Faith, hype and a lack of clarityKEITH WARD
Science and religion are in absolute conflict, according to Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Furthermore, in The Root of All Evil?, a two-part TV series this month, he has made the extraordinary claim that religion might be the root of all evil.
It takes only a little knowledge of history to undermine this black-and-white view of the world. It would be ludicrous to accuse Plato or Aristotle of “non-thinking”. But Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, to name just three Christian theologians, continued the Greek philosophical traditions, reflecting in detail on how these Greek views could be reasonably thought to be completed by Christian monotheism.
Today, if you take a course in theology at Oxford, Dawkins’ own university, you will be challenged to think for yourself, to engage with the best philosophical minds of the past, and to decide for or against specific religious beliefs on the basis of the best reasons you can find.
Most believers do not get involved in such abstract intellectual arguments about God. Christians quite rightly sustain their faith by personal response to the love of God which they see in Christ, in the sacraments of the Church, and in their personal experience. But they do need to know that faith has a rational foundation, and that in fact most of the great classical philosophers, Christian or not, have thought that there are very good reasons for believing in God.
In fact modern philosophy and science have both arisen from a resolute attempt, initiated by theologians, to think hard about the nature of the universe, and to decide whether it is founded on a spiritual reality or is at base purely material. Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and the co-discoverer of the principle of natural selection, A.R. Wallace, were all explicitly motivated to pursue science by their religious beliefs. Of course you do not need religious beliefs to be a great scientist, but to say that having religious beliefs is incompatible with being a scientist is just historically false.
Dawkins may think that the spiritual hypothesis has been demolished by materialism. There are indeed some philosophers who think so. But, as anyone who teaches philosophy knows, there are also reasons for believing in God. Even scientists who are not avowed theists, such as Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, usually accept that there are good reasons for believing in a designing intelligence, even if they think there are stronger reasons for declining that inference. There are reasons for belief in God, however, that can be intelligently believed and discussed, and to deny that is wilful prejudice and intellectual dishonesty.
Almost all Catholic theologians and scientists reject this thesis. But naturally they believe that the process of evolution is itself intelligently designed, as a way of generating a great diversity of emergent life-forms, culminating so far on Earth in intelligent human life.
The other reason is that a creator would be as improbable or complex as the complexity he was supposed to explain, so would not really be an explanation. This is more interesting, for it introduces a discussion about what an “explanation” is. A theist claims that scientific explanation, in terms of general laws and initial states, is not the only sort of explanation. There is also “personal explanation”, in terms of purposes and values. This is the sort of explanation used by historians, novelists, anthropologists, critics of the arts and ethicists. It is a perfectly familiar form of explanation. The question “Could there be a personal explanation for the universe?” is one on which there is rational discussion, and on which different views are held. It does no service to clear thinking to say that if anyone thinks there is such an explanation for instance, that the universe exists because God chooses it they are irrational, non-thinking, and have suspended their critical faculties. This is abuse, not argument.
What, then, about the claim that religion is the root of all evil? The twentieth century saw more people killed in warfare than any other century. Two world wars, the Falklands conflict, Vietnam and Korea, the massacre of dissidents in Russia … the list is long and tragic, but religion does not figure as a significant factor. Ironically, science does, since it is scientists who have designed weapons of mass destruction that can destroy the world, and built the arsenals that have made modern warfare possible.
Has science, then, produced more evil than religion? Lazy thinking would undoubtedly say yes. But what we really need to do is distinguish, and point out that it is the use of science by those with a blind will for power that is evil, while science can be used for good in medicine and agriculture. So it is with religion. Religion can be used by those with a blind will for power (though the “religious” need scientists to make their bombs). But religion is also the source of immense good hospitals, hospices, relief organisations, universities and schools, great cathedrals, music, art and literature and philosophy. Would the world be better without such things?
What Dawkins’ programmes lacked was any sense of complexity or discrimination. It was all uncomfortably like 1984, with its vastly over-simplified binary oppositions “science good, religion bad”. He did present some very creepy religious believers, but when he deigned to include a sensible one Richard Harries, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford he dismissed him as not really religious; “betraying both reason and faith”, he commented. The bishop betrayed reason just because he was religious, and betrayed faith because he did not seek to apply Old Testament injunctions without qualification to modern society.
And that, despite massive evidence to the contrary, is what Dawkins thinks “faith” is: taking a Holy Book literally, and applying all its principles unthinkingly to modern life. He did indeed find some people who apparently try to do that, though even they must do some thinking occasionally, since the Bible does not mention nuclear weapons or cloning, for instance.
Dawkins argues that morality can exist without religion, and the main Christian tradition would agree. God has planted some knowledge of natural moral law in the hearts of all. But Dawkins adds that Christian morality is cruel, brutish and poisonous because it seeks to make us moral by fear of Hell, and makes morality a matter of “sucking up” to a cruel and tyrannical God. We should seek good for its own sake, and affirm life “in a way that religion never can”.
Perhaps what Dawkins is doing is warning us of the pathologies of religion. Such pathologies exist, and they are to be eschewed. But virtually all the Christians I know do seek the good for its own sake, since God is precisely the Supreme Good. They affirm life and hold it precious because God creates and values life. They see in God a limitless, precarious and vulnerable love, in which they seek to participate. Whatever this is, it is not sucking up to a cruel sky-god.
So why can Professor Dawkins only see the bad in religion? Why is he incapable of making an objective, “scientific”, study of it, in all its diversity? Why is he unable to make distinctions between the many different forms of religious belief? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know this apostle of reason, when confronted with the word “faith”, suddenly becomes irrational, careless of truth, incapable of scholarly analysis. I really think it must be some sort of virus, and I wish my colleague a speedy recovery.
Keith Ward. "Faith, hype and a lack of clarity." The Tablet (January 21, 2006).
This article reprinted with permission from The Tablet.
Keith Ward is professor of Divinity, Gresham College, London, and Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus, University of Oxford. His latest book is The Case for Religion (Oneworld, Oxford, 2004).
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