Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Reactions and Responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Pt. 3)

This post is a continuation of my dialogue with chapter two, which is entitled “The God Hypothesis.”

Dawkins discusses agnosticism and in particular whether or not the question of the existence of God is unanswerable. There are two categories of agnosticism, he says. The first is TAP, or Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, which is validly and properly applied in scientific investigation. This kind of agnosticism is applicable when the question is answerable but there is not yet enough evidence to answer it. The second is PAP, or Permanent Agnosticism in Principle, which applies to questions that can never be answered because there will be enough evidence to answer the question because evidence is not relevant to the question. Too many people, Dawkins says, assign the question of God’s existence to the PAP category; he says that it should in fact be assigned to the TAP category because “Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability” (p. 48).

It seems to me that Dawkins makes an unsupportable statement here. If he means that “either God exists or he doesn’t” in a physical sense, then maybe if we never find any physical evidence of God then we could say that he probably doesn’t exist. Dawkins is prohibited by the limits of his science from entertaining the possibility that something exists that cannot be verified by the only kind of truth-seeking that matters to him: the kind that can be done through the scientific method. I would also note that to maintain that “we can say something pretty strong about the probability” is not a particularly bold statement from a man who makes lots of bold statements. Dawkins’ point is that to say that while the non-existence of God cannot be proven (because non-existence can never be proven), that does not mean that conclusions cannot be drawn about the probability of God’s existence. And from his perspective, the non-existence of God can be shown to be probable.

Dawkins then discusses NOMA, which stands for “non-overlapping magisteria.” This is a phrase coined by the late Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote about it in his book Rocks of Ages in which he said that according to the NOMA principle, "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)." Dawkins, predictably, rejects that distinction. Why should not science comment on matters of ultimate meaning and moral value? Moreover, what exactly is the realm of experience that theology is supposed to investigate? Dawkins basically dismisses theology as a valid field of study: “I am tempted to…wonder in what possible sense theologians can be said to have a province” (p. 56).

Again, given his convictions that only the physical is real and that only science can properly investigate that reality, he can hardly think otherwise of theology. And I would be the first to admit that much of what passes for theology is not much more than philosophical speculation dressed up with a lot of God-talk and that some of it passes over into flights of fancy. Still, I cannot help but think that Dawkins’ view of reality is most impoverished.

At the same time, I have some discomfort with Gould’s NOMA principle, although I have been known to say something like it. In discussions of Genesis, for example, I encourage people of faith not to press the text for scientific details that it does not intend to communicate and that it should not be asked to bear. The fact is that the writers of the Bible lived in a pre-scientific culture and write in a pre-scientific way. I say “Thank God” for that. I can read Genesis 1-2 and be amazed at its depth of understanding of the human condition and for the hope that those words provide for struggling humanity. I have tried to help people find a middle ground between utter respect for their Bibles and proper respect for the findings of science. And, I have said things like “Science may tell us how creation developed but the Bible tells us what creation means.” Actually, I still think that.

I also, think, thought, that there is overlap between the two magisteria. At the very least, those working in the two areas need to talk to one another learn from one another. One of my real fears as I read Dawkins’ book is that his kind of thinking, paired with the kind of thinking that we see in so many religious fundamentalists, will put the brakes on such conversation. He sees no valid place for theology. Too many Christians see no place for evolutionary theory. If the battle lines are drawn that way, how will we ever make progress?

Dawkins also says that religious folks would not be content with the NOMA principle if science made some discovery that could bolster their faith positions. For example, he asks, if DNA evidence was uncovered that proved that Jesus did in fact not have a biological father, would Christians say that the evidence didn’t matter because the realm of science had nothing to do with the realm of religion? He says they would be all over it and he is probably right about many of us. And, I think we would be wrong about taking such advantage of that kind of evidence unless we are going to accept everything else that science says. Frankly, I am not particularly moved by those expeditions to discover the remains of Noah’s Ark or by the hullabaloo over the supposed discovery of Jesus’ ossuary. Faith runs much deeper than that. I have such faith and don’t really understand why. It’s probably asking a lot to expect Dawkins to think I am anything but deluded. But I for one don’t need his science to validate my faith. So I will not trumpet its findings when it seems to do just that.

On Friday, I will conclude my dialogue with chapter two.

We will spend Thursday with Luke.

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