Spring 2007

Religion and Spirituality

The God Confusion

John Meakin

Richard Dawkins has stirred up a theological storm. His 2006 book, The God Delusion, severely criticizes any belief in a personal, all-powerful God and vigorously promotes atheism as the philosophy of choice: only science can provide viable answers to life’s questions. To Dawkins and his atheistic colleagues, religion and belief in God amount to a delusion on the grandest scale. Could they be right? 

John Lennon, in his iconic song “Imagine,” invited us to dream about a world devoid of nationalism, war, greed, hunger and religion. If only these aspects of human life could be removed, Lennon mused, we might experience a world in which a true brotherhood of man could live as one and be at peace, “sharing all the world” and “living for today.”

Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace . . .” 

John Lennon, Imagine

It’s a tantalizing notion, one that occupies the fertile minds of atheists as they argue against the existence of God and the value of religion. But while headline-grabbing titles from prominent atheists are hitting the bookshelves, exponents of belief in God, especially from among the ranks of scientists, have been just as vigorous and prolific in exposing what they view as the atheists’ vapid arguments (see our review of one such book: Owen Gingerich’s God’s Universe). Although the debate is often framed as “science versus religion,” this is misleading. It isn’t even scientists versus theologians. It is more about atheistic scientists expressing their antireligious beliefs openly and stridently, with theistic scientists being just as vocal in defense of their faith.

In the vanguard of public expression against religion is Richard Dawkins, a prominent Darwinian apologist and arguably the most militant and articulate of atheists. Known for his eloquence and lucidity, Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is clever and erudite, and there are few more talented science writers today, especially in the field of evolutionary biology. But his critics complain that this time he has strayed beyond his area of expertise and that his metaphysical conclusions go far beyond scientific evidence.

There is no doubt that the professor’s ninth major book marks a departure from his usual subject. It also marks a significant shift in tone. Although he has always entertained strident views against God and religion, in this volume he delights in marshaling every argument he can to express his outrage and disgust at all things religious. It has become his obsession, almost his raison d’être.

Capitalizing on his high media profile, Dawkins uses his books, articles and Web site to rally support for what amounts to a revolution. Having shared in Lennon’s imagining, he fondly hopes that closet atheists everywhere will openly declare themselves and together garner respect for the atheist’s creed. He wants religionists to see what he views as the illogical and erroneous nature of their beliefs, abandon them, and embrace the “healthy” and independent mind of the atheist. Because he sees religion as little more than an infectious virus that spreads like a plague and is passed down from one generation to the next, he passionately wants to liberate children from religious instruction by parents, teachers and clerics.

Atheism: Savior of the World?

Certain religious beliefs have unarguably led to violence, persecution and war. Looked at historically, contradictions between beliefs have made it easy to conclude that some must be erroneous and that adherents have to one degree or another been deluded. But the potential for religious conflict in today’s world has an added dimension: now the very survival of our planet and its civilization is at stake. The nuclear genie has jumped right out of the bottle, with increasing numbers of nations able to deploy nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Dawkins warns that if followers of militant religious or nationalist ideologies press for their superiority, the world could well be plunged into a fateful conflagration from which it might not recover.

The professor may be convinced of the logic of his attack on religion, but any attack invariably provokes a reaction. And the stronger the attack, the greater the reaction may be. Dawkins is unlikely to make a significant dent in strongly held religious beliefs, of whatever persuasion. On the contrary, his battle cry could lead to fundamentalist Jews, Christians and Muslims, for example, digging in their heels—and thus to greater mutual intolerance.

The underlying theme in Dawkins’s thinking is that if we could only banish religion and belief in God, the world would be a happier and more peaceful place. “Let atheism rule, and watch civilization flower and blossom as never before” seems to be his mantra and creed. Yet such an outcome is by no means certain. Did the atheistic regimes that so disfigured the 20th century produce the happiness and peace humans desire?

Let’s not forget that even without God and religion, we would (according to Darwin/Dawkins) still possess a competitive human nature molded by natural selection and survival of the fittest. Dawkins acknowledges that the effects of this heritage can be pretty unpleasant, so he erects a convenient theory: humans can transcend their brutal legacy. But by what contriving of Darwinian theory can he suggest that humans have the ability to reverse the very evolutionary forces that created them in the first place? Or that humans can become sufficiently altruistic, peaceful, loving and cooperative to save the planet and prevent their own destruction as a species?

