Carroll steps up to the plate…

The physicist Sean Carroll takes on Eagleton, and also makes a few comments on The God Delusion—key point, I think: Dawkins took on too many issues at once in the book, and opened himself up to criticisms on the weaker parts that are used to dismiss the stronger parts. I agree.

Most of the discussion takes up a weakness in theology, and it parallels the weakness in Dawkins’ book: the confusion between different concepts of this god-thingie. Theologians play that one like a harp, though, turning it into a useful strategem. Toss the attractive, personal, loving or vengeful anthropomorphic tribal god to the hoi-polloi to keep them happy, no matter how ridiculous the idea is and how quickly it fails on casual inspection, while holding the abstract, useless, lofty god in reserve to lob at the uppity atheists when they dare to raise questions. When we complain that the god literally described in the Old Testament is awfully petty and hey, doesn’t this business of a trinity and an immortal god being born as a human and dying (sorta) sound silly, they can just retort that our theology is so unsophisticated—Christians don’t really believe in that stuff.

It gets annoying. We need two names for these two concepts, I think. How about just plain “God” for the personal, loving, being that most Christians believe in, and “Oom” for the bloodless, fuzzy, impersonal abstraction of the theologians? Not that the theologians will ever go along with it—the last thing they want made obvious is the fact that they’re studying a completely different god from the creature most of the culture is worshipping.


  1. #1 John Wilkins
    October 30, 2006

    Trouble is that there’s no clear distinction between these two apparently different conceptions. Some Oomists are at least partly Godists, and all Godists who aren’t unable to deal with reality in the slightest are at least partly Oomists. And untilt hat is understood, the arguments – all well presented and discussed by Dawkins – against Godism will failt o hit the mark. I said in my blog that he overgeneralises. He does here too. To an extent he thinks that he has dealt with Oomism and hybrids by dealing with blind Godism, but it’s a case of a real strawman. Sure, fundamentalism and extremism in religion are abhorrent, and they are a substantial portion of religious theism. But that won’t dispose of Oomism, nor of hybrid forms of religious belief.

    And it is also a strawman to say that Oomism is bloodless and impersonal. I know Oomists who have a very personalised view of Oom (just not as a humanlike agent). Beware strawmen. They have a tendency to catch fire from time to time.

  2. #2 Grady
    October 30, 2006

    Actually the sweeping generalization about the Old Testament and theology in general smell a lot like bigoty on Dawkins part.

    And do I detect a little anti semitism?

  3. #3 "Q" the Enchanter
    October 30, 2006

    Here was my humble post on Eagleton’s article when it was first published:

    Eagleton’s Caliginesis

    Shorter Terry Eagleton:

    Richard Dawkins’ critique of popular religious belief fails because he does not take seriously certain obscure conceptions of God that only a vanishingly small minority of religious believers themselves take seriously.

  4. #4 Jud
    October 30, 2006

    Sean Carroll: “But Dawkins has a strategy that is very common among atheist polemicists, and with which I tend to disagree. That’s to simultaneously tackle three very different issues:
    “1. Does God exist? Are the claims of religion true, as statements about the fundamental nature of the universe?
    “2. Is religious belief helpful or harmful? Does it do more bad than good, or vice-versa?
    “3. Why are people religious? Is there some evolutionary-psychological or neurological basis for why religion is so prevalent?”

    Carroll’s opinion is that the first issue is pretty much a slam-dunk “No,” while the other two are more complex and perhaps need not to be taken on by Dawkins or others arguing for an atheist point of view; PZ’s comments indicate he agrees.

    My personal view is that the first issue is also one that need not be taken on in the name of science, though of course one would certainly want to take it on if arguing in favor of atheism or atheists.

    It seems to me that in a universe that (as Haldane said) is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we *can* imagine, we cannot yet conclude with any confidence that no intelligence generally meeting the description of “supreme being” exists. Of course I realize how vanishingly unlikely any such thing seems. But I find it impossible to see how a hypothesis worthy of being called scientific can be derived on the subject, when after all, we don’t know how much we don’t know about the universe and its origins (though I strongly suspect the answer to the question “How much don’t we know?” is on the order of “A whole shitload.”)

