Category Archives: The God Delusion

Sleight of hand

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

Einstein sometimes invoked the name of God …, inviting misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own (p.34).

Most of the time, Dawkins wants a good, clean fight, arguments bared. There is a strand running through the book, however, where he indulges himself in a little character assassination – building a picture, by explicit and implicit means, of his opponents (the ‘supernaturalists’) as weak-minded, argument-shy, and intellectually dishonest. We’ll see some more egregious examples later on, but a minor case appears here, in those words ‘eager to misunderstand’. Maybe Dawkins means ‘eager to claim Einstein as their own, which woud (as it turns out) be a misunderstanding’. It reads, however, as if the supernaturalists turn a blind eye to what they know or suspect, in order to claim a scalp to which they know themselves unentitled.

Of course, perhaps some supernaturalists really are ‘eager to misunderstand’. It is possible, and there may be times when, despite our best efforts to be charitable, it’s the only interpretation we can place on their behaviour.

Perhaps, though, some of them simply do misunderstand, despite their best intentions? That would be understandable, after all, if Einstein’s language really is as misleading as Dawkins says. (It would be even more understandable if I am right and even Dawkins has misunderstood Einstein.)

An insinuations of dishonesty is not itself an argument, even if it might in some circumstances be the conclusion to one.

Non-supernaturalist theology

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

A few clarifications and expansions of the previous post are in order, I think.

  1. The ‘ungraspability’ of God as spoken about in this Einsteinian-Spinozan-Maimonidean-Avicennan-Thomist tradition is not simply an assertion – as it were, an attempt to rope off from rational discussion the claim being made. It is a rational consequence of the central claim being made. Roughly speaking, anything graspable, anything literally describable, would be one part of ‘everything that there is’. To speak of a source, or ground of possibility, of everything that there is to do something logically distinct from speaking about any graspable, describable thing. That’s a point we will come back to (and discuss rationally!) when we reach Dawkins’ discussion of Aquinas.
  2. The claim, within this tradition, that God exists is not an attempt at explanation. It is not an explanation of where ‘everything’ comes from, or how, or why. If I have understood Einstein’s claim properly, his claim to sense ‘a something’ behind all things was not at all a comment in the same kind of logical category as his theories of special and general relativity, or as the theory of evolution by natural selection. This again is a point that we will be coming back to.
  3. The existence of God, in this tradition, is not a matter of particular empirical fact. To treat it as such is to mistake what is being said: it is, as it were, to confuse two radically different philosophical grammars. (‘Philosophical grammars’ refers, roughly, to the patterns of argument and discussion appropriate to differing realities. Different grammars govern talk about the cup in front of me, about Beethoven’s 5th symphony, about my headache, about love, about the number two, about the evil of murder, about Tintin, about the law of gravity, about the Flying Spaghetti monster, and about God. It simply looks different to ask, in each case, ‘Does this exist? In what does its existence consist? What would count as a good reason for asserting its existence?’ and so on.)
  4. For this tradition of thinking, ways of talking about God are at the same time ways of talking about everything that is: they are ‘takes’ on everything. Within that broad logical form, there can be major differences, widely differing readings of everything that is – and I have no doubt that, say, Einstein’s and Aquinas’ readings would be very different ones. I don’t think that undermines my basic point, however.
  5. Dawkins is, accidentally, partly right to say that Einstein’s talk about God is ‘wholly metaphorical’. All talk about God in this kind of intellectual tradition is going to be indirect, or at least is not going to take the form of descriptions of a graspable object. And since ‘metephor’, taken broadly, is closely bound up with ‘ways of seeing’ (seeing as), metaphor in some form or another is likely to be a fundamental structure of what is said about God, for this tradition.

Einsteinian Religion

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

On pp.39 and 40, Dawkins twice quotes Einstein:

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.

To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.

If Einstein used the word ‘God’ for this something, then he was, says Dawkins, using it in a

purely metaphorical, poetic sense.

This discussion of Einstein serves at least three purposes in Dawkins’ discussion. It prepares for his later attack on those who seek to prove the existence of God by claiming that various eminent scientists are on their side (pp.123–130). It provides Dawkins with a way of responding to those who claim that he, with his quasi-mystical awe at nature, is religious (he is religious only in the purely metaphorical Einsteinian sense). And it provides him with a foil against which to define the utterly different ‘supernatural’ sense of the word God (pp.34–40) – and thus it plays a crucial role in clarifying Dawkins initial definition of his target, God.

