Thursday, April 22, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - On Monotheism

I'm picking up my review of "The God Delusion" where I left off. This week we begin with the section on monotheism.

In this section Dawkins talks about the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He then explains that Christianity and Islam are both offshoots of Judaism.

He writes that Christianity was founded by Paul of Tarsus as a less exclusive, less 'ruthlessly monotheistic' form of Judaism.

Some of you might be confused. Wasn't Christianity founded by Jesus? Or at least by Peter, Jesus' chief disciple? His claim that Paul founded Christianity is probably based on the fact that Paul's letters are among the earliest Christian documents. That said, this claim has some serious problems.

In his early letters, Paul has to defend his position as a leader within the church. If Paul were the founder of the religion, he would have brought that up in his defense. Instead he freely admits that he joined the religion after Jesus' death and resurrection, and that the only reason he has the right to be a leader is because Jesus appeared to him after his resurrection.

Whatever we think about Paul's claim, the fact that he had to make this argument shows that he wasn't yet an established leader in the church.

Leaving that aside for now, Dawkins goes on to talk about Islam. He writes that Muhammad and his followers retained the uncompromising monotheism of Judaism and used military conquest to spread the faith. Then, as if to be fair, Dawkins points out that Christianity was also spread by the sword, first by Emperor Constantine, and later by crusaders and conquistadors.

Since I'm not Muslim, I won't respond to Dawkins' comments about Islam, but I will reply to his comments about Christianity.

In this section Dawkins gives the impression that Christianity was founded by Paul, and then popularized (and legitimized) by Constantine. The truth is, by the time Constantine conquered Rome and made Christianity the official religion, it had already grown quite popular. The religion survived more than two hundred and fifty years of Roman persecution, and had grown steadily during that time.

The question we must ask is, why did so many people convert to Christianity during an age when Christians were being persecuted? What was it about Christianity that people found so appealing that they were willing to risk being burned alive or being eaten by lions? This is the question that Dawkins needs to answer and it is the question that he is deliberately avoiding, for now at least.

Having said my piece, I will concede that Dawkins does have a point. Since the time of Constantine, Christians have been using violence to spread their beliefs. The idea that the message of God's love could be spread at the end of a sword or a gun is the single most destructive and perverse error that Christians have ever made. This is a topic I've touched on before, and it's something I plan to talk about more in the future. For now, let me just say that Dawkins has a good point here.

Dawkins briefly mentions Buddhism and Confucianism, only to say that he has nothing against those religions. He thinks they shouldn't be treated as religions, but as ethical systems. I know that in the West it is popular to think about Buddhism this way, but traditional Chinese Buddhism includes a belief in reincarnation. I doubt Dawkins would consider a belief in reincarnation to be more rational than a belief in resurrection from the dead. I can only conclude that he didn't do his research.

Dawkins finishes the section on monotheism by talking about deism. Deists believe in an impersonal God, who designed and created the universe and then let it run its course.

Even though he doesn't believe in it, Dawkins has a clear fondness for this idea of God, He writes, "The deist God of the eighteenth-century enlightenment is an altogether grander being: worthy of his cosmic creation, loftily unconcerned with human affairs, sublimely aloof from our private thoughts and hopes, caring nothing for our messy sins or mumbled contritions."

The great hope of the Christian faith is that God we worship is not at all like the God Dawkins describes. Our God cares about humans; he knows our thoughts and hopes; he is concerned about our messy sins. The great joy of every Christian is that God has joined us, in our messy state, and one day we will join him, in his perfection.

I find this passage to be very revealing of Dawkins' beliefs. Most people who are angry with God are angry because he is apathetic and distant and he allows people to suffer. On the other hand, Dawkins seems to be offended by the idea that God might actually care about us.

Before I conclude this post, I want to add one last comment about deism. Deism may be a dead religion, but deist philosophy has had a lasting impact on how we think about God.

Most people, even people who believe in God, tend to think that the universe runs itself. They believe that if God disappeared tomorrow the universe would be largely unaffected. The sun would still shine and the grass would still grow. No physical or chemical or biological process would be affected in any way by God's departure.

This is not monotheism. Monotheism is the belief in one God, who created everything, and without whom, nothing could exist. God didn't just create everything, he sustains everything from moment to moment. If we take God out of the equation, then the universe would disappear along with him.

The difference between these two philosophical positions is striking, and it's part of the reason why conversations between people with different beliefs are so hard. At a basic level, theists and atheists aren't speaking the same language.

Despite that, I'm having fun reading through Dawkins' book. I hope you're enjoying it as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment