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.

3 Thoughts on “Hinduism

  1. Isaac Gouy on March 14, 2008 at 6:18 pm said:

    > Dawkins says of Hinduism that its …

    This is very misleading selective quotation!

    Dawkins wonders about persuading a respected member of the British Hindu community to bring a civil action against discrimination in the charity laws, and then speculates on a legal stratagem:

    “… my imagined Hindu litigator would have been as likely to play the ‘If you can’t beat them join them’ card. His polytheism isn’t really polytheism but monotheism in disguise. …”

    And now you’ve snipped that into a supposed statement about Hinduism and accused Dawkins of sophistry!

  2. Oh – I can see how you could read my words that way. I’ve not expressed my first couple of sentences very well – because the sarcasm of Dawkins’ description doesn’t come through as well as I had assumed it did.

    You’re right, of course: Dawkins is imagining what a hypothetical Hindu might say if Dawkins tries to persuade him to challenge discrimination against polytheism. This hypothetical Hindu, Dawkins suggests, might well claim to be a monotheist rather than a polytheist.

    The phrase ‘monotheism in disguise’ is Dawkins holding up what he thinks is an implausible bit of conceptual juggling for ridicule. He follows that comment with a brief explanation of how (implausibly) the Hindu might back explain this surprising claim – before, firmly in his own words, telling us that such claims are ‘sophistry’.

    I wasn’t accusing Dawkins of sophistry: that’s me quoting his comment on the words he has attributed to his Hindu. Hence the quotation marks. But I can see that I should have expanded that sentence, to make it clearer what was going on.

    I think the rest of the post makes clear what I meant – but thanks for pointing out the lack of clarity at the start. I’ll edit it now to make it more obvious.

  3. Isaac Gouy on March 15, 2008 at 5:39 am said:

    Apologies – clearly you are not accusing Dawkins of sophistry.

    Seems like I missed-out the “he says” and didn’t read ’sophistry’ as “sophistry”, but like ‘failed botanist’ and ‘polytheistic’.

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