Make no mistake about it: Richard Dawkins is a heavyweight in his field. The author of many books, Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. A graduate of Oxford, he taught at the University of California at Berkeley before returning to his alma mater.
His latest book, The God Delusion, spent many weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It is a blistering attack on the idea of a personal, supernatural deity and on those who believe in such a God. At the same time, the book is an invitation to readers to consider atheism as a reasonable choice of life-stance. Dawkins, therefore, critiques the belief in a personal God while offering a rationale for abandoning such belief and embracing atheism. Dawkins states his purpose clearly: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down” (p. 5). So I guess, since I’m a Christian and a minister at that, that I’m taking quite a chance in reading it. Of course, when I am not converted by Dawkins’ brilliant arguments, he has given the reason ahead of time: I am one of those “dyed-in-the-wool faith heads” who “are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination…” (p. 5). It is clear from the beginning that Dawkins believes that all the weight of reason is on the atheist’s side and that believers in God are irrational and unable to think for themselves.
The first chapter of the book is entitled “A Deeply Religious Non-Believer,” a phrase that Dawkins borrows from Einstein. Dawkins goes to great pains to define terms in this chapter, a necessary and helpful exercise. He reflects upon the way in which scientists such as Einstein or himself could think of themselves as “religious.” He quotes Einstein: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious” (p. 19). Dawkins says that he is religious in that sense, too, provided that we say that those things that the “mind cannot grasp” may one be day be graspable.
Dawkins seems to have no place in his thinking for anything being a permanent mystery.
What Dawkins is trying to make clear, though, is important: that when most scientists refer to “God” they are using the word metaphorically to mean “nature” or “the universe” or something like that. Often, when religious folks quote an Einstein or Hawking or some other scientist who mentions God, they take the quote out of context and make the scientists sound “religious” in a way that they are not.
Dawkins spends the rest of chapter one discussing what he considers the “undeserved respect” accorded religious people, religious sensibilities, and religious ideas in modern Western society. He approvingly quotes Douglas Adams on the subject of the reticence in our culture to directly challenge religious tenets: “When you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be” (p. 21). In Dawkins’ opinion, religious folks and religious ideas receive a kind of special privilege in our society and, as the subtitle of the section indicates, he believes that such respect is undeserved.
It is clear after reading just one chapter of Dawkins’ book that for him, there is no reality beyond the observable, testable universe. For Dawkins, we don’t understand what we don’t understand because science has not yet found a way to test it or figure it out yet. For him, everything must be explained rationally.
Does he have a valid point? I’m still thinking about that. Let’s face it: often in our discussions about life and about how we are to explain certain things in light of our belief in the existence of a personal, supernatural God, we say some interesting things. For example, we say “Some things you just can’t explain” or “Some things you just have to take on faith” or “If you understood everything about everything, then you’d be God, wouldn’t you?” Is it insisting on too much to insist that any religious conviction, if it is to be taken seriously, must be rationally explainable? Might we not need to do the hard work of actually being able to explain and to defend our belief in God?
Or is the “leap of faith” the crucial thing?
As for the “undeserved respect” that religious ideas are accorded in our society, Dawkins may have a point. Still, is it such a bad thing that we insist on taking someone’s religious convictions seriously? Particularly in America, have not freedom of religion and freedom from religion provided much of the context for the development of personal human freedom? When we stop treating people’s religious convictions with respect, have we not stopped taking something seriously that is very vital to many, many people’s existence?
Tomorrow: I’ll look at chapter 2, “The God Hypothesis.”
In the meantime, while we're thinking about these issues, we might take this perspective into consideration.