Why I'm just not fussed by Richard Dawkins

A reflection on a new book by Richard Dawkins

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ith the publication of The Greatest Show on Earth – subtitled “the evidence for Evolution” – the evolutionary biologist and celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins is once again positioned to sell a great many books.  Already this one has topped bestseller lists in various countries, sitting at that position in the Globe and Mail hardcover non-fiction category, and at a slightly more modest #8 on the New York Times list.

Now Dawkins is probably best known for his 2006 bestseller, The God Delusion, a book which caused a flurry of responses both from within the church and from without.  Perhaps one of the most striking critiques was that by the literary theorist Terry Eagleton, published in the London Review of Books, which opened with the following:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Dawkins, though, apparently remains unaffected by such criticism.  His website, for instance, has an entire page called “fleas”, in which he catalogues the various books which have been written in response to The God Delusion and other titles.  It also includes Eagleton’s piece, followed by a seemingly inexhaustible string of comments by cheerleaders for the Dawkins cause.

But this particular fight is not the one being waged in The Greatest Show on Earth, or so says its author.  In the opening chapter of the book, Dawkins writes that, “It is not intended as an antireligious book”, and adds, “I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again.”  He even refers to the collaborative work that he has done with Bishop Richard Harries, and notes that many “thoughtful and rational churchmen and women accept the evidence for evolution.”

But… it is a short step from Dawkins affirming those “thoughtful and rational” church folks to his warnings about the “history-deniers” – the roughly 40% of Americans who dispute evolutionary theory as being at best simply an unproven theory and at worst a heretical belief system – and to his rather harsh words for those members of the clergy who, while themselves accepting evolutionary theory, “blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve.”

In other words, at least at some level Dawkins has written an “antireligious book;” he is asking us to buy the same T-shirt… oh, and on his website you can actually buy T-shirts, as well as stickers, buttons, pins, tote-bags and coffee mugs.

I’m sure that some church-goods supplier will now be happily cranking out mugs and T-shirts to counter-act the ones on the Dawkins site (which themselves may well have been inspired as ironic responses to Christian merchandise… whose mug will be the cleverest?), and surely the parade of books written in rebuttal is just about to begin… but is any of it worth all of the time and effort?  To posit a “creationist” point of view may actually be an attempt to engage the debate on terms that are really not our own.

This all came into view for me just last week, as I sat with a young man named Davis – one of the high school students from the church – and discussed Augustine’s great autobiographical work The Confessions.  Davis is in the midst of a fairly rigorous home-schooling program, with a strong focus on classical education.  Last winter, he was up to his eyes in Plato; for a few weeks this fall it was Augustine.  Now, if you’re not familiar with The Confessions, it might surprise you to find that in the structure of the book Augustine moves from a searching inventory of his own life (which comprises about two-thirds of the work) to an extended treatment of the creation narrative from Genesis 1.  In that latter section, he positively rhapsodizes about the wonder and mystery of creation, and about the nature of time.  As we talked about this section – trying to make some sense of why a writer would have included such a thing in an autobiography – Davis observed that Augustine was clearly quite content to lay out a number of different ways in which to read, understand, and wrestle with questions of creation and Creator, of time and eternity, and that he seemed to have no need to read these texts as being self-evident descriptions of the mechanics of creation.  Bingo.

Now some might think that Augustine had no need to treat the opening chapters of Genesis as being in some sense scientific texts because in fact he would have assumed as much; that had he been aware of Darwin’s theories, he would have made a more obvious and direct reading of the texts.  After all, the theory of “Scientific Creationism” only comes into being as a response to the problems posed by evolutionary theory.  Would not any responsible and faithful theologian of necessity be compelled to read the creation accounts in the most obvious of ways?  While I am certainly not an Augustine scholar, I would beg to differ on that point; I just don’t think that Augustine would have been at all unsettled by Darwin’s theory, other than to be concerned for Darwin himself, in his unwillingness or inability to see anything more than randomness at the heart of human life.

Besides, in Darwin’s own time, there were theological scholars who saw with great clarity that his scientific theories had little to do with what the biblical authors were attempting to say about the nature of God, creation and humanity.  In a much-read essay first published in 1889, the Oxford theologian (and later bishop) Charles Gore offered the following:

We observe that (the creation account) has for its motive and impulse not the satisfaction of a fantastic curiosity, nor the later interest of scientific discovery, but to reveal certain fundamental religious principles: that everything as we see it was made by God: that it has no being in itself but at God’s will: on the other hand, that everything is in its essence good, as the product of the good God: that man, besides sharing the physical nature of all creation, has a special relation to God, as made in God’s image, to be God’s vice-regent: that sin, and all that sin brings with it of misery and death, came not of man’s nature but of his disobedience to God and rejection of the limitations under which He put him: that in spite of all that sin brought about, God has not left man to himself, that there is a hope and a promise.  These are the fundamental principles of true religion and progressive morality, and in these lies the supernatural inspiration of the Bible account of creation. (Charles Gore, “The Holy Spirit and Inspiration,” Lux Mundi)

“We observe that it has for its motive and impulse not the later interest of scientific discovery.”  For Gore, as for many others in his day, the six-day creation account is not intended to be read as scientific theory, however rudimentary.  Period.

In a more current context, Walter Brueggemann echoes this sentiment with great clarity in his fine commentary on Genesis, in which he writes,

…our exposition must recognize that what we have in the text is proclamation.  The poem does not narrate “how it happened”, as though Israel were interested in the method of how the world became God’s world.  Such a way of treating the grand theme of creation is like reducing the marvel of any moving artistic experience to explorations in technique.  Israel is concerned with God’s lordly intent, not his technique. (Genesis: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, 1982)

And then there’s the following from Guy Consolmagno, a scientist and Jesuit priest, whose work is carried out in the context of the Vatican’s rather sophisticated scientific research program:

Science cannot prove God, or disprove Him.  He has to be assumed.  If people have no other reason to believe in God than that they can’t imagine how the human eye could have evolved by itself, then their faith is very weak….  Seeing the universe as God’s creation means that getting to play in the universe – which is really what a scientist does — is a way of playing with the Creator. It’s a religious act.  And it’s a very joyous act.  (“The Glad Scientist”, The Walrus, October 2009)

None of this, of course, will change the mind of Richard Dawkins, for whom any religious belief is not only irrational, but frankly delusional.  For Christians, though, it means that even a seamless demonstration of the coherence of evolutionary theory should not be read as some indisputable proof of the incoherence of our faith.  It also means that the various modern theories of “scientific creationism” are not baskets into which we need be placing a whole lot of eggs… in fact, really none at all.  Whatever else Richard Dawkins thinks he might be demonstrating with his new book, if he does make a successful case for evolutionary theory – and as he brings his first chapter to a close he writes with a rather stunning degree of self-assurance that, “Evolution is an inescapable fact, and we should celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty” – he is doing it in his capacity as a biologist… and full marks to him for doing that.

But it has nothing to do with creation, much less the Creator.

Jamie Howison

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