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.

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