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