Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

David Berlinski on evolution and the pretensions of scientific atheism

December 21, 2013

devils_delusionYesterday, I read The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. It’s a polemical, savagely funny response to the new atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al., whose unlikely author is himself an agnostic and secular Jew. Why did he, of all people, write a book mostly for Christians like me? Because he noticed that no one else had written it! One’s soul can only withstand so much indignation, after all.

The book clarified my thinking on several ideas I’ve blogged about in the past, including Dawkins’s argument against God, necessary versus contingent things, the mulitverse (or “Landscape”), the universe’s apparent fine-tuning, and attempts by Stephen Hawking and others to explain it away using quantum cosmology. Of the latter he writes the following (which gives you a sense of his writing style):

The details may be found in Hawking’s best-selling A Brief History of Time, a book that was widely considered fascinating by those who did not read it, and incomprehensible by those who did. Their work will seem remarkably familiar to readers who grasp the principle behind pyramid schemes or magical acts in which women disappear into a box only to emerge as tigers shortly thereafter.[1]

After describing the work Hawking did to explain the origin of our universe, Berlinski says that the universe that Hawking found is, unsurprisingly, just the universe Hawking assumed he would find. “If what Hawking described is not quite a circle in thought, it does appear to suggest an oblate spheroid. ¶ The result is guaranteed—one hunnerd percent, as used-car salesmen say.[2]

Berlinski continually highlights the same problem with these guys that I’ve highlighted a few times on this blog. Even if what they say is true (which he doesn’t believe for a moment), they haven’t answered the question, “Why something and not nothing.”

That’s all well and good… What I wasn’t prepared for in this book was his frontal assault on something that I never talk about on this blog: evolution.

In part, I don’t talk about it because I don’t understand it. No one I know understands it. I mean, we may remember some things from our tenth-grade biology textbook, but nothing that would pass muster these days. When the average person says he believes in evolution, all he’s really saying is that he takes on faith that really smart people haven’t misled them on the subject. And none of us wants to appear to be stupid.

Or sometimes when people say they believe in evolution, they’re saying something about a God they no longer believe in, or a church whose doctrines they’ve long since abandoned.

Even before reading this book, I’ve wondered why it’s necessary to talk about “believing in” evolution in the first place? Either it happens or it doesn’t, like any other phenomenon in the realm of science. Why use religious language to describe one’s assent to its “doctrines.”

Berlinski has an idea: because the theory makes little sense, and it’s supported by little evidence.

If the facts are what they are, the past is what it is—profoundly enigmatic. The fossil record may be used to justify virtually any position, and often is. There are long eras in which nothing happens. The fire alarms of change then go off in the night. A detailed and continuous record of transition between species is missing, those neat sedimentary layers, as Gould noted time and again, never revealing precisely the phenomena that Darwin proposed to explain. It is hardly a matter on which paleontologists have been reticent. At the very beginning of his treatise Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, Robert Carroll observes quite correctly that “most of the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic account” of evolution. A “strictly gradualistic” account is precisely what Darwin’s theory demands: It is the heart and soul of the theory.

By the same token, there are no laboratory demonstrations of speciation either, millions of fruit flies coming and going while never once suggesting that they were destined to appear as anything other than fruit flies… If species have an essential nature that beyond limits cannot change, then random variations and natural selection cannot change them. We must look elsewhere for an account that does justice to their nature or to the facts.[3]

Berlinski also argues that computer simulations of Darwinian evolution fail “when they are honest and succeed when they are not.” When the results of one such simulation came in, a reporter for the New York Times wrote, “with solemn incomprehension, ‘the creatures mutated but showed only modest increases in complexity.’ Which is to say, they showed nothing of interest at all. This is natural selection at work but it is hardly work that has worked to intended effect… What these computer experiments do reveal is a principle far more penetrating than any that Darwin ever offered: ¶ There is a sucker born every minute.”[4]

In a recent paper published by an evolutionary biologist named Joel Kingsolver, the author said, “Important issues about selection remain unresolved.” “Of those important issues,” Berlinski writes, “I would mention prominently the question whether natural selection exists at all.”

