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Dawkins: a theologian's perspective

Published in UKFocus, March 2008

Dr. Graham Tomlin, Dean of St Mellitus College, London, has written an essay in response to Richard Dawkins' best-selling book The God Delusion. The essay is to be published as part of Nick Gumbel's book Is God a Delusion?. This is an edited extract which provides the themes of his argument:

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion has been a phenomenon. Taking even its author by surprise, it has outstripped all expectations and has been a run-away best-seller for many months.

It is worth asking at the outset why Dawkins' book has been so successful. There are a number of possible reasons.

First is the 9/11 effect. Ever since the planes crashed into the twin towers on that dreadful day, and it became obvious that this was the work of religious extremists, God and religion have been very public subjects of discussion.

We might think that this suspicion and anger would be directed primarily against extreme Islam, which the media usually portrays as the main origin of religious violence today. However, Christianity has not escaped censure either.

Although today it is hard to find many examples of Christian extremism, the history of the Christian church is far from unblemished and critics only need to point out the Crusades of the Middle Ages, Medieval anti-Semitism and and some more outlandish statements from the weird fringes of Christianity today to lump the Christians in with Al-Qaeda as dangerous fanatics.

The second factor is Dawkins' own reputation. He is of course the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and such a prestigious academic position gives his arguments a certain degree of weight, that they wold not have if they came from someone with a less prestigious post.

The third factor is the skill of Dawkins' own writing. In previous works such as and The Blind Watchmaker, he has shown himself to be one of the contemporary world's most effective interpreters of science to an unscientific readership. He has remarkable ability to explain complex scientific matters to those who are not versed in such things that outstrips most of his contemporaries.

Perhaps one of the surprising things about Dawkins' book is that its success is in fact founded more upon its rhetoric than its argument.

It is worth reading one of his chapters with an eye to the way the language works, the subtle uses of ridicule, the familiar colloquial banter with his reader, and then trying to separate out those from the arguments themselves to see what a brilliant communicator he is.

The language quickly creates a cast of goodies and baddies with carefully placed adjectives and pejorative language ('Christial zealots', 'Bible-believing fundamentalists', 'decent liberals', 'thoughtful sceptics' etc).

However, in this short respond I want to look at some of the key arguments Dawkins makes and suggest how a Christian might answer them.


1. No Sign of God?

One of Dawkins' key arguments is very simple: that there is simply no compelling evidence for the existence of God, especially when it comes to analysing God's supposed intervention in the world.

If God answers prayer, performs miracles and the like, then we ought to be able tell that he is doing such a thing - there simply should be more obvious evidence for him.

So how might a Christian respond to this? In a sense Dawkins has a point. If God does intervene with the world on particular occasions that seem to transcend the normal operation of physical and biological processes, then we might expect to be able to tell when he does so.

However, Dawkins is by his own admission no theologian, and does not really appreciate a Christian view of miracles. It is bad theology as well as bad science to imagine a 'God of the gaps' where God is invoked to explain anything that science cannot.

This is because God is not a 'thing' within the world that causes other 'things' to happen according to the normal observable physical laws of nature.

On a Christian understanding, miracles are not random interventions of GOd, like a secret visitor moving chess pieces on a board while the players are not looking.

They are instead actions that seem to obey a different set of laws, or operate in another dimension of reality that is not specifically accessible to scientific analysis or study, and which shows up in odd events in our own world. They will always therefore seem odd, inexplicable and disputable.

God usually achieves his purposes indirectly, through human agency. Particular people in the Bible or Christian history are normally the agents of miracles, whether Moses parting of the Red Sea, Jesus raising the dead, or Christian saints performing healings. Christian theology says that God is both beyond this world (transcendent) and yet also operates within this world (immanent).

If God is the creator of this physical world and yet occasionally acts within it, through ordinary (or perhaps extraordinary) people, according to a different order of things, then we would expect to see occasional events and experiences within oour world which are hard to explain under natural terms.

