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Wed, 17 Mar 2010

Why Dawkins Needs to Study Theology - Especially if There Is No God

One of the standard criticisms of Richard Dawkins' atheist crusade is the charge that Dawkins doesn't pay enough attention to theology. The two most important atheist replies to this criticism are Dawkins' comparison of theology to "leprechology" [1] and PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply" [2]. In this post I will point out why the criticism against Dawkins is right - and why the leprechaun argument and the Courtier's Reply are wrong.

Why should Dawkins learn something about theology before debunking God? The reason has nothing to do with whether theology is true, false, or silly. The reason is simple: theological writings tell us what religions really mean by "God." If you don't know what religious teachings mean by "God," then you can't make a credible rational argument against the God that people believe in. You might not even know what would count as evidence for that God, so you can't claim, with any confidence, that there is no evidence for that God. This is the case whether or not any of the beliefs stated in the theological writings are true.

Let's get back to basic logic here. Before you can prove that something doesn't exist, or that there's no evidence for something, you must at least know what you're trying to disprove. If you don't know what the God of religion is supposed to be, and you try to debunk that God, then you don't even know what you are debunking. You can't even argue convincingly that there's a lack of evidence for God, because the kind of evidence you would need depends on what "God" means. And like it or not, theological writings reflect what real religious teachings take God to be.

Let me explain these points in more detail.

Despite what some angry atheists have said on the Web, theological writings aren't just collections of silly religious beliefs. Along with any silly beliefs (or serious ones), those writings also disclose something much more important. The theological writings of a religion contain the religion's definition of God - what sort of entity the religion's believers, and especially its scholars, have in mind when they say "God." This might not be a formal definition; it could be just a rough idea of God instead - but still it serves to define the alleged being called "God." We can learn this definition from theological writings regardless of whether the beliefs stated in those writings are true or false. Even if you think theology is factually wrong, reading about theology is a good way to tell what religious thinkers actually believe God to be. Theology, whether we believe it or not, tells us what religious teachings mean by "God." And that is important for all of us, atheists or believers, to know.

Why is it important for atheists to know what "God" means to believers? It's important because you can't very well debunk something without knowing what it is that you're trying to debunk. If you're trying to debunk the God that religions promote, but you don't even know what the religions mean by the word "God," then you might be debunking some so-called "God" that religious people don't even believe in. You might be debunking some special concept of God that's in your head, maybe left over from your churchgoing days, instead of the concept of God that actually matters to any particular religion. If you don't know what God is supposed to be, then you can't even know what kind of evidence would count for or against God. No matter how good your grasp of scientific methods and standards of evidence, you don't know with any confidence what kind of evidence you should be looking for. You might end up thinking that there's evidence for God, or that there isn't any evidence for God - and you might well be wrong. (Later in this post I'll fill in more details about how this can happen.)

Here's an analogy to illustrate this point. It's inspired by Dawkins' well-known comparison between leprechauns and God [1].

Suppose you are trying to decide whether leprechauns exist. To do this rationally, you first have to know what leprechauns are supposed to be. If you grasp the idea of leprechauns - small humanoid beings of a type mentioned in Irish folklore, who typically wear green and guard pots of gold - then it's easy to decide that there is no credible evidence for those beings. However, if you have no idea what "leprechaun" means, or have only a hazy idea of leprechauns, then you could easily make a wrong decision about whether they exist.

Here's an example of this last point. Suppose that someone (call him Hawkins) thinks that "leprechaun" means a being who wears green and protects a supply of gold. In Hawkins' view, a leprechaun is defined only by these two traits; he doesn't think of leprechauns as especially Irish, or as having any other familiar leprechaun traits. Then according to Hawkins' definition of leprechauns, some coin collectors would qualify as "leprechauns." If Hawkins met a collector of gold coins who happened to be wearing green, then Hawkins might conclude that leprechauns exist!

Of course, Hawkins would be wrong - but not because he lacks evidence for leprechauns. He would be wrong because he doesn't even know the standard meaning of the word "leprechaun." He doesn't know what the word "leprechaun" means to informed users of that word. Because of this gap in his knowledge, he can't even know what kind of evidence would count as evidence for the existence of leprechauns (as they usually are conceived). He could easily be wrong about whether he has evidence for leprechauns. In this example, he thinks he has evidence for a leprechaun, but he does not.

