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IS GOD A
A Christian Response
Copyright © 2007 Graham Hellier
COMMENTS INSERTED BY IAN GLENDINNING DAWKINS IS AS BAD IN HIS FUNDAMENTALIST OBJECTIVE VIEW OF REASON AS THE FAITHFUL ARE IN THEIR FAITH IN A SUPERNATURAL GOD. BOTH SIDES ARE TALKING PAST EACH OTHER AND MISSING THE MAIN ARGUMENT. THESE COMMENTS ARE FROM THAT PERSPECTIVE AND NOT DEFENDING DAWKINS
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Richard Dawkins presents a strong case for scientific atheism especially in his book "The God Delusion". This response offers grounds for challenging both his atheism and, presumptuously, his science. It does so, not from a fundamentalist perspective, where the confrontation will be stark, but from a more liberal Christian position. Dawkins believes that: "most believers echo Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini" (The Times:12.5.07). I write as one of the multitude of believers who would not recognise this extraordinary description. I think the word echo is OK these are extreme believers, but their faith is echoed by definition of the word echo - more faintly in many less fundamentalist believers.
It is not essential to be familiar with Richard Dawkins' work but it will be more meaningful to those who have read "The God Delusion" and it makes continual reference to it. Some account is taken of Professor Dawkins' previous books and of those of his friends, notably Daniel Dennett.
It is offered as material for debate and kept to a modest size and price so that it can be easily available for use in group and class discussion.
Graham Hellier is a Presbyterian minister, a Methodist local preacher and the former senior master of a Church of England comprehensive school. He is author of "The Thoughtful Guide to Christianity" and lives in Marden, Herefordshire.
Let's start where Richard Dawkins starts - by imagining a world with no religion:
"Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/11, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers', no Northern Ireland 'troubles', no 'honour killings' " 1.
To Christians I would say - keep silent a moment, stay with it, let it hurt and accept the challenge. There is truth here. We'll return to this passage later. The hurt is in the dirty rhetoric tarring the religious with the extremist brush these are features of extremist, uncompromising faith AND socio-politico-cultural baggage extremist soulless science would be just as bad a recipe in that political mix.
"The God Delusion" is a fine book - finely written. I echo Derren Brown's words on the cover: "I hope that those secure and intelligent enough to see the value of questioning their beliefs will be big and strong enough to read this book."
Dawkins is deeply challenging. He says: "I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else." 2. We need books like this because, in all religions, we have to negotiate thickets of falsehood and fantasy, where there are few paths. Honesty is required of us all. Theists may remember Meister Eckhart's words: "If God were able to backslide from truth, I would cling to truth and let God go.
The only danger in reading this book is that of being swept along by its eloquence and incisiveness. Dawkins is a great preacher! Actually I find him as unconvincing as any bible-thumper all the same blindness to reality.
Always scrutinise the use of key words. 'Religion' confounds us from the start. There is no agreed definition and Eastern languages happily do without it. The only secure ground is to return to the Latin 'that which binds' and to apply it therefore to the meaning of things our understanding of the world and our place in it. The proviso is that we must not be shallow in our thinking. We are all religious if we know where we stand and what we live for - perhaps even what we might die for. Lets not play word-games. Dawkins is talking about faith in supernatural entities god or gods, ref his title when he talks of religion he is talking of it in that sense that that binds being a particular kind of faith and authority causing things to happen in the world, and defining right and truth his (mis) conception of what god is to the religious in general.
Dawkins quotes Einstein on religion:
"To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious."
Dawkins continues: "In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that 'cannot grasp' does not have to mean 'forever ungraspable' 3. Perhaps he is too confident that everything will eventually be pinned down and labelled. Everything will eventually is just another extreme excluding lots of rational middle-ground between it and not forever ungraspable. Its matter of how comfortable people are with the mysterious grey areas that are not yet convincingly explained or understood to the consensus majority. Things can be NOT pinned down AND NOT NECESSARILY forever ungraspable, at the same time.
However, Dawkins' chief concern is to demolish belief in a
supernatural being, so he narrows the word 'religion' and rather cavalierly
excludes Buddhism and Confucianism. See above hes talking about faith in the supernatural
Buddhism and other philosophies are exempt from these arguments. The word 'supernatural' comes easily to Dawkins but
not to most Christians today. This is the crux. It
carries with it the connotation of ghosts and 'things that go bump in the
night'. On the cartoon channel maybe, but
not in serious thought we just mean literally things above and beyond natural
explanations and causes. If we use the word at
all, we need to listen first to John Oman, one-time Principal of Westminster
"We cannot distinguish the natural as the mechanical and the supernatural as the free, Absolutely. The whole world is natural, not just the bits that are amenable to mechanical explanations involving solid and tangible things. Illusions, dreams and thoughts are all part of that rich tapestry of natural reality. for we do not know how much freedom there is in the natural or how much law in the supernatural; nor can it be divided as between the ordinary and the miraculous, for the natural is sometimes the more miraculous and the supernatural the common stuff of our daily experience. Nor can we so easily separate the reality of the natural world from the reality of the supernatural as we imagine. The reality of the former is not proved merely by the violence of its assault upon our senses. The difference between us who take it to be the most solid reality and the Indian to whom it is' maya' (illusion) is no mere matter of the senses, for the witness of the senses is the same for him as for us. The difference concerns a different evaluation of the world." 4.
Dawkins' treatment of 'faith' and 'reason' is also questionable for they are set in opposition to each other some Christian writers do the same. For most theists, faith is not belief in the impossible and reason is not alien to Christianity. Agreed Christian culture is intimately involved historically in our derivation of what we understand by reason. Reason includes faith, but a contingent, inclusive faith, a faith in process of reasoning, not a faith in causes and outcomes. Few scientists see this either. - If we want to confuse matters further, we could add these words from the second century Christian theologian, Justin:
"Those who live according to reason are Christians, even though they are accounted atheists. Such were Socrates and Heraclitus among the Greeks."
'Reason' can be overplayed by secularists. As a process of thought, it is utterly dependent on the diet that nourishes it. Before it can do anything, there has to be a prior apprehension of reality. Moreover reason needs faith. As G K Chesterton argued:
"Reason is itself a matter of faith. Agreed It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. No, just intuitively natural as in, it would be UNnatural to assume otherwise, without some empirical evidence, which would itself suggest a relation ie it seems downright paradoxical to assume no relation.
We often take this relation for granted but Einstein found it astonishing. He found the explicability astonishing, not the weaker idea of any relation.
Dawkins defines a theist as follows:
"A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic systems the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good or bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). 5.
We'll accept this populist description for the moment, simply noting the belittling effect of 'is still around' and 'frets'.
Deists are somewhat inconvenient for Dawkins. They believe in God but not in any revealed religion and they reject Christian trinitarian ideas. They are not therefore such an easy target. This is another instance where Dawkins likes a tidy black and white world. For him deism is watered down theism. "Personal qualities", he says, "form no part of the deist god of Voltaire." 6. This assertion would be useful if it were correct but it is not. James Boswell visited Voltaire in 1764, quizzed him about his beliefs and was convinced as to his sincerity:
"He expressed his veneration his love of the Supreme Being, and his entire resignation to the will of Him who is All-wise. He expressed his desire to resemble the Author of Goodness by being good himself".7.
