Friday, October 26, 2007


I hate to come back to the same topic twice in a row, unless it is a hot news story. But I will make an exception here. I should have mentioned, in yesterday's post about Rowan Williams' Swansea lecture, that Nicholas Lash has written a trenchant article about Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and its reception, in the August 2007 edition of the journal New Blackfriars (pictured). Lash, a theologian for whom I have immense respect and admiration, is both irenic and meticulous in his approach to intellectual matters. On this occasion, however, he can't hide his accompanying astonishment and outrage that this work is being taken seriously by thinking people, whatever their persuasion. I guess if you've spent 50 years of your life studying, reflecting and agonising over a subject at the highest level, it must be more than a little frustrating to contemplate a best-seller so woefully inadequate and tendentious in its assertions - which, Lash argues, with precision, is precisely the case here. The material on what it does and doesn't mean to "believe in God", and why 'religion' and 'science' as overarching categories are deeply misleading of careful and useful talk about the sciences and the faiths (plural), is very helpful. Here is the abstract:

While Richard Dawkins' polemic against religion scores easy points against Christian fundamentalisms, he supposes his target to be much vaster: "I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods". Given The God Delusion's lack of extended argument, historical ignorance and unfamiliarity with the literature, the praise it has received from some distinguished scientists is troubling.

This essay seeks, first, to examine some of the book's chief weaknesses – its ignorance of the grammar of "God" and of "belief in God"; the crudeness of its account of how texts are best read; its lack of interest in ethics – and, second, to address the question of what it is about the climate of the times that enables so ill-informed and badly argued a tirade to be widely welcomed by many apparently well-educated people.

The latter issue is addressed, first, by considering the illusion, unique to the English-speaking world, that there is some single set of procedures which uniquely qualify as "scientific" and give privileged access to truth; second, by examining historical shifts in the senses of "religion"; thirdly, by locating Dawkins' presuppositions concerning both "science" and "religion", his paradoxical belief in progress, and the reception which the book has received, in relation to tensions in our culture signalled, fifty years ago, by C. P. Snow.

The full article may be accessed as HTML or a *.PDF (Adobe) file here, in the top right hand corner, courtesy of Blackwells and the journal. The full citation: Nicholas Lash (2007)
Where Does The God Delusion Come from? New Blackfriars 88 (1017), 507–521.

I must admit that while I find Richard Skinner's injunction to Christians to take Dawkins seriously appealing and necessary in many respects, I share Lash's amazement at the good professor's lack of fairness and rigour. It is very sad. I hope that the trenchancy of Nicholas Lash's piece won't stop some people from entering into the important points it makes, though I suspect that will be the case. These contentions are more resonant of a war than a conversation, and the danger of that is that noise obliterates the harmonic quality essential to fruitful discussion. We live in an age that often disconnects the temptation of rhetoric from the love of reason. But that, Lash contends, is precisely what has happened in and around The God Delusion. And it is difficult but to conclude that it's author, on some levels, has willed it so through his summary dismissals.


Bob said...

There are many areas of thought which are (or appear to be) deeply complex and enriching to advocates, but which dissenters or casual observers regard with a kind of detached dismissiveness.

As an example with which perhaps the average Christian theologian might find ressonance, perhaps the tradition of mystic Jewish Kabbalah will suffice. The Kabbalah is a vast area in terms of all that is written about it, considered deep and complex to believers, and might be classed as a belief system which is sensitive to religious predilection in the same way as is Christian assent.

Now I suspect that most serious Christian theologians have given over very little processing time to the Kabbalah. They may not dismiss it out of hand as such, however they are probably able to generate initial, knock-down arguments disputing the very concept of Kabbalah, which they personally regard as sufficient arguments not to have to go any deeper.

It is this kind of level on which I think The God Delusion works. For those of us to whom other's belief in God has the same approximate status as other's belief in the Kabbalah, there are only so many arguments that we need to hear before our provisional skepticism feels warranted.

And the effectiveness of argument on that level can even be extended, as Dawkins supposes he can, to some believers. After all, not everyone who believes in the Kabbalah has perhaps ever heard some of the first-principles objections which the rest of us accept as sufficient refutation, and on hearing such objections a nominal Kabbalahist might well begin to see the Kabbalah in a different, jaded light.

And the same can be true of belief in God. In fact I would guess that a rather higher proportion of God-believers than Kabbalahists do not have a particularly sophisticated conception of exactly what it is they believe in. It's all very well to point out that Dawkins doesn't much consider Swinburne or Process Theology or some such conception of God, but the average occupier of the pew doesn't much consider those conceptions either! For many believers, it may well be enough for the scales to fall from their eyes if they consider only those arguments which work against the kind of low-level justifications that they would actually cite.

