Is the Problem Faith?

Jerry Coyne recently posted a video which he puts up as a reasonable argument from Richard Dawkins as to why religious belief is ‘bad’:

Dawkin’s arguments in this video (like those of most New Atheists, for whom he is Dear Leader) are a typical string of straw men, Red herrings and ad hominem attacks.

In his first claim Dawkins contends that religious folk are an incurious lot that don’t question or consider anything beyond what is written in their Holy book or as he characterizes it, “This is how it is. It is all written in the Holy Book. It was written 2000 years ago and that’s the end of it”. It’s rather obvious he is referring to Christianity here since Christianity is about 2000 years old. Of course this is a straw man version of Christianity since historically Christianity is anything but incurious. From the Apostle Paul to Augustine and Aquinas, to Newton, Pascal and Mendel, Christianity is filled with folks who pursued knowledge and understanding about every aspect of life. Christianity’s contributions to theology, philosophy, science and culture are undeniable.

But Dawkin’s claim makes even less sense when one considers the Christian view of nature and the universe. For Christians historically Scripture wasn’t the final Word but the launching pad for intellectual development. The Bible’s picture of our world as an orderly place that is conducive to rational comprehension is a greater impetus to explore and understand the universe than is the atheist’s perspective is. To see why this is one need only consider the following scenario:

Imagine for a moment I told you about an incredible art gallery. Not only incredible, but this particular art gallery was filled with artwork by the greatest artist that ever existed. The works of this artist were so intricate and so vast that generations of people had devoted their lives to the study of his productions and never come to the end of them. Now imagine further that I told you not only was this the greatest artist ever, but this artist was so wise that he had anticipated those who would study his work and had worked into them wisdom and truth that would benefit those who took their time to gaze upon his handiwork. Would you be curious about such an art gallery? Would you devote time and effort, perhaps even pay something to see such a place? If after a little effort you began to see that indeed what was there opened your mind to greater truths and understanding would you perhaps consider it your life’s work to study the works of this artist? I would think most would.

Now imagine I told you about another gallery. The works of art in this gallery are unusual – because no artist produced them. The art is incidental – it exists merely as the result of a series of unplanned events that began no particular purpose in mind. You could spend your life studying the art, but in the end the art has nothing for you, it just is. The very notion that you are seeing ‘art’ in it – that is design, purpose and beauty – is an illusion you have projected upon the objects in this gallery. You may glean some understanding of the processes that produced the art but in the end you always come to the same dead end – it’s just there, there is no ultimate explanation for why it exists. And we know the end result of these works – they are decaying, and in time they won’t exist at all, and neither will anybody’s memory of them. They began without purpose, and they end without any permanent value.

This explains the absurdity of Dawkin’s characterization of faith. The Christian’s faith in the order and meaning of nature gives him confidence that he can explore and understand it. The greatest motivation for exploring the universe has been to understand more about God – which is why so many scientists, including some of the originators of science, were also men of God in one way or another. It is a pursuit that is purposeful and fruitful; in the Christian perspective nature is a reflection of the mind of God.

The second contention by Dawkins is that faith is potentially lethal; it has been used to turn men into weapons because religious people are particularly vulnerable to mindlessly do acts of violence due to their unquestioning belief. At this point he does a bait and switch, referring to the Islamist suicide bombers instead of the Christians he previously targeted. For New Atheists, such details “don’t matter” as Dawkins puts it. Of course they don’t matter for his purpose, which isn’t to discern the actual causes of violence but to besmirch religious. This latter contention is more ridiculous than the first.

The ‘religion incites violence’ argument fails in two major ways. The first is that while religious belief is virtually a universal human attribute, the particulars of religious belief vary widely. Tendencies to religious violence seem almost wholly dependent on the particular beliefs of a religion. No one can contend that the Quakers, Amish and Mennonites, who are among the most devout believers, are in any way violent. Buddhists and Baptists don’t seem particularly inclined to strap bombs on themselves. And the most religious cultures aren’t necessarily the most violent. So there is no necessary connection between religion and violence.

This isn’t to say religious belief can’t incite the worst human behaviors – but the second reason the argument fails is that men are capable of atrocities quite apart from religion. Men have killed millions in the name of eliminating economic classes, attempting to breed a master race, even murdered in the name of equality and liberty – all perfectly secular considerations.

So if religion doesn’t necessarily incline men to violence and secular interests may, what are we to conclude? The Christian understanding makes the most sense here – men on the whole are corruptible, given to selfish ambition, desires for power and wealth and dominating others. In short they are sinners. This why the New Testament emphasizes the need for the transformation of human nature. And for a society as a whole it takes generations to internalize the moral behaviors we take granted now, and a few tragic choices to undue those same behaviors. Dawkin’s naturalism has no power to accomplish this.

So Dawkin’s arguments fail completely here. What is amazing to me is that Dawkin’s arguments are held up as the pinnacle of reason by Jerry Coyne and other New Atheists when his logic is so transparently fallacious. If this is the best of atheist reason, then the movement is bereft of any intellectual vigor whatsoever.

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