Monotheism

Blake‘Monotheism’ is not an easy word to define. It means belief in a single god, that much is easy, but now we must define ‘god’. The term ‘monotheism’ predates the modern use of the term ‘theism’ by at least a century, so there is little point looking to the self-proclaimed Theists of the eighteenth century and later for answers. However, a precise definition is not actually necessary for communication.

Consider a heap of sand. Now remove one grain of sand at a time from that heap until only a single grain is left. At which point did the heap cease to be a heap? Alternatively, place one grain of sand in the palm of your hand. Add a single grain at a time until you have a small pile of sand in your hand. What was the precise moment at which it became a pile? Which grain was it that transformed the few scattered grains into a pile? Of course, that question can not be answered. There is no precise definition of ‘heap’ or ‘pile’ in this context. However, we must understand what those words mean because we can use them in conversation and be understood. If we were scientists and we wished to use ‘heap’ as a scientific unit then we would have to be precise. Just as we have a precise definition of ‘metre’ (it is now defined as the distance travelled by light in absolute vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second) we would have to define ‘heap’ precisely for use in our calculations. However, such a unit would not correspond with what is generally meant by the word.

Similarly, a term such as ‘monotheism’ ought to be understood without reference to a precise dictionary definition. Indeed, any precise definition we might propose could only serve a very limited purpose, similar to a scientifically defined heap. We must come to an understanding of the term in a round about manner.

Monotheism is not a hypothesis to be tested so much as it is a particular way of looking at the world. A word that I often use in the same context as ‘monotheism’ is ‘universalism’. By universalism, I mean a belief in — most importantly a propensity to act as if — the world were homogeneous. In a shallow way, this could be thought of as similar to the saying, “What is good for one is good for all.” I like the word ‘universalism’ because it is more obviously opposed to the value of the particular and the subjective. It is also perhaps less contentious than ‘monotheism’ as it is not so readily associated with particular religious practices or dogma. However, it is still liable to misinterpretation. For instance, when I attack universalism I do not mean to deny that there may be universal truths — that is another question entirely — but I can see how one might get confused between the way of thinking that I intend to designate by the term and particular thoughts (assertions or hypotheses) that I do not.

And so, even though some people that I might call ‘monotheist’ would deny my claim because they do not believe in a personal god, I still think it is the best word to use. If you are capable of seeing beyond particular manifestations of monotheism — if rather than contrasting the burkha and the cassock you look instead at the minds of the people wearing them — then you should be able to discern an underlying attitude that really is best described as a belief in ‘one god’.

Accordingly, I think there are three great monotheisms in the world today. The first is the heretical Jewish sect, Christianity. Although the seeds of Christianity are clearly present in Judaism, I hesitate to call the Jewish creed a monotheism itself. I’d rather designate it a proto-monotheism, along the lines of Amenhotep IV’s cult of Aten in Ancient Egypt. The second is Islam. The third is Modernism (for a brief description of which, see my last post.) All of them stem in some way from the figure of Abraham but I don’t think I’ll get away with calling Modernism an Abrahamic religion…

Modernism, in the form of the Enlightenment, has given us a lot. Although it is a natural extension of Protestantism, it is the progress of science that has freed us from many superstitions and religious oppression. The Enlightenment created a context in which science could flourish, which has brought us satisfaction of many of our material desires. It is easy today, in our safe and secure homes, to take for granted the benefits that scientific progress has given us. There are many trite examples – for instance, the fact that you can read this article – but there are also many much more important ones: consider the amazing advances in medical science that have allowed us to eradicate or manage so many lethal diseases. However, today the Enlightenment is stagnating. Modernism is taking on the universalising role of the religion from which it attempted to free us. Furthermore, with the possible exception of some schools in the Bible Belt, Modernism is not required for scientific progress. The rebellion against religious oppression has already succeeded – no modern astronomer would suffer the fate of Galileo – and just as teenage rebellion is a necessary stage in the development of an adult but debilitating if it is not later transcended, so intelligent scientists can only be held back by a hypocritical devotion to Modernism.