Simon Barrow said...

I don't think there's a clear analogy between encountering a particular form of gnosticism and one's willingness (or otherwise) to employ hermeneutical, historical-critical, phenomenological and other forms of reasoning in trying to figure out what the God-question is about, or indeed what's going on in different kinds of mysticism. Swinburne (whose thought about God I disagree with almost as much as Dawkins' non-thought!) seems to be about the only philosopher of religion he knows - and that makes sense, as they both operate, to contradictory ends, with a fairly reductionist form of analytical reasoning. Swinburne is a much better logician, though I don't go with a number of his premises.

Incidentally, serious Christian theologians involved in interdisciplinary studies have indeed considered (and are considering) kaballah - both its ancient roots and in its modern (often very superficial) uses. For example the work of Altmann and a research project at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

Regarding what "the average person in the pew" is supposed to think: I worked as an adult educator in a large diocese with 400 parishes for five years, and rarely came across people who thought as badly as Dawkins seems to suppose. The problem of non-thinking among Christians is a real one, of course. That I did meet, just as I meet it in the columns of the Guardian Comment-is-Free among people who reckon they are rationalists. (Incidentally, if you ask most users of electricity how it works, you won't get much material that would stand up to scrutiny by an expert in electromagnetics, but that isn't quite the point... same with popular religion and theology. A huge topic...)

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate why Nicholas Lash should be upset about Dawkins’ book. He has spent a great part of his life in studying theology. He entertains very sophisticated and nuanced ideas and images of what ‘god’ might mean.

However, he quotes approvingly from Cardinal Newman's notebooks: "We can only speak of Him, whom we reason about but have not seen, in the terms of our experience. When we reflect on Him and put into words our thoughts about Him, we are forced to transfer to a new meaning ready made words, which primarily belong to objects of time and place. We are aware, while we do so, that they are inadequate. We can only remedy their insufficiency by confessing it. We can do no more than put ourselves on the guard as to our own proceeding, and protest against it, while we do adhere to it. We can only set right one error of expression by another. By this method of antagonism we steady our minds, not so as to reach their object, but to point them in the right direction; as in an algebraical process we might add and subtract in series, approximating little by little, by saying and unsaying, to a positive result".

The nub of Cardinal Newman’s statement is surely that the word ‘god’ refers to something ineffable— beyond conceptual thought. So why then do so many Christians use so many words to describe god? Not only is there a long tradition within Christianity of constantly referring to ‘god’ but Cardinal Newman in the above quote goes on to create an anthropomorphic representation by the use of the term ‘Him’ and implies that only caution and confession is required when talking about god.

This is really the problem, that Christian theologians are unable to avoid the temptation to talk about ‘Him’ and ‘His’ nature, characteristics, purpose etc, interminably. Either we mean what we say about words being inadequate to describe the ultimate and shut up, or we continue to write books and studies about the nature of ‘Him’ and effectively demonstrate that we think that we do know about ‘Him’ and can write and talk about our knowledge.

So Christians say one thing and act in another way. And by writing and talking about god and what ‘He’ is in such an uncontrolled way we immediately legitimize the vast array of personal ideas that people attach to ‘god’ and the anthropomorphic representation of some sort of super being that Dawkins rails against.

By his naïve and polarising book, Dawkins is actually doing something very useful for Christians; getting them to look at their own favourite concepts, images and ideas about God and realizing that these are nothing more than limited ideas to be let go of.

All words and ideas about ‘Him’--
even subtle nuanced and sophisticated ideas-- are surely nothing more than ideas, and if attached to become idols. I would say that a large number of Christians are idolaters in this sense of entertaining a favourite idea of god and feeling that they have to impart this idea to others. Some of the more popular ideas of what god is are uncomfortably close to the images that Dawkins uses. Since God is beyond concepts, why are Nicholas Lash's sophisticated ideas of god any more 'true' than those of a tub -thumping fundamentalist?

Simon Barrow said...

"Since God is beyond concepts, why are Nicholas Lash's sophisticated ideas of god any more 'true' than those of a tub -thumping fundamentalist?"

Because Lash's ideas, which only look complex because of the tangle we are in, but are actually demandingly simple, use words to refer to (but not pin-down) what is beyond words by definition, whereas fundamentalism creates a god who justifies its own disposition in the world - quite the opposite of Lash's intention and effect.