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Was Dawkins Arguing Against a 'Straw God'?

Ontological vs. Metaphorical Conceptions of God

This was originally a research proposal for a sociological study on God concepts. I have stripped out the portions on methodology, pared down most of the sociological jargon and distilled the literature review to (hopefully) render it more palatable for a general audience.

Richard Dawkins' incessant polemics against religion receive a fair amount of justified criticism, and his outspoken position that religion does more harm than good is difficult to justify when considering the positive role religion plays in the lives of so many. With his confrontational style and insulting tone he put believers on the defensive, causing critics to gloss over or ignore his valid points. One common dismissive retort is the claim that Dawkins is arguing against a conception of God that no one actually believes in—that he “sets up a ‘straw god’ in order to knock it down” (Skinner, 2007). I've heard several theologians make statements such as "I don't recognize the God that Dawkins describes." One blogger claims that Dawkins is arguing against “ideas [of God] that haven't been in the mainstream of Christianity for hundreds of years” (Haller, 2007). Gregg Easterbrook, author and senior editor of The New Republic, asserts that Dawkins is only arguing against the God of Christian fundamentalists—that more mainstream Christians don’t believe in that kind of God:

“Dawkins argues against a straw God: the rigid, wrathful ruler of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism.…by addressing only the kind of supernatural envisioned by fundamentalism, The God Delusion ignores the huge numbers of thoughtful believers who approach faith on more sophisticated terms” (2006:2).

But is this common critique justified? Just what kind of god is Dawkins arguing against? And is that god commonly worshipped among believers or is his entire argument one big straw-man attack? In The God Delusion Dawkins defines God as a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it” (2006:31). This definition exemplifies what might properly be called an ontological conception of God—that is, God is something that exists, something that has being, and is separate and independent of other things that exist (such as ourselves). That something might be an impersonal power or force, or it might be a supernatural, living being with a personality with thoughts and feeling, who acts in the world. Traditionally, Christians and other theists have adopted the latter view, as apologist Richard Swinburne expressed so well: "Theism claims that God is a personal being—that is, in some sense a person. By a person I mean an individual with basic powers (to act intentionally), purposes, and beliefs" (1996:4). In other words, God is a "who," not a "what."

Dawkins' argues that someone who asserts that a god exists is making an empirical claim—that is, a claim that something objectively real exists. That places the assertion, according to Dawkins, within the realm of scientific investigation. Few would argue that scientists should be silent regarding the existence of faeries and leprechauns. A scientist would not be considered closed-minded, nor to be overstepping his bounds were he to express certainty that no naiades inhabit the earth's waterways. Yet many feel that scientists have no business arguing against the existence of a divine, supernatural, incorporeal person who exists somewhere outside the universe as we experience it every day. Dawkins argues that, even though scientists cannot prove that gods do not exist—any more than they can prove the nonexistence of faeries and leprechauns—they can show just how improbable the existence of such beings might be.

Modern theologians have indeed developed more sophisticated ways of thinking of God, attempting to make the idea more “reasonable” to those who have a hard time accepting the traditional anthropomorphic images of God. C.S. Lewis, for example, was adamant that faith should be based on reason (1943). Charles Hartshorne attempted to offer believers “options for reasonable belief,” by removing what he considered to be the “absurdities of the idea of God” (1984:ix). Richard Swinburne argued that, of all the theories we have about how the universe began and how it works, the theory that there is a God who created and sustains the universe is the one best supported by our current evidence: "the view that there is a God explains everything that we observe, not just some narrow range of data" (1996:2). But while modern theological notions somewhat alleviate the perception of God as the Christian equivalent of a Zeus or Thor, all of these theologians, and many others, still think of God in ontological terms, as an entity or power that exists somewhere, independent of the physical universe we observe around us, something supernatural that stands outside of space and time and is ontologically separate from its creation—a "spiritual entity" as opposed to a corporeal entity.

