Answering Richard Dawkins

Answering Dawkins

Channel 4 TV gave Richard Dawkins a series called “The Genius of Charles Darwin” to air his opposition to Christianity again. 2009 represents the bi-centenary of the birth of his great hero Charles Darwin who set out the theory of evolution by natural selection. For many ever since, this theory opposes and sets at nought the accounts of creation in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Dawkins is exasperated and angry that people still believe in God and he seeks every opportunity to rid this country of its Christianity and of any other faith expression. His influence is gaining in importance and he writes to Members of Parliament and sends them copies of his writings to try to exorcise through legislation our country’s Christian heritage. He is extremely determined and an able adversary.

There’s nothing new in that. The Roman Emperor Julian known traditionally as Julian the Apostate, ruled from 355 - 360AD. He was the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, and expended much energy during his reign attempting to supplant the growing power of Christianity within the empire with officially revived traditional Roman religious practices. He failed to quench Christianity and died a broken man. His last words were “Thou hast conquered Galilean”.

On Monday evening Channel 4 showed the last of Dawkins' presentations on Darwin. He does not apply scientific method to the study of faith because he does not regard faith as worthy of such a method. The result is that he articulates the atheist scientific position articulately but he does not treat the faith position fairly for what it is. An example of this is that he quoted the Christian extremists and fundamentalists who send him e-mails telling him he will burn in Hell. He pays no respect to Johan Sebastian Bach, for example, nor gives any explanation as to why he was inspired to write such beautiful music. His is an extreme argument which is knowledgeable on the science and unbalanced on the faith. Bach was a Lutheran Christian, a husband, father and grand-father. He wrote probably the most sublime Christian music the world has known. Was this founded on a lie? Was Bach a deluded fool whose sense of God and of what Jesus accomplished and of spiritual eternity was wholly mistaken and wrong? I do not think that Richard Dawkins has a right to deny Bach the reasons he gave for writing and composing as he did. He cannot separate Bach’s music from Bach’s faith because they formed a unity in his life and mind.

Dawkins is angry that some Christians actually deny the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Some, for example, believe even today, that the world is less than 10,000 years old. He thinks America is a terrible place for this sort of thing but he finds examples in Australia and in England. The Australian evangelist who argued with him tells Dawkins that he Dawkins was not there all those years ago and that he has no proof of evolution by natural selection. God was there, someone else says, and God’s word is more reliable than latter day theories. Dawkins answers by saying that you do not need to be present at an event to know that it exists. But he does not see that his denial of God can be answered in the same way. If people say that the universe began with a big bang - certainly no-one was there to observe it. In the same way, the existence of God cannot be observed but cannot be denied either on that basis.

Dawkins is on much stronger ground when he points to DNA evidence for evolution by natural selection. He is frustrated that some Christians and others still deny the validity of evolution even though there is clear scientific evidence for it available today. For Dawkins truth lies in the fossil record and in DNA not in sacred texts. But the experience of God is corroborated by sacred texts and so the truth lies in the lives of professing Christians who exist as verifiable facts in the world. But, on the other hand, he does not give any value to faith. He only quotes extreme and narrow representations of Christianity which suit his arguments and are easy to mock.

At a simpler level Dawkins cannot deny the validity of the Christian experience of those who have it. Christianity makes people good. That is a fact and even Dawkins admits that the world does have some good people who are Christians in it. He does not agree however that it is their Christianity which has made them good. He can’t accept that. Their goodness is as other people’s goodness - an aspect of self-interest and self-preservation worked out over millions and millions of years.

John Newton was a sailor. Sailing back to England in 1748 aboard the slave-ship “Greyhound” on the Atlantic triangle trade route, the ship encountered a severe storm and almost sank. Newton awoke in the middle of the night and prayed to God as the ship filled with water. It was this experience which he later marked as the beginnings of his conversion to evangelical Christianity As the ship sailed home, Newton began to read the Bible and other religious literature. By the time he reached Britain, he had accepted the doctrines of Christianity. The date was March 10, 1748, an anniversary he marked for the rest of his life. From that point on, he avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking, although he continued to work in the slave trade. He later said that his true conversion did not happen until some time later: "I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards”.