Christianity serves, to some extent, as a tempering influence. In its fundamentalist forms it represents a deplorable regression but in its softer forms it helps to slow down the desacralisation of the world for which Modernism strives. Christianity, particularly the Protestant churches in Northern Europe, now reflects the original culture of the indigenous people almost as much as it is does the catholic creed. The Archbishop of Canterbury would surely have been executed as a heretic if he had lived a few hundred years ago. Christianity spread by adapting itself to local cultures; this allowed for a rapid expansion but it did so by diluting or polluting the original church. Thus Christianity is weak and in some respects it is more a product of Europeans than we are of it. So, when faced by threats from the more powerful monotheisms of our age, it is tempting to turn to Christianity for our defence. But we must always remember that, however it has adapted its appearance, at heart it is still a monotheism. We need only to look at the fundamentalists in America or to remember the Inquisition in Europe to see the behaviour that Christianity would inspire if it still could.

Islam has none of the redeeming features of Modernism or Christianity. It has not and would not free us from religious oppression – quite the opposite. Although in the past Islam has proved more tolerant than Christianity (for example, we owe much of our knowledge of classical European philosophy to the efforts of Muslim scholars) this can hardly be employed as evidence in its favour today. Islam is entirely foreign to Europe. It has not been Germanicised in the way that Christianity in Northern Europe has been: it remains an entirely Middle Eastern creed. Indeed, many disturbing parallels can be drawn between Islam today and pre-Reformation Christianity. In a number of ways, modern Islam epitomises monotheism. While Modernism and Christianity have been tempered by each other and the cultural contexts in which they exist, which both weakens them and makes their influence more insidious, Islam remains pure and unadulterated.

It is my hope that, if you know something about the philosophies I have mentioned and so can place my comments in context, by reading the above you will have gained a better idea of what I mean by the term ‘monotheism’.

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Published in: on October 31, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

The God Delusion

The God DelusionAbout a fortnight ago, I wrote a review of Richard Dawkins’ latest book. I enjoyed writing it but for various reasons have decided to replace it with this article instead. I apologise to those who commented on my review and whose comments have now been deleted along with it. Thank you very much for commenting: it did Need to be deleted and I thought it inappropriate to transfer the comments to this article.

What actually is the ‘God Delusion’? What is it that Dawkins is attacking? He appears to be attacking anything to do with religion. He claims that religion is responsible for suicide bombers, the Northern Ireland Troubles and honour killings, as well as a few things for which it might more reasonably be blamed. Amusingly, he asks his reader to “imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion… Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues…” I’m not sure if that solecism is mitigated or exacerbated by his later claim that Buddhism is just an ‘ethical system’ or ‘philosophy of life’. However, although in practice his rhetoric indiscriminately attacks anything he suspects of being religious, he does try to define his theoretical position more accurately.

First he provides a definition of the word ‘God’, which is presumably the definition he had in mind when he wrote the title of his book. He makes it clear that he is not referring to God as a synonym for Nature, which is a poetic usage of the term found in the writings of Einstein and other atheistic scientists. He writes:

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that ‘God is the ultimate’ or ‘God is our better nature’ or ‘God is the universe.’ Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that ‘God is energy,’ then you can find God in a lump of coal.

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.

It is important to note the three defining characteristics of Dawkins’ God. First, it is ‘supernatural’. He explains what he means by this term later in the book. Second, his God is a creator. Dawkins spends a lot of his time arguing against Creationists, so it is natural that he should make the target of his attack a creator god. Third, his God is the object of worship. Since he specifically uses Weinberg’s phrase ‘appropriate for us to worship’, I am fairly sure he is thinking of the devotional rituals of submission found in the Abrahamic religions. This is important because a large portion of his critique of religion is focused on the oppressive nature of those monotheisms.

The latter two characteristics of his God contain the seed of the biggest flaw in his attack, which is the sloppy way in which he makes unjustified generalisations. For example, having successfully refuted the arguments for the existence of God that rely on the need for a creator, he does not consider any other conceptions of the divine (or, more generally, the concept of ‘the sacred’) but assumes that his particular refutation of the Creationist arguments is enough. Similarly, having described the horrors of fundamentalist Islam, Christianity and Judaism, he glibly extends his characterisation to all other religions.