The first of these uses does not interest me, though I will have a comment or two once we reach Dawkins’ discussion of ‘The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists’.

The second is much more interesting. After giving the quote from Einstein, Dawkins says:

In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that ‘cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable’.

I am not at all sure about that caveat. Going only by the quotations from Einstein that Dawkins gives, and making the assumption that Einstein knew what he was doing when he quoted Spinoza, it seems to me that Dawkinsian and Einsteinian religion are not quite the same thing.

The most natural way of reading Dawkins’ statement (alongside what he has already said about ‘quasi-mysticism’) is that he is speaking simply about the knowable but as yet incompletely known order of things: the marvellous law-governed intricacy of the cosmos that is both utterly open to our exploration and explanation, and utterly mind-blowing. Any mystery involved is mystery-as-problem: something that may overwhelm and inspire and even terrify, but which our investigations can potentially turn from a mystery into something understood (though no less beautiful and majestic for all that).

The most natural way of reading Einstein’s statements seems to me to be rather different, without at all making him what Dawkins would call a ‘supernaturalist’. I say this because I don’t find it easy to read ‘a something that our mind cannot grasp’ as meaning ‘a something that our mind could in princpiple grasp, but which it has not yet in fact grasped.’ It sounds to me more like Einstein saw the ordered world that his mind could explore (rather more profoundly than most!) as the expression or outworking or emanation of a ‘something’, which ‘something’ could only be known in this expression or outworking or emanation. I do not at all assume that he meant by ‘something’ some literal, separate ‘thing’, distinct from the cosmos in much the same way that one physical thing is distinct from another physical thing. If Einstein was serious about Spinoza, I’d expect that to be a point about which his language would remain thoroughly ambiguous.

In other words, the two quotations together do not suggest to me that Einstein thought that alongside all the things we could know with our minds, there was one more thing that we could know in some other, more mysterious way (‘sensing’). Rather, I take ‘sensing’ to be about a way of reading or understanding everything that is, all that we can know with our minds: reading it as ‘coming from’ a source, a ground of possibility, a ‘something’ – a ‘something’ that can only properly be talked about by talking about the world as read in this way. If this is right (and like I say, I’m assuming Einstein cited Spinoza deliberately and chose his words carefully), then we could say both that talk about Einstein’s God could only ever be a certain kind of talk about the cosmos, without that meaning that Einstein’s God was simply another name for the cosmos. ‘God’ would, rather, name the whatever-it-is that means that it is proper to read the world in this way, and there might be nothing whatsoever that could be said about this God other than that.

This brings us to the third point: the contrast between Einsteinian and ‘supernatural’ religion. There are two ways of tackling this. The first is to note that everything I have read about Einstein in Dawkins book so far is consistent with Einstein’s own statement that he believed in Spinoza’s God. I don’t mean to attribute to Einstein all the details of Spinoza’s metaphysics, simply to say that (on the evidence provided) he seems to be working recognisably within the same tradition of thought as Spinoza. But Spinoza was himself working recognisably within a tradition of thought flowing from medieval Jewish philosophy/mysticism – such figures as Moses Maimonides. And Moses Maimonides, on precisely the points which are echoed in Spinoza and then in Einstein, was working in a tradition of thinking which was inter-religious: you can find a version of it in Islam, in figures such as Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), and you can find a version of it in Christianity, in figures such as Thomas Aquinas. To me, reading the description of Einstein in Dawkins, he sounds like nothing so much as a radical Thomist (follower of Aquinas). There is, in other words, a prima facie case for saying that ‘Einsteinian religion’ is a way of thinking about the meaning of ‘God’ and the nature of this God’s relationship to the world that stands squarely in the core intellectual traditions of the great monotheistic religions.

That first, name-dropping claim, though, needs to be supplemented by a second, more substantive claim. Let me, briefly, put it this way: the re-description I have given above of what I take to be Einstein’s Spinozan ideas (on the basis of the limited evidence Dawkins supplies), provides a definition for ‘God’ that is certainly in the same ballpark as some mainstream, traditional ideas about God from the heartlands of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Einsteinian religion and at least one major strand of Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought about God do not stand on opposite sides of a great gulf – and many Christian theologians in the past and in the present are more Einsteinian than they are ‘supernaturalist’.

