Paul Wright (pw201) wrote,
Paul Wright
pw201

Your pragma ran over my dogma

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, has discovered that Richard Dawkins is actually a liberal Anglican (see her blog post for more).

Meanwhile, Andrew Rilstone has been writing his Sceptic's Guide to Richard Dawkins, a lengthy series of articles which, among other things, re-iterates other reviewers' arguments that Dawkins is not addressing the sort of God that Christians actually believe in (by the way, The Valve and respectable astrophysicist Sean Caroll both have good responses to Eagleton's review).

I think that this argument is one of Rilstone's weaker ones (he's on much stronger ground pointing out Dawkins's gaffes when talking about the details of religion). Dawkins responds to critics who say he only speaks about unsophisticated verisons of Christianity by saying that understated religion is numerically negligible. I agree, but my perception may be influenced by the circles I moved in when I was a Christian. As an evangelical, I believed in a personal, supernatural (in the sense of "beyond or outside nature") God who created the universe (using evolution as a tool, admittedly, as I'd not entirely taken leave of my senses). That's just the sort of God that Dawkins has in his sights. While there are lots of Christians who aren't evangelicals, my perception was and is that most of them believe similar sorts of things. Yet Rilstone says he and many Christians believe something else, something more subtle.

Adherents.com isn't very helpful in determining who's right, since it's hard to link denominational affiliation to a place on the spectrum between "God is the existential ground of our being" (or Gledhill's bizarre "God is String Theory") and "God is a white-bearded daddy in the sky". I'd be interested to know of any other surveys which could help out here.

You could argue that it doesn't matter how many people believe in the "existential ground of our being" version of God, because if that's the strongest version, that's the one an atheist has to beat. However, Dawkins is not writing philosophy, but polemic. If you want to change the world, you'd better aim at where most believers are starting from. If you don't make them atheists but do move them towards more understated religion, that's at least some sort of progress (although if you're a true New Atheist, you want them to abandon religion entirely, of course).

I must confess that I have very little idea about what this moderate religion actually asserts, or how one would practice it while knowing that you're basically making it up as you go along. Rilstone argues that God is more like an author than a fellow character in our universe, but this does not seem to excuse God from titles like "creator" or "person", which puts you right back in the path of Dawkins's argument that such a creator is itself complex enough to require further explanation.

Gledhill has a different sort of moderation. When she gets excited about Dawkins's concession that there might be a gigantic intelligence in the 11th dimension (my layman's understanding of string theory is that it'd actually have to be a very small intelligence, but never mind), she's so keen to hear Dawkins talk in those terms that she misses his statement that such an intelligence would need some explanation like evolution, and that such an intelligence is a very long way from the Christian conception of God, whether it's my old one or Rilstone's author. Whatever they are, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.

I think Rilstone gets closer to the heart of moderate Christianity when he says that Dawkins thinks religion is all about belief, when it's really about practice, or cultus as Rilstone puts it (gjm11's response to that is worth reading). Rilstone writes of Dawkins's eulogy addressed directly to Douglas Adams in The God Delusion as the sort of religious practice that Dawkins fails to understand in the rest of the book.

When Dawkins writes to his dead friend, or Feynman to his dead wife ("Please excuse my not mailing this - but I don't know your new address"), you'd need a heart of stone to be unmoved, or to berate these scientists for their departure from rationality.

But suppose that they continued to build a practice around writing to their lost friends, an edifice of thought to explain how their friends could read the letters, and a society they could go along to every week to meet with other people who also write letters to the dead. We might regard that as a little odd, and question them about the evidence for the dead reading their letters. Suppose some of them responded that, on reflection, they weren't really sure their letters were really read by their intended recipients, but they were carrying on with the society anyway. That's where the religious moderates lose me, because I do not understand on what basis they continue. God is dead. Best to move on, I think.
Tags: best of, blog, religion, richard dawkins, rilstone, ruth gledhill, science
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