“As though God were a god”

I’ve just finished re-reading C. S. Lewis’s first Christian book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Published in 1933, just four years after he “gave in and admitted the God was God … perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in England”, the book is an allegorical account of his own journey into Christianity, which was largely a philosophical rather than emotional or personal one.


I very much enjoyed the first three quarters or so; but as the book draws towards its climax, the characters display a regrettable tendency to break into poetry — a form which I have always struggled with.

But there is one part of one poem that struck me. It appears at the end of Chapter 6 (“Ignorantia”) of Book 10 (“The Regress”) and finishes with the following couplet:

Though they lay flat the mountains and dry up the sea,
Wilt thou yet change, as though God were a god?

That’s rather good — a sort of pun on the word “god”, making the point that the capitalisation makes all the difference. And it really does: the God that Christians believe in has essentially nothing in common with the gods that we find in Greek and Morse mythology and elsewhere.

And this of course got me thinking about Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote:

An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the golden calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

Now this quote perplexes me. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to matters theological will immediately see that it’s not comparing like with like. The God that Christians believe it (rightly or wrongly) is a transcendent being beyond both time and space who created both of those things and pre-exists them. Thor is a super-powered human, like Superman or Spider-Man or, come to think of it, the Marvel Comics version of Thor. He stands in the same relation to me that I do to a toddler. I am stronger and faster than the toddler; Thor is stronger and faster than me.

So far, so obvious. Here’s the part I don’t understand: how can Dawkins not see that he is comparing apples and galaxy superclusters?

As far as I can see, there are only two possible explanations. Either he truly doesn’t understand what Christians mean by the word “God” — in which case he is too ignorant to have any credibility when he speaks about Christianity in particular or religion in general. Or he knows perfectly well that he is promulgating a false equivalence, and doesn’t care — in which he’s knowingly using a straw-man argument, and so by his own criteria he’s hardly worth listening to at all.

And this disappoints me, because Dawkins is (or at least was) a truly brilliant writer on the subject of evolution, and I wish more people — especially more Christians — would read his very helpful explanations of this fascinating subject. But that’s not going to happen while he continues to systematically undermine his own credibility and alienate his potential audience.

For such a clever man, he can be very stupid.


15 responses to ““As though God were a god”

  1. My vote is strawman.

    Dawkins contempt for Christians is such that believe he’s more than willing to act out of spite.

  2. I would hazard a guess at the straw man argument. I find the chap insufferable so I don’t spend a great deal of time listening to him or reading his writing elsewhere but he does seem rather fond of strawman arguments, bad analogies and probably the whole gamut of debating fallacies. He’s a bit like a one-man experience of debating something on newsgroups.

    As it is, I’m not convinced there’s any evidence to suggest that I feel the same way about those other gods as he feels about God: he seems to make a big deal about how much he cares about God not being a thing which is noticeably different to me not really caring much about the others except for a sort of passing curiosity now and then. But maybe that’s where his “good Christian” clause comes into play because perhaps I “should” be as contemptuous.

    Meh, already seeing the pre-knotted-and-tangled knots and tangles starting to manifest which is why I tend to avoid this sort of thing.

  3. I have to disagree with your characterization of Thor and of the Dawkins quote more broadly. Why does the supposed nature of a deity make one deity different than another with respect to disbelief?

    Thor was a human-like deity, the offspring of other deities, and shared many weaknesses and foibles with humanity. He was still divine, and thus of a different category than humans. Saying he was merely a super-powered human gives the impression that you read too many comic books. Was Jesus merely a human with some divine DNA that let him rise from apparent death?

    Yahweh/God was long regarded as having many human traits — for example, the bit about him being a jealous god in Exodus — and his son (part of the Trinity) was also the son of a human woman. Jesus is reported to have said “Eloi, eloi, lami sabachthani?” at his crucifixion, which is a very human thing to ask.

    Many, perhaps most, of the differences between the Christian conception of God and the Norse conception of their pantheon spring from the societies they developed from, and particularly the moral and religious struggles and how those interacted with political disputes.

    That being said, the differences between any pantheon and Christian theology are really not pertinent to Dawkins’s argument. The key similarity is that they are supernatural beings that members of the respective religions have faith in. Would you understand the Dawkins quote if he instead cited Ik Onkar (of Sikhism) instead of Thor? Do you believe in the Jewish Yahweh, who has not yet sent the Messiah to humanity? Do you believe in the Islamic Allah, who lays out shariah law as the only proper law for believers?