Useful further reading:
Richard Mason, Spinoza’s God: A Philosophical Study (Cambridge: CUP, 1999)
David B. Burrell, Knowing the unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986)

[Edit: I should make it clear that I’m not investing much in the accuracy of my guesses about Einstein. I may well be wrong, and other evidence may show that he the words Dawkins quotes are misleading, or that Einstein interpreted Spinoza in a more straightforwardly atheist way than I think is sustainable. My musings about Einstein are simply a hook on which to hang a sketch of an important theological tradition that is not well captured by Dawkins’ description of ‘supernaturalism’.]

The supernaturalist God

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

What is Dawkins’ target? Later on, he will say (p.57):

I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been invented.

Here, though, on p.33, he acknowledges with Steven Weinberg that the word ‘God’ can be used in all sorts of ways, but then explains that

if 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’.

Hmmmm. Back on p.57, with his sweeping declaration that his target is ‘all gods’, Dawkins was trying to forestall the ‘inevitable retort to the book’ that he expects to leap to the lips of some reviewers:

The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.

Well, I promise not to mention the old man or his beard, but I’m going to ignore Dawkins warning, and admit that by this point in the book (p.33, three pages in to the main text) I already begin to suspect that ‘The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either.’ Of course, I’m writing this blog entry having read on to the start of his chapter 4, at a point where my suspicions have been pretty decisively confirmed, but already in the notes I made on my first reading, I underlined ‘supernatural’ in ‘supernatural creator … appropriate for us to worship’ and wrote ‘uh-oh’, and then listed some forms of religious belief that I suspected were not covered by Dawkins definition:

  • Buddhism. (I suspect Dawkins would not disagree with me – see p.59)
  • Some forms of Hinduism – certainly advaita (or ‘non dualist’) forms, and possible more ‘theistic’ forms as well, if those who stress the compatibility between the theistic and non-dualist forms are right. I don’t know whether Dawkins would deny this; Hinduism is not clearly in his sights, and given what he says about Buddhism he might be willing to think again about at least the more philosophical variants of Hinduism.
  • Much classic Christian theology – the theology of Thomas Aquinas, for example.
  • Much contemporary Christian theology – Rowan Williams’, for example, or mine.

Dawkins would, I imagine, be extremely sceptical about the last two claims, and I’m not yet in a position to back them up. We’re going to have to keep going, clarifying what Dawkins means by ‘supernatural’, ‘creator’ and ‘worship’, and then looking at how some pretty prominent strands of Christian theology are not captured by his definitions. We’re also going to have to talk about the implications if it should turn out that Dawkins attack misses these strands of Christian theology, but still hits large quantities of popular Christian piety. All I am doing at this stage is indicating where I think the really interesting tussle is likely to be: not so much in refuting Dawkins’ arguments, as in disputing what he is arguing about.

The first, small-scale arena for this tussle is in Dawkins’ presentation of Einstein’s ‘religion’ – but that’s a matter for a different post.

Sagan on religion

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

On pp.32-33, Dawkins approvingly quotes Carl Sagan as saying that ‘hardly any major religion’ has taken seriously the grandeur, subtlety and elegance of the world disclosed by science. Dawkins doesn’t directly adopt the saying as his own, but he certainly does nothing to suggest to the reader that he disagrees with it. (Though he does move from Sagan’s complaint that the religions do not foster wonder in the natural world as explored by science to the complaint that religious people have claimed that such delight in the natural world as explored by science is itself laudably religious. And so it sounds a little like he both claims that such wonder does not flourish in religious contexts, and that such wonder is claimed by religious people as their own, which make me wonder whether he does endorse Sagan’s comment.)

I must admit, first off, that I’m not quite sure what it would look like for a ‘major religion’ to take science seriously. I’m not sure I warm to the idea of, say, the General Synod of the Church of England making a pronouncement on the joy of quantum mechanics, for instance – and I’m pretty sure Sagan would not have wanted such a thing. I can only assume that Sagan was claiming that delight in the world revealed by science does not flourish where the religious conviction and practices of a major religion are strong, and that it has not coloured and shaped religious devotion in very noticeable ways. I worry that this is a more diffuse claim than Sagan intended to make, though, and that I am not doing him justice.

I can think of three levels of response to this. The first is purely anecdotal. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household, attending an evangelical church. I would guess that the religious culture I inhabited was of a kind that Dawkins would have squarely in his sights in this book. And yet I don’t think it was particularly remarkable that I was encouraged to take an interest in science, that Horizon and Equinox and the like were watched avidly, and so on. I remember conversations in the Lake District with my (evangelical vicar) Dad, looking up at Great Gable and wondering at the geological timescales and processes involved in producing it. I remember my Dad putting up OHP slides of distant galaxies as sermon illustrations. I grew up wanting to be a theoretical physicist, and devoured all the popular science books I could get my hands on as a teenager – and noone in my family or in my church seemed to think I was doing anything odd. Or, rather, I can remember plenty of people thinking it was odd, because they couldn’t imagine wanting to do that much maths.