If Hawkins tries to defend his wrong conclusion by saying "Well, my conclusion is right according to my idea of a leprechaun," then he is admitting that his idea of leprechaun is different from the one that other people use. Hawkins' conclusion about leprechauns might be true according to his definition, but probably it is of no interest to anyone but Hawkins.

Before you can debunk something, you have to know what that "something" is supposed to be. This obvious principle holds for leprechauns, the Loch Ness Monster, and Russell's famous orbiting teapot. It holds just as well for God. Suppose you are trying to decide whether God exists. To decide this rationally, you first need to know what God is supposed to be. If you're trying to debunk the God that the religions promote, you first have to know what that God is supposed to be. In other words, you have to know what the religions believe God to be. You need to know this regardless of whether religion is true and regardless of whether there is a God. If you want to decide rationally whether the God of religion is real, then you must first know what the God of religion is supposed to be. Otherwise you don't know what you are talking about.

How do you find out what real religions take God to be? One way is to ask average, ordinary believers. This is a start. However, average believers usually don't know their religion's teachings very well. (This isn't a putdown; I have known many believers who admitted freely that they didn't really care about the technicalities of doctrine.) In any case, the rank-and-file believers, though important, are not the only important group in a religion. There also are the intellectual movers and shakers of the religion. I don't mean the organizational leaders. I mean those who shape and systematize the teachings of a religious tradition. This group includes the theologians.

I'm not claiming here that theology is true. That's a separate question. My point is not about the truth, falsity, or preposterousness of theology, but about what people believe. If you don't know what the theologians of a religion say about God, then you don't know what that religion actually teaches about God. Even if theology isn't true, it's still part of what many religious people believe. If you want to know what the religions really say about God, part of what you have to know is what their theologians have said about the nature of God.

This is why atheists need to learn some theology before trying to debunk God. Even if theology is nonsense, Dawkins still needs to study it - because one can use it to glean information about what religious people mean by "God." And that information can make or break an atheistic argument.

You don't need to to be an expert on theology before arguing against God. You certainly don't have to believe theology. However, you do have to be familiar with some of the key ideas in theological thought. You have to study something that explains theological ideas - unless you happen to have learned some of those ideas already. And you have to study ideas from more than one religious tradition, or else you won't know what people (except for those in a particular tradition) think God is like.

Personally, I think it's much more important to study philosophy of religion than to study theology. Philosophers of religion analyze the ideas of religion rationally; they can present theological ideas in ways that are of interest to rational thinkers. These philosophers also explore philosophical ideas of God - ideas based on reason, which aren't the same as the faith-based theological ideas. But no matter which subject you focus on, you need to understand some theological ideas. (By "philosophy of religion" I mean real philosophy of religion, in which the ideas of the religions are analyzed rationally. I do not mean writings that pretend to explain why people believe in God but refuse to analyze religious concepts. Those tracts aren't philosophy of religion; they're more like speculative psychology.)

Here are some questions that someone might ask at this point:

  1. Do I really need to know what those silly theologians think of God before I decide whether there's a God?
  2. Isn't God like Russell's teapot - something that we can safely disbelieve in because of a lack of evidence?
  3. Isn't it enough just to show that there is no supernatural creator? Wouldn't that show that there is no God, even if we don't know the details of what God is like?

The answers to these questions are:

  1. Yes, you do have to know something about what theologians think - at least if you want to make your decision rationally. If you don't know what the theologians think, you might well be debunking something besides the God of religion.
  2. Maybe God is like Russell's teapot, or maybe not - but in either case you can't apply the teapot argument to God if you don't even know what "God" means! Even if the teapot argument is right, it doesn't generalize to things that aren't defined correctly. We can safely disbelieve in Russell's teapot because we know what a teapot is - and because we know that it isn't the kind of object that would just happen to turn up in deep space. If we got the concept of a teapot wrong, the argument wouldn't necessarily give true results. (If we thought "teapot" meant "small piece of rock," then we could conclude that there probably is at least one "teapot" orbiting the Sun - and we could conclude this without observing a single one of these "teapots," just on the basis of general scientific knowledge about space.)
  3. No, it isn't enough to show that there is no supernatural creator. According to some ideas of God, there can be a God even if there is nothing supernatural and even if no one literally created the universe. Showing that there is no supernatural creator isn't the same as showing that there is no God. At most, this would show that God, if there is one, is not a supernatural creator. (That would be a painful discovery for some believers, but it wouldn't logically rule out God.)

