John Wilkins has a post up criticizing P.Z. Myers for criticizing Elaine Pagels for criticizing Richard Dawkins. Maybe we’d better start at the beginning.
An interview with historian Elaine Pagels appeared in Salon. The first two thirds of the interview addressed Pagels’ work on the Gnostic Gospels. The final third dealt with questions about faith and science.
There’s much to discuss in the interview, and I recommend reading the whole thing. I found Pagels’ comments about the Gnostic Gospels interesting and thought-provking. Alas, I found her comments about faith and rationality confusing and muddled. In the interests of keeping this blog entry to a reasonable length, however, let’s focus in on the part in dispute between Wilkins and Myers.
What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don’t there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn’t this become a question for science?
Well, Dawkins loves to play village atheist. He’s such a rationalist that the God that he’s debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize. I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not.
In the context of the interview it is not clear who Pagels means by “the people I study.” It is also not clear what she has in mind in asking if there is some great big person “who made the universe out of dirt.” The usual idea is that God created the universe ex nihilo, not out of preexisting matter.
I’ll assume, however, that this was just a matter of careless phrasing. This was a phone interview, after all. So I take Pagels to be saying that it is unlikely that there is a God who created the universe with one act of His will.
But if that is a correct intepretation of Pagels’ statement, then as a criticism of Dawkins it falls very flat indeed. In fact, it seems like a concession of Dawkins’ main point. Dawkins, after all, was addressing the question of whether there is any sound reason for thinking there is a God behind the creation of the universe. He concluded there is not. Pagels seems to agree.
What is left? If God is not an entity you believe in because otherwise various aspects of the physical universe are unfathomable mysteries, then what reason is there for believing in Him at all? The issue is not whether you can contrive a definition of God so attenuated and divorced from physical reality that you can no longer make rational arguments for or against His existence. No one, not Richrad Dawkins, not Sam Harris, not Daniel Dennett, has ever denied that you can. The question is simply how belief in such a God is different from belief in any other logically possible entity for whom no evidence of existence can be adduced. Flying spaghetti monsters, invisible floating teapots, that kind of thing.
So I would want Pagels to tell me what she thinks God is, if not the entity responsible for the existence of the universe. She comes close to telling us in other parts of the interview, but never actually gives a straight answer. What, exactly, is this more rarefied conception of God that Dawkins was supposed to discuss?
It’s really exasperating that so many people think that an answer like the one given here by Pagels is an adequate response to Dawkins. I see the argument roughly like this:
MOST CHRISTIANS: There are good, rational reasons for believing in a creator God. For example, the argument from design, the argument from answered prayers, and the argument from the historicity of the Bible, among others.
DAWKINS: These are not good arguments. Here’s why…
SOPHISTICATES: You’re such a village atheist. Sure, God belief looks pretty silly if you try to provide actual, rational reasons for it. But you haven’t even laid a glove on notions of God that don’t involve Him actually doing anything, and who has precisely the properties He needs to have to be immune from all rational inquiry. You can’t refute that God, can you? So on what basis do you conclude that God does not exist? Huh?
Incidentally, those three argument I put into the mouths of most Christians are the three I encounter most frequently in my discussions of this topic with them. It’s nice that the people Pagels’ studies have no use for such a low brow conception of God. But most of the Christians I seem to meet have nothing but contempt for the people Pagels studies.
Okay, moving on. P.Z. Myers responded to Pagels in this post. He had much the same reaction as me. He made his point by providing some quotes from Pastor Rick Warren, and then writing the following:
This concept that Pagels finds so unlikely, that there is “some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt” is precisely what Warren and many millions of Americans believe. I agree that it is absurd, but far from being a “village atheist”, Dawkins seems to be far more aware of what people actually believe than a professional historian of Christianity. I find myself intensely disgusted by the continued and frequent denial of the obvious by the very people who purport to be the experts on the subject — it’s as if they have their eyes firmly closed and refuse to even consider the reality of religious practice.
I think this is exactly right. I would encourage Dr. Pagels to get out of Princeton, NJ for a while and spend some time in Kansas or Western Virginia. It was a real eye-opener for me (I went to high school in Princeton). I suspect it would be for her as well.
To which part of this does Wilkins object? He tells us in this post:
Of course there are people who have a simplistic and literal view of God and religion. That is not at issue and never has been. But what Pagels is saying is something that the uppity atheists always seem to slide over – that there is a more sophisticated view of God that is not so easily knocked down as the idea that God has a backside. And what is more, there always has been (which is the point of studying the Gnostics).
Pagels doesn’t find it unlikely that there are such religious believers, she finds the very same concept PZ finds unlikely, unlikely. And Paul must know this. His response is evasive and I think ultimately a rhetorical trick.
