[First written in 2007. I don’t explicitly mention process theism here, but I do frequently mention panentheism, which is a broader movement. Process theism is nevertheless the most influential version of panentheism these days.]
Part I: On Dawkins’s The God Delusion*
Richard Dawkins finds belief in God harmful. Given what he means by “God” and “belief,” he could be right. To his credit, he does seem to be talking about popular and influential ideas of both God (a kind of invisible Superman writ large) and faith (believing what you’re told without questioning). I suspect that there is a link between thinking of God in that way and thinking of faith in that way, and that taken together, as they all too frequently are, they can be exceedingly harmful. That’s true of many popular perceptions—like the popular equation of evolution with “the ascent of ‘Man’.” But this is not what evolution means, and what Dawkins is talking about is not what I mean by either “God” or “faith,” nor is it what many Christians, Jews, Muslims and others have ever meant.
Many people think of God as a person just the way you or I are persons, except that God has unlimited abilities and is “outside” the universe—“a supernatural, superhuman intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” (52). This, Dawkins claims, is “the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible” (41). There are more technical philosophical versions, of course, and even philosophers of religion who defend them, but it’s not clear that they ever get away from the crude picture of a person like you and me with some very surprising abilities tacked on almost as an afterthought.
Even though I find it legitimate and vital to speak of God in personal terms, I must say I find this notion of God to be grossly anthropomorphic. If God is “the beginning and end of all things, and of rational creatures especially” (Aquinas, ST, 1.2 Intro.), if God is “over all, through all and within all” (Eph. 4.6), then God is most certainly not a person the way you and I are. True, there are plenty of Biblical portraits of God that make God look like an invisible Superman writ large, but there are others that point in a different direction. In fact, many Christian scholars would argue, the biblical writers’ views of God continued to develop, setting a precedent for further conversation beyond the Bible itself.
When the writer of 1 John tells us, “God is love, and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them” (4:16), we see a strikingly different portrayal of God starting to emerge, where God “indwells” all things and all things “indwell” God. This is not an invisible Superman, not even the disembodied, deep voice of “The Ten Commandments.” Instead of a person writ large, we’re presented with an interpersonal communion surrounding, pervading and opening us and all things to one another. It’s much closer to some version of “panentheism,” though a distinctively peculiar version even of that (more here).
Panentheism has been a major topic of discussion among theologians for over a century. In fact, I don’t know of any widely influential living theologian who has not embraced it, or at least flirted with it, in some form or in some respects (though sometimes rejecting the label). Early and Medieval Christian writers often spoke of God in those terms (a favorite is Nicholas of Cusa). But you’d never know that from reading Dawkins. For Dawkins, we can only have three choices—“theism” (of the invisible-Superman-writ-large sort), deism (an invisible Superman writ large, but utterly aloof and uninvolved), and pantheism (simply a reverence for nature which Dawkins calls “sexed-up atheism”) (40). Either Dawkins doesn’t know of panentheism, or he assumes it not to be worthy of mentioning. This is odd, because this is a view of God that quite a few people find to be spiritually and religiously engaging, both inside and outside churches, synagogues and mosques.
Dawkins gets especially irked when reviewers say, as I just have, that “the God Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either” (57). He thinks he’s dealt a decisive blow to any kind of God people would care about. But he has not said anything about the God most theologians are talking about. He gets even more irked when his views are put down as “nineteenth century” (186). But the fact remains that his writings do not reflect any awareness of the rich and varied philosophical discussions about the nature and aims of scientific explanations that have been circulating for at least fifty years—not quite nineteenth century, perhaps, but still a bit quaint.
He thinks he has a perfectly good reason for ignoring theologians. He believes they are not experts at anything. “What expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?” (79). Well, we’ve already seen that they might have informed him about other God-concepts than the three choices he provides. Whether or not they’re justified in believing in God, they are certainly experts on what’s been thought and said about God. That alone should be enough reason to be aware of them. But Dawkins’s contempt for the field seems to go hand in hand with his cavalier attitude toward any discipline outside the “hard” sciences.
Dawkins is, of course, an original thinker and an engaging writer. But his work is controversial even in his own field, and his attempt to reduce all of human culture to the workings of self-replicating mechanisms, devoid of any awareness, is met with even greater objections outside his field. Hardly any of those objections are motivated by people with religious axes to grind. They are simply critical thinkers who recognize that different kinds of questions require different patterns of thinking and criticism. They recognize that critical thinking is itself a cultural pursuit that has to be more than an incidental by-product of unconscious, self-replicating mechanisms, whether genes or “memes.” (After all, why trust any conclusions we draw, including those about genes and memes, if our conclusions were simply produced by mechanisms that don’t reason at all?)
