A Reformed Response To:
Is Science a Religion?, by Richard Dawkins, The Humanist, Jan./Feb. 1997., pp 26-29
by Jonathan Barlow
The article presently under examination is a transcript of a speech made to the American Humanist Association by Richard Dawkins on the occasion of his being named "Humanist of the Year, 1996". Filled with his customary rhetorical excess (and also his much-appreciated humor), Dawkins' speech provides a good opportunity for Christians to take note of the role of presuppositions in every intellectual endeavor and the role of self-deception in unbelief.
The Faith of Science
Dawkins begins his speech by comparing the threat of AIDS and "mad-cow" disease to the threat posed by faith. He writes that faith is "one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate" (p 26). Dawkins defines faith as "belief that isn't based on evidence" and calls it the "principle [sic] vice of any religion" (ibid). Reformed Christians realize that this definition of faith is a caricature. Instead of viewing faith as belief that is not based upon evidence, we view faith as that which is a pre-condition for gaining any other knowledge; faith itself is not irrational or unscientific, but that which must be in order to gain other knowledge through science and logic. For instance, confidence in the law of non-contradiction could be said to be faith. There is no direct way to prove the law of contradiction except that it must be presupposed in order to learn anything or differentiate anything from anything else. Likewise, the principle of induction, which states that the future will be generally like the past, is what makes possible the formulation of scientific laws and theories. We cannot test the truth of this principle scientifically, for we would be assuming the truth of induction to try and prove it. We cannot test the truth of the principle logically, for logic has as its subject matter static propositions. Thus, induction and the law of contradiction, two of the bedrocks upon which all the rest of Richard Dawkins' knowledge is based, are both things he must accept on faith. Dawkins does not believe this, however, and directs this entire speech at demolishing the notion that science is a religion, or at least a faith-based discipline.
Dawkins and the Apostle Thomas
Dawkins writes, "Well, science is not religion and it doesn't just come down to faith. Although it has many of religion's virtues, it has none of its vices. Science is based upon verifiable evidences" (27). What we have seen above, however, is that science is based upon evidences which are themselves held to be true because of principles which are accepted on faith, induction and the laws of logic. No understanding of the philosophy of science seems to be evidenced by Dawkins' statements. He, in fact, appears to have the same honorific view of science as the technology-stunned hoi polloi. Dawkins compares science, which he sees as being based upon "verifiable evidence" with religion which he says shouts "independence from evidence" from the rooftops (ibid.). This is why, he says, we Christians criticize Thomas, the disciple who doubted Jesus' resurrection. He writes, "The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists" (27). Let us examine the Thomas story, so as not to let any of Dawkins' erroneous statements pass by without comment.
First of all, Dawkins says that the disciples only believed based upon faith. This is not at all accurate. In John 20:19 and following we find Jesus, after his resurrection, appearing miraculously in a locked room among the disciples. He "came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord" (Jn 20:19,20). Jesus not only appears to them, but he also shows them his wounded side and wounded hands to prove to them that he is the crucified, but ressurected Jesus. Where is the faith here?
Well, Thomas wasn't with the other disciples, so they reported to him what they had seen. Ten of his best friends all reported to him the same thing, that Jesus was resurrected. He did not believe them, however. Is this because he refused to believe on faith? No. There was the evidence of ten eyewitnesses, and yet he refused to believe, even given all the miraculous things he had already witnessed. How many journal articles must Dawkins read before he agrees with the findings of the scientific community? Has he seen all the calculations which allow us to postulate the existence of sub-atomic particles? Doesn't the testimony of witnesses count as evidence for Dawkins? I would imagine so, or else he would be forced to personally verify every experiment upon which he bases his current research.
Thomas' answer is more revealing of his attitude than his evidential requirements. He says to his 10 closest friends, whose word he doubts, "Unless I see the nail marks in the hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it" (Jn 20:25). Notice how strident Thomas' evidential ultimatum is. One thing that should be clear is that one's expectation for verification must match the entity under question. What if I stated, "I will not believe in the existence of Saltine Crackers until I eat one and it makes a sweet taste in my mouth"? This would be absurd. I would be requiring verification that is not and could not be accessible to me -- verification inappropriate to the entity under question. Suppose Jesus had come back with a non-scarred side and non-scarred hands. Suppose he appeared to the ten and then decided to re-enter heaven. Thomas' requirement for verification would be unreasonable. As it turns out, Thomas may not have even fulfilled his stated evidential standards before he believed. When confronted with Jesus personally, Thomas can do nothing but declare "My Lord and my God!" (v 28). Jesus' response is perhaps where Dawkins and the rest of the atheistic or so-called "freethought" community have received their impetus to use Thomas as the poster-child for Enlightenment rationalism and Baconian empiricism. He says to Thomas, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (29). In context, this quote is easily understood to be speaking of a different kind of belief required in the post-apostolic era. In the Gospels are recorded many miraculous acts of Jesus. Many who witnessed these events with their very eyes did not even believe! Some did, however. Now that Jesus is returning to heaven, there will be no chance to believe based upon sight. One must believe based upon the testimony of the apostles. Thomas' brand of faith is inappropriate for the apostolic era and beyond. Analogously, I must believe in the assasination of Abraham Lincoln based upon the testimony of witnesses. I cannot demand to see the event personally in order to believe it. Such a requirement is inappropriate for this time in history. Thomas, likewise, is held up to be an example of one whose brand of faith was too crude for the coming era. The question is not faith versus evidence, but what kind of evidence! If believing the testimony of witnesses is a kind of faith that scientists are not to embrace, then why are there scientific journals? (Dawkins here may well respond that scientists often include their data in journal articles, and thus their experiments can be checked. But who is to say that the scientists are honest in the reporting of their findings?)