  4. The Christian god is based on the Jewish god who was in turn was basedon the Ugaritic god El. There were three main gods in the Ugaritic religion: a masculine god of war, a feminine god of fertility and El, the impersonal god, a universal force. The Jewish god started as a typical tribal deity, but slowly became the one and only. When the Israelites clobbered the Moabites, the Bible goes on about this being a victory for the Jewish god over the Moabite god. The Moabite god existed and was a god like the Jewish god, but he got his ass kicked. For another example, in the ten commandments the Jewish god says that one should “have no other gods before me”, implying that there were other gods, but that the Jewish god is god number one.

    Judaism got more serious about its god after the Babylonian exile when its ruling class returned to Jerusalem. According to the Bible that’s when they kicked the idols for various other gods out of the temple. This implies that before then the temple of the Jewish god had a whole bunch of idols of other gods in it. That’s also when they started codifying all that kosher stuff. Abraham offered god’s messengers meat and cheese, but cheeseburgers have been prohibited since that exile. As Jews had more contact with other civilizations, usually getting conquered, but now and then conquering others, they expanded the scope and power of their god. Having the Ugaritic neutral god as the original base made this easier and more natural.

    Monotheism tends to create a more universal deity, rather than one associated with only a particular region or people. As Akhenaten, the pharaoh who experimented with an early form of monotheism, realized, having a single god has powerful philosophical implications. Christianity took the Jewish god to the next level. Christianity was a missionary faith, like Buddhism. It sought converts, so having a universal god like the Jewish god as a starting point made it easier to bring in non-Jewish converts. I think a big point of this is made in the gospels when Christianity started converting non-Jews. Islam took a similar approach adopting the Jewish, and perhaps the Christian, god as its own except now even more god-like. As you noted, many now distinguish God, the Christian god, or Allah, the Muslim god, from what they consider other non-gods but otherwise possibly superhuman entities.

    I’m not a biblical scholar, but I read popular books and essays on biblical scholarship. It’s a fascinating subject. It’s even more fascinating when you realized that most of the Marvel and DC superheroes and gods and the like were developed by Jews, often Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

    P.S. As an example of how this works, I read an article in Hinduism Today about how many schools of Hindu thought consider their various gods all as aspects as a universal force. When India was relatively isolated, there was no need for this, but as Hinduism encountered alien gods, there was a move towards a transcendent monotheistic power.

  5. God is called God, after all; the Bible says to have no other gods before him, and Paul explicitly compares him to the Greek gods. Frankly, the Biblical God doesn’t always seem so transcendent: Genesis 3:8-13 has him seem to have blind spots in his knowledge, and the whole chapter makes him seem a bit vindictive. Or Matthew 21:12 “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,”.

    You can take the stories of Thor literally, but I don’t get the impression most of his worshippers do. Just like many of the worshippers of Yahweh take the stories of the Bible literally, but many don’t.

    You may think the issue is simplified, and the comparison unfair, but ultimately if two sides saw eye to eye, this wouldn’t be as contentious an issue.

  6. Michael P asks:

    Why does the supposed nature of a deity make one deity different than another?

    Because we are not comparing apples with apples here, or even with oranges. Or, a more apposite metaphor: we are not here comparing Hamlet with Macbeth, but Shakespeare with both of them.

    Was Jesus merely a human with some divine DNA that let him rise from apparent death?

    And that question, or one very like it, is of course the literal crux of Christianity. (I assume you’re using the term “divine DNA” in a figurative sense, since God is not an evolved being.) Much of what Christians believe is theism, shared with (many or most) Jews, Muslims and others. The unique claim of Christianity is that the God who stands behind the whole of the physical universe invaded it as a human being. That is an astonishing claim, and anyone who is not shocked or offended by it probably hasn’t understood it. (Whereas the claim that Zeus had come to Earth as a human would have been very much in keeping with Greek mythology.)

    Jesus is reported to have said “Eloi, eloi, lami sabachthani?” at his crucifixion, which is a very human thing to ask.

    Yes indeed. Those words — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” also lie at the heart of the great mystery of Christianity. How can God be cut off from God? I think anyone who gives you a neatly wrapped explanation of this is rather missing the point (even assuming it can be done, which I am not sure it can). As so often, Chesterton said it best. It’s long, but well worth reading in full:

    That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break.

    In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God.

    And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

    As Chesterton says: this is not easy; nor simple.

  7. Mike, you are hurting your point. You have a disbeliever’s conception of ancient Norse mythology that is incomplete or inaccurate to the point of cartoonish disrespect, and you ask the reader to contrast that with your (apparent) believer’s conception of the Christian God, but you insist that Dawkins is the one who made a category error.

    Sure, if you pretend the Old Testament doesn’t exist, you could conceive of a Christian God that stands apart from our universe and never intervenes. Similarly, if you pretend that Asgard was part of the human world, and the Norse gods were (supposedly) created in a manner sufficiently similar to humans, that Thor was just a super-powered human. However, neither of those is a very mature or accurate description of the respective religions.

