Gene Expression

Dawkins & theological sophistication

John Lynch has a post up about Richard Dawkins’ lack of theological sophistication in The God Delusion. John is basically reiterating the point that Dawkins did not truly engage theological arguments for theism on a very high or sophisticated level. In fact, John levels the implicit charge that Dawkins’ engagement of theology mirrors the level of good faith that Creationists render toward evolutionary science. Though I am a Neville Chamberlain atheist I am ambivalent about the theological tack. I’ve told Chris that I think that making a stand on theology isn’t the best strategic choice, and though it is tactically sound (i.e., Dawkins is almost proudly ignorant and dismissive of theology in his work) I believe it will lead to long term problems. The short of it is that I believe that the coherency of theology is implicitly presuppositionalist. By this, I mean that Christian theology is coherent and persuasive when one presupposes a Christian set of axioms. I believe theology can assuage and aid in belief, but in the vast majority of cases I doubt it is necessary or sufficient. One could say that science is also presuppositionalist, one must assume a coherency and rationality about the world around us, and generally reject excessive solipsism.

But, there is a difference: science is testable via the world around us, and, it leads to engineering. No matter its manifold flaws, it works. In contrast, theology must remain at remove from the world. Some arguments (e.g., the teleological argument) are informed by the world around us, but fundamentally they operate via a chain of propositions derived from axioms and observations in a rather abstract domain. Mathematics is similar, but I hold that its formalism renders it objectively transparent. In contrast theology’s verbal logic is more opaque and must be mediated by social consensus. The truths of theology are arrived via consensus as opposed to an independent cognitive process.1 The historical record suggests that theology explores a sample space of ideas etched out by contingencies which are derived from human sociology. By an large theology is what cognitive anthropologist Scott Atran would term a “quasi-propositional” system. It has the general form of logic, but its overall direction is dictated by extra-analytical parameters (theologians may get to God in different ways, but in the end, they know that God exists and that the concept is sensible).

Though Dawkins is rather flip and does open himself up to the critique that he does not give due reverence to the sciences of God, I think he is correct to gloss over this domain because of its presuppositionalist nature. Nevertheless, I think that the criticism has more force than it would have because Dawkins approaches the God question as a scientific hypothesis, and so throws the ball into the court of the science whose fundamental subject is God, that is, theology. This to me illustrates the major problem with the The God Delusion, it seems to hold contradictory assumptions about the nature of religion. On the one hand, Dawkins’ defenders are correct, and Dawkins himself alludes to, the fact that theology and religion have little to do with one another, that the genuine animation behind the theistic sensibility is not analysis of the God Hypothesis (theology), but the nature of human psychology. In other words, theism is not a faulty rationality, but a character which emergences from orthogonal cognitive capacities (e.g., theory of mind, social intelligence, agency detection, intuitive physics). And unlike rationality these capacities are unconscious and encapsulated from introspection. Yet as Dawkins moves on in his argument he begins to write as if belief in God is a fundamentally rational proposition derived from particular axioms about the world around us held reflectively within our minds. He then engages in various verbal refutations of these rationalistic arguments (i.e., showing that an axiom is faulty, or than an inference or proposition is incorrect or implausible). So on the one hand he dismisses theology, but on the other hand he needs it as a punching bag against which to throw his arguments. After all, without theodicy the arguments against God’s existence because of evil have less zing.

Why this bait & switch? Well, how exactly can you argue against religion when it is a natural and emergent property of modal psychology? If theism and religion emerge from banal mental and social processes then verbal arguments will have little impact upon them on the mass level. Intellectuals may reject God for intellectual reasons, but most of humanity is either too dull or too uninterested to be moved by refutations of the Ontological Argument (in part, because they don’t know what ontology is in the first place). And yet we do know that theism and religiosity varies between societies. Is that because of differences in psychology? I doubt it. Is it because Sweden was exposed to a great deal more Bertrand Russell and David Hume than the United States? I doubt it. Rather, since theism and religion emerge from unconscious reflexive mental processes shaped by an array of inputs and constrained cognitive biases it seems likely that the inputs, the environment, have shifted so that the intersection of mind and the world without have shifted the modal and median values. Perhaps, for example, social democracy mitigates against a vitality of religion because it renders much of civil society irrelevant. A number of individuals whose religious and theistic yearnings would express in churches and other social meeting houses might be more irreligious simply because the beam upon which their faith might have stood does not exist. In the end, just as religion is banal and convential, so its taming will have to be done via banal and convential means. Dawkins and Sam Harris are entertaining, but they are in the end less important than social processes and the Zeitgeist. In the end I am saying that he ways of the heart have little to do with the cogitations of the mind, and speaking to the latter when the object of interest is truly in the domain of the former will only result in futility.

