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The Dawkins Delusion

"Beast Rabban"


A few years ago the British papers announced that the evangelical atheist and evolutionary scientist, Dr. Richard Dawkins, was, according to a plurality in the polls, the nation's favourite public intellectual. Although now superseded as Britain's intellectual darling, Dawkins nevertheless remains a cult personality, respected for his clear, lucid and elegant exposition of Neo-Darwinian theory. The fact that neo-Darwinism isn't quite as scientifically secure as its proponents would have the rest of us believe, and that Dawkins' own views are an extreme version of it that are by no means accepted by all evolutionary scientists, seems to be of no import to his fans. You can find them coming out of the auditoria at British literary festivals, respectable, bien-pensant middle-class families, eyes wide and faces aglow at having seen the beatific vision of this scientific secular saint, amazed and overjoyed that they had actually seen Richard Dawkins!

Yet Dawkins' writings and utterances on evolution are only part of his notoriety. It's fair to say that he's a fundy atheist with a bitter hatred of theistic religion, and that his passionate promotion of Darwinism is part and parcel of a vehement attack on religion and religious belief. He once told the science writer and Nobel laureate, Peter Medawar -- and said likewise in his seminal work The Blind Watchmaker -- that he didn't believe it was possible to have been an intellectually fulfilled atheist before the advent of Darwinism. Religion, according to Dawkins, is a dangerous 'unthink' that stifles human thought and rationality and creates division, conflict, prejudice and violence.

These are charges you hear regularly directed against religion, and have been repeated so often that they've achieved the status of a kind of folk wisdom. They're so obvious that everyone knows them to be true. The trouble is, although religion unfortunately has been the cause of much violence, it is more often than not only one, and the roots of the type of wars and violence Dawkins' adduces as characteristic of religion are far broader and more complex than his simplistic attitude even begins to recognise (to say nothing of failing to address equitable arguments regarding atrocities and violence under modern atheistic regimes). Far from being the products of the penetrating intellect his fans see in him, his views on religion are the result of his massive ignorance of the subject, and so profoundly wrong that far from disproving religion, they can actually occasionally give those better informed some amusement, unintended, no doubt, by their author.

For example, like many fundy atheists he has an anthropomorphic view of God that most six year olds have grown out of. In one of his speeches he once castigated theists for believing in 'an old man who lives in the sky'. While this is indeed a common image, it is only that: an image. Aside from the rather clear statements made in their own religious texts, the great theologians of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have always argued that God is utterly transcendent and beyond such images - St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in Christianity, and Maimonides in Judaism are only three such great thinkers. Indeed, religious philosophers have rejected the na´ve anthropomorphism of the divine ever since Xenophanes in Ancient Greece wrote: 'There is one god, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortals neither in shape nor in thought.' 1 It's a view entirely in agreement with the Bible's witness that 'God is a Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth'. 2 The image of God as man occurs simply because of its usefulness for finite human beings to understand the transcendent. In the words of the great 12th century rabbi, Eeazar ben Judah of Worms 'If God, who is past all knowing, had not appeared to the prophets as a king on a throne, they would not have known how to pray to Him at all.' 3 This view, that God is so utterly transcendent that all human conceptions of Him are just approximations to His true being and glory go as far back as the Book of Ezekiel, written in the early 6th century BC, where the prophet states that his vision of the Lord was merely 'the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.' 4 The image of God as an 'old man who lives in the sky' is a comforting image, but as a serious conception of God it's been out of favour for about 2,500 years. As with so many of his pronouncements on religion, Dawkins is just a little behind the times.

As for the relationship between science and religion, Western science was the product of devoutly religious men and women honestly seeking the mind of God as expressed in His glorious creation: nature. In doing so, they utilised and perfected powerful philosophical and mathematical tools, the same tools that inform theology. Some of the most powerful and correct insights into the nature of the Cosmos came directly from their theological experience. For example, the great 13th century philosophers argued, against Aristotelian science, that it was possible for a vacuum to exist because this was what they believed occurred during transubstantiation in the mass. At the moment the bread and wine were transformed into Christ's body and blood, their inward natures were destroyed. However, their outward appearance remained, showing that space would still exist even if there were nothing there to fill it. Now the premises for this conclusion may be scientifically shaky and hardly convincing to Protestants, who reject transubstantiation, and today we certainly recognize the chain of logic as nonsensical. However, the conclusion drawn - that vacuums exists - is amply demonstrated. 5 And in spite of the fallacy of how they arrived at the conclusion, this remains an example of how science came out of the idea that the universe was made by a God of order who gave man dominion over it.