    Dawkins was comparing the two religions as beliefs in supernatural beings outside the normal order of the world we see and can interact with. Of course a current Christian conception of God engages more with someone raised in a modern European culture than Norse mythology does: The religions are separated by something like 1200 years and a staggering amount of technological and cultural change. That doesn’t make the religions fundamentally incomparable, or make Thor any more of a human than Jesus was. (Jesus, being born of a woman, was much more human than Thor.)

    While we’re at it, it was incredibly stupid for Chesterton to claim that only Christianity attributes a Creator with courage. I don’t know whether it is an accurate description of other monotheistic religions — I doubt it — but polytheistic religions certainly give deities courage, although they usually separate primal creation forces from the ones that people can relate to. Expecting primal creators (in that kind of polytheism) to have human attributes is a failure of understanding. Similarly, gods revolting against earlier orders of gods is a dirt-common theme in polytheism. I have no idea why Chesterton thought divine revolution was novel to Christianity, but the bit you excerpted makes him seem like a fool. “For such a clever man, he can be very stupid.”

  8. When you compare a story about how we have winter because Nature (Demeter) lost her daughter for a time to a story about the God of the Israelites sent the plagues to Egypt to get “his people” out of slavery, it doesn’t seem so clear cut about which god is more transcendent, much less that one is of a different nature than the other.

    The first name recorded for Thor is Hercules. That’s because when the Romans went around conquering, they went around telling the conquered what the names of their gods were in Roman religion, and to the Romans, Thor was merely another name for Hercules. Thus we have artifacts of Germanic religion with Latin writing that calls Thor Hercules. Isn’t that a bit more transcendent, gods who met the entire world then a god whose recorded actions post-Flood to the end of the Biblical record is mostly confined to modern-day Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with a bit of a stretch into Turkey, Greece and Italy towards the end?

  9. I think that you oversimplify many polytheistic viewers on God. In many religions, the gods are considered facets of a higher being, leading to dualities very similar to the Christian trinity. For instance, many Hindu believers consider all of the various gods to be manifestations of Brahman. In this view, God is frequently decided again themself.

    Fundamentally, it is very hard for a non-believer to really understand another religion without intensive study. Even then, they are likely to misinterpret some crucial detail, leading to inaccurate comparisons.

  10. In the sentence that you quote, Dawkins does not say that Yahweh is the same as Thor. He says that atheists feel the same way about Yahweh that Christians feel about Thor. As an explanation of how atheists think, I think this is both generally true and potentially useful for understanding. (For example, atheists are sometimes accused of hating God or rebelling against God. It’s potentially useful to point out that modern Christians don’t hate Thor and aren’t rebelling against Thor. Christians also don’t hate rainfall, or courage in battle, or whatever else is supposed to be due to Thor. They just don’t believe that Thor is real.)

    If you want to argue that atheists shouldn’t feel that way, because Yahweh is so different from Thor, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make Dawkins’ statement ignorant or dishonest. He’s correctly explaining to you what a typical atheist thinks.

  11. Dawkins’ won’t really admit the concept of “transcendence” into the argument. He says that he is familiar with the argument that the God he disbelieves in isn’t really the God that Christians believe in, but doesn’t respond to it: instead he blusters “I know Christians don’t really believe that God has a white beard, but what they do believe is very nearly as silly”. (quote from memory.) He uses faux naive arguments about how a being as complicated as God couldn’t possibly exist, because there wouldn’t have been time for him to evolve and actually wonders how much bandwidth it takes for God to listen to all those millions of prayers at the same time.

    I get that from his point of view, saying that God is “outside of space and time” is very nearly the same as saying “God is nowhere” or “God doesn’t exist”. Similarly, when naive Christians tell Dawkins that science-tells-us-how but religion-tells-us-why he simply asserts that “why” questions don’t mean anything; the universe just is. He just takes that for granted, as a given, in the same way he takes it for granted, as a given, that “morality” means “utilitarianism”.

    This means that instead of arguing a case for atheism, he largely takes atheism for granted (“why” questions are meaningless, no such animal as “transcendence”) and spends his time attacking Christians for believing things which no informed Christian has ever believed.

    Terry Eagleton put it neatly “Dawkins thinks that God is chap and then asks how this chap can possibly listen to billions of prayers simultaneously — which is a bit like asking why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he only has two arms.” (quote from memory, again)

    I wasn’t very impressed with a recent anti-Dawkins book called “God is No Thing”, but the title is good. (God is no thing; but God is not nothing.)

    I don’t think that it is true on any level to say that Christians are atheists with respect to Allah, Krishna and Zeus but not with respect to YHWH. I don’t think that most Christian’s “disbelief” in Zeus is anything like Dawkins’ “disbelief” in God. Depending on his mood, Dawkins thinks God is a creature, like, say, the Loch Ness Monster, that might perfectly well have existed but happens not to; or that “God” is a completely meaningless idea and that saying “I believe in God” is on a level with saying “there are thirteen minutes in the colour orange.”

