Irrational Christianity

The God Delusion, ch.1, §§1-2

This isn’t a comment on a specific passage from Dawkins’ book; it’s simply a reflection on where my response has got to. There is one stretch of my argument that I can hear creaking as I walk over it (unless I tread fast and whistle loudly): the bridge between my account of the sophisticated intellectual tradition of Christian theology (which I believe Dawkins’ categories fail to capture) and ordinary Christian believing.

I think I can best get at the problem by asking what it would actually mean for Christianity to be rational. (I continue to focus on Christianity because it is the only example I know well.) For Dawkins, the answer to that question will fundamentally be about the subjecting of a set of ideas (or one central idea) to certain kinds of argumentative testing, and assessment of various kinds of evidence for and against. Ideas, arguments, evidence: these will be the main things that need to be talked about in order to answer the question, ‘Is Christianity rational?’ There will be a peripheral, preparatory role for description of Christianity: enough to establish that the ideas in question are indeed held by significant numbers of ordinary Christians – but on the whole Dawkins thinks that claim obvious enough to need no explicit presentation of evidence or argument.

My answer to the question ‘Is Christianity rational?’ would be rather different, with what is peipheral and preparatory for Dawkins becoming much more central. That is, faced with the vast weave of movements, institutions, practices, habits, tendencies, stories, ideas, sensibilities that we name ‘Christianity’, I would talk about the way that this complex social whole includes practices of ‘sense-making’: moments where individuals and groups within Christianity take a step back and come up (as a secondary but important move within their participation in this whole weave) with some explicit construal, some way of trying to capture ‘what is going on’. And then I would want to talk about the way in which, within certain practics, by certain people, those construals get subjected to various kinds of testing and refinement, and the way in which they what emerges gets offered back to the wider Christian population. That is, I’d want to talk about certain kinds of feedback loop that operate within Christianity – fundamentally social feedback loops. And I’d do all this in order then to claim (a) that it is only together, only in this kinds of social way, that Christianity is rational, and (b) that the ‘sophisticated’ claims of theologians are one such feedback loop that helps keep Christianity rational, and the one that provides something most like the kind of testing that Dawkins wants to see belief in God subjected to. Only once all that is in place can I really get going on discussing what kinds of arguments and evidence are relevant to testing the claims that are made in these sophisticated construals of the Christian thing.

Now, I rather suspect that Dawkins would have none of this. He might see this as a rather dishonest attempt to shift the attention from mainstream, majority forms of belief in God to deeply eccentric minority forms. He might argue that these sophisticated minority forms have little to do with the beliefs and practices of ordinary Christians, and that there is something dishonest or perverse in the attempt of the sophisticated analysts to claim that they are somehow speaking on behalf of those ordinary Christians.

Of course, I’d launch some criticisms back: I’d argue that Dawkins is himself involved in providing a particular, contestable construal of the Christian thing: he construes it (I think) as fundamentally a matter of the holding of certain beliefs, as a system of belief. And I don’t think that’s an adequate construal, I don’t think it does justice to the evidence. It is at very least not a construal that should be allowed to slip past without explicit argument.

However, that argument aside, Dawkins does have a point. Even if Christianity’s rationality did take the form that I have suggested, one might well argue that there has been a breakdown in (or a failure to create) the kind of social connections, the kind of feedback loops, that I have suggested are essential to that rationality. There are fractures both in the connections which are supposed to keep the theologians’ construals faithful to the lives of ordinary Christian believers, and in the connections which are supposed to allow their construals to return to and influence those ordinary believers. (I’d like to argue, for instance, that ‘literalism’ of various kinds is not so much an intellectual error, but a breakdown in polity: a flattening of the intellectual ecology that keeps various different levels and kinds of reading, of sense-making, alive and interacting.)

I think the narrative Dawkins is selling, to the extent that it gets into people’s hearts and minds and begins to structure their responses (whether they accept his narrative or reject it) will make this problem worse. I think that it will make it harder for people to believe in the possibility of fruitful connection between ‘ordinary’ and ‘sophisticated’ belief. And so I think that his attack on Christianity, because of the bluntness and flatness of the categories in which it is couched, has the capacity to make Christianity less rational.

