady of Fatima had popped along and intervened. From little I’ve read, it seems to have something to do with how the Pope interpreted his mission in context of struggles with communism, and something to do with his conviction that he was spared for that mission (a conviction that could be anything from a belief that some force did, by some efficient causal intervention, prevent him from dying, through to a conviction that his continued life was a gift that he must spend wisely); and a willingness to interpret that mission in the light of the strange Fatima prophecies (which again might be anything from a willingness to believe that those prophecies were miraculous predictions of the struggle with communism through to the belief that they provided a graphic image by means of which that struglle could be understood, and its costs and consequences faced). In order to test my initial skepticism, I’d need to know a whole lot more than I do about the Pope’s theology, about his understanding of miracle and prophecy and all sorts of things. I suspect that I would find myself still unconvinced and somewhat dismayed at the end – but at least I’d know what I was talking about.

Splitting hairs

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Splitting Christianity by splitting hairs – such has ever been the way of theology. (p.54)

Really? Which divisions ave been the result of hair-splitting? I can think of a couple of alternative hypotheses that we might need to try out on any apparent example before concluding that it matched this description. We might ask whether the hair-splitting distinction was purely epiphenomenal – an inherently irrelevant difference chosen as a shibboleth to mark the distinction between groups whose differences were deeper and greater than that. And we might ask whether the seemingly irrelevant distinction was in fact a real intellectual difference, and a telling one, only because it was one visible rubbing point of a larger tectonic collision.

So, for instance, Dawkins has just been talking about Christological controversies in the fourth century, and specifically about the condemnation of Arius at Nicaea. That’s a good case in point: most decent histories of the conflict will show you that a good deal really was at stake – intellectually, politically, socially, involving everything from individual personalities to imperial politics, via some pretty central theological and philosophical ideas. You could start with Rowan Williams book on Arius if you want a fairly rich example of such an analysis.

You could even look at the most famous case: the debate later in the same century between those who insisted on the formula ‘homoousios’ and those who insisted on a formula that differed only by one iota: ‘homoiousios’ – a difference about which I seem to remember Gibbon had rather scathing things to say. Once again, look at any decent history of the conflict, and you’ll be able to find out what the people involved thought was at stake, and why. You could start with R.P.C. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God.

Or you could stick with the breezy platitude. It’s up to you.

Trinity and rationality

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

If you’ll forgive the plug, I thought I’d mention that next month will see the publication of my textbook on Christian Doctrine (an SCM Core Text). (NB – Beware if you follow that link; the book description on Amazon is wildly out of date.) Amongst other things, it offers a fairly lengthy discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity.

In that book, just as many other theologians have done, I offer a way of making sense of the doctrine. And, as is the norm with theological discussions like this, the account I give is fully open to rational discussion. That is, you can ask me about any bit of it, ‘Why that word? Why that idea? Why that conclusion?’, you can challenge any bit of it (‘Why not say this instead?’, ‘Does that really follow?’, ‘Surely you’ve conflated x with y?’) and I’ll be happy to respond. And if I am shown that my arguments fail, I’ll abandon them. I won’t necessarily be able to prove my account from basic principles that I and my interlocutor share, but I think I can demonstrate that the basic ideas involved are very simple. And, yes, there will be some kind of appeal to mystery in what I say, but I promise that it will not be one that undercuts what I have just said (i.e., not one that undercuts my willingness always to give reasons for what I have said, and to discuss those reasons openly and with as much clarity as I can muster). The appeal to mystery will, rather, appear as a clarification of kinds of knowledge that I am not laying claim to.

You won’t have to believe in God to follow what I say and decide whether it is cogent or not. Nor will deciding that it is cogent turn you into a believer. All that would happen is that you would end up understanding what this Christian doctrine means, and what is at stake in affirming or denying it. I’d go so far as to say – pace Dawkins – that someone who followed my account and accepted it as cogent (even if based on mistaken starting points) would have a ‘distinct idea of the trinity’, distinct enough for reason to ‘act upon’ it. (Dawkins, p.55, quotes Jefferson’s claim that this is impossible.)

In all this, I think I am behaving like an ordinary academic theologian. And I don’t think I will be being ‘characteristically obscurantist’, putting forward ‘unintelligible propositions’, or spouting the ‘Abracadabra of … mountebanks’.

Dawkins on the Trinity

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity (one of the subtopics on his trawl through ‘polytheism’, pp.54-55) Dawkins revels in his ignorance, and invites you to share it.

