October 25, 2007

Defender of Faith

Archbishop Williams has delivered an interesting address in which he takes on one of the leading atheist spokespersons of our day, Richard Dawkins. I commend the whole essay to you. (Hat tip to Episcopal Café.)

I've often felt, reading Dawkins, that as Rowan suggests (via Prince Mishkin) Dawkins is arguing against someone else's ideas, ideas that haven't been in the mainstream of Christianity for hundreds of years, and certainly not my idea of God or the nature of God.

It strikes me that it would be like me criticizing a contemporary physician for the absurdity of believing in humours or disease caused by the Evil Eye, or taking on an astrophysicist for believing in astrology.

What Dawkins fails (it seems) to recognize is that just as the physical sciences have advanced over the last two or three centuries, so has the Queen of Sciences -- theology. And rather than addressing the conclusions of the best of today's theologians, Dawkins is attacking what might at best be called "unpopular religion."

Ultimately, Dawkin's attack is upon a "straw God" that many contemporary Christians don't believe in. Contemporary theology -- and the best of classical theology -- does not simply equate God with a kind of meddlesome super-being. God is more (pace Anselm) than merely the Best Conceivable Thing, but is beyond and behind all "thingness" as the ground and source of all things. As, to be fair, I think Rowan's predecessor Anselm would agree. (After all, being the source of all things is better than being just a thing among other things; so as I can conceive that this quality is one that should well go on the list of ontological goodies, it makes good sense as a character of God's being. Though as St Basil [Fawlty] might whisper, "Don't mention Gaunilo's Island. I did once but I think I got away with it.")

See what Rowan has to say. This is the sort of thing he is really good at.

Tobias Haller BSG


PseudoPiskie said...

When I read Harris, Dawkins and Hitchins, I found an amazing lack of comprehension on their parts of what it is to have faith. Their books seem to be complaints about the radical right wingnuts that are trying to destroy the US Constitution not a serious study of religion.

+++Rowan puts this in terms I find very useful. Thanks for pointing to the speech. I saw it here before I read The Lead. 8>)

bls said...

There's a link to the streaming video of the lecture at this blog, in case anybody's interested.

(You'll need to speak Welsh to get the very most out of the introduction section. But don't worry, the talk itself is in English. ;-) )

June Butler said...

It strikes me that it would be like me criticizing a contemporary physician for the absurdity of believing in humours or disease caused by the Evil Eye, or taking on an astrophysicist for believing in astrology.

Tobias, that's a wonderful analogy. I have never read a whole book by Dawkins. I don't believe that I could, but I have read essays and interviews, and I wonder, like the ABC and you, "What is he talking about?"

The mystery to me is how someone so ignorant of today's thinking on God and faith sells so many books. He doesn't seem to think he needs to know what it is he debunks.

Paul said...

I did plow through Dawkins (The God Delusion)and did not find the stimulating challenge I anticipated. Most of the time I nodded in agreement because the "god" he rejects is not the God I believe in and many of the old arguments convince me no more than they convince Dawkins. As you and others note, there is really nothing sensational, profound, or groundbreaking in debunking something we don't believe.

Is it a clever dodge to say that God's existence is neither verifiable nor falsifiable? Some would say so but I think it is stimply a statement of reality. We always come down to faith. I want a reasonable faith, but faith it always remains.

Anonymous said...

The scariest notion about Harris, Dawkins and Hitchins is this: I fear that the "god" they are describing is the only "god" most people have ever heard of. If these learned men think that this is the "god" worshiped by Christianity, it represents a colossal failure on our part to get out our own message.

Paul Martin

susan s. said...
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Anonymous said...

The thing w/ the Neo-Atheists, is that when you say "the god you don't believe in, I don't believe in either [I'm an Anglican]"...

...they squeal like stuck pigs! They accuse us, essentially, of cheating: we're not permitted to have the theistic beliefs we actually DO have, we instead MUST have their caricatured Fundamentalist-Theism, because THEY have determined this is the only legitimate faith based upon Scripture!

...which is, of course, just another way of saying that the Neo-Atheists have the same Fundamentalist Mindset, which is screwing up all the major religions today. A pox on that mindset! >:-0

W said...

honestly, though ... a lot of Christians in Asia and Africa believe in the sort of God that Dawkins is attacking. perhaps even most of them. and certainly there are right-wing nutcases in the West, and at least in the US the media gives them a lot of attention (and/or they own their own media stations). so, Dawkins' criticisms may be false as related to moderate to liberal mainline Christians, they're not always off the mark...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

That is a fair assessment. But for a scholar to attack "popular religion" rather than real theology is where my beef lies. For instance, I suppose I could (were I so moved) to lambaste forms of popular devotion in Roman Catholicism; some aspects of popular faith do cross over, IMHO, to superstition. But that does absolutely nothing to advance the case of atheism, which is, I take it, Dawkins' intent. Were he truly serious he would be dealing with the best theology has to offer, not the popular version.

That being said, it isn't my place to critique the simple faith of people who trust in God -- in spite of a lack of sophisticated theology. The damage Dawkins does to the faith of the "little ones" may not be worth the millstone-driven trip to the depths of oblivion. That's a Pascal's Wager I'd advise against playing on Dawkins' side. THe odds in that particular game seem reasonably weighted towards faith.

Has religion been a detriment at times in human history? No doubt. But I'm not sure we would have been better off without it.

Anonymous said...

