Monday, April 22, 2013

Dawkins on flying horses

Richard Dawkins has reaped a rich harvest of controversy, notably from his fellow atheists, for suggesting that Mehdi Hasan, who thinks that the Prophet Mahommed went to heaven on a winged horse, is for that reason unfit to write 'serious' articles for the New Statesman.

I have no idea if this belief is mainstream in Islam, or the badge of a particular group withing it. (I do think it is a huge mistake for outsiders to label different strands of Islam 'extremist', 'fundamentalist' or 'orthodox': who are we to say?) Dawkins has been accused of bigotry. I think it would be more accurate to describe him as deeply confused.

He compares the belief in a winged horse to belief that there are 'fairies at the bottom of the garden', presumably this is supposed to indicate that believers are feeble-minded. I am inclined to think that evidence of fairies at the bottom of the garden (at least the gardens that I know) is very weak, and for that reason belief in them is not justified. Evidence for the existence of God is another matter. I'm not going to lay it out here, but plenty of intellectually serious people have taken this evidence seriously: it is in a completely different category. And it is not belief in God which Dawkins (this time) is saying is preposterous: he seems to think he has a softer target with belief in winged horses.

The suggestion that there could be a winged horse is rejected as though it were a suggestion about Natural History: of course no horses have wings! But clearly it is not a suggestion about Natural History: if Mahommed went to heaven on a winged horse, or the Prophet Elijah in a fiery chariot, it was the result of a direct intervention by God.

The questions then are:

1. If there is a God, could such a thing happen?
2. If there is a God, might He intervene to make it happen (might He have reason to do so)?
3. If there is a God, what weight can we give to testimony or other evidence for this event taking place?
4. Does God exist?

On the basis that it is not outrageously irrational to believe in God, Mehdi Hasan's rationality depends on the answers to questions 1-3. The answers are obviously 'Yes' to the first two questions. The answer to 3 depends on the evidence. I confess I don't even know if this incident is in the Koran or elsewhere. The story of Elijah going to heaven in a fiery chariot is, of course, in the Bible (2 Kings 2.11).

Many Christian biblical critics are as frightened of stories like this about Elijah as Dawkins is of the story about Mahomed, and want to say it must be a metaphor or a myth or something. As a philosopher, I don't have any expertise in the literary genre of the Elijah Cycle (as it is called) in 2 Kings, but I will say, rather: why not? Why shouldn't God send a fiery chariot to collect Elijah?

Do you think it is difficult for God to arrange such a thing? Do you think it would be complicated, or inconvenient, or an effort? Just get things in perspective, guys. It's God we are talking about. Of course He can send a flying horse, or a fiery chariot, to give someone a lift; of course He can part the Red Sea or stop the sun to prolong the day during a battle - and to prevent any untoward consequences for the solar system at the same time. It is not in the slightest a big deal for Him to do all this and more. He made the Universe, remember. He is God.


  1. I have no sympathy for Dawkins, for Islam, or for modernists/rationalists. Your post covers all of them, good on you Dr Shaw. It's a never ending source of amusement to hear how outrageously shallow Dawkins' understanding of philosophy and theology is - and Dr Ed Feser always has something entertaining to say in response to him. It's not as funny with Islam or rationalists. It boils my blood when rationlists say stupid things like "well it's a metaphor" or "but they couldn't explain it properly then". Either way they show a mistrust in God and make a mockery of the saints and our Catholic heritage. As for Islam, I better say no more!

    God Bless Dr Shaw.

  2. "Evidence for the existence of God is another matter. I'm not going to lay it out here"

    Or anywhere within reach of rational criticism, I would imagine.

    1. You are misinformed. I've taught Philosophy of Religion for many years in Oxford University, including arguments for the existence of God. I'm not frightened of rational criticism.

      But I fancy you don't really care if your jibe is true.