MacDonald continues his defense of The God Delusion

May 24, 2011 • 6:36 am

Eric MacDonald, who knows his onions about theology, is doing a series on the critics of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, showing that they’re largely misguided.  His most recent installment deals with the review, published in the 2007 New York Review of Books, by H. Allen Orr.  Orr was my first Ph.D. student (now a distinguished professor at The University of Rochester) and still a dear friend, but we nearly came to blows over his piece—at least as close as one can come to blows in a telephone conversation.  I vividly remember that two-hour call, for we wound up yelling at each other, with Allen finally telling me that we were never again to talk about religion (we haven’t).

Many of the criticisms that Eric makes were ones I brought up in that call, including Orr’s denigration of The God Delusion as “middlebrow” and his criticism of Dawkins for not engaging the best and most sophisticated arguments of theology.  We all know the response to that one: sophisticated theology is merely smart people using jargon to gussy up their ignorance.  But I want to highlight two places where Eric makes a good point.   The first involves the tenacious hold that religion, especially of the Christian species, has on many people.  Remember that Eric was once an Anglican priest, who left the church when he could no longer abide its doctrines:

As a priest it was impossible for me not to notice the contradiction between what I often said in church and how I lived the rest of the week. That is simply unavoidable, and anyone who is a religious believer is often struck by the inconsistency between life as it needs to be lived, as, it seems, it can only be lived, and life as one’s religious beliefs demand that it should be lived. There are all sorts of fudges used to hide the inconsistency, but it would be foolish to deny that the inconsistency exists. The inconsistency, of course, leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and sense of failure, which is why, no doubt, at the centre of the Christian liturgy lies the acknowledgement of sin and the desperate appeal for salvation.

This seems especially true of Catholicism, which keeps its grip on Catholics by inculcating them with an endless cycle of guilt and retribution.  For a very personal look at how this works, read Miranda Hale’s essay, “A dirty little girl, hanging her head in shame.”  Sex is one of the best ways to do this.  Given the power of the sexual impulse instilled by natural selection, who can avoid being “sinful” in that area?  And of course that keeps you going back to church and confession time after time.

Eric’s second point, which will be familiar to anyone who reads modern theology, stems from theologians’ response to philosopher J. L. Mackie’s arguments about the problem of evil.  Apologists circumvented this theological difficulty simply by asserting that god was not “personal” (i.e., an agency), so god wasn’t responsible.  Eric’s take on this:

Now, my point is this. Here is a kind of theological argumentation. A philosopher takes the standard understanding of god as a personal being who acts, whose purposes are benevolent, and who is all-powerful. Given that understanding, the problem of evil appears insurmountable (as I believe it is). So, what must the theologian do? Simple. Just redefine god. Call god the ground of being, or, as one theologian does, “secure a distinctive locus for Divine personal agency by deploying the spatial metaphors of distinct axes, planes, or levels,” (68) and — what do you know? — problem solved! I don’t want to overdramatise the point, but clearly the theologian believes that, whatever else god is, the concept of god is to an astonishing degree a plastic one which can be moulded into various shapes in order to deal with objections that are brought to bear against this or that aspect of god when seen in relationship to earthly things and happenings.

How true! And this is why theology is not a serious academic subject, for there is no way for its practitioners to test or falsify their assertions about god.  I’ve read my share of “sophisticated” theology—granted, not, as Terry Eagleton requires, “Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope”—but there’s nothing there that would lessen the force of Dawkins’s arguments.

When I read this stuff, I’m always asking myself three questions:

  1. Do they adduce any new evidence for the existence of god?
  2. Do they adduce any evidence for how they’re able to discern the characteristics of god?
  3. Do they suggest a way to test and falsify the two claims above?

And the answer to all three questions is always “no.”  Yes, they can suggest ground-of-being gods, gods that allow the universe “freedom,” gods that don’t do much, or gods about whom nothing can be said, but this is all simply making stuff up, or redefining god so he can withstand the advances of science.  There’s never any evidence, and there haven’t really been any new arguments for god in the last several centuries. It’s an endless process of definition and re-definition, and that’s what constitutes “advances” in theology.