2. Bad Arguments for God?

Dawkins spends quite some time looking at the various arguments that have been used for the existence of God and trying to show that they simply do not work.

He makes a decent fist of the point: however it is hamstrung by his lack of knowledge of the subtleties of Christian theology. This is one of the frustrating aspects of the book.

It would be irritating for a biologist if I were to try to write a book about science in which I displayed my ignorance of the meaning of multicellularity, or the behaviour of chromosomes.

So you can imagine it is a little annoying to read Dawkins writing about a subject of which he is certainly no expert and not just a little uninformed.

For example, Dawkins tries to present some of the classic arguments for the existence of God, such as Thomas Aquinas' proofs, as supposed knock-down arguments to convince the sceptic that God exists.

However: as many theologians have pointed out, Aquinas' arguments for the existence of God, such as the Ontological Argument, the Teleological Argument and the Argument from Design, were never meant to be hard and fast proofs to the non-believer to convince them that God exists.

Aquinas presents them (as do most other mainstream Christian theologians) as confirmations of faith rather than proofs of it.

In other words, for those who have a belief in God, they provide a rationale for showing how that belief makes sense.

Another argument that Dawkins seeks to undermine is the argument from personal experience, the argument that 'I experience the reality of God, therefore he exists'.

Dawkins delights in pointing out all kinds of examples of supposed religious experiences that have turned out to have completely naturalistic explanation. Of course, it is possible to do this time and time again.

However, it is still very hard to argue away the whole of religious experience from human history along these lines. Experience of the divine or a dimension beyond the physical is pervasive in just about ever culture that has ever lived n the face of the planet.

Of course it is interpreted in different ways but the bare fact remains that countless people profess to an experience of something beyond the material or the natural which the naturalist can always try to explain away, but finds it hard to do so because of the sheer mass of such testimony.

3. Science explains everything?

Dawkins argues that natural selection explains everything we can see around us and therefore there is no need for God.

The main pint of Dawkins' argument is that the existence of complex beings such as ourselves can be perfectly explained by the process of natural selection and there is really no need for supposing any kind of God as part of the process.

Dawkins may well be right in arguing that natural selection does provide a good explanation of how we have developed from very simple organisms, how life emerged, and how the world has come to be what it is today.

However, there remain a number of questions. For example, several philosophers have pointed out that it is hard to imagine human language appearing through a simple process of genetic evolution. Evolutionary process would normally expect a new ability to have appeared one individual first: however, it is impossible for language to be individual - it has to involve at least two people who converse together.

There is also a further question that Dawkins is simply unable to answer and that is the question of why there is anything here at all. yes, the process may have begun with some very simple elements combining to form life, but why were those elements here in the first place?

The Big Bang is of course one possible solution to this argument, but even that does not provide an answer because it still leaves open the question why there was something to go 'bang' in the first place?

4. Religion a Mistake?

One of the more curious parts of Dawkins' argument is his account of the origins of religion. This concerns his well-known idea of 'memes' or 'units of meaning', which are transferred like a virus from one mind to another and spread in the same way that a virus does.

This provides an account of the origins of religion that fits with natural selection, so that 'memes' are like genes that ensure their own survival by mutating to create different forms.

This argument has been criticised on a number of occasions. It is interesting to see that Dawkins seems to be less sure of it now and it takes a much less central place in his quiver of arrows than it used to.

The basic problem is this: who is to say which 'meme' is a good virus or a bad virus?

He has already come to the conclusion that religion is a bad thing and therefore he explains its origins through this metaphor of a disruptive virus.

However, who is to say whether religion is a virus or whether Dawkins' own ideas are a virus which is spreading in the same way?

There is also of course no independent, objective proof of the existence of 'memes'. It is really a metaphor he is using rather than a scientifically proven fact.

This is rather strange as he accuses Christians of basing their faith upon things that are not proven, and so it is a little bit rich to see him arguing so strongly for such an idea himself.

