Mar 06 The strange religion of Richard Dawkins (Part 2)

The strange religion of Richard Dawkins, Part 2

            “It isn’t a matter of belief, Elliot, it is a question of fact. Science depends on observation and measurement, not some a priori fairytales.”

            This is a line I read recently in a science fiction novel by the respected writer Ben Bova as part of an exchange between a bishop and a scientist. The implication is clear: science deals with facts, but faith or belief is a different thing altogether and operates with ‘fairytales’. Science is about the real world, whilst faith dwells in a world of make-believe.

            It is a common enough distortion. I wonder if Bova is a fan of Richard Dawkins, who makes the same accusation. Dawkins argues that religion makes assertions which are grounded in ‘faith’, which he denounces as obscure mysticism. By contrast, argues Dawkins, science is an evidence-based concern for verifiable truth.

There are two issues I want to touch on in this newsletter. One concerns the accusation that faith is a form of mindlessness where critical faculties are somehow suspended. The other issue is the rather fanciful assumption that science is solely based on objective evidence.

First of all, Dawkins’ view of ‘faith’: in the first edition of his book ‘The Selfish Gene’, back in 1976, he wrote that faith

means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence

            Here is another quote from him:

            Faith is the great cop out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence…. Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.”

            For Dawkins there is ‘faith’ and then there is ‘evidence’ and the two are opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm. Religion operates without evidence, and often prefers to do so.

            This is Dawkins’ understanding of faith, and it is certainly not a Christian understanding of faith. Even a cursory knowledge of the New Testament will reveal an emphasis on the mind and on the use of evidence. At the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke we read this:

            Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

            An entire Gospel is being presented as evidence which might strengthen faith. Notice that this evidence has been carefully, even meticulously researched. Luke has engaged in the work of an historian by consulting eyewitnesses and then engaging in an investigation of that evidence before committing to his account. Here is an ancient historian at work. Contrary to what Dawkins argues, here we have an example of evidence being brought for examination, in order that faith might be strengthened. Here is faith examining the evidence, not avoiding it. 

            When the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, some of whom doubted the resurrection, did he insist that they simply put ‘blind’ faith in this central claim? No. He reminds them that there are hundreds of people still alive who saw the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:6). The implication is – go speak to the eyewitnesses, consider the evidence!

            There is a long, and honourable tradition in the church of defending the reasonableness of believing, and bringing evidence for that reasonableness. The earliest Christian apologists lived in the second century and included such people as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and others. C.S. Lewis could be described as a great 20th century apologist for the Christian faith. There are many gifted intellectuals today who argue for the reasonableness of faith. Last month I mentioned John Polkinghorne who resigned the chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge to train as an Anglican minister. Would Dawkins seriously accuse this world-renowned particle physicist of being simple-minded? Another gifted writer and speaker in defending the Christian faith is John Blanchard, and those who heard him in Dalry last year will hardly succumb to Dawkins’ accusation that the Christian faith is mindless. Christianity is much more intellectually robust than Dawkins would care to admit.

            Christians are urged to ensure that our minds are engaged. The apostle Paul writes to the Romans “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world’. And how might we resist the insidious influence of our world? By believing in the unbelievable? No, Paul continues ‘but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2).

            Enough said.

            As to the claim that scientists deal only in hard facts and truth, a little knowledge of the history of science, and a modest insight into the philosophy of science betrays the extravagance of that claim.

            Years ago, as a mathematics student, I had occasion to visit the theoretical physicists, asking for help in understanding certain aspects of Quantum Physics which I needed for my dissertation. It was explained to me that there were two ways of interpreting the evidence. There is the ‘Copenhagen interpretation, championed by Niels Bohr, and there is the alternative proposed by David Bohm. Tricky thing is that both fit the evidence rather neatly, even elegantly. The former theory, I was told, is the one most physicists seem to prefer. But the interesting thing is that word ‘prefer’. Both theories fit the evidence and so the reason for choosing one rather than the other has little to do with hard and fast evidence, and owes more to the preferred view of the world held by the scientists.

If rival theories offer equally good accounts of observation and evidence, how do scientists choose between them? Science is sometimes about more than hard evidence, it seems.

            Richard Dawkins presents a caricature of faith, and does so in order to pursue his own anti-religious agenda. His need to engage in such misrepresentation exposes the weakness of his own position.

            Yours thoughtfully

            Martin Thomson         

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