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Between Dawkins & God

John Holroyd negotiates a middle way between these two much-lauded figures.

Richard Dawkins makes so many claims in The God Delusion (2009) that I have decided to select just two for consideration. First, I will consider his claim that religion is harmful. Dawkins is at pains to make the point that it is religion as such and not religious extremism which is responsible for acts of atrocity. Speaking about martyrdom, he writes “The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism” (p.306). Second, I will discuss his view that religious belief is a matter of blind (i.e. uncritical) faith – a view known as fideism (also p.306). Dawkins thinks that reasonable people should eschew such kinds of faith. I largely disagree with the first of these two claims, but have more sympathy with the second.

Is Religion Harmful?

Dawkins considers religion to be like a virus that infects our minds, infects society, and especially children, whose brains he suggests are through evolution wired up to believe what adults tell them (p.188).

To Dawkins there are two types of harm caused by religion:

1) People thereby come to believe what is not true, and

2) Moral harm in terms of prejudice and violence e.g. homophobia, misogyny and murder.

For Dawkins, both these forms of harm stem from people believing simply because of blind faith.

Several points should be made here:

A. While there is some dispute about the origins of the word ‘religion’, it seems to derive from a Latin word meaning ‘to bind’. In the way we currently understand the word in the West, it emerged as an object for study in the nineteenth century. There is no precise equivalent of the word ‘religion’ in many languages. For example, in Sanskrit, the nearest we get is a word like ‘dhamma’, which can equally be translated as ‘law’. Therefore many ‘religious’ cultures – so-called by Western scholars – do not apply this self-ascription. To speak of ‘religion’ and without dialogue apply this category to other cultures, is then a Western conceptual imposition. To go on from there, and say that this imposed category is something that means, for example, that Vietnamese Caodaism is harmful, when Richard Dawkins has possibly never heard of Caodaism, is high-handed and presumptuous in the extreme.

Let us suppose the impossible for a moment, just to give Dawkins the benefit of several doubts. Let us suppose that we could reach cross-cultural agreement about what was a religion and what was not. We would then need to do an enormous amount of empirical research to get the data to make a moral judgment about the general effects of religion. How much data would we need? Where would we stop in order to not be presumptuous or unscientific in our claims? We might want to look specifically at indigenous religions, institutional religion, civil religion, liberation theologies, or new religious movements; and in doing so we might reach different conclusions about these different phenomena.

B. It would also be hard to agree about what the effects of religion are – when religious activities are the cause and when the effect of social phenomena. In any historical or sociological analysis of the moral output of a religion, we would probably find it hard to circumscribe religion and to distinguish it from other cultural factors. For example, how far Christian anti-semitism caused Nazi anti-semitism is something we could spend a long time investigating, precisely because of the openness to interpretation of wide landscapes of historical data.

C. A further omission in Dawkins’ claim that religion is harmful is glaringly obvious from a philosophical standpoint: the claim seems to have little if any base in ethical theory. Further, Dawkins makes clear his dislike of moral absolutism. Does this mean that his claim that religion is harmful is a relative truth? If we have no basis for our ethical thinking, how can we argue that killing for your country is good, but for your religion is bad, or visa versa?

D. The issue of the selection of evidence is also a key weakness in Dawkins’ case. He gives umpteen anecdotes rather than hard data. But why not also look at evidence that might suggest that religion can be beneficial? We might look at the role of religion in the American civil rights movement for example. Or we could consider the work of Christian Aid, Tear Fund and CAFOD, or that Christians motivated significantly by their faith helped finally make slavery illegal in Britain and elsewhere. There’s no question that Christians, even Quakers owned slaves; but my point is that the picture is not simple. We simply cannot bite off a chunk of reality like religion, and say ‘bad’. If we do, we do more than intellectual harm, we do social harm too.

E. I want to press this point about empirical evidence, since Dawkins is insistent in his commitment to evidence and reason in contrast to faith. What would Dawkins think of a medic who wrote an article designed to be read as widely as possible which suggested that a virus was spreading through a hospital or town, when there was no medical consensus about this at all? Would Dawkins regard that as responsible medical journalism? I do not think so. To liken a religion to a virus is similarly irresponsible. It similarly helps to foster suspicion and fear.