5. Goodness is an Accident?

Dawkins realises that he also has to come up with some explanation for the origins of morality and goodness if he is to complete his case against religious beliefs.

Again, as in the idea of 'memes', he goes for a naturalistic explanation that fits in with evolutionary biology. He argues that there are Darwinian reasons for people to be generous or kind towards each other; for example, favouring the fortunes of one's own kin, reciprocity where 'if you scratch my back I'll scratch yours', the benefits of gaining a reputation for generosity and so on.

However, this does not get away from the basic implication here that all our behaviour is ultimately selfish. In ensures the survival of genes and our own selves.

Even altruistic behaviour is only altruistic on the surface; underneath it is a thinly disguised means of personal or genetic survival. There are a number of significant problems with this approach.

As we saw in the last point, again there is a real problem of evidence.

How are we to take seriously an argument that has as little evidential basis as this?

Christian faith is not so much about telling us what is right and wrong as about enabling us to do what it is right and to avoid what is wrong.

It describes how God's own power, the Holy Spirit, can enter a human life to give that life a new dimension of energy and purpose to do what is right and to live a good life, to live according to the Kingdom of God. Criticising Christian morality for not offering a distinct list of do's and don't that cannot be found elsewhere is simply to miss the point.

At the end of the day there is a simple choice to be made. Is love a 'misfiring instinct', an accidental by-product of evolution, and a thinly veiled strategy for personal or genetic survival? Or is it actually the centre of reality; the reason why we are here?

Dawkins and Christian faith give two fundamentally different answers to this question.

For Dawkins, love is purely an accident.

For Christians, it is the very centre of all that we are.

6. The Tyrant of the Bible?

Dawkins offers us an amusing and ribald description of the God of the Bible, arguing that such a character is by no means a being worthy of worship and devotion, but in fact a cruel tyrant, best confined to history and thrown out of all civilized discussion.

True, it is not hard to make this case by careful selection of passages, especially from the Old Testament and by the careful ignoring of others where God is presented as long-suffering, patient, 'slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness' (Exodus 34:6).

Although Dawkins ridicules the God of the Bible along these lines, he is strangely silent about Jesus, seeing him as some kind of exception to the ugly divine character he things he sees from the pages of the Bible.

Dawkins again shows his ignorance of Christian theology by taking an over-literalistic reading of the texts. He fails to see that in Christian theology there is a clear interpretative criterion for reading the Old Testament, and that is that we read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ.

The central clue the Bible gives us to the character of God is in Jesus. That is the place we should look first and we should interpret everything else in the light of him. The character of Jesus reflects the core character of the God of the Old Testament - patiently kind, endlessly loving, achingly compassionate, angry at evil, fiercely loyal. God desires us to worship him not because he is some insecure despot who demands that we cravenly bow down before him, but because for us to worship a God who is in himself love is in fact the best thing we can do. We worship God not because he needs it but because it is good for us.

7. The Evil of Religion?

One of the main planks of Dawkins' argument and that of the many other atheists is the suggestion that religion makes people do very bad things.

Whereas moderate, gentle atheists like himself are incapable of anything nasty to anyone, religion, being rooted in a transcendent cause, has the power to make people do unspeakably evil things to each other and the world in which they live.

Of course it is not hard to find examples of this in the past or from the contemporary world. Much of the violent conflict in the world today from Iraq to Palestine, and terrorists attacks in the USA and Europe, is due at least in some part to religion.

Dawkins takes this argument a step further when he response to those who ask him why he is so vehemently opposed even to moderate religion.

His point is that moderate religion provides a kind of 'cover' for the bad things done by extremists in religion. If the moderates in religion gave up their faith then it would expose the extremists for who they are and would deprive them of a vital source of potential support.

Of course Dawkins has a point that religion can make people do bad things, but then again so can almost anything that is important to human beings.

People have done unspeakably horrible things to each other in the name of their family, tribe, nation, football team, or even in the name of love. To seek to eliminate anything that can be used for violent ends would logically eliminating each of these along with religion.