But Dawkins ignores these thinkers just as much as he ignores theologians, because to include them would weaken his case for an all-out intellectual war on certain religious ideas, including “moderate” ones (341-348). Indeed, the entire tone of his book is a call for people to choose sides and start fighting—the intellectual equivalent of a War on Terror. And that, I suppose, is my biggest problem with the book. For like a certain other war on terror, I suspect this one will produce too much collateral damage which will in turn produce a whole new generation of conflict where it will be hard to tell the difference between one person’s terrorists and another’s freedom fighters.
There are others of us who think it’s time we dropped the militarist/terrorist tactics of name-calling and dismissal and started addressing the underlying issues in our disagreements. That would require all of us to abandon claims to already possess The One Truth, or even The One True Method for Finding Truth, without abandoning the legitimate hope for truth, community, and dependable ways of working toward both. It’s a messy prospect at best, often tedious, and certainly not as entertaining as starting another war. But really, unless we prefer living in a constant state of war, what other way forward could there be?
With Dawkins, I am appalled and even frightened by people who simply equate their own ideas, or their readings of some text, with the voice of God or with some other version of absolute, final truth. Theologians call this idolatry—mistaking the finite for the infinite, or the relative for the absolute. It’s a sinister habit of thinking (a meme, perhaps?) that conceals itself not just in religious communities but in any community that desires a better world, including scientific and other academic communities.
To wean ourselves from this habit, we need to be open to criticism and willing to examine ourselves critically over and over again. Scientific and other scholarly communities recognize this explicitly, and they deserve credit for that, but it does not make them immune to the habit. Religious communities, like other activist communities, are even more susceptible to this sort of idolatry, which is especially ironic for those who claim to denounce all idols. But I would argue that, at their best, thoughtful religious communities can offer us further resources to resist the impulse to make gods of ourselves, our views, or our ways of learning.
I speak from a tradition, Anglicanism, that at least claims to esteem appeals to reason just as highly as appeals to sacred texts or venerable traditions, and none of these appeals is ever above question. We can say all that, of course, and still be as self-serving as anybody else. We’re often not very consistent. But at least we’ve claimed it as a public standard to which we can be held accountable, by “outsiders” as well as ourselves. It’s no accident that Dawkins often finds common cause with Anglican Bishops (269, 377), though he can’t seem to figure out how they could still honestly speak of a God anyone would want to worship. But they and I believe that a self-critical mind can actually thrive in cooperation with a deep reverence for sacred texts and venerable traditions.
We will never speak of faith as a matter of believing without questioning, because we see God as an ever-present reality who constantly eludes any final descriptions, even those of our favorite creeds. For us faith is not believing in something absent but trusting in something-or-other that at least seems to be present, though never in a way we can grasp or control, and trusting further that what we say and do in response to that something-or-other is at least faithful enough to keep us going, without ever claiming to have final answers.
I wish Dawkins had made room for people like us in this book, but he has not. Perhaps he believes that over-simplification is justified when the stakes are as high as he believes them to be. Clearly his book would not have sold as well if it had been more nuanced. Those of us who preach understand the dilemma of trying to hold attention while staying honest and accurate. But this response should not be about the book I wish Dawkins had written. I intend it to be a response about what believers, skeptics and everybody in between should do in response to a book like this. What we need to do is keep inviting one another into respectful but critical conversation. We can expect to be baffled and irked by what others say and promote. But we can also expect to be pleasantly surprised.
Part II: God without Delusions?
While I do not consider all critical reasoning to follow the methods of physics or biology, I do agree with Dawkins that people should have good-enough reasons to speak of anything as real, especially if its reality is contested. But I’m not sure that we could ever agree on when one’s reasons are in fact “good enough” when we’re asking a question as all-encompassing as the this one. You can’t ask about God’s reality without reflecting on the fundamental worldviews that shape even the way we frame our questions, and then we’re in an area where you can’t settle differences by experiments or by stepping back and looking disinterested, because we’re too much a part of the picture ourselves.
For example, when we ask about God’s reality, we’re also asking if there is more to reality than what we can predict and observe. It’s not the same question, but they’re inextricably linked. And it’s not an easy question to answer. If you treat this question as an hypothesis like any other, which is what Dawkins does, then you’ve already presumed an answer to the question, and that answer is “no.” You’ve answered, in effect, that the only questions worth answering are those that lend themselves experimental testing, even though nobody has ever devised an experiment that could test that particular answer. That’s the sort of puzzle that makes the God question an odd one, to say the least.