People from both the atheistic and religious perspective have acted in their own ideological self-interest, determining for themselves what is right and what is wrong. It is the conflict that results from this inbuilt tendency that is the cause of our problems. Coming to grips with this central issue and how it can be resolved goes deeper than the rather facile debate between atheism and religion. Because of human nature, the atheistic and the religious worldviews have produced both good and evil.

True Religion?

Because so many religions can be shown to be inadequate or built on falsehoods, must it logically follow that all religion should be abandoned? Dawkins is right to berate traditional Christianity for “the airy nonchalance with which [they] make up the details as they go along. It is just shamelessly invented.” Indeed, many Christian beliefs and practices cannot be found in the Bible, and some even run counter to it. But Dawkins’s alternative—materialistic atheism—falls far short of being a viable alternative. It is a logical fallacy that if one option is provably wrong, the proposed alternative must be right.

Dawkins fails to discern that there could be such a thing as good religion. Returning to the pristine beliefs and values set out in the Bible just might reveal a religion worthy of the name. As defined by the Bible, true religion is embodied in the excellence of our characters, by the way we live before God, and by how we treat others, not just by what we believe.

Yet Dawkins rejects the prescriptive ideas of a God who presumes to tell us how we should live. He takes pride not only in his atheism but in his science, in his logical, scientific mind, and in the ideas of his hero, Charles Darwin. Through the remarkable advances of science, together with its potential to discover ever more, he believes we have a far more viable and satisfactory explanation of life and the cosmos than religion can ever provide. Indeed, Dawkins considers the ideas of religion to be an insult to his intelligence: as he sees it, they fly in the face of proven scientific fact.

Take the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible as a preeminent example. Millions of Christians and others steadfastly believe that God created the heavens and the earth some 6,000 years ago. But whatever else Genesis 1 might be, it was not intended to be a scientific account of the beginning of life. Moses, who wrote the first five books of the Bible some 2,500 years after the time of Adam, was not a scientist. Yet many today perceive that first chapter to be hard science. The result is to bring their religion into disrepute and into unnecessary conflict with science. The studies of cosmology, geology and paleontology proclaim a far older earth. Even the presence of oxygen and carbon-based life forms necessitates a much older universe than many a religionist can accept. But none of this is incompatible with a careful reading of the Bible.

Darwin’s Fallible Theories

At the heart of Dawkins’s argument against God is his own faith in Darwin’s theory. If all life evolves from the simple to the complex, he asks, how could a Designer of infinite complexity exist in the beginning? To be Creator of the complexities of nature we see around us, God Himself would need to be even more complex. Dawkins can conceive of no scientific answer to who brought such a God into existence. To him this is unscientific and illogical.

But what if Darwin’s theory is wrong in important respects? Where would that leave Dawkins? All scientific theories are open to question, and even the most convincing are sometimes overturned by further research and investigation. Take Darwin’s ideas regarding sexual selection: these have been extended and developed to become an all-encompassing biological theory for gender roles, yet some highly regarded biologists believe they are seriously in error (though this is rarely acknowledged).

Darwin’s concepts, however persuasive, are those of a fallible theorist who scientists themselves admit did not get things wholly right. To suggest that his ideas categorically eliminate the need for a creator—God—is neither rational nor logical. Though it is popularly presumed by the theory, such a conclusion does not arise from the evidence.

Darwin had little convincing to say of life’s origins, and Dawkins acknowledges that the exceedingly unlikely needle-in-the-haystack event that brought about life “is a completely different case” than the evolution of life. Nevertheless, he manages to fit the arrival of life into the evolutionary scheme. For example, he repeats an argument from his 1986 book, The Blind Watchmaker, theorizing that if there are between one billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy and 100 billion galaxies in our universe, this might yield some billion billion planets that could sustain life. Therefore a one-in-a-billion chance of life being spontaneously generated could potentially result in one billion planets supporting life.

