Dawkins’ Definition of “God”

The Conclusion of Chapter 4
In the final paragraph of Chapter 4 of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins draws one of his main conclusions:

If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God Hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. This is the main conclusion of the book so far. (p. 189, Mariner paperback edition).

Based on this paragraph one might think that Dawkins has provided an answer to the age-old question “Does God exist?”. But it is not clear this is in fact the case, because Dawkins’ use of the word “God” (in the first four chapters of The God Delusion) is both idiosyncratic and muddled. So it is unclear, at least prior to further investigation and analysis, to what extent Dawkins’ reasoning and conclusions bear on the question “Does God exist?”

Dawkins’ Definition of “God” (an initial analysis)
As with any treatment of this topic, it is important to determine what the author means by the word “God”. Dawkins makes a number of attempts to clarify the meaning of this word and to clarify his own use of the word in this context. However, his attempts at clarification in The God Delusion appear to be somewhat inconsistent with each other.

Dawkins’ first attempt to clarify the meaning of the word “God” occurs in Chapter 1:

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’. (p.33, Mariner paperback edition)

In the more precise definition Dawkins spells out when he explains the phrase “the God Hypothesis”, the supernatural-creator condition is maintained, but the appropriate-for-us-to-worship condition is dropped, without any explanation. So, Dawkins disregards his own advice by adopting a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of “God”.

It is fairly obvious why Dawkins drops this condition from his definition. He wants the issue of the existence of God to be a scientific question, rather than a philosophical or theological question:

Contrary to [Thomas Henry] Huxley, I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other. (p. 72)

But the requirement that an entity be appropriate for us to worship is clearly a normative condition, and science has no means for resolving normative issues or for verifying normative claims.

Most definitions of “God” include reference to the condition that the entity is a perfectly good person. God must be perfectly good, it is argued, in order for him to be worthy or deserving of worship. If there was an all-powerful and all-knowing being who was evil, such a being would not be worthy of worship.

Dawkins also does not include the standard condition of being “perfectly good” in his definition of “God” (when he clarifies “the God Hypothesis”), and I suspect this normative condition is left out in part because science has no way of measuring goodness or evilness, and because there is little reason to think that science will ever be capable of resolving such normative questions.

Consider how Dawkins responds to the problem of evil as an objection to the existence of God:

…it is childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god — such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don’t like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. (p.135)

It is not “childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil” if one defines “God” in a way that requires such a being to be worthy of worship or to be a perfectly good person. In other words, the problem of evil is a serious problem for belief in the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person. On the other hand, the problem of evil is easy to overcome if one simply eliminates all normative conditions from the definition of the word “God”.

In defense of Dawkins, it should be pointed out that eliminating a condition from the definition of “God” broadens the scope of this concept, and thus increases the significance of showing that no such being exists. For example, if one shows that there is no perfectly good creator of the universe, this still leaves open the possibility that there is a moderately good creator, or a moderately evil creator, or a perfectly evil creator. However, if Dawkins can show that there is no creator at all, then he will have also ruled out the existence of a perfectly good creator, a moderately good creator, a moderately evil creator, and a perfectly evil creator.

So, by eliminating normative conditions from the definition of “God”, Dawkins avoids the philosophical and epistemological issues associated with trying to establish normative claims, and he also increases the significance of the conclusion that “God does not exist” by increasing the scope of beings included under the term “God”.

It is clear, as the following passages will indicate, that Dawkins intends his definition of “God” to be broad in scope, so that establishing the probable non-existence of God will have implications for a wide variety of religions and for a number of different conceptions of God, including belief in gods that fall short of being all-powerful, all-knowing, or perfectly good:

Perhaps you think there must be a god or gods because anthropologists and historians report that believers dominate every human culture. If you find that convincing, please refer to Chapter 5, on “The roots of religion”, which explains why belief is so ubiquitous. (p.24-25)

Dawkins is specifically attacking a reason for belief in “a god or gods”, which implies that his target is broader than just “God” as traditionally conceived of in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles — except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand. (p.35)

Note that Dawkins does not define “atheism” narrowly as the view that God does not exist. Rather, he associates “atheism” with naturalism and the rejection of a broad range of alleged supernatural entities and phenomena.

Dawkins’ most precise clarification of his concept of “God” is prefaced by a comment indicating his intention to encompass a variety of deities:

I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. (p.52)

Dawkins’ definition of “the God Hypothesis” makes no reference to some of the key attributes that philosophers and theologians traditionally use to define the word “God”: all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good. By eliminating these conditions from the definition, Dawkins broadens the term “God” to include beings that are less than all-powerful, less than all-knowing, and less than perfectly good.