John Cornwell picks up this point in the following way. Dawkins has given English a new word, ‘meme’. Memes are the erstwhile mental equivalents of genes: they’re ideas, habits, concepts, which compete like genes for survival, to be copied from mind to mind. Memes include everything from the corkscrew and the hydrogen bomb through to jokes, Strictly Come Dancing, and Occam’s razor. Like genes, the most useful memes in a culture survive, while others die out.

Dawkins might consider where his own meme, the idea that religion is a virus, might lead. Dawkins seems to me clearly to be a humane man who dislikes prejudice against individuals or groups. However, the character of his book, and those of other meme-buddies such as Christopher Hitchens, plus the bile of Martin Amis against Islam, for example, are a potent brew. In combination with some less than reputable aspects of our media, I believe these writings have caused social harm and indirectly put at risk significant numbers of people within Islamic communities in the U.K. and elsewhere.

F. To take this example further, I would agree with Terry Eagleton in Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009), that violent and terrorist forms of radical Islam are not primarily a religious phenomenon. The dynamic has rather to do with the development of post-colonial identities in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere. The Israel/Palestine conflict perpetuates a smoldering sense of injustice that’s political, territorial and economic as much as religious. Yet this crucial perspective gets lost against a generalised moral condemnation of religion like Dawkins makes.

So when Dawkins claims, in a clearly unqualified way, that ‘religion is harmful’, this assumes we have identified what is and is not a religion. It assumes we can know when religion is a cause, and when an effect of social phenomena. It takes as read that, with minimal dialogue with religious believers, we are in a position to understand their faith and practice. Dawkins also implies that, although failing to engage with either ethical or cultural theory, he is in a position to make and proclaim accurate ethical and cultural judgments to a very wide audience. On the face of it, Dawkins seems in these respects to have hardly begun to ask some basic relevant questions. Instead, he comes across as wishing to reach conclusions without a careful consideration of evidence or argument – and this just happens to be one of his loudest criticisms of religion itself.

Is Religious Belief A Matter Of Blind Faith?

I feel more sympathetic towards Dawkins’ other claim, that religious belief is a matter of blind faith, and that living by unjustified faith is unwise and to be avoided. Once again, however, this is a simplistic generalisation – easy to digest so long as critical reflection is not allowed to impede the smug satisfaction that comes from thinking that one has understood what one has not studied or personally known. That said, I also find a large number of Christian philosophers and theologians very unsatisfactory in what they write about the nature of religious faith in response to Dawkins’ critique.

Let us start with Alistair McGrath, who, in Dawkins, God, Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (2006) claims, “I have no hesitation in asserting that the classic Christian tradition has always valued rationality, and does not hold that faith involves the complete abandonment of reason or believing in the teeth of the evidence. Indeed the Christian tradition is so consistent on this matter… there is no question of ‘blind trust’.” (p.99)

I think this claim by McGrath is false. Let’s look at Thomas Aquinas – fairly significant and influential as Christian theology goes, you might agree. For Aquinas, reason reveals that God exists, and so we get ‘natural theology’ – those truths given to us through the use of our God-given reason. Faith takes up where reason leaves off, and tells us further that God is a Trinity. This is ‘revealed theology’: those truths revealed to us by the authority of the church and Scripture. Even if we suppose that our reason did tell us that there was a God, the assertion that God is triune, whether accepted on the basis of Scriptural or ecclesiastical authority, is absolutely a case of blind faith. Where is the logic to suggest trinitarianism rather than unitarianism? Why not put numbers in a hat and pick one out at random to decide how many natures God has? Such a process would be no more a matter of blind faith than the faith Aquinas has in the dictates of the church. Aquinas states that faith is “an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will” (Summa Theologica Part II, II, Q.1, Art. 4). Here the intellect is passive: it does not question, it just accepts. Although understandable for someone of his time, Aquinas blindly accepted church teaching – and his theology is at the heart of ‘the classic Christian tradition’, to use McGrath’s phrase.

In his A Devil’s Chaplain (2003), Dawkins cites on p.139 the church father Tertulian, who writes about Jesus’ resurrection, “it is certain because it is impossible.” For Dawkins this is evidence that Tertulian’s belief is a matter of blind faith. McGrath goes into some detail on pp.100-101 to argue that Tertulian is not a fideist, and suggests that Tertulian was here simply arguing that the claim of Jesus’s resurrection was so incredible it must be true, since no one would have dared invent it.