His readiness to jump from particulars to generalisations is easily illustrated. In the second chapter he explicitly defines the ‘God Hypothesis’, which he claims is a delusion:

I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

However, a mere five pages later, he writes:

I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

On the next page, having said that for the remainder of the book he will concentrate on the Abrahamic religions, Dawkins writes:

And I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.

Thus it is quite difficult to discern what it is that Dawkins is actually attacking. Is it important that the God is a creator or not? Why are some religions exempt from his ire? He says he is not concerned with “other religions” but which are they? Other than what? The implication is “other than the Abrahamic religions” but that can’t be right because he attacks Hinduism and a number of other polytheisms and, besides, he said, “I am attacking God, all gods…”

The only thread running throughout his attacks is his repeated reference to the ‘supernatural’. He writes, “I decry supernaturalism in all its forms…” But what does he mean by ‘supernatural’? To illustrate the difference between ‘superhuman’ and ‘supernatural’ he posits the existence of an advanced alien civilisation. Their technology is so advanced that, to humans, they seem “god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.” He writes:

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way.

Now, at last we can see how Dawkins really thinks of religion, and why he consequently thinks Buddhism is an ‘ethical system’. He thinks religion is concerned with intelligent entities that appeared out of nowhere. He thinks of religion as one might think of a fantasy story about dragons.

This is in keeping with the ‘God Hypothesis’ that he proposed. It is also a depressingly accurate description of the beliefs of many people. Fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews – the sort of people who interpret the Bible as literal, historical fact – do indeed seem to conceive of religion in this way. Many of these people have a worrying amount of influence over my life so I am quite happy for Dawkins to attack their ludicrous creed. I doubt this book will do any good simply because I don’t think any fundamentalist wackos will buy it (unless it is just to burn it) but I suppose there is no harm in trying and it will make Dawkins a nice pot of money.

However, in this book Dawkins gives the constant impression that he is attacking not just this facile ‘God Hypothesis’ but rather all religion. This is very confusing. Despite explicitly stating the hypothesis against which he is arguing, he also writes the following:

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise – as sure as night follows day – turn up in a review: ‘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.’ That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long… I know you don’t believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let’s not waste any more time on that.

So which is it? Is he attacking all religion or just the old man in the sky hypothesis? I think the fundamental problem is that Dawkins can’t tell the difference. The reason he misinterprets that frequent retort (I assume he does not realise that the ‘old man in the sky’ and the ‘God Hypothesis’ are the same thing) and the reason he suggests that Buddhism is merely an ‘ethical system’ is that he doesn’t understand what religion is.

That’s a slightly unfair criticism, since there is no universally accepted definition of the term ‘religion’ and not even a consensus on the etymology of the word, but I think it is fair to say that religion is not the ‘God Hypothesis’. If he had actually done some research into the topic (rather than just reading Frazer and “marvel[ling] at the richness of human gullibility”) then this would have been obvious to him. When people argue about science without bothering to understand it first, Dawkins gets quite annoyed. So I consider it rather hypocritical of him to write this book about religion without bothering to understand the topic first.

I think Dawkins is an excellent scientist (to the extent that I can judge such things.) However, I think he’s a terrible philosopher. Alister McGrath said:

…I think his entire method is based on the assumption of the transference of competence.

In other words, because this man is a very competent evolutionary biologist, that same competency is evident in, for example, his views on religion. And really, one of the things I find so distressing and so puzzling in reading him was that his actual knowledge of religion is very slight.

I find this quite odd. It doesn’t seem to be in keeping with his general attitude, which is one of careful research and argument. Dawkins seems to have a blind spot when it comes to religion. In fact, his behaviour is remarkably similar to that of a priest of a rival religion: he writes tracts denouncing heresies and goes on tours to preach (mostly to the converted.)

