Richard Dawkins’ new book The God Delusion seems to be causing a bit of a stir. I haven’t read it, and I probably won’t. Not long ago I sat through a series on Channel 4 TV in which Dawkins presented his views on the same subject, and that was more than enough to put up with!
But I would like to respond to one of Dawkins’ points which is highlighted by Al Mohler in his commentary article The Dawkins Delusion. And as Mohler has not enabled comments on that article, I am responding here and in more length than appropriate for a comment.
Mohler writes, in part quoting Dawkins in The God Delusion:
In [Dawkins’] opening chapter, he argues that most legitimate scientists–indeed all who really understand the issues at stake–are atheists of one sort or another. He defines the alternatives as between a stark atheism (such as that Dawkins himself represents) and a form of nonsupernatural religion, as illustrated by the case of Albert Einstein. “Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply,” he explains. As examples, Dawkins offers not only Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking but also Martin Rees, currently Britain’s Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society. … He cites Einstein to the effect that he was a “deeply religious nonbeliever”–moved by the majesty of the cosmos but without any reference whatsoever to a supernatural being.As Dawkins explains, real scientists are naturalists. As such, they eliminate entirely the question of a supernatural being’s existence. “The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.”
Thus Dawkins claims that scientists are never true theists, believers in a living and personal God separate from his creation, but if they are not atheists they are more like pantheists, believers in the divinity of the universe. But this claim is so wide of the mark as to be ludicrous. For centuries there have been many scientists who have been theists of one sort or another. Indeed the founders of modern science were almost all theists, even though many, such as Isaac Newton, were not orthodox Christians, and some tended towards deism (which is rather the opposite of pantheism, not identifying God with the universe but separating him entirely from it). Einstein also seems to have been a theist, despite what Dawkins claims, as shown by his famous statement “God does not play dice with the universe” (is that “without any reference whatsoever to a supernatural being”?); so apparently is Stephen Hawking, for he has insisted that “God does play dice with the universe.” Indeed, in our own time there are many good scientists who are theists, indeed who are orthodox Trinitarian Christians.
As an example, I can mention John Polkinghorne. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge, in the same department as Stephen Hawking (although not then in its beautiful new building). In fact Polkinghorne taught me astrophysics, when I was a graduate student of physics at Cambridge; I still remember his graphs of the life cycle of a star. He would never have got that post, nor been elected FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society), if he had not been a good scientist! He was also a reader (effectively a part-time assistant pastor) at a local Anglican church; I remember receiving communion from him. At about the time that I left Cambridge, 1978, he also left to train for ordination in the Church of England; he was then in his late 40’s. He ministered in churches for some years before returning to Cambridge as President of Queens’ College.
Polkinghorne has written a number of books on the subject of science and faith. In the one I have in my hand, Science and Christian Belief (SPCK, 1994), based on the prestigious Gifford Lectures for 1993-4, he argues from scientific first principles for an orthodox Trinitarian Christian faith, with a very definitely theistic God. Now I don’t agree with everything that Polkinghorne writes in this book. But he is certainly a counter-example to Dawkins’ claim. And Dawkins must be aware of him. Does he get a mention in Dawkins’ book, I wonder, or is this an embarrassment which is simply ignored?
But does Dawkins in fact have a point that these scientists have “a form of nonsupernatural religion” which is “light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible”? Well, yes, although this concept of a non-interventionist God is not pantheism but deism. As I mentioned before, there has certainly been a tendency towards deism among scientists, and more widely, since the 18th century Enlightenment. Indeed, as I have discussed elsewhere, a form of deism is found even among many Bible believing Christians, whose God is not really “interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, … prayer-answering”, and is “sin-punishing” only outside this world; they too hold to “a form of nonsupernatural religion” at least since the end of the apostolic age. But that is another issue.
Well, as we have seen, Hawking is certainly not a deist but a theist if he is serious in asserting that “God does play dice with the universe,” for this is a personal God intervening in the universe after its creation. Einstein’s denial of this did not make him a deist either, for, according to a BBC programme, “Einstein’s work was underpinned by the idea that the laws of physics were an expression of the divine.” It seems rather that their concept of God is a classical theistic one: God perpetually controls and upholds the universe which he created. But at least for Einstein this seems to have implied that God always works in a way determined by the laws of physics, thus ruling out miracles as well as randomness.
Polkinghorne, although not in the same league as Einstein and Hawking as a scientist, is certainly not a deist. He also goes beyond Einstein’s kind of theism to accept that God can work outside and beyond the laws of physics, for he accepts that at least one miracle took place: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if one miracle is possible, then there is no reason why others should not be. So, while Einstein’s God is not “the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible”, and while Polkinghorne might not identify completely with this rather tendentious description, Polkinghorne’s God is able at least in principle to do all these things, and his religion is not “nonsupernatural”.
And where my former science professor led, I am not afraid to follow. Indeed I would go further, and claim that God does indeed intervene in our world, work miracles, read thoughts, punish sins (but more readily forgive them), and answer prayer. There is nothing in science, understood properly, to say that these things are impossible. But I have seen these things happen, and as a scientist I need to take this as evidence that they are possible, and indeed should be expected to happen today.