Yet supposing McGrath’s interpretation is correct, this still does not endow Tertullian with a significant proportion of reason in his approach to his religious beliefs. People do claim things that go against the tide of their culture; and to think that this is less likely than someone rising from the dead is certainly counter-cultural to my understanding of rationality! In Philosophy of Religion (2005), Cardinal, Haywood, and Jones regard Tertullian as a fideist, which is consistent with Tertullian’s question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” – by which he meant, ‘What has the reasoning of the philosophers to say to people of faith? – nothing worth hearing.’

Let us also look at St Anselm’s comment, “I believe in order that I may understand.” His ‘ontological argument’ is, as he describes it, a case of faith seeking understanding. (The ontological argument says that a perfect God must exist because we have the concept of a perfect being, and to exist is more perfect than to not exist; therefore we couldn’t have the concept of a perfect being unless that being, God, exists…) Anselm’s motivation for presenting the ontological argument is his love of God. His reasoning starts with this desire; it is an act of will rather than of reason. Yet Anselm believes that his reasoning can convince the atheist, so with Anselm we have something of a mixture. Anselm thinks reason is important: he is not a fideist. Still, there is a difference between how rational theologians have taken their beliefs to be, and how rational their beliefs actually are. Anselm does not score too well in this latter respect. McGrath also does not appreciate the importance of this distinction between what people think about the rationality of their beliefs and the beliefs’ actual rationality.

McGrath speaks approvingly of Richard Swinburne as a contemporary champion of reason in the realms of theology and the philosophy of religion. In the last chapter of his 1993 book The Coherence of Theism, Swinburne considers whether God is worthy of worship. I thought this would be a good place to check for comments on explanations of evil and suffering, since the question of whether a God might be worthy of worship can hardly be considered without reference to the problem. Yet Swinburne makes no mention of this problem of evil in that chapter, and indeed no mention that I can find in the entire book. When elsewhere he makes some effort to look at problems of evil and suffering, he ultimately admits that having not been the victim of great suffering, he does not know whether great suffering could ultimately serve a greater good purpose – but he believes it could (The Existence of God, p.220). Swinburne even admits his arguments are inadequate to convince a reasonable opponent. At base, once again I think Swinburne starts with a substantial amount of faith in his philosophising.

One of the best-known defenders of Christian belief among American philosophers is Alvin Plantinga. Contrary to McGrath’s claim that Plantinga has a rational faith, Plantinga says that belief in God is what he calls ‘properly basic’, which means it is a belief that requires no evidence to support it. According to Plantinga, belief in God is just obvious to those who believe in God, just as it is obvious that our friends have inner lives. Being properly basic, it is a belief that other beliefs may be based upon. However, Plantinga does suggest that even properly basic beliefs need to be warranted in the following way: they need to be the product of a healthy mind, functioning in a non-deceptive environment, and be part of a process aimed at producing further true beliefs, and be successful in achieving this.

Unfortunately, Plantinga seems to give no good reasons for regarding belief in God as properly basic. If the idea is properly basic, why does not every sane person believe in God, just as every sane person thinks that others have inner lives like their own? Actually, according to Plantinga’s own thinking, the fact that people would not agree that belief in God is properly basic is a reason for believing that it is not. Neither does he explain how belief in God can be warranted in the way he suggests. For example, the proposition that belief in God successfully produces further true beliefs seems to beg the question as to whether it is a true belief itself. Also, whether a religious experience should be assumed to be a ‘non-deceptive environment’ again begs epistemic questions.

Last but not least among the defenders of Christianity against the accusation that it is a blind faith, comes Terry Eagleton. Eagleton makes much of the idea that to have faith is not merely to believe that something is true, but to believe in a way of life: to him, faith is not primarily a belief that certain statements are true, but rather, the having of certain commitments, attitudes and projects. (Reason, Faith and Revolution, p.111).

