While re-reading certain passages from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), I was so shocked by his combination of ignorance and arrogance. Forgive me for some Dawkins- bashing:
1. In a memorable passage, Dawkins discusses the problem of Trinitarianism in Christianity and extends it to other forms of “polytheism,” such as the cult of the Virgin Mary and the saints in Roman-Catholicism. “What impresses me about Catholic mythology,” he shares with the reader, “is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along. It is just shamelessly invented” (Dawkins 2006: 35). As a reader, try to bracket away all presuppositions about religion and reread the sentences. If you succeed in doing so, the impact of Dawkins’ claim dissolves. So what, if certain details of Roman-Catholicism are human inventions? What is the problem in aspects of religion being “shamelessly invented”? From a non-Christian, neutral point of view, it is unclear why Dawkins bothers to mention this. However, anyone with a basic understanding of the history of Christianity will note where his claim comes from: Dawkins himself reproduces a piece of theology in this sentence (apparently without knowing it). From its earliest beginnings, Christianity claimed that it was the original and pure revelation of God, first given to Adam. This original revelation had been corrupted by sinful idolaters, seduced by the Devil into the worship of the false god and his minions. This corruption, according to Christian theology, took the form of human additions to the pure divine revelation: rites and myths, fabricated by priests and prelates.
During the Protestant Reformation, Luther, Calvin and their followers began to accuse the Roman-Catholic Church of the same sin of idolatry. They cried that the pope and his priests had invented a plethora of dogmas and rituals and imposed these on the believer as though they were part of God’s revelation and necessary to salvation. In this sense, the worst accusation one could make against Roman- Catholicism was that it consisted of “shameless human inventions.” The Enlightenment philosophes extended such charges of idolatry to all of Christianity and to all “religions” of humanity. All of these, including the notion of God itself, were human fabrications, the atheists among them claimed. Ironically, Enlightenment atheism thus presupposed and built on the claims of Christian theology. Without the background belief that there is something intrinsically wrong in religion being a human invention—very much a Christian belief—the impact of such charges simply disappears into thin air.
At this first level, Dawkins reproduces Christian theology, even though he masks it as an atheistic insight that is supposed to liberate humanity from religion.
2. Discussing the theological difficulties that polytheism allegedly creates, Dawkins continues: “How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many. Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it. For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply `God'” (Dawkins 2006: 35-6).
The first issue to point out is that Greek and Roman followers of the “pagan” traditions were not in the least bothered by such “theological conundrums.” This was the case, because to them the stories about Aphrodite, Venus, Zeus and Jupiter were just that: traditional stories, instead of theological doctrines (Balagangadhara 1994; Feeney 1998). To the Greeks and Romans, the stories were not subjects to truth claims; that is, the predicates “true” and “false” were simply not applicable to the many stories about the deities. Hence, many such apparently “contradictory” stories could co-exist without conflict. It was only when the church fathers tried to show that the Greeks and Romans had “false religion” that suddenly these stories became bearers of truth value and that the so- called “contradictions” appeared. Like the Christian ancestors who shaped their thought, the Enlightenment philosophers failed to grasp that the Roman and Greek stories were not meant to be doctrines or descriptions of the world. Hence, they ridiculed these stories as “mythologies,” fictionalized and embellished accounts of human history (Hazard 1935). The difficulties that Dawkins notices are those created by Christians and Enlightenment philosophers, who tried to make sense of the traditional stories of Greece and Rome as mythological doctrines.
3. A second problematic issue lies in the use of the notion of polytheism. The contrast set to poly-theism, of course, is mono- theism (and, in a secondary sense, a-theism). The “theism” in these terms refers to “theos” or “god.” First, take monotheism, that is, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Here the “theos” in the theism refers to the biblical God: the creator of heaven and earth. As a being and entity, this biblical God has certain properties. First, He is a being that exists outside the universe, outside space and time. Second, He is the sovereign creator and governor of the universe. Third, He is a “person” in the philosophical sense; he has a personal identity expressed in his plans and intentions. Fourth, His plans or intentions correspond perfectly to whatever happens in the universe. That is, He is omnipotent in the sense that there is no discrepancy between His intentions and His actions (as is the case among human beings): His will is law. As theologians have long told, (from our limited human perspective and understanding,) these are the essential properties of God (Swinburne 1977). Note now that if this is God or “theos,” there can be only one such being. If there were more than one, God could not be the sovereign creator and governor of the universe, whose will is law. Instead, there would be a clash of several such beings, each trying to be the sovereign. In this sense, if “God” or “theos” refers to the biblical God, there cannot be several Gods. Consequently, if the “theos” in poly-theism has the same reference as the “theos” in mono-theism, then “polytheism” is a nonsensical notion. It cannot exist.
4. Yet, and this is the third issue, it appears from the above passage that Dawkins means to say that all “deities” are the same and can all be designated with the name “God,” no matter whether it concerns “monotheism” or “polytheism.” Not only does he use the latter notion as though it makes eminent sense, he also argues (albeit for the sake of brevity) that the “theos” in both kinds of theism is “God.” At the same time, a brief analysis shows that it is conceptually impossible that “monotheism” and “polytheism” refer to the same “God.” How to make sense of this? It may appeal to brevity or any other reasons, Dawkins’ above paragraph remains conceptual nonsense. However, respecting the principle of charity, as interpreters we have to try and make sense of this paragraph as the product of a reasonably intelligent mind. The challenge, then, is the following: we need to show how the conceptual background that sustains Dawkins’ reasoning about religion makes paragraphs like the above seem reasonably coherent, in spite of the absence of coherency.
- Secularized Christian theology and evolutionary explanations of religion
- Documentary on Indian Traditions: Beware of God