Newton returned to Liverpool and partly due to the influence of Joseph Manestay, a friend of his father’s, obtained a position as first mate aboard a slave trading vessel, the “Brownlow”, bound for the West Indies via the coast of Guinea. During the first leg of this voyage, while in West Africa (1748-49), Newton acknowledged the inadequacy of his spiritual life. While he was sick with a fever, he professed his full belief in Christ. He later said that this experience was his true conversion and the turning point in his spiritual life. He claimed it was the first time he felt totally at peace with God.

Newton did not actually renounce the slave trade until later in his life (when he wrote a tract decrying it in aid of abolitionist William Wilberforce). After his return to England in 1750, he made three further voyages as captain of the slave-trading ships “Duke of Argyle” (1750) and the “African” (1752-53 and 1753-54). He only gave up seafaring and his slave-trading activities in 1754, after a serious illness. He became the Anglican Rector of a London Church and wrote hymns including “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”, “Glorious things of Thee are spoken”, “Approach my soul the mercy seat”, and of course “Amazing Grace”.

Dawkins cannot deny Newton’s life experience. Dawkins picks weak and easy targets to represent Christianity - he does not pick Jesus Himself. He wants to use a scientific giant like Darwin to crush and bully modest Christians. He does not offer a fair evaluation of the life of Jesus as a counter point to his atheism. And here is another interesting point. Dawkins assumes that if you believe in evolution you must be an atheist. Apart from the fact that St Augustine who lived at the end of the 4th and the beginning of the fifth centuries recognised an evolutionary dimension to creation, that John Calvin also had an inkling of this and that the 20th century French Christian thinker Teilhard de Chardin had no problem as a Christian accepting the theory of evolution, many Christian people without thinking too much about it, do not have a problem respecting devolution and worshipping God through Jesus Christ.

That was what Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury said also in the programme. But Dawkins relentlessly pursued Williams by asking whether then he believed that God having set up the evolutionary process intervened in any special way, for example, the Virgin Birth of Jesus and His resurrection. Williams said that God did intervene but he then admitted that for him the story of the Virgin Birth was more poetry than fact. Dawkins says that if you push many Anglican bishops they will admit that they do not think a lot in the Bible is actually true.

What status do Christians give the Bible? For the kind of Christians Dawkins seeks out for his programmes, the Bible is 100% accurate and true in its accounts of creation. For many Christians today, the Bible is not a scientific account of creation but a theological account of creation. It is complementary to the science. Dawkins can fairly say that for centuries Christians thought that the Bible was correct and that it is science which has proved it wrong. Dawkins does not treat the Bible fairly for what it is. Neither does he show any appreciation of the Bible’s own testimony to spiritual progression from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible is not a static text. Its message constantly changes and enlarges from Abraham to St John who wrote its last book.

Of course, if you say that one part of the Bible does not represent factual truth, does that mean that you can say the same about it all? It is certainly easy for the 21st century atheist to make that case and Dawkins does. But the prophets were revisionist writers and so was Jesus and certainly Paul was too. The writers of the Bible used their brains. Their experience of God moved on human understanding of God. No-one before or since has offered such insight. Christianity moves the evolutionary argument on a long way. For Dawkins, Jesus did not himself survive or pass his own genes on. He was unsuccessful at that level. (Oddly enough, Islam also makes Jesus to be unsuccessful as a spiritual person who died and as a geo-political leader who did not conquer.) But Jesus words have largely come true about Himself and his forthcoming and long-lasting influence in the world. He was an evolutionary failure but a spiritual success. So much so that the dimension of the spiritual has to be taken seriously and Dawkins does not take it seriously. He accords no worth to 2000 years of Christianity.

Dawkins cannot understand why we and others gather to worship. Our faith is not real to him. Poor man! Jesus once said, “I thank you Father that these things have been hidden from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children”. It is to the humble of heart that God speaks and reveals Himself. That is what Christianity is all about.

Robert Anderson 2017

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