Arius of Alexandria, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubsantial (i.e., of the same substance or essence) with God. What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking? Substance? What ‘substance’? What exactly do you mean by ‘essence’? ‘Very little’ seems the only reasonable reply.

Actually, we understand pretty well what was going on in those debates, and we understand pretty well what the word ‘consubstantial’ meant. If Dawkins could have been bothered to lift one finger to do some research, he would have been able to answer his rhetorical questions in some detail. True, it’s not a simple matter – making sense of an intellectual debate from so long ago never is – but I could have suggested some reading accessible to first-year undergraduates if he was worried it would be too much for him. But he doesn’t actually care. It doesn’t matter one little bit to him whether he misrepresents or misunderstands this: he knows in advance that it must be rubbish, so actually thinking about it, actually doing some research, actually caring whether he was telling the truth or not would be a waste of his time.

When he gets on to the doctrine of the Trinity proper, he turns once again to the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia – so deep does his research go – and presents a summary statement with no context whatsoever, simply in order to ridicule it. Once again, he simply doesn’t care about what any of this means. He quotes a brief passage from Gregory the Wonderworker (again, with no context), simply in order to be able to say, ‘Whatever miracles may have earned St. Gregory his nickname, they were not miracles of honest lucidity’.* And he is quite explicit that ridicule is his aim (quoting Jefferson to back him up). As I said at the start: Dawkins revels in his ignorance, and invites you to share it.

Once again, Dawkins feels free to be this cavalier because of the underlying model he has: the ‘failed botanist’ model. I won’t repeat the details again – see the last post for a summary. Here, he says:

The other thing I cannot help remarking upon is the overweening confidence with which the religious assert minute details for which they neither have, nor could have, any evidence. (55)

If Dawkins were at all interested in lessening his ignorance, it would be a fairly simply matter to explain to him what the doctrine of the Trinity means, where it comes from, and on what grounds it is argued about. It would turn out that at stake in those arguments are not meaningless invented technicalities, nor gobbets of mystifying mumbo-jumbo, but some fairly deep – and fairly simple – convictions Christians have had about what has happened to them, and about the shape of life they are called to. Of course, those convictions will be ones that Dawkins does not share, but it only takes a little imaginative effort to understand what it would be like to live with those convictions. At no point in the discussion would we need to import anything that looked remotely like (invented) observations from a (deluded) botanist, who had God under observation in his jar, and reported on the marvelous three-fold leaf-structure of his entirely non-existent plant. That’s not what the theologian has in her jar, remember?

If Dawkins were to do that, it would admittedly take some of his time and energy. But – and here’s the key thing – he would put himself in a position to understand what ‘God’ actually means in the Christian tradition, and so would put himself in a position to argue against it, or critique it, more successfully. But if he thinks that revelling in ignorance is a better intellectual strategy, so be it.

* Actually, the comment from Gregory the Wonderworker is a model of honest lucidity. He is simply making the point that to claim (for reasons he does not discuss here) that there is some kind of differentiation within God does not necessarily require him to claim that those diffentiations involve relationships of subordination, or relationships of temporal sequence. Within the terms of the debate that Gregory was involved in, that is a perfectly meaningful and legitimate move – and one that marks a real conceptual advance in the somewhat neo-Platonic intellectual culture of his time. Yes, it’s quite complex and subtle. And, yes, it’s treating questions in which Dawkins has no interest. But it’s not obfuscatory or dishonest.


Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Dawkins says of Hinduism that its proponents might claim that their

polytheism isn’t really polytheism but monotheism in disguise. There is only one God – Lord Brahma the creator, Lord Vishnu the preserver … and hundreds of others, are all just different manifestations or incarnations of the one God. (53-54)

This is, he says, ‘sophistry’.

I’m always impressed with the bravery of anyone who ventures generalisations about ‘Hinduism’, which is almost impossibly varied (and which varies on, amongst other things, precisely the kind of point that Dawkins is trying to make). And I’m probably now going to tumble into the trap after Dawkins – but it seems to me that, once again, one of the models he has in mind does not allow him even to begin making sense of this Hindu claim.

The model in question is the ‘failed botanist’ one, again. I said, in an earlier post, that

Dawkins sees theologians, I think, as a strange kind of failed botanist. They are botanists who study the habitat and foliage of an entirely non-existent plant – so what could they possibly have to say that would be of any interest (except the interest that comes from deluded people revealing the nature of the twists that distort their minds)?

