‘The Weakness of the Religious Mind’

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

Dawkins quotes a selection of religious responses to Einstein’s declaration that he did not believe in a personal God. I’ve already mentioned one of them (the claim that Einstein did not know what he was talking about), but Dawkins provides many others.

There is an ‘American Roman Catholic lawyer’, who says that Einstein’s statements will make Hitler’s decision to ‘expel’ Jews from Germany seem understandable to many (p.37). This is indeed an utterly repulsive statement; I think most people (religious or not) would find it so.

Then there is a ‘New York rabbi’ who said,

Einstein is unquestionably a great scientist, but his religious views are diametrically opposed to Judaism (p.38).

Dawkins comments:

‘But’? ‘But‘? Why not ‘and’?

The easy response is, of course, to read the Rabbi’s statement as meaning, ‘Like most people, I value Einstein’s scientific work – but I have problems with his religious views.’ I’m not quite sure what the fuss is about that ‘but’. I can only think that Dawkins’ incredulity arises either (a) because he thinks Einstein’s religious views flowed directly from his scientific views, so that it is nonsense to claim to value his science whilst denying its obvious implications, or (b) because he thinks that the habits of thought one would need to be able to recognise the greatness of Einstein’s scientific work are precisely the habits of thought eschewed by religious people.

A more interesting quotation, though, is the one from the ‘president of a historical society in New Jersey’. It is interesting for two reasons: Dawkins’ comment, and the content of the quotation given. Dawkins says that the letter ‘damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind’ and that ‘Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice’. I can’t help picturing at this point some Basil-Rathbone-as-Sherlock-Holmes figure, saying ‘Ah yes, Watson – but there you see the terrible weakness of the criminal mind; he cannot resist returning to the scene of his evil deeds!’ The trouble is, I think Dawkins really does believe that all religious people are at best weak-minded, and at worst intellectually dishonest. Oh well.

The content of the letter is also, as Dawkins says, worth a look, but I want to come back to it a little later, when I tackle the relationship between ‘ordinary believers’ and theology. I’ll try to remember to do so.

The last letter quoted, from ‘the Founder of the Calvary Tabernacle Association in Oklahoma’ is, as Dawkins promises, shocking. The author tells Einstein to go back where he came from, with his unAmerican views (pp.37-8). And its offensiveness is made up of all sorts of different elements: the writer evidently has a mind in which America, Christianity, creationism, and a pro-Israel, pro-religious-Judaism stance stand against Europe, atheism, evolution, and the temerity that some Jews have in not filling the role that Christians want them to fill. This is a poisonous mindset: the back-handed anti-Semitism, the mythologising of America as a (thoroughly) Christian nation, the assumption that Christianity and creationism go hand-in-glove. Ugh.

Of course, none of this gets us very far. Dawkins wants me to see evidence of the moral and intellectual weakness that are essential to the ‘religious mind’. I see only examples of bad religion. The contest between these two views will evidently not be won or lost here: Dawkins has as yet offered no argument as to why I should see these examples as getting to the heart of religion. Let’s move on.

Is theology a subject?

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

Discussing a clergyman who had criticised Einstein for not knowing what he was talking about, Dawkins comments:

The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned. That clergyman presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a claimed ‘fairyologist’ on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings…. [He] thought that Einstein, being theologically untrained, had misunderstood the nature of God. On the contrary, Einstein understood very well exactly what he was denying.

I find that comment about the ‘fairyologist’ very illuminating. It exposes the model Dawkins has in mind when he talks about ‘theology’, and explains comments that would otherwise be completely baffling. 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)? Or perhaps they are more like failed particle physicists, who devote their time to analysing the properties of the strange particle whose interactions they believe dictate the course of the universe – but who refuse to listen to their more sober colleagues who repeatedly explain the mathematical errors in their theoretical proofs, and point out the ways in which all the instrumental readings that are supposed to confirm the existence of this particle are far more easily explained by the properties and quirks of the instruments themselves.

The only trouble with this sort of model of what it is to be a theologian is that it would not allow you to make any sense at all of what actually goes on in a theology department. In other words, it is a model that can itself be tested against empirical reality, and shown to have as much substance as those fairy wings.

Let me talk about my own department (the Department of Theology at the University of Exeter). Suppose Dawkins were to decide, perhaps in order to fill a segment in a new television programme, that he was going to sit in on a degree course here, or join in the research discussions of our staff.

For a start, he would be welcome: there is no requirement that staff or students believe in God (and, yes, we do already have atheist members of staff, and we do already have atheist students). Then he would find himself engaged in a whole set of intellectual pursuits, none of which looks like the failed botanist/physicist model.

He would, for instance, find out a great deal about the history of the Christian tradition, and about the contexts in which the Biblical texts used in Christianity were produced. Part of this study would involve learning about the history of Judaeo-Christian talk about God: how did it arise, what function did it play in the various contexts in which it flourished, what different things have been meant by it? What reasons have been given for and against its different forms? How have different forms of belief in God shaped lives, individually and socially? None of this would require him to believe it himself, but it would require him to become a careful observer – not of God, but of believers in God.

