Why Dawkins's case against religion creaks at every joint


RITE AND REASON:A leap of faith is required to accept the argument offered by Richard Dawkins

RICHARD DAWKINS sold himself very short indeed in Dublin recently. For he was mainly concerned with securing the claim that “if science can’t get at the truth, nothing else can”; and then with securing not just the equality but the superiority of science over religions and their theologies.

So he insisted, first, that science entertains “much mystery and magic of its own”; and, second, that the queen of science on the contemporary scene, quantum physics, reveals mysteries that would be “well beyond the impoverished imaginings of any theologian”.

Dawkins’s case is built on twin platforms. First, that evolution offers a full and adequate explanation of how the world came to be as we now know it; and this makes creator gods superfluous.

Then, second, that creator gods, and especially the Christian version, are nothing short of agents of immorality, both by example and in terms of their actual moral teachings, and the horrendous punishments threatened to enforce these.

All of which nullifies any remaining possibility of good moral behaviour on the part of a race already apparently only too prone to immorality, and increasingly so as its powers of destruction grow apace.

The first platform for Dawkins’s case against religion – that evolution theory makes creator gods obsolete – creaks at every joint. Since a full understanding of it requires a broad acquaintance with both physical science (especially quantum physics) and metaphysics and few, possibly including Dawkins (a mere biologist, if not just a zoologist) can claim such broad expertise, it is sufficient to note briefly here how those properly endowed do handle it. Then we can pass on quickly to Dawkins’s moral argument; for we are all endowed by nature with a moral sense and an impressive moral repertoire.

First, evolution names a process, not an agent. It simply tells us that whatever agency causes this world to come to be what it now is, did not create the world in the beginning in the form in which we now know it.

Rather did the agency create the world in the beginning in such a manner that a certain randomness in the “units” out of which the world is made, is always combined with it. This is never without sets of laws that govern the cosmic dance of the “units” ever alternatively coming together and breaking apart, until the world we now inhabit continues to come to be.

And because the randomness in the “units” offers the possibility of virtually infinite combinations and permutations, regulated by laws themselves designed to evolve apace, contemporary science holds out the possibility – for some more than a possibility – of innumerable worlds, according to either the multiverse or the many-worlds formula.

Second, quantum physics challenges the notion that the original “units” consist in atomic particles that are in effect hard balls of solid matter. It suggests instead that these are more akin to pure geometric forms, like one-dimensional strings or triangles for example; and these, like the laws, look more like mental constructs.

So that it is matter that emerges from mind, rather than mind from matter; and Dawkins’s imagination may be the one that is too impoverished to see the full implications of quantum physics.

Scientists who work in quantum physics and regard the mind-born entity called knowledge as the main formative, causative factor in the making of the cosmos, normally assure us it is not as advocates of any religion that they arrive at these views.

Finally, Dawkins freely admits science still cannot see how life, much less mind, can have emerged from lifeless matter.

But that leaves his totally evolutionary explanation of the coming to be of the cosmos still looking at a yawning gap in the evidence offered for his theory; requiring, it would seem, a leap of faith to cross it. But that, surely, could not be science; and one cannot but recall all Dawkins has to say about leaps of faith.

James P Mackey is visiting professor in the school of religions and theology at TCD and professor emeritus of theology at the University of Edinburgh. His most recent books include Christianity and Creation.