Richard Dawkins’ God Confusion

[Update: Fixed a typo below in which I misspelled Christopher Hitchens’ last name as ‘Hutchins’]

I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion the last few days. I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, but I’ve found the book so frustrating so far that I wanted to write down my impressions so far. Dawkins is one of the “New Atheists”, a group of writers including not only Dawkins but Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchins, and many others. These authors have, over the last 10-15 years, begun a sort of evangelical atheist push, aggressively attacking religion and the concept of God writ large. The theological response has been as paltry as it has been quiet. While fundamentalist writers have simply dismissed Dawkins et al. with barely a response at all, more sophisticated theologians seem embarrassed in the face of Dawkin’s assault, and seem ready to cede the debate before its even begun. Alister McGrath, whom Dawkin’s interviewed for his documentary The Root of All Evil? failed to respond consistently to any of Dawkins’ questions and failed to really get at the heart of the matter, at least as I see it.

The heart of the matter is, I think, that although the New Atheists raise plenty of valid critiques of religious institutions, their arguments are really only valid in repudiating fundamentalism. And most religious people around the world agree with Dawkins that fundamentalism is wrong. The hard-line assertion that the Bible is a literal document whose veracity is totally beyond question is a modern development, a short-sighted and desperate response to modernism, as I point out in my (admittedly short) post on fundamentalism. But a refutation of fundamentalism doesn’t address, at all, the issue of the existence (as it were) of God. But Dawkins seems not to really understand this distinction, and accepts without comment or thought that the literalist approach to Christianity simply is Christianity. In The God Delusion, for example, Dawkins defines God thusly:

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything it, including us.

This definition works well in Sunday School, but it’s hard to imagine any but the most doctrinaire of fundamentalist theologians defining God in this way. So right off the bat, Dawkins defines God in a narrow way, seemingly intentionally reading as literal what has always been understood as metaphorical and analogical. Later in the same book, on pages 77-79, Dawkins briefly discusses some of Thomas Aquinas’ (in)famous “proofs” of God’s existence. He not only dismisses the valid questions that the “causation” proofs raise, but, much more importantly, he ignores that Aquinas’ central definition of the Divine was that God was being-itself (ipsum esse subsistens). Dawkins never even mentions Augustine in this chapter, but its worth noting that Augustine understood God in the same way.

The point of this brief detour into the history of theology is that understanding God as a superhuman, supernatural intelligence and understanding God as being-itself are two totally, radically different understandings of the nature of God. The former has often been affirmed in Christian communities, but almost always (at least until the rise of fundamentalism in the 19th century) as a metaphorical, analogical, anthropomorphic way of describing what is un-describable. The latter much better captures the center of Christian theological thought. And as Terry Eagleton points out in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, academic and intellectual rigor demands that you take your opponents at their best–not worst–arguments.

Such an omission from The God Delusionsuggests that either Dawkins hasn’t bothered to read any theology, or that he is intentionally misrepresenting the position he wants to argue against. Neither conclusion reflects well on Dawkins’ usefulness as a voice in this matter. The former would reflect an arrogance and hubris that would likely blind him to any real dialogue; the latter would suggest that Dawkins isn’t even capable of making any statements in good faith on the subject at hand. Now, if Dawkins wants to write books decrying creationism, defending evolution, or dismissing fundamentalist literalist bibliolatry–I’m all for it! As a decorated biologist with decades of experience, he’s well qualified to discuss the intersection of biology and religious belief. But again, a takedown of fundamentalism does not an atheist make: I certainly agree with him that evolution is a much better and more likely explanation for the nature of life and its diversity than creationism; I also assert, along with him, that every sentence of Bible isn’t literally true. Yet I’m a practicing Christian. Clearly there’s a gap in his methodology, his knowledge, or his intellectual honesty.

And this isn’t just a bunch of technical theological mumbo-jumbo. Most modern people would be highly suspicious of claims that God is some sort of superhuman watchmaker. And yet many modern folks continue to value spirituality and many people who are not religiously active often describe themselves as believing in God, or some sort of God-analogue (Life Force, Spirit, etc.) It’s clear that fundamentalism can never serve these people’s search for truth or understanding–but that doesn’t mean that the only approach left is a militant, semi-nihlistic atheism. Approaching God as being-itself is not only more traditionally defensible than the modern fundamentalist nonsense, it also offers a much deeper approach for people searching to understand the nature of existence. In short, much like American politicians like to simplify political theory into capitalism v. communism, it seems that Dawkins et al. would prefer to define philosophy and theology as fundamentalism v. atheism, excluding all the multivarious ways in which people actually grapple with the terror, mystery, and glory of existence.

