Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Dawkins has fun with saints. He refers to a Catholic list he has found of 5120 saints, ‘together with their areas of expertise’ (i.e., the fields of which they are patron saints). He stirs in a list of different kinds of angels, and finishes by saying

What impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along. It is just shamelessly invented. (p.56)

I take it that, in Dawkins view, the list is meant by its compilers to be a list of the real abilities of a whole set of mini-deities – the sort of thing that could be discovered about these mini-deities by some method of observation or inference if the mini-deities in question actually existed, but which in the necessary absence of such information must be wholly invented. It is, he thinks, a bewilderingly baroque collection of fiction – and makes as much sense as does the bloke down the road who claims that there are seventeen different fairies at the bottom of his garden, and that they all have different coloured ears.

Suppose, for a moment, that we were actually interetsed in what is going on with such a list. Suppose, that is, that we were interested in understanding where such a list comes from, and what it purports to be. Suppose, for instance, that we took the view that some kind of social or cultural anthropologist or historian (as secular as you like) might take. We might find that patterns of devotion to saints has been, and to an extent still is, an important part of the way in which one kind of Christian polity worked – say, a way in which the universal and the local are held together. That is, these devotional practices might function to help create as it were local subcultures within the broader Christian culture, allowing particular communities of people to find how to adapt the broader structures of Christianity for their own particular situations.

And we might, in the course of such an investigation, find that adding a saint to the list does not really involve anyone making a deluded claim to have discovered the existence and atributes of a mini-deity. It may be, rather, that the core claim is that a particular set of stories – the stories of a particular person’s life – have been found to crystallise for people in a particular situation something of how Christian life can be lived in that situation. It is to see that particular life as, in that sense, a revelation: a showing of something, a making visible of something. Of course, there may be all sorts of examples of this sort of devotion where that central idea seems to be rather tenuously observed, or to have been lost sight of altogether, but it might be the case that the core examples which really sustain the idea of devotion to saints do have this form.

I’m speculating: this is not an area I’ve looked into. But it wouldn’t surprise me if some kind of analysis like this held water – and all I’m trying to do in this post is sketch out a possibility.

If something like that is what is going on, then (a) devotion to saints need not be a form of polytheism, but might be one of the ways in which a monotheistic polity can function without turning into strait-jacketed uniformity. And (b) the cult of saints might well be making claims that can be discussed skeptically, but they might not the kind of claim that Dawkins has identified. That is, it might be that the cult of saints does not involve, in its core forms, simple invention of imaginary mini-deities in the way that Dawkins thinks: it might have to do with how people make sense of their encounters with the lives of those who seem to demonstrate something essential about how life can be lived well.

Now, I say all this as someone who doesn’t live in close contact with forms of Christianity in which you’ll find much devotion to saints. I find it quite foreign, and often offputting. And one of the aspects that baffles me most is the part Dawkins goes on to talk about: the process by which claims to miracle-working on the part of a putative saint are an important part of the beatification process. I can see it has something to do with a process by which these local, popular foci are authorised centrally, and about how that authorisation is claimed not simply to be the arbitrary imposition of a political power, but a process of recognition of these foci as gifts from God. So I can see that something quite central to the whole sense that saints make is going on, even if I too find the particular form that takes somewhat bizarre and implausible.

In other words: there is sense to be made here. It is possible to ask what is going on in these forms of devotion that seem so odd. It is possible to see where they fit into a broader framework of religious thought and practice, and to begin making some judgments about what the important claims are at the heart of these practices (e.g., claims about lives that show how Christian life can be lived in particular situations) and what seems to be more peripheral (e.g., authorisation by miracle). Seeking such understanding, seeking the sense that such practices might make, is not a matter of showing them ‘respect’ of the kind Dawkins rejects: it is, rather, the attemt to discern what claim is actually being made – an important step in any critique that wants to be taken seriously. And one need not be any kind of religious believer to undertake this kind of serious investigation. One simply needs to be interested in understanding what one talks about.


On p.56, Dawkins goes on to talk about Pope John Paul II’s claim that our Lady of Fatima protected him when he was nearly assassinated. Again, my initial reaction (coming from the kind of Christian background that I come from) is to find such a claim bizarre and deeply unconvincing – just as Dawkins does. But I’m willing to bet that the Pope did not mean (as Dawkins assumes that he must) that a specific mini-deity called Our Lady of Fatima had popped along and intervened. From little I’ve read, it seems to have something to do with how the Pope interpreted his mission in context of struggles with communism, and something to do with his conviction that he was spared for that mission (a conviction that could be anything from a belief that some force did, by some efficient causal intervention, prevent him from dying, through to a conviction that his continued life was a gift that he must spend wisely); and a willingness to interpret that mission in the light of the strange Fatima prophecies (which again might be anything from a willingness to believe that those prophecies were miraculous predictions of the struggle with communism through to the belief that they provided a graphic image by means of which that struglle could be understood, and its costs and consequences faced). In order to test my initial skepticism, I’d need to know a whole lot more than I do about the Pope’s theology, about his understanding of miracle and prophecy and all sorts of things. I suspect that I would find myself still unconvinced and somewhat dismayed at the end – but at least I’d know what I was talking about.

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