Occasionally someone brings up the challenge to theism brought by the well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins and proceeds to show that it is a weak challenge. Recently, an email correspondent, Spanos the man, brought up Dawkins’ denial of God as an example of a weak atheistic argument. It is an interesting exercise to show that this downgrading of Dawkins does not succeed.
First, let’s take a quick glance at Dawkin’s position on God.
In The God Delusion, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that belief in a personal god qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.
Dawkins distinguishes what he calls “Einsteinian religion” from supernatural religion, arguing that the former should not be confused with the latter. Einstein wrote that he was religious in the sense being aware of things beyond the mind’s grasp, “whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection”. But, Dawkins argues, this god “is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wrecking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible . . . The proposed existence of this interventionist God, which Dawkins calls the “God Hypothesis”, is an important theme in his book. Dawkins maintains that the alleged existence of the interventionist God would be a scientific fact about the universe, which is discoverable in principle if not in practice. He argues that there is no evidence supporting belief in such a God. (from Wikipedia)
Correspondent Spanos made reference to Eric Reitan’s book Is God a Delusion? Reitan recommends that people read what Dawkins has to say:
”In fact, insofar as The God Delusion nicely summarizes the main objections of contemporary atheists to religious faith, it seems to me it should be required reading for all who have yet to seriously confront a forceful statement of these objections.”
Spanos took up Reitan’s suggestion and quickly found (by the end of Chapter 2) that “although Dawkins’ argument might be forceful in a rhetorical sense, his arguments were pretty weak in a logical sense.” When he elaborated why he saw Dawkins as presenting a weak case against God, Spanos noted that Dawkins completely ignored an obvious feature of the theist’s case for God, namely the theological doctrine of analogical predication.
Spanos made his case this way:
….. The Church endorsed a doctrine of “analogical predication.” In other words, to say that God exists is not like saying that flowers, animals, and people exist. One of the Einstein quotations that Dawkins uses in Chapter 1 suggests the kind of experience underlying the doctrine of analogical predication.
To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. (p. 40)
In the way that this “something” exists we sense a different meaning of the word “exists.”
Admittedly most ordinary theists have probably never learned of the distinction between univocal and analogical predication. They don’t have a sophisticated understanding of theism, but the one they have doesn’t have to be sophisticated to be useful. Dawkins‘ attack on theism is only an attack on an unsophisticated form of theism. However, it could be useful in motivating theists to acquire a more sophisticated understanding of their faith.
Conclusion: Dawkins undermines only the simple, undeveloped views of God’s reality; nothing that he offers challenges the deeper, sophisticated concept of God.
Off course, I could not resist and had to reply to Spanos:
The concept ‘God’ is not obviously a coherent one. It is ambiguous, even a vague, abstract concept (especially in the hands of theologians). It is never clear that when two or more people bring up the subject of God, that there even talking about the same idea. Historically and in current discussions, usage of the term ‘god’ both by religious and non-religious people features an impressive varieties of meaning. The ambiguity is so marked that when anyone claims either that God exists (or alternative the He does not exist), it is not even clear how the assertion could be verified or falsified.
Now, Spanos and Reitan, in choosing to go after Dawkins’ claim that God is a delusion and that any statement of his existence has to be understood as a scientific hypothesis, have chosen an easy target. Yes, Dawkins assumes one version of the God claim: God exists as something that should be detectable by scientific means, i.e., as a scientific hypothesis that should be amenable to scientific verification or falsification. In this respect, many have charged Dawkins with oversimplification and even misunderstanding the issue.
You chose an easy target because Dawkins is surely not the most able atheist or non-theist that has argued that God likely is not real. (After all, he is a zoologist!) But his arguments are not as ill conceived as theists like to think. Dawkins is surely on target by focusing attention on an interventionist god. When we set aside the sophistry and double-talk of our favorite tribe of theologians (with their mysterious, abstract — and ultimately incoherent notions — of the reality of God), we find that many believers – if not most of them – have held the idea that God is out there somewhere detectable in some way by humans, capable of ‘human-like’ relations with humans, and intervening in human events. This is surely an idea of God that has been and still is a common (maybe even primary) idea of God. So Dawkins is surely not wide of the mark with his assumption that God’s reality can be taken as a scientific hypothesis, i.e., as a matter of fact that can verified or falsified by scientific means.
The fact that theologians and philosophers defending theism can come up with more sophisticated notions of the god-claim does nothing to nullify what most people understand by God, and does little to rationally justify the claim that God is real. The tactic of theologians (with their talk of analogical prediction) only serves to transfer the issue from the arena in which things make some sense to one in which little or nothing makes sense. This defensive tactic of theologians hardly amounts to an impressive feat nor does it do much to show that the God of scripture was or is a reality.
Yes, from Aquinas (if not from an earlier apologist) we get the notion of analogical predication, which amounts to just a fancy way of denying that by the existence of God we mean that God exists as ordinary things exist. According to the theologian, we can only state an analogy with ordinary existence. God is not someone you might invite to have a cup of coffee or join your bowling league; but he is a reality; so he must exist on a different order. We can only refer to him by analogical prediction.
Having presented this very questionable account of religious experience, the theologian infers that the existence of God is on a completely different order, one which is not affected by the meaning and logic we attach to the ordinary sense of existence. He concludes that nothing the sciences or critical inquiry have to say about grounds or lack of grounds for the existence of deity applies to the real Deity, properly understood.
Pardon me if I am not impressed by such maneuvers, which are more typical of lawyer’s tactics, than they are the moves of critical philosophers! Dawkins’ critique of god belief might have its weaknesses, but it is not dismissed by bringing up the defensive tactics of classical theologians like Aquinas.