Dawkins points out that the God Hypothesis encompasses the gods of polytheistic religions:

…the God Hypothesis comes in many versions. Historians of religion recognize a progression from primitive tribal animisms, through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans and Norsemen, to monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam. (p.52)

Dawkins has explicitly broadened his use of the term ‘God’ to include the gods of polytheistic religions:

Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it. For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply ‘God’. (p.56)

This broadening of the scope of the word “God” occurs in Chapter 2: “The God Hypothesis”. This early chapter is where Dawkins provides definitions and clarifications of key ideas.

Dawkins explicitly affirms that his target is broader than just belief in “God”:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 57)

His target also includes belief in “gods”, even “all gods”.

The deist conception of God is also supposed to be encompassed by the God Hypothesis:

The deist God, often associated with the Founding Fathers, is certainly an improvement over the monster of the Bible. Unfortunately it is scarcely more likely that he exists, or ever did. In any of its forms the God Hypothesis is unnecessary. The God Hypothesis is also very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability. I shall come to that in Chapter 4… (p.68)

Dawkins uses a broad definition of “God” so that his argument against the existence of God (the “argument from improbability” in Chapter 4) will not only rule out the existence of all-powerful and all-knowing deities such as Yahweh and Allah, but will also rule out the existence of lesser gods such as Baal, Zeus, Wotan, and Satan.

That Dawkins has this broader scope as his target is confirmed above by his specific mention of “all gods” as his target, by the broad definition of “the God Hypothesis” that eliminates many of the conditions traditionally used to define “God”, by his specific reference to lesser deities (Zeus, Baal, Wotan, and Satan), by his clarification of “atheism” in terms of naturalism, by his discussion of polytheism, and his explicit broadening of the term “God” to include “all deities”.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01010178962574928062 Ian

    OK…so what about Tillich’s conception of God as the “root of being”, the life force? That isn’t necessarily supernatural. Spong’s idea of God is even more non-supernatural – neither creator nor intercessor. And then there’s the idea of God as something you experience in human love and caring, which may or may not exist independent of that experience (my own definition).

    There is an experience of God which forms the basis of religion for many. There’s no a priori reason for that experience to be external to be real. True, Dawkins’ god-definitions encompass how people conceptualise God. But I don’t think it addresses the question of how people experience God. And for many people, it’s the experience that matters more. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether how you define it – it matters how you live it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00783431169281777041 JOLLY ROGER


    It’s essential you create a following. If no one knows you exist it’s a bit rubbish being God, kinda like been incharge of the UN and realising no one gives a fuck about it. The best way to do this would be to get a TV channel, call it ‘God’ or ‘Yiiass me!’ Have some celebrity special to launch it with a starfish winking Madonna performance. Now audiences aren’t stupid? You have to create an extravaganza of biblical proportions: Raise a sunken cock, make it rain menstuation fluid, blow uranus, turn everything adjacent, bring every man back that ever tossed off Julius Ceaser, something that keeps the ratings up that won’t just end up as a footnote to I LOVE 2008.

    Once you got them, you can sit back while they build oddly shaped buildings in your honour and have strange conversations in there about what they think you would say without you actually been part of the exchange. Like they think you’re omni-retarded.

    …more at lifestyleguides.blogspot.com

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to Ian…

    I agree that real experiences can be lacking an objective referent in physical reality. But the fact that an experience is “real” does not make it rational to act as if there were an objective referent in physical reality. A person taking LDS may have a very real experience that they have wings and the power to fly, but that does not make it rational for that person to jump off the top of a ten-story building. At any rate, the real experience of “having wings” will not soften the impact when that person hits the concrete.

    If someone is diagnosed with cancer, a form of cancer that is potentially deadly, and if that person prays to God for healing, and declines medical treatment for the cancer in anticipation of healing from God, then it makes a very big difference whether there is an objective referent to his/her experience of God. If there is no objective referent, then he/she is likely to die decades earlier than necessary.

    “True, Dawkins’ god-definitions encompass how people conceptualise God. But I don’t think it addresses the question of how people experience God.”

    How people experience God depends on how they conceive of God, in my view. If one conceives of God as an angry King who insists on absolute and unquestioning obedience, then one will have one kind of experience of God. If one conceives of God as a gentle and loving mother who cares only for the well-being of her children (us humans), then one will have a very different experience of God.

    One reason that I doubt that there is an objective referent to religious experiences is that these experiences are so subjective, variable, and culturally conditioned. Muslims do not have visions of Mary the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, and Catholics do not have visions of Mohammed, God’s great prophet.

    Whether or not religious experiences have an objective referent, all experiences (religious and otherwise) have meaning and significance only in terms of conceptualization. Experiences are intrinsically interpretive, and reflections on experiences are unavoidably interpretive. At the very least, a religious experience must be conceived of as being a religious experience (or as being an experience of God) in order for that experience to have special significance to the person who had the experience. If the queasy feeling in my gut is interpreted be me as being “just an upset stomach,” then I’m not going to convert to Christianity or start a quest for knowing God on the basis of that experience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    There is a mocking “source criticism” of TGD that touches on some of what Bowen wrote:

    the god delusion: a source criticism