Far Beyond our Comprehension
Marek Kohn reviews The God Delusion.
Turning to agnosticism, he dismisses it as a principle and reaches for Bertrand Russell’s teapot…This move is something of a reflex among atheists: they should adopt the teapot as their symbol. Their point and Russell’s was that not being able to disprove the existence of such an object does not warrant belief in it; their implicit message is that gods are also trivial human artefacts. God is thus detached from the terrible and exhilarating question of why anything should exist at all. Instead, Dawkins recasts agnosticism as a humdrum matter of probability captured by a spectrum of opinion-poll responses. But it is possible, along with Dawkins, to be a de facto atheist who lives on the assumption that there is no God, while remaining awed by the possibility that we cannot begin to comprehend how far beyond our comprehension the question may be.
Of course it is. But I see that from an angle opposite to the one from which Kohn (apparently, if I understand him correctly) does. The awe he cites has to do with how far beyond our comprehension the question may be – really how far, really beyond. But it seems to me that answering ‘God’ to such questions simply reels the answer in from that far beyond to make it near and local again. I know some people say god is distant, beyond comprehension, not to be pinned down by our poor words, all that, but if they call it ‘God’ at all they don’t really mean it, or at least if they call it ‘God’ that’s deceptive labeling. God is local, God is a person, God hears our prayers, God is a character in a book. It’s no good pretending that’s not true, because that’s how the word is generally used – it is not generally used as a word for ‘far beyond, unknown, incomprehensible’. (If it were, believers would shut up about God, but they don’t.) I think the implicit message that Kohn cites is quite right: gods are trivial human artifacts. If you do in fact remain awed by the possibility that we cannot begin to comprehend how far beyond our comprehension the question may be, then you find the pat one-syllable answer ‘God’ to be laughably unsatisfactory, irrelevant, provincial, and, frankly, trivial.
And another thing.
Dawkins does not admit sympathy for believers, or acknowledge the extent to which religion may constitute their sense of identity. He disregards the risk that attacking a people’s religion may amount to an attack on them as a group. Some comments and quotes in this respect are reckless.
Reckless? But if there is a risk that attacking a people’s religion may amount to an attack on them as a group, then there is also a risk that attacking a people’s politics or hobby or profession may amount to an attack on them as a group – but people aren’t generally frowned at for attacking a people’s politics or profession, are they? So why should religion be in a special category? I know that’s a question I’ve asked before, more than once; I’m asking it again.