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.