Hindus, in Dawkins view, believe in the existence of a large number of these plants. Those plants do not exist, so there is no way Hindus can have any information about them – but that doesn’t stop Hindus (like all other religious people) simply making stuff up. The claim of some Hindu theologian that Hinduism is, deep down, monotheistic is like the claim of a deluded botanist that all these (imaginary) plants are in fact shoots from a common root, despite their very different (imaginary) fruit and foliage. What can such a claim be, if it is not simply invention – an invention grown implausibly baroque as the inventor attempts to have his cake and eat it?

However, recall my response to the botanist model:

What the theologian-botanist thinks he has in his jars … is not God, but what Christians [or Hindus] say and believe about God.

And recall what I said about the definitions of polytheism and monotheism:

Polytheism and monotheism are more different than that. They mean different things by the word ‘god’, and the differences go much deeper than number. They are, fundamentally, very different ways of living in and thinking about the world. Those differences show up in, say, different ways of understanding and practicing human universality (i.e., different ways of thinking about and negotiating encounter with cultural difference, different ways of thinking about and negotiating pursuit of common goods). And those differences are constitutive for what ‘god’ means on each side.

Put these together, and you’ll see that we can at least make sense of the Hindu claim: it would be something like the claim that although Hindu practice irreducibly involves forms of devotion that circle around narratives of multiple divine characters, those practices turn out to have a deeper kind of unity to them, and to be readable in ways that look more ‘monotheistic’: the kind of polity formed, the kind of understanding of the religious self and its goals involved, the forms of relationship to other cultures and religions inculcated – all these things, it can meaningfully be claimed, are not in the Hindu case simply ‘polytheistic’.

That may or may not be true; I’m not an expert (and, as I said above, I’m particularly hesitant about claims relating to ‘Hinduism’). However, it is potentially a way of making sense of the kind of claim Dawkins cites, and it is an explorable, testable, arguable claim, not a sophism. And, note that setting about that exploration, testing and argument does not require that the investigator believe in the existence of God or gods in any form, and it does not require any magic spectacles that enable the investigator to see invisible plants. All it requires is curiosity, and a desire to see what sense religious claims actually make.

Charity law

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Dawkins, as an aside, talks about the presumption in charity law that monotheistic religion counted as a public good, and that its promotion could therefore be given charitable tax exemption – whereas polytheistic religions did not. Now, as I understand it, that is no longer the case. Christine Barker wrote in 2003:

While the present exemptions under UK charity law may seem to favour Christian organisations, it is a long-established tradition that charity law does not discriminate between religions. However, until relatively recently there was a widely held view that only monotheistic religions could be charitable. This approach is not one which has been followed in recent years when determining charitable status. Quint and Spring note that not only have Hinduism, Sikhism, the Ravidassian religion and Buddhism been accepted as charitable by both the courts and the Charity Commissioners, but that charities promoting “less traditional religions such as Unitarianism, Spiritualism, the Exclusive Brethren, the Unification Church (Moonies), Jainism, Bahai and (recently) the Seventh Day Adventists, besides many small and local sects, have also been registered by the Commissioners”.

(I think ‘Quint and Spring’ refers to Quint, Francesca, and Spring, Thomas, “Religion, Charity Law and Human Rights”, Charity Law & Practice Review, Vol. 5, Issue 3, pp.153-186 – but I have been unable to check.)

It is also worth noting that there is currently a review of charity law which addresses the need for all bodies granted charitable status to demonstrate the ‘public benefit’ of their activities. A public consultation was held, and they aim to publish new guidance next month. The draft rules include the following definition of ‘public benefit’:

Principle 1: There must be an identifiable benefit

  • It must be clear what benefits a charity’s purposes provide to the public.
  • The nature of the benefit may look very different depending on what the charity is set up to achieve.
  • Charities can provide different sorts of benefits to the public but must not be concerned with fulfilling a political purpose.
  • Benefits must be balanced against any ‘disbenefits’ or harm.

Principle 2: Benefit must be to the public, or a section of the public

  • Who constitutes ‘the public’ will vary depending on the organisation’s purposes.
  • It is not a simple matter of numbers. ‘The public’ can mean groups, communities, society or humanity. It can mean geographical, social or economic communities; it does not just mean people in the UK.
  • Where benefit is not to the public at large, benefit can be to a ‘section of the public’ where restricting the benefit in that way is relevant to the charitable purposes.
  • But, public benefit will be affected where the restrictions are irrational, unreasonable or unjustified.