Addendum: Theists will often point to the complexity of the world around us, the beauty of a tree, as evidence of God’s agency in the universe. Now, one may take from this the lesson that decomposing and rendering the generation of complexity, the tree, the sense of beauty elicited in our minds, through the tools of natural science will demystify the universe and so render superfluous theism. I think this is problematic because the tree illustrates the intuition of agency. Even if you generate a plausible natural (non-agent) explanation for the emergence of the tree, that does not remove the basal intuition which the tree illustrates! In other words, the contention by individuals such as Richard Dawkins that natural explanations of the world around us (he means natural selection) render God irrelevant is problematic because the world around us simply illustrates the powerful tendency to perceive, intuit, agency. That intuition does not simply evaporate even when one’s reflective mind acknowledges that such agency does not exist. Consider the case of a scientific materialist who walks through a cemetery: many stone cold materialists may still “feel” “creepy,” as if the miasma of specters haunt the environs of the decomposing bodies of the dead. On a rational level one may dismiss such instincts as unfounded, but the instincts exist and persist. I suspect many of us who are “easily” atheists have dampened agency detection biases. Or, our supreme faith in rational decomposition and analysis is greater than our agency detection intuition.2 Nevertheless, the point is that refuting illustrations of the underlying tendency does not remove that tendency.

1 – One may assert the same about natural science, that it is a social enterprise laced with subjectivity and bias. Science is a culture with its own norms and consensus arrived Truths. But, the difference is that across the dark night of scientific fabulation the scythe of reality occasionally sweeps across the sample space of ideas and leaves behind those who pass its test of fidelity to the world out there.

2 – This would imply that those who have greater skills at analysis and decomposition of ideas into abstractions would be more likely to have faith in this than their own intuitions about the world. In other words, the more intelligent will be more persuaded by atheism because of analysis because they are comfortable with analysis as a tool to understand and conceptualize the world.

Comments

  1. #1 David Boxenhorn
    December 28, 2006

    And yet we do know that theism and religiosity varies between societies. Is that because of differences in psychology?

    I think it is semantics. For example, most (all?) people have an “object hypothesis” – that the world is made of discrete objects. Is it? No, it’s just a good way for humans, because of their cognitive architecture, to model the world. But neither is it false.

    But, there is a difference: science is testable via the world around us, and, it leads to engineering. No matter its manifold flaws, it works. In contrast, theology must remain at remove from the world.

    In the social realm, the opposite is true.

  2. #2 razib
    December 28, 2006

    For example, most (all?) people have an “object hypothesis” – that the world is made of discrete objects. Is it? No, it’s just a good way for humans, because of their cognitive architecture, to model the world. But neither is it false.

    i think supernatural religion is different from something like scientific/folk physicis in that it is multi-valent. it might be a ‘model of the world’ but it also has
    ‘interpersonal’ and ‘theory of mind’ ramifications. i.e., the god-agent is peculiar because it is the ground of folk physics as well as an object of personalized communication and devotion.

    In the social realm, the opposite is true.

    no. the mapping of theology to society is magical, not scientific.

  3. #3 John Lynch
    December 28, 2006

    It’s late in the evening (and I have had good friends over that I haven’t seen in a while …) so I’ll just make one observation that may be tangential.

    Razib says

    Dawkins is almost proudly ignorant and dismissive of theology in his work

    (Noting that I think there is a difference between theology and philosophy of religion that Dawkins and his posse seem to ignore)

    It is this “proud ignorance” that annoys me more than anything else.

    No doubt I’ll post more later.

  4. #4 David Boxenhorn
    December 28, 2006

    it might be a ‘model of the world’ but it also has
    ‘interpersonal’ and ‘theory of mind’ ramifications.

    Like object model of the world has physical ramifications.

    no. the mapping of theology to society is magical, not scientific.

    I meant that it helps us more than reason in predicting social phenomena.

  5. #5 John Lynch
    December 28, 2006

    And given the above, my problem isn’t so much with “theological sophistication” as philosophical sophistication.

  6. #6 razib
    December 28, 2006

    I meant that it helps us more than reason in predicting social phenomena

    theology?

