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Photo of Richard Dawkins debating John Lennox

Posted: 10 December 2011, 0:38

Has Science buried God?

Richard Dawkins: Has science buried God? Which God are we talking about? We could take Einstein’s God, which is not really a personal God at all but a metaphor for the mystery of the universe. We could take a deist God, a mathematician who put together the cosmos and then sat back and watched everything happen. One could make a responsibly respectable case for the deist God – although it’s not a case that I would accept.

Then there is the God that John Lennox believes in. John Lennox is a scientist who believes that Jesus turned water into wine – a scientist who believes that Jesus somehow influenced all those molecules of H2O and introduced proteins, carbohydrates, tannins and alcohol and turned it into wine.

He believes that Jesus walked on water.

He believes that the creator of the universe – the God who devised the laws of physics and mathematics, who devised billions of light years of time and space, this paragon of physical science and genius of mathematics – couldn’t think of a better way to rid the world of sin than to come to this little speck of cosmic dust and have himself tortured and executed so that he could forgive himself.

That is profoundly unscientific. Not only is it unscientific but it also doesn’t do justice to the grandeur of the universe. It is petty and small-minded.

John Lennox: Richard, thank you for explaining so clearly – at least in part – what I believe. I am glad to hear you say that you feel a good case could be made out of the fact that there is rationality behind the universe.

You say it is not something you personally accept. So you believe that this universe is just a freak accident, that there is no mind behind it. Yet here you are possessing one of the best minds in the world!

I think there is a creator of the universe. But he is not just a force, he is a person and we humans are created in his image.

You say that God becoming human and Christ dying on a cross and rising from the dead is petty. I think the exact opposite – it deals seriously with the fundamental problem that atheism doesn’t even begin to deal with: humankind’s alienation from God. Of course, that makes no sense unless we believe in God.

I believe the universe is rationally intelligible precisely because there is a Creator-God behind it. How do you account for the rational intelligibility of the universe? 

Richard Dawkins: You say that I believe that the universe is a freak accident. But for many centuries it seemed perfectly obvious that it couldn’t possibly be a freak accident – you only had to look at living creatures and everything appeared designed. Darwin came along and showed that the universe is not a freak accident but neither is it designed. There is a third way – evolution by natural selection, which produces a close imitation of something that is designed.

The universe is not designed, we know that now. We don’t know how the laws of physics came into existence. Even if we don’t understand how the universe came about, it is not helpful to postulate a creator because a creator needs an explanation. Although it’s difficult enough to explain how a very simple origin of the universe – how matter and energy and one or two physical constants – came into being, it’s a lot harder to think how something as complicated as a deist God comes into existence. It’s even more difficult to think of how a Christian God, who actually cares about sin and gets himself born of a virgin, comes into existence.

Lennox: You have admitted elsewhere that Darwin explained neither the origin of life nor the origin of the universe.

Dawkins: Evolution doesn’t deal with the origin of life.

Lennox: You say we don’t know how the universe came to be, but science – then, as now – assumes that it is rationally intelligible.

It seems to me that atheism is saying that the thoughts in our minds are only the results of a mindless, unguided process. If that is so, it is very difficult to see how our thoughts could tell us anything that is true about ourselves.

The philosopher John Gray, who I understand is an atheist, says that, in its extreme form, Darwinism undermines the notion that we can give any credence to what we think. So, your atheism undermines the very rationality that you and I as scientists assume when we study the universe.

Dawkins: Natural selection builds brains which are good at surviving, and brains that are good at surviving are brains that are surviving in the world.

Lennox: But if our thoughts are simply reducible to physical, chemical and neurophysiological processes, how do we come to recognise things like truth?

Dawkins: Truth is what happens. Natural selection favours any animal that behaves in a way that recognises truth and acts upon it. Natural selection is a mechanical, blind, automatic force.

Lennox: You use the words ‘blind’ and ‘automatic’. My wristwatch is blind and automatic but it has been designed. The words themselves do not shut out the notion of design. To me, the whole process of the universe coming into being is so sophisticated that it is itself evidence of a rational mind behind it.

When Newton discovered the law of gravity he didn’t say: ‘Marvellous, now I know how it works, I don’t need God.’ God is an explicator at the level of an agent, not as a mechanism. Therefore we can study mechanisms and biology. The more sophisticated the mechanisms are, the more they may well point towards an agent. One can’t argue away the existence of an agent by showing that there is a mechanism.

Dawkins: An agent is a superfluous explanation.

Lennox: Science reveals that life has a digital database, a language all of its own – DNA. The only thing we know that is capable of producing language is mind. As an atheist you must reject that there is mind behind this language.

Dawkins: I do reject it. But DNA is not human language. It is very sophisticated but it doesn’t follow that it has to be generated by mind.

Lennox: But we know of no other way of it being generated. As a mathematician, I see this phenomenally sophisticated information-processor called a cell. Am I really to believe that its information-processing capacity came about simply by the laws of nature in random processes without a mind?

