One more word on Dawkins-Williams

March 7, 2012

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?

4 Responses to “One more word on Dawkins-Williams”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    See, here is the significant difficulty. If once we give way to looking at sections of the Bible as “merely” allegorical, we get into serious trouble. For one reason, where does it end? What about dividing the Red Sea so the Israelites could pass through on dry ground? That hardly seems “scientifically” possible. Are we to doubt the historicity of the Exodus and imagine that the “story” is there to tell us how God looks upon the plight of oppressed peoples and delivers them from their difficulties?

    In fact, the Bible is chock full of “impossibilities” from a “scientific” framework (meaning, an ATHESTIC scientific framework, which rules out the option of God “intervening” by “definition”) from beginning to end. Conversely, likewise by definition, an intervention by the divine is an “intersection” between the supernatural and the natural, thereby highly like to cause the “natural” to do things it would it would otherwise never do. Hence, a “miracle.”

    Jesus “rose from the dead.” He is going to “take us to heaven.” Surely those are “impossibilities” as well from a “scientific” standpoint. But those are the heart of the gospel. We can’t reduce them to “allegories” to make some “theological point,” and have anything left except “vain philosophy.”

    So, in my opinion, we don’t need to let “scientists” tell us what happened to “start the universe” or how it “developed.” Since those guys begin with false assumptions “from the beginning,” I see no reason to entrust myself to them as to such fundamental truths.

    The reason Adam and Eve are so compelling is not because that is such a good “story,” but because that is actually how man came to be and how he fell. Similarly with the Exodus. Etc. That is how God “actually acted,” which in turn tells us great truths about himself and us. He did not (and the scripture writers did not) “make up stories” to make points. They told it how it is, and we learn accordingly.

    • brentwhite Says:

      As you know, Tom, I don’t share your fear that if we give one thing up, we have to necessarily give everything up—as if the truth of scripture were a house of cards. For one thing, Christianity is true not because the Bible says so, but because these actual historical events, including the resurrection of Jesus, occurred. God broke into time and space and did these things, and here’s what it means.

      We know what the Adam and Eve narrative means. We get the point, as summarized by Williams. Whether it happened “just like this” is of secondary concern. But I agree with you that the biblical writers are not making the story up from whole cloth. It’s rooted in history. But its main point is theological.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, I agree with, “Christianity is true not because the Bible says so, but because these actual historical events, including the resurrection of Jesus, occurred.” There remain two problems, however.

        First, to a very substantial degree, practically all we know about the “actual historical events” we get from the Bible. So, we do have to be extremely careful when we “second-guess” the historicity of specific accounts, as that is the source of the knowledge of the “historical events” in the first instance.

        Second, why second-guess in the first place? Isn’t that far and away because “science says otherwise”? So, I say that this is not a valid objection to the accounts in general (given that all the miraculous accounts are “contrary to science”), so why should we be so willing to accept that objection when it comes to Genesis 1-3?

        I don’t think that is necessary because I don’t believe science (true science) actually does “disprove” the historicity of those particular “stories.” Won’t go into a long discussion of why–too much to do here and I don’t want to overstep my bounds on your blog.

  2. Christian Hall Says:

    This is worth its own blog post so you can keep the discussion going!

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