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Karen’s on the case #4

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Towards the end of The case for God1, Karen Armstrong takes on the ‘new atheists’: the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Fourth in a series responding to Karen Armstrong’s The case for God: What religion really means

See also Karen’s on the case #1; #2; and #3

Sam Harris

Sam Harris

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

As readers of this blog may be aware, I am a great admirer of both Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins, and have read most of their books. I have read Sam Harris’s The end of faith2 and Christopher Hitchens’s God is not great3 but not in any depth. So in this post I shall focus on Armstrong v Dawkins.

This passage caught my eye:

In the past, theologians have found it useful to have an exchange of views with atheists. … But it is difficult to see how theologians could dialogue fruitfully with Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, because their theology is so rudimentary.

This reminded me that I’d heard somewhere that Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries (Baron Harries of Pentregarth, Bishop of Oxford 1987 to 2006) were at least on friendly terms. They have collaborated for example in resisting the teaching of creationism in schools.

Then I came across this little gem:

Admittedly the theology they are discussing is not exactly sophisticated stuff. But then I do think we need to be careful how we position ‘sophisticated theology’. A number of Dawkins’ critics have taken issue with him on this count, which I have already addressed in, for example:

Eagleton on Dawkins

Touched by an angel

Delusion delusion 

Certainly the further you go up the theology scale the further you get from the God of Dawkins’ God Hypothesis. Ultimately it comes down to numbers. Do the majority of (say, monotheistic) believers believe in the sort of God sophisticated theologians describe (and/or which Karen Armstrong presents as the essential mythos-type God), or in the kind of God who is closer to Dawkins’ God Hypothesis? 

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

At the risk of over-egging the pudding, here is another quote from Armstrong where she spells out the ‘God Hypothesis’, and quotes in turn from The God Delusion4:

For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.’

In fact Dawkins is careful to point out that this isn’t the only possible concept of God, but it is the one The God Delusion is attacking.

Armstrong goes on:

Having set up this definition of God as Supernatural Designer, Dawkins only has to point out that there is in fact no design in nature in order to demolish it. But he is mistaken to assume that this is ‘the way people have generally understood the term’ God. He is also wrong to claim that God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations. It was only in the modern period that theologians started to treat God as a scientific explanation and in the process produced an idolatrous God-concept.

OK, this may seem like splitting hairs, but Dawkins is not claiming that God is a scientific hypothesis. He is claiming that a majority of believers do hold a view, which essentially boils down to being a scientific hypothesis (even though they may not see it as such), that there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.

Armstrong may be right in her historical survey of mythos and logos, and of the impact of science and scientific methodology from the 17th Century onwards. But this does not exactly entail that if you asked a sample of (say) 10th Century Europeans whether or not they thought there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, the consistent response would be either ‘no’ or ‘I do not understand the question’.

Another couple of links which seemed both relevant and interesting:

The first is from the Wall Street Journal September 12, 2009, juxtaposing articles on the same subject (‘Where does evolution leave God?”) by (yes you’ve guessed it) Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins. See in particular the last two paragraphs of Dawkins’ offering.

The second is a response to this exchange from The Intersection of Faith and Life. I have no idea how representative this view is, but when I entered both ‘Karen Armstrong’ and ‘Richard Dawkins’ into Google this came very near the top. It is certainly relevant to the speculation as to what rank and file believers believe as opposed to what ‘sophisticated theologians’ believe.

I finish with two observations on the Dawkins/Harries interview. Harries is keen to accept all the evidence for evolution. He thinks the theory is sound. He rejects creationism and intelligent design. But he still thinks God planned it that way, because there is a purpose in the universe.

Caravaggio: The supper at Emmaus

Caravaggio: The supper at Emmaus

He is also very sparing in his endorsement of miracles. But he stands by the resurrection as a historical fact. In Armstrongspeak, his belief in the resurrection is either logos and mythos combined, or logos on its own. What it is not is just mythos – or I have completely lost the plot.



1 Karen Armstrong, The case for God: What religion really means, The Bodley Head, London, 2009.

2 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, WW Norton, 2004.

3 Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Twelve Books, 2007.

4 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam, 2006.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

20 September 2009 at 7:24 pm

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