Experiencing God Without Losing Your Mind

I believe that it is important for us to experience God in a real way and not just participate in religion.  At the same time, I believe that experiencing God does not mean we have to check our brains at the door.  As a result, we are starting a new study at First Baptist Church Meaford called “Experiencing God Without Losing Your Mind.”  It will be Monday nights at 7:30 pm starting on Nov. 2, 2011.  If you are in the Meaford area, you are welcome to join us.  Contact me for location.  Whether or not you are in the area, check out the first week’s reading and questions here.

Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion

Exposition

Richard Dawkins is one of the most outspoken of what is commonly called the new atheists.  As one of the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism” (along with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett), Dawkins has been very influential as a critic of religion.  The web-site for the Richard Dawkins Foundation (www.richarddawkins.net) gives this mission: “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.”  Many people would support the first part of his mission, the second part, at least in terms of religion, is more controversial.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to destroy what he sees as myth.  Some of this is very accurate on his part.  Dawkins exposes the misconceptions that Albert Einstein believed in a personal god or that the American Founding Fathers were as completely Christian as many believe.  Dawkins also rightly attacks Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria), in which part of reality goes to science and part goes to religion.  Science can say something about the existence of God, and it could be argued (but not by Dawkins) that religion has something to say about science.  Dawkins is critical of agnosticism, suggesting that there is enough evidence against God’s existence that people need not withhold judgment.  His spectrum of belief from strong theist to strong atheist would be very helpful in surveys of faith.

Instead of just insulting religion (which he does), Dawkins also tackles the various arguments for God’s existence.  Evidences for God such as the ontological argument, beauty, experience, Scripture, testimony of religious scientists, Pascal’s Wager and Bayesian arguments are all examined and rejected.  Although Dawkins overstates his case at times, he does make some good points and demonstrates the weaknesses of many of these arguments.

The most compelling arguments for the existence of God are the existence of a life-permitting universe and the existence of life, human and otherwise.  For many theists, this is enough to believe there is something is out there, even if they are not sure what or who it is.  As a scientist, Dawkins attempts to expose the fallacy of this argument.  To do this, Dawkins relies heavily on the anthropic principle.  Dawkins defines it in this way: “We exist here on Earth.  Therefore Earth must be the kind of planet that is capable of generating and supporting us, however unusual, even unique, that kind of planet might be.” (p. 162)  This argument works on the cosmological and biological level.  It may be highly unlikely that a universe would have all the right constants to support life, but it happened and so it must be possible.  We may not know exactly how the first life came about on this planet, but since we are able to discuss it, it must have happened.  Once that (seemingly) fine-tuned universe and first life form came into being, Darwinist evolution explains the rest.  According to Dawkins, before Darwin there was a conversation about the existence of God, after Darwin the case for theism was destroyed.

For Dawkins, God is not the problem (since he does not exist), religion is the problem.  Religion is something that infests most of the world and only recently have larger numbers of people escaped its fetters.  Why does religion exist in the first place?  As a staunch Darwinist, Dawkins can find Darwinian solutions to almost any problem.  It is possible that as humans evolved, those whose brains were such that they were obedient to fathers and other authority figures were more likely to survive.  Religion could naturally form from this genetic mutation.  Dawkins also looks to memes or “units of cultural inheritance” (p. 222) as an explanation for the origin of religion.

For some, even if religion is not necessary to explain human origins, religion is useful for developing and sustaining morality.  Dawkins argues that religion is not the true source of morality.  In fact, an examination of the Old and New Testaments show that the Bible provides more of an immoral example to people.  The true origin of morality lies in Darwinism.  Dawkins states: “genetic tendencies toward altruism would have been favoured in early humans.” (p. 252)  There is a morality apart from religion, but it is not an absolute morality.  Dawkins provides examples from history of how people considered to be on the cutting edge of liberalism in their day would be seen as intolerant and racist today.

For Richard Dawkins, this is not just an academic pursuit.  In his preface, Dawkins explicitly states: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” (p. 28)  Dawkins sees religion as dangerous, especially when presented to children.  He rightly sees that children cannot be seen as being religious, but rather children of religious parents.  However, religious teaching toward children actually should be seen as abuse.  Dawkins states: “Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” (p. 348)  Dawkins seems to see religious teaching of children as being more harmful than the sexual abuse of children by priests or other adults.  It is difficult to overstate Richard Dawkins‘ deep hatred for religion.  Dawkins dreams of a world where there is tolerance and no hatred, except when it comes to religion.

Critique

There are many problems with The God Delusion.  Some of Dawkins’ illustrations, such as the prayer experiment where the relationship between prayer and health were tested, were just distracting from the real issue.  Dawkins also uses a double standard a number of times.  For example, Dawkins confronts the claim that atheists such as Stalin or Hitler (he is not convinced that Hitler was an atheist) are relevant.  Dawkins argues that acts by atheist individuals are not relevant to judging atheism.  Yet, he cites examples such as Fred Phelps or Osama bin Laden, as if they were representative of religious people, and uses them to demonstrate the danger and evil of religion.  Dawkins claims for atheism some respected thinkers of the past, suggesting they likely pretended to be Christian out of social pressure.  The same claim could be used regarding scientists who may be secretly Christian but are afraid of the danger to their career if their faith became known.  Dawkins also seems unable to distinguish biblical accounts of evil acts with its moral teachings.