Finally, I had a laugh at this:

Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid.[5]

1. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 98.

2. Ibid., 106.

3. Ibid., 188-9.

4. Ibid., 190.

5. Ibid., 191.

Why is Christianity so complicated?

July 3, 2013

Not to pick on the New Atheists—it seems as if their moment onstage has already come and gone—but I remember Richard Dawkins explaining in The God Delusion why he doesn’t bother learning Christian theology. He said it’s because it’s just so darn complex, and it doesn’t need to be. The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in—and therefore the only God who could ever exist—is the sleepy, indulgent grandfatherly type—the old man with the long, gray beard, way up in the sky.

Christian theology, by contrast, makes God so elusive, so mysterious, so hard to pin-down. Why?

If Christianity were true, it wouldn’t need to be so complicated. Dawkins suspects that we have to make theology this way so it can stay a step ahead of the latest scientific breakthrough, which, as far as he’s concerned, always represents another nail in the coffin of faith.

Not so, says C.S. Lewis. Reality is always more complicated than our intuition suggests. He uses an analogy that Dawkins would appreciate: quantum physics.

Men believed in atoms centuries before they had any experimental evidence of their existence. It was apparently natural to do so. And the  sort of atoms we naturally believe in are little hard pellets—just like the hard substances we meet in experience, but too small to see… The real atoms turn out to be quite alien from our  natural mode of thought. They are not even made of hard ‘stuff’ or ‘matter’ (as the imagination understands ‘matter’) at all: they are not simple, but have a structure: they are not all the same: and they are unpicturable.[1]

Our original, natural guess about atoms wasn’t utterly wrong, he writes, but it needed serious correction. “The first shock of the objects’ real nature, breaking in on our spontaneous dreams of what that object ought to be,” always has the characteristics of being “hard, complex, dry and repellent” when compared to our first guess.

In this way, he writes, popular or “natural” religion, which from Lewis’s point of view always veers toward Pantheism, scorns Christianity for the “pedantic complexity of our ‘cold Christs and tangled Trinities’…

To the large well-meant statements of ‘religion’ [Christianity] finds itself forced to reply again and again, ‘Well, not quite like that,’ or ‘I should hardly put it that way’. This troublesomeness does not of course prove it to be true; but if it were true it would be bound to have this troublesomeness. The real musician is similarly troublesome to a man who wishes to indulge in untaught ‘musical appreciation’; the real historian is similarly a nuisance when we want to romance about ‘the old days’ or ‘the ancient Greeks and Romans’. The ascertained nature of any real thing is always at first a nuisance to our natural fantasies—a wretched, pedantic, logic-chopping intruder upon a conversation which was getting on famously without it.[2]

1.C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 134.

2. Ibid., 136-7.

Sermon 03-31-13: Easter 2013

April 8, 2013
This picture, taken during my trip to the Holy Land in 2011, reminds me of Peter's "stooping and looking in" in Luke 24:12.

This picture, taken during my trip to the Holy Land in 2011, reminds me of Peter’s “stooping and looking in” in Luke 24:12.

Happy Easter! Sorry this is late. My family and I just returned from our spring break trip in Florida. Yesterday, I left Vinebranch in the very capable hands of my friend John Alan Turner.

At first blush, the angels’ question to the women at the tomb seems a little silly: “Why do you search for the living among the dead?” “Because Jesus is dead,” the women might have responded. “We watched the Romans kill him, and the Romans are nothing if not experts at killing people!” Contrary to modern myth, people in the first century knew as well as we do that when people die, they stay dead. It’s no wonder they had a hard time believing in the resurrection at first. So if you struggle to believe in it, you’re in good company! You’re starting in the same place as people who would later lay down their lives because they believed in it so strongly.