    I think Christians have had a range of different beliefs about Zeus ranging from “We all have different names and different ways of worshiping God: Zeus just happened to be what the ancient Greeks called him” through “Zeus was demon sent by Satan to lead the ancient Greeks astray”. Most of us are somewhere in between, I suppose: Zeus is the best guess that the wise Greeks could come up with about what God must be like; Zeus is an example of what everyone in the universe can glean about God without special revelation; belief in Zeus is part of a historical process by which God prepared the Greeks for the Christian Gospel when they finally heard it. Very few of us would say “Zeus is simply a non existent thing on a level with Father Christmas, David Copperfield and Big Foot.”

  12. AR Rilstone, you list various beliefs Christians might have about the concept of Zeus which are relatively respectful or at least stop short of equating Zeus with Bigfoot. (*)

    But many (not all) atheists or people of an atheistic bent have ideas about Jesus or God which are respectful to a similar degree, e.g., Jesus was a great moral philosopher; the idea of God is a natural product of human intelligence attempting to understand the universe; the universe is evidently governed by some imperfectly-known set of principles, you could call those principles “God” if you want although they’re not like a person, etc. etc.

    But is Zeus as he is commonly understood—not something-else-I-came-up-with-that-I-call-Zeus, but something close to Zeus as generally presented—IS ZEUS REAL? Was there a super-powerful being who liked eagles and oak trees better than he liked other things, or was there not? Did he have a half-human son who performed amazing feats, including a couple of instances of bringing people back from the Land of the Dead? Or did that not really happen?

    I’m not convinced that Dawkins’ analogy is inaccurate.

    (* Although Mike Taylor seems to me to be in the disrespectful camp, equating the Norse god Thor with a Marvel superhero. Clearly when Norse people prayed to Thor or dedicated their marriages to Thor, they didn’t think he was a superhero physically standing there.)

  13. spends his time attacking Christians for believing things which no informed Christian has ever believed.

    I find that a quite frustrating argument, for two related reasons. First place, the arguments against Christians if frequently before for believing things that they clearly believe in. The fact that you can use a “no true Scotsman” attack on groups of people doesn’t mean they don’t argue with us, both online and in person, and that they don’t become the politicians defining the laws of my nation.

    Secondly, you’re saying that no informed Christian believes something, when many of the people you are talking to have family that believe it. It becomes quite personal when you tell us our family isn’t “true” Christians.

  14. David:

    I didn’t intend to attack anyone personally (apart from possibly Mr Dawkins); sorry if it came out that way.

    I very carefully didn’t say “no true Christian”; I said “no informed Christian”. I think that what makes you a true Christian is faith in Jesus. I think that people with a very imperfect understanding of the Bible or Christian doctrine (for example, children, or people who have never learned to read or write) can have a very strong and very genuine faith.

    A lot of the writing by Dawkins and other alt-atheists appears to pre-suppose that when a Christian refers to God he or she is referring to a more or less anthropomorphic being, who is spatially located. As Eagleton said, he thinks that we think that God is “a chap, however supersized”. No internet discussion is complete without someone quoting Tim Minchin’s joke about God being an invisible fairy who lives in the sky.

    I can just about believe that some of your family do think of God in this way — as a very big old man with a beard who lives above the bright blue sky. I can very easily believe that they are better Christians than me — that they do a better job of living in the way Jesus said than I do. But it would be fair to say that their belief in the big beardy guy who lives in the clouds isn’t what the Church officially teaches, or what any informed Christian actually thinks. (It is surely fairly well known that God is said to be “omnipresent” — he is no more “in the sky” than anywhere else.)

    This was the kind of thing I meant when I said that Dawkins made the object of his attack something which no informed Christian believed. He also presents rather caricatured versions of the Trinity and the Atonement and pokes fun at Christians for believing in them.

    I agree that there can be a lot of no-true-scotsman circular reasoning on both sides. “Actually, Christians are very relaxed and accepting about gay people”
    “But here is a preacher who says that all gay people go to hell” “Very well then, he is not a true Christian. True Christians are very accepting of gay people.” / “Christians believe that naughty children should be stoned to death”. “No they don’t; most of them don’t take that part of the Bible literally, or they interpret that sentence in a different way”. “But it says so in your Bible. If you don’t believe that naughty children should be stoned to death, then you aren’t a true Christian.”

    But I don’t think that my accusation that Dawkins sometimes chooses to attack caricatures and straw-doll versions of Christianity can fairly be put in that category.

    Again, I am sorry if you felt that I was personally insulting any of your relatives.

    Andrew Rilstone

  15. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 18 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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