The reason theology is not a fit subject for academics—and I have to admit that it’s studied at my own university—is that its adherents have no way to answer this question:

How would I know if my understanding of god is wrong?

That’s why theology can’t really make “progress”—except to tweak its parameters so it remains compatible with science—and why modern “sophisticated” theology is no advance over the lucubrations of Aquinas or Duns Scotus.  Eric is right on the mark when he says this:

Models of god may help us to skirt the issues raised by philosophers, but without any means of assessing whether the model is actually a model of something — even if this some “thing” does not exist in the ordinary sense as one entity amongst others, but underlies them as their ground — does theology have a subject matter? I don’t think Orr or Eagleton (and others) take this problem with sufficient seriousness.

69 thoughts on “MacDonald continues his defense of The God Delusion

  1. Is that a typo in the first sentence, or is there some sort of relationship between infantile adult fantasizing and edible lilies that I’m not aware of…?



    1. …or have the two disciplines melded together.

      The difference between mythology and theology is the number of current believers in a myth. 0 believers = myth. >0 believers = theology.

        1. I don’t think that’s true. Even if a religion has many believers, if it’s someone else’s, you may still consider its study to be mythology rather than theology.


          1. Fair point, but that’s a quibble between religionists, I think.

            Christians may consider Hindu theology to be mythical, and vice versa … but neither considers their own religious texts that way.

            1. Actually, I understand that there’s a widely held belief in Hinduism that Jesus was actually an incarnation of Vishnu.

              The idea is that Vishnu wanted to trick the silly monotheists into believing in a veiled form of polytheism, so appeared as Jesus and introduced concepts such as forgiveness, compassion, charity, and also snuck in polytheistic concepts such as the Holy Trinity, as well as setting up the field for sainthood to fill the need for multiple Gods.

              It’s all nonsense, of course. But I still grin.

  2. I think there’s some confusion about what Mackie did or didn’t say.

    Mackie was an atheist who made much of the Problem of Evil, so I doubt that he was actually attempting to obviate the Problem of Evil. He might have been considering a possible objection to his larger argument, I guess, but the way I read Eric’s post it looks as if it was actually someone else who said what you attribute to Mackie.

    Can we clarify on this?

    1. Yes, Russel is right: I mischaracterized Eric’s argument here. He actually quoted a passage from Marilyn McCord:

      Parties to the debate Mackie spawned seem mostly to agree both that only persons are moral agents, and that any and all persons — no matter whether human, angelic, or Divine — are moral agents, networked into a system of mutual rights and obligations. One sure way to skirt his logical problem of evil, along with the tangle of “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” estimates of God’s moral obligations, would be to deny that God is personal at all (in the sense of an agency that acts through thought and choice). [64]

      It is the responders to Mackie’s argument who raised the possibility of a “non-personal” God. My bad, not Eric’s, and I’ve fixed it above.

  3. How would I know if my understanding of god is wrong?

    I think that the defenders of theology would object that you’re judging something that isn’t science by the standards of science, which assumes what you’re trying to prove.

    1. But defenders of theology themselves are not shy about accusing others of being wrong about theology, are they?
      Look at how Christians are dealing with Harold Camping – they are not saying the whole idea is nonsense, they are saying that Camping is wrong about his conclusion.
      Why do Baptists think Catholics are wrong?
      Why do Mormons think Jehova witnesses are wrong?
      Or how about Jews, Muslems and Hindus.
      Even if you ignore all atheistic criticism there is still plenty of theological pronouncements about the error of other peoples beliefs.
      They cannot all be right, can they?

      1. Even if you ignore all atheistic criticism there is still plenty of theological pronouncements about the error of other peoples beliefs.

        Yes, but most criticism is based on interpretations of the bible, not that empirical evidence is against the particular theological point of view.

        1. So they can pronounce others wrong, not on the basis of evidence but on the basis of personal opinion or feeling?

    2. Actually, it’s a lot simpler than that.

      Ultimately, all religious authority derives from the response, “Because I said so! That’s why.”

