Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The God Delusion - The God Hypothesis Part 1

I looked at the previous chapter of The God Delusion here.
The next chapter of “The God Delusion,” which is "The God Hypothesis," seems to be Dawkins' brief survey of the different ideas about "God". I say "seems" as I don't know if I can encapsulate it in one succinct idea or flow of thought. Some of his ideas which are more random I will probably leave out or wait for a later post. I will deal with this chapter over two posts, as there is a reasonable division I can make in the ideas presented.
Overall I think he is really looking at the "western" ideas for "God", and maybe we could say the western ideas about the “Christian” God. He also says the idea of God is a "scientific hypothesis", but I'll bring this up in the next post where I'll primarily deal with his thoughts on agnosticism, since that's his main audience for this “idea”.

So in this post we will look at what he says on theism, since this where he goes first. He splits Theism into Polytheism and Monotheism.

To introduce the topic of the significant different religious or "God" ideas, or ideas on “God”, he presents a nasty caricature of "The God of the Old Testament" (Christian “Old Testament”  = Jewish Scriptures) . He gives another one a little later, to introduce monotheism specifically.
Now, I understand how he gets there, especially given a modernist mindset, but I don't necessarily agree. Of course, a lot of it is by taking ideas out of context, and not seeing the big picture. One other thing I'll mention here, we need to take into account something that is common to humanity: the bias of not wanting God to tell you how to run your own life is often present, especially when confronted with a God that says he is the boss. Some of what Dawkins says appears to be reacting to this.
I won't go into detail about his views now on “The God of the OT”, as he appears to discuss this in detail in a later chapter. So I'll wait till then to comment and see whether I think his criticism holds up.

He then presents the idea of God he is rejecting, that
"there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us."
Later in the chapter he adds to or "fleshes out" his God hypothesis to add the idea of a “personal God”, to accommodated "the Abrahamic God".
 "He not only created the universe; he is a personal God dwelling within it, or perhaps outside it (what ever that might mean), possessing the unpleasantly human qualities to which I have alluded".
He does differentiate deists as not believing in this sort of God, but deism is included in what he rejects, so in one sense he doesn't actually need to highlight this division.

His alternative view that he advocates in this book is that:
"any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution".
I'll leave this to the next post to discuss it as it's more relevant there.

After stating the "God Hypothesis", he quickly mentions his beliefs pertaining to both the foundation and evolution of the "God Hypothesis". I'll leave the foundation aspect to the next post, as it is more related to philosophical aspects, but the evolution one fits here as he relates it to polytheism and monotheism.

Before looking at the different version of “God”, he presents a "theory" on religions' origins or developments.
"Historians of religion recognise a progression from primitive tribal animisms, through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans, and Norsemen, to monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam."
The most recent idea I have heard from a “Historian of religion” went something like this: “Jesus” was invented by the Romans to create a pacifist Messiah to control the restless Jews in Palestine. (Dawkins does talk about the “historical” Jesus in the next chapter so we won't go into detail about that here.) This “pacifist Messiah” conspiracy theory, sounds like something a Marxist would make up (a couple of millennia too early), but I don't believe there is any evidence what so ever for this, let alone it being feasible. It does make me wonder (and also historian John Dickson wonder) – what sort of “historian” is a “historian of religion”?
Back to Dawkins' “Historians of religion” theory – I don't think it is as bad as this “Historian of religion”, but it appears to be a vast generalisation, and a nice idea that may fit a few facts and cultures. He doesn't provide any evidence, or references to who has made the claim so it's hard to test it here. It is possibly an idea someone came up with in the 19th or early 20th century that has persisted popularly, despite various challenges.
This idea also depends on when we think "monotheism" starts, for example whether the dates suggested for Abraham in the Bible are accepted or not, which gives quite early dates for Monotheism. Judaism isn't a late comer compared with the polytheistic Greeks or Romans.
Also Christians and others would maintain that the first humans were Theists, and that polytheism followed it where this religion dropped off. The New Testament also predicts this is what happens. One might not accept the Bibles account entirely, but it is not as easy to push away this suggestion.
And some claim that the further a culture is away from Christianity/Judaism the more it varies and degenerates to animism, since Animistic societies seem to be the ones most distance from the west.
Also consider that recently some in the west are turning to Hinduism – going the opposite way from Dawkins' suggestion. Some Christians would contend that Roman Catholicism seems to become poly-theistic, as Dawkins himself also suggests as we will see. Or even sometimes Christianity gets mixed with more animistic beliefs
Dawkins elsewhere says the next step from monotheism is to just subtract “one God further”, but consider the move from atheism or non-religion to Christianity in China in the last 40 years. Christianity has grown from numbering in the low millions, to the high tens of millions or even 100 million. Russia also could be considered, where atheism/ non-religion has also been in decline.
Obviously the “History of Religions” is a lot more complicated than Dawkins suggests here.