Principle 3: People on low incomes must be able to benefit

Principle 4: Any private benefit must be incidental

  • There is a ‘private benefit’ where an individual or organisation personally gains from receiving a benefit. In some cases that gain may be charitable; in some cases not.
  • Charities can provide private benefits provided that those benefits directly contribute towards achieving the charity’s purposes and/or are incidental to carrying out those purposes.
  • A charity must provide more public benefits than private benefits.

This looks fairly reasonable to me, though I don’t have enough relevant background to allow me to trust my judgment. It does look like a charter for some interesting debates, though – debates in which I think I can imagine the side that Dawkins will take. But anyway, it looks as if the situation he describes is changing, at least in the UK.

Monotheistic chauvinism

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Yes, there is still plenty of monotheistic chauvinism around (the assumption that monotheism is self-evidently the purest and best kind of religion). And Dawkins’ has found a lovely quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Formal dogmatic Atheism is self-refuting, and has never de facto won the reasoned assent of any considerable number of men. Nor can Polytheism, however easily it may take hold of the popular imagination, ever satisfy the mind of a philosopher.

That’s from their article on the existence of God. I would, though, have preferred it if Dawkins had let on that this is from an encyclopedia published in 1909, and might not be quite at the forefront of contemporary theological thinking. This is a petty thing to mention, I know, but Dawkins fairly regularly gives the impression that he didn’t exactly expend much energy on research, and I can’t help getting irritated by that.


Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

The labels ‘polytheism’ and ‘monotheism’ present one big disadvantage. They might persuade the unwary to think that the difference between the two is one of arithmetic – that polytheism is the assertion that there are multiple examples of the same kind that monotheists believe to have a unique instantiation.

No. Polytheism and monotheism are more different than that. They mean different things by the word ‘god’, and the differences go much deeper than number. They are, fundamentally, very different ways of living in and thinking about the world. Those differences show up in, say, different ways of understanding and practicing human universality (i.e., different ways of thinking about and negotiating encounter with cultural difference, different ways of thinking about and negotiating pursuit of common goods). And those differences are constitutive for what ‘god’ means on each side.

Of course, it is possible to tell a (selective) story about a progression in the Judaeo-Christian tradition from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism – but that trajectory involves precisely these kind of differences in worldview, in social and political practice, in understanding of what the word ‘god’ means. There is no interesting sense in which it is an arithmetical change.

Now, before you object, I know that Dawkins does not actually trade very heavily on claims about the meaning of ‘polytheism’. The whole section is, after all, simply a gesture of impatience with such irrelevant distinctions. Who cares whether you have one god or several? Dawkins’ description of the God Hypothesis covers them all. No, really it does. The differences must be – just must be – trivial subtleties icing over cake made from the same crumbs: explanatory hypotheses for the existence and arrangement of the cosmos involving the efforts of one or more supernatural intelligences. No evidence or argument is needed to substantiate that claim; none at all. It is, apparently, just obvious. As long as you close your eyes.

Essentialist Progression

Ch.2, Introduction (pp.51–52).

Historians of religion recognize a progression from primitive tribal animisms, through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans and Norsemen, to monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam. (p.52)

We have learnt to be suspicious of claims like this, and it’s not hard to see why. A narrative which calmly places Western monotheisms at the end-point of a centuries-long ‘progression’, and shows that we have developed further than all those who are stuck with more ‘primitive’ forms of religion – well, it’s a narrative that rather obviously comes with its own built-in politics.

But still, for Dawkins’ purpose, this narrative matters not because it preserves memories of Empire, but because it helps underwrite his core essentialising move – his claim to know what religion, belief in the divine, belief in gods, belief in God are really about. The God Hypothesis as he has described it is the essence and end-point of religion: deal with that, and you have dealt with religion.

I’m going to get on to the specific problems with Dawkins expansion of this brief quotation in subsequent entries. But I wanted to point out in passing that this is one of the passages that does make Dawkins sound like he’s from the nineteenth century. When people make that kind of criticism, they’re not simply making up random insults (or at least some of them are not): Dawkins essentialising move here, and the attendant breezy analysis of differing forms of religion, really does make him sound like someone from a different era. That in itself doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course – but it doesn’t make it easier to take him seriously.