Dawkins and the God Question

Last night Professor Richard Dawkins kicked off the Australian leg of his Science in the Soul tour here in Perth. I secured my tickets as soon as I knew he was coming. As someone whose education since high school has been in the humanities and not the sciences, I was looking forward to hearing from a teacher of science as well-versed and eloquent as Dawkins.

It was fun to see Dawkins in person. And John Safran was an inspired host after Lawrence Krauss had to withdraw. Dawkins was, as ever, engaging and erudite. The night had something of a greatest hits tour vibe to it. I’ve read The God Delusion more than once and heard Dawkins many times in podcasts and on YouTube. I didn’t hear anything I had not already heard. I assume the same was true for most in the audience. The palpable enthusiasm of the crowd came more from a desire to pay homage to a honoured teacher and not because anyone was learning anything they didn’t already know.

Given the title (Science in the Soul) I was a little surprised how much the night was about atheism and religion and how little it was about science. Never mind. I can always buy the book. God, I guess, is just too interesting to ignore.

I was a little surprised how much the night was about atheism and religion and how little it was about science. God, I guess, is just too interesting to ignore.

Our church recently surveyed people from within and without as to the most pressing questions they’d like to ask Christians. We received a rich pot pourri of responses—the existence of aliens, the Christian understanding of gender, the failures of the Church, will my dog be in heaven and so forth. However, the number one question was surprising in that it was surprisingly classical—Does God exist and how would you know?

The question reflects the shift of onus that comes with cultural change. If we’d been born 200 years ago, nearly all of us would have believed in God. We may or may not have been particularly religious. Our attendance at church or synagogue may have been patchy. But we would have thought that God existed.

As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has demonstrated, this belief would not likely have been the result of a particularly rigorous investigation of evidence or arguments for God. It just would have seemed obvious. Everybody around us believed and that made it easy.

This social aspect of belief is often produced as evidence against religion. But it’s true both ways. Secularism today is sustained much as religious belief once was—by a vast network of reinforcing practices, cultural narratives and belief-conditions that make the views we hold feel self-evident and simply the way things are.

Which God?

Dawkins treated us to a satirical reading from his Science in the Soul book. In the passage, Dawkins substitutes belief in God for belief in Thor, thus demonstrating how absurd the claims of theologians and believers look when applied to a god in which they do not believe. It was amusing. As a parlour game, it works well. As a serious argument it does not.

In 2016 the theologian David Bentley Hart published his brilliant, grumpy book, The Experience of God because he was frustrated precisely by this sort of thing.

Historically, Hart demonstrates, humans have believed in gods—powerful, non-human, personal agents active in our world. Even in secular Australia the average citizen could generate a list of dozens of such gods—Thor, Zeus, Neptune; Baal, Marduk, Ra; Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Our language is littered with memory of their existence and worship. Thursday is Thor’s day. Wednesday is Woden’s day and so on.

These gods no longer receive our prayers or command our loyalties: victims of their own lack of evidence, or the forgetfulness and impiety of their worshippers. And atheists like Dawkins see themselves as simply continuing the tradition—doing to Allah, HaShem or Jesus Christ what has already been done to all those other gods.

But, as Hart points out, this isn’t what Christians (or, for that matter Aristotle, Maimonides, Avicenna, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Keith Ward or any serious theist) means by the word “God.” “God” isn’t on the list of stuff that exists. He’s the ground and source of all existence.

For Christians,“God” isn’t on the list of stuff that exists. He’s the ground and source of all existence.

Consider Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Hamlet there is Claudius, Hamlet, Polinius and Horatio. There is Gertrude and Ophelia. There are the more obscure characters of Rosencrantz, and Francisco, whom you’ve perhaps forgotten. If someone mentioned them you might even doubt or disbelieve they were in the play.

But would you find Shakespeare in Hamlet? No. You could search the text for Francisco and Horatio and find them there. But not Shakespeare. Shakespeare isn’t in the play because he’s its author—the one through whom it exists. Substituting “Thor” for “God” is like substituting “Ophelia” for “Shakespeare” in a book of literary criticism and then laughing at that book’s claims about Ophelia’s literary achievements. Fun. But also silly.

