I finally listened to the entire conversation between Dawkins and Williams. I was struck again by how polite and collegial it was. Both men, along with the moderator, philosopher Anthony Kenny, sought to actually understand one another. Each was more often nodding his head at the other, as opposed to shaking it in disagreement. This debate was refreshingly out of step with its time—and, I must add, contrary to the tone and spirit of Dawkins’s usual public persona and his words in The God Delusion.
As I said earlier, there were few sparks and little heat in the conversation, at least until the last 20 minutes, when Kenny turned the discussion to the origin of the universe. One question from the audience wondered if it would have been better for the biblical writers to remain silent on the question of how humanity began, and did these authors essentially “get it wrong”?
Here’s Williams’s response.
I can’t imagine that the biblical writers were faced with a set of options including telling the truth that the universe is billions of years old and saying, “Oh, that’s too difficult.” The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were nonetheless not inspired to do twenty-first century physics. They were inspired to pass onto their readers what God wanted them to know—forgive the naked theology here but I might as well come clean. [Laughter all around.] And that means reading the first book of the Bible. What I look for is the basic information: the universe depends upon God and God’s freedom, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and from the first measurable moment humanity has made a rather conspicuous mess of that role. That’s where the Bible begins, and that’s what I need to know, so to speak. And I don’t think that it makes very much sense to talk about the writers of scripture “getting it wrong” in the sense that there was lots of information available, and they happened to get on the wrong bits of it.
Following these words, Dawkins said,
I’m baffled by the way sophisticated theologians, who know perfectly well that Adam and Eve never existed, still carry on talking about it as though it had some profound wisdom to impart to us in an allegorical sense—that I presume is what you mean?
Williams pointed out that reading Genesis in an allegorical way—rather than as a strictly historical or scientific account—is not a twenty-first century invention; the church has always read it allegorically (regardless what they thought of it as literal history). In other words, no one is “reinterpreting” Genesis for the modern era; this is the way theologians have always read it. It was always valued far beyond its historical value. To this, Dawkins said,
But I don’t understand why you really bother, because when you think back to who wrote Genesis, they were not… there was no reason to think that they possessed any particular wisdom or knowledge. Why would you want to waste your time reinterpreting Genesis to make sense of it in the twenty-first century? Why not just stick to twenty-first century science?
Williams said, “If I want to answer twenty-first century scientific questions, then I stick to twenty-first century science. If I want to understand my moral and spiritual position in the universe, then I reserve the right go back to Genesis.” Dawkins asked again, before the moderator cut him off and moved on, “How does it help” to place any value on the biblical account?
Unless Dawkins were being disingenuous, he misunderstood Williams’s point: science can answer scientific questions perfectly well, but there are other, even more interesting questions that the Bible answers. Science, by definition, is unequipped to answer those questions. If the God of Christianity were true, however, then the Bible, not science, would be a fitting place to look for answers.
What stubborn sort of scientism fails to get this? Or fails to imagine these other questions to begin with? Or acts as if they’re irrelevant or uninteresting? Maybe Dawkins is a good writer based on his pre-God Delusion work (I wouldn’t know), but he’s no poet. Believe or disbelieve in God all you want. But don’t imagine that the deepest longings of human beings are easily satisfied by saying, “It’s all a cosmic accident. What’s the big deal?”
Is this anything other than a spectacular failure of imagination—not to mention human empathy—on Dawkins’s part? I’m giving him more credit than his plain words deserve, but I can’t believe that Dawkins is that shallow. Is he?