Do As I Say, Not As I Do (Richard Dawkins’ Burkha)

I am posting again a review of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion that I made available earlier on my old blog as well as on the Richard Dawkins forum. This is to facilitate referring to it in a comment I am leaving on the Uncommon Descent blog, where (as I remarked before) the moderators have in the past shown an unwillingness to post comments reflecting dissenting viewpoints. Today’s comment appeared – it’s a promising sign!

Dawkins’ book is at times highly entertaining and thought provoking, but it is also at times highly problematic. I wish to be fair to the many wonderful features of Dawkins’ book. Yet I must begin with the problematic, because it is there almost from the outset. Dawkins needs to provide focus to his book and its arguments, so he needs a definition of God, and he begins to provide one starting on p.13. He makes clear that the sort of God he is talking about is not the one Einstein believed in, and Dawkins even calls himself ‘religious’ in a certain specific sense on p.19. So what sort of God will he be arguing against? The God of popular theism, as found mostly in popular piety, although he does also take the time to challenge certain conservative sorts of theistic positions in theology and philosophy as well. In other words, when it comes down to it, he is only talking about “supernatural gods” (p.20).

He sets aside two views early on: Pantheism, which he calls “sexed-up atheism”, and Deism, which he characterizes as “watered down theism”. Notably absent from his discussion is any mention of panentheism. I like to think that, were he to consider it, he might call it “sexed up atheism on Viagra” (the best compliment a religious viewpoint could presumably hope for from Dawkins). I suspect, however, that he might instead call is “theism watered down homeopathy-style” (i.e. until there is nothing but water left in the vial).

Dawkins is seriously inconsistent in his argument against ‘God’, and he performs a sort of bait-and-switch tactic that the reader could easily be duped by. Anything that strikes him as intelligent and sophisticated (e.g. Einstein’s views) are not really religious views and don’t really have to do with God (see e.g. p.57). Thus it is no wonder that he ends up focusing on the worst rather than the best religion has to offer. He mentions wonderful and refreshing conversations he has had with modern, progressive religious individuals, but although those are mentioned, they are not described, since presumably it would give to some adherents to religious views credit that he does not wish to. In the end, he seems to withdraw his respect even for Einstein when he says on p.36 that he is not attacking any particular version of God, but any and all gods. This might seem like a contradiction, and in one sense it is, but it has more to do with Dawkins’ “define and conquer” approach. He adds to his statement the words “anything and everything supernatural”. So while he claims to be attacking all gods, in fact here he provides the same proviso as earlier: he is attacking with rhetorical flourish and much pomp and circumstance every and all gods (see footnote: except for the ones he isn’t attacking). This not only leads to significant confusion and frustration on the part of well-informed readers, but it also gives the same misleading impression the fundamentalists on the other end of the spectrum do: that there are really only two options to choose from. Other options, such as the non-supernatural theism or panentheism of process thinkers such as David Ray Griffin (see for example his Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism) are not even mentioned. This is not surprising, since Dawkins has no patience for or interest in theology, and doesn’t even consider it a real subject. Yet by focusing on popular religious views he at once does an important service and a serious disservice to religion. Would he, I wonder, accept criticism of popular understandings of science as fair and accurate criticism of science itself?

Dawkins is of the opinion that a theologian’s viewpoint is not preferable to a chef’s or anyone else’s when it comes to matters that go beyond what science can answer (p.56). Because he refuses to take theology seriously as a subject, he makes some blunders beyond those I’ve already mentioned. He assumes that ‘everyone is an atheist with respect to some god(s)’. How many Hindus would agree with this statement? He also attributes the letter to the Hebrews to Paul the Apostle. If he were willing to listen to Biblical studies, he might learn some things. Yes, the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice is very problematic (pp.242-243). But having noted elsewhere in the book how different the views of the “enlightened” were even a few decades to a century ago, this should have highlighted the need to ask what the story was doing in relation to its context. Ancient Israel clearly practiced child sacrifice. Jeremiah and Ezekiel differ about whether it was something that God wanted, but both acknowledge that it was done (Ezekiel 20:25-26; Jeremiah 19:5). In that context, the Genesis story can be read as an attempt to change this prevalent practice – to suggest that Abraham, the great Patriarch, was only tested to see if he was willing to do this, but God in fact prevented him from doing so. In this context, the story is meaningful and positive. Taken out of its context, the story has potentially horrific implications and potential applications. The problem therefore is the “do as I say, not as I do” approach to the Bible that many people adopt, asking only ‘What does the text say?’ but not ‘Why did the author write this? What was this supposed to accomplish in its original historical and cultural context?’ [Charles Allen has a sermon on the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac on his web page]

If Dawkins knew even a little of Biblical studies, he would know that the Book of Job makes the same point he does on pp.226ff, namely that being good for rewards is mere ‘sucking up’ and not genuine goodness. I’ve addressed Job recently in other posts and so I won’t say more on that topic. But Dawkins’ suggestion that non-fundamentalist religious believers make the world safe for fundamentalism by making unquestioning faith a virtue (p.286) is simply wrong. I don’t think anyone could accuse me of encouraging unquestioning faith, and I know many other educated religious believers for whom this is true, even though there are also people who would fit the description in Dawkins’ book. One of the scholars who made a big impression on me early on is John A. T. Robinson, who acknowledges in one of his books that he used to understand Paul’s view on a particular subject, but the evidence persuaded him otherwise (The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology). That is precisely the sort of thing Dawkins applauds in his book, and it is found among open-minded religious individuals and scholars, and not only among scientists. Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and the quote is truly wonderful. Sagan writes:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded,
“This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets
said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we
dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him
to stay that way. A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the
Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of
reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths”

