From Einstein to Dawkins: The very brief story of two believers

Dr. Richard Dawkins begins his best-selling book The God Delusion with the caveat in chapter 1 (on page 41 of my edition) that he is not “talking about the God of Einstein” when he says there’s no God.

In other words, when Dawkins claims that there is no God, he doesn’t mean that there is no God. In fact, he means just the opposite, that there is a God. His point is that God is more like what (Dawkins thinks) Einstein believed in than what (Dawkins thinks) the fundamentalists believe in. More generally, his book is actually about the nature of God, not about the existence of God.

What’s going on? Why have so many people used his book in support of atheism when he specifically writes that he has no problem with God as understood by Einstein and others?

Dawkins gives us a hint. He writes on the same page that when he denies God he is “only talking about supernatural gods” (his emphasis), like “Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.” He adds that Yahweh is the god “most familiar to the majority” of his readers.

And here is the problem in a nutshell. Richard Dawkins, and many more like him, have latched on to a narrow notion of God and an equally narrow notion of the Bible, then condemned an entire undertaking based only on those limited notions.

I think that the interesting conversations are: What counts as supernatural? Why does Dawkins think the God of the Old Testament is supernatural? (I don’t.) And, more generally, why has he chosen to frame his discussion of the nature of God as “there is no God” instead of as “Einstein was right that there is a God”?

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Welcome to The God Confusion

At a recent dinner I had with friends, an ardent atheist and a member of the clergy rehashed an argument that most of us are familiar with:

Believing in God is an inexcusable lapse — said one person — a blatant retreat from the obvious advances of science. So religion and God properly belong with superstition in the trash-heap of history.

The other countered that such a position is based on a naive misunderstanding of God and religion. There is no conflict between God and science, or between religion and modernity. It’s ignorance that makes some people think they have to choose.

The first person retorted that he knew exactly what God was. It was the clergy member, he said, who was trying to redefine God in a last-ditch effort to salvage religion.

And so it went: God isn’t a white-bearded magician in the sky. No, it’s worse: God is a vindictive and petty tyrant. God is the source of morality. Atheists don’t need God to be moral. That’s because atheists learned about morality from religion. Religion is the root of all evil. What about Stalin? There are evil priests, too. And on, and on.

Though it had the structure of a conversation, it was, in fact, two tirades, with each interlocutor underscoring sometimes valid observations, but neither one listening to the other, with the result that each one walked away in bewilderment: How could anyone believe that?!

Episodes such as these have become commonplace, bringing the din of confusion and misunderstanding to dinner parties and on-line forums, to prime-time television and even legislative bodies.

“The God Confusion” is a start at turning tirades like these back into a productive conversation. I hope you’ll add your voice.