The Myth of the Supernatural

There are few metaphors more descriptive than the one from Deuteronomy that promises, “your heavens will be as brass,” a farming expression in context, but used by many since then to refer to ineffectual prayer. To Richard Dawkins, atheist author of The God Delusion, there is a simple answer to the curse of a walled-up heaven. No one is really there to hear your prayers, says Dawkins. It’s not that the other party will not take the collect call, it’s that there is no other party to take it. In fact, there is not even a phone on the other end.

In making my trek through Dawkins’ book, I want to sketch some bloggy notes in response–a response I hope will be honest, transparent and not exactly traditional. So I roll out a thick layer of disclaimer now. The traditional Christian may find offense. As may the traditional atheist. I aim to be an equal opportunity stumbling block.

It is not that I am an unbeliever. Is it possible to believe because of skepticism and not in spite of it? I think so. One must not merely declare, on the razor edge of some manufactured “either-or,” that because certain religious pills are hard swallow, opposite prescriptions must of necessity go down more easily. No, if you apply scrutiny to scrutiny and doubt to doubt, you discover soon enough that every living person is a person of “faith,” that the unbeliever is not an unbeliever at all, but merely a person who believes stuff that others don’t.

But before I get to that, I want to address the issue around which most of Dawkins’ initial arguments stem, the statements he makes in the opening pages of his book The God Delusion. This is the thorny issue of a natural/supernatural universe.

Dawkins begins his labors by dispensing with “Einsteinian” religion, that is, a sort of mechanistic awe of nature and natural processes. It gazes, Sagan-like, at the infinitely amazing cosmos and offers gushing prose that skirts the divine without actually crossing over into it. Dawkins does a good job of distinguishing those celebrated scientists whose metaphors flirt with the supernatural without actually committing to the dance floor.

We may easily grant Mr. Dawkins this point. It is true that silly Christian material emerges in poorly researched sermons or annoying email forwards claiming famous people for the Faith who showed little or no interest in such matters during the course of their regular lives–or deaths. I’ve always felt that practice to be as unnecessary as it is dishonest.

Nevertheless, Dawkins is only secondarily concerned with whether or not his revered atheistic antecedents were truly religious. He rather rules out the enthusiasm of Einstein, Hawkings and company as being worthy of investigation at all. So we can mark them off our list at the outset. And that’s just fine.

No, Dawkins says, it is the idea of the supernatural that creates the larger problem. He wants the reader to know straight away exactly what it is that merits his considerable learned attention.

That’s my cue.

An even-handed skepticism should kick in right here. The natural/supernatural dualism created by well-meaning philosopher/theologians of ages past is all wrong. It was a mistake of monumental proportions. Dawkins is attacking a straw man.

The dualistic concept of the universe began, as so many things in the Western World have done, with Plato. Plato divided reality into things actual and things ideal, not into natural and supernatural, but almost a thousand years later Christians would adapt Plato’s philosophy and would split reality into things natural and things supernatural–the supernatural including anything of an “invisible” or spiritual nature, including God, angels, miracles, etc. This was the dualistic concept in vogue when the Enlightenment and the birth of the sciences came along. And it’s still in vogue today.

But the natural/supernatural divide is nothing more than language, words that attempt to describe and explain the way things are, mere abstractions. And it is truly unfortunate that religious people have hung so much on this largely unquestioned idea.

It’s also important to understand that people for many centuries did not divide the world into these arbitrary halves. Most pre-Christian religions, as well as early Christianity, saw the Creation as a whole, with the “immaterial” aspects factored in as part of the rest. Of course, to our minds washed by the assumption that progress is intrinsically good, any holistic conception of reality seems a primitive and benighted idea. The Aristotelian side of Christianity was always more holistic than the Platonic, as one can readily see in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which owes much to the Aristotelian Thomas Aquinas.

Richard Dawkins is correct in that there is no supernatural per se. But not necessarily for the reason he supposes. Logically speaking, if there is such a thing as a Creator, then upon what basis do created beings, such as ourselves, place the Originator beyond the pale of the Natural? It’s laughable when you think about it. The Creator’s Nature is natural, is the foundation of all created nature and infuses the whole of created nature with the Creator’s mark. Everything then that the Creator does, visible or invisible, is by definition Natural. The puny man (or woman) who tries to define what the Creator does as “super” natural is merely playing with words. They might as well be providing a circumference for the Creator’s halo.

Someone will say, “But the Creator is outside and separate from Creation.” To which one might ask, “In what sense exactly do you mean outside? Do you mean in the same way someone is outside and separate from a house?” And we get the same array of abstractions all over again.

It’s really a question of Substance, an important idea that the earliest philosophers and scientists, well before Plato and Aristotle, wrestled with but which is now largely ignored. It may be too ancient an idea for Dawkins–and Christians–to trouble with it.

