He doth Protest too much

I confess I have not read too much Dawkins. There is little real engagement with ideas. Despite the scientific facade his approach to the idea of God has really too much of the ‘yah boo’ about it. In an article in the the Times newspaper he seeks to defend himself against certain key criticisms. In the course of the article he makes the rather strange comment “If subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would be a better place, and I would have written a different book.” What an unusual comment for a man arguing that God is a delusion. Suddenly his argument has swung from being about God to being about religious fundamentalism. It becomes ever clearer, as the article reveals in several places, that Dawkins real problem is not a theological one but a cultural one. Where his rant- for that is mostly what it is- is against the ranters.
Dawkins does not like to deal with detailed theological ideas- much harder work than ranting I suppose. if he did he would realise that at the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that since God is the centre of the universe- not man- and that since man finds his happiness in God, those who believe in God are right to be passionate. Furthermore that that passion arises not from a state of the jury always being out but from real convictions about the living God
Read Dawkins article at

8 Responses to “He doth Protest too much”

  1. Jon Says:

    You entirely misunderstand his complaint. He isn’t talking about detailed theology here. In fact, he thinks theology is bankrupt (and he states so several times in the God Delusion). He’s talking about deism and pantheism. He’s talking about “God”, not as the personal god of this religion or that, but in what he calls the Einsteinian or philosophical sense, which is just that there is something instead of nothing, that “there is” instead of “there isn’t”, that order and disorder exist, instead of a lack of anything to be ordered or disordered.

  2. sibbesian Says:

    Thanks Jon for your comment. Whilst accepting that Dawkins isn’t talking about detailed theology, someone talking about God cannot escape theological questions. Furthermore he cannot define the God he is rejecting-either the personal or pantheisitic one- without engaging in theological questions. I find his whole approach muddled by polemic, which he tries to tell us is the preserve of religion not of disinterested scientific enquiry.

  3. Jon Says:

    “Whilst accepting that Dawkins isn’t talking about detailed theology, someone talking about God cannot escape theological questions.”

    I hate starting replies with “That’s like saying”, but that’s like saying someone denying leprechauns exist can’t escape questions about whether leprechauns appear at the end of rainbows or not. No, by asserting leprechauns don’t exist, you’ve already implied that the question of leprechauns appearing at the ends of rainbows has no meaning. Something that doesn’t exist can’t appear at the end of a rainbow.

    As for your second criticism, it’s quite clear GD isn’t scientific inquiry; he’s simply addressing the claims that religions actually make, and attempting to falsify them by questioning their assumptions. If you want a clearer treatment of Dawkins’ scientific views on religion, read the Selfish Gene.

  4. sibbesian Says:

    Jon, I think Dawkins and I might agree about leprechaunology! Perhaps I have not expressed my point clearly enough. If Dawkins is discussing the existence of God that is a theological question. So when he writes, “If subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would be a better place, and I would have written a different book.” That brings him into the realm of theological inquiry about the nature of God i.e. might God not be interested in nuanced religion but being loved with all our heart, soul, mind and strength?
    I accept that if he does not believe in the God of Scripture then he is not for example going to be interested in theological issues such as sin, salvation etc.
    I accept your second point. But as I have commented before for someone who dismisses religion as childish superstition he is more than a tad childish in his approach. His work is polemic rather than an engagement in serious debate. He simply plays to a half-persuaded gallery.

  5. Jon Says:

    I’m not persuaded that the existence of a god is a theological question. Is the existence of life a biological question? No, because biology assumes life exists, or else biology would be meaningless. So, too, does theology assume the existence of god. Of course, everyone has their purposes, and defines things certain ways accordingly. But unlike biologists, who must admit readily that biology may simply be a subset of chemistry, theologians can abstract the concept of god out as far as they wish to satisfy their arguments.

    Question the particulars of a certain faith? All of a sudden you’re misrepresenting the ideas, which are much more profound and intricate then you’re making them out to be. Question the particulars of this new abstraction? Well, you’re simply misrepresenting the abstraction too. On to the next level, and on and on.

    I think another one of Dawkins’ arguments in this vein is that religion did not start out as this vague, modern abstraction. Gods were jealous, simple, tangible, and, truthfully, quite petulant little brats. Sin against your god, you get a disease. Sin against your god, you get a drought. Sin against your god, you get misfortune. These are the kinds of childish things theisms have centered around until the very, very recent present. And it seems quite clear that the reason theism becomes this more abstract thing is because it can, first of all, as I described above. But also, it must. Science and social progress force religions to abandon their naive and false beliefs. Unfortunately, the pace at which theologians can redraw God’s imminent domain far surpasses the rate at which science can satisfy sweeping cosmological questions. I, for one, don’t see this as any reason to capitulate to the claim that theologians are “professionals” when it comes to the question of god’s existence, and that scientists must kowtow to their intellectual acrobatics. When it comes right down to it, gods only exist because they’ve supposedly revealed themselves to people who we’ve never met or had a chance to question. Why hasn’t a single god in the entire period of history ever demonstrated without a doubt his or her existence to everyone? It’s always in the form of prophets and soothsayers. It’s always ambiguous and questionable. And don’t give me that free will baloney.