    I’ve seen PZ refer to parsimony, but I think the best use of that principle is to choose between alternatives where one knows a fair amount about them. Use of parsimony in a relative vacuum of knowledge can easily lead to wrong answers. Before quantum mechanics and a more sophisticated knowledge of particle physics, what need was there of quarks? Wouldn’t mere parsimony have indicated we could stop at protons and neutrons?

    Yes, I realize my position can easily be reduced to a “God of the gaps” argument. I can only say in defense that I am not trying to use whatever real gaps may exist in our knowledge (in contrast to, e.g., the “no intermediate forms” claptrap of creationists and ID adherents) to argue for the existence of a being powerful enough to be thought of as “supreme.” Rather, I am saying (1) a proper humility in the face of what we don’t know argues against calling atheism a scientific hypothesis at this point (however strongly what we do know may point in that direction), and (2) it’s not an argument that needs to be taken on in order to stand up for science against charlatans.

  5. #5 Larry Moran
    October 30, 2006

    Let’s not lose sight of the forest. This is a war between superstition and rationalism.

    The belief in supernatural beings is only one form of superstition but it’s the one that Dawkins deals with in his book. It doesn’t matter whether your favorite God is kind, ethereal and adopts a hands-off policy with respect to the existing natural world or whether he is mean, corporal, and interferes frequently. Both types of God are delusions.

    Dawkins defines the God Hypothesis as,

    … there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.

    I challenge every “religious” person who rejects this God to stand up and be counted. Instead of beating around the bush and whining about different kinds of personal gods, why not just come out and admit that you don’t believe in a supernatural being who created the universe? If you can’t bring yourself to deny that kind of God then you’re on the side of superstition.

    We’ll deal with other kinds of deist and pantheist Gods later. For now, I’d be happy to live in a world that rejected the straightforward version of God that Dawkins describes. This is the God that Ted Haggart believes in and it’s the God that’s worshiped by the leaders of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

  6. #6 Kristine
    October 30, 2006

    Before you can debate the existence of any God you first have to establish what God is.

    I think that humanity has failed to do that after thousands of years of talking about it, because God is actually defined in terms of the negative (not of the world, not physical, not this and not that). Being a mere negation of what exists, no one will ever establish what God “is,” and that’s what theologians call the “mystery” of God. It’s no mystery. They just call the empty glass “full” of something else.

    I just read God Delusion in a marathon session yesterday and need to go over it again (I must say that debating religion is interesting, as debating politics is, but thinking about God himself as a living entity–something I still can’t get my head around–makes me claustrophobic). But what weak parts are we talking about? Those who say that Dawkins’ book is “weak” have only themselves to blame, for he is refuting their arguments, after all.

  7. #7 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Strawman alert: Who is spending scientific effort on “this God business”? Certainly not Dawkins, who long ago ceased to be a practicing scientist. Scientists are busy with their research, and a majority of them find atheism so obvious as to be hardly worth discussing.

  8. #8 Jud
    October 30, 2006

    Steve LaBonne: “Who is spending *scientific* effort on ‘this God business?’ Certainly not Dawkins, who long ago ceased to be a practicing scientist.”

    Well, that’s actually a bit disappointing. I was wondering whether I might want to read TGD, but I am much less interested in “this God business” than I am in good science writing.

    Those who’ve read Dawkins’ latest: Any opinions on which of his books (TGD included) might best reward someone interested in good science writing?

  9. #9 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Dawkins is a very good science popularizer (pace Larry Moran!) which is what Oxford pays him for. Any of his books would be worth reading.

  10. #10 George
    October 30, 2006

    Bazillions of words have to be wasted because of one simple fact:

    Somebody long ago came up with a dumb idea about a fantasy God.

    What a fucking joke. It’s just going to go on and on and on and on like that dumb Energizer bunny because people get wrapped up in amazingly complex details about nothing.

    Dawkins is refreshing because he understands that the very idea of a fantasy god is just a load of horse hockey invented to make someone feel good a long time ago. His answer? RIDICULE.

    I never cease to marvel at the human ingenuity for making arguments one way or the other about absolutely nothing.

