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.

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