Atheism is just as capable as religion (if not more) of dastardly acts of violence and oppression. The point here is not that religion is necessary superior to atheism in this regard, it is simply to say that human beings are such that they are likely to take any idea, however good or bad, and turn it into an excuse for doing violence to each other.

In fact this insight points very clearly to a Christian understanding of human nature that is both gloriously optimistic and hugely pessimistic.

Christians believe that we are made in the image of God, capable of amazing acts of love, compassion, mercy and grace. yet we are also deeply flawed, fragile and fallen, equally capable of acts of terrible evil.

This seems to fit the human condition and the course of history far better than the overly optimistic suggestions of atheists such as Dawkins.

8. The Inspiration of Atheism?

Dawkins rounds off his book with a warm and cuddly vision of the future where atheism will provide consolation, inspire the imagination, and bring about a world of harmony, peace and love.

Can atheism provide such hope? Can it provide the way forward for a glorious future for humanity?

The difficulty here is finding any evidence that this might ever be the case. Previous experiments in trying to build an avowedly atheistic society that deliberately tries to get rid of religion are not promising.

Soviet Russia, as we have seen, was not exactly a beacon of tolerance, peace and harmony (at least not for the 20 million who died). Nor were Pol Pot's Cambodia. Mao's China or the state of Burma today. In other words atheism has so far failed in every attempt to provide this perfect society that Dawkins so optimistically things will emerge.

Now of course it is possible to accuse Christianity of failing in the same way. Atheists might argue that Christians have equally failed to provide and to create the perfect society.

However, Christians never claim to be able to do this. They always claim that until the coming of the new heavens and the new earth, this world will always be imperfect with its characteristic mixture of good and evil.

As St Augustine put it, the City of God will live uncomfortably alongside the City of the World in this present age, and so we are not to expect to see the perfect society before God brings it about.

Richard Dawkins reminds me of someone passionately convinced of the virtures of sight, confronted by people trying to explain to him the concept of smell. Such a person might be absolutely committed to the view that vision alone can understand and explain reality.

Perhaps the main problem with Dawkins is that he starts the discussion in the wrong place. Nowhere does the Bible show any interest in the question 'Is there a God?'. The writers do not try to prove it, demonstrate it, or argue for it. They simply assume it.

This is the only way God can be found. Dawkins tends to think belief in God is like a random opinion that one happens to hold, just like believing that it will rain tomorrow, or that there are Yetis in the Himalayas.

Yet 'faith' in the Bible is much richer and stronger than that, and involves much more than a mere idea. Faith begins, when I realise that I am not what I might be. In fact, to be blunt, I am self-centered, thoughtless, loveless and need to change. And I need to find a way to do that.

The God of the Bible is not interested in whether we happen to entertain the opinion that he exists nor not. He is interested in challenging us. And only those prepared for that challenge will ever find him.

We find him when we begin to live life on the assumption that not only is God there, but he is to be counted on. We find him when we live on the assumption that Jesus Christ is the exact image of God, and that the point of life is to let God transform us to be like him.

We find him when we begin to live as if every person we meet is valuable because they are mad in God's image; that there is always hope in the worst situation because Jesus rose from the dead; that the Bible is God's Word through which he wants to speak to us each day. In other words, faith involves personal risk, and only those prepared to take that risk can find God.

Jesus told a story about a man digging in a field, who found a box of hidden treasure, and who sold all he had to buy that field. God hides himself in our world, just as the treasure is hidden in the field.

He is not obvious, but waits to be found by those who are serious enough to stake everything on him 'sell everything they have' to follow him. Of course it is possible to look at this world and miss God altogether. Jesus Christ said 'those who seek will find' (Luke 11:9).

God is searching for us and is there to be found but only by those who risk everything to do so. Those who do find him find love, adventure and satisfaction beyond what they imagined possible.









TAGGED: ATHEISM, COMMENTARY, RELIGION


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