    Jeebus, I am sick of this!

  11. #11 lockean
    October 30, 2006


    The weakness of the argument made by Dawkins in The God Delusion are less in the area of factual truth (though Dawkins makes errors here and there as does any author), but in the area of effectiveness.

    I have no problem with Dawkins’ cursory, cover-the-ground approach to relgious arguments. He gets the gist and manages to convey the basics in a few sentences or paragraphs. I don’t mind the inevitable minor inaccuracies, muddle and skating this method introduces. But the fact is, it pisses off too many other people who take pride in their exacting, sophisticated knowledge of various specialities, and for what?

    As PZ pointed out in a previous post and as many comments in the threads attest, theology is irrelevant to modern religion anyway. Dawkins could write a 10,000 page book disproving every argument with exacting precision, but that would reinforce the notion that those arguments are legitimate and worthy of such treatment. Plus few sane people would waste their time reading 10,000 pages of metaphysical bullshit. As Sean Carroll points out in the link theology’s rational arguments–cosmological and design–have already been disproven.

    So what do we do?

    What Dawkins proved to me is that proof isn’t enough. Sensing as I read that this approach won’t fly, it just won’t work, and having that confirmed by the reviews, made it a valuable book to me. From David Hume to Bertand Russell to Dawkins, atheists have been demonstrating the rational flaws of religion. Meanwhile religion has (IMO) gotten more dangerous not less so. Atheists aren’t at fault, but there might be better strategies we haven’t yet arrived at. At least it’s worth thinking about.

  12. #12 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    A statement that I imagine many of us could agree on is that Dennett’s book is considerably better than Dawkins’s.

  13. #13 Kristine
    October 30, 2006

    Lockean, that’s interesting. I agree that the book pisses people off. The question is (and this is not as obvious as it may seem) why?

    After all, I came away with a sense of how deeply Dawkins cares about human beings, and it really astonishes me that human beings should get angry that another human being would esteem human beings above gods. It reminds me of the women during the suffragette movement who resented the suffragettes. What were they angry about?

    What I discovered while reading The God Delusion is that I didn’t enjoy it as much as his other books, because while I enjoy Dawkins’ voice I didn’t enjoy the subject matter (God, as opposed to religion). That made me realize something about myself, which is that I have a visceral response to the idea of God that borders on my reaction to being in a small confined space, and I don’t choose that at all, whereas religious believers enjoy believing in God, apparently. I say “apparently” because–and I am someone really in touch with her feelings, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get gal–the whole thing gives me a stomach-ache.

    So the believer and I are irrevocably estranged, and I don’t know how anyone can “argue” around that. Believers tell me to “open my heart,” which is condescending, because I’m out there all the time–I’m a terrible liar and I’m terrible at hiding my feelings, and I need to “open my heart?” Damn, it’s open already. My heart’s open, the believer’s heart is (I trust) open, and we don’t like the same thing, and that’s it. I mean, why are some people fans of Michael Landon? Dr. Phil? Bleh! It’s the same thing.

    Not only do I not believe in God, I wouldn’t want him to exist. What a killjoy! I don’t get this sense of comfort that God provides. So maybe people will never be persuaded by atheists as long as they have this need to be told what to do. As long as I’m not thinking about God, I’m happy.

    I have yet to read Dennett’s book but he’s next.

  14. #14 George
    October 30, 2006

    There needs to be a Richard Dawkins Halloween mask.

    Aaaaaaahhhhhhh! Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh! Aaaaaaaahhhhhh! Richard Dawkins! Aaaaaaaahhhhhh!

    In his next book, I hope he really lets loose on the nuts. He’s really being too nice in God Delusion.

    A great book could be made of the great comments posted here and elsewhere that revel in and reveal the sheer absurdity of god belief.

    Politeness be damned.

  15. #15 Scott Hatfield
    October 30, 2006

    Steve LeBonne:

    The true state of affairs is not that the majority of scientists find atheism obvious, but that all workers who are actually doing science correctly regard supernatural claims as irrelevant to their practice. Scientists, by definition, are involved in an atheistic enterprise.

