Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Dawkins' Misrepresentation of Religion I

Every so often, Dawkins shows that he doesn't know very much about religion. This doesn't mean his arguments are wrong, though it weakens his credibility. Occasionally, though, it renders his point irrelevant, since whatever he said only holds together in the cases where his idea of religion is true. One obvious case (which is relevant to my last Dawkins post, Disputing Dawkins III) is


Here is Dawkins on miracles:

"The God Hypothesis suggests that the reality we inhabit also contains a supernatural agent who designed the universe and--at least in many versions of the hypothesis--maintains it and even intervenes in it with miracles, which are temporary violations of his own otherwise grandly immutable laws." (pg. 58)

First off, the relationship between God and the universe that he portrays seems a little mistaken to me (this talk of "also contain[ing]" is misleading). However, I don't know much about this, so I won't get into.

To say that I am an expert on the theology of miracles is a stretch. I haven't read Lewis' book Miracles, nor read the official theology, nor have any idea how it works in other religions. I can tell you, however, what the standard understanding of miracles is, at least as it is preached from the pulpits I've heard and in the Sunday schools I've attended. And Dawkins does not capture that standard understanding.

Here, again, is his definition of miracles: "temporary violations of his [sic] own otherwise grandly immutable laws."

What's wrong here? Maybe you'll consider it a fine point; maybe you won't. That's up to you. Whether the point is fine or not isn't quite relevant, since even fine points can make a world of difference in certain contexts. The point, anyway, is this: miracles are not violations of natural laws, but are instead a natural part of the universe.

This claim--that miracles are a natural and intrinsic part of the universe--bears explaining. Think of it this way: God made the universe in such a way that he could sustain it and that he could intervene through revelation, miracle, and eventually incarnation. God did not set down a bunch of rules and then go and break them. God set down a system, and then he went and operated within that system. Those inside the system, of course, see the mechanics of the system as laws of nature, and, since they exist within the system, experience these 'laws' as immutable. But the fact is that they are not really laws, and therefore cannot be broken.

Imagine that you are a computer programmer. You create a program that operates self-sufficiently for a while. Perhaps it has assorted parts that interact with eachother, such as in a simulator. Perhaps it has some end or goal (a telos, if you will) that it is supposed to acheive. It is possible that you could create such a program without having programmed in any way for you, as a user of the program, to influence the course of the activity. This would be silly. This would mean, for instance, that you could never turn it off, or stop it, without unplugging the computer. In fact, most programming platforms have a 'stop' function built in. This is the very least of user/creator intervention. Most programs, in fact, allow for considerable data imput or user influence. After all, if the program is messing up and isn't reaching the goal (telos) you desired, you'd want to be able to get in there and fix it.

Now, if you interfered with the program, are you breaking grandly immutable laws? No. Of course, the pieces of code in the program can't operate outside the parameters you set. That doesn't mean that you can, or there's any sense that those parameters are violated by your influence.

Does this help? I realize this is an analogy; it proves nothing. But perhaps it will help readers see how Christians imagine miracles. They are not violations of the natural order; they are rare phenomenon that are fully allowable by and encompassed by the natural order--or the natural order as Christians think of it. This natural order does include "supernatural" agents, as Dawkins defines them, and so phenomenon isn't always explainable by natural laws from the natural sciences. This does not mean that they are violations of any laws.

This is the other side of a problem I came upon in the previously hyperlinked post (see top). That problem was revelation. Why, Dawkins asks, have we never succeeded in measuring or observing a revelation? Other than the obvious--most religions don't suppose there has been a 'large-scale' revelation since the Enlightenment, which is the earliest time someone might be supposed to try measuring one--I could say that the universe is programmed to allow channels of information to enter into it, and yet those pieces of code (humans) within the universe can't apprehend quite where that information comes from, limited as those codes are by their parameters.

As far as I can see, this belief system is entirely self-consistent. If I am wrong, please tell me. Whether it is or not, though, isn't the point of this post. The point is that Dawkins misrepresents religion. Either he doesn't understand it, or he is deliberately misrepresenting it. Neither is particularly laudable, especially since you'd hardly have to go out of your way to find this sort of thing out. My guess is that Dawkins simply isn't willing to try.

Go to the Dawkins Directory

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