If you already believe it, however, this sermon will challenge you to consider what it means for our lives and world today.

Sermon Text: Luke 24:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Nearly everything I learned about working with people—or didn’t learn but should have—I learned from my experience working in sales for a large telecommunications company. My friend and mentor was a man named Don. Don worked on a large national account with a partner, Allen. The account was an important client that would soon be spending millions on new communications equipment—either with our company or with a competitor. In an effort to close the deal, Don and Allen invited their customers on a lavish business trip. And they wined and dined them, treated them like royalty, pulled out all the stops, spared no expense.

And that was exactly the problem, you see: they spared no expense. And when they returned from their trip, and our boss, Eddie, saw their expense report, he was furious. First, he called Don into his office and chewed Don out. And all Don said in response was, “You’re right. I’m sorry. It will never happen again.” After coming out of Eddie’s office, Don told me, “I better go warn Allen.” Allen, you see, was a little more hot-tempered than Don. Don knew that Allen’s tendency was to argue back—and Eddie was in no mood for arguing today. So Don said to him, “Allen, no matter what Eddie says to you, you just need to agree with him and apologize profusely. I’m serious, Allen. Don’t try to argue. Don’t try to defend. Don’t try to justify. Just say, ‘Yes, sir. You’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.’ Otherwise, you’re going to get in trouble.” Read the rest of this entry »

“We live out our days on Holy Saturday”

March 29, 2013

As I’ve reflected this week on the meaning of resurrection and Christian hope, I’ve been deeply moved by this essay by Philip Yancey in this month’s Christianity Today. As the author of a famous book called Where Is God When It Hurts? Yancey says he often gets called to speak to groups who are struggling with questions of faith in the midst of suffering. Most recently, he spoke to people in Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.

As I pondered what to say to the sorrow-drenched community, I felt my faith strangely affirmed, not shattered. Trust me, I know well the nagging questions about a good and powerful God that crop up when suffering strikes, and my writing attempts to address those questions. With Newtown, though, I was drawn back to Bishop Desmond Tutu’s writings on his experience in South Africa. As head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he braced himself for a test of his theology, in part because “good Christians” had carried out so many of the crimes in his country…

Yet after two years of listening to such horrific accounts, Bishop Tutu came away with his faith strengthened. The hearings convinced him that perpetrators are morally accountable, that good and evil are real and that they matter. Despite the relentless accounts of inhumanity, Tutu emerged from the hearings with this conviction: “For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.” As if by negative image, the events at Sandy Hook also affirmed Tutu’s experience.

As a “theological counterpoint,” he said he’d been reading atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, who believes that the universe has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

“Is that what you’ve seen here?” he asked his audience.

As I stood before the group gathered Friday night, Dawkins’s description rang all the more hollow. “I don’t think that’s what you’ve seen,” I said. “I have felt an outpouring of grief, compassion, and generosity—not blind, pitiless indifference. I’ve seen acts of selflessness, not selfishness: in the school staff who sacrificed their lives to save children, in the sympathetic response of a community and a nation. I’ve seen a deep belief that the people who died mattered, that something of inestimable worth was snuffed out on December 14.”…

Tragedy rightly calls faith into question, but it also affirms faith. It is good news that we are not the random byproducts of a meaningless universe, but rather creations of a loving God who wants to live with us forever. That “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” in order to reconcile with his rebellious creation. That by entering our world, the Son took on our sufferings and temptations, demonstrating in person that nothing—not even death—can separate us from the love of God.

But is the world—even a restored, redeemed, and renewed world in God’s future kingdom—”worth the pain that it encompasses?” Yancey asks.

After talking to parents in Newtown who lost a son or daughter, I have a clue to the answer. If you ask them—”The six or seven years you had with your child, were they worth the pain you feel now?”—you will hear a decisive “Yes.” As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote after the death of a young friend, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Perhaps God feels the same way about us, his fallen creation.