    The difference matters, I think. Sure, I’m a theist, but one could as a personal matter radically committed to non-belief and yet not wish to conflate atheism per se with science. You are correct to note that Dawkins is not a practiciing scientist; however, unlike his previous books, ‘The God Delusion’ is not primarily concerned with popularizing science or with debating constructs within evolutionary theory. Rather, it’s purpose is philosophical and I fear his ambition leads him to incautiously blur the distinction between what science can support and what it can’t. Despite the disclaimer implied in this article’s title, for example, most readers are likely to receive the impression that he thinks that science can be used to ‘prove’ his philosophical position:

    Read it for yourself. The implication in this extract is pitiable. Even if Christianity is just another ‘delusion’, it’s naive to think that the construct could be falsified by testing the DNA of an alleged ‘Jesus’, or that in fact the doctrine of the Virgin Birth actually has any testable consequences. Respectfully submitted…SH

  16. #16 Steve LaBonne
    October 30, 2006

    Scott- I remember seeing polling results indicating that the majority of scientists are actual, not just facultative, unbelievers. I certainly agree with you that this is not necessary for doing good science; one can point to quite a few examples showing that.

    Yes Dawkins is making philosophical points. They are points wth which I agree and which for a number of reasons I think need to be made forcefully, publically and repeatedly. Your mileage of course varies. I can certainly live with agreeing to disagree about that.

  17. #17 Scott Hatfield
    October 30, 2006


    One dedicated, tireless popularizer of science with a breadth of education and wide-ranging interests is worth a thousand degreed, technically skilled workers in some esoteric field who are poorly cultured.

    Was Carl Sagan an expert on every field in which he opined, and did he do a lot of meaningful original scientific work following the first broadcast of Cosmos?
    By no means.

    Did Sagan had a positive influence on a generation of scientists far greater than many contemporary Nobelists? Doubtless.

    Therefore I suggest, MOMUS, that you broaden your horizons in evaluating the worth of science popularizers, be they Dawkins, PZ or others. Chidingly….SH

  18. #18 Kristine
    October 30, 2006

    Thank you, Torbjörn, “straitjacket” (and, for the GOP lately, “straightjacket”) about describes it.

    There needs to be a Richard Dawkins Halloween mask. Aaaaaaahhhhhhh! Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh! Aaaaaaaahhhhhh! Richard Dawkins! Aaaaaaaahhhhhh! In his next book, I hope he really lets loose on the nuts. He’s really being too nice in God Delusion.

    George. I can’t stop laughing! But I hope that Dawkins settles down to write a memoir someday; he’s had an interesting life.

  19. #19 john c. halasz
    October 31, 2006

    At the risk of stepping into the deep doo-doo here, as to why some, (myself included), find Dawkins’ polemics against religion objectionable, inspite of broadly agreeing with both his atheism and his valuation of natural science, it’s the sheer bumptiousness with which he conducts them, which borders on,- dare I say it,- philistinism, a narrow and reductive understanding/approach to the cultural and philosophical issues involved, which he doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on. I myself am an atheist/indifferentist: it’s the same world and the same human existence for believers and unbelievers alike, such that nobody gets a leg up through privileging their own particular beliefs/rationality/egotism. What I object to in “militant” atheism is that it mirrors the very sort of chauvinism that it takes objection to in religious believers and adopts a simplistic and reductive,- dare I say “fundamentalist”?- approach to the complex web of beliefs comprising persons and societies, which gives rise to something all too like evangenlical zeal, as if the resolution of all the world’s problems would turn upon this issue. And that accomplishes little by way of understanding and elucidation of the issues that might be involved other than baiting his red meat supporters into frenzied assertions of their own complete and total “rationality” and the idiocy/duplicity of “irrational” others. Most of all it leads on to unreflective affirmations of “metaphysical naturalism”, without noticing the oxymoron. Why “metaphysical”? Isn’t just plain naturalism a perfectly adequate framework for investigating and resolving questions in its purview, without any need to extend that framework beyond its competency? Bluntly put, the modern world, (natural science included), is for the most part not natural, but rather a built environment, i.e. artificial. So is there a purely naturalistic explanation, i.e. in terms of efficient causality alone, for that artificiality? Questions about human fate in a world that exceeds the human are not self-evidently scientific ones, and suppressing that topos in the name of a dubious identification of scientific progress with human progress is scarcely a “scientific” procedure. Still less “scientific” is the effort to reduce religious conceptions to intra-worldly empirical “objects”, while ignoring the socio-cultural complexion of the framework from which they arise.