One of the key chapters in Voltaire's Treatise on Tolerance is a prayer to God.
The Old Testament seemed a good place for Dawkins to explore the God of the theists but despite his good intentions, as quoted earlier, many will regard the following as offensive:
"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." 8.
Having got that off his chest (heaven help us should he set out to be offensive!), I would reassure any who haven't read his book that this is untypical. Maybe it is a necessary antidote to the multitude of Jews and Christians who want us to accept every word in the Bible as true. We may recoil from this kind of frontal attack but this is partly because generations of clergy have spent their lives trying to make the unacceptable acceptable. Many church-goers simply do not see what is there in the scriptures or are steered away from the problems by a kindly lectionary. Sometimes the defences can hold but the justification of genocide, the subordination of women, the holding of slaves, the stoning of homosexuals and rebellious teenagers, the oppressive legalism and the threat of eternal torment these are not acceptable. To build these into our values today is both an abuse of our humanity and an abuse of these very human scriptures.
What Dawkins ignores, but must know, is that the Bible is the diverse literature of a people whose ideas of God evolved - though not always in a smooth progression. A very different picture of God can also be found there:
"You must show love to the alien who lives among you." Deut.10:19
In the parable of Jonah, God asks: "Should I not be
sorry for the great city of
God repudiates empty religious ceremony: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" Amos 5:24
God's love is constant: "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." Is 49:15
Dawkins knows, of course, that the Jewish scriptures are not all of a piece and the Christians who insist that they are, misread their Jewish heritage.
In the New Testament, Dawkins sees Jesus as 'a huge improvement' over the 'cruel ogre' portrayed in the Old ! The only complaint seems to be over his family values: "If any man comes to me and hate not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life, he cannot be my disciple." Lk 14:26. These words are typical Semitic exaggeration but the issue is serious. Jesus is warning his friends against lightly undertaking a journey that could end in crucifixion. He is also breaking out of the stranglehold of clan and family taking us beyond to a wider caring. In any case, the gospel account shows that he cared about his mother, even when he was dying.
Dawkins describes the idea of atonement for original sin as the central doctrine of Christianity. He sums it up as:
"God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the original sin of Adam." 9.
This teaching is indeed widespread in the church but it is not necessarily central, nor normative and is rejected by
many Christians. It is based on a literalist interpretation of the
When Dawkins looks at the world today, with its intolerance, militancy and violence, he does not try to be discriminating. He quotes Muriel Gray: "The cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself.".10.
Once more, before we object, we need to face the challenge. We should all be appalled at the crimes committed through the centuries in the name of religion and not only 'in the name of' but by sincere religious people.
He could have said more. He could have quoted Gratian's
decree in the twelfth century that the emancipation of monastic slaves was
impossible because God alone had the rights of ownership over such property. He
could have quoted the Papal Legate, Arnald Amalric in the thirteenth century, who justified the
indiscriminate slaughter of 20,000 Cathar heretics
and orthodox with the words: "Kill them all, God will recognise his own". He could have quoted the
formal requerimiento read by
"I swear to you with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and all manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses. We shall take you and your wives and your children and shall make slaves of them".11.
The list lengthens but I'll include one more quotation from the Harvard doctor, Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1855, who said of native Americans that it was only natural to:
"hunt them down like the wild beasts of the forest, so that the red crayon sketch is rubbed out and the canvas is ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God's own image." 12.
We still sing his hymn today:
Grant us thy truth to make us free
And kindling hearts that burn for thee
Till all thy living altars claim
One holy light, one heavenly flame.13.
When all allowances have been made for times that are not ours, the stark fact remains that two thousand years have passed. Until we Christians have faced these things and learned from them, we need atheists like Dawkins.
If some see religion as pernicious; Christians too often assume that it is always good. The truth is that religion, like politics, is neither bad nor good - it embraces both. It can be constructive or destructive, helpful or harmful. Dawkins quotes Steven Weinberg's stark observation that:
"Good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things that takes religion." 14.
This is often true but far too exclusive. Many have done bad things for political reasons or for scientific reasons think, for instance, of the upright doctors who supported Hitler's euthanasia programme. It doesn't need religion for wrong to be done for the best of motives.
Religion also motivates people to do good things.
Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, with strong Quaker support, succeeded
in perhaps the first great civil rights campaign in history that against the
slave trade. John Lilburne, Milton and Madison helped
to give birth to Western democracy. The nonconformist tradition helped to
fashion the ethics of business and the growth of philanthropy. The twentieth
century liberation movements in
Likewise, many charities that are household names today were inspired by Christian activists the RNLI, RSPCA, the Red Cross, Barnardo's, the NSPCC, National Trust, Save the Children, Alcoholics Anonymous, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Samaritans, Amnesty International it would be easy to add more. I am not claiming exclusive credit for religion Christian activists have welcomed alliances with all men and women of goodwill nor am I forgetting that there have been reactionary forces as well within the institutional church.
Dawkins' atheist friend, Daniel Dennett, writes in "Breaking the Spell":
"For day-in, day-out, lifelong bracing, there is probably nothing so effective as religion: it makes powerful and talented people more humble and patient, it makes average people rise above themselves, it provides sturdy support for many people who desperately need stay away from drink or drugs or crime. People who would otherwise be self-absorbed or shallow or crude or simply quitters are often ennobled by their religion, given a perspective on life that helps them make hard decisions that we all would be proud to make." 15.
Given space we could explore Christian art and architecture, music and literature. Dawkins is inclined to believe that such riches would flourish anyway its just that, in Christian Europe, the church could afford to be the rich patron. He sees no necessary connection between belief and creativity. A difficult position to maintain, I would suggest, in face of the grey cultural world of Stalinism or the stifling effect of Mao's Cultural Revolution both reflecting the impoverished ideology of avowedly atheist states.
As always it is impossible to separate religion and culture. Religious institutions are embedded within the society of their time, Sometimes they are a deadweight against renewal and reform; sometimes they are the catalyst of it. Nor is the religion the same as its institutions and leadership. We have to recognise the complexity. It took too long for the Christian churches to confront slavery but the yeast was working away in the dough. The same cannot be said of women's emancipation, where the churches, after a hopeful start, seem to bring up the rear.
Dawkins is loathe to recognise this complexity and shifts his ground too easily. Both Dawkins and the faithful in the supernatural are equally loath to (a) recognize complexity and (b) recognize the difficulty in understanding that it may not be amenable to simple cause / effect explanations. Take this passage about the movement for racial equality and the role of charismatic leaders: "Some of these leaders were religious; some were not. Some who were religious did their good deeds because they were religious. In other cases their religion was incidental. Although Martin Luther King was a Christian, he derived his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience directly from Gandhi, who was not." 16.
But Gandhi was a deeply devout Hindu who was inspired by the teaching of Jesus especially the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was a natural phenomenon a human a nice Jewish guy as the song goes. The problem is not Jesus, but this concept of a supernatural god Martin Luther King shared the same inspiration and adopted Gandhi's methods. Both, in Dawkins' world, were 'deluded theists'.