This is a profoundly good point.

Near the end of the essay, Yancey offers a three-part answer to the question, “Where is God when it hurts?” Part of the answer, he says, comes from the holiday we celebrate today, Good Friday, when Christ absorbed all evil and suffering in his own person.

Though God has dealt them a death blow through his death and resurrection, evil and suffering continue for now. It’s as if Creation itself were living on Holy Saturday:

Holy Week offers the template. On Good Friday Jesus absorbed the worst of what Earth has to offer, a convergence of evil and death in an event of profound injustice. Easter Sunday gave a sure and certain sign of contradiction, demonstrating that nothing can withstand the healing force of a loving God. We live out our days, though, on Holy Saturday, aware of the redemptive power of suffering while awaiting the restoration power of creation made new.

A good reason to believe in God

January 16, 2013

For a few months now, Scot McKnight has allowed a philosophy professor named Jeff Cook, a Christian, to guest-post on his Jesus Creed blog. Cook’s first series of posts was the Top Ten best reasons not to believe in God. The second series, which finished up today, is the Top Ten best reasons to believe in God. As interested as I am in apologetics, I found most of these reasons to be persuasive (why wouldn’t I, right?), if a bit mind-numbing. Not being a philosopher myself, all those P’s and C’s make my eyes glaze over. I prefer my arguments to be more narrative, if you know what I mean.

Still, even I thought the argument for today’s reason—love and freedom—which ranks #1 on his Top Ten reasons to believe in God, was straightforward and easy to follow. You might think that “love and freedom” are two reasons, but his point is that love is only possible if we are also free. (This should be uncontroversial, except to the most hardened Calvinist!)

Anyway, I’ll excerpt the argument and then add a few words to his.

P1  If materialism is true, love is a chemical reaction in your skull.
P2  Love is not simply a chemical reaction in your skull.
C1  Materialism is false.

Very few of us are able to look at our beloved, at our child, at our comrades and actually believe that our connection to them is *exclusively* chemical activity. Certainly some of it may be. But I would suggest many of us experience something more.

P3  If materialism is true, all our thoughts and actions are determined by the unthinking, non-rational movement of chemicals in our skulls.
P4  If P3, then if materialism is true we have no freedom of thought and action.
P5  We experience freedom of thought and action (we are in fact free of total coercion in both our thinking—what we believe—and our behavior—what we do).
C2  Materialism is false.

We think the human beings around us ought to do certain things (“avoid abusing children” for example) and believe certain things (“other human beings are valuable”). But if materialism is true our beliefs and actions are all determined by the unthinking matter in our skull over which “we” have no control.

He goes on to argue not only against materialism but for God. See the post.

In my view, this is a strong argument. Human freedom is a major problem for the philosophical materialist. Why? Because they live their lives as if freedom and love (and justice and any number of other things) have real meaning. In fact, we all do. We want badly for love and freedom to be real.

As far as I know, we can offer a strictly scientific or materialistic account for why we have the (illusory) experience of love and freedom, but this account is unsatisfying to those of us who aren’t complete nihilists.

And I know the counterargument: So what? We can want love, freedom, justice, beauty, God—and anything else—to be real and objectively meaningful, but our desire, no matter how strong, doesn’t make it so.

And of course that’s true.

But I used to hear the late Christopher Hitchens (and probably Richard Dawkins) talk a lot about “Occam’s razor”—the idea that the simplest explanation is best. So why resort to the “God” hypothesis if the atheistic hypothesis works just fine: Darwinian processes explain everything, so why bother with God?

I disagree that Darwinian processes “explain” everything, for a number of reasons. One thing it doesn’t explain, as Jeff Cook’s post pinpoints, is this desire. Throw the Christian God back in and suddenly that makes sense, too.