    But probably that saddest part and worst fault of Dawkins’ style of polemic, whereby all religion is reduced to religious fundamentalism in the name of a “scientific” “Enlightenment fundamentalism”, (see Ian Buruma),- and all believers are viewed as inherently irrational, stupid, or self-serving, regardless of what their own reasonings and self-conceptions might be, is that it misrecognizes the “enemy”, socio-politically speaking, which is not religion per se, but rather the functionalization of religion in a political-ideological deployment on behalf of dominant vested interests. Contemporary right-wing Christian fundamentalism is not just some sudden and inexplicable outburst of irrationality and ignorance, whatever its historical antecedents, but rather a deliberately crafted and manipulated phalangist movement. Attacking religious belief per se, rather than the distortions and instrumentalizations of its normative contents, which are less about the cognitive understanding of the natural world than the social ordering of ethical relations with respect to collective fate, not only badly misses the point interpretively, but serves to re-enforce what it ostensibly opposes, precisely by blocking off any communicative understanding and deliberation, any search for, broadly speaking, rational common ground. But that would involve normative considerations and judgments about the political economy of the United States that are clearly not for the “scientifically” minded.

  20. #20 Steve LaBonne
    October 31, 2006

    a narrow and reductive understanding/approach to the cultural and philosophical issues involved, which he doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on.

    This can politely be described as “tendentious”, and suggests to me that you haven’t given a very attentive reading to the book. Dawkins is a cultured man, has very appreciative things to say in his book about religion’s past contributions to culture, and actually recommends MORE STUDY of religion in schools, and in particular of the King James Bible, which as he rightly says is essential to anyone who would appreciate English literature (as well as for the Old Testament brutality which ought to open the eyes of many believers who aren’t as well-versed in the Good Book as they imagine they are). What he objects to is indoctrination in the dogmas of a particular religion- I should hope you don’t have a problem with that objection. (PZ gets all this correct in his Seed review, the only reviewer to do so as far as I am aware.)

    And he is on very firm philosophical ground indeed in saying that credulity in general, not merely its most fundamentalist varieties, is a bad thing. Do you wish to argue against that proposition?

    Having said that, I will repeat that I think Dennett has written a better book, a more serious contribution to the study of religion as a social and evolutionary phenomenon. But what is old-hat to me in Dawkins’s book may well be eye-opening to some readers who still in the grip of their childhood religious indoctrination and who have had little exposure to self-confident unbelief.

  21. #21 Terry
    November 2, 2006

    Why should a theologian know more about God than Dawkins or me for that matter? When I was a christian I had an image of god that I was certainly unable to explain. More a feeling I suppose. I heard a story of a person who was blind an then had sight restored by an operation. She saw a tea pot on the table and asked what it was,only when she picked it up and handeled it did she recognise it.So you could recognise god with perhaps one of your senses and not by the others. Well maybe only your six sense whatever that is and then try to explain it to someone using their five senses. I think the two gods we talk about, the philosophical god and the christian god are the same god, only the christian god has had all the humnan characteristics attached to her,good and bad. For thirty years I have tried to understand why my friends who are fairly intellegent stilll believe in a loving personal god when I moved on. The only reason I can think of is that I went to University and studied biological science in the 1950’s while they studied law or accountancy an I have had a life long interest in science even though I am not a professional scientist, just a farmer. In the 1950’s we didn’t even know about DNA,and Darwin and evolution were not even mentioned. I have had to make an effort to study these things, especially DNA to know what is going on and not just take a casuall interest in them. So maybe its not so difficult to understand why people won’t accept evolution. However even my cleaning lady said to me , its much more reasonable to accept evolution than creationism as an explanation of life so maybe she is more intellegent than my friends.

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