If there is a Creator, then the Substance of created being emanates from the Creator. That Substance supplies us with what we lesser beings call the Natural. Contained within that Substance is everything the Creator created, material and immaterial, physical and spiritual (once again, mere words with which we array our concepts of reality).

It will come as a surprise to some that I choose to dispense with the notion of the supernatural altogether, but not in a way that undercuts the grounds for belief. If, as Dawkins says, there is no Creator, then we still begin with a holistic idea of the world, one with a single Nature. My main point here is that, regardless of one’s stance on Theism, Nature is always One. The Platonist scarecrow can be taken from the field.

What I wish to say then to conclude this little commentary is that you don’t dispense with a Creator so easily with a dismissive wave of a “natural” wand. No one wanted to be an atheist more than me once upon a time. And this particular objection to a Divine existence was one of the first to collapse under the weight of its patent absurdity. At the time I was sorely disappointed by its logical frailty


11 thoughts on “The Myth of the Supernatural

  1. Josh Z.

    It seems that your post somehow got cut off mid-thought; I’d be interested in reading the rest of it.

    I’m not quite halfway through “The God Delusion” myself, quite probably because I’m listening to the audio book version, infrequently at that.

    I’d say that while to your reckoning, the supernatural is a straw man, the very fact that so many people cling to the duality is reason enough for Dawkins to dismantle it before he moves on with his arguments. Theism is his main target in the book, and he quickly focuses his attacks on that notion once he has dispensed with the idea of the supernatural and the popular misreadings of respected scientists.

    I look forward to the rest of your thoughts on the book.

  2. Interesting. I will now have to read this book.

    I got a lot of funny stares when I read Harry Potter in various Cleveland locales. I could imagine the stares when I read a book with a title such “The God Delusion.”

  3. Matthew Melton

    It’s all there, Josh, for now. Perhaps I did not end it well. On the natural/supernatural dualism, why should we allow any easy lay-ups? He’s going to have to shoot three-pointers or even half-court shots if he wants to impress anyone.

    And Brandon, perhaps you should take Dawkins into the coffee shop at Pathway. That would be interesting, don’t you think?

  4. Tim Passmore

    I’ve been working my way through the book and so far I’m pretty disappointed. I was hoping for an intelligent, at least somewhat objective approach to the argument but instead it seems to be rather misinformed and somewhat of a tabloid-style of academic writing. I would be interested to read anything else you have to say about the matter, as would Dawkins I’m sure. I’ve been flaunting my copy of the beeok everywhere I go hoping to be approached by an angry Christian, but to no avail as of yet. By the way, his daughter goes to St Andrews.

  5. Dean

    I’m with the first poster–your thought seems to be incomplete.

    I’m going to try to translate your conclusion into more basic components and then attempt to discuss it.

    You said, “main point here is that, regardless of one’s stance on Theism, Nature is always One. The Platonist scarecrow can be taken from the field.”

    In simpler terms, I take this to mean that the most self-evident proof for God is that there is something rather than nothing. This nothing more than the standard Transcendental Argument for God. Additionally, you’re saying that if there is no Supernatural, that is fine, because God can still exist in the Natural.

    Furthermore, you write, “you don’t dispense with a Creator so easily with a dismissive wave of a “natural” wand. No one wanted to be an atheist more than me once upon a time. And this particular objection to a Divine existence was one of the first to collapse under the weight of its patent absurdity. At the time I was sorely disappointed by its logical frailty.”

    Here’s where you have lost me. The basis for your faith exists simple due to the TAG argument. However, it is the TAG argument for God that is frail, not the other way around. It does not logically follow at all that any god by traditional definition is evidenced by something existing rather than not. By traditional definition I mean a god that transcends (in other words, as you discussed in your blog, exists outside of) the universe, has some level of superiority over it, and more often than not, desires to be worshipped by he/she/it’s creation.

    What you’ve offered is again the “God of Einstein”, who, as Dawkins points out, has very little to do with Jehovah or any god actively worshiped by humanity. And here-in lies the problem with your whole reasoning: any god that is not supernatural is bound by the laws of nature.

    Finally, I find one of your closing comments most odd. You write, “No one wanted to be an atheist more than me once upon a time.” As an atheist and skeptic myself, I can assure you, I don’t want to be an atheist. I’d love for Santa Claus to exist. I’d love for there to be a life of eternal bliss after this one. I’d also wish that in this life people don’t get scammed, conned or cheated.

    That being said, however, the truth is an amazingly hard thing to come by. For me, for extraordinary claims, I need extraordinary evidence, otherwise it’s just not worth my extraordinary effort (read: faith) believing in them.

  6. Matthew Melton

    Thanks for your post. I think I understand now why the post looks truncated–apparently the readers were looking for another shoe and were waiting….

    I merely wished, thus far, to address the false super/natural duality. The negative argument is that there is no supernatural per se. The positive statement is that nature is one. The connection to Dawkins is that eliminating the supernatural does not necessarily eliminate divinity.