Others, however, have entertained metaphorical conceptions to which they apply the label "God." John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, suggests that a believer can “be a Christian without being a theist” (1998:56). He entreats Christians to abandon traditional theism and embrace a metaphorical understanding of God: “[the name God] is no longer for me the name of a being…it is a symbol of that which is immortal, invisible, timeless.…God is the ultimate source of love” (2001:72). Spong’s views are not surprising considering he studied under Paul Tillich, an influential Lutheran theologian. Tillich described the ontological idea of God as a separate being: “The God of theological theism is a being beside others and as such a part of the whole of reality…a thing among things” (1952:184-185). He argued that Christians should “transcend the theistic idea of God” (1952:182) to a conception he called the “God above the God of theism,” which is a metaphor for “the ground of all being.” That is, for Tillich, God refers to “being-itself” rather than “a being.” This conception might be considered "ultimately ontological," but that should not be confused with a conception of God as a being that is ontologically separate.

Perhaps the most fervent proponent of a metaphorical view of God was the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. A metaphorical interpretation of mythology was central to Campbell’s thought. Throughout all of his works we find a sustained effort to help Westerners understand God-talk in metaphorical terms. Campbell considered it a problem that most members of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition believe in an ontological God. The dilemma, as he saw it, is that “half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts.” (2001:2). If he is right, then the charge that Dawkins is arguing against a “straw God” is overstated, at best.

Yet Dawkins’ critics persist. Christian author Neale Walsch writes in his blog that he agrees with Dawkins' arguments against an ontological conception of God, but he thinks there is a different conception of God that Dawkins doesn't address: “The God of which [Dawkins] speaks...does not exist....the God of which he does not speak...does exist.” What God is that? According to Walsch it is “something...that even science cannot explain, but that shows up in the day-to-day experience of human beings....The name that I give this ‘something’ is Life.” That “something” sounds suscpiciously similar to the “God of the gaps” that Dawkins also argues against, and which Walsch states plainly: “...humans do not understand all there is to understand about Life. I submit that the part that we do not understand is the part that we might not incorrectly call ‘God.’” In other words, that something which he calls God is a metaphor for the mysteries of life. Later in the same article, however, Walsch briefly indicates that he holds a second conception of God, as something more than a metaphor, rather “a power, an essence, an energy that can be used with consistent and predictable results.” But like the personal God of most Christian believers, this too is an ontological claim, a claim that something exists—in this case a "power" or "energy" that humans can use. As such, it too is a claim that could conceivably be tested for, to determine how probable its existence might be, and thus it too falls within the realm of scientific inquiry.

In his three-part critique of The God Delusion, M.D. and New Age author Deepak Chopra offers the quintessence of a metaphorical conception of God: “Human beings have been obsessed with beauty, truth, love, honor,...art, and God. They all go together as subjective experiences, and it’s a straw man to set God up as the delusion. If he is, then so is truth itself or beauty itself. God stands for the perfection of both(2006, emphasis added). When Chopra uses the word God he does not think of a separate being, but rather a metaphor for the perfection of truth, love and beauty. To him, God is a "subjective experience" rather than an objectively real entity. So why, one may fairly ask, did Chopra even bother to write a critique of Dawkins when he himself doesn’t seem to believe in the kind of god that Dawkins is arguing against?

More sophisticated and metaphorical conceptions of God might be common among theologians and seminary-trained clergy (and New Age authors), but they have failed to become pervasive among common believers. Sociological research on God concepts indicates that the vast majority of believers do in fact conceive of God as an ontologically separate, personal being with human-like characteristics. And only a very small minority of those who say they believe in God think of it in purely metaphorical terms—as a symbol, for example, of all that is sacred in the world, or of all that is good in humanity.

God concept studies have a long history in the sociological literature. Most begin with the assumption that participants hold an ontological conception of God. These studies usually measure God concepts by offering survey participants a list of adjectives or human characteristics and ask them to rate on a scale how likely these words are to come to mind when the participant thinks of God. These include words such as kingly, wrathful, fatherly, kind, vindictive, forgiving, judge, redeemer, stern father, lover, master, supreme ruler, friendly vs. unfriendly, almighty vs. powerless, honest vs. dishonest, and so forth. (Broughton 1975) (Benson & Spilka 1973) (General Social Survey 2008) (Gorsuch 1968:57). All of these types of studies, however, assume that participants consider God to be an ontologically separate entity with human characteristics. Such methods, unfortunately, prevent participants from expressing metaphorical conceptions even if they held them. Several researchers, however, have tried using qualitative methods in order to gather conceptions based on the participant’s own thinking about God rather than the researcher’s predetermined options.