Dawkins then goes on to describe two categories of "god" ideas, really just the "theistic" ones. I think in his mind "deism" and "pantheism" was dealt with by the previous chapter (obviously western versions).
Though he lists "American" deism under the section of secularism which we will look at in the next post.

Dawkins first topic is polytheism.
It seems that the only difference Dawkins sees between polytheism and monotheism is the number of "Gods". Obviously this is the literal difference, but he doesn't seem aware or has overlooked that polytheistic beliefs usually have a very different concept of "God". The differences seem to expand the closer you look. These gods often seem a lot more like us than as "God" is normally presented in monotheism. Also a lot of the older pagan religions seemed to often have a God for everything - a God for the rain, a God for the sun, a God for fertility (sexual and your crops). And if God is having a grumpy day or year, then we might not get our food. Or we might need to appease him in someway, or go to the shrine prostitutes to encourage "fertility".
Maybe Dawkins lack of distinction is due to him believing that the “God” of monotheistic beliefs is very much like the "gods" of polytheism,  which are more readily criticised for being unscientific e.g. we know how the weather works now - we don't need a God for it any more. It seems more understandable then when he says "It is not clear why the change from polytheism to monotheism should be assumed to be a self-evidently progressive improvements" since in his mind it would all be the same, just a fewer number to have to worry about.
Dawkins says that he doesn't want to take the time to go into all the nuances that he says exist: "Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I will say no more about it".
But the "Theism" that is rejected in response to "science" now presenting all the answers, does seem to be that of Polytheism, not mono-theism. In contrast, it is the mono-theism of Christianity that is the world-view responsible for the growth of western science, to many the surprise of many.

Under polytheism he mentions Hinduism, probably the most obvious and common one that Westerners come in contact with today. Dawkins does suggest that Hinduism could be interpreted as monotheism – all these God's are manifestations of the one “God”. He may have tapped on the fact that there is not quite one version of Hinduism (and Hinduism was a western name to label for what Indians generally believed). As to it being interpreted as “monotheism”, taking a deeper look, it is actually quite pantheistic. The idea being that Brahman is the all encompassing, and that to reach nirvana is to escape back to Brahman, the ultimately reality. If anything, it is closest to the "force" of Star Wars.
This actually makes it further separated from monotheism, where God is distinct and “other”. It doesn't appear that Dawkins is aware of eastern religious “pantheistic” versions of “God”, but only associates “pantheism” with the more western philosophical versions, as I think I mentioned in a previous post.

He then picks up on Christianity, which later he calls a monotheistic sect of Judaism,  but here he is bracketing it with polytheism. He seems to be implying that Christianity could actually be regarded as "Polytheism", because Jesus is said to be God and because of the concept of the “Trinity”.  To the outsider it might look like Jesus is a different God and we will look at this in a moment.  But Dawkins also goes further to highlight how in Roman Catholicism, Mary the mother of Jesus seems to be treated in an almost God-like fashion, even being called the "Queen of Heaven". Combining this with the practise of making "saints" (though in the Bible the term saint is merely used as a term for a Christian in general), it seems even more justified. Many Protestant Christians would tend to agree with Dawkins here in relation to these Roman Catholic ideas, especially with the practise of prayer to and veneration of Mary and the "Saints". Interestingly, if monotheistic Judaism has turned into a polytheistic Christianity, then this actually contradicts his previous comment about the history of religious progress from polytheism to monotheism.
In the case of Roman Catholicism, non-biblical ideas and practises have crept in over time, sometimes influenced or mixed with other cultural or religious ideas.

On the issue of the “Trinity” he brings up the fourth century issue relating to a guy called Arius as an example of splitting hairs, and the rivers of medieval ink and blood, in relation to ideas about God.
I think he particular picks up on this issues, because the idea of Jesus being God seems to imply to him multiple Gods (though Christianity denies this), and to him he doesn't see the difference, and why it should matter.

