Richard Swinburne

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

Dawkins takes Richard Swinburne as his key exemplar of the way theologians think (82). This may be our problem. Whilst Swinburne’s books are undeniably popular, and while there is one variety of philosophical theology in which he is a mover and a shaker, I’m afraid that to think he speaks for theologians in general is simply laughable. It is probably fair to say that most of the theologians I know in the UK have no time for him at all – precisely because they don’t recognise the God he talks about. And when it comes to Swinburne’s theodicy (of which Dawkins makes much on pp.88-89), nearly every theologian I know would agree: Swinburne’s views are grotesque.

I wonder how much of Dawkins’ book can be explained by his imagining Swinburne every time he hears the word ‘theologian’?

8 Thoughts on “Richard Swinburne

  1. Isaac Gouy on March 26, 2008 at 10:21 pm said:

    > to think he speaks for theologians in general is simply laughable

    When Dawkins writes – “Richard Swinburne is the recently retired holder of one of Britain’s most prestigious professorships of theology, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. If it’s a theologian you want, they don’t come much more distinguished.” – is that misleading or accurate?

    I don’t think Dawkins suggests that Swinburne speaks for theologians in general – I think he finds Swinburne’s views grotesque, and takes the opportunity to attack them.

  2. Yes, Swinburne is recently retired; he held a prestigious chair, and he is a fellow of the BA. But Dawkins says, ‘If it’s a theologian you want, they don’t come more distinguished. Perhaps you don’t want a theologian.‘ (p.89, emphasis added) That is, the grotesquery of Swinburne’s views is not simply taken to be reason for rejecting Swinburne: it is presented as a reason for being dubious about theologians in general.

  3. Isaac Gouy on April 6, 2008 at 7:57 am said:

    Now I understand your post, Dawkins is taking Swinburne to be representative and then generalizing – you’re all tarred with the same brush.

  4. starshiner on April 14, 2008 at 2:45 am said:


    There is another idiosyncratic aspect to Dawkins’s characterisation of Swinburne that you fail to pick up on (or at least mention); namely, that Swinburne is determinately not a theologian.

    All his training was in philosophy. He has always held academic posts in philosophy, and nothing else. Early in his career he published fairly extensively in epistemology, a philosophical subdiscipline. For sure, in some of his more rabidly apologetic modes Swinburne does probably enter into terrain that us theist philosophers ought to leave to theologians. But all that shows is that Swinburne’s infamously pseudoscientific approach to understanding faith is wrongheaded. It doesn’t show us that Swinburne is a theologian.

    Dawkins fails to identify Swinburne as a philosopher because he stupidly thinks that philosophers are by definition atheistic. This conclusion is evidenced by myriad points in TGD where Dawkins discusses “philosophers”

  5. Isaac Gouy on April 14, 2008 at 9:13 pm said:

    > He has always held academic posts in philosophy, and nothing else.

    Some of the Visiting Lectureships on Richard Swinburne’s Oxford home page suggest otherwise –

    > evidenced by myriad points in TGD

    You claim that Dawkins thinks that philosophers are by definition atheistic, and call Dawkins stupid for thinking that – but you don’t provide a single example of him doing so! That’s just name calling.

  6. Dawkins, when discussing a comment of Martin Rees, makes the comment ‘I doubt that philosophers would thank Martin Rees for lumping theologians in with them.’ I take it, then, that given that he clearly regards Swinburne as a theologian, he would regard Swinburne’s claim to be a philosopher with at least some level of scepticism.

    I suspect that, by ‘theologian’, Dawkins simply means anyone whose academic efforts are primarily directed towards the defence or elaboration of the claim that God exists, and that he is not all that interested in the distinctions theologians might make between theology, philosophical theology, philosophy of religion, and the like. (I’ve not seen any evidence in the book that Dawkins sees a need to make such distinctions.)

    Yet because he thinks that the God Hypothesis is so demonstrably intellectually suspect, it should be no surprise that he distinguishes theologians (if defined in something like this way) from real philosophers, and regard the claims of a theist like Swinburne to be a philosopher with some disdain (as exhibiting, perhaps, the ‘weakness of the religious mind’?) That disdain does not really add anything to his more substantive claim about the dramatic failure of arguments for God’s existence.

    Even if I’m right about that, however, that needn’t mean that Dawkins regards all philosophers as atheists – though he will of course regard all non-atheist philosophers as mistaken. But it would be fair, I guess, to say that Dawkins thinks that good philosophy is bound to lead towards atheism (because that is, he thinks, where the evidence and the arguments genuinely lead).

  7. starshiner on April 17, 2008 at 11:39 pm said:

    Very stimulating comment, Mike. Thank you.

    I’m not sure I agree, however, that Dawkins’ views concerning the relation between philosophy and religious faith are as modest as you suggest. Of course, atheist philosophers (if they believe that atheism is philosophically provable) will regard good philosophy as atheistic. But in Dawkins I see something else happening; something that seems to me most interesting.

    Because of Dawkins’ ‘failed botanist’ conception (thanks for the term!) of theology, he conceives of theological enquiry as methodologically akin to science (only, entirely misguided). Thus, I agree with you, any intellectual enquiry into the existence or nature of God that results in some theistic conclusion is trivially bound to fall under the rubric of theology. Dawkins does not understand theology as the systematic study of revelation, because he fails to grasp the primitive fact that religious people (I even include Creationists and IDers here) believe in a level of reality that by definition does not fall within the reaches of natural scientific research.

    Meanwhile, though he doesn’t explicitly talk about this in his book, Dawkins obviously understands that philosophical analysis is not empirical. Given his ontology, of course, sound philosophy would to him probably consist of a few postulations to buttress developments in cognitive neuroscience, a certain kind of evolutionary consequentialist ethics (assayed in TGD) and ultimately a lot of negative metaphysical claims.

    So it seems to me that Dawkins’ failure to appreciate the distinctions and interplay between philosophy of religion, metpahysics and theology illuminates a great deal about dawkins views in general.

  8. I think you’re right that Dawkins attitude to philosophy is interesting – though I find it difficult to pin down on the basis of The God Delusion alone. I’d guess that Daniel Dennett is all Dawkins thinks a philosopher should be.

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