      Anything else is but the rationalizations of children or parental make-nice to calm the children.



    3. No that isn’t science – it’s epistemology.

      It seems to me it’s the most urgent epistemic question of all, and the one it’s worth repeating at every opportunity. It doesn’t ask “how would I know scientifically if my understanding of god is wrong?”, it just asks “would I know if my understanding of god is wrong?”

      It applies to the holy books, too. How would believers know if the holy books were in fact written by humans?

      1. These questions (and the three JAC raised in the OP) are exactly the reason that religion and science can’t be compatible. If only for that reason, I think it’s valuable to bring this up at every opportunity.

    4. No, it isn’t judging something that isn’t science by the standards of science, it is asking theologians to make basic sense. To simply ask questions like ‘how do you know?’, ‘what is your source of information?’ and ‘what would convince you that you are wrong?’ is not applying scientific standards where they don’t belong, it is applying basic standards of reason and intellectual honesty where they must belong — wherever someone is making claims about the way the world is.

      1. ‘what would convince you that you are wrong?’

        That’s called “falsifiability” and is a characteristic of science, according to Popper. Your “make basic sense” means “think the way I do”.

        These people truly live in a different world from those of us who have adopted a scientific worldview.

        1. It’s a characteristic of science but it’s not exclusive to science. I think it’s really a mistake to think it is. It really is perfectly reasonable to ask “how do you know that?” about pretty much anything (barring interpersonal stuff). “How would you know if you were wrong?” is just a variation on that. It’s not wholly dependent on Popper…It comes to my mind often when I encounter claims about the bible and start thinking about the bible as a book like other books and the oddity of taking it as absolute and that leads naturally to wondering how anyone would know.

        2. That is nonsense. Every way of generating knowledge needs a way to find out if one is wrong. Those philosophers you can actually take seriously, for example, often use thought experiments to demonstrate that a concept leads to absurd conclusions, thus showing that it is faulty.

          If you cannot think of any observation or conclusion that would show your idea to be mistaken, you are not merely not doing science, but your idea is simply not knowledge.

        3. They live in a different world only because they drop their standards of reasonableness when it is convenient for them to do so. Those standards they reflexively apply in all other areas of life. (Sam Harris says it better)

  4. It’s also always worth mentioning, apropos this type of discussion, that theology is not religion. It’s not even part of religion.

    Religion consists of the beliefs and practices — i.e., orthodoxy and orthopraxy — of religious people. Certainly, the typical Christian has no use for, and is often actively hostile to, theology. (It may be different for religions that value scholarship, like some flavors of Judaism and Islam.)

    My mother’s Evangelical Lutheran congregation, for example, actually fired their minister and kicked out several members because they had the audacity to form a reading group around The Jesus Project. I don’t have a problem with critiques of theology, but it’s entirely possible, and perhaps necessary, to critique religion without even mentioning theology.

    1. I’m reminded of some Lazarus Long quotes:

      History has the relation to truth that theology has to religion — i.e., none to speak of.


      One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.

  5. If I may be so bold as to revise and extend a point I made over at Eric’s site:

    If there was some piece of “sophisticated” theology that resonated with believers and nonbelievers everywhere around the world, that was praiseworthy in every respect, on-point and effective … then why haven’t we heard about it?

    Surely, such an amazing “sophisticated” approach would be all over the place. The ideas would be abstracted, YouTube videos created, web sites popping up honoring this vision, etc. Preachers from every pulpit would be shouting it.

    Instead, we only get the thin gruel of “you haven’t studied enough, so you don’t get to comment.” Bullshit. That’s what Dr. Dr. Dr. Pigluicci says, and it’s just as wrong coming out of the mouths of someone not in as rarefied an atmosphere.

    If there is a god, how does “sophisticated” theology prove it? Who among the “sophisticated” theologians proves the existence of god (even their ground-of-being gods who do nothing)? What is the essence of their “sophisticated” argument? Surely, a god who wants to be known wouldn’t make the attainment of that knowledge conditional on being a PhD theologian, would it?