Regarding the influence of Dawkins‘ brand of atheism in the Canadian context, there are some serious issues.  Dawkins’ message is not just about an absence of God.  Dawkins replaces the Christian story with a new meta-narrative called Darwinism.  While many Canadians may accept a form of evolution in explaining the diversity of life, they may not be as willing to accept Darwinism as the answer to all of life’s questions.  Younger generations, religious or not, are suspicious of meta-narratives and are not looking for a new story to replace Christianity.  Although some may find Dawkins’ critique of absolute morality to be attractive, they will likely find his absolute condemnation of religious teaching of children to be distasteful.  Finally, Dawkins‘ position requires the public to put tremendous amount of trust in the authority of scientists.  Canadians do not seem eager to find new sources of authority, even if they replace clerical robes with white lab coats.  Richard Dawkins may give voice to some skeptical people but his form of atheism does not hold great potential for redefining Canadian beliefs.  The Christian story continues to be the most promising worldview for Canadians.  Not only does Christianity have a place of heritage and tradition that atheism does not, its very nature gives its an advantage.  If there is a meta-narrative that people are interested in, it is relationship.  Jesus himself articulated the story as being about relationship, with God and people. (Matt. 22:37-39)  This will remain more attractive to Canadians than simply cold hard science.

Roots of Morality

In “The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?”, Richard Dawkins attempts to look at morality as being possible without religion.  He starts off with examples of hate letters by “Christians.”  What is the point of this?  Everyone knows Christians can be jerks.  It comes with being human.  However, Dawkins seems to introduce the conversation with this so as to suggest religious people tend toward immorality.

Then Dawkins attempts to find a Darwinian answer to the origin of morality.  Darwinian theory is Dawkins answer for everything.  I am not convinced that morality does find its origin in Darwinism.  If Darwinism is about the survival of the fittest, it is not clear why there would be a genetic predisposition to care for the weak.

Dawkins questions religious people who live moral lives only out of fear of God.  I would question them as well.  I don’t know of any Christian who would gladly murder or rape if they discovered there was no God.  Even as Christians, we live moral lives not out of fear of God.  Dawkins misunderstands Christianity if he thinks it is about God punishing bad people and rewarding good people.  It is really about God saving people (who deep down are all bad to begin with, just at different levels) through the sacrifice of his Son.

To Dawkins’ credit, he clearly states the challenge of Christian apologetics that morality must be grounded in God or it is just a matter of our preferences.  Dawkins presents some humanist theories that are alternatives to religious absolute morality.  However, it seems that Dawkins acknowledges that with out God all morality is subjective.  Yet Dawkins does not seem to internalize this.  He keeps giving examples of religious immorality and suggestions of humanist morality without explaining who is providing the definition of morality.  One note on the level of morality being the same between theists and atheists.  I would suggest that Christianity has shaped our culture so much that even atheists are heavily influenced by Christian morality.  It is no wonder there are no major differences.

Roots of Religion

Richard Dawkins attempts to discover the reason why religion even started in his chapter “The Roots of Religion.”  Dawkins goes through a number of theories, most of which he rejects.  Not surprisingly, Dawkins leans more toward a Darwinist interpretation than a sociological interpretation.  He suggests that humans evolved as children unquestioningly being obedient to parents and authority.  This helped humans survive.  Unfortunately (for Dawkins) it also developed into religion.  I think scholars of religion (not just religious people) would be skeptical of this theory.  Dawkins also focuses on the idea of a meme.  Here is what Dawkins says:

“Some religious ideas, like some genes, might survive because of absolute merit.  These memes would survive in any meme pool, regardless of the other memes that surround them. (I must repeat the vitally important point that ‘merit’ in this sense means only ‘ability to survive in the pool’. It carries no value judgement apart from that.)” (God Delusion, p. 231)

Or God could actually exist and our ancestors by instinct knew that we are not alone and that this life is not all there is.  Remember, even in the animal world, instinct usually points to the truth.

Why There Almost Certainly is a God

I was bracing myself for Richard Dawkins’ chapter “Why There Almost Certainly is No God.”  After all, this is Dawkins area of specialization.  I was surprised as to what I read.  Obviously, Dawkins believes that Darwinism is a sufficient explanation for life.  But he did not really let loose on evidence for evolution.  The focus in this chapter is the anthropic principle.  Dawkins admits that at first glance the odds of the universe being life permitting and life beginning on this planet seem unlikely.  However, according to the anthropic principle the only reason we can think about such things is that we happen to live in the universe and on the planet and at the time when humans are alive.  Still, as Dawkins goes through six fundamental constants of the universe or the requirements for life to exist on this planet, I was drawn to how amazing creation really is, something that I see as more likely the result of God.  Dawkins uses the example of the man put before a firing squad and when the command is given, all bullets miss.  He would only be surprised because he was the one to survive.  Even so, it still would suggest that something strange happened, someone intervened in some way to allow him to survive the execution.  The anthropic principle is limited in its explanatory scope.