Granted, I’ve just opened a big can of worms, and I do hope to address in greater detail some of what I’ve raised here: especially the idea of God as being-itself. But to keep this post at a more manageable length, I’ll conclude here, hopefully having at least made the case that Dawkins isn’t addressing the “God debate” with the intellectual rigor, honesty, and curiosity that the issue demands. It’s especially frustrating considering that someone wrote a book 50 years ago that explores the question of a modern view of God in a much more sophisticated and valid way: John Robinson’s Explorations Into God. But it seems clear that Dawkins sees the debate only in terms of evolution v. creation, but instead of limiting himself to that topic–which as I said above, he’s well-qualified to tackle–he instead delves into territory he refuses to actually explore, already confident that his conclusion is unassailable.

You can read my next post on The God Delusion here.

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17 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins’ God Confusion

  1. out of curiosity: what is your definition of ‘being-itself’ as in your passage:
    God as a superhuman, supernatural intelligence and understanding God as being-itself are two totally, radically different understandings of the nature of God.

  2. Manny: haha, this is a great question! As I mentioned above, this is something I hope to tackle more directly in some later posts. But (at least as I understand it), when Aquinas speaks of being-itself, he’s referring to the very ground of being (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich). This doesn’t refer to any individual, specific being whatsoever–not even a supreme one! But rather this refers to the very “existence-ness” or “thing-ness” of existence–the very fact of there being Something rather than Nothing. Before we can even talk about the laws or forces of physics, for example, we must (at least implicitly) assume a sort of context or, if you will, a matrix of energy-matter and space time.

    This is the best I can do at midnight, heh. As I said, I hope to be able to go into more detail on this later. But I hope you can at least get a glimpse of what I’m trying to point to here. The problem is, of course, that being-itself is, by definition, not visible, or tangible; it can’t be looked at or observed or even really described, since it is the ground of all things–what can we compare or contrast it to? It’s for this reason that God is understood in Hinduism as “non-dual” and why Nicholas de Cusa described the divine as the “coincidence of opposites.” In other words, all talk about God must be, by necessity, paradoxical, metaphorical, analogical. There is no direct way to speak of the very ground of existence, since language always refers to specific structures or instances, however vague or abstract. This is also why so many theologians have preferred the “apophoric” or negative approach, to describing God: they have preferred to say what God isn’t, rather than what God is…

    But enough rambling for now! I hope this clarifies rather than confuses things!

  3. Anything more subtle (or extreme) than an exact and literal reading of any religious book–taught by a theologian or not–needs justification. It is definitely human and not sourced from the Book directly.

    God says to stone the gays and kill unruly children, and so you should. Else, you have superseded the Bible with your own judgments (and good on you).

    When someone attacks fundamentalism they are attacking what the book says

    • Allallt: Your comment seems to conflate God with a book. This is certainly how fundamentalism views the idea of “inspiration”, but there’s no basis for it whatsoever in traditional doctrine. In Both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, there has always been an understanding that the book was written by people and that it always has to be interpreted. The book was, in fact, compiled by a council of church leaders, who decided which gospels, letters, and apocalypses to include. So from the very beginning, humans have had a hand in deciding “what the book says.”

      Arguing that “fundamentalism” and “what the book says” are equivalent ignores the fact that any text–religious or otherwise–has to always be read and interpreted b a person, who exists in a variety of communities, with a vast range of social, political, and cultural influences. “What the book says” is always mediated by the reader.

      This is especially true for Christians approaching the Jewish Bible (Old Testament), because in the New Testament, Jesus explicitly abrogates a number of Mosaic laws. Divorce is forbidden, adulteresses should not be stoned, all food is clean, etc. So if we are to take the book as an item of worship, unquestioned, how do we grapple with such a conflict? For a fundamentalist, this is an irreconcilable problem. For someone who worships God–and not a book–it’s just another reminder that no person or thing is worthy of worship but the mystery of God.

  4. It’s “Hitchens,” not Hutchins. One could argue that failing something so simple as getting the man’s name right kind of invalidates your whole argument that those guys aren’t doing their proper research into your field…the least you could have researched was the correct spelling of his name.

    • ‘Anonymous’: Ah, good call. I’ll correct that. I actually made this error because Terry Eagleton jokingly refers to Dawkins and Hitchens together as “Hutchkins”.

      As for your argument that one typo invalidates an entire argument–really now, that’s so ludicrous, I don’t even think I need to point out how absolutely invalid it is. Even one serious factual error data-wise wouldn’t call into question an entire body of work.

      I’m more than happy to receive thoughtful criticism on my writing and ideas…but this comment is pure trolling. A typo does not a fool make.

      (But thanks all the same for reading!)