    It’s an extended argument from authority. Nothing more. With the “authority” being people who live their lives thinking of new and better ways of trying to escape the clear fact of the matter that the difference between an invisible god and an imaginary god is vanishingly small.

    Until and unless critics of atheist thought can provide specific examples, point in specific directions, and describe the rational underpinnings of the “sophisticated” theology, it’s just so much hand-waving.

    And yes, I’ve placed “sophisticated” in quotes throughout for the perfectly valid reason that until and unless the above conditions are met, in this instance, “sophisticated” needs to be spelled as “sophistry”.

    1. Hmm. . .

      What sophisticated theology needs is not scare quotes, but an absurd pun, a la gnu atheists.

      I propose fisticated theology. For example, “The gnu atheists are undermined by their failure to address the arguments of fisticated theology.”

        1. Just a little too subtle, I think. Although it is certainly correct to spell the way you do, may I suggest a one-letter modification: sophistrycated theology.

        2. I must say, upon further consideration, that I love the way you’ve inserted just a single letter and converted an oxymoron into redundancy.

          1. Tah muchly.


            I’ve had cause to use ‘sophistrycated’ a few times. I think it really needs the ‘y’: Too easy to miss the point, otherwise.

            Pity. I really like my version.

    1. Wow, David Sloane Wilson thinks The God Delusion is about group selection. Talk about misreading a book and inserting one’s own idea (which Dawkins happened to debunk 3 decades earlier) as its imaginary theme.

  6. “… but this is all simply making stuff up.”

    And when taking a shortcut through a cow pasture, it’s wise to avoid stepping in the “stuff.”

  7. It seems to me that this effort of redefining Got to be the ground of all being or whatever does not invalidate the problem of suffering/evil. At best it is just a fancy way of saying that God is amoral. At worst it is a way of drowning readers in a storm of bullshit so they might forget that the PoE is still there and the answers are still important.

  8. “…So, what must the theologian do? Simple. Just redefine god….”


    And to realize that this is not merely a strategy only of modern theology, but is how even the tracts today taken as ‘Gospel’ were invented as well.

    The reason the Bible is so self-contradictory, historically inaccurate, and thematically incoherent is because it is a hodge-podge of the surviving theological vamps and riffs of competing theological schools around the time of the fall of the Jerusalem Temple.

    The Bible is not a history of events recorded by scribes, later embellished with festoons of myth. It is the other way around. The myths were invented (usually just recycled from previous cultures)in order to enhance a nascent and fluid mythological story, and historical references back-filled in later.

    This was not seen as dishonest. People of that age had little capacity to distinguish between what was true and what was fantasy. And so they didn’t try to keep them separate. Unicorns, zombies awakening, heroes flying up to heaven on flaming chariots were as believable and historical as anything else.

    The modern theological practice of twisting deities to fit the constantly changing God-shaped holes is just a continuation of the same street-rapping which invented the whole pack of lies in the first place.

    1. People of that age had little capacity to distinguish between what was true and what was fantasy.

      I don’t think this is true at all. See Ehrman’s latest book ‘Forged’. He shows that people’s attitudes to these things were pretty much like ours. The ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is a basic necessity if you don’t want to die young.

      1. This is not at all what what I have read. I’d be interested to read his book.

        And it brings up the question of for whom did they write these stories of talking animals, burning bushes, flaming chariots, walking zombies, unicorns, etc? For people who did not believe in them? As satire? (possibly) The Romans themselves believed in unicorns as real, non mythological animals. Women have been put to death for being witches into the 19th century, for heaven’s sake.

        Bart Ehrman worries me. His rationale for his acceptance of the historical Jesus is pretty darned lame.

        1. His rationale for his acceptance of the historical Jesus is pretty darned lame.

          I agree but I don’t get the impression that he’s seriously considered the arguments before. Besides, no reason that all sceptics need to agree with us on everything 🙂

          1. As I have written elsewhere, Prof. Ehrman’s main “foot of clay” (if I may employ that twisted biblical metaphor) is his notion that Jesus was an historical character.
            This is despite his clear & scholarly knowledge that such a character is effectively “impossible”, by any normal meaning of the term. I am at a loss as to why he seems to continue to espouse this view.