There is no doubt that this is true for some believers. There are even those whose Christianity is in no way tied to the truth of historical claims. For some Anglican clergy I have met, Jesus did not atone for human sins when crucified, neither did he rise from the dead in anything but a purely symbolic way. However this type of (very) liberal Christianity is not mainstream Christianity at all, and while faith is no doubt a ‘belief in’, it is still a ‘belief that’ for Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and evangelical wings of Christianity the world over. Moreover, Dawkins wishes to focus on the ‘belief that’ aspect of faith, and for Eagleton to suggest that this is marginal within Christianity is at best misleading and at worst intentionally deceptive.

Let us look at a contemporary sample of popular Christianity in the U.K. I have not been on an Alpha Course, but I have read about the contents of the course and spoken to a number of people who have been on one. They informed me that it is primarily an opportunity to make clear the beliefs of evangelical Christianity, while giving no introduction at all to the critical historical study of the Biblical texts. Yet if it is to avoid accusations of fideism, a Biblically-based Christianity, as is found on Alpha Courses, cannot avoid engaging with questions of Biblical criticism, including issues of translation, sources, and editorial choices. So Alpha Courses are not primarily, if at all, about critical rational thinking; they are about inducting people into an essentially uncritical faith.

Blind faith and shades of faith-commitment near to it are alive and thriving, among theologians (who are often in denial about this) and more especially in the pew; and they’re rife in the plurality of fundamentalisms that plague our times. This does not mean that it is impossible to hold a rational religious faith, nor that there are not believers who do hold such a faith. Dawkins generalises far too much. However, McGrath is also mistaken in suggesting that blind, unselfcritical faith is not mainstream, and there in abundance.

Is Uncriticality Reasonable?

Finally, I will consider the point that it is quite reasonable to base religious claims partly on faith, since scientific claims and the atheism of Dawkins are also partly based precisely on this type of faith.This is I think an important criticism made by McGrath, and if it is true it is very damaging for Dawkins’ polemic. For the sake of brevity I will consider this criticism only as it refers to Dawkins’ atheism.

One test which might separate a more rationalist from a more faith-based approach to one’s beliefs is Don Cupitt’s test of disinterestedness. At this point of writing this article, I feel more inclined towards atheism than before I began writing. I hope it would not bother me if I felt the opposite. To not mind where one’s investigations take you, to love the adventure of intellectual discovery wherever it leads, is to pass the disinterestedness test, and to move more towards the rational, and away from the faith-based, end of the enquiry spectrum.

This is one place where I think Dawkins is weak. That religion and religious belief in particular is harmful is the prime mover in the Dawkinsian cosmos: it inspires his evangelical resolve to convert others to atheism, as outlined in the opening pages of The God Delusion. Because he believes that religion and especially belief in God is universally harmful, ironically, he holds his atheism with religious zeal. However, like Aquinas’s Prime Mover, the idea that religion is universally harmful has poor justification, as I have pointed out.

However, I do not feel that the atheism of Dawkins is a blind faith. Even if it fails the disinterestedness test, almost all forms of religious faith fail that test too. In fact, Dawkins’ atheism is more like an a priori axiom than a venture of faith: that a supernatural, completely undetectable being could never be other than an object of unjustified belief is hard to argue against. There is an unmistakable logic to such reductio ad absurdum arguments too: if God is by definition not accessible to empirical observation, what can we understand of God while also steering clear of blind faith? We could try and get our logical minds around Paul Tillich’s ‘God is not a being but being itself’, or Eagleton’s ‘God is the condition for the possibility of existence’. But how could we understand what condition Eagleton is referring to, and how far will I need to bury myself in Tillich’s theology before I commune with ‘being itself’?

Dawkins is accused of a very narrow scientistic, near-deistic view of God, as some supernatural entity who brings the universe into existence and intervenes on occasions. However near or far this is from what the majority of believers think of God, it is part of what some believers think (and, I suspect, not a small number). By contrast, theologians like Aquinas and Tillich offer complex theories of religious language which obscure as much as communicate understandings of God for most people. This coheres with theistic belief being a matter of uncritical faith far more than it being a matter of reason. Yet atheism does not need to buy into a theory of religious language that puts reason at arms length. Using Occam’s razor, it may dispense with the need for a special theory of meaning like Tillich’s symbolism or Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy. With any such mysterious theory, God is indeed a mystery, a matter of faith, not of understanding.

© John Holroyd 2011

John Holroyd teaches philosophy and religious studies at St Dunstan’s College in South East London.


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