[FoRK] The Anti-Memes spread...
Stephen D. Williams
<sdw at lig.net> on
Tue Oct 23 21:23:30 PDT 2007
Good blogger I think:
"According to the straw man, God is some thing, or some person, or some
something, of an essentially supernatural character, .... That’s a
hopelessly simplistic and unsophisticated notion, apparently; not at all
what careful theologians actually have in mind.
..... it’s precisely the notion of God that nearly all non-theologians —
that is to say, the overwhelming majority of religious believers, at
least in the Western world — actually believe in. Not just the most
fanatic fundamentalists; that’s the God that the average person is
worshiping in Church on Sunday. And, to his credit, Skinner grants this
[best Jon Stewart whine] Really? Are theologians that sophisticated? Are
their "followers" that out of touch with what they themselves believe?
This is like the Latin-speaking clergy vs. the lay plebes all over again
(or still, should I say?).
"It’s a strategy, I suppose. Not an intellectually honest one, but one
that can help you wriggle out of a lot of uncomfortable debates. ... To
which I can only reply, you’re welcome to call it whatever you like, but
it makes no difference whatsoever. Might as well just admit that you’re
Please Tell Me What “God” Means
Sean at 5:15 pm, October 20th, 2007
Via 3quarksdaily, here is Richard Skinner (”poet, writer, qualified
therapist and performer”) elaborating on Why Christians should take
Richard Dawkins seriously.  I would argue that they should take him
seriously because much of what he says is true, but that’s not Skinner’s
Skinner suggests that Dawkins is arguing against a straw-man notion of
God (stop me if you’ve heard this before). According to the straw man,
God is some thing, or some person, or some something, of an essentially
supernatural character, with a lot of influence over what happens in the
universe, and in particular the ability to sidestep the laws of nature
to which the rest of us are beholden. That’s a hopelessly simplistic and
unsophisticated notion, apparently; not at all what careful theologians
actually have in mind.
Nevertheless, Dawkins and his defenders typically reply, it’s precisely
the notion of God that nearly all non-theologians — that is to say, the
overwhelming majority of religious believers, at least in the Western
world — actually believe in. Not just the most fanatic fundamentalists;
that’s the God that the average person is worshipping in Church on
Sunday. And, to his credit, Skinner grants this point. That, apparently,
is why Christians should take Dawkins seriously — because all too often
even thoughtful Christians take the easy way out, and conceptualize God
as something much more tangible than He really is.
At this point, an optimist would hope to be informed, in precise
language, exactly what “God” really does mean to the sophisticated
believer. Something better than Terry Eagleton’s “the condition of
possibility.”  But no! We more or less get exactly that:
Philosophers and theologians over the centuries, grappling with what is
meant by ‘God’, have resorted to a different type of language, making
statements such as “God is ultimate reality”; or “God is the ground of
our being”, or “God is the precondition that anything at all could
exist”, and so forth. In theological discourse, they can be very helpful
concepts, but the trouble with them is that if you’re not a philosopher
or theologian, you feel your eyes glazing over - God has become a
philosophical concept rather than a living presence.
The trouble is not that such sophisticated formulations make our eyes
glaze over; the trouble is that they don’t mean anything. And I will
tell you precisely what I mean by that. Consider two possible views of
reality. One view, “atheism,” is completely materialistic — it describes
reality as just a bunch of stuff obeying some equations, for as long as
the universe exists, and that’s absolutely all there is. In the other
view, God exists. What I would like to know is: what is the difference?
What is the meaningful, operational, this-is-why-I-should-care
difference between being a sophisticated believer and just being an atheist?
I can imagine two possibilities. One is that you sincerely can’t imagine
a universe without the existence of God; that God is a logical
necessity. But I have no trouble imagining a universe that exists all by
itself, just obeying the laws of nature. So I would have to conclude, in
that case, that you were simply attaching the meaningless label “God” to
some other aspect of the universe, such as the fact that it exists. The
other possibility is that there is actually some difference between the
universe-with-God and the materialist universe. So what is it? How could
I tell? What is it about the existence of God that has some effect on
the universe? I’m not trying to spring some sort of logical trap; I
sincerely want to know. Phrases like “God is ultimate reality” are
either tautological or meaningless; I would like to have a specific,
clear understanding of what it means to believe in God in the
sophisticated non-straw-man sense.
Richard Skinner doesn’t give us that. In fact, he takes precisely the
opposite lesson from these considerations: the correct tack for
believers is to refuse to say what they mean by “God”!
So, if our understanding of God can be encapsulated in a nice, neat
definition; a nice, neat God hypothesis; a nice, neat image; a nice,
neat set of instructions – if, in other words, our understanding of God
does approximate to a Dawkins version, then we are in danger of creating
another golden calf. The alternative, the non-golden-calf route, is to
sit light to definitions, hypotheses and images, and allow God to be God.
It’s a strategy, I suppose. Not an intellectually honest one, but one
that can help you wriggle out of a lot of uncomfortable debates.
I’m a big believer that good-faith disagreements focus on the strong
arguments of the opposite side, rather than setting up straw men. So
please let me in on the non-straw-man position. If anyone can tell me
once and for all what the correct and precise and sophisticated and
non-vacuous meaning of “God” is, I promise to stick to disbelieving in
that rather than any straw men.
Update: This discussion has done an even better job than I had
anticipated in confirming my belief that the “sophisticated” notion of
God is simply a category mistake. Some people clearly think of God in a
way perfectly consistent with the supposed Dawkinsian straw man, which
is fine on its own terms. Others take refuge in the Skinneresque stance
that we can’t say what we mean when we talk about God, which I continue
to think is simply intellectually dishonest.
The only on-topic replies I can see that don’t fall into either of those
camps are ones that point to some feature of the world which would exist
just as well in a purely materialistic conception, and say “I call that
`God.’” To which I can only reply, you’re welcome to call it whatever
you like, but it makes no difference whatsoever. Might as well just
admit that you’re an atheist.
Which some people do, of course. I once invited as a guest speaker
Father William Buckley, a Jesuit priest who is one of the world’s
experts in the history of atheism. After giving an interesting talk on
the spirituality of contemplation, he said to me “You don’t think I
believe in G-O-D `God,’ do you?” I confessed that I had, but now I know
For people in this camp, I think their real mistake is to take a stance
or feeling they have toward the world and interpret in conventionally
religious language. Letting all that go is both more philosophically
precise and ultimately more liberating.
swilliams at hpti.com http://www.hpti.com Per: sdw at lig.net http://sdw.st
Stephen D. Williams 703-371-9362C 703-995-0407Fax 20147 AIM: sdw
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