Dawkins: Yes.

Lennox: I find that impossible for a mathematician to believe.

Dawkins: I know you do. This is called the argument from personal incredulity!

Lennox: But I could say your position is the argument from personal presume-ity – that rationality comes from irrationality, that mind comes from matter. To me the biblical explanation that ‘in the beginning was the Word (the Logos)’ makes perfect sense. It also makes sense of the fact that we can do science itself.

Dawkins: But you haven’t explained where the Logos came from in the first place.

Lennox: The question ‘Where did the Logos come from?’ indicates that you are thinking of a created God. The whole point about the God revealed in the Bible is that he was not created. He is eternal.

I ask myself: ‘What is the best explanation?’ That there is an eternal Logos and that the universe, its laws, the capacity for mathematical description and the human mind derive from the Logos? That makes much more sense to me as a scientist than the other way round.

When there is no explanation for the existence of the universe, do you just believe the universe is a brute fact?

Dawkins: The universe is an easier brute fact to accept than a conscious creator.

Lennox: Well, who made it?

Dawkins: It is you who insists on asking that question!

Lennox: No, you asked me: ‘Who made the creator?’ The universe created you, Richard. Who made the universe?

Dawkins: A God is a complicated entity which requires a much more sophisticated and difficult explanation than a universe, which, according to modern physics, is a very simple entity.

Lennox: I am getting the message from you that it is ridiculous for me to believe in a God who created the universe because I have to ask: ‘Who created God?’ I am asking you: ‘You admit the universe created you, because in your view there is nothing else that could have created you, so who created the universe?’

Dawkins: The problem we both face is: ‘How did things start?’ I can’t explain the origin of life. At the moment nobody can.

Lennox: Your assumption, as I understand it, is that there is going to be an exhaustive reductionist, naturalistic explanation of everything in scientific terms. I don’t think so. If there is a God and if he created this universe and if, as I believe, he is personal, then I would expect certain things to follow.

I would see evidence in the universe that God existed. I feel I see it in the mathematical describability and in the fine tuning of the universe. I would also expect that there may be occasions when God speaks in special ways.

What is central for me is the thing you call ‘petty’. It is vastly significant because it is touching on something that affects every human being – the question of death. If Jesus rose from the dead as a matter of history, that makes an enormous difference to our view of the world. If this is God speaking to us, then far from being petty, I want to take it extremely seriously.

Dawkins: Well, of course it makes a huge difference if it is true. By comparison with the grandeur of the universe, I think it is petty that the creator of the universe couldn’t think of a better way to get rid of the sins on this one little speck of dust than to have himself tortured. He is the one doing the forgiving. Couldn’t he just have forgiven?

Lennox: Richard, this is a moral universe. Just forgiving doesn’t make sense. God sends his Son into the world to provide forgiveness and a basis on which he can justly bring forgiveness to me.

We live in a broken world; a world of massive injustice. If there is no God, then there is no ultimate justice. The Resurrection means that rational evaluation and justice will occur at the end of the world. And therein lies hope.

The question to be decided is: ‘Is there a God and has he revealed himself?’ Richard, I could look at you through a microscope or even dissect you. But because you are not just a scientific object I can’t get to know you as a person unless you reveal yourself to me.

The claim of Christ to be the truth – to be God incarnate – makes perfect sense to me because if there is a God who invented this wonderful universe with all its science, then he has taken the initiative in revealing himself to us at the level we can understand. He is a person. We are persons. So is it really true or is it simply myth and fantasy?

Dawkins: Well, myth and fantasy for me!

Lennox: That disturbs me for the following reason. In your book The God Delusion you say that it’s under scholarly dispute among historians that Jesus actually existed. Now I checked with ancient historians and that is not so. History is not natural science but I don’t understand why you would write something like that.

Dawkins: I take that back. Jesus existed.

 You could possibly persuade me that there was some kind of physical, mathematical genius who created the expanding universe, devised quantum theory, relativity and so on. But that is radically and fundamentally incompatible with the sort of God who cares about sin, the sort of God who cares about what one does with one’s genitals, the sort of God who is interested in one’s private thoughts and wickedness. Surely, you can see that a God who is grand enough to make the universe is not going to give a tuppenny cuss about one’s thoughts and sin.

Lennox: So you think that morality is not important.

Dawkins: Of course I don’t think morality is not important. I am a human being. I live in a society of human beings in which morality is important. But ours is one of billions of planets, and a cosmic God who bothers about the human scale is not the kind of God that is compatible with a scientific view of the universe. It is a medieval view.

If I were going to respect a God, it would be the kind of God that astronomer Carl Sagan might have worshipped, not a medieval God who fusses about sin and righteousness.

Lennox: I gather that you are promoting some advert on London buses which is going to say: ‘There probably is no God, so don’t worry and enjoy your life.’ Why ‘don’t worry’? Do you associate the idea of God with worrying?

Dawkins: I fought for a better slogan than that. It was devised by a woman on The Guardian. I wanted the slogan to say: ‘There almost certainly is no God, so live your life to the full.’