    Phew, that was a bit of a rant. 🙂

  6. sibbesian Says:

    Jon, a detailed response indeed. I hope I can do it justice to it without descending into baloney!
    1.Whether or not the existence of God is a question for theology proper or part of the prolegomena is debated amongst theologians. My point is that Dawkins has engaged in theological questions without engaging with theology itself. That is the substance of his “If subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would be a better place, and I would have written a different book.” quotation. So if a biologist veered into questions of chemistry he would not get off the hook by saying I’m not a chemist!
    2. I’m not completely happy with the idea that theologians necessarily end up in arguments of infinite regress about God. They of course can. But theologians may also choose the bind themselves to the knowledge of God as he has revealed Himself. We do not simply define God to suit ourselves which would be rather cynical indeed.
    3. I don’t think either that theologians of necessity accuse those who deal in particulars with misrepresentation of their views. But hopefully you will acknowledge that where those views are misrepresented they have a right to do so. Dawkins speaks of the need for nuanced religion and then sidesteps that idea entirely by lumping everyone together with the moral majority and the Taleban. Its a ‘don’t confuse me with the facts approach.’
    4. As I’ve admitted my reading of Dawkins in limited. So quite frankly I don’t know where he gets his history of human religious experience. It is certainly not from the Bible. The Bible is the story of God’s revelation to man, not of man’s response to God. Furthermore the person of Jesus- who is unique in world religions- is rooted in historic particualrity not abstract theorising.
    5. The idea that ‘Science and social progress force religions to abandon their naive and false beliefs.’is at best a partial truth. For a start it was Christianity’s desacralisation of nature that made scientific inquiry possible. Very often it has been from a Christian basis that much social progress has been made. Christians have often been to the fore of social progress as the current bicentennial of the slave trade makes clear. Has science and social progress forced religion to abandon naive and false beliefs? In fairness sometimes. But it has not always been a one way street.
    6. Scientists don’t have to kowtow to ‘professional’ theologians. However if they are being honest in their investigations and not prejudiced then they must engage with them. Which I don’t believe Richard Dawkins does.
    7. The New Testament is abundantly clear that god does reveal Himself e.g. Romans 1 Moreover that He does so definitively in His Son. The problem is not God’s revelation but our understanding. As Romans 1 makes clear, man can’t find God for the same reason a thief can’t find a policeman!

  7. Jon Says:

    Sorry I’ve not had time to respond. I’ve been recuperating from my finals.

    #1.) Your analogy breaks down quite rapidly. Biology and chemistry are both sciences. Both are pursued through mathematics and evidence. Theology is not pursued through either mathematics or evidence. Theology is philosophical in nature. It’s thought experiment. Unless you agree with my earlier point about leprechaunology, that only trained leprechaunologists can delve into leprechaunological musings, then your point isn’t consistent. Surely leprechauns are false, (or they are sufficiently improbable as to be called “false”), and thus anyone can discuss whatever they want about leprechauns without being wrong. But again, theology assumes it’s subject is not false, which is why you make the claim that you do. Theology is a subjective exercise, one that is dominated by people who happen to agree. That alone does not qualify reprimand of Dawkins.

    #2.) Well no, most theologians never admit to an infinite regress. But I was referring to something different. Surely sophisticated monotheists consider the idea of a routinely interventionist god quite implausible. Which is why the concept of miracles arose. Miracles allow for God to be omniscient without being interventionist. This is what I mean. In the Old Testament, Yahweh was quite interventionist. As time went on, the theology became more sophisticated and abstract. Now Yahweh is “some-of-the-time” interventionist. And of course deists are, perhaps, the ultimate manifestation of this phenomenon; God doesn’t intervene at all. My point is that the distance from the “some-of-the-time” interventionist god to the deist god is infinite. Theologians have that kind of conceptual power over god. And it makes them, in most people’s eyes, the automatic winners in any debate over god’s existence.

    3.) Dawkins isn’t referring to theology. By nuanced religion, he simply means the liberalized kind of religion. The religion that doesn’t take as seriously certain moral claims (homosexuality, et al). The kind that’s generally quite tame, like Anglicanism in his own country. And I certainly don’t believe he’s asking for more of any kind of religion, nuanced or not. Maybe I’m misrepresenting him, I don’t know.

    4.) Here’s what Dawkins is criticizing, and it’s throughout your response. “The Bible is the story of God’s revelation to man, not of man’s response to God.” Dawkins would argue: what about all of the immorality, the stoning, raping, pillaging in the Old Testament? Did God reveal that?; what about the inconsistencies in some of the NT stories? ; what about the lack of historical evidence for anything but the mentioning of a person named Jesus?. “Furthermore the person of Jesus- who is unique in world religions” I think if you look at the religions of Jesus’ time, you’ll find you’re quite wrong. If you read Christopher Hitchens new book, he details all of the religions with virgin births, messiahs who supposedly raised from the dead to save mankind from its sins, and other such dogma. It’s quite striking to note how pervasive these ideas were at the time.

