One of the consequences of the Bush presidency has been an explosion of writings by atheists intent on targeting right-wing politics by attacking the existence of God. These writers fuel a growing popular belief that if a man as shallow as the president espouses faith in God, then faith in God must be shallow too.
Fortunately, much of the reasoning employed in these attacks on God has proved to be just as shallow as any unscripted Bush one-liner. Unfortunately, even bad ideas have consequences, and such recent books as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” or Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great,” have zoomed to the top of the Amazon and The New York Times best-seller lists.
The problem with atheist-biologist Dawkins’ book is his obsession with deriding something he just doesn’t get – namely, faith in a personal God. Dawkins, the professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University, attacks theology the way a person who doesn’t get modern music might attack it for sounding discordant. He complains to drown out a sound that is unintelligible to his ears.
Jim Holt in his review for The Sunday New York Times Book Review compares Dawkins’ book to a Michael Moore movie: “There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy … Dawkins’ avowed hostility can make for scattershot reasoning as well as rhetorical excess.”
Dawkins blames religion for Sept. 11, 2001, suicide bombers, the persecution of Jews, North Ireland’s “troubles,” and the like. He misses a point history has demonstrated time and again – that it is greed and the desire for power that motivates unscrupulous individuals, corporations and nations. Each will seize on whatever suits their purpose: religious or racial prejudice, exploitation of resources and labor, trumped-up claims on others’ territory, and the like.
Take religious prejudice out of the mix, and it’s quickly replaced by some other excuse for exploiting people, animals and even the Earth itself. Meanwhile, religion rightly practiced is the one constraint on greed and power that offers the rest of us real hope.
In a play for sympathy, Dawkins compares atheists to gays as a persecuted minority. He writes: “The status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago … My dream is that this book may help people to come out.”
“Coming out” never stops there, of course, but reaches beyond equality for political advantage. An example related to the gay community is the recent legislation in England and California, forbidding children from saying “Mom and Dad” in school, so as not to hurt the feelings of children with same-sex parents. Likewise, Dawkins-style atheists will not rest until everyone conforms to their point of view.
Dawkins quotes the pop scientist Carl Sagan, who used the beauty of nature to pound religious faith into the ground. What Dawkins and Sagan overlook is that faith brings most people a lot closer to an appreciation of the Creation than does science. Science peels the onion layer by layer, while religion inspires us to see Creation the way an artist or a poet might. Science explains how things work, while religion tells you why. The fact that Genesis described the Big Bang thousands of years before science figured it out is a testimony to the power and poetry and truth of the Bible.
Dawkins and Sagan are cut from the same cloth, but when Dawkins tries to pull Albert Einstein into the argument, he distorts Einstein’s faith while ignoring his science. For example, Dawkins tries to discredit faith with a mocking differentiation of Theism (belief in a God who intervenes in history) from Deism (belief in a God who set Creation in motion, but doesn’t intervene after that).
That old differentiation is hollow, I believe, given that God is not bound by time. For God, the past and future are already complete. In reality, prayers not yet prayed already are answered. Einstein demonstrated that time is relative: for God, time is not a limiting dimension, making Deism vs. Theism a meaningless debate.
Dawkins describes the God of the Old Testament as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak.” Coincidentally, the Jewish comedian Lewis Black says the same, but then explains why: the Exodus people “were ten hairs short of baboons,” Black jokes. “They were completely out of control. They needed rules.” Of course, God’s love for his people is evident throughout the Old Testament, as well, but Dawkins fails to note what doesn’t fit his agenda.
Arriving at the Christian era, Dawkins mocks the notion of the Trinity, saying it’s ridiculous to think God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit could be distinct, yet one and the same. This from a scientist who presumably has read something about quantum physics, and the wave-particle theory of light – both of which demonstrate structural relationships analogous to the theology of the Trinity.
One last thing about time. I’m convinced we can’t begin to comprehend God’s existence without understanding the delusion of our fourth dimension, time. Get a copy of the Jan. 19, 2008, issue of New Scientist, and read Amanda Gefter’s article, “Time’s Up.” It begins, “The greatest trick the universe ever pulled was convincing us that time exists.”
Gefter quotes physicist Carlo Rovelli as saying, “It is not reality that has a time flow, it is our very approximate knowledge of reality that has a time flow. Time is the effect of our ignorance.”
As a man who built his faith on evolutionary biology, Dawkins has made a fatal commitment to the dimension of time. He is trapped in that matrix as thoroughly as any true believer, even as he rants against those who have faith in the God of Creation.
Lee Witting is a chaplain at Eastern Maine Medical Center and pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.