Certainly religion has no monopoly of the good. This is
entirely in keeping with Jesus' teaching and with the centuries old
Christian conviction that the moral sense possessed by everyone is God-given replace god-given with natural, and you got a deal
Jesus Christ is not the problem. Again,
although it is true that, in times past, many good people have been
conventional believers and some may have been 'closet atheists' at heart, it is
wilful to ignore the driving inspiration that has led
to so much active good. Values are often shared but motivation springs from
deep commitment and strong community. Most of the Christian congregations in
every town in
The problem with Christianity or religion in this society bound by common faith sense is Dawkins & Dennetts and Blackmores memetic argument that argument is valid, but it applies to the scientific faithful, just as much as to the supernatural faithful. The fact that science is (generally) more contingent and anti-authoritarian than a theistic / supernatural religious faith, gives religion an edge in the memetic evolutionary processes a Catch-22 THAT is the real worry, and the reason Dawkins feels compelled to evangelize the extreme opposite scientific view, but he merely raises the stakes, the quality of his argument ends up being no better than his opponents.
Does he have the knowledge to make this judgement or is it prejudice speaking? Probably I have no time for Dawkins opinions he should stick to what hes good at science.
It took fundamentalist crusades among the working class of
Later in his book, Dawkins retreats from the simplistic statement quoted above and recognises the political and economic factors, observing that 'religion is a label . not necessarily worse than other labels such as skin colour, language or preferred football team, but often available when other labels are not.' 18. He tends to blame religion for providing the labels of conflict but the argument is very weak Darwinism was used by the Nazis to justify eliminating the mentally ill, and by doctors in several countries who were attracted to eugenics. It is not the fault of Darwinism that its label has been abused. Dawkins is fond of describing religion as a virus given such language, is it so big a step for the unscrupulous to argue therefore that Jews or Christians or Muslims are infecting the body politic?
If religion contributed to conflict in
Dawkins is right that religious wars "have been horribly frequent in history" 19. but the judgement is too one-sided. Religious leaders have done much to limit war, to mediate between warring parties and to promote reconciliation. George Fox, Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Su Kyi and Pope John XXIII are not isolated figures in the search for peace all religious and most 'deluded theists'.
The two world wars and the subsequent cold war were little
to do with religion. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were not
religious crusaders but destroyed millions. Wars in South America have usually
been over economic liberation, in Africa over resources, in the
Let's look back at Dawkins' opening salvo imagining a
world without religion which we quoted at the beginning. Better to imagine a world without misguided and misleading rationale. It is a catch-all polemic, made up of half-truths. The
crusades were a secondary tremor along the fault line caused by the Turkish
I'm afraid that this imagined world is still utopian ( a 'no-place'). It may still throw up a Stalin, a Mao or a Pol Pot. We can argue about Hitler and certainly I accept
that the church has contributed greatly to the climate of anti-semitism. Whether we can go as far as agreeing with
Dawkins, that there would have been no persecution of the Jews if it were not
for the church, is still questionable. There was persecution of Jewish
communities in parts of the
My purpose is not to reject Dawkin's charges; only to call for far more discrimination he would never dream of indulging in such a scatter-gun approach within his own speciality. He goes on:
"I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism." 20.
This is ingenuous. Atheism is a negative and, of itself, motivates to very little. But though religion can cause conflict, it often restrains it, and if it is replaced by a vacuum, such constraints can be cast to the wind and we may find seven demons where there was previously one.
The world today is marked by the spread of a hard fundamentalist form of Islam. We cannot do this problem justice here, so a few pointers will have to suffice. The context is that of traditional societies trying to cope with the spread of Western culture a culture that exalts democracy and freedom but also exhibits crass commercialism and the devaluing of relationships. Alongside this is a struggle for economic power over the resources of the world and a legacy of distorting colonialism. The traditional societies themselves are often marked by extreme disparities of wealth and status divisions condemned by Mohammed in the world he knew. Restive populations look to Islam to realise a more just and stable society but this gives scope to the power-hungry as well as to idealists.
Saddam Hussein led a secular Ba'athist
party, though he wrapped himself in a religious cloak before his downfall.
This is not to say that there are not serious issues lying in the heart of Islamic teaching issues that have often lain in abeyance and are now being tackled by some Muslim leaders. Much may depend on how the nature of God is understood, for the image of God that we hold can become a pattern for our own behaviour.
Millions of Muslims were appalled by the atrocity of 9/11 but much goodwill was squandered by the
American reaction. Had this been more discriminating, more informed and more
just, it might have been possible to contain the growth of extremism. Instead,
conventional weapons were used to bludgeon host communities and 'Western values' were sacrificed.
A volatile mix of social and economic conflict with religious absolutism can be dangerous. In this, Dawkins is right.
The first claim that I would make is that the Judaeo-Christian tradition provided fertile ground for the
growth of science. The Greeks made pioneering contributions to what was then
termed 'natural philosophy'. Arab/Muslim thinkers took up the quest but, after
significant progress, ran into the barriers thrown up by a new, obscurantist
form of Islam. (A similar shut-down occurred in
In such soil, science took root. The founders of the Royal Society in 1645 belonged to this tradition. Many were Christian, and not as a matter of formality. John Wilkins and Seth Ward became bishops; John Wallis was a doctor of divinity as well as a mathematician; the chemist, Robert Boyle was a practising Christian, and the botanist John Ray wrote religious books that were used by John Wesley; Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton consciously worked for the glory of God.
Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan's caricature:
"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." 21.
Christians may well read these words with astonishment. Was Sagan not familiar with the psalms? Had he not read the drama of Job or Ecclesiasticus ? Had he no knowledge of St Francis and Eckhart; of Milton, Vaughan, Traherne and Addison; of Isaac Watts, Cowper, Wordsworth and Coleridge; of Hopkins and George Russell? Naturally, past thinkers could not conceive the scale of what we now know, but their sense of grandeur and awe was no less for that.
Secularists point to the humiliation of Galileo to illustrate
the reactionary nature of the church and they
are right to be appalled. The case, however, was scarcely typical. Nearly a
century before, Copernicus, a dean of the church, had proposed that the earth
turned around the sun and had dedicated his treatise to Pope Paul III. The
church was by no means allergic to new thinking. Galileo built on the work of
Copernicus but the issues that brought him to the court of the inquisition were prompted by his interpretation of scripture and by
accusations that he had published without due authority. The pope was his
former friend, Urban VIII, but he was now an embittered man and, feeling
betrayed, refused to help him. Nevertheless, Galileo testified that he received
more encouragement from within the church than from his fellow academics and,
after his trial, it was the archbishop of
The debate over
"In the blue corner, 'Soapy Sam'
Wilberforce, the bumbling bishop, who tried to make mock of his opponent. In the red corner, Thomas H Huxley, the young champion of
rational science. The contest to be fought over
The bishop spoke with 'inimitable spirit, emptiness and unfairness', finishing with a flourish by enquiring as to whether Mr Huxley was descended from an ape on his grandfather's or his grandmother's side. Huxley whispered to his neighbour, 'The Lord has delivered him into my hands'. Rising from his seat, he replied that he would rather have an ape than a bishop for an ancestor.
The effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and the rest waved and fluttered their handkerchiefs. The clash between science and religion had finally come and the Church was soundly defeated."
On the contrary, the debate was of high quality according
to the report in the "Athenaum". Wilberforce and Huxley "have found foemen worthy of their
steel, and made their charges and counter-charges very much to their own
satisfaction and the delight of their respective friends".22.
Wilberforce (son of William Wilberforce) was shrewd and knowledgeable. A
few days later, the "Quarterly Review" published a formal review by
"uncommonly clever, it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties. It quizzes me quite splendidly".23.
Scientists were deeply divided. Wilberforce was advised, in
part, by the eminent scientist, Richard Owen, Superintendent of the
What was important was that the new ideas were open to
vigorous debate. A new breed of professional scientists were
challenging the clerical amateurs who dominated the university establishment.
At this time in
Why are creationists today up in arms over evolution? There are two reasons. One is because Darwinism cannot be reconciled with a narrow literalist approach to Genesis. But it is not just science that opposes the literalist interpretation it is the very text of Genesis itself. Let's explore it for the moment. These early stories in Genesis are part of a marvellous inheritance. There is artistry, imagination and insight here and, to be honest, not a little ambiguity and uncertainty. We have more than one layer of text and more than one layer of meaning.
Starting as it were in the basement, there are fragments of 'Aesop-type' questions: how did snakes lose their legs? why do we wear clothes? how did everything begin? why are things not as they should be? why do we die? The literalist is tripped up quite early as sun, moon and stars are created on the fourth day, so how did day and night happen on the first three days? A succession of such questions will lead to the hoariest of all where did Cain's wife come from?
Better to leave him to it and escape to the ground floor, where exploration is more profitable. There are possible links with Egyptian creation stories and the Mesopotamian story of Enuma Elish but the differences are striking. Only in the Hebrew story is God supreme and unchallenged. Even the sun and moon are not gods but part of the created order. Nor is there any trace of the conflict between a creator god and the sea monster that is divided to become heaven and earth.
It is worth noticing what is not said. The snake, which was both feared and reverenced in Middle Eastern culture, is not identified with the devil. Work is not seen as punishment, for Adam is first given the garden to till. The male is not depicted as superior to the female, for this deformed relationship is seen as one of the consequences of the rift between humanity and God.
On this ground floor level, it does seem that we are dealing with the first human couple but we can ascend to another level as the storyteller is no mean artist and gives us permission to explore more deeply. This is done by giving the man a representative name: 'Adam' means 'humanity' and comes from the same Hebrew root as 'dust'. 'Eve' could indicate 'life' but we are not sure. Then there are the trees with symbolic, not botanical names, and the great rivers suggest that the garden represents the whole inhabited world.
We are not therefore talking of distant history, or of a primal catastrophe, but humanity in its relationship with God. We are Adam and Eve we all experience temptation but we court danger when we no longer respect God's created order and try to redefine good and evil to suit ourselves forgetting that God 'has the final word'. Then we have to live with the consequences illustrated in Genesis by the distortion of the marriage relationship and the abuse of the earth itself. We note here that in Hebrew thought, everything that happens is ascribed directly to God, whatever the intervening causes. When alienated from God, we exile ourselves from each other, and from our environment we cast ourselves out of the garden.
If we approach this story with a prosaic and legalistic mind, there is indeed a collision with scientific understanding for there has never been a world without desire and death, devouring and being devoured. But we have not fallen from an idyllic state; rather, creation is still being brought to birth:
"Up to the present, as we know, the whole created universe in all its parts groans as if in the pangs of childbirth" (Rom 8:22).
Some Christians will be upset at this point, because this clearly calls into question a historical 'Fall'. This doctrine suggests first an age of harmony, then a moment of human disobedience, and thereafter a lost humanity until Jesus redeems the world and salvation can come. The doctrine of the Fall is not scriptural but largely originated with the thinking of Augustine, who lived over 300 years after Jesus. Augustine relied on a misleading translation of Rom 5:12. This reading forces the conclusion that all human beings were made to sin because Adam sinned. The true translation should read: "death came to all humanity because all have sinned" that is, everyone has sinned, even as Adam did, therefore all humanity must suffer the consequences. But, even with this vital amendment, Christians are not bound to accept this argument. In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve are already mortal physical death is not the consequence of their disobedience.
There is no suggestion of a Fall in the teaching of Jesus. He is stern when faced with the failings of 'the religious' but gentle with those regarded as sinners. He rejoices in faith and goodness wherever he finds it He points to the love of the Father and challenges us to emulate it.
Let us sum up the main themes of the stories that God is creator of all that is; that the world is fundamentally good and that creation may be used but not abused. This is not a game and our choices have serious consequences.
The deeper worry for creationists and all theists is that God can apparently be replaced by a natural process: an alternative explanation for the origin of life. Readers will be familiar with the theory of evolution, that random genetic mutation allows for the possibility of improvement in an organism the environment then fixes that development by offering better reproductive opportunities. Dawkins becomes as certain as any fundamentalist that this provides the one key needed to unlock the mysteries of life an explanation that sweeps away the need for any 'supernatural' agency. Before exploring this issue further, we need to look closely at the world of genes.
For Dawkins, evolution is based on something wonderfully
simple. In "The River Out of
We need to be aware, however, that Dawkins championing of
'the selfish gene' is open to challenge. The issue is so fundamental that I
offer a substantial paragraph from Gabriel Dover, Professor of Genetics at
"Genes are so battered, misunderstood and abused that I make no apologies for starting from the beginning with the genetic material. Genes are not self-replicating entities; they are not eternal; they are not units of selection; they are not units of function; and they are not units of instruction. They are modular in construction and history; invariably redundant; each involved in a multitude of functions; and misbehave in a bizarre range of ways. They co-evolve intimately and interactively with each other through their protein and RNA products. They have no meaning outside their interactions, with regard to any adaptive feature of an individual: there are no one-to-one links between genes and complex traits. Genes are the units of inheritance but not the units of evolution: I shall argue that there are no 'units' of evolution as such because all units are constantly changing. They are intimately involved with the evolution of biological functions, but evolution is not about the natural selection of 'selfish' genes." 25.
The Dawkins dilemma lies in his belief that science is about complexities understood in terms of their parts. This is a view adamantly rejected by Steven Rose as: "obviously daft and nowhere to be found in the writings of real biologists." 26. David Bohm goes further and asks if the whole may be determining the parts. Perhaps 'hierarchies of order' are as fundamental a feature of the universe as 'particles'. Although he concedes that this runs contrary to current opinion, he claims that the 'reductionist' view is "merely a rather poorly tested assumption".27.