Personal incredulity is not an argument

April 26, 2012

A Facebook friend helpfully pointed me to a webpage that reminds us of eleven mistakes of logic that we often make when arguing. As I’m currently preaching a sermon series on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I’m trying my best to avoid them. One fallacy, which I had never heard of before, is “personal incredulity.” Here’s the description:

I’m struck by the fact that he uses evolution as an example. I get his point, but I also note that this same mistake is often made by skeptics and atheists concerning God, theology, and resurrection.

Recently, my friend Mike was watching an online debate between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and the late Christopher Hitchens. I assume this debate was part of Hitchens’s God is Not Great book tour several years ago. (Click here to read about a debate I witnessed live between Hitchens and my Christian ethics prof, Timothy Jackson.)

Mike was impressed with Craig, and why wouldn’t he be? Craig knows all the arguments backwards and forwards, and is well-prepared to take on any comer. (Last year, Craig challenged Dawkins to debate him in England, but Dawkins turned him down. Smart man!) But my friend noticed that Hitchens had zero interest in engaging any of Craig’s arguments. And since Craig is such an earnest fellow, I can’t imagine that he fared well playing Hitchens’s game of scornful derision masked as witty repartee.

My point is, the fallacy of personal incredulity is a primary tactic of our celebrity atheists. Dawkins himself deflects criticism that he knows nothing about Christian theology by talking about fairies and flying spaghetti monsters. Why bother learning anything about theology? he would say. It’s such obvious nonsense.

And so it is with evidence for the resurrection. The attitude of many skeptics is, “It doesn’t matter what you tell me, I’m not going to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s beyond the realm of possibility.” Whatever else happened, we know in advance that that didn’t happen.

One thing I hope to get across in this “Reason to Believe” series is this: If the resurrection of Jesus did happen, then the evidence we have is the precisely the evidence that we should expect. 

What we can know for sure… so far

April 24, 2012

My sermon on Sunday dealt mostly with the “Legend theory,” one of several alternate theories created to explain away the miracle at the center of the Christian faith. I used something Richard Dawkins said in an interview years ago as a springboard for the discussion.

He said that he’s not surprised that Christians claimed that Jesus was resurrected, “After all, these sorts of legends sprang up all the time in the ancient world when a powerful, charismatic leader died.” In other words, the resurrection of Jesus was just another legendary account of someone dying and coming back to life.

So the question is… “Was it?”

No. Not even close. As I argued on Sunday, there are legends of gods and mythic figures dying and coming to life in a spiritual form or heavenly realm. Outside of the Bible, however, there are no clear parallels in the ancient world about a dead person resuming a bodily existence after dying.[†] If Dawkins were right, shouldn’t there be dozens or hundreds of examples?

In fact, even though there were many would-be messiahs in first-century Palestine who had large followings and, like Jesus, died at the hands of their Roman oppressors, only Jesus’ followers ever claimed that their leader was resurrected. Why? One would think that in a Jewish context—from which the concept of “resurrection” emerged in the first place—the disciples of these other would-be messiahs would also claim that their leader was resurrected—if it were so commonplace in the ancient world.

Richard Dawkins really meant to say that ancient people were gullible in a way that we moderns are not. Of course this is nonsense. People in the ancient world knew as well as we do that when people died, they stayed dead.

Besides, legends take time to develop. As I demonstrated on Sunday, we can say with historical certainty that the disciples of Jesus proclaimed from the beginning that Jesus was bodily resurrected. Therefore, for whatever reason—and we’ll look at other possible reasons next week—the disciples began saying that Jesus was resurrected shortly after he died. Maybe they were mistaken, crazy, or lying (we’ll get to that next week), but we know for sure that they claimed resurrection from the beginning.

There is another spin on the “Legend” theory floating out there. It’s less interesting to me than the first, but it goes like this: When the disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, and they (or their followers) wrote it down, they weren’t writing literal history, nor did they intend to be taken literally. They were instead copying their master, who himself used fictitious stories called parables to teach deeper spiritual truths.