Then, alongside this broadly historical study, he would find himself pursuing philosophical discussion of the claims involved: ‘philosophy of religion’. To take just one example (because it will come up again later): having studied the theology of Anselm of Canterbury in his historical context, Dawkins would in the more philosophical part of the course examine the premises and structure of Anselm’s argument philosophically: seeking as much intellectual clarity and rigour as possible about whether it works, and what the errors are if it does not. (As we shall see, this is a portion of the course I’d recommend wholeheartedly to Dawkins, not because I think Anselm’s argument works as a proof of the existence of God, but because I think Dawkins has misunderstood it). He would end up examining in detail the main arguments for and against the existence of God; he would end up examining in similar detail the coherence and implications of some of the main claims that have been made about God, and so on. He would end up doing quite a bit of moral philosophy: examining the different ways that people have gone about justifiying moral claims, the arguments that religious people have made about those ways, and so on. He would get marks for the clarity and cogency of his arguments, not for whether his conclusions matched any pre-defined religious set of answers.

I suspect that, so far, there is nothing that Dawkins could object to. His book is, after all, packed with precisely these kinds of discussion – claims about what religious believers have believed and do believe (and why), claims about how it shapes their lives and our world, claims about what sense it makes, and the robust rational testing of whether any of it is coherent or justified.

There is, however, a third kind of intellectual work involved – and it is this one which I suspect Dawkins dislikes. This is the kind of intellectual work that does not simply investigate and subject to rational critique the past and present claims made by religious believers, but rather works with those claims to see what can be made of them. It is the kind of intellectual work that can look most like deluded botany or loony physics – until one looks a little closer. It is the kind of work that

  1. starts with the results of the kind of historical investigation that exposes the differing things that Christians (for example) have meant by God, and their differing reasons for saying them,
  2. tries to give as charitable an interpretation of contemporary Christian belief as possible (with the help of the philosophy of religion where necessary) – i.e., it proposes a ‘take’ on those claims, a way of making sense of them, that is as faithful as possible to what Christians have believed and do believe, but also as coherent and intelligble as possible, and then
  3. asks about the implications of Christian belief if it is understood this way. What else does it appear to commit Christians to believing? What practices cohere with it? What challenges are appropriate to it? What questions does it raise?

What this kind of study works on is still Christian believing. What the theologian-botanist thinks he has in his jars, or the theologian-physicist thinks she has in her particle accelerator, is not God, but what Christians say and believe about God. To undertake this kind of study, you do not have to believe in God, but you do have to believe that there are people who do believe in God. And you do not have to believe that they are right in what they believe – but you do have to believe that at least some of them, some of the time, think about their faith and are open to argument, and you do have to believe that those who are thoughtful and open to argument would do well to think as carefully as possible, to understand the implications of what they say, to know more about alternative ways of making sense of the things they talk about, to see what kinds of claim they are implicitly making about the world in which they live, and so on.

Let me take an example from my own Department (simplified for the sake of presentation). A theologian might examine some of the things that Christians say about what was going on on Jesus’s cross. This theologian might examine in historical and contemporary Christianity the development of the relevant ideas, and note the connections between those ideas and Christian attitudes to crime and punishment. He might then point out that what is now regularly taken in some prominent strands of Christianity to be the main or only way of making sense of the cross (a) has a strong link to some questionable aspects of Christian (and wider) views about the punishment of criminals, and (b) is not the only way of making sense of the cross that has been prominent in the Christian tradition. He might then demonstrate (c) that there are good reasons based on some of the other beliefs and commitments that these same contemporary Christians have – i.e., reasons that those Christians themselves should in principle accept – to see flaws in both the ideas about the cross they currently have, and the attitudes to penal policy, and he might then argue (d) that to shift to another way of understanding the cross that will do better justice to their other convictions, and (e) that it might have rather different implications for their understanding of crime and punishment.

Note several things about this example. (1) One would not need oneself to be a believer to undertake this study – though one would need to be a thoughtful and sensitive interpreter of belief – tuned in not just to the surface details of what Christian people say and do, but to the deeper patterns of thought and sensibility that underlie those details. One would need, as it were, to be something like a good ethnographer of Christian culture. (I should add, just in case any one identifies the example, that the real theologian I am using as an example is a Christian believer, as it happens.) (2) Each step of this can be pursued with intellectual rigour. Is this what a dominant group of contemporary Christians really think? Did earlier Christians really believe rather different things? Are the connections between theological belief and social attitudes real? Are there really reasons amongst the other convictions of those contemporary Christians for critiquing this view, and preferring another? And so on. (3) Even if one thinks of this as an investigation of, and a making of suggestions about, the false beliefs of deluded people, it might well be worth doing, and worth doing well: it has the potential to make an impact for the better on what those people say and do. (4) None of this involves the theologian in making the kinds of claim that a theologian-as-quasi-botanist would make: if the theologian says, ‘God is not like that, but like this’, that is not based on him having taken some kind of measurement of God, or having simply made one up in the absence of such measurements – it is always a way of saying ‘The God that you believe in is, according to what you believe, to the sources you base your belief on, and to the other things you say you believe, not like that, but like this’: it is always, always, always an attempted repair of an existing pattern of thought and belief.