We find in the theory of evolution both change and continuity - chance and law. Genetic mutations may be caused by cosmic rays or environmental pressures or other factors. They appear to be random - helpful, neutral or positively harmful. The helpful ones can give the organism a chance advantage, becoming fixed through natural selection. Sometimes this process is seen to be wholly dependent on chance:
"Do we, in holding that the gods exist, deceive ourselves, while random chance and change alone control the world? " Euripides
"Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution." Jacques Monod 28.
Dawkins denies that this is so: "Chance is not a solution and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was." 29.
which is rather hard on Monod, who was a Professor of Molecular Biology, a Nobel prize-winner and notably sane. Stephen Jay Gould has popularised the view that the direction of evolution is essentially random. He has argued that if we could 're-run the tape', something entirely different would emerge. Conway Morris takes a contrary view, believing that once multicellular organisms have started to evolve, then certain optimal solutions will crop up again and again. Something like intelligent human life then becomes likely or even inevitable. Dawkins rejects both chance and design in favour of natural selection, because it can produce complexity by innumerable small steps each improbable but not prohibitively so reaching complexity by the power of accumulation. He sees therefore, a system that, in its entirety, leads inexorably to ever richer development. Not chance, but law is the basis of it all.
Theists should have no fundamental objection to the process of natural selection as such. Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century theologian, would probably have welcomed Darwinism, for he could write over 1500 years ago:
"God created only the germs and causes of life, which then slowly developed over long periods of time."
Dawkins is not yet done. Like any fundamentalist, he has found a key that he can apply to everything. He applies it to human culture and ideas for these too can be broken down into units of information that are replicated and selected over generations. His difficulty in such a comparison is that the selecting is done by intelligent beings, so that the process is not wholly blind or purposeless.
He also drives the argument back into the sphere of cosmology and conjures with what is fast becoming an old chestnut that the 'Big Bang' displaces God. Here he needs to heed the cautionary note of Allan Sandage, the American astronomer:
"Astronomy is an impossible science all you've got is opinions."
The beginning of the universe is envisaged as a single unit of matter/energy. Once again the idea was around long before science took it up. The 13th century Jewish thinker, Nahmanides, wrote as follows in his 'Commentary on Genesis' :
"At the briefest instant following creation, all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard."
Dawkins applies his evolutionary understanding to cosmology and suggests that the development of the universe is gloriously simple all the complexity that we know can evolve from the simplicity of the Big Bang. Dawkins smooths over a difficulty here, for he knows that natural selection is not yet operative. He has to argue therefore that Darwinism so raises our awareness that we can look for a parallel kind of development in the physical world.
If his search is successful, then we can do away with the complexity of the concept of God. This, says Dennett, accords with 'Ockham's razor' that the simplest explanation should always be preferred or, rather more strictly, that 'beings should not be multiplied without necessity'. William Ockham, a courageous fourteenth century Franciscan, whose theistic teachings would not otherwise suit Dennett, also insisted that the chosen explanations have to be sufficient to cover the facts. Do the latest theories in biology and physics do this?
The greatest weakness in "The God Delusion" is that Dawkins does not interrogate his own position. The book is a rigorous critique of religion but fails to expose the alternative assumptions that Dawkins favours. Putting it in layman's terms (as I am hardly qualified to do anything else!); in the beginning we have to postulate:
Ψ a substance where there was no substance a 'thing' appearing out of 'no thing'. Call it what you will and make it as small as you wish but it cannot be conjured away as Daniel Dennett seeks to do: "It creates itself ex nihilo, or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all."
Ψ an agent of change, lest what is remains static a ripple, a fluctuation but this too cannot be conjured away.
Ψ a set of laws. Dawkins relies on these but what are they? For him, there is no lawgiver. Are they just a description of how things behave? Dennett plasters over the cracks again, believing them to be "as eternal as anything can be."
The analysis and the terminology may change but, whatever expressions we use, the principles remain the same. This 'simple' explanation begins to look decidedly complex.
There is also, arguably, a context but we have no handle on it. Many cosmologists have called a halt by now but Dawkins doesn't wish to recognise any boundary, not even that of the 'Big Bang'. This is a problem for he does not acknowledge metaphysics and knows that this is the beginning of space/time there is no before, no where or when. As the fourth century theologian, Augustine said:
"We should say that time began with creation rather than that creation began with time."
It is commonplace to scorn the mediaeval theologians who pondered the question of how many angels could dance on a pin but they were wrestling with the same problem of the infinite that confronts scientists, philosophers and theologians alike. Dennett and Dawkins may not be theists but they are perilously close to suggesting a shadow deity when they speak of fundamental Law, just as others have promoted Chance or Nature to occupy the vacant plinth. In Francis Crick 's book 'The Origin of the Genetic Code', it is telling that the word 'nature' becomes 'Nature' about half way through!
The same difficulty emerges when we consider the inflationary universe fast expanding. If we ask: 'into what is it expanding?' - we are confounded. No speculation about the structure or shape of the universe; no theory that multiplies dimensions or even universes, disposes of the idea that the enduring and eternal lies over the horizon and may underlie everything else. (The cosmologist, Bernard Carr, describes the multiverse as "the last refuge of the atheist"!)
The schoolboy conundrum: "Who made God?" is the crucial argument for Dawkins. Let's state it in his own words:
"A designer God cannot be used to explain organised complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape." 30.
What he does not recognise is that precisely the same question also lies in wait for the cosmologist. Is there that which is eternal? A place where the questions must stop? The 'Big Bang' does not answer why there is something rather than nothing. It cannot answer as to what triggers this process. It cannot tell us where its laws originate. Notice too the awesome potentiality that rests in this pinprick of a beginning. "Matter is potentiality" said Aristotle. Indeed, it is so. This germ, this particle, holds within itself all that 'Nature' has poured forth from the meanest flower to the farthest star. In face of this, the idea of simplicity loses all meaning.
So we come to the concept of 'God'. We have spoken of the 'eternal' an idea inescapable along whatever road we travel some prefer to speak of the 'ultimate'. Dawkins, as a scientist, need not enter this territory. He could stay within the normally accepted limits of his craft but he is an adventurer and a crusader against theism. It is important therefore for us to see how he understands the concept of God. Here is his quotation from Steven Weinberg:
"Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal." 31.
Dawkins then returns to his 'supernatural creator' one that is 'appropriate for us to worship'. Elsewhere he speaks of one who intervenes from time to time, answers prayers and forgives or punishes. Nevertheless, the main drift of his book is that science provides us with sufficient explanation of all that is without resort to any kind of creative intelligence. (How easily he slips in phrases like "Natural selection not only explains the whole of life ." 32.)
It is no surprise that the concept of God is so demanding as the following quotations show:
"God is not one of the things that are" the first century Athenian, Dionysius.
"The eternal seed of everything that grows" an older Hindu saying.
"I AM that is my name" the Jewish scriptures.
These speak of that which lies beyond our immediate understanding and therefore they are infuriating for those, like Dawkins, who seek greater clarity though modern science also has difficulty with words. Let me call Professor Schaf - a Marxist philosopher:
"We are no longer the atheists who dare to assert that there is no God we are only those who assert that if there is a God, he is greater than the one you have shown us."