RW writes:
"When religions talk in their various languages about humility, they re not in fact simply commending passivity; a kind of dead and apathetic putting-down of oneself before a superior power. They are rather saying that one of the habits you require is the habit of reminding yourself that you have almost certainly not understood what is to be understood. It’s no accident, I think, that the earliest of the gospels Mark, portrays the disciples of Jesus as people with a rare and highly developed instinct for getting things wrong. As if St Mark is telling future generations of believers ‘expect not yet to have understood Jesus’. Now that self-critical dimension is perhaps one of those areas in which religion of all sorts feeds most constructively into the rest of the intellectual and imaginative world."

Far too few people do, in fact, believe this, as the stresses and strains on the Anglican Communion show. The more prescriptive RC doesn't show much of this deep sense of uncertainty either.

Of course, at their best, theology and faith mean just that, and those who inspire us and keep faith and theology alive think just like that. But can we really criticise Dawkins for not seeing it, when we don't on the whole appear to be understanding it ourselves? Religion OUGHT to feed most constructively into the rest of the world, but it strikes me that RW claims for religion the same idealised status Darwin claims for science.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Erika,
I do think we are seeing some of the issues I was trying to address in my earlier posts on Idealism and Realism.

I sense that RW is trying to be less idealistic (not easy for him!) and a bit more reflective of epistemic humility than is characteristic of Dawkins' more pugnacious approach. That being said, there are certainly plenty of Christian apologists who adopt a similar no-holds-barred approach.

My difficulties with Dawkins primarily focus on his taking up a position in opposition to a general proposition ("God exists") but only really addressing certain manifestations of the argument -- and the weakest ones at that.

In the long run I find his kind of skepticism to be fundamentally unscientific. (I suppose that's the worst I could say about him!) But it seems to me that absolute atheism ("God does not exist") is just as unscientific a statement as absolute fideism's assertion. It is an unprovable and unfalsifiable assertion and hence outside the bounds of scientific discussion altogether. It is one thing to say, I don't believe in God, and quite another to say affirmatively that God does not exist. At that point Skepticism and Atheism become not scientific postures but religious ones -- elevating an unprovable belief to the level of fact.

Anonymous said...

Fr Tobias
Thank you for your reply. I have now read your earlier and excellent posts.
I think Rowan Williams’ perception is that, at its highest, religion encourages depth, questioning and humility, and I believe it can do that for searching conservatives as well as for searching liberals.

It’s in the less lofty realities of public religious life that the boundaries become more defined and “reasserters” and “reappraisers” use sledgehammer certainties to define God in their image.

I agree with you on Dawkins, he fails especially by his own scientific standards.
I can excuse him because the weakest pro-God arguments are often those presented most clearly in the public sphere, including by the religious.
I’ve always felt that the only rational response to the God question is an agnostic one. Everything else is faith.

MarkBrunson said...

Dawkins has always struck me as little more than a perennial sorehead. Every time I read anything by, about, or around him, I think of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Oolon Colluphid's best-selling trilogy, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes, Who Is This "God" Person Anyway?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dawkins was one of Douglas Adams' chums, and I don't doubt this is an affectionate mini-portrait of the gruff and self-assured atheist.

Anonymous said...

I have finally gotten around to reaching the Archbishop's piece, and it certainly confirms my prior feelings that he is terribly underappreciated, especially in his own communion.

One of his most important points is how the theory of evolution has morphed from a biological theory into a metaphysical one a Theory of Everything. I think the Archbishop does an excellent job of showing how the reduction of religion to "survival strategies" leads to utterly misunderstanding it.

It is perhaps worth noting that many have sought a similar type of explanation for ethics--that the feeling of right and wrong is an adaptation condusive to survival. Interestingly, most who make this argument seem to make it for the purpose of showing that things like charity and altruism have a "scientific basis," and that Darwinism can support somthing other that the terrible "ethics" which appealed to it over the last century, rather than using them to demolish the "Ought Illusion."

In any case, if we can no longer ground our ethics in divine revelation, if we no longer believe in a universal natural law, if we've come to understand the plasticity of utilitarianism and the difficulties of applying deontological standards like Kant's categorical imperative, it's no surprise that we should attempt to find solace in the Darwinian model.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Rick,

While I agree that reducing ethics to a Darwinian principle is inadequate on its own, I tend to take the larger view that Darwin is describing rather the prescribing, and that the error comes in efforts to do the latter rather than cleaving to the former, as happened with eugenics and other similarly misplaced efforts at "applied" Darwinianism in the last century.

At the same time, I recognize that things like biology and physics, if they accurately reflect the reality of the world, are actually part of and in accord with God's divine law. How could they not be if God is the Creator? I think this is how most religious scientists relate their knowledge and their faith. Some of them have commented negatively on Dawkins, though he rarely rises to their standard and admits he really "doesn't understand" them. He is baffled by their faith, which he does not share. (See this interview with him.) For example, Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne (interviewed in the piece above) are both British scientists and Anglican clergy. Polkinghorne also cites the Dosteyevsky character Myshkin, and I'm sure Rowan Williams knows him well. He is quite able to be both a scientist and person of faith. I had the pleasure of a season with Polkinghorne as a guest lecturer at my seminary, and was pleased that when he served as judge for the thesis competition he honored my work with the award that year. But I stray from the point...

Which is that I think it is possible to include science within a religious worldview, but often hard to do it the other way around. And I think that is Dawkins' problem. A scientist such as Polkinghorne will see Planck's constant as part of God's design for creation, and evolution as one of the ways God is at work in the world -- including, I affirm, allowing moral sensibility to arise out of the processes of that real world -- not apart from God, but indeed under God's design and intent. To say that the human moral sense arises "naturally" is not to deny God's hand at work -- that is exactly how God works, and it is no more difficult to affirm that the moral sense arose in humans as part of a natural process than it is to affirm that the brain itself evolved as part of a natural process.