Is God a Metaphor?

The Wall Street Journal commissioned Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to respond independently to the question, “Where does Evolution Leave God?” Both knew that the other one was responding to the same commission but neither knew what the other was writing. It is interesting to see how each interprets the question: Armstrong was eager to rescue God from the claim of existence, substituting God’s existence for metaphor, while Dawkins, as usual argues that evolution leaves God with nothing to do, and that anyone that claims God to be a metaphor is essentially an atheist. Here are my favourite paragraphs from each article. The full version is here.

Karen Armstrong: Symbolism was essential to premodern religion, because it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality—God, Tao, Brahman or Nirvana—analogically, since it lay beyond the reach of words. Jews and Christians both developed audaciously innovative and figurative methods of reading the Bible, and every statement of the Quran is called an ayah (“parable”). St Augustine (354-430), a major authority for both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted reputable science, it must be interpreted allegorically. This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century, when in an effort to emulate the exact scientific method, Christians began to read scripture with a literalness that is without parallel in religious history.

Richard Dawkins: The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.


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