If we try to make the resurrection a literal event, we miss the point—just as we would miss the point if we fretted over the location of the inn to which the Good Samaritan took his wounded neighbor.

Never mind that I’m not sure what that deeper point would be. Never mind that the gospels, Acts, and the epistles make the resurrection seem perfectly historical to me. This theory fails on many other levels. It doesn’t explain the passage we looked at on Sunday: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. First, when Paul says in v. 4 that Jesus was raised, we can infer that the tomb was really empty. Otherwise, Jesus’ enemies could have stopped the young Christian movement in its tracks by simply producing Jesus’ rotting corpse.

Also, why were there hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord? If the disciples were creating a legend, why would they make women the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection—since women weren’t credible witnesses in the Greco-Roman world?

Why would the disciples have created a legend involving resurrection? Resurrection was something that Jews believed would happen to everyone at the end of history—when God would finally establish his kingdom on earth and peace and justice would reign. No Jew believed it would happen to one person in the middle of history, especially while the Roman Empire continued to occupy Palestine!

Would devout Jews like Paul and James, the brother of the Lord, risk the fate of their souls by abandoning orthodox Judaism for the sake of an invented story?

Finally, we know for sure that many of the apostles, including Peter, Paul, and James, were martyred for their faith. Would they have given up their lives if they knew the resurrection were merely a non-historical parable? It boggles the mind.

[†] Ancient historian and Bible scholar N.T. Wright treats this issue extensively in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 3-200. For a shorter treatment, see also Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 89-92.

Sermon for 03-04-12: “The E-Word, Part 1”

March 7, 2012

In this two-part sermon series starting today, I talk about a word that makes many Methodists uncomfortable: the E-word… evangelism. Whereas we Methodists distinguish ourselves as Christians who love and serve so many people in our world, we are often reluctant to say “why” we do it. Yet the need to say why has never been greater.

Increasingly, people in our community don’t understand what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. We can be confident, however, that if they knew, many of them would say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In fact, many of them are waiting for people like us to help show them the way.

Sermon Text: John 4:19-39

Last week, at Oxford University, the very famous atheist and bestselling author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, debated Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There weren’t many fireworks in the debate. It was a polite and respectful conversation—which isn’t a surprise given how kind and gentle a man the archbishop is. But something remarkable did happen. Dawkins admitted that he is not actually an atheist. He is merely an agnostic: while he doesn’t think God exists, he’s unwilling to say for sure.

This was a remarkable admission. But what was more remarkable was how Dawkins responded when asked how certain he was that there wasn’t a God—to put a number on it, to give us the odds. He said that, in his opinion, the odds against God’s existence were 6.9 out of 7. Read the rest of this entry »

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?

More on the Dawkins-Williams debate

March 6, 2012

I made reference in Sunday’s sermon to the polite conversation at Oxford between celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Since the only book I’ve read by Dawkins is the execrable God Delusion, I’m not inclined to be as generous toward the man as my friend Kevin Hargaden in this post. Nevertheless, Kevin is such a skillful writer and thinker, he usually gets my attention—as he does here:

In seriousness, Dawkins has won his reputation as a public intellectual on merit. But it comes from the biology work he did in the early 1980′s and not the stuff he has been increasingly consumed with these last two decades. The God Delusion is a truly horrendous book and it rather took the funk out of Dawkins’ reputation. He is just, it seems, another Daniel Dennett with a nicer accent. His atheism is a variety of logical positivism crossed with neo-liberal sociology wrapped up in a paper thin adoration of an unreasonable thing called “Reason“. He is bound in advance to win every engagement on the terms he sets. But he is mute in the face of Capuchins dedicating their life to helping the homeless or local churches rallying around the families left behind after suicide. Such things are merely voluntary acts of random kindness in his world view. He avoided any public engagement with Christians that wasn’t a debate and he avoided any Christians that actually speak for the global church. Hence he seeks out the Haggards and creationist nutters. That way, he avoided Christianity.