Thursday, April 15, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - On Theology, Taxes, the Trinity and Catholicism

In last week's post I was so busy responding to the opening sentence of chapter two I didn't have time to talk about what chapter two is actually about. Chapter two is about the God hypothesis, which Mr. Dawkins defines as, "There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us." He talks about some of the more common forms that this hypothesis takes. He spends some time offering specific critiques of various religions, but his main point is to argue that all religions are fundamentally similar and that they are all fundamentally wrong.

Considering that this chapter is written about religion and it is in a book about God, it is surprisingly light on theological content. Last week I had to spend a whole post explaining everything that was wrong with Mr. Dawkins' description of the God of the Old Testament. Mr. Dawkins wouldn't have had to study too hard to find out that his description was terribly inaccurate. Indeed, I'm sure Mr. Dawkins is aware that religious Jews believe that their God is a God of love and a God of justice. This fact alone should have caused Mr. Dawkins to wonder why his own view was so different from theirs. If he were a humble person he would have listened to what they have to say, because most religious Jews are far more familiar with the Old Testament* than he is. If he were an inquisitive person, he could have asked a Rabbi why the Jewish people believe what they do about God. Any Rabbi worth his salt could have easily corrected some of Mr. Dawkins' most egregious mistakes. Mr. Dawkins didn't do this (or, if he did, he left it out of the book) because it would ruin the argument that he is trying to make.

Many people have taken Mr. Dawkins to task for failing to engage with any serious theology. He mentions this in the preface to the paperback edition. He argues that he only needed to engage with theological arguments that seek to prove God's existence (which he does in chapter 3). If he can show that God most likely does not exist, then it shouldn't matter one way or the other what theologians have to say about God's character, or any of his other attributes.

If that's the case, then I have to ask the obvious question: why not start with chapter 3? Why waste time insulting a being that doesn't even exist? If the debate is really about God's existence, and not God's character, why not skip straight to the part where you prove that God doesn't exist?

That's something to think about as we go over this book. Now I'm going to pick up where I left off.

The first section of chapter 2 is titled, "Polytheism". You would think that I could safely ignore this passage since I'm not a polytheist. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It seems that Mr. Dawkins doesn't have a lot to say about polytheism, so instead he rambles. He ends up talking about Christianity quite a bit. I'm going to respond to a few of the points he makes along the way.

First of all, Mr. Dawkins writes that we shouldn't promote religious organizations by granting them tax-exempt status. He points out that society could benefit from the extra tax money, and that allowing televangelists to collect large amounts of money tax-free isn't exactly great for society.

I have to admit that when Mr. Dawkins describes it like that, it does sound like a good idea. There are some Christian ministries that abuse their tax exempt status. It is tempting to think that we could put those ministries out of business and reduce our National debt at the same time.

Realistically, though, if stopped giving churches tax-exempt status, then small community congregations would be hit the hardest. It would weed out a lot of smaller religious organizations that benefit the community around them, while allowing larger, more parasitic ministries to survive. Men like Oral Roberts or Joel Olsteen would continue to make boatloads of money; they would just have slightly less take home pay. The pros don't outweigh the cons.

Second, Mr. Dawkins writes about the doctrine of the trinity. He quotes Thomas Jefferson, who said, "Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man has ever had a distinct idea of the trinity."

I would disagree with both Dawkins and Jefferson on this point. The authors of the Nicean creed clearly had a distinct idea of the trinity. It can be translated roughly as, "God exists as three persons of one substance." Saint Patrick used the analogy of a clover, which has three leaves, but is still only one clover. These explanations may not be as precise or as distinct as Dawkins or Jefferson would like them to be, but they are certainly distinct enough for reason to act upon.

The last thing I want to comment on for now is Mr. Dawkins' words about Catholicism. He writes, "But it is especially the Roman Catholic brand of Christianity that pushes its recurrent flirtation with polytheism towards runaway inflation. The trinity is (are?) joined by Mary, 'Queen of Heaven', a goddess in all but name, who surely runs God himself a close second as a target of prayers. The pantheon is further swollen by an army of saints, whose intercessory power makes them, if not demigods, well worth approaching on their own specialist subjects."

That's a long quote, but he's just getting warmed up. He writes for several paragraphs about the polytheistic quality of Catholic worship. I'm not a Catholic myself, so I'm not going to argue with him about this, but I feel the need to point something out.

For a man who claims to not have any religious beliefs, a man who says that all religions are equally ridiculous, he seems to have a lot of contempt for the Catholic church. Since he has no religious feelings of his own, I would expect Dawkins not to care if Catholics worship one God or an army of saints. As it stands, the language used in this section sounds like it comes from Oliver Cromwell, not the avowed atheist Richard Dawkins.

I point this out because I fully expect to read, later in this book, about the advantages of a secular, atheist society. I expect to hear something about how a world without religion would be free from petty religious quarrels. If that's where he's going, he might want to tone down the anti-Catholic rhetoric here.

* Technically, the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible, is slightly different from the Christian Old Testament, but these differences are relatively minor. I hope my Jewish readers will forgive me for using the two terms interchangeably.

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