This is so often true but it is also true that critics are rather too quick to scorn what we have described as naοve religion'. A caution from Hilary of Poitiers - also fourth century:
"Alas we are driven to scale heights inaccessible, to strain our human language in the utterance of things beyond its scope hence what should be matter for silent meditation must now needs be imperilled by exposure in words".
Dawkins surveys various theories to account for the growth and persistence of belief in God. Though western theists have long explored this territory, evolutionary biology has a fresh contribution to make. All thought, all philosophy, all religion develops and our practical, psychological and social needs help to provoke and shape our thinking. Do these insights explain away our beliefs our theism or, for that matter, our atheism? Freud decided that:
"Religion is a comforting illusion that must be abandoned." He also wrote:
"In the depths of my heart, I can't help being convinced that my dear fellow men, with few exceptions, are worthless".
How are we to assess such statements? Will it help if we dismiss his views as entirely due to unfortunate childhood experiences? Religion lends itself to all kinds of psychological explanations but as James Moray, himself a psychologist, has said:
"The psychological mechanisms are the way in which God makes himself known."
We are all subject to psychological explanations. Think how often we look for ulterior motives in our politicians. Nor are atheists exempt. Dawkins may be reacting to his youthful experiences or have reasons for casting off one set of constraints and adopting another or he may be avoiding some kind of personal commitment. Nevertheless, we would not wish to doubt the sincerity of his own quest for truth.
He asks the Darwinist question: "Why did those of our ancestors who had a genetic tendency to grow a god centre survive better than rivals who did not?" 33.
The language is wonderful! Human awareness of God may, of course, have nothing to do with genetics as such. Perhaps Dawkins is an atheist because he has a genetic tendency to shrink his god centre? His dilemma is how to account for such a persistent religious 'delusion' over the considerable timescale of human evolution.
There is a revealing section of Dawkins' book that compares romantic love to religious devotion:
"Could irrational religion be a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love?" 34.
The point being pursued here is that sufficient attachment needs to be formed for the two partners to stay together long enough to rear a child. This is the 'aim' of evolution but Dawkins and others then speculate that religious adherence can be a misfiring of this useful tendency! We won't follow them on this trail but we will ask a question. As much of the book is an assault on religion because of its irrationality, should marital love provoke the same response?
Most of us will be interested to explore possible evolutionary 'explanations' for marital love but few of us will want to regard biology as providing the whole story. Such love can be considered at several levels biological, psychological, social or, for that matter, spiritual. The parallel with religion is indeed helpful as each approach is valid.
Is the spiritual to be dismissed, like the 'supernatural', as superstition? Daniel Dennett has written at length of human personality and consciousness. When all is done, he finds that there is no one at home. The 'headquarters' of the self is an illusion composed of the crosscurrents that impress themselves upon us. Just as Yuri Gagarin searched the heavens and failed to find God, so Dennett scans that inner firmament and finds that we are not. As a scientist and philosopher, he deploys the tools of his trade like a fisherman casting his net but, when he pulls it in, it is empty. Where does that leave us? Probably in a state of bafflement but if the test of any philosophy is 'can we live by it?' then Dennett's ideas fall, for he also writes: "what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes". 35. What 'we' does he refer to?
We can now ask whether Dawkins has found solid ground on which to stand? In dismissing the 'supernatural' is he so sure that he knows sufficient about the natural? Problems begin to crowd upon him. The physical world has become far less substantial than we thought.
These words of Albert Camus express our predicament:
"You teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realise then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in an hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to my beginning. I realise that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot for all that apprehend the world."
In case his words are thought to be dated, I refer to the newly published work of Theodore Arabatzis - "Representing Electrons". 36. He reminds us that electrons can be envisioned as point charges without dimensions; as charge clouds smeared out in space; as tiny magnets; and as objects that possess spin. He then tells us that no experiment has indubitably established the existence of the electron. It was quantum theory that brought the astronomer, Sir James Jeans, to observe that: 'The universe is more like a great thought'. The nature of matter and the nature of the universe is not so easily reduced to utter simplicity. And this is before we ever touch upon the subtleties of human experience where free will and love defy scientific explanation.
The answer to that is no better and no worse. Dawkins is right to insist that religions have no privileged access to the truth, despite what many assert. Believers have no ex-directory lines to God. The sacred scriptures have the same origins as all literature. This is not because there is no such thing as revelation but because its channels are the same channels that run down every street. The experiences of the spirit lie within us all even as the 'Word' dwells within us all. When Moses was on Sinai, he stood before the face of God but drew on the traditions of his Egyptian upbringing and the wisdom of Midian, as well as from a more distant patriarchal past. It was no less revelation for that. The scientist, the artist, the prophet they all draw from the same wells.
Jim Watson, founder of the Human Genome Project, is quoted as saying that he:
"can't believe anyone accepts truth by revelation." 37.
Such comment either stems from confusion or from a narrow definition of what constitutes evidence. All truth comes by revelation!
It is time now to look further at the challenge thrown down by Dawkins that all complexity arises from simplicity a counter-intuitive claim that, he says, destroys the very foundations of religion. Dawkins quotes Dennett's discussion of one of our oldest ideas:
"the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing
to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You'll
never see a spear making a spear maker. You'll never see a horse shoe making a
blacksmith. You'll never see a pot making a potter.
Well, that seems to me rather like a man wandering into a modern car factory and watching machines make cars, oblivious to the human intelligence that has brought about the whole thing. Darwinism cannot explain the whole thing, as I have argued above. Dawkins knows this but introduces a sleight of hand what Darwinism does, he suggests, is raise our consciousness, and this justifies his use of the single key anywhere and everywhere. He can then follow Dennett in believing that:
"An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all agency and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe" 39.
Francis Crick blithely asserts the same 'nothing but' fundamentalism:
"You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells". 40.
This is where Darwinists desert
Dawkins finds no meaning in the universe: "There is at bottom no design, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." But he goes on to say that we can give it meaning: "Our life is as meaningful, as full, and as wonderful, as we choose to make it." 41. Surely we do not have to remind him that we are not outside 'Nature' if we can be reflective, mindful and good-living, does this not force us to revise our view of the very stuff of the universe? It is remarkable how the 'nothing but' atheists turn out to live by very different norms that scarce fit their philosophy. Instead, they step outside the box and take up a different role.
We have seen that Dawkins appeals not to chance but to law. It is the 'laws of Nature' that bring everything about. If 'Nature' is not another shadow deity then it simply refers to the nature of things or, at least, to the normal behaviour of things. Laws usually predicate a lawgiver: "You have set everything in order by measure and number and weight." Wisdom 11:20. We know some of these laws. Dawkins looks to the day when we might know most or all of them perhaps subsumed under one great law the Theory of Everything. Then we can close the lid. But let's remember Einstein's words:
. "You ask me if we could explain everything in scientific terms? Yes, it is possible, but it is as though one were to reproduce Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the shape of an air pressure curve."
and those of Wittgenstein:
"We feel that when we have answered all possible scientific questions, the problems of life remain completely untouched."