    2. Not being a scholar of antiquity myself, I nevertheless feel confident enough to agree with Marella here. Greek philosophers and historians in the Roman Empire did not have today’s peer review to keep them in check, and they certainly tried to insert their own ideological views as much as the next economist or historian today, but they surely could not get away with outright fantasy if they wanted to convince their readers.

      Luke actually starts with the author telling the reader that he wrote the gospel to tell what truly happened, and refers to eyewitnesses ( Of course that is most likely bullshit, but it is striking that the attempt is made to sound convincing and truthful; it clearly suggests that this was seen as different from and superior to merely making stuff up.

      1. The oldest extant copy that we have of the author whom we refer to as “Luke”, (but in fact we do not know the author’s name), is papyrus 75, dated by the very forgeable method of orthography to anywhere in the “convenient” (and likely totally artificial) exactly 50 year period from 175 to 225CE.
        This, to me is merely wishful thinking, (a topic too extensive in which to delve in an off-the-cuff comment).
        The document may well date from 400+AD, but the Vatican will not have it carbon-dated.
        That such a clearly remote document, even assuming that it is not a pious fraud, could even honestly speak of “eye-witnesses” is utterly beyond sane belief.

  9. Not to put too rude a point on it, but all the ‘sophisticated philosophy’ these men fall back on is the same garbage-in, garbage-out hand waving that the religious have been practicing for thousands of years. So, nothing personal to these men and their cherished beliefs, but they’re not right.

    I don’t care what 7th century or 14th century or 18th century philosopher had to say about grace, evil, etc. All their arguments boil down to $10 words and cheating through making up properties of ‘God’ to fit their argument rather than dealing with commonly understood properties of God — which are omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), omnibenevolence (perfect goodness), divine simplicity, and eternal and necessary existence.

    None of which have been shown to demonstrably exist in any commonly understood form of God via any scriptural reference available. Ans, sure, they make stuff up… (And treat you like you’re some kind of bumpkin when you tell them their arguments (as sophisticated as they believe them to be) are horse droppings…)

    But so what? Any argument that voids the commonly understood attributes of God in order to be ‘sophisticated’ or ‘successful’ is merely another go at story telling. No matter how many $10 words you drop in it.

  10. Thomas Paine (1737-1809): “The study of theology (—) is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion”

  11. While theology may be the tool of the more educated religionist, I don’t think your average church-goer feels the theologists are doing them any favors. Their views are predominately a literal interpretation of the bible – not a slippery stream of fancy words that minimize God where necessary in order to fit in with modern society. When confronted with challenges such as the problem of evil – your neighborhood baptist isn’t likely to lose any sleep over it.

  12. You have to sympathize with the dilemma of Eric the erstwhile priest and theologian. After offering up jargon-laden absurdities like “secure a distinctive locus…” [whatever the hell that means!]and weasling by redefining god as “impersonal” it must have been pretty tough to take confession!

  13. If “sophisticated” theology, presented by Orr among others as the best case for faith, is so different from what the vast majority of believers think, why is it at all relevant to the discussion? Theology doesn’t drag the rest of the religion along with it: rather, it leaps out of its body and to the side, dodging the bullet at the cost of transforming completely and leaving the original dead.

    Or maybe it’s just a flesh wound.

    1. One use of liberal theology is to move religion in a direction which gets it out of the way of science.

      While liberal theology may not speak to everyone in the pews, it does engage people who might be fence sitters and it might pull people who are near the fence onto the fence.

  14. The goal of making religion into something that occurs within reason rather than outside of it is the goal of strengthening reason.

    The goal of eliminating theistic religions entirely, to the extent it would silence an area of reason, is antithetical to the goal of strengthening reason.

    To the extent that we are arguing about whether there should be theistic reason, we are arguing a question that is itself outside of the realm of science, yet we take it as a question that is subject to evaluation by reason.

    Having accepted that reason can provisionally resolve questions outside of science, the question becomes one as to what are the acceptable methods for non-scientific reasoning and whether any of those acceptable methods provides an appropriate basis for talking about God.