    5.) “For a start it was Christianity’s desacralisation of nature that made scientific inquiry possible.” Surely you give Christianity too much credit. Scientific inquiry began far before Christianity’s existence, with the Greeks. In fact, some of history’s first atheists derive from the Greeks too, such as Epicurus and Democritus. “Christians have often been to the fore of social progress as the current bicentennial of the slave trade makes clear.” Not exactly true. The Catholic Church, for instance, had no official position on slavery. The Catholic Church also decried women’s suffrage, saying it would destroy the family (doesn’t that sound familiar?). And let’s be honest, most Americans are Christian, and a huge swath of them were pro-slavery. That’s hardly “at the forefront” of abolition.

    6.) If you take Dawkins’ position that theologians are philosophers, then there’s no need to engage them. Philosophers are often wrong, and egregiously so. They often substitute evidence for thoughtful meanderings and rationalizations. What specific theological question doesn’t Dawkins address that he should?

    7.) I could turn your reasoning against you and say, “Well if our understanding of the Bible is faulty, how do you know that you aren’t misinterpreting it by writing the things you just wrote?” It may be “abundantly clear” to you, and you may still be wrong. Why are some statements abundantly clear and others so murky? Who decides? You? Probably not. Probably the higher echelons of your established Church and/or theologians. You have no way of demonstrating these things without an appeal to an authority of some kind. It’s that authority that Dawkins questions.

  8. sibbesian Says:

    I hope the finals went well Jon. Thanks for taking time to offer a courteous and detailed response. I hope that it means that you recognise, at least tacitly, that there is a case to answer. Thus not everyone who believes in God is either dangerous or merely deluded. Or likes baloney!
    1. I think your response perpetuates a myth that post-modernity has largely exploded. The myth of the superiority of the hard sciences. Of course science deals with evidence- but then so does theology e.g. the evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ, the evidence of a transcendent longing in the human heart. As theologians we deal with those questions within theological paradigms, just as scientists deal within their own paradigms and which are subject to all the usual constraints of human knowing. Science does not exist apart from the scientists who practice it.
    2. I accept your point about the evolution of Christian thought, at least in part. My problem is that I am not perhaps sophisticated as you put it. I believe the Bible when it speaks of God as sustaining all things by the power of His word. I believe that the Bible teaches the universe would to exist for one second without God’s sustaining power. I accept that theologians can have that conceptual power over God but not if they, as I believe they should, allow the parameters of their conceptions to be established by Scripture.
    3. I think I would want to argue that if the nature of our religion is established by the God we believe in, then we cannot like Dawkins, decide what kind of religion is acceptable to us. Again I think he veers into theological issues.
    4. You raise two points here that I think are worth considering. First of all I don’t think that every incident in the Bible is God revealing Himself. But the point is that God does reveal Himself through history. The OT for example makes it clear that this is what sets Yahweh apart from idols. The second point is in relation to ancient religions with resurrections, messiahs etc. This raises the question of whether or not the NT message of Jesus is of the same order as these other stories, which I am aware of. I would argue they are not. Because what is obvious from the NT is that those who write make the point that they are writing about historical realities. e.g. Luke’s stated purpose at the beginning of his gospel. Furthermore one of the things that strikes me about reading the NT is there is an underlying tone of scepticism. Even the disciples did not at first believe in Jesus resurrection. It is only our cultural arrogance that allows us to believe that these people were less sceptical than us about such things.
    5. There has always been some kind of scientific enquiry. But the birth of modern science arose essentially out of a Christian worldview. I think I’ve already conceded the point that Christianity has had its blind spots. Nor would I want to claim that everything done in the name of Christianity has been Christian, as in the examples you cite. But I could also cite countless examples where Christian belief has provided the motivation for social action e.g Wilberforce on slavery, Shaftesbury on child labour, Fry on prison reform, numerous northern presbyterians on the abolition of slavery, down to the present relief efforts around the world. My point still holds good that Christianity has not been a monolithic force for repression and ignorance as your earlier post suggested.
    6. ‘Philosophers are often wrong.’- are scientists not often wrong also? Name any scientific issue and you’ll get a debate. I think a key theological question for Dawkins is to consider whether or not all visions of God are the same. He pans belief per se, yet the God, and indeed gods, presented by the differing religions are very different. I do not think Dawkins seriously engages with Christianity. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God- but that does not mean that I believe in every religious idea out there.
    7. I believe that the final court of appeal for Christian belief is the Bible. I also believe that we read it with a willingness to be taught God will reveal Himself through His word. Can I prove that? No. But like many things in life that we hold to I accept that in faith. That faith is not I hope blind but borne of conviction.
    One concluding point- much of our discussion has been conducted on the basis that theology and science not only deal with different spheres of inquiry but that the two are inherently opposed. There are many, many scientists who are also committed Christians.

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