Of course, an anecdotal response is only a very partial one. It certainly means that I don’t recognise Sagan’s description as true of my own experience, but it may be that my context was deeply eccentric in some way that I have not grasped. So a second level response would involve looking more widely and deeply at religious attitudes to the wonders of the natural world and to their disciplined investigation. That’s a wider topic than I can hope to explore adequately in a blog entry, and I struggle to know where to begin. How about starting with the clergyman scientists of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, to take one example? How about looking at the role that positive evaluation of science played in German theology in the 19th century? How about looking at the number of Christians amongst undergraduate natural science students in recent decades in Cambridge, say? How about looking at the recent history of Vatican engagements with science? What about the origins of modern science in late medieval monastic culture? And so on, and so on – to name only investigations related to Christianity. All these investigations would produce complex stories, no doubt, rather than a simple answer one way or the other – I don’t deny that – but I do have a hard time believing that Sagan’s comment is anything other than a sweeping generalisation born from ignorance.

But after the first level anecdotal response, and the second level historical response, I can see that a third level response might be needed – one that, as it were, provides an alternative hypothesis to explain some of what Sagan thought he saw. And I think that such an alternative hypothesis might well be available. I’m thinking of various analyses of a fracture in Western culture between rationality and emotion/embodiment, between the sciences and the humanities. Whether we are talking about Snow’s ‘two cultures’, about T.S. Eliot’s ‘Dissociation of sensibility’, about romanticism versus classicism, about protestant orthodoxy versus pietism, scholasticism versus devotion, or some other variant on the theme. In other words, I think that we live in a culture which is riddled with oppositions between ‘science’ and ’emotion’, and which thinks of rationality as cold, dead, disembodied and inhuman. I think that division has deep historical roots, and that those roots do stretch back a long way in the Western Christian tradition. But I don’t think that ‘religion’ in general, or Christianity specificially, lines up neatly on the anti-science side: this has been as much a division within Christianity as a division between Christianity and secular culture – though I guess that there might be a case to be made that certain very popular, very vocal forms of contemporary Christianity do tend to emphasise the romantic/experiential/emotional/embodied side of these pervasive oppositions, and downplay all (including natural science, but also including academic theology) that falls on the other side.

That is, however, not quite what Sagan was saying – and it doesn’t quite support Dawkins’ thesis that there is an inherent opposition between religion and the kind of scientific ‘quasi-mysticism’ he owns to. So let’s move on.

Darwinian grandeur

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

Dawkins asserts that the

quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe … has no connection with supernatural belief

That is a claim that we’re going to be coming back to, and I’m going to be arguing that it is, to a significant degree, mistaken – but that’s a task for another time.

For now, another thought that struck me as I read this section, and specifically Darwin’s comments about the ‘grandeur in this view of life’. One question that intrigues me is about the genealogy of this sentiment. With the right kind of detailed and senstitive cultural and intellectual history, we could ask about the specific history that shaped and made possible this particular sentiment. Such sentiments are not timeless, ahistorical options, that would make sense to all people in all times and places; they are the products of specific history. (And, in Darwin’s case, I rather suspect that it his sentiment borrows quite deeply from the Christian culture in which Darwin was nurtured.)

Once again, I am not presenting this as an argument against Dawkins. I am not trying to claim that this means that Darwin was really religious in the sense Dawkins is concerned to deny. I am not trying to claim that the putative Christian roots of this experience (for which, after all, I have presented no evidence) are an argument for or against Christianity. It is simply that I think it worth noting the likely historical specificity of the kind of scientific ‘quasi-mysticism’ that Dawkins describes: I have a suspicion that this too might be of some importance later on.


Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41)

Dawkins begins with the story of the boy who was to become his school Chaplain having a ‘quasi-mystical’ (32) experience while contemplating the grass in front of his face, overwhelmed by the complexity and interconnectedness of the world he saw there.

Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and become one with the universe, and with the rapt mind of the boy contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms…. (31)

Dawkins then describes his own similar experience when contemplating the stars (31-2), before saying:

Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to answer.