I don’t know how many people respond in the way Sagan describes, but I know that I do and that I am not alone. Our understanding of the universe has expanded, and any attempt to avoid rethinking our understanding of God and theology as a result is baffling. The awe inspired by the view of the world available to the author of Genesis 1 cannot compete with the awe inspired by the images from the Hubble telescope. But increasing awe and an increased understanding of the universe doesn’t necessarily invalidate the interpretation of our place in the cosmos offered by Genesis. It will require that we rethink and revise, but that is precisely what we see going on in Genesis and the rest of the Bible. As understanding of the natural world increases (or at least changes), the way that God is thought of also changes. The problem, once again, is that some religious believers once again only ask what Genesis says, and not what the significance is of the two accounts of creation and the fact that over and over again in Scripture one author will come along and revise, expand on and/or modify what earlier authors wrote. A serious academic approach to the Bible not only leaves room for increasing scientific knowledge, it pretty much requires it. And unlike Dawkins, Sagan seems to take religion seriously even if he too would criticize certain forms of it. Right after the words Dawkins quotes, Sagan’s very next sentence was: “Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

Dawkins writes many things that helpfully challenge forms of faith that might be better termed superstition. But if I dismiss the views of others in that way, I’ll probably be doing exactly what I’ve criticized Dawkins of doing – defining my words so that my point seems stronger than it is. No, it is not something other than religion, but religion itself that Dawkins criticizes, and the views that people hold which deserve criticism are definitely religious views. One of the points I most strongly agreed with in Dawkins’ book is his criticism of our assumption that if a viewpoint is ‘religious’ it should be off limits from criticism, from analysis, from the need for evidence and justification. His view is that the answer is to attack religion. I believe that there are more effective resources in the Bible, which itself challenges the irrational definition of faith that many Christians adhere to, and which Dawkins takes for granted on p.306.

Many things that Dawkins assumes to be part and parcel of religion he may be forgiven for, since many religious believers make the same assumption. Yet even something as apparently central as the afterlife is not even mentioned in most of the Bible. And while some would quickly assume that the later writings that do advocate it trump the earlier ones, it would be interesting to try to approach this question the way Jesus approached divorce: “Daniel gave you hope for an afterlife because of the hardness of your hearts, but it was not this way from the beginning…” On the other hand, questions about the soul and the continuity of the personality involve a number of considerations, potentially including ancient texts, but certainly not limited to them.
I found particularly intriguing a quote from Steve Grand’s book Creation: Life and How to Make It, given towards the end of Dawkins’ book.

Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you.
Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.

It is precisely this mysterious yet obviously true observation about the continuity in a human being’s existence in the midst of other discontinuities that was at the heart of the traditional belief in the soul. Please note that I am not suggesting that there is a separate ‘entity’ called the soul that relates dualistically to the body, or anything of that sort. My point is merely that there are wondrous and mysterious aspects of our existence, such as the emergence of consciousness out of matter, the continuity of consciousness even when there is not continuity of matter, and so on. Such experiential data should not be dismissed – and I don’t think Dawkins is suggesting that it should. The main point is that Biblical texts say things that they do because they were written in and for a time before we knew lots of things we know now. The mistake many readers of the Bible make is to assume such details are there because they are eternal truths that these ancient authors wanted to instill in us. In fact, the different cosmological assumptions reflected in Biblical writings from different times suggest that these authors would have updated their worldview had they lived today. But once again, Christians do as these authors say, and not as they do.

I gave as an alternative title to this blog entry “Richard Dawkins’ Burkha”, the reference being to an image used towards the end of Dawkins’ book. He draws an analogy between having one’s horizon broadened and the widening of the opening in (and ultimate removal of) a burkha. In my view, Dawkins himself is encouraging the broadening of human horizons in matters of science (which I applaud), but is himself willfully resisting the broadening of other horizons: the spiritual, the aesthetic, the moral. I am a religious believer, but I am thrilled by scientific advances, including the announcement in Scientific American on March 28th that they may be a step closer to providing a scientific account of the origins of life. There was also a transitional fossil between limbed lizards and snakes discovered. Progress in our understanding excites me, because as Carl Sagan suggests but Richard Dawkins resists, such progress can lead to an expanded view of God, of transcendence, of the ultimate. Whether or not this research in the end proves fruitful, it is a quest to understand, and an approach to religion and spirituality that is appropriately humble and open to new information can also be an important contributor to that quest.

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  • Anonymous

    mr dawkings ask what made god.he is of the situation that life sent life here to carry themselves on, maybe because they had to. if life is a single cell and life is evolution into life again then what is life and how would life have that knowledge instilled to realise that momemt of themslves as to what themselve at the point of their end and begining