Dawkins and Morality
On page 27, Dawkins calls faith a "vice". He criticizes scientists who falsify evidence. He calls science "one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines around - because science would completely collapse if it weren't for a scrupulous adherence to honesty in the reporting of evidence". He criticizes the law profession for being based upon the falsifying, or at least the twisting, of evidence. On page 28 he calls religious instruction "mental child abuse" stating that it is wrong to inculcate children in a particular religion. On page 29, Dawkins draws a finer point on the issue of morality writing, "When the religious education class turns to ethics, I don't think science actually has a lot to say, and I would replace it with rational moral philosophy." Further, "It's a rewarding question, whatever your personal morality, to ask as an evolutionist where morals come from; by what route has the human brain gained its tendency to have ethics and morals, a feeling of right and wrong?" He hints that a "thinking and feeling chimpanzee" should have more rights than "a human fetus with the faculties of a worm". He writes, responding to the charge of scientific zealotry, "Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We're content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don't kill them". Here, apparently, Dawkins means to say that arguing is morally better than killing. As the above testifies, it is truly amazing how much time Dawkins devotes to ethical issues. Let us ask, however, what kind of pronouncements Dawkins is able to make about ethical issues given his view of the world.
For Dawkins, human beings are animals that have evolved from lower forms of life and ultimately from non-life. They have material brains which have formed alongside material arms, legs, and colons. Somehow, a sense of feeling that some things are right and wrong have welled up in the human mind over the course of evolution. Ethical feelings are epiphenomena, feelings that have developed out of the chemical construction of the brain which itself evolved to possess this capacity. What does this mean? This means that ethical norms are like opposable thumbs, an inherited trait that has evolved gradually from non-life. Ultimately, in Dawkins' particular scientific world-view, there is nothing but matter. Thus, ethical obligations are mere feelings like indigestion or fear. How then, does Dawkins make pronouncements about how children ought to be taught? How does he know that it is better to let them decide about religion for themselves? Suppose someone else felt the epiphenomenon of obligation to teach his children his own religion. How does Dawkins propose going about arbitrating between the two feelings, his and the religious educator? He offers one alternative - rational moral philosophy, a discipline which has not exactly been responsible for very much agreement in the past! How does he decide which is more rational, killing someone for fun or killing someone in self-defense? It seems that since the former produces the state of mind "fun" and the latter is simply a response to the negative state of mind "fear", the former is a more positive, and thus presumably a more rational, thing to seek out. Of course, he is no more able to define rationality in terms of his Darwinistic world-view than he is able to define the ethical. For both are mere epiphenomena like fear, pain or pre-menstrual syndrome. Dawkins would do well to avoid altogether this subject for which his own world-view provides no answers, only a morass. In Dawkins' world-view, people are just animals battling it out in history -- it is no more ethical to let our children decide for themselves about religious issues than it is to grind them up and use them to fertilize the family garden.
Christianity, however, provides a coherent basis for ethics. There is an absolute person, God, and thus his unchanging character, and the ethical aspects of his character, can serve as absolute ethical norms. An added element is that with the character of an absolute God as our guide for ethical obligations we are not left in the dark because God is a person who can reveal his character to us. Not only are there obligations, then, but we can know them. The amazing amount of consolation Dawkins receives from his self-satisfaction with atheistic ethics is further evidence of his self-deception with regard to the possibility of ethics within his world-view. At least Christianity provides the ethical tools needed to critique the behavior of its own. Christians can condemn the actions of the Spanish Inquisition. Scientists like Dawkins, however, cannot even give a coherent reason for why the biological experiments of the Nazis were unethical.
Dawkins and Awe
Dawkins writes,"All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it's exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe - almost worship - this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide ... The merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise" (27).
Later, however, he writes, "we know from the second law of thermodynamics that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow, is hell-bent on leveling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. They - and we - can never be more than temporary, local buckings of the great universal slide into the abyss of uniformity" (29). So is science a good source of encouragement and awe, or for despair and nihilism? Dawkins' universe is one in which humans are animals presently evolving and battling it out until the time when the "sun will engulf the earth" (29). I'm not so sure that Dawkins has made his case that science replaces religion's sense of wonder and awe. Assume for a moment that an absolute person designed and created the ant's brain with all of its minute detail; assume for a moment that a loving God made the crab nebula and the planets and stars in all their vast array! Which is more awe-inspiring, the creation or the creator? I'm not giving an argument for God's existence, here, only that given his existence as creator, he is more awesome than the creation.
I would do well at this point to break away and leave Dawkins in the morass of his purely contingent universe in which not even logic, science, and morality make any sense. For all of his huff and puff against faith, Dawkins lives in a drafty house of pure scientism that he has sealed up with faith -- faith in logic, of whose foundations he can give no account, faith in induction, upon which he builds science, and faith in the evolving human brain and the evolving human society to more often produce Martin Luther Kings than John Wayne Gacys.