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  8. Dawkins tackled the only thing available, namely the written material. This is where everyone starts, fundamentalist or sophisticated theologian.
    The difference is that fundamentailsts nail their colors to the mast while theologians interpret the text in a hundred ways. Tackling the theologians arguments would be like wrestling a jello monster.
    The bottom line is, as Pilate asked, What is the Truth? Is there anything in the theologians’ expositions that is clear and definite enough to be labelled “true”? If it is all analogy and metaphor, there is room to believe anything or nothing. What value is there in an “interpretation” which can’t be tested and could mean anything to different people.
    It’s a big jump from “ground of our being” to any of the Christian creeds!

    • John,

      There’s a lot wrapped up in your comment, but I think the central issue is that you seem to be claiming that a text just “says what it says” and that any interpretation is necessarily specious. But this clearly isn’t so; no text means anything without a reader who can a) read and b) specifically understands the language the text is written in. And once you introduce a reader, you introduce an incredibly complex social, psychological, and historical organism with a host of biases, predispositions, and agendas. This is true even for texts that are intended to be read literally, e.g. manuals and textbooks. It’s even more true for poetry, editorials, and the like. And the problem for your position is that the Bible is more often poetic commentary than it is literalistic history or fact-telling. The Bible is much more concerned with what a given event *means* more than talking about the details of what occurred. To say that, for example, Isaiah can simply be read in a literalistic fashion and mean anything is to completely ignore the inherent ambiguity and polemic nature of the text.

      In any event, Dawkins only argues against creationism as such and then sometimes against a sort of credulous Deism; the idea that the understanding he has of theism bears *any* resemblance to Christianity is patently absurd. He never even addresses any writer earlier than Anselm–who was writing 9 centuries into the Christian project. If he wants to debate Christianity, he is going to need to read something other than the first two chapters of Genesis and some fundamentalist paperbacks–but it seems that Dawkins bases his whole positions on those two, and mostly the latter’s interpretation of the former.

      For example, it’s clear that he never really even understands what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about. It’s fine to critique and disagree with it, but one should actually endeavor to research and understand something before one dismisses it. I think that’s just basic academic rigor. And as great a biologist as Dawkins is, he’s a terrible theologian and arguably a worst philosopher and ethicist.

      None of this is to say that somehow “taking down” Dawkins “proves” Christianity or anything else. It’s just to point out how bad a job Dawkins does, and to ask that if atheist/skeptical authors want to debate Christian doctrine, I would only ask that they actually read and understand some Christian doctrine first. Obviously there are Christian theologians who misunderstand but nevertheless use biology, history, and geology to grind their own axes, and my frustration with Dawkins is just as applicable to them.

  9. May I expand on something else I have often wondered about. It was said that “assertion that the Bible is a literal document whose veracity is totally beyond question is a modern development”. Many people think it “has always been understood as metaphorical and analogical”.

    My question is: what did the original writers think? Did they intend it as metaphorical and analogical, or is that a modern view of what is literally unbelievable.

    Why do we need sophisticated modern theologians to explain it all? Were the ten commandments metaphorical? Was the Garden of Eden analogical?

    • John,

      One big obstacle you’ll face in trying to find good answers to your questions is that the Bible is not one document. The full Christian Bible is 66 distinct books (this number varies between various Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities), and many of those are actually amalgamations of multiple writings. The diversity of the documents only expands the older the document gets; thus, the Torah, or the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible (which is more or less the Christian Old Testament, with some modifications) is incredibly diverse. Most modern scholars detect a minimum of 4 different editors woven together throughout the 5 books–and each of those editors was likely compiling a huge number of oral traditions. So when asking about what the writers meant, you’d have to be very specifically asking about a given book, or even a given section of a book, and never about the Bible as a whole.

      Some sections were certainly intended as literal stories (e.g. 1 & 2 Kings) while others are obviously analogical (Gen 1-11). Your question about Eden is a great example. Pick up a Bible, if you have one, and read the first two chapters. Both give accounts of creation, and they are mutually exclusive. For example, in chapter 1, humans are the last creature to be made; in chapter 2 they are made even before the plants.

      What’s instructive about this is that this incongruity is immediately obvious to anyone who simply reads the two accounts. Certainly, the Jewish scribes and priests who compiled these stories saw this. That they unabashedly placed the stories not only in the same document but directly next to each other makes it clear that they saw these stories as mythical explanations that focused on *meaning* and not a technical reporting on the events as such. The frequent repetitions of various stories throughout Genesis chapters 1 through 11 only reinforces this. There are two accounts of the flood which conflict with each other, for example–and there are many more examples.

      This could be seen as inconsistency, but it’s much easier to explain these incongruities as faithful reporting of what stories existed. It seems the editors were more interested in preserving all the main traditions–even when they didn’t sync up–rather than trying to create some harmonized dogma. Notice how this only intensifies in the New Testament, where we have 4 different gospels (and there were many more around) which cannot be fully harmonized. No one at the time saw this as a problem any more than the fact that today, if you open 4 different newspapers, you will see 4 distinct views of the same story.