It is interesting to note that Confucius, Gautama, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and others were more absorbed by the practical problems of living and rather less in the 'metaphysics' of it all. Nevertheless, their way of life was all-of-a-piece with what they believed.
Dawkins will again argue: "If science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?" 42. Disregarding the false opposition of science and religion, is it not possible even probable, that knowledge can come in various guises? Is it not indeed certain that we must have acquaintance with something before we can even begin to describe, test and analyse it? There is a kind of knowledge prior to all enquiry not unlike the direct knowledge we have of other people, where the knowledge of truths about them is quite secondary.
Allow me to speculate: perhaps the intuitive should have pride of place after all. Judaeo-Christian tradition speaks of the divine Wisdom or the Word that exists before all else and dwells within as well as without. Scientists, like Arthur Eddington, have suggested that: "The final stuff of the world is mind-stuff." Dawkins will not admit the primacy of mind yet, paradoxically, makes room for free-will in his philosophy. Perhaps he does not appreciate how much ground he (and his friend Dennett) concede, when they allow room for human agency. Worse still, for them, is the likelihood that a universe allowing for human agency can surely find room for divine agency.
Dawkins is quite familiar with the strange world now described by science. He accepts that we look out through a narrow 'burka' window because we have evolved to survive in 'Middle World' - not, for example the atomic world. He accepts that 'matter' may simply be a useful construct:
"What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished real world but a model of the real world, regulated and adjusted by sense data." 43.
On the other hand, he fights shy of calling anything 'immaterial' and feels that :
"we are liberated by calculation and reason to visit regions of possibility that had once seemed out of bounds." Yet we must insist that calculation and reason only come into play when we have already entered these strange landscapes places that we may already know in spirit.
We are close to a world of mind and spirit after all and who is to say whether this kind of reality is a late arrival or rather the true 'origin of species' and all else? Human experience need not delude. Acupuncture may yet be explained in physical terms but there are surprises in the world of healing that escape the grappling-hooks of double blind testing. Near death experiences may yet prove to be more than hallucinations. Telepathy is far from understood but not easily dismissed.
Dawkins insists that there are no 'no-go' areas for science. It is ironic therefore that even as his book was being published, some scientists were protesting because research papers on telepathy were presented at the meeting of the British Association. Closed minds are not the prerogative of religious believers.
Years ago I was returning to my student flat in Leeds and idly thinking as I walked that if I needed to return home that night, I would need to pack this and this and this. Bemused, I then cut myself short as it was mid-term and there was no reason to do anything of the kind. I then found my brother-in-law waiting outside the flat with a car to take me home due to my father's illness. Countless people have such experiences (without, I may say, Derren Brown standing at their shoulders!). The reality they suggest could revolutionise science. I am not looking for a gap into which to fit God but simply suggesting that there is much to be discovered about mind and matter. The neurologist, Hugo Lagercrantz, cautions us against confident assertions about the brain. His speciality is the unborn child. He speaks of the creation of 200,000 new nerve cells in weeks 10 to 20 but also observes massive elimination before birth agreeing with Edelmann that: "the brain is not a computer, it is a jungle." He speaks of the simulated activity in the eyes, thus building the synapses that enable sight to be possible though he wonders if the wiring may follow chemical pathways. 44.
In such a jungle we cannot be dogmatic nor, in speaking of God, are we talking of him breaking his own laws but we are acknowledging how much more there is to be known. We echo Xenophon, the friend of Socrates:
"As for certain truth, all is but a woven web of guesses."
This is not to take refuge in mysteries or to devalue the great advances of science. We can, with Dawkins, "be thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding".45.
So what is our faith? That God is both the ground of being and the sustainer of all things that are. That the long reaches of time reveal to us more and more of that which is ultimate and eternal both evolution and revelation. That truth lies within and without, and is known in its emerging. That reality is known at many levels but is ultimately One. And we can learn from Dawkins, as from every source available to us, without closing any doors. We can agree with his passage:
"Why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is to believe in him? What's so special about believing? Isn't it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility? Or sincerity?" and, as Dawkins then suggests, the honest seeking after truth.46.
Morality, like religion, has clearly evolved. Dawkins surveys some of the theories put forward. He speaks of behaviour prompted by genetic kinship, of reciprocation the giving and repayment of favours, the benefit of acquiring a reputation for kindness, and the advertising value of conspicuous generosity. We can see how altruism and self-interest belong together though it may be the self-interest of the family or the species or, as Dawkins argues, of the genes. Christians should not jib at talk of self-interest. Too much has been made of self-denial, forgetting that the New Testament is full of 'this is so' but 'that also is so'. Jesus taught:
"Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the the gospel's will save it."
but he also told the story of the wastrel son who 'came unto himself' and calculated that returning home would be in his own self-interest.
Although the idea of 'the good' raises many questions, let's keep it simple and at least agree that belief in God is not necessary for us to be good. Einstein was right when he said: "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed."
The Bible often talks in terms of reward and punishment but we need to be cautious, for in Hebrew thought, these are not arbitrary but natural consequences of our actions. These consequences can be destructive or constructive. What many believers derive from their faith may indeed be a self-interested calculation but, for many, it goes beyond self-interest for they are inspired to live out the love that they see in the very nature of God.
Dawkins then sets out on a long review as to whether theists or atheists are likely to prove to be the more moral. I think the question is a non-starter for 'atheism' is by definition a negative. What we would need to compare is what people do believe. I could argue my corner but it is complicated by my recognition that theists will tend to mirror in their own lives their view of the nature of God and this can differ greatly. We should not be considering theists and atheists as such but rather comparing the clear values held and asking whether they are seen as straightforwardly human or ultimately divine.
God's revelation comes through the long slow years of human experience as well as in flashes of insight. Dawkins is seduced into treating the Bible as though it were all of a piece and equally authoritative in all its parts. In fact, its morality and its understanding of God has developed over time and not then in any smooth progression but, like all evolution, through struggle, setback, and dead ends. It has to be seen in colour, not black and white, as befits the raft of story-tellers, writers and editors who brought it into being. Most of them would have no quarrel with the 'universal moral grammar' suggested by Darwinists.
This search for truth has continued in the history of the Christian Church. Its failures and achievements defy easy summary. Dawkins discovers a new age of rationality as humanism throws off the dark superstitions of the religious past. He ignores the currents of renewal and humanist thinking that arose within the Christian tradition. The historian, Diarmaid McCulloch, in speaking of humanism in the fifteenth century, writes:
The vast majority of humanists were patently sincere Christians who wished to apply their enthusiasm to the exploration and proclamation of their faith." 47.
When Dawkins detects pioneers of the new age, who appear to be Christian, he prefers to see them as closet atheists, waiting their time. Christians can be equally guilty of the opposite bias seeing all atheists as agents of darkness, plunging us all into meaninglessness or worse. Sometimes we Christians should hail those who break the mould Thomas Paine, David Hume, even Richard Dawkins! It is just because there is a long way to go and much to be done that we need to learn from one another and to be allies for truth and for a better world.