Of course, people who claim to be able to prove God’s existence are just as likely to miss how odd the question is, and that makes them easy prey for their opponents. Dawkins has no trouble identifying what I, at least, take to be several fundamental flaws in so-called theistic proofs, especially the argument from design (137-188). He does not do justice to the ontological argument (103-110), but then who has? In any case, I appreciate his point that, even if we can’t find a way to refute it, why should we do any more than put it on the same shelf as Zeno’s paradoxes (which appear to make motion logically impossible but don’t seem to prevent us from moving anyway)?
It’s more promising to look at the God question in terms of how we experience ourselves and our surroundings. This is not at all like appeals to seeing visions or hearing voices (112-117). Those can always be explained as hallucinations or simple mistakes, and in any case I have never had any of those experiences and don’t see why I need to. And I’m not talking about something beyond question or interpretation either, since I don’t know what that would be. But I do experience the world, myself and other people “sacramentally,” i.e., as connecting me to the presence of something “more” that exceeds what I can detect with my senses or even encompass with my thinking. Whether or not Dawkins finds that worth considering (I’m not holding my breath), I find it so, and I want to explain further.
Dawkins argues that we should treat the alleged reality of God the way we treat the alleged reality of anything else, say, the Loch Ness Monster, or extraterrestrials. But “Nessie,” if real, would just be one more item in the universe, present, if at all, only at some times and in some places, not at all times or in all places. On the other hand, God, as traditionally named, is not one more item in the universe, nor is God absent from any time or place. On this point both theists and panentheists agree. So, the “evidence” or reasons for affirming or denying the reality of God cannot be anything like the evidence or reasons for affirming or denying the Loch Ness Monster.
God, as traditionally portrayed, is not absent from anything and not confined by anything—an “intimate otherness” surrounding, pervading and opening all things to one another. Again, this is not a recent, trendy portrayal of God. This portrayal, or something like it, can be found in numerous ancient accounts—various scriptures and classics in a variety of religious or spiritual traditions, including, as we’ve seen, my own tradition. It’s not the only portrayal of God, and it’s not likely to appeal to televangelists or people who listen to them, but it’s been around for a long time. I think this is at least arguably the same God Christians claim to encounter sacramentally in the story and continuing presence of Jesus Christ.
Is this intimate otherness real? Again, we’re not going to find out by going out and looking for it, the way we could go look for the Loch Ness Monster. God just isn’t like that. But if God is supposed to be present in some way at all times and places, then we can approach the question from other angles. We’re not just idly speculating about something out there somewhere. We’re trying to speak of something-or-other that’s both “out there” and “in here,” something-or-other that’s constantly engaging us, even if we fail to notice. (Note: I’m going to use the pronoun “it” sometimes when I’m talking about this something-or-other. But that’s only because I don’t want to prejudge whether I’m talking about something personal.)
If we can approach the question (Is intimate otherness real?) from that angle, then I can begin to answer it in this way: In my most reflective moments—moments when I am most aware of myself and others—I find myself also to be aware of an intimate otherness surrounding, pervading and opening me to the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. This is not just me, nor is it simply the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. It’s intimately other to me and to everything else, never absent, but never confined. And in moments like that, I find myself to be more aware, more open to criticism and questions, more open to everybody else, even those who may seem threatening or irritating.
Is this God? People are not going to agree about that, and I don’t want to shut down any conversations. But if God is anything like the ever-present, never-confined reality affirmed by many traditional believers, this is precisely how I would expect you or me or anybody else to be aware of God. Whether or not that’s a good enough reason to believe depends on what else you may think about reasons or about the world we inhabit.
You could reply that this is only a projection, a product of wishful thinking. I can’t simply refute that idea, and I wouldn’t want to ignore it. But I do want to point out that, if I were going to project some consoling figment of the imagination, even unconsciously, I don’t think I would be projecting anything as peculiar or as disconcerting as this. It challenges me every bit as much as it may assure me. It won’t let me stay trapped in a world of my own imagining, because it keeps opening me to all kinds of unexpected encounters. What kind of wishful thinking would produce that?