Lennox: But from where I sit, my relationship with God is the very thing that stops the worry and gives me the fullness of life. If God is real and has revealed himself, then it is through a relationship with him that we can enjoy a full life, and one which includes science.

Dawkins: I find that so unconvincing. I think there is something wonderful about facing up to the universe. Because we are increasing our understanding we can throw away childhood obsessions – imaginary friends who comfort us and the need for some kind of parent figure to turn to.

When we grow up we need to cast these things aside and stand up tall in the universe. It is a cold place. We are not going to last for ever. We are going to die. Facing up to that is a nobler way of getting through life than pinning one’s hopes on childhood delusions.

Lennox: But that all rests on the assumption that there is no God, and that they are childhood delusions.

Dawkins: Yes.

Lennox: But I could invert that. In a typical Freudian explanation, one’s atheism could be a flight away from the reality that there is a God, so we are back to the question inevitably…

Dawkins: We need the evidence.

Lennox: We need the evidence and I’m suggesting to you that we do have evidence in science, which is part of God’s revelation.

I feel that the contrast between standing tall – with no hope – in a silent and cold universe, believing that your moral sense must ultimately be illusion, and enjoying the personal friendship of God is immense.

Dawkins: Well, of course it is.

Lennox: But the basic question is: Is it true or not?

Dawkins: That is the question. Whether it is comforting or gives you hope is completely irrelevant. It has nothing to do with whether it is true.

Lennox: I agree, entirely.

Dawkins: If you are going to say that Jesus was born of a virgin, that Jesus walked on water and turned water into wine, that is palpably anti-scientific. There is no evidence for that and no scientist could possibly take the idea seriously.

Lennox: I can make it worse for you…

Dawkins: I know you can.

Lennox: ... because Jesus actually came to be the Logos that created the whole universe. If Jesus is the Creator incarnate, making water into wine is a triviality. The more fundamental thing is the fact that he claimed to be and gave evidence that he was God.

I don’t think it is anti-scientific. Science cannot say that miracles do not occur. It can say they are highly improbable but nobody is claiming that these things occurred by natural processes. They occurred because God fed his power in. Nor did the whole universe occur by natural processes. God created. That’s not anti-scientific.

Dawkins: What I mean is that when we’re doing science, if we have to keep in mind that at any moment there might be a magic trick slipped in, that would completely nullify the whole enterprise of science.

Lennox: I agree.

Dawkins: Well, that’s what you are allowing in your account.

Lennox: No I am not. In order to recognise what the New Testament calls ‘miracle’ – a special act of God – you must be living in a universe that has regularities that can be recognised. If dead people were popping up all over the place, we wouldn’t think the Resurrection was very special. Joseph knew where babies came from. He knew the regularity. So when he heard his wife-to-be Mary was pregnant it took some very special convincing for him to realise that something extremely special had happened.

The question is: ‘Did such a thing ever happen?’ The focus in the New Testament is not the virgin conception but the resurrection of Christ.

Ancient historians, many of them sceptical, say that the evidence for the resurrection of Christ is very powerful. The explosion of the Christian Church from a non-prosyletising group of Jews in the 1st century, the empty tomb and all the rest of it has led non-Christian historians to conclude that the tomb was empty. Are we prepared to believe in historical testimony or not?

Dawkins: I think that is deeply against the spirit of science. I don’t think I could do science if I thought that at any time something like the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth is going to be smuggled in by a godly caprice.

Lennox: Richard, what is the ultimate meaning of life for you?

Dawkins: A biologist might say that the ultimate meaning of life is the propagation of genes. Each of us can make an ultimate meaning, a private meaning, a purpose through what we hope to achieve in our life.

Lennox: The basic question for me is: ‘What is the nature of ultimate reality?’ If ultimate reality is simply the universe, that is one thing. However, I believe that there is a God who is personal, who is good, who is the source of life and meaning and who reaches out to me as a person. He is a God who, far from stopping me doing science, encourages the development of the mind that he has given me. So meaning to me has all kinds of dimensions.

Reality for me is not bounded by the three-score years and ten. It is not bounded by the death of the universe. It has an expanding horizon of hope. That to me is the only thing that is worthy of the God who created this vast cosmos – that our lives are not going to be extinguished just like that; that there is a ‘beyond’.

I can walk with confidence into that ‘beyond’ because I have a real relationship with the God who invented it all. Therefore it seems to me that the meaning offered by atheism and reductionism is very tiny.

Richard, do you ever get terribly tempted to believe that there is a God and that the kind of thing I am saying is true?

Dawkins: There are many things that would be very nice, but the fact that they are very nice doesn’t make them true.

Lennox: No, it doesn’t.

Dawkins: I gather you think you are going to survive your own death?

Lennox: Yes, I do.

Photo: Nigel Bovey

The debate was organised by the Fixed Point Foundation

This article first appeared in The War Cry and is reprinted with permission

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