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.