    1. I am reposting a previous entry to give some clue as to what I have in mind.

      Hi whyevolutionistrue,

      You ask, “tell me exactly what “knowledge” religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.”

      I agree I cannot do that (I would suggest that the fundamental principals of practical reason are logically prior to the distinction between what is secular and what is non-secular), but I think I can show how religion, or at least an ideal type of religion, provides a field of knowledge that does derive from reason. That would shed a different light upon the question of whether engaging in religion can be a worthwhile activity, if properly subject to the requirements of practical reason.

      It is my suggestion that practical reason is the foundational form of reason, and that both science and religion are justified as “bodies of knowledge” to the extent they are justfied by practical reason.

      Practical reason begins with something like the golden rule (treat others as you wold want to be treated) or Kant’s categorical imperative (act so that you could want that the maxim of your action would be a universal law of nature). In effect, these rules treat different conscious beings that have cares and concerns as being equal “ends in themselves” in the sense of being due equal consideration when we are determining what we should do.

      For convenience, please let me refer to these conscious beings who have cares and concerns as “spirits”. I do not mean to imply that spirits can float around without bodies. It may well be that the only way that consciousness or spirit exists in our physical reality is as an epiphenonmena of bodies.

      Among the things that we do is label some things as being knowledge and other things as not being knowledge. I suggest that this activity, like any other activity, is subject to the same moral requirement that we must treat all spirits as being equal “ends in themselves” in the sense of being due equal consideration when we are determining what we should do.

      This requirement has implications about how we should speak about things and what should be allowed to be called knowledge. It requires that knowledge needs to be more than subjective, it must be intersubjective. More precisely, it must be ideally intersubbjective. It would include that set of propositions whose acceptance would maximally benefit the entire community of all spirits.

      Scientific method has grown out of this aspiration for ideal intersubjectivity. Religion, during its best moments, is driven by the same aspiration. Talk of what an ideal spirit would be like, when that talk is subject to fundamental moral requirements, would similarly be driven by an aspiration toward an ideal intersubjectivity.

      Since both science and religion grow out of the same rational requirement, they must be consistent with each other. The attempt of religion to negate science as in creationism is antithetical to the purposes of justifiable religion. But, perhaps religion has a place in discussing the ideals implied by practical reason: What would an ideal spirit be like? What would an ideal spirit community be like? In what ways do we and our communities differ from the ideal. What roles do such ideals play in helping us to decide how we should act? Does an ideal spirit exist? How is it possible that an ideal spirit could exist given what science has taught us about our intersubjective reality? What could prophesy (speaking for the ideal spirit) be, if there could be such a thing within our intersubjective reality as worked out by science?

      An example of an appropriate knowledge claim for religion would be that the ideal spirit (God) would be omnibenevolent, and would be omniscient and omnipotent except in so far as omniscience and omnipotence are inconsistent with being omnibenevolent. This claim is grounded in practical reason but concerns the subject matter of religion.

      1. You’re making a joke, right? This is your best Sokal for the previously described sophistrycation.

        I can tell because it is utterly unintelligible to an educated and well informed reader.

        1. That was an insult.

          How about asking questions. If you, like Socrates, are so much smarter than I am, then ask away, and reveal my ignorance.

  15. “we nearly came to blows over his piece”

    And little wonder, since in his review and the following exchange with Dan Dennett Orr has shown himself to be not much of a thinker on this issue. The breathtakingly idiotic implication that Dawkins might think Wittgenstein’s idea of religion “child abuse” alone should have earned him a slap in the face. (A metaphorical slap, I hasten to add.)

    1. You may note that most of his most odious implications were couched in (not so?) rhetorical questions.
      His more egregious slight against Prof. Dawkins might have been when he wrote:

      For more on Dawkins and Wittgenstein, and from a bona fide philosopher, see Simon Blackburn’s superb review of Dawkins’s earlier book, A Devil’s Chaplain (The New Republic, December 1, 2003)

      Hint: the slight was contained in the parenthetic phrase “a bona fide philosopher”, as if that somehow punched the knock-out blow.

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