‘If you don’t know how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it. You don’t know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don’t understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent . . . Please don’t go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God.’ Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.
Richard Dawkins is, of course, a High Priest of the New Atheist movement. That label is appropriate; the movement has its own ecclesiology and is grounded in some eminently contestable articles of faith. And it is rigorous in its enforcement of the First Commandment. Dawkins’s The God Delusion is a primary text of the New Atheism. It is a curious book, written with a sort of high censoriousness that wouldn’t shame a #MeToo convention. It’s difficult to work out whether Dawkins is angrier at the religious for their faith or at God for his non-existence. Let’s look at those articles of faith which concern the nature of God and his relation to his creation; the relationship between faith and reason (or God and science); and the character of reason itself.
The first (and most egregious) New Atheist error is revealed in the quotation above. Dawkins here is claiming that theists believe in a ‘God of the gaps’, that God is a hypothesis in competition with the hypotheses of the physical sciences. The claim is that as our scientific knowledge moves to completion, the room for this hypothesis diminishes to nothing. But it is just false to suggest that the biblical theist thinks of God in this way because to do so would be to treat him as an ingredient in the universe and in competition with alternative causal hypotheses of how the universe is and came to be. God can never, however, be an ingredient in the universe. He cannot even be properly thought of as the most powerful ingredient of the universe. Biblical, or classical, theists believe in a God that both transcends his creation and is yet immanent within it. He neither shares in the contingency of the universe nor (because of his transcendence) is he in competition with it.
The New Atheist argues that when science has completed its inventory of the universe then it will make no mention of God. But of course it won’t. To assume it would is to commit a category error. It’d be like listening to a concert on the radio and concluding that there is no conductor; or opening up your vacuum cleaner in the expectation of finding James Dyson. And it is worse than that, since in conflating the Creator with his creation it implicitly accuses the theist of idolatry. The God of classical theism sustains everything from moment to moment and it is to him that the universe owes a primary dependency of being. Thus, Thomas Merton’s description of contemplative prayer as ‘finding that place in you where you are here and now being created by God’.
It is a failure to appreciate the non-competitive way that God is present in creation that leads Dawkins to argue that God is ‘vindictive’ and in need of our worship. He needs nothing: the need to worship flows in the reverse direction, from us to him. St Irenaeus made the point this way, that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. There is a hermeneutic of interpretation that sees in the transition from the Old to the New Testament a move from truth-bearing myth into solid historical truth. As this happens, the God of Exodus is revealed as the God of the parable of the prodigal son, a Father of unconditional and infinite mercy.
What of the relationship between faith and reason? The Enlightenment message is not that of emancipation. Science was not constrained by but rather emerged from the theistic thought matrix that shaped it. History tells us this, but we should not be surprised that the New Atheism tells other historical stories. The Resurrection is the depth charge that has the Enlightenment as a ripple. The New Atheism denies the fact of the Resurrection on a priori rather than historical grounds, despite its being the most well-attested event in the ancient world. It therefore is blind to the genuine historical narrative.
But the God-science symbiosis can be demonstrated on philosophical as well as historical grounds. It is a very odd feature of the universe that it is intelligible and intelligible to us. How can this be? Albert Einstein once remarked that the only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible in the first place. For the theist, though, the mystery is resolved by the creation account. Since we are created in the image of God he has stamped within us a commonality of reason: the universe is a conversation between us and him. Science then is a primary modality of revelation. The universe is agency rather than mechanical causality. This latter point, that the universe reveals itself as being purposive and that not all causes are purely mechanical, is discussed by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. Aquinas offered a modification of Aristotelian metaphysics which shapes the Catholic Catechism and is an intellectual construction of outstanding beauty. Dawkins gives him two pages.
But how does the scientific atheist account for this ‘rightness of fit’ that allows the universe to be accessible to reason? So far, it is fair to say, she has not.
And what of reason itself? For the likes of Dawkins, ‘reason’ must be a property of minds which is a property of brains which are selected by survival-oriented adaptation. So why would we believe what they tell us? If you listen to the New Atheists, belief is ordered in the direction not of truth but of survival. Two of the greatest living philosophers, the theist Alvin Plantinga and the atheist Thomas Nagel, have made this same point: that if evolutionary biology is the ultimate explanation of how reason emerges there is absolutely no reason to believe it to be true.
As C S Lewis said:
“If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”
The intelligibility of the universe is an endorsement of the belief that science and reason stand together and are ordered in the direction of God.
May I end with Lewis?
“I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
The New Atheist project is occlusion, not illumination.
Sean Walsh is a former university teacher. This article was first published at The Conservative Woman and is republished here with permission.