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From the Land of the Deluded

A couple of weeks ago I made the mistake of trying to reply to a point in Plantinga’s review of The God Delusion, and got caught. The first commenter on that post suggested I should read the actual book “if only to be able to evaluate reviews of a different book going by the same title.”

Well, I have now read the book, and it was less irritating than I expected, though my expectations were fulfilled. In general, I was not surprised by anything Dawkins had to say. This should not be shocking considering that I have studied Christian theology fairly extensively for a non-theologian (I remind readers that my field is Biblical studies, not theology, and thus at theology I am an amateur), and I have also read a good bit of Dawkins’s writing, and I am very fond of it, even though I recognize that I am precisely the type of Christian theist for which he has the greatest contempt. This latter point is repeatedly emphasized in the text of The God Delusion.

There is, however, one way in which the book is worse than I expected. I linked earlier to a post by Bruce Alderman, in which he performed a humorous source analysis on this text. I got a good laugh out of it, but at the time I was assuming it was pure humor. Having read the book, I think I can build on his analysis.

Bruce’s H source writes much like the Richard Dawkins of books like The Blind Watchmaker. He does surgery on ideas with a laser scalpel, coming to specific points, and then rebuilding the structure with care and precision. You may disagree with his conclusions, but you normally do so by debating his premises, not by criticizing his logic. Such a person presumably wrote most of chapter 5. There, even though I disagree with some conclusions about religion in general, we find an excellent presentation of Darwinian explanations for the evolution of religion, or a propensity to religion in humanity.

I originally intended to say that Bruce’s A source, contrary to H, uses a shotgun approach, but on further reading and reflection I don’t think that is an adequate description. The approach would better be compared to the use of a blunderbuss, a weapon to which I was introduced by Tolkien in “Farmer Giles of Ham.” There the question of what a blunderbuss is received this response:

Indeed this very question, it is said, was put to the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford, and after thought they replied, “A blunderbuss is a short gun with a large bore firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim. (Now superseded in civilized countries by other firearms.)

However, Farmer Giles’s blunderbuss had a wide mouth that opened like a horn, and it did not fire balls or slugs, but anything he could spare to stuff in.

The aforementioned farmer Giles of Ham used a blunderbuss on a giant with the result that:

. . . By luck it was pointed more or less at the giant’s large ugly face. Out flew the rubbish, and the stones and the bones, and the bits of crock and wire, and half a dozen nails. And since the range was indeed limited, by chance and no choice of the farmer’s many of these things struck the giant; a piece of pot went in his eye, and a large nail stuck in his nose.

“Blast!” said the giant in his vulgar fashion. “I’m stung!” . . .

So DawkinsA has loaded his blunderbuss with whatever was available, pointed it in my general direction (or perhaps I stuck my face in front of it), and fired. And thus, in the words of the giant, “Blast! I’m stung.” Well, actually, not so much, and unlike Tolkien’s giant I have no inclination to turn aside.

Those who haven’t dealt with the vagaries of source and redaction criticism will perhaps get less amusement from Bruce’s analysis or from my aside, but those who have will recognize the stylistic differences that can make one wonder what happened between one passage and the next. I think this is also the problem that resulted in the exchange in the comments to my previous post. Basically you can get two completely different impressions from reading this book. The first is of a proposed dialog which invites a broad range of people who are opposed to placing religious dogma above science, of indoctrination, of forcing religious beliefs on people, and of limiting the freedom of scientific inquiry. The second is of a desire to suppress religion if it is possible to do so by any means short of violence, and describes all people of any variety of religious faith in disparaging terms.

There is one basic element that I fully expected, and did in fact find. For Dawkins science is all there is. There is no supernatural of any kind, and his use of the term “supernatural” is not so nuanced as that of some theologians. For him, “supernatural” is anything that cannot in theory at least be fully investigated by scientific means.

Thus he occasionally indicates that he is not arguing against the guy in the sky with a beard concept of God, yet in practice he is arguing against the philosophical equivalent. His God must be measurable and explainable in natural terms, thus any attributes one supposes God might possess that do not fall within that scope are automatically dismissed.

Dawkins operates with a thoroughgoing ontological naturalism. This is it. If I were to allow him that assumption, generally implicit, we could simply say, “That’s the ball game.” And in fact most of the book is superfluous for the simple reason that Dawkins never allows a supernatural definition of God to come into play at all. Despite what he says, God is not a hypothesis. He would be a rather bad hypothesis if he were one.

While Dawkins does not believe in God, he appears to believe he has god-like powers. Repeatedly he suggests that the religious faith of scientists or other thinkers whose work he appreciates were not really sincere, but rather went along with their time. Such is the case with Kant (footnote to p. 231, quoting A. C. Grayling favorably), Mendel (p. 99 becoming a monk was ” . . . equivalent of a research grant.”), the American founding fathers (p. 39 – “. . . the greatest of them might have been atheists. Certainly their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours.”).

It’s astonishing how easy it is to know what someone would have been years after the fact!

In my view, more even than an attack on belief, this book is an attack on moderation. By moderation I mean any system that does not automatically push for the extremes, but recognizes that there are a range of positions between. I do not mean that one has to accept that those other positions have an equal claim to truth; I simply suggest recognizing that they exist. Dawkins wants the conflict to be between fundamentalists of any religion and atheism. He objects to being called a fundamentalist atheist, but this very attitude suggests that in some ways the title fits. My experience with Christian fundamentalists indicates to me that if you disagree with them in any little thing, you are the enemy. I’m often called an atheist by such people because I accept the theory of evolution. Dawkins has problems with all of the folks in the middle, with moderates being a frequent target. (For notes on my view of moderation, see Moderate Thinking.)

I’m going to divide this response into several posts, though I will post them all together. A directory follows, though you can find the entire series by choosing category The God Delusion.

So from the land of the deluded, let me present just a bit of a response. I’m not an apologist. I’m frequently embarrassed by what Christian apologists have to say. My apologetic is very simple, and we sang it in the Easter Sunrise service at my church: “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” It’s subjective. I don’t expect it to convince you. But it’s what I bring to the table. Categorize me as a deluded simpleton, but a joyful one!

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  1. Kievas Fargo says:


    I’ve been meaning to read Dawkins’ book for many of the same reasons as you did. I’ll have to come back to your commentary after I’ve read it. Thanks for taking the time to do such a comprehensive analysis.

  2. joe fruser says:

    >>Thus he occasionally indicates that he is not arguing against the guy in the sky with a beard concept of God, yet in practice he is arguing against the philosophical equivalent. His God must be measurable and explainable in natural terms, thus any attributes one supposes God might possess that do not fall within that scope are automatically dismissed.

  3. A discussion of this blog entry has arisen on the Religion Forum.

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