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.

6 Thoughts on “The supernaturalist God

  1. Isaac Gouy on March 14, 2008 at 4:01 am said:

    > sweeping declaration that his target is ‘all gods’

    Is Dawkins’ text more coherent if we simply take his meaning on p.57 to be ‘all supernatural gods’ rather than ‘all gods’?

    (Remember you have to finish reading before the flight touches down!)

  2. No, I don’t think so. On the one hand, I don’t think it would do justice to the sweep of Dawkins’ ambition: it matters to him that he is not simply tackling a variety of belief in God, but belief in God per se. If I were to say to him, for instance, ‘Your critique is excellent as far as it goes, but has nothing to say about the “theism” of the classic Christian theological tradition’, I don’t think he would regard me as an ally.

    On the other hand, his presentation in this chapter (the outline of which is assumed by the rest of the book) relies upon a stark distinction between ‘supernatural’ belief and naturalism. And I do not think that distinction is a good one: to use it as a primary categorization (which your solution would perpetuate) does more to obscure and confuse than to illuminate. If we concentrate on, for instance, mainstream Christianity, we find a complex mixture of ‘supernaturalist’ and non-‘supernaturalist’ belief, and forms of belief that are somewhere in between, and an ongoing, fluid conversation between these forms of belief.

  3. Isaac Gouy on March 15, 2008 at 3:19 am said:

    I’m not willing to read whole paragraphs between the lines about Dawkins motivations.

    I am willing to be simplistic:
    – the beliefs in God with a little patch (or more) of ‘supernatural’ on them are thrown onto the ‘supernatural’ heap
    – the beliefs in God without a patch of ‘supernatural’ are thrown on the ‘natural’ heap

    (Don’t know what your “forms of belief that are somewhere in between” means.)

    If we have ‘mainstream Christianity’ in both heaps – why is that a problem for Dawkins?

  4. Well, I’m not particularly willing to be simplistic, but for the sake of argument – okay. As long as you don’t mind me putting on the ‘natural’ heap my Christian faith, that of (say) the Archbishop of Canterbury, official Roman Catholic teaching, the main classic medieval traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a large number of contemporary Christian and Jewish theologians, and quite a bit (though, I agree, by no means a majority) of ‘ordinary’ Christian belief. Those are forms of belief which are simply not captured by Dawkins’ description of supernaturalism (even when they are not well captured by his description of naturalism, either – hence my ‘in between’ comment). If you want to defend Dawkins’ book by arguing that it simply doesn’t apply to those things, feel free.

  5. Isaac Gouy on March 15, 2008 at 6:31 pm said:

    > If you want to defend Dawkins’ book …

    I’m exploring what I understand of Dawkins’ book – not defending it.

    Apart from wondering about saints and miracles and official Roman Catholic teaching; once we’ve put all those things on the ‘natural’ heap we still seem to have a swath for the ‘supernatural’ heap – so why is the stuff on the ‘natural’ heap a problem for Dawkins?

  6. The miracles and saints stuff is a separate point. I’m talking about the definition of ‘God’. I claim that official Roman Catholic teaching does not define God in a ‘supernaturalist’ way (if I have understood Dawkins’ use of that term correctly).

    The other point we’ve discussed in comments to other posts – but I’ve got a bit lost now about what we’ve said where.

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