On the other hand, could life have arisen from the creative power of a supernatural God? Such an eventuality cannot be excluded. After all, science has yet to demonstrate that any life can arise from nonlife. Isn’t the idea of God being responsible for the spark of life more logical and satisfying than the “staggeringly improbable event” of life arising by chance? To categorically deny that a supernatural God intended and allowed things to be just so goes far beyond the realm of science. In this respect, Dawkins’s rhetoric must be seen as extreme and personal, and it is by no means shared by all philosophers and scientists.

Strangely, though his deeply held conviction is that there is no God, even Dawkins feels obliged to leave the door open just a crack. Perhaps this is why one of his chapters bears the slightly less dogmatic title, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God” (emphasis added).

Further, if God is the ultimate creator of all that exists (including Darwin and Dawkins!), then why should His existence be a matter for their theorizing? Some scientists have noted that our universe appears to be fine-tuned for the emergence and continuation of life as we know it and functions according to the most intricate natural law and mathematical certainty (the so-called anthropic principle). Why is the universe out there at all? Does it have purpose? For what reason do we live in time and space, dimensions governed by discoverable law?

Why should it be illogical or wrong to believe that God lies behind all this? Just because science cannot weigh and measure God does not mean that God does not exist. Science, after all, restricts itself to the physical and observable and is thus prevented from wider enquiry. If God exists outside the physical realm, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence.

Dawkins and Faith

To Dawkins, the entirety of religious thinking lacks validity. In his view, any expression of faith is dangerous, a pernicious evil, a mindless brainwashing that does immense damage, especially when implanted in the defenseless and impressionable minds of children. (See “Should Children Be Taught Faith?”) 

The problem here is that Dawkins’s perspective on religious faith is actually a distortion of what true faith is all about. His description is itself opinionated, narrow and dangerous, and at variance with the biblical description.

While Dawkins won’t allow faith in God because he can’t quite wrap his mind around such an unscientific concept, he does encourage fathomless faith in scientific endeavor as the font of all learning and the eventual source of all the important answers. He himself expresses a remarkable faith in the ideas of Darwin. Yet aspects of his hero’s theory remain unproven. Indeed, some have been abandoned and others may yet be found erroneous.

There’s no doubt that The God Delusion provides much food for thought. The professor makes valid criticisms of some cherished nonbiblical religious beliefs, exposing them as inadequate and inconsistent. For example, he says, teachings about the Trinity, a deified Mary (“a goddess in all but name”), and a “pantheon … swollen by an army of saints” push orthodox Christianity’s “recurrent flirtation with polytheism towards runaway inflation.” Believers might benefit from learning that significant aspects of religion do indeed turn out to be man-made, lacking biblical support and therefore credibility.

Even revisiting John Lennon’s well-known lyrics, “Imagine there’s no heaven … no hell below us, above us only sky,” produces some surprises from a biblical point of view. There is no support for the idea of heaven as the destination of the saved, nor of an ever-burning hellfire in which the unsaved are eternally punished. Both are examples of human distortions that have caused no end of trouble and trauma.

But Dawkins’s atheistic faith is also strikingly inadequate. In this case, one kind of faith is not superior to the other; there are flaws on both sides. The crux is this: the humanly caused shortcomings of religion no more invalidate God than bad science invalidates all science.

Where the conclusions of science are true, there need be no conflict with genuine, biblical faith. Despite Dawkins’s view to the contrary, not all religions and concepts of God are of equal merit. From a biblical perspective, what is important is to discern the good from the bad in everything so as to align our thinking with that of a Supreme Being who is revealed in the Bible as a God of infinite love, whose greatest desire is that humanity one day share His divine existence. Misrepresentations of what the Bible says have led some to reject its message. Such a rejection is unwise without examining firsthand its evidentiary accounts for the existence of God and of a true religion worthy of following.

If God truly exists and the Bible is His inspired Word, as it says it is, then faith can open up a dramatically different perspective on life and on the future: a richness, a sense of purpose and destiny, the prospect of an infinitely better and more peaceful world, a limitless and remarkable future.

Vision is devoted to exploring the meaning of genuine faith as taught by the Bible, whose truths are often at odds with prevailing religious notions. We reject Dawkins’s passionate opposition to God, though we share his dismay at the all-too-obvious shortcomings of so much that passes for religion. That’s why in every issue we continue to explore a truly biblical perspective on life.