7 Thoughts on “Irrational Christianity

  1. Jacqui Stewart on September 27, 2007 at 11:35 am said:

    I think that one of the problems is that Dawkin’s characterisation of rationality doesn’t apply to science, either. There is quite a debate among philosophers of science, but none of them would recognise Dawkin’s rationality as being an adequate description. He doesn’t acknowledge the major philosophical difficulties with expressing truth and truths. He therefore doesn’t see the importance of noting the influences on how truth is expressed, such as the social dimension. He also lacks any reference to other features of bodiliness such as emotions or gender, which also affect the communication of truth. He seems to want a position not so far from the Vienna Circle, the early scientific positivists. There are lots of human beings who, for quite understandable reasons, don’t trust sociality and emotion, and I suspect he may be one.

  2. Another thought that occurred on this whole “respect” theme – really repeats what you’ve said from another angle. It seems to me that in at least some of the cases you quote (Douglas Adams’ light switch & Quaker pacifism) the “respect” being shown, & criticised by Dawkins, is a symptom of precisely the kind of attitude Dawkins himself seems to take – i.e. treating religion as inherently or necessarily irrational. It’s the sort of respect you show to someone suffering from delusions – “humour her, it’s not worth arguing with her”. On your account there will be more, not less, of this so-called “respect” for religion if Dawkins gets his way, because there will be even less recognition that particular beliefs associated with religious commitment can be publicly justified or argued through. (At least one Quaker former CO I know was quite annoyed, on some level at least, at _not_ being asked to explain his pacifist convictions to the draft board – as he had come prepared to do. Was it more, or less, respectful to say “oh, we don’t need to listen to your arguments because they’re religious”?)

  3. Isaac Gouy on March 14, 2008 at 4:41 pm said:

    > one might well argue

    Might one stop arguing and present some data about “ordinary Christian believers” – we can build an imaginary house-of-cards so so high.

  4. Imaginary house of cards?

    I begin by presenting two different ways in which one might claim (or deny) that Christianity was ‘rational’. The description I offer in my third paragraph is a pretty generalised one, which at this broad-brush level is not controversial: I don’t feel the need to amass data to prove it, any more than I feel the need to amass data to prove the claim that some Christians sing hymns quite a lot. The controversial part of my claim – the bit that I expect Dawkins would disagree with – is not whether that generalised description is factually accurate or not, but whether what I am describing can appropriately be characterised as a form of rationality. Settling that question is a conceptual matter, and presenting data about ordinary Christian believers is not going to help either of us. So, no, I won’t stop arguing on that point.

    The point where more contestable empirical description comes in is, as you noted, in the sixth paragraph. And, yes, I deal there in some generalisations about Christianity without detailed empirical backing. But note that the purpose of that paragraph is to suggest a way in which Dawkins’ case might still hold some water even if one accepts the conceptual moves I have tried to make against him.

    I stand by the descriptions I offer there, though. If you’re interested, I can point you to some of the literature on the example I mention – biblical literalism – and specifically on the social, cultural and intellectual history that leads to the emergence of current patterns of Christian belief and practice on those matters. Or I can point you to various studies of the processes by which theology became an academic discipline, somewhat detached from the lives of ‘ordinary Christian believers’. And so on. I don’t think the empirical claims I’m making here are particularly controversial.

  5. Isaac Gouy on March 15, 2008 at 4:23 am said:

    > any more than I feel the need to amass data to prove the claim that some Christians sing hymns quite a lot

    From my perspective that claim is so hedged as to be utterly uninteresting.

    > I don’t think the empirical claims I’m making here are particularly controversial.

    Perhaps our perspectives are too different – I don’t care whether or not the claim is controversial, I care that there’s data to back up the claim.

  6. Okay. You can do your own online research now, if you like. I am claiming (1) that ‘there are moments where individuals and groups within Christianity take a step back and come up … with some explicit construal, some way of trying to capture “what is going on”.’ If you want evidence for that claim, you need only pop along to Amazon, or even just do a Google blog search, and see if you can find large numbers of Christians trying to make some kind of sense of their faith. I am claiming that (2) there are certain kinds of feedback loop that subject some of that sense-making to testing. You could try looking at the reviews that the books on Amazon get, or at the comments on the blogs you find get. Better still, look at the content of the books and the blogs. I am making the prediction that you will find some ways in which people change, refine, and supplement the sense they have made of their faith – responding to what other people have said, to what they have read, to new experiences, and so on.

    There you go: instant data.

  7. Isaac Gouy on March 16, 2008 at 12:39 am said:

    How amusing.

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