    I did not, however, intend to make any arguments outside that. I do not credit the TA argument Dean mentions, nor do I credit any of the traditional arguments for God. As I said, I’m a skeptic.

    My skepticism, however, extends to what I consider to be equally untenable on the non-theistic side. I do not wish to be cheated either way.

    If there is a God, logically and mathematically there is no compelling reason to assume the existence of something we have called the supernatural. That’s as far as I go for the moment.

    If this seems terse, it’s because I’m keying on my phone. I apolgize for that. I find it cramps my style.

  7. Dean

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I can assure you I do not simply spend my days seeking out blogs for which I can accuse people of using the Transcendental Argument for God. This blog was shown to me (’01) by a fellow alumnus of Lee University, Corey (’01).

    Just for some background, I do have a copy of _The God Delusion_, in hardback even. While it makes some great points, I think Dawkins gets a little too foamy at the mouth, if you catch my drift.

    Dawkins completely ignores the position of ignosticism as it relates to the supernatural and the existence of God. No, that wasn’t a misspelling. Just as a-gnosticism means “without knowledge”, ignosticism means “ignorant of knowledge.” A specific kind of atheist, this means instead of stating “that I do not we can know for sure if God exists”, I instead state, “I do not know what you mean when you say God.”

    For me and other ignositics, we await a meaningful definition of God and the supernatural. Until that time, statements like “God exists” are the equivalent to “Yegnonauts exist.” When a definition has been given for God or the supernatural, it fails a logical test of internal consistency.

    You suggest that theism and non-theism are equally “untenable”, logically then placing them equally as tenable. However, a definitional approach to theism changes the playing field. My skepticism does not exist as simply an argument from incredulity, but rather as serious demand for a pragmatic, meaningful operative definition of the supernatural. Without one, insistence of the supernatural simply becomes a kind of macro-solipsistic argument, instead of a brain-in-a-vat; we have now a universe-in-a-vat.

  8. “I aim to be an equal-opportunity stumbling block.” That is hilarious.

    I think your most compelling point is that the lack of supernatural doesn’t equal the lack of divinity. However, I think there is a lot of truth packed into “applying scrutiny to scrutiny and doubt to doubt.” That is faith, is it not? (Oh yes, good logic!)

    But faith isn’t logic, and you can’t logic faith perfectly. Nor can logic find you (a) God – not in any tradition. Logic’s stock is trading high these days in the western world, but I think a correction is necessary (and called for). In fact, you might argue that logic is human, not divine.

    Every faith tradition is built on experience, and logic almost mystically flows from that experience. Logic is just as far outside faith as humans are outside divinity. There is connection, but they do not equal.

    There’s more to the supernatural than logic and book deals and best-seller lists.

  9. Dean

    I don’t understand the romanticism for faith. Modern relativism is the new faith. Faith lacks explanatory power, predictive power, falsifiability and universality, yet people insist on it, just as many do with relativism.

    And furthermore, I would argue that while faith is built upon experience, it is the willful ignorance of experience. A common example given is Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football. Every time Lucy promises to hold the football, and every time Lucy pulls it away just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it. What Charlie Brown is demonstrating is faith. All the past evidence he has is Lucy will not hold the ball, but he believes anyway.

    Faith: Belief without or contrary to evidence.

  10. Matthew Melton

    Please forgive my absence.

    I’m fascinated by the whole ignostic thing. That’s the first I’ve heard of it.

    A brief friendly response to both Matthew (not me) and Dean:

    I don’t want to show all my cards just yet. I have to do a slow reveal, you know, or people won’t read it. Dawkins perhaps can be forgiven some of his approach due to the necessity to be “pop.” Those of us who have already searched the very guts of this question are probably not going to be happy with the broad strokes he uses. But I do think it’s only fair to address them.

    Secondly, I’m not personally content with either definitions of God or religious experience as the grounds for belief/unbelief.

    As I teach in argumentation class, the definitional ground does have to be somewhat secure before proceeding, but it cannot become the principle battleground for persuading or being persuaded (I don’t want to get too technical). So I agree that it is important, but the problem with definition lies in the inherent fickleness of language and shared meaning. I am of the school of thought that says all definitions are relationally determined (connotatively) and not objectively based (denotatively)

    As for experience, while I agree with Matt’s point that most religious faith is based on it, it does not work for me personally absent other important factors. And logic does only give us a certain abstract framework. Yet, like experience, it cannot be entirely abandoned.

    I know I’m all negative now, but I can’t go further just yet.

    I would argue that everyone, including the coldest of scientific objectivists, is a person of faith, equally an interpreter of limited evidentiary data. I contend that both believing and non-believing arguments tend to be solipsistic. I think Dean would probably agree. I’d like to find a way to break through that seemingly unbreakable barrier. I’m not sure I’ve done it, but we shall see.

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