Under the Microscope: Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, never misses an opportunity to attack religion, and he particularly relishes attacking it in Ireland.
He delivered his latest broadside in the December 2004 edition of the Dubliner magazine. He has written several brilliant popular books on biological evolution. Dawkins's essays on evolution carefully comply with strict scientific criteria. However, much of his attack on religion is mere opinion and assertion. This is not the official scientific position. In his new book Dawkins' God (Blackwell, 2005) Alistair McGrath, a biochemist and professor of historical theology at Oxford University, analyses the intellectual content of Dawkins's atheism and of his virulent attacks on religion. McGrath finds that many of the positions taken by Dawkins in these areas are unsustainable.
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace introduced the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859. In Dawkins's opinion, the only rational argument for the existence of God was the argument from design. This argument, best made by the English clergyman William Paley (1743-1805), pointed to the many examples of intricate design in nature, such as the eye, and concluded that this clearly implied a designer, ie God.
Darwin and Wallace demonstrated that natural selection could unconsciously account for design in nature, and this demolished Paley's argument.
Dawkins believes that the theory of evolution shows there is no God and thereby entails atheism. He makes a fundamental mistake here. It is widely acknowledged by philosophers of science that the scientific method cannot adjudicate on the God question.
Some scientists conclude that the evidence of the natural sciences encourages a predisposition towards belief in God. Others conclude the opposite. What is certain is that science cannot prove the matter one way or the other. Many famous scientists believe both in evolution and in God. It is commonly supposed that Charles Darwin lost his faith in God as a result of his theory. However, it seems that he did not entirely relinquish belief in God and his agonisings on the matter were occasioned mostly by the untimely death of his favourite daughter.
Certainly, Alfred Russell Wallace remained deeply spiritual all his life. Theodosius Dobzhansky, the famous Russian evolutionist, was a believing Russian Orthodox. And today, Francis F Collins, director of the human genome project, is a devout Christian. On the other hand, one can also quote a long list of eminent evolutionists who were/are either agnostic or atheistic. Neither the theist nor the atheist is entitled to claim that their case is proved by rationality alone.
When attacking religion, Dawkins frequently builds a straw man in order to knock him down. One of his favourite targets is faith. He says faith "means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence". But Dawkins' definition of faith has nothing to do with what theologians mean when they speak of faith. The Christian tradition has always valued rationality and does not hold that faith involves the abandonment of reason or belief in the teeth of evidence.
Dawkins latest contribution to the Dubliner magazine describes "inconsistencies" in the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ. I am no scriptural scholar, so I can't really comment on this. He winds up by pointing out that no scholar thinks Jesus was born in December but we are certain that December 25th is the birthday of Isaac Newton, probably the greatest scientist who ever lived. He advocates that we would be better off wishing each other "Happy Newton's Day" on December 25th rather than the traditional Happy Christmas. In what follows, I quote my response to Dawkins point, which is posted on the Dubliner website at www.thedubliner.ie.
I agree with Richard Dawkins that we should also remember Sir Isaac Newton on his birthday, December 25th. Newton was probably the greatest scientist who ever lived and his discoveries form the basis for much modern science. This is widely known, but what is much less well known, in fact almost entirely overlooked (and Richard neglects to enlighten us in his piece), is that Newton was also an intensely religious (Christian) man and that he believed his religious sentiments propelled him to make such profound discoveries. Newton wrote, "a little knowledge leads away from God, but much knowledge leads towards Him".
Although Newton wrote many scientific papers, the great majority of his writings dealt with religion and not science. He devoted much of the first 30 years of his life to scientific study, but after that his time was increasingly spent in theological studies. When Newton's writings went for auction at Sotheby's, the ones dealing with religion outnumbered his scientific writings by a factor of five.
Many modern scholars believe there is a conflict between science and religion. Newton however, the father of modern science, strongly believed that religion and science go hand in hand. In fact, he went even further, stating that it is not only acceptable to be religious and scientific, it is essential if one is to do work of the highest quality. Albert Einstein echoed this sentiment more than 250 years later.
Newton's belief in God was intense and was part of his innermost thinking. He would undoubtedly be glad if people remembered him on his birthday. He would equally undoubtedly like to be remembered second on that day, after we first celebrate the birthday of Jesus.