On the issue "Arianism" and Arius of Alexandria, his idea was that the Son was the greatest and first creation of God, perfect, but not quite divine, but on the other hand he wasn't a human. This is quite different to the popular summary of the council that it was about whether Jesus was merely a human or in fact God. As Athanasius argued at the council and in relation to Arianism, this renders Christianity apart. For if Jesus is not God, then he cannot save us - one creature dying in place of all the others - doesn't quite work - hypothetically he could only be the substitute for one possibly, and then permanently so, so no resurrection either. What is more, to worship him like Thomas, "My Lord and my God", would be idolatry, if he wasn't God. Also, if Jesus wasn't a man, then he can't be a substitute for us, nor can he sympathise with humans in our suffering, as the book of Hebrews also says.
It wasn't as some have said (like in The Da Vinci Code) that Arius was following different gospels. They were debating about the meaning of the scriptures that they already had, and how to hold Jesus humanity and divinity together, which were both presented in the gospels.

There are some aspects that Dawkins doesn't mention, that are not as commonly known. All but 2 out of 318 (not including Arius) were in favour of the statement that has become known as the Nicene Creed, confirming Jesus divinity. The Da Vinci Code's suggests it was a close vote (and it's wrong or misleading on almost all the aspects of the Council). Yet Emperor Constantine preferred Arianism, and at a later stage ordered the church to receive Arius back into the fold. The next couple of "Christian" Emperors, besides the pagan Julian, were also Arians and tried to influence the church back to Arianism. Obviously it wasn't good that the emperors were involved with religion, whether for or against Christianity etc, and their behaviour was obviously not in-line with how Christians should behave, even if they did see themselves as Christians. Yet, having "Christian" Emperors did mean that wide spread persecutions of Christians was eliminated in much of Europe, instead of the "non-Christian" emperors who were largely happy to persecute Christians.
Christianity from the start was not political, and Paul was explicit in repudiating dubious means for commending Christianity (let alone persecuting those who didn't accept). That it got brought into politics is unfortunate.
One thing that Dawkins gets explicitly wrong is suggesting that Constantine made Christianity the official religion. This was done later by Theodosius I.

For him the concept of the “Trinity” seems like an easy target involving "unintelligible propositions" and only worthy of ridicule, as Thomas Jefferson said. I suspect he just may not want to do any hard work thinking about Christianity. Yet other areas of knowledge have their own difficult concepts such as Quantum Mechanics. For example. Is an electron a particle or actually a wave? Is a photon a wave of is it actually a particle?
Areas of mathematics take a lot of work to understand even for those who are good at it. It took me a while to understand and appreciate the concepts of continuity and limits. And then abstract metric spaces. There are many mathematical constructs and ideas which don't have simple or real life examples. Why should the Trinity be assumed illogical? Do we assume that God should necessarily be easy to comprehend in his nature? If there is only one God who is transcendent, then some level of difficulty comprehending and describing him should be expected.

I can understand Dawkins not wanting think about the “Trinity” in detail, as he is happy just to reject the idea of God in general (in a Theistic sense mainly), and sees Polytheism and Monotheism as small differences.
Yet, so much for splitting hairs, it also differentiates Christianity from the monotheism of Islam, and modern Judaism, as well as polytheism, and makes many aspects of Christianity logically possible.
On some of the issues pitted against the idea of God, the Trinity makes quite a difference. For example it means God can be love and relational and knowable, compared with God in Islam who is not really knowable (deistic?) and not "love". It also enables different "answers" on the "problem of suffering", a topic that is usually very important to Atheists.
It is a pity he doesn't work harder to know his opposition better, since he says that Christianity's "God" is the main one that he is rejecting.

To finish off the topic of polytheism and Trinity he deals with a common rebuttal to his arguments:
"'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God that I don't' believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.'  ..[but] what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly".
Yet, why does he then attack the worst or the weakest ideas. Shouldn't he be engaging with the best expression or form of the ideas or religion he opposes - that would make his case more convincing.
On one hand he says "I am attacking God, all gods". He really then needs to only reject God in "general" to prove his point, not reject a couple of instances he really doesn't like. It raises a good question – why does he need to spend time detailing specifics of religions, and issues in society related to them. It doesn't really validate his argument if he is only rejecting the “concept” of God for primarily “scientific” reasons. Is his general argument not strong enough?
On the other hand he says the "Christian God" is the one is primarily rejecting, yet he doesn't take Jesus seriously.