Dawkins might counter that this is simply a “meme”—a gene-like, self-replicating idea which persists, not because I want it to persist, but simply because the idea itself is especially efficient at self-replication in a surprising variety of contexts. Now meme-theory is still controversial, and despite Dawkins repeated disclaimers, I’m not so sure that he can ever say much of anything about “selfish” genes or memes without introducing an unusual degree of agency on the part of molecules and ideas. (“The memes that prevail will be the ones that are good at getting themselves copied” . Getting themselves copied?—how do ideas get themselves copied? If this is shorthand for something less anthropomorphic, just what is it shorthand for? In any case, how does an idea self-replicate?) But let’s not get sidetracked on the merits or demerits of memetic theory. The point is, even if this idea is a meme, that doesn’t settle anything. In fact, for Dawkins, every idea is a meme. Scientific method is a meme or a “memeplex.” But if we accept that, it still doesn’t tell us whether we should encourage its replication or discourage it. That depends on whatever else we think is there also, and where this meme might take us.
[2021 Update: ironically, since Dawkins is happy to label all other sorts of intellectual movements as “pseudoscience,” the growing consensus seems to be that memetics is itself pseudoscience: “Although the theory of memetics appeared highly promising at the beginning, it is no longer considered a scientific theory among contemporary evolutionary scholars.” The Journal of Memetics ceased publication in 2005, and nothing comparable has replaced it.]
You might also reply that, even if this is not just wishful thinking, or just a meme, it can’t be the personal God most believers claim to worship. But I find it appropriate to speak of this intimate otherness in personal terms, and here’s why. I’m aware of lesser kinds of intimate otherness—you and me, for example, or even my cat. There is something-or-other present in all moments of my life, yet not confined by any of them, and I am that very something-or-other. You could say that about yourself, and so could I (about you, that is). And we both could consider saying that about my cat, though she can’t speak directly to the issue the way you and I can. But I would not pretend to be present in every moment everywhere, and I wouldn’t claim that of you or my cat. That’s one of the things that makes us different from God. (A Hindu Advaitan might differ with me over this, but I’ll save that for another conversation.) But it’s also one of the reasons why we tend to speak of God in personal analogies (just as I sometimes do with my cat). Persons epitomize this intimately other ability to be present in a whole succession of moments without being confined to any one of them. And I have never found a reason to reduce them to anything less.
Obviously, if you embrace a reductionist approach to science and reality, you won’t find any of what I’ve just said convincing in the least. But if you accept the idea of different levels or angles of explanation and understanding, you’ll at least find this worth considering. Many scientists and philosophers who are not particularly religious agree that you can’t understand atoms simply in terms of their subatomic constituents, or molecules (some, at least) simply in terms of atoms, or cells simply in terms of molecules, or organisms simply in terms of cells, or personalities simply in terms of organisms, or cultures simply in terms of individual personalities. They’re claiming that this is not just because one level of explanation hasn’t progressed far enough. They’re simply recognizing that wholes cannot be fully explained in terms of their parts. This is not some mystifying hocus pocus. It’s simply a recognition of irreducible complexity all around us (which, by the way, does not open the door to the conceptual confusions of intelligent design arguments). It’s also a recognition that critical reasoning and understanding can take a variety of forms which do not have to be reduced to one, overarching method.
None of this proves that there is a higher, more complex level than, say, the personal or the cultural. But it sets a precedent for speaking of such a level, provided that there are reasons for introducing the idea that can be openly shared and critiqued. Again, I am not leaving the door open to intelligent design arguments of the sort that I’ve encountered so far. The ID crowd focuses on gaps that are as yet unfilled at one level of explanation to justify introducing a cause vastly unlike anything else at or near that level. If those gaps do get filled some day (at about the same level), then the ID crowd will be in trouble. (And I’m wagering that those gaps will get filled.) The multileveled view I’m talking about does not require that there be any gaps at any levels. The only justification it requires is noticing that complex wholes do not behave precisely as their parts behave, and that, even so, there are still ways to make good sense of what’s happening around us, even if we can’t reduce them to one simple way.
This multi-perspectival, holistic approach to reality and how we understand it, plus the sacramental awareness I’ve outlined, are the principal reasons I have for believing that I am not deluded about God’s reality. It’s no proof, but it’s hardly an evasion of the question. I do not see how opening to this intimate otherness could ever lead me or anybody else to be less open to correction from others’ insights or criticisms. It prevents me from invoking my own faith community’s sacred texts, traditions or doctrines as trump cards, while at the same time offering me new insights into what my community is still struggling to articulate. Of course I can fool myself about being open when in fact I’m not, and so can anybody else. But fortunately, with this approach, no matter how artfully I contrive to fool myself, I can trust that there is something-or-other at work beyond, within and through me that will not let me rest in my own pet delusions, or leave me a victim to even the most virulent “memes.” If Dawkins and others like him remain unimpressed, I’ll live with that. And I’ll keep on with the work of inviting others to a life of total transparency before the One who surrounds, pervades and opens us and all things to one another.
*Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, 2008). Page references are to the 2008 paperback.