Even an atheist should be able to agree both that there is a real subject matter here, and that there is the possibility of real rigour and intellectual integrity in this discussion. The only points which seem to me controversial are (a) the claim that at least some religious people do think about what they believe, have reasons for it, and are open to discussing those reasons and their implications; and (b) the claim that even if Dawkins is right, and the central premise of these Christians’ belief is wrong, it would still be a good thing if (until they saw the wider error of their ways) they thought carefully and argued intelligently about what they believed.

For (a), you can rest assured: I know from experience that this is true.

And (b)? Well, I guess I just have a touching faith in the importance of careful thinking.

Naturalism

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

Dawkins opposes supernaturalism to naturalism, unsurprisingly enough. He provides the following definitions, the first from Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction:

although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe, and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short, the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life (quoted on p.34)

there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand. (p.35)

He also adds further elaboration from Einstein:

I have never attributed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic (p.36).

The matters touched on here are all matters about which religious people generally, and Christians specifically, differ widely. It would be possible, but facile, to take each element of the description of naturalism given above and wheel out examples of Christians who stood on Dawkins’ side of the great divide. I want to try something rather different, as a bit of a thought experiment. I want to ask how far someone who remained recognisably within the theological tradition I have sketched, which Einstein himself may possibly have had a toehold in (though maybe not), someone who was fully committed to some form of the central claims about God that I have sketched, could go along with ‘naturalism’, as Dawkins described it. Even if in practice many or most of those who stand within this tradition would differ more markedly from Dawkins than the position I am about to set out, this thought experiment will help us understand whether Dawkins’ naturalism/supernaturalism opposition captures what is essential to this fairly mainstream theological tradition of thought about God.

So, at its most naturalist, the kind of theological tradition I have been discussing need imply no commitment to the view that there is any kind of stuff in the universe other than physical stuff. It need imply no commitment to the view that, as science explores the regularities of efficient causation that tie all this stuff into one cosmos, there is anywhere that science cannot go, or anywhere that it will prove inadequate to that task of causal explanation. It need imply, in other words, no rejection of the idea that the physical sciences are capable of talking about everything that there is.

If ‘soul’ is taken to mean some kind of entity consisting of another kind of stuff than physical, separable from the body, then this theological tradition need imply no commitment to the soul. If ‘a purpose or goal’ to ‘Nature’ is taken to refer to a different kind of explanation, one designed to fill gaps, inadequacies, or improbabilities in the explanations offered by science, then this tradition need imply no commitment to purpose or goal. If ‘miracle’ is taken to mean a disruption of the otherwise unvarying regularities that structure the cosmos, a break in natural laws, then this tradition need not even be committed to the miraculous.

However, this tradition does require one to say that when everything has been said by science, its properly total description and explanation given, there remain different things to be said. The world that is adequately described by science can also be ‘read’ in another way – not as an alternative form of explanation, not as a supplement to the gaps left by science, but as a different kind of grasp of, or take on, the whole – more aesthetic than explanatory.

And, yes, that way of seeing the whole suggests that one cannot talk about the world without talking about God, and that talk about the world is therefore incomplete without reference to God, but this reference to God is not doing the same kind of work that reference to kinds of stuff and patterns of explanation do in science. God, for this way of thinking, is not made of or responsible for any mysterious kind of non-physical stuff; God is not a gremlin in the world’s machine, tinkering with its regular running. God is not an ‘oh, and there’s one more thing’ addition to the list of the things that comprise ‘everything that there is’: God, in this tradition, is more like the context for them all.

Yes, this theological way of talking about the world is one that will almost certainly involve some kind of talk about purpose or goal, some kind of teleology to the world – but it does not have to do so in such a way as to get into a direct argument with scientific explanation. Yes, this theological way of talking about the world may involve talk about miracles, as states of affairs which particularly clearly and intensely call for, and call forth, a God-centred way of seeing – but it does not need to have a stake in the inexplicability of the events in question. And yes, this theological way of talking about the world may involve talk about souls, but that will be precisely as another, God-focused way of talking about exactly the same human beings that the naturalist talks about: wholly physical, wholly enmeshed in and structured by the laws of nature, wholly describable by science. Talk about ‘soul’ can properly be another way of talking about the same mind, beauty, emotion, and moral value that science rightly understands as emerging from physical stuff.

[Edit: That last sentence is misleading. I don’t mean that ‘soul’ in this theological tradition could be just another name for the ‘mind, beauty, emotion and moral value’ that science can speak about. Rather, to speak about souls is to say something about the human beings who have such ‘mind, beauty, emotion and moral value’. I was not specifying what would be said, only what it would be said about. I’d echo here what I said about the world as a whole. To talk about ‘soul’ in this context is to recognise that when everything has been said by science, its properly total description and explanation of human life given, there remain different things to be said. The human beings who are adequately described by science can also be ‘read’ in another way – not as an alternative form of explanation, not as a supplement to the gaps left by science, but as a different kind of grasp of, or take on, the whole.]

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.

Quasi-mysticism

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.