Interestingly, the Bible is quite clear that people will reject God as he is, and make their own gods of their own liking, in their own images, hence we have "gods" that are simply a projection of their culture, as were the ones that surrounded Israel (as Tim Keller puts it). These gods were "under control" of the temple system and ultimately the king, and you could use money to buy blessings etc. The Western view is that all "gods" fit this bill and rejected as ideas made from the culture, yet the Bible maintains that its God isn't under our control, that he is transcendent and different. He does not match our thinking. This is part of the reason why Christian's reject almost as many God's as Dawkins.

Interesting after he spends 5 pages on polytheism (and the trinity) he then spends only two on monotheism which is the main one he rejects. But I guess he is criticising Christianity or the Bible most of the time in the book anyway, it's just less organised that way.
When he gets to monotheism, he takes the popularised idea of some that Christianity was invented by Paul of Tarsus. This is probably why he doesn't bother with Jesus. But it is a view that doesn't sit well with the evidence if the time is taken to fully digest it. Part of this view (if he has actually given the New Testament a good read) may stem from it being easier to extract "theology" from the letters of Paul, mainly because they were letters sent to instruct and teach in Christians, where as the gospels are primarily narrative, longer and have a more subtle structure. More recently there has been a greater appreciation for the theology of the gospels. It may have been lost for a while because of the modernist tendency to lose confidence in gospels, but this is no longer the case. Also, the idea of Jesus being God is most clearly portrayed in the Gospel of John. John makes his purpose in writing explicit: "these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name". Many examples could be enumerated to demonstrate the concordance between Paul and the other New Testament books. I think he has just picked up a nice sounding idea from a century or so ago, which has lingered on by those who reject Christianity, but I don't believe is maintained by many who seriously study the New Testament these days.

He then goes onto the topic of how Christianity became so popular. He says Christianity was spread by the sword, but doesn't present any argument or example here. I think he just taking another popular idea that is often readily accepted. People who talk about this usually have the crusades in mind, and maybe the inquisitions. I haven't seen any other good case made for it. Spreading “Christianity” by the sword is directly contrary to what the Bible says.
For example, Paul was quite clear on his motives and means “the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you.” and “You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed” (see 1 Thessalonians). While in Corinth, he worked as a tent-maker to provide for himself, while he preached in the synagogues etc. The culture of the time tended to have the view that you were worth something if you could demand a good income from your speaking, but Paul did the opposite, to demonstrate the importance of his message, in contrast to himself.
And Jesus said “be wise as serpents but innocent as doves”, and “turning the other cheek”, and “love your enemies, and praying for those who persecute you”, in contrast to “hating your enemies”. Also you can't make someone a “real” Christian by force anyway – they need to change on the inside. You can't force them to actually love Jesus.
The Crusades themselves are a complex issue with opinions on it divided it seems. Also it was mainly in reaction to what had already been done to spread Islam, and to take back Jerusalem. (And the inquisitions weren't so much about it spreading anyway – not that I agree with the inquisitions – real Christians and people who wanted to read the Bible were burned at the stake too, as well as Bible's being burned).
The spreading by sword obviously didn't happen before Constantine, yet Christianity from its birth had initially grown rapidly under heavy persecution for almost three centuries. And still a lot of real Christianity was definitely not spread by the sword during the time of Christendom as well. It may also be a bit closer to the truth to say "Christendom was spread by the sword".
Dawkins says that it was later spread by colonialists. I don't know if this is true as a generalisation either - history again is complex. But, in at least some cases this was not true. In relation to India, till 1813 evangelism was prohibited in British colonies (lets just make money off them). This ban was overturned by the British parliament through the pushing of William Wilberforce, who was also greatly concerned with the existing practise in India of "Suttee" where a widow is burned on the funeral pyre of her husband. The "modern" mission movement was not tied to colonialism. One thinks of the examples of William Carey (India) and Hudson Taylor (China). Hudson Taylor is especially significant as he adopted much of Chinese dress and culture. Consider also the spread of Christianity in China after the Cultural Revolution, despite the opposition and persecution from the Communists.

To summarise. It's a pity that he just tries to laugh at the Trinity, yet it is a significant idea, especially from a philosophical point of view (more of this later).
He says he is mainly rejecting Christianity, yet he rejects a caricature, then says he doesn't want to deal with the God people do actually believe in, since he is rejecting “God in general”.
Again why does he even need to make an attempt at attacking Christianity, yet without understanding it or history around it properly or in detail. It would be better that he do it properly or not at all. If his general argument doesn't really depend on the exact idea of God, but on science, so why bother with all this – it just makes his whole argument weaker.

I think we get more onto the Dawkins “scientific” or possibly “philosophical” argument of this next.

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