  7. #7 gc
    December 28, 2006

    I meant that it helps us more than reason in predicting social phenomena.

    You are conflating theology with sociobiology :) The various begatting exploits of Ezekiel/Abraham/Ali Baba/Thor tell us very

    It is this “proud ignorance” that annoys me more than anything else.

    It’s rational to be ignorant of superstitious mumbo jumbo. Spending time on theology for its *own sake* (and by this I mean angels on a pin type discussions or biblical exegeses) is as fruitless an activity as debating whether Wolverine could beat up Sabretooh.

    [From Lynch’s post]: Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing – and that involves reading the theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion.

    The equivalence fails because Dawkins is rejecting God root and branch, but not even the most foolhardy creationist claims that that internal combustion engine does not work.

    Most religious people do not reject ALL of science, just the parts which they find ideologically inconvenient. Hence it is appropriate to ask for technical justifications for their cafeteria canonicalism.

    The correct parallel would be if Dawkins was claiming that religion in general was ok, but that religions X, Y, and Z were untrue. At that point he would have forestalled the use of blunderbuss instruments and would be required to delve into the nitty gritty mumbo jumbo of Koran X, Bible Y, and Scroll Z.

  8. #8 gc
    December 28, 2006

    [from above]

    You are conflating theology with sociobiology :) The various begatting exploits of Ezekiel/Abraham/Ali Baba/Thor tell us nothing about human behavior beyond what you could glean from other kinds of fiction.

  9. #9 gc
    December 28, 2006

    by the way, did you catch this bit from Orr’s review? Joan Roughgarden is already the laughingstock of evolutionary genetics for that ridiculous sexual selection paper, but now we’re talking Francis Collins territory:

    Joan Roughgarden, on the other hand, is sold on religion. An evolutionary biologist at Stanford University and a recent convert to Christianity, she attempts in Evolution and Christian Faith both to explain evolutionary biology to fellow believers–laying out what is known, what is speculative, and what is unknown–and to discuss what the Bible has to say on matters relevant to evolution. These are ambitious aims, particularly for so brief a book, and Roughgarden’s own views–that, as she writes, “what evolutionary biologists are finding through their research and thinking actually promotes a Christian view of nature”–are not supported by sufficiently detailed arguments.

    Perhaps Jesus will save her theory of sexual selection.

  10. #10 David Boxenhorn
    December 28, 2006

    theology?

    No, religion. That’s why religious people keep winning political battles.

  11. #11 razib
    December 28, 2006

    No, religion. That’s why religious people keep winning political battles.

    those two are different beasts. you quoted a sentence about theology in your response so i assumed that that precision was intended.

    The equivalence fails because Dawkins is rejecting God root and branch, but not even the most foolhardy creationist claims that that internal combustion engine does not work.

    the problem is that in the god delusion he dips here & there into specific refutations of specific theological arguments. in a book that size he would have been better served by a catchall incoherentist position which allowed him to sidestep engaging in theology. but let me be clear, i think dawkins doesn’t totally discard engagement with theology because that would prevent him from using the argument against god from evil to connect religion and the omnipresence of evil.

  12. #12 gc
    December 28, 2006

    i think dawkins doesn’t totally discard engagement with theology because that would prevent him from using the argument against god from evil to connect religion and the omnipresence of evil.

    Ah, correct, good point. This is the Sarah McLachlan “Dear God” approach. It probably is good as a tactical matter to say “atheism good, religion bad” because few people want to move from something they consider moral to something they’ve been told is immoral.

    Selling atheism as *amoral* rather than *immoral* is a much harder sell as people are more interested in feeling righteous than being right :)

  13. #13 razib
    December 28, 2006

    i think a better descrip. of the god delusion than ignorant would be unfocused.

  14. #14 MartinC
    December 28, 2006

    It is difficult to get a good balance within the whole debate. I, as a biologist get completely infuriated with the obvious ignorance of many Philosophers regarding actual evolutionary evidence and theory. To think that Anthony Flew became a theist primarily due to the ‘exciting new scientific findings’ of Intelligent Design theorists -claiming he “had to go where the evidence leads” to me is mind boggling, yet to many theologians or philosophers it is simply seen as further ‘proof’ that theological arguments are correct.
    I guess theologists must get equally infuriated by those who do not understand finer theological points.
    The presuppositional point originally mentioned is, of course, crucial here. Unlike the case of the scientific argument there is no unified theological front – in order to make a coherent theological point one must of necessity dismiss conflicting theologies as mere ignorant superstitions. There is no grand alliance between the elves, dwarves and Roman Catholics in this war.
    Still, I wish there were better terms than atheist and agnostic. General understanding of the term ‘athiest’ is something akin to ‘immoral Stalinistic communist’. What Dawkins, I believe, tries to argue for is more like ‘secular humanistic free-thinking’ – a far more positive approach than negatively associated ‘atheism’.

