Chapter One – The story of creation
“Very intelligent and well-educated people believe in the story of creation in the Bible, while others hold it as proven false, and the grounds of the latter are well known to the former.” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §336)
“The popular scientific books by our scientists aren’t the outcome of hard work, but are written when they are resting on their laurels.” (Wittgenstein, 1942)
“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.52)
I read this in ‘The Independent’ newspaper of 20 February, 2003. Richard Dawkins is responding to questions sent in by readers of the newspaper.
Did you have a Pauline conversion to atheism? Or did your beliefs evolve more slowly over time? What changed your mind?
(Adam Elford, Northampton)
I had a normal, decent Anglican upbringing, which is to say that I was never brainwashed as I might have been had I been brought up in another faith.
I toyed with atheism from the age of about nine, originally because I worked out that, of all the hundreds of religions in the world, it was the sheerest accident that I was brought up Christian. They couldn’t all be right, so maybe none of them was. I later reverted to a kind of pantheism when I realised the shattering complexity and beauty of the living world. Then, around the age of 16, I first understood that Darwinism provides an explanation big enough and elegant enough to replace gods. I have been an atheist ever since.
If, when you die, you find yourself unexpectedly at the Pearly Gates, what would you say to St Peter?
(Mark Richards, by e-mail)
OK, I was wrong. But I was wrong for the right reasons. Those guys in there were right. But just look at their reasons.
Richard Dawkins is possibly the most prominent atheist in England. He is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He has written many books about the nature and implications of evolutionary theory, books marked by their lucidity and intellectual verve. He is clearly a very intelligent man with a gift for communicating difficult ideas in an accessible way. Unfortunately, almost everything that he has ever said about Christianity is false.
This is not entirely Professor Dawkins’ fault. His understanding of Christianity is a very common one. Yet, as I am sure that Professor Dawkins’ would agree, the fact that many people hold such a common understanding does not mean that it is the correct understanding. As the joke has it: a hundred thousand lemmings cannot be wrong.
My point is not that Dawkins believes Christianity is about believing one thing, whereas in truth Christianity is about believing something else. No: although beliefs have their place, my disagreement with the Professor is more basic than this. Dawkins – in common with many people on both sides of the Christian/atheist divide – considers that the defining characteristic of a Christian is the acceptance of certain beliefs. This I deny. Christianity is not about belief in certain propositions, it is about the orientation of your life.
Dawkins has a very distinct conception of what sort of thing religious faith is. He writes in ‘The Selfish Gene’:
‘Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational enquiry.’
In a footnote to this passage he expands:
‘But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something – it doesn’t matter what – in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway… I don’t want to argue that the things in which a particular individual has faith are necessarily daft. They may or may not be. The point is that there is no way of deciding whether they are, and no way of preferring one article of faith over another, because evidence is explicitly eschewed.’
Dawkins goes on to say:
‘…faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness… Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings… What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb.’
According to the Dawkins conception, then, faith is ‘blind’, and not open to rational debate. Justifiable beliefs must rest upon a rational account of the world, where there is recourse to publicly available evidence and harmony with our discoveries and experience. In other words, they must be scientific answers.
Faith and science are therefore the same sort of thing. They are both beliefs about the world. They have the same logical status. The difference between them is one of rational legitimacy. Religious beliefs cannot be supported by appeals to reason or evidence. Scientific beliefs can. Therefore, scientific beliefs are superior to religious beliefs.
This is the key mistake, for religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are not at all the same sort of thing.