One study (Hutsebaut, 1995) began with an open-ended question: “What is the meaning of God for you?” Following that, participants were asked to rate a 53-item list of characteristics, almost all ontological in nature, on a 5-point scale. Answers to the open-ended questions tended to fall into predominantly ontological categories such as “relationship to God,” “Creator,” “caretaker of the dead,” “higher power or perfect entity” and showed a strong correlation with answers to the item list. Some respondents did answer positively to the concept of God as a “symbol for the love and the good between people” (1995:53). But the researchers noted that these were mostly non-believers. The open-ended question, however, uncovered a small percentage of believers who indicated more metaphorical conceptions: “God is present in everything; God ‘is’ the beautiful things; God is present in justice and love; God is the power in me, the deepest dimension of my life” (1995:55).

Another study (Kunkel 1999) used a technique called concept mapping that “seeks for conceptual rather than statistical significance” (1999:196) by allowing participants to generate their own adjectives to describe God. They began by asking participants to brainstorm a list of one-, two-, or three-word responses to the question “What is God like?” They then compiled a comprehensive list of 85 God concept items from the participants’ own responses. Almost all of the final items were within an ontological conception, including many of the very same words used in item lists by earlier studies.

In a series of three fascinating and illuminating studies (Barrett 1996), researchers used story processing tasks to determine the tendency of participants to anthropomorphize non-natural concepts such as God. Participants began by answering a questionnaire to determine their self-professed conceptions of God. Separate groups then read or listened to brief stories (one or two paragraphs) in which God or some other god-like entity played an active role, but carefully worded so as not to suggest anthropomorphic (i.e., human-like) characteristics. They then either answered a list of questions or retold the stories in their own words. The study showed that participants tended to recall the stories in far more anthropomorphic terms than were actually present in the text. The results also demonstrated a wide discrepancy between how participants described their conception of God in the questionnaire compared with how they recalled stories. The researchers concluded:

“The concept of God used in the context of listening to and remembering stories is not the same as the concept of God that is claimed in a more abstract, theological setting. Subjects do use anthropomorphic concepts of God in understanding stories even though they may profess a [more abstract] theological position that rejects anthropomorphic constraints on God and God’s activities” (1996:240).

They also found that God is “usually represented as a being with a mind, desires, and the ability to communicate” (1996:242), which is right in line with the concept that Dawkins is arguing against. This round-about way of determining God concepts was necessary in order to get around what the researchers referred to as “theological correctness”: “If subjects were asked directly what they believed about God, responses would tend to fit into an abstract theology. Even if people use an anthropomorphic God concept in daily life, they would be hesitant to articulate this as their personal theology because it might appear juvenile” (1996:223). This issue is endemic to any attempt to find out what someone really believes about God. If a woman, for instance, is asked if she considers God to be male or female, she may feel obliged, as a woman, to answer “female” even if in practice she normally conceives of God as male.

Finally, and most directly, a survey by the Princeton Religion Research Center asked the following question: “Is God a heavenly father who can be reached by prayers, an idea but not a being, or an impersonal creator?” 84% answered heavenly father, 2% answered impersonal creator, and only 5% thought God was just an idea, not a being (1990). It doesn't get much more straight forward than that.

So it would seem that at least this batch of critics are far off base. Whatever the shortcomings of his opinions and arguments, the straw man fallacy is not one of them. For, as Joseph Campbell put it, “...in the Western sphere…God is a person, the person who has created this world. God and his creation are not of the same substance” (2007:9). Dawkins doesn't claim that he or anyone else can know for certain that such a being does not exist. On the contrary, he makes it abundantly clear that he is arguing merely that it is highly improbable that such a being exists: "God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed" (2006:109). And while some may hold conceptions of God sophisticated enough to escape his arguments, the fact remains that the vast majority of those who say they believe, do in fact believe in an ontologically separate being—the very concept that Dawkins is arguing against.


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