This is one of Dawkins' particular concerns. Whereas the
American constitution requires the separation of church and state, in
Should bishops have a special right to sit in the House of Lords? Surely not, but perhaps one or two could sit alongside a wide representation from other institutions and associations. In the same way, the church is free, as with any other group, to suggest and advise in matters of policy, but not, in any sense to dictate. Dawkins is right to quote the outrage, in the States, of Senator Barry Goldwater speaking as a legislator who condemns:
" the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate." 48.
I do not find education a straightforward issue. Faith schools have been a feature of our society for a good reason. The great majority of schools in earlier times were established and run by the churches, partly out of self-interest but chiefly because, learning, like healing and welfare, was greatly valued. With the rise of great urban centres, many Christian leaders, together with their humanist allies, concluded that the state should take over our education system including a host of buildings and training institutions.
In a more fundamentalist and divided society, separate schools become part of the problem. In a tolerant and inclusive society, they are rarely seen to be such. Our society is changing. There are new fears and we face the possibility that some separated schools may inflame divisions or, at least entrench them. On the face of it, there is a good case for mixed, faith-neutral schools across the country, just as there is a good case for ending the privileged existence of fee-paying, independent schools. Would such a monochrome system be preferable?
We need a reminder here that there is no such institution as a belief-neutral or value-neutral school. Every school has an ethos and every school demonstrates its values or lack of them. It is partly true, but not enough, to say that parents choose faith schools not because of their profession but because of their 'middle class' feel 'they have children like ours'. In one way, this is ironic because Christian families have done much in the past to raise the aspirations and level of achievement of great numbers of people. Putting it crudely, and taking the Methodist church as an example, the mill workers and tin miners, who listened to
Wesley, advanced their education and achievement through their new found faith and community and became a new middle class!
Today, there are faith schools succeeding well in 'working class' communities and they are perceived to be more disciplined, more caring and more purposeful because of their faith commitment. Would more secular schools provide an alternative basis for the future or reflect the brokenness of a society that has lost its way? Rather than ditching what many acknowledge to be good, I would urge diversity in a regulatory framework that keeps both zealots and dinosaurs at bay.
The dangers of Dawkins' position is well illustrated by his dalliance with Nicholas Humphrey over parental rights to bring up their children according to their own beliefs. Humphrey has valid things to say about extreme cases, like the sacrificial practices of the Incas or parental beliefs in female circumcision, but his argument is cast wider:
"Parents have no God-given licence to enculturate their children children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it." 49.
Though Dawkins acknowledges some unease at these words, he appears to be tempted. After all, he sees religion as a virus that can stunt young minds and prevent human progress. It is not so long since a Stalinist state was quite prepared to remove children from religious parents. Where religion is stunting; where it is cramped and stultifying, we share his anxiety but, for many, it is a widening of horizons and a reaching out to possibilities that lie 'beyond our ken'.
Back to schools again with Dawkins, we should not countenance any restrictions on the teaching of evolution, as long as this is within the normal bounds of biology. I trust also that he will welcome space in any school to explore the issues that we have shared here.
This pamphlet does not set out the case for belief in God, let alone belief in full-blooded, traditional Christianity. It is a negative of a negative. Dawkins presents his passionate negative a case for not believing in God. I have sought to show that his position is not as strong as he would have us believe. He argues that the hypothesis that God exists is a scientific one though adding the word 'scientific' adds nothing in this context. What he wishes to say is that the claim can be investigated by science, and we can have no quarrel with that. Whether science can help us further is quite a different matter.
It is always salutary to see where the battle lines are drawn, which is why terminology is important. The case of Albert Einstein illustrates this very well. It is true that believers and non-believers have tried to recruit him to their side (there is, of course, no such thing as a non-believer!). Dawkins tries to wrest him from the clutches of the theists and calls on Einstein's fundamentalist critics as allies. The difficulty is that Einstein doesn't fit the black/white world that Dawkins inhabits. When Dawkins objects that theists have no right to quote Einstein when he wrote that: "science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind", he doesn't explain what Einstein did mean presumably because he could hardly agree with such a declaration however interpreted. It is not enough to say that Einstein meant something entirely different by 'religion' and when he said that he did not believe in a personal God, we have to tread carefully. A statement of this kind may mean that the writer has a rather vague and diffuse idea of God or it may mean that to decribe God as personal is to diminish the reality. Similarly, when Nature is substituted, with its capital 'N', we have to explore further what is meant. Einstein is at pains to purge both 'God' and 'Nature' of all anthropomorphism, however, he says: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of events" as Dawkins recognises.50.
So who or what is Spinoza's God? We quote from the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus:
"Since the power in Nature is identical with the power of God, by which alone all things happen and are determined, it follows that whatsoever man as a part of Nature, provided himself with to aid and preserve his existence, or whatsoever Nature affords him without his help, is given to him solely by the Divine power, acting through human nature or through external circumstances. So whatever human nature can furnish itself with by its own efforts to preserve its existence, may be fitly called the inward aid of God, whereas whatever else accrues to man's profit from outward causes may be called the external aid of God."
There is no doubt that Einstein was well-versed in Spinoza's philosophy and shared it. And can add from a letter written by him on the 24 January 1936:
"Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in face of which we with modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naοve."
Unless Dawkins is going to accuse Einstein of 'intellectual high treason' (see p19), he has to accept that the issue is far from resolved. What is important is not who can successfully recruit Einstein to their cause but rather how far Dawkins has drawn his definitions to suit his conclusions.
The upshot is that science is a welcome partner in the quest for truth but, as with all disciplines, it begins with hypotheses based on tenuous experience and ends with faith. Science describes a great deal but explains nothing. The mystery remains in our beginning, our continuing and our ending.
Unless otherwise stated, the page numbers refer to "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, published by Bantam Press 2006.
Natural & the Supernatural"
7. "Voltaire in Exile" Ian Davidson. Atlantic 2004.
Holocaust" David Stannard.
12. ibid p243 - see "Race" Gossett.
13. The first line reads: "Lord of all being, throned afar" Oliver Wendell Holmes 1855
15. "Breaking the Spell" Daniel Dennett. Viking 2006. p55.
21. p12 and see "Pale Blue Dot" Carl Sagan. Headline 1995.
22. "Science &Religion Some Historical Perspectives" John Hedley-Brooke
24. "Darwin" Adrian Desmond & James Moore. 1991.
25. "Dear Mr Darwin" Gabriel Dover. Pheonix 2001.
26. The Times 6.10.97 interview with Anjana Ahuja.
a Theoretical Biology" ed. C.H.Waddington.
28. "Chance and Necessity" Jacques Monod. Knopf 1971.
31. p12 and see "Dreams of a Final Theory" Steven Weinberg. Vintage 1993.
35. "Consciousness Explained" Daniel Dennett. 1991.
Electrons" Theodore Arabatzis.
40. "The Astonishing Hypothesis" Francis Crick. Simon & Schuster 1994
41. quoted from a lecture in 1992. Nigel Hawkes: The Times 30.4.94.
44. Hugo Lagercrantz - lecture to the Science & Religion Forum 2006.
47. "Reformation" Diarmaid McCulloch. Penguin 2004.
49. p326 and see "The Mind Made Flesh"
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