I've written a lot about various ideas of God elsewhere (see here, here and here, for example), so I won't repeat it all in this post. Here I'll just mention that the ideas of God I am talking about are not confined to a metaphorical pantheism that merely renames the physical universe as "God." I'm talking about real ideas of a supreme being or ideal being - including ideas that do not imply that God is a supernatural creator, and ideas that could survive with minor changes even if God were not a supernatural creator. For more details, start with the links I just gave.

Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, defines God as a supernatural creator of a certain sort [3]. Then he tries to debunk God. Dawkins is making the same mistake as our friend Hawkins. He is using a limited definition of "God" that doesn't adequately capture the religious usage of the word. It's true that most believers think of God as a supernatural creator. However, others have believed in a God who did not make our present world, or who is a spiritual reality within nature instead of a supernatural ghost. Many religious thinkers have thought of God as a "perfect being" or a "greatest possible being" - scholarly jargon for a certain philosophical concept of God. It appears that scientific evidence can neither confirm nor disconfirm such a being, but that there still might be rational ways to decide whether such a being exists. (See here, here and here for some further discussion of ideas like these.) Also, many believers in a supernatural creator might be able to keep believing in God even if they learned God was not a supernatural creator - as long as they still could believe in a God who was ideally good and worthy of our highest love. Their faith would be badly shaken if they learned that God is not the creator, but they could continue believing in a supreme being.

The evidence needed to show that there is a God depends on what idea of God you have in mind. For a supernatural creator, you would need to find traces of a supernatural creative act (such as design in nature that can't be explained naturally). Many of us don't think there are such traces. However, for a perfect being, there wouldn't have to be any supernatural design at all. The evidence would have to rest on value judgments more than on facts. And for a God who pervades nature, the complexity of God might be the same as the complexity in nature, so Dawkins' complexity argument against God would be useless. (That argument is useless anyhow, as I've shown elsewhere.) Clearly it's not enough to just say "there is no supernatural design, therefore there is no God." Things just aren't that simple. Again, for the details, start with the links in the previous paragraph.

Dawkins, responding to the claim that he should learn theology, once said: "Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?" [1] The flaw in Dawkins' response should now be clear. Whether God is real or not, there is a difference between belief in God and belief in leprechauns. The difference is in our background knowledge about these two sorts of alleged beings. Most people have a fairly good idea of what leprechauns are. You don't have to learn more about them to figure out that there's no evidence for them. However, most people do not have a very clear idea of what God, as presented in religious teachings, is supposed to be. They might need to read up on something before making a rationally supported judgment about the existence of God. (These same comments apply to variations of the leprechology remark that put fairies, monsters, etc. in place of leprechauns.)

This same problem affects the "Courtier's Reply" argument of PZ Myers [2]. The Courtier's Reply tries to compare God to the emperor's invisible clothing in the traditional story of "The Emperor's New Clothes." The essential point of the Courtier's Reply is that you don't have to read up on theology to decide whether God exists, any more than you have to read up on the emperor's clothes before deciding that they don't exist. This analogy fails for the same reason that Dawkins' leprechaun reply fails. We all have enough knowledge about clothes to enable us to tell, if we met the emperor, that he has no clothes. We don't need to read anything new before doing that. However, we do not all know enough about God to make a rational decision about the existence of that controversial being. To make that decision, we might well need to read the writings of religious thinkers - whether or not we find those writings believable.




[1] Richard Dawkins, "Faith and facts", Letters, The Independent, 17 Sep. 2007. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.

[2] PZ Myers, "The Courtier's Reply," in Pharyngula (blog), 12/24/2006. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), pp. 11-15, 18-19, 31.


(Post slightly updated 3 Apr 2010.)

posted at: 22:53 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry


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