On Monday, I went to see Dawkins participate in what was advertised as a debate but what turned out to be him reading sections from The God Delusion then answering some questions from the audience. It was quite weird. Most of the members of the audience who spoke sounded just like religious fundamentalists: they proudly announced their allegiance to atheism, they mocked the pernicious theists, they praised Dawkins and spoke to him in reverential tones. Dawkins himself was actually better than I expected him to be, in his answers to questions he came across as far more discerning than he does in his book, but the event was definitely not a debate.

I think Dawkins is, in effect, a priest. He is a priest of modernity. It is obviously quite different from most cults in appearance but, beneath the superficial layer of ceremony or lack of it, the underlying behaviour patterns are quite similar. His theology is Logical Positivism, which I have argued elsewhere is essentially based on faith. Gregory Bruce Smith has summarised the tenets of modernity. In Nietzsche, Heidegger and The Deflections of Postmodernism he writes:

Reflecting on what might come after modernity is complicated by the necessity of trying to articulate the nature of the modern. This is a much discussed and much vexed question. For the sake of making a beginning I will posit several features that seem intrinsic to modernity. The list is neither exhaustive nor random. It too represents a useful point of departure. Indicative of modernity are: (1) faith in both the utility and beneficence of modern science and technology; (2) a fundamentally egalitarian longing conjoined with a belief that natural differences either are not or should not be a primary determinant of human outcomes; (3) a faith in Enlightenment, a belief that society can exist without the aid of myth, with religion being seen as a variant of myth; (4) a faith in progressivity and, more generally, in the linearity and transparency of the course of human history; (5) a faith in the superiority of universality to particularity; and (6) a faith in the autonomy of the self-grounding, self-legislating, self-conscious ego and, consequently, a faith in the predictability and beneficence of consciously manufactured outcomes.

At the heart of modernity is a faith in the beneficence of a new science that has as its end unlocking the resources of nature. Implied in this faith is a belief that human happiness primarily presupposes emancipation from scarcity, chance, and natural limitations of all kinds. This faith easily links up with the faith that the good life implies affluence and freedom from consciousness of the cessation of life. The duration of life and freedom from fear of consciousness of death – that is, a refusal to accept finitude and mortality – is seen as intrinsic to the good life. Likewise, enhancing the qualitative and quantitative gratification of bodily desires is central. Hence the good modern believes it is not only possible but desirable to construct a world where the good things – reducible primarily to affluence and long life – are distributed equally and are not dependent on chance occurrences, the station in life one is born into, or even the natural lottery concerning human characteristics. Egalitarianism, utilitarianism, hedonism, and pacifism run deeply throughout the modern longing.

All of this links up with faith that there is not, or should not be, anything in human existence so mysterious or ineffable that it cannot be “rationally” articulated. There is no need for a poetic articulation of things and no reason to take seriously the claims of divine revelation – revelation in any form is indistinguishable from poetic, mythic speech. Myth in all its deployments is understood not as a response to the ineffability of the subject matter; it is simply a tool of those who wish to take dominance over others. It is an attempt to keep people in the dark on important matters that can be adequately articulated in straightforward modes of discourse that demystify existence and make it accessible to all.

Modernism is essentially universalist and in that respect has a lot in common with monotheism. Its morality is also monotheist, both in its historical source and in its emphasis on egalitarianism. Dawkins takes great pleasure in quoting passages from the Bible which demonstrate how incompatible modern morality is with the morality of the Old Testament. This, he claims, demonstrates that one does not need to be religious to be moral. However, he fails to distinguish between religion as an aspect of culture and specific superstitions. If, rather than focussing on the ‘God Hypothesis’, we consider religion as a manifestation of a Weltanschauung, then the atheist materialism of modernity can be seen as an inevitable development of monotheism. This has been cogently argued by Collin Cleary in Tyr.

In order to continue the universalising process, and especially to enforce egalitarianism, modernism must desacralise the world. It is the sacred that makes the world heterogenous (see Eliade’s The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion) and modernism requires homogeneity. I doubt this is the conscious goal of people like Dawkins – I certainly don’t think he’d use this terminology anyway – but I think this might be what lies behind his crusade against religion and his apparent confusion over its nature.

Published in: on October 13, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)