      Now, such incongruities are demonstrably a problem for fundamentalists. But fundamentalism–or bibliolatry–is a heresy that was condemned by the early Church. It is not the mainline position of Christianity. It’s a hyper-simplification that has developed steam for cultural and political reasons–not theological or spiritual ones.

      As to why we need theologians, I’d hazard to say it’s because religions (and secular philosophies to a somewhat lesser extent) attempt the most macro of macro projects: why anything exists and what it means. These are not easy questions to answer. Communities and individuals struggle to make any headway with them. What’s interesting is that the most common secular response isn’t some final resolution of these questions and concerns, but rather to simply ignore them as irrelevant. And obviously that’s a defensible move for those who would rather not face the deepest questions of existence. But for those who wish to confront them, no such easy resolution is possible.

      That’s not to say that Christians, or any other religious or philosophical group, have all the answers, but that we are continuing to ask the questions in faith that hope is not pointless, that our struggle for meaning will reach something worthwhile. Ultimately, this is an existential–not historical, literary, or scientific–question. To hope or not to hope. We all answer it for ourselves, one way or another. A crucial difference for people of faith in contrast to those who would take a more philosophical approach is that religious answers are always done in community–there is a recognition that our past and future are interrelated, that though we may ask these questions alone, the answers will only always be total ones.

      Anyway, this is getting super long! I hope I addressed your questions with some degree of adequacy; sorry for the rambling.

  10. Yes, thank you, you did address most of my issues quite nicely, with one exception. That exception was the ten commandments, and by extension, all the rules and duties the Bible prescribes. Are they specific and from a divine lawgiver? If not, how do we know? What’s the criterion of what is metaphorical and analogical? Is anything literal? What should we say to those who obey evey jot and tittle of the Law?

    • Ah yes, sorry! As for the law, for Christians this is a somewhat complicated issue: the law is summarized in the gospels as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, and your soul. And love your neighbor as yourself.” (Such a summary is also common among Pharisees of the time and of the Rabbis later, so I don’t mean to give the impression that this is an exclusively Christian perspective, but rather that this perspective is certainly binding on Christians). Note that so many of the laws were effectively suspended with the inauguration of the Christian community: restrictions on eating unclean food, the requirement of circumcision, the inviolability of the Sabbath–these are all absent from the Christian community by the 60s CE. So whether the Law is divine as such is hard to answer here; for Christians, what’s important is the divinity of Christ and the revelation of his resurrection.

      If you are posing this more as a historical question, it seems to me that again a pernicious image of God is entering the discussion. It seems that what you are really asking is something like “did God come physically to Moses and hand him the tablets?” This image is certainly one that many Jews and indeed Christians had at various times, but it’s not one that any Christian theologian, as far as I know, ever endorsed. I would also imagine that the Pharisaic schools–which became the Rabbinical ones of later Judaism–would also categorically deny any such ‘physical’ understanding of the creation or passing on of the tablets. Judaism and Christianity both have always stressed the incorporeality of God, so here we probably have highly metaphorical language used to try and describe a mysterious set of experiences or events.

      If you mean something less physical, like “did God Godself communicate the laws to Moses?” (and then perhaps Moses inscribed them on the tablets). This gets into questions of how (if?), exactly, God communicates with humans. Again, a pernicious anthropomorphic image of God seems huddled in the background here. God isn’t a human being–not even a superhuman being–but, as I said above, being-itself. God is totally transcendent yet fully immanent. Can God communicate then? A more Christian question might be “what *isn’t* the word of God?” since, in the person/form/presence of the Holy Spirit, we understand God as active in every place and moment. So honestly, I’m not sure how to address your question. I think it’s best to understand revelation not in terms of communication between beings–since this doesn’t do justice to the reality of what God is (not) but rather as the proper relationship of given beings to their very source and sustenance. But I admit that such a lofty bit of rhetoric may not be helpful in answering specific questions.

      Process theology might be of interest to you if you wanted to investigate further–folks like Whitehead, Moltmann and Pannenberg developed ideas of God’s activity in the world as a process, and I imagine they may have tried to explain the Law as truly divine though less so than later revelations. Myself, I’d rather not speculate about this. I prefer a more apophatic approach to talking about God–saying what God is not rather than what God is–though both the positive and negative tracks are really only useful in light of one another…

      Hope this is helpful or at least interesting!

    • John,

      I am actually unfamiliar with this work, though I have heard of Abelard. Just looking over the wikipedia page (I know, I know…) it seems to me that the work was probably not intended to provide definite answers, but rather actually to point out that such definitive answers, when it comes to “ultimate concerns” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich) aren’t possible, even in theory…but without actually reading it and situating it in its historical context, I really can’t say much of any use…sorry!

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