The other part of Dawkins’ argument is the complexity of God.  Dawkins looks to the theist argument that something so complex could not have come from nothing.  Dawkins then turns around and suggests, if God exists, he would have to be much more complex than simple humans, therefore the universe could not have come from God.  I am not sure that Dawkins understands what theists believe about God.  He is not an entity with moving parts, so that you could look at his apparatus for omniscience, for omnipotence, etc.  God is an all powerful mind and is simple in essence.

One of the things that I noticed is that in terms of human life and the universe, Dawkins is comfortable with some mystery, with some questions that we do not know the answers to.  For some reason he will not give that same sort of grace to theists.  Theism leaves too many questions and must be rejected.  Anyway, Dawkins did not mean to do it, but his inspiring description of the complexity of life strengthened my faith in God.  Thanks Richard!

Dawkins’ Bible

Richard Dawkins has a section in his chapter “Arguments For God’s Existence” that deals with “The Argument From Scripture.”  There were so many errors in this section, I decided to give it separate treatment.

Dawkins calls into question C.S. Lewis’ trilemma of liar, lunatic or Lord by suggesting that Jesus could have simply been wrong in his divine claims.  I’m not sure the difference between that and lunatic.  Being wrong in thinking you are God is not the same things as being wrong about what day of the week it is.  If you really think you are God and you are not, there is something deeply wrong.

Dawkins claims that scholars reject the Gospels as having historical value and that they were written too long after the events (40-50 years).  Of course, people have no problem using Plutarch as a valuable historical source for Alexander the Great, writing four hundred years after the events.  Dawkins also tries to find problems with Gospel accounts of where Jesus was born.  Matthew and Luke deal with different aspects of Jesus’ birth and infanthood and do not deal with the exact same events.  John subtly acknowledges the raising in Nazareth and the confusion about the birth in Bethlehem.  There is no contradiction.  As for Joseph having to go back to Bethlehem, that was not likely because of a thousand year old connection.  He likely had family connections there and was returning to where his family was currently living.

Dawkins suggests that the canonical Gospels were arbitrarily chosen from a larger group of writings.  Not true at all.  The four Gospels were almost universally accepted very early.  In fact they are the only first century Gospels there are.  Even Marcion, chose from these four in coming up with his canon for his heresy.  Regarding the connection of the Gospel writers to Jesus, a good case can be made that they reflect eyewitness testimony.  Dawkins hints at the idea that Jesus may never have existed, citing G.A. Wells (a professor of German), but ends up acknowledging that he likely existed.

Dawkins’ critique of the New Testament is quite weak, more on the level of an amateur blogger (no offence to my fellow bloggers) than a serious scholar.  Dawkins’ does not even seem to attempt to produce a serious attack, relying more on the assumption that most readers will have already rejected the New Testament as having value.

Arguments for God’s Existence

Richard Dawkins goes through the various arguments for the existence of God.  I would have to say that I am equally disappointed with the ontological argument.  As a former skeptic, I would never have been moved by this.  As a Christian, I never use it.

The argument from beauty has a bit more merit.  But I think Dawkins misunderstands it.  He sees it as being “Humans can make beautiful art, therefore there must be a God.”  I would see it more as about why we think there is such a thing as beauty.  How can people determine something is ugly and something is beautiful?  Why is a sunrise beautiful and roadkill ugly?  Is it simply personal taste or are we recognizing something?  I don’t use this argument, but I thing there is something to it.

Dawkins also dismisses the argument from experience.  Of course there is great danger in focusing too much on experience.  I would never base an important decision on something like a dream or a strange feeling.  But if there is a God, there would be an expectation that he would interact with us in some way.  I have had some powerful experiences with God that have strengthened my faith but would not likely convince a skeptic.

I agree with Dawkins that the argument from admired religious scientists is not a good argument.  However, Dawkins errs when he suggests that atheists are generally better educated than theists.  Recent studies have demonstrated that there is a high level of education for regular attenders.  It is interesting that a good portion of scientists are atheist.  It is not that science and God are incompatible.  Perhaps atheists are naturally drawn to science as a means of explaining their atheistic worldview.  It would be interesting to know what came first, the atheist or the science.

What are we to do with Pascal’s Wager?  There is some truth to it.  If atheists are correct, when I die I will never know I was wrong.  If theists are correct, atheists will know they were wrong when they die.  However, this wager does not get us to Christianity.  If my faith was based only this wager, I could die and find out that Judaism or Islam was the correct religion.  So there are definite weaknesses with this argument.

Dawkins also tackles the argument from Scripture.  However, Dawkins makes so many errors in that section that I am going to have to take that on in a separate post.