Evidence for God

None of this excludes reason and evidence for God, but it shapes what sort of evidence we are looking for. If it’s God we are looking for, we don’t expect to find him hiding behind a parked car, or quietly taking the bus home from work. He won’t be known in anything like the manner in which Thor might be known.

You might not find the classical arguments for God compelling. People much smarter than me have found in them an extremely powerful case for God. Hart for one sees the force of such arguments as sweeping all before them. In light of their power, naturalistic materialism finds itself hopelessly outgunned. Hart says:

But, in fact, materialism is among the most problematic of philosophical standpoints, the most impoverished in its explanatory range, and among the most wilful and (for want of a better word) magical in its logic, even if it has been in fashion for a couple of centuries or more.

For myself, I’m just not smart enough to feel their weight so completely. The problem is no doubt with me, not the arguments. Perhaps if I understood their nuances better I would.

I came to my beliefs in God through the Christian claim that God, in Jesus Christ, has “written himself into the play”. The ground and source of all being has entered into our existence through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is Christianity’s distinctive claim. And it is through the person of Jesus, rather than arguments, that Christian believers find their way to God.

I came to my beliefs in God through the Christian claim that God, in Jesus Christ, has “written himself into the play”. The ground and source of all being has entered into our existence through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Having believed, I subsequently explored the arguments for God’s existence. I find the reasoning suggestive, interesting, and coherent. As New York pastor Tim Keller describes them, they are “clues for God”. If they are not quite reasons demanding assent, they are at least a basis on which belief in God is reasonable. Which is as much as I was after.

Reason and Other Reasons

For the truth is that very few of us come to believe in God via the route of pure reason. The path to belief is mostly intuitive, traditional-shaped, and personal. Even for the most rigorously intellectual seeker it is at least mixed.

Just the other week, I had a meeting with a solicitor. He was helping me to complete a form, and we came to the section that asked for one’s occupation. As a Christian pastor, I have long known the revelation of my occupation is able to fell a conversation with a single blow. I often hesitate at the question, not out of embarrassment, but as a simple reflex, having witnessed a conversation needlessly die one too many times.

This time, however, the solicitor stopped, put down his pen and looked directly at me for the first time in our meeting.

“Mate,” he said, “I’m just going to say something to you. One year ago, I had a stroke when I was riding my bike. I should have died, but I just happened to be near a hospital when I fell and I’m here today.”

The man went on to describe a series of coincidences that together felt suspiciously like someone was watching over him. He concluded, “Ever since, I’ve felt like I owe someone thanks for what happened that day.” And with that we were back to the form at hand.

At the end of our time I said, “You’d done your job very well. Let me do my job for a minute and say I think you’re onto something. Keep following that instinct. I think there is Someone out there you do need to thank.”

It is an experience repeated a thousand times a day—a meal, a kiss, a sunset, a small grace. The experience of love, or guilt, or bringing a child into the world. And we think, ‘maybe there is something more?’ I believe that reason presents only encouragement to say, ‘follow that lead.’

Now, the experience of the solicitor is susceptible to all sorts of explanations that need not invoke “God”. But it is an experience repeated a thousand times a day—a meal, a kiss, a sunset, a small grace. The experience of love, or guilt, or bringing a child into the world. And we think, “maybe there is something more?” Even if these experiences are more personal and aesthetic than strictly reasonable, I believe that reason presents only encouragement to say, “follow that lead.”

I appreciated hearing Richard Dawkins last night. I enjoyed a secret frisson of pleasure at his and John Safran’s take-downs of some of the more absurd aspects of religion. I wished there was more of the wonder of science on display. And I enjoyed some awkward gear changes in the post-show conversations when people asked me, “So, what do you do?” (Someone asked me with a concerned look whether I found it “confronting.” Nah.)

Before bed I said a little prayer of thanks to the God who gave us science and modern travel. I said another polite but earnest prayer for the soul of Richard Dawkins. And, to be honest, I also said a pray for people in the audience who have seen “clues for God” in their life and experience. I prayed they wouldn’t be distracted by all the bombast and will continue to follow those clues, undiscouraged by the thought that they must do so in a corner, beyond reason’s light.

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