The Dawkins Problem in Teaching Philosophy of Religion

In 2006, Richard Dawkins released a consumer product that is widely alleged to be a book. It was called The God Delusion. It brought no new insight into religion. It was not grounded in scholarly sources on the topics about which it spoke. It was not released by OUP, Dawkins’ publisher of choice, implying that even the elite have work knocked back sometimes. It was, however, a succeess. It was a bestseller and made Dawkins’ a necessary cornerstone of any discussion of atheism.

Despite the so-called books lack of scholarly qualities, any course or attempt to teach the philosophy of religion. This is not because it offers any great insight or contribution to knowledge, but quite the opposite. The God Delusion is a lucid, if utterly non-self-aware, expression of the common sense attitude to religion. I mean “common sense” as the collection of predjudices our society has about a topic, that which initially delimits the possible positions within a debate before philosophical work can take place.

Common sense is something every philosophy teacher must reckon with. If philosophy has any chance of meaning anything to a student, it must be made to make sense to them, otherwise it will just be a neutral exposition of eccentric opinions had by people who are now dead. This is, applicably, the attitude that Richard Dawkins has to theology and the philosophy of religion.

How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many. (56)

Responding to the frequent criticism that he simply has no authority in the field he is talking about, Dawkins says that religion is not a field. It is just a collection of errors that are not worth wasting one’s time with. This is a dominant presupposition in common sense, which students find themselves repeating.

As such, whenever I teach the philosophy of religion, I begin with Dawkins. Not because he is profound, but, quite the contrary, he gives expression to a basic prejudice that must be challenged. So, I begin by reconstructing Dawkins’ position to the following two basic ideas.

The idea that religion is irrational is not unique to Dawkins, or even to atheism. It is the basic idea of fideism, the idea that religion is to be found through faith and faith alone, not the intellect. But, fideism is itself a reaction to the hyperrationality of natural religion; the claim that all religion is irrational needs at least to be modified to “some religions are irrational”.

This opens a pedogogic opportunity. By demonstrating the rationality of natural religion, we can challenge our students on the Dawkins thesis fundamentally and historically, rather than pointing to the extrinsic problems with his position (lack of expertise and scholarly conduct), or even by attacking his particular claims.

Kant is a particularly good place to start. In his discussion of the arguments of natural religion, in which he refutes an names all the arguments for the existence of God, he attempts to give an explanation of where these arguments come from and why. Rather than attributing it to an irrationalism or emotionalism, which is where he would go to explain moral abberations, Kant actually blames reason itself.

Reason longs for ultimate explanations of things, but can never provide them because doing so takes it beyond its de jure limits. The problem with religion is it follows reason to far. Religion is hyper-rational, not irrational. In practice, I’ve found the best way to hammer this home to students is to take a seminar on the ontological argument asking them to attempt to refute it. I’ll talk about that in another post. But, it generally frustrates them as the argument is incredibly difficult to refutre rationally, and they are forced into an irrational dismissal of it.

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