  15. #15 NuSapiens
    December 28, 2006

    The best antidote to social religiosity is wealth. Not materialistic philosophy, but material stuff itself.

    Religion might be some kind of group survival reflex. Watch a movie like “Children of Men” and imagine living in its real counterparts: places where man is devouring man amidst ignorance, poverty and war – then ask whether a religious devotion that forces men to prostrate themselves before a universal mind (God) is irrational.

  16. #16 sean
    December 28, 2006

    Dawkins and Sam Harris are entertaining, but they are in the end less important than social processes and the Zeitgeist.

    Or perhaps they are part of an important social process. People can increase their religious fervor by going out into the desert and starving themselves, by taking hallucinogenic drugs, by reciting repetitive prayers, by listening to repeated sermons, and even by reading Anselm (ouch!). Why can’t they similarly decrease it by reading logical arguments against religion? I don’t mean that a believer will read TGD and be rationally forced to reject his faith. Rather, his reading it may plant a seed of doubt, or open him to the possibility of changing his beliefs. Or its being discussed in mainstream culture may change what is considered “acceptable discourse”. In this way, Harris and Dawkins are an important part of a potential shift in the Zeitgeist.

  17. #17 Caledonian
    December 28, 2006

    By this, I mean that Christian theology is coherent and persuasive when one presupposes a Christian set of axioms.

    No, it’s not. Christian theology is a mess of contradictions, ad hoc hypotheses, and unfounded assertions – and these things are covered by declaring they’re “mysteries”.

    A mystery is a collection of facts that we have no explanation for. Theology isn’t composed of facts, it’s composed of claims – and a collection of claims that not only have no unifying principles but actively contradict each other are nonsense, not mysterious.

  18. #18 justawriter
    December 28, 2006

    I would compare theology to the craniometricians portrayed in Gould’s Mismeasure of Man. They were very scientific, made disciplined and accurate measurements, and did make a few limited lasting contributions to human knowledge. However, there basic goal – finding a relationship between skull shape and size (and ultimately race) and human intelligence – was doomed because there is no such relationship. My point is theology only proves you can study something that isn’t there quite rigourously, in a sophisticated manner and even scientifically, for thousands of years without confronting the reality that the core of your subject does not exist.

  19. #19 Caledonian
    December 28, 2006

    You can’t study a nonexistent thing scientifically because there’s nothing to conduct experiments or observations with.

  20. #20 p-ter
    December 28, 2006

    was doomed because there is no such relationship

    sort of. brain size and intelligence are correlated
    http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v5/n2/full/nn0202-83.html

  21. #21 Jason Malloy
    December 28, 2006

    However, there basic goal – finding a relationship between skull shape and size (and ultimately race) and human intelligence – was doomed because there is no such relationship.

    Perhaps, if not the God Delusion, one day the Gould Delusion will finally crumble and blow away.

    Lynch has provided no evidence that Dawkins overlooked any important or primary theological arguments. Not one “sophisticated” (sic) theological idea has a lick of coherence so far, so it’s doubtful much of importance was overlooked.

  22. #22 PH
    December 29, 2006

    Razib,
    Excellent post. I’d like to add that I think Dawkins’s primary aim is in writing this book is (for want of a better word) political. Something like:

    >>General understanding of the term ‘athiest’ is something akin to ‘immoral Stalinistic communist’. What Dawkins, I believe, tries to argue for is more like ‘secular humanistic free-thinking’ – a far more positive approach than negatively associated ‘atheism’.< <

    As for theology,
    >>you can study something that isn’t there quite rigourously<<
    it sounds a lot like astrology. If you start from the assumption that stellar arrangements affect personal fortunes, you can (and I know people who have) work out all sorts of physics and math from those assumptions. But you’ve gotten off the wrong foot!

  23. #23 bob
    January 3, 2007

    Biologists do seem to have a frightfully difficult time testing their theories in the real world. Perhaps it would be better if we could all just admit that Dawkins’s opinions on theology are just that, his opinions. Outside his area of expertise, he’s just another schmuck like the rest of us.

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