Of course, the more sophisticated view to which Wilkins refers is harder to knock down only because it asserts almost nothing in the way of empirical claims. Myers, in fact, addresses this point later in his blog entry, describing things in much the same way as I did above. We uppity atheists do not slide over the possibility of such a God, we merely find it vacuous and irrelevant, and not the kind of God the large majority of Christians profess to believe.
Pagels was clearly implying not simply that there are more sophisticated views of God, but that these views are in fact fairly common. She was implying that Dawkins was knocking down a strawman in only discussing notions of a creator God. In that light, I think Myers’ reply is entirely correct. It is not Dawkins who is knocking down strawmen, it is Pagels who is holding a view of God far outside the mainstream.
Now, if Wilkins or anyone else want to argue that I am wrong about that, then I am happy to listen. My impressions of what Christians believe are based largely on my personal experiences with Christians, the time I have spent perusing the offerings from evangelical bookstores, the sermons broadcast on Christian radio, and my various adventures at creationist conferences. Perhaps my sample really is biased, and I am allowing a vocal minority to color my impressions.
I seriously doubt that, however.
Wilkins then makes an analogy:
Let’s look at a parallel case. There are people who think that evolution happened. The experts think it happened in one of a number of ways that are disputed or accepted consensually in the discipline of biology; the laity have a range of views that are more or less acceptable. Some even think it happened in such a way that not only humans, but Europeans, were an inevitable outcome.
So, if I say that evolution happened, and give a report of the sophisticated ideas of population genetics, macroevolutionary studies, ecology, and so on, and a creationist responds, as they do, that no, evolutionists believe that Europeans were inevitable, therefore evolutionary theory is simple minded and false, should we accept that argument? Of course we shouldn’t. It’s a fallacious argument.
This is what I reject about the Dawkins/Moran/PZ aggressive atheism – it takes the most stupid version of religion, argues against it, and then claims to have given reasons for not being religious. At best (and here I concur) they have given reasons not to be stupid theists. But a good argument takes on the best of the opposing view, not the worst.
This is a bad analogy. The view that Europeans were the inevitable end result of evolution is a view held by almost nobody with any scientific credentials. The creationist who refuted this idea really would be knocking down a strawman. That is not the case with religion. When someone like Dawkins refutes the idea that the universe is the product of intelligent design, he is not refuting some fringe position held by almost no one.
To put it another way, what Wilkins refers to as the most stupid version of religion, I would refer to as the most common. Dawkins has not extrapolated from refuting the most stupid version of religion to giving reasons for not being religious. Rather, he has refuted the most common assertions about believing in God or thinking that religion is essential for morality and has concluded that religion as it is usually practiced is not very sensible. Of course there are people standing off to the side, holding elaborate religious beliefs that never get around to making an empirically testable claim. But that’s not most people, and you don’t have to spend a lot of time on their views to make criticisms of religion generally.
Wilkins next has a paragraph praising Victor Stenger for being more modest in his own book on this subject. He then closes with this:
So Pagels has a better view of God than the usual run of theists – is this problematic? All cultural traditions have those who understand them better than the majority. Few know how to play Jazz trumpet right. Few know how to paint portraits. Few can program word processors correctly (and they do not work at Microsoft, I’m here to tell you). The existence of the stupid or incompetent is not an argument against the best in those traditions (or else I singlehandedly disprove guitar playing).
So Paul (and Larry) engage with Pagel’s views, and take them seriously. We know that popular religion is pretty ignorant. So, as has been noted lately, is popular science. But if you take on the best that your opposition has to offer (and it isn’t Francis Collins), we might all learn something from the attempt.
Here I would strongly disagree with the idea that Pagels’ view of God is better than the usual run of theists. In fact, I find the fundamentalist view of things far more sensible and better justified. When I talk with them I understand what they believe and why they believe it. They give actual reasons for believing in a God with actual attributes, and they defend those reasons with actual arguments. Bad arguments, mind you, frequently based on very faulty understandings of both science and the Bible. But the fact remains that the argument from design is not obviously stupid.
As for engaging Pagels views, I would be happy to. The trouble is, I can’t figure out what they are. She says things like this:
So when you think about the God that you believe in, how would you describe that God?
Well, I’ve learned from the texts I work on that there really aren’t words to describe God. You spoke earlier about a transcendent reality. I think it’s certainly true that these are not just fictions that we arbitrarily invent.
I’m supposed to engage a God that can not be described with words? And what is meant by the term “transcendent reality?” And if these things aren’t just fictions that we arbitrarily invent, tell me what they actually are and the reasons for believing they exist.
Until that happens I think I will stick with my view that it is Dawkins who is addressing the real thing, and Pagels (and Wilkins) who are erecting strawmen.