Whatever one’s view of God, faith is at the center of all human knowledge.
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.
* This month is our yearly ‘No Media Month’ where our family gives up television, the internet, video games and the like to devote out time to spending time together, reading, travelling and generally enjoying the brief warmth of a Minnesota summer. As a result I won’t be writing this month, but decided to republish some previous posts that I think have stood the test of time. This one first appeared May 5, 2006*
I have been, for as long as I can remember, a science geek.
I don’t know if I was born that way or if I am just the product of some unique environmental factors but I am certain it was a tendency encouraged by my parents. One of my earliest memories is of my father calling excitedly for my mother so she could hear me spell zoology. Another time, when I was still quite young, our wonderful neighbor Mrs. Schaeffer had a party for the neighborhood kids (she was known for having fun little parties for no particular reason) where kids could come dressed according to what they wanted to be when they grew up. I came as a pterodactyl.
Of particular interest to me was paleontology and biology. I was an avid reader early on and my parents fed my habit with sets of encyclopedias – first the popular World Book Encyclopedia, then later a 20 volume set of the Encyclopedia of Animal life (written, interestingly, in the King’s English – which to this day will still occasionally causes me to give certain words their British spelling like colour and labour), as well as the entire Time-Life Nature library.
One of my particular favorites in the Time-Life set was the volume Early Man. The volume included the obligatory multi-page centerfold timeline of the march of human evolution from a small ape-like ancestor to modern humans, as well as numerous illustrations of the same ancestors struggling for survival against hyenas, other proto-humans and starvation causing them to develop tools to hunt mammoths and protect themselves against predators. It was all so…convincing.
I think it was around that time science, in particular, the study of evolution became something more to me than a science theory; it became a faith. By faith I mean it became something that I held to be fundamentally and inherently true about life. It became more to me than a mere biological process; it was a worldview that explained why mankind was here and where we might be going.
As I got older, and increasingly discouraged about the state of humanity – the destruction of the environment, the potential for cataclysmic war and the greed and hatred I saw around me evolution also gave me hope. Buoyed by science popularizers like Sagan, Asimov and Clarke, as well as the science fiction they wrote like Childhood’s End and the movie that shared it’s themes, 2001 a Space Odyssey, I began to see evolutionary theory as the great hope of mankind. Just as we were once primordial ooze and became human so to we might overcome our earthly troubles and inherit the stars.
As a result what little faith I might have had in God was relegated to agnosticism; I wasn’t particularly hostile to the idea a god might exist, it just didn’t seem to matter all that much.
Occasionally I would run into a backward thinking person who still held to the idea that God created the world and that some evidence for this existed; if I didn’t automatically dismiss the person as uneducated or hopelessly wedded to some outlandish religious notions, I might attempt to dialogue. It usually wasn’t long before it became a debate – and I loved to debate; particularly when my faith was being called into question. I rarely found it difficult however to knock down most of their ideas.
In 1982 I began my University career as a biology major, with plans to go on to veterinary school. It just so happened that around the same time a rather radical proposal had been made on campus; a professor of engineering, Dr. John Patterson, had proposed at a department meeting that any student who proclaimed a belief that God created the world should be denied a science degree. In addition to his teaching job Prof. Patterson was also a widely known and very outspoken atheist – and his proposal was made in response to what he saw as the threat of creationism invading campus. Of course the proposal, once made public, created a furor on campus with debates going on in the student paper and among the faculty and staff. I was rather amazed that even at the University level some still questioned evolution until I became friends with someone who did, a fact I attributed to his small town upbringing.
But something else was happening that year; I was beginning to realize that whatever faith I had in nature it wasn’t sufficient to satisfy deep personal longings for meaning and purpose and change. While evolution might hold out some hope for the future of mankind it held little hope for me personally. We might grow as a species but I continued to fail even my own standards and expectations. I was as greedy and selfish as anyone else and change seemed beyond me.
The same friend whose science I dismissed had an answer when it came to purpose and change and that answer was Jesus Christ. Though I had early on dismissed Christianity I couldn’t deny my friend’s life – or the joy, love and peace I saw in it. After nearly a year of wrangling with myself and with a growing sense that Christ was real and present I surrendered my life to Him. I transferred my faith from a belief in the power of nature and myself to a faith in Christ.
That surrender while it brought about dramatic changes in me, didn’t alleviate all the questions I had. I still had a niggling feeling about the accuracy of Scripture, at least as much as it seemed to contradict my understanding of science. Thus, a lot of my twenty-plus years as a Christian has been involved with considering the intersection of science and Scripture and as a result, a lot of what I consider here concerns that as well – my science geekdom remains unabated, so my apologies to those whose interests lie elsewhere; you will have to endure the occasional technical discussion.
Good bit from Alan P. Lightman in Harpers on the overlap of theoretical physics and faith. He shares what I think is an apt analogy about where we are currently as observers of the universe:
If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here. The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves. Maybe there are, they suggest, many other worlds, some of them completely dry, and everything in between…
The wizened old fish conjecture that there are many other worlds, some with dry land and some with water. Some of the fish grudgingly accept this explanation. Some feel relieved. Some feel like their lifelong ruminations have been pointless. And some remain deeply concerned. Because there is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.
Atheists often point to science as the methodology that will free us from reliance on faith – but as I have pointed out previously, atheists have to take a number of aspects of reality by faith or simply as ‘brute facts’. And as our knowledge of the universe expands so to do the number aspects of it that must simply be accepted, since they cannot be explored through observation or experimentation. The ‘multiverse’ appears to be one of those aspects of reality.
While it is undoubtedly true that science has many advantages over other methods of exploring the natural world; it appears certain though that the elimination of the need for faith isn’t one of them.
“Does it never strike you that doubt can be a madness, as well as faith? That asking questions may be a disease, as well as proclaiming doctrines? You talk of religious mania! Is there no such thing as irreligious mania?”
– G.K. Chesterton
Great thought from the preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
Faith according to our Lord’s teaching in this paragraph, is primarily thinking; and the whole trouble with a man of little faith is that he does not think. He allows circumstances to bludgeon him. … We must spend more time in studying our Lord’s lessons in observation and deduction. The Bible is full of logic, and we must never think of faith as something purely mystical. We do not just sit down in an armchair and expect marvelous things to happen to us. That is not Christian faith. Christian faith is essentially thinking. Look at the birds, think about them, draw your deductions. Look at the grass, look at the lilies of the field, consider them. . . . Faith, if you like, can be defined like this: It is a man insisting upon thinking when everything seems determined to bludgeon and knock him down in an intellectual sense. The trouble with the person of little faith is that, instead of controlling his own thought, his thought is being controlled by something else, and, as we put it, he goes round and round in circles. That is the essence of worry. . . . That is not thought; that is the absence of thought, a failure to think. – Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
I put faith in special revelation not because I lack skepticism, but because I am a complete skeptic – I am skeptical of human reason alone to apprehend truth.