Three phrases leap out at me as I read these first paragraphs of The God Delusion. The first is ‘become one with the universe…’. I presume that it means something like this: that the boy saw not just grass in front of his nose, but a complex and vital ecology, in which each part was caught in webs of dependence and interaction with other parts, and the visible and tangible features floated on a sea thick with such connections and influences. And then, from being something he was looking at, relatively isolated in front of him, the boy began viscerally to imagine the way that these connections did not stop with the turf, but stretched to include every part of the cosmos: it was all one system, all one set of interdependencies – including him, the observer. In fact, he experienced the cosmos as a cosmos: as some kind of whole, himself included. That, or something like it, is what I take Dawkins to be describing.

The second and third phrases that strike me, then, are ‘He interpreted the experience in religious terms’ and ‘Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other…’. They both suggest that two distinct things are going on: an experience or emotion, followed by a distinct process of ‘interpretation’. And I’m not quite sure that’s right. It seems to me that the experience described is already an experience of interpretation: it is an experiece of ‘seeing-as’. The boy sees the grass in front of himself as a teeming microcosm; he then ‘sees’ the whole world, including himself as cosmos. And I presume that he sees himself and the world of which he is a part as a cosmos having some character. The experience could have been one of terror, for instance, or a feeling of utter insignificance; it could have been an experience of profound ‘at-home-ness’ in the universe, and so on.

If this is right (and I am going by other descriptions and discussions of such experiences, not simply by Dawkins’ brief description of this one) then two things follow. In the first place, we would need to know a good deal more before being able to say that Dawkins’ and the Chaplain’s experiences were the same (and we probably wouldn’t call them ’emotions’).

In the second place, it may be that the religiousness of the Chaplain’s response was not an interpretation susequent and secondary to the experience; it might have been, as it were, built in. It is possible, for instance, that the boy experienced this cosmos as welcoming, or as gift, or as sustaining him benevolently or lovingly – or something similar.

I am not going to suggest that this experience as I have (speculatively) redescribed it is any kind of proof of the existence of God, or that my redescription offers any reasons for thinking that the Chaplain’s religiousness is to be preferred over Dawkins’ atheism. And I certainly do not wish to pour any kind of scorn or scepticism on Dawkins’ description of his own experience. If the Chaplain’s experience did take the form that I have suggested, it might well be (in Dawkins’ terms) delusional in some way; I have said nothing to suggest that it is not – and have read far enough ahead to know that Dawkins is going to deal sharply with claims to prove the existence of God on the basis of ‘religious experience’.

All that I want to note at this stage is that, if the Chaplain did have an experience of this kind, and if it was a ‘religious’ experience in something like the way I have suggested (and if his was not, we have accounts of others that were), then the difference between his experience and Dawkins’ would not most naturally be described as a difference over a particular empirical matter of fact. It is, rather, a difference between two overarching ‘takes’ on the world: two ways of seeing, two different senses of the whole, two ways of reading the text of the world. And how one is to adjudicate between two such ways of seeing is, as Dawkins says, ‘not an easy question to answer’.

Where God fits (or does not fit) into this picture is a topic we’ll be coming back to.

The God Delusion

The God DelusionIt has become so popular, so widely discussed, so much a feature of discussions on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science site (sites I visit a lot), that I have decided to take the plunge, and read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I plan on providing a running commentary on what I read here in my blog (even though it does not have a great deal to do with the blog’s initial aims).

A couple of preliminary comments before I start:

  1. I am not planning on reading through, organising my thoughts, and then writing an organised critique, theme by theme. Rather, I’ll comment on what I find, as I find it, not knowing quite where he or I will end up.
  2. I will, however, cheat to a certain extent: I’ve been scribbling notes to myself as I read, and my blog entries are worked up from those notes. At the time of writing, I’ve read (and scribbled) up to somewhere in ch.3, and have glanced ahead to the start of ch.4. So this isn’t quite pure ‘stream of consciousness’ reviewing.
  3. I’m reading the 2007 Black Swan paperback edition.
  4. I have read several newspaper articles and blog comment pieces about the book; I have also read an article by Nicholas Lash in the latest New Blackfriars, but I have not tried (and probably will not try) to read widely in the secondary literature that the book has already generated. So apologies if I flog here horses that have already died elsewhere.
  5. No-one, if they spend a moment to check who I am, is going to expect me to be a huge fan of the book. I hope, though, to be a generous, fair and open-minded reviewer, even (especially) when it annoys me. If anyone is reading this blog, I hope they’ll keep me to that in the comments.