The great Roman Catholic scientist and philosopher, Pierre Duhem, considered that science was a truly inclusive endeavour as everyone, regardless of their philosophical, religious or cultural background, could join together in examining the objective world of nature. He was absolutely right: the greatest achievements of the early Islamic scientists amply demonstrate this. Within the Abbasid scientific enterprise, Muslims worked alongside Christians, Jews, Sabians and very early Deists, avant le parole, such as Rhazes, to create a truly awesome and magnificent scientific achievement, which has informed and fructified science and philosophy. 6 Yet Dr. Dawkins' Naturalism would deny such co-operation and penetrating scientific insight was possible among people of such different and genuine religious beliefs.

As for evolution disproving the existence of the God of the Bible, if we wish to take that tack, many would argue that, even if evolution is true, it actually does no such thing. (It would of course, if true, disprove conceptions of special creation and a young earth; but Dawkins is hostile to all theistic expression, so his delusion remains intact at this point.) Christian tradition certainly is not as uniformly hostile to conceptions of evolution as Dawkins apparently believes. Modern creationists have never disputed evolutionary process on what is called the "micro" level (eg, variation within species.) Even earlier, St. Augustine in his work, De Libertate, anticipated this, suggesting that God created the wonders of the natural world by seeing the earth with their potentiality, leaving the creatures to develop freely according to God's will, and (in a passage often used out of context by Skeptics) advised Christians not to use the Book of Genesis to support anything that contradicted reasoned scientific observation, in case pagans used it to laugh at the divine revelation. (Augustine himself taught special creation and a young earth.) The great publicist of evolution in America was John Fiske, whose attitude to evolution was rooted in Christianity: 'The infinite and eternal Power that is manifested in every pulsation of the universe is none other than the living God'. 7 Some went even further, like James M'Cosh, who in his 1888 The Religious Aspect of Evolution saw Natural Selection as operating through the Calvinistic principle of election. 8 Other philosophers, such as the Idealist thinker T.H. Green, recognised that the doctrine of evolution contradicted the old natural theologies, nevertheless believed that it still necessarily pointed to the existence of an eternal God. Otherwise, it would have to be believed that something could arise from nothing, an unintelligible statement that is refuted by the belief that, although something may indeed come into existence from the human point of view, to an eternal consciousness such as God's it will always have existed. 9 Indeed, for Green evolution logically required the existence of a God, as he stated in his 1888 Treatises on Formal Logic. Thus, despite the loud claims to the contrary by philosophical materialists like Ernst Haeckel, and irrespective of whether one takes a young earth view, an old earth view, or anything in between, history gives us clear examples of thinkers that indicate that evolution has never been the instant refutation of theism that Dawkins would like it to be. The point being: Appeal to evolution, indeed, is a non sequitur where arguing against theism of any variety (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) is concerned.

Sources

1. Barnes, J., Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, England, Penguin 1987), p. 95.

2. John 4:24, King James Version. For more on this verse, see J. P. Holding's The Mormon Defenders, Ch. 1. "God is spirit" captures the essence of the message better here than the KJV.

3. 'Eleazar ben Judah of Worms', in Bowker, J., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford, OUP 1997), p. 308.

4. Ezekiel 1: 28, King James Version.

5. See Sylla, E.D., 'Creation and Nature' in McGrade, S., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2003), pp. 171-195; and Grant, E., God and Reason in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

6. Druart, T.-A., 'Philosophy in Islam', in McGrade, S., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2003), pp. 97-119..

7. Passmore, J., A Hundred Years of Philosophy (Harmondsworth, England, Penguin 1957), p. 43.

8. Passmore, J., A Hundred Years of Philosophy (Harmondsworth, England, Penguin 1957), p.535.

9. Passmore, J., A Hundred Years of Philosophy (Harmondsworth, England, Penguin 1957), p.60.


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