Monday, November 12, 2012

“Has Science Buried God?” A Debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox

In 2006, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins published his best-seller The God Delusion, a scathing attack on religion in general and the Christian faith in particular. With generous doses of ridicule and scorn, he sought to convince people why there almost certainly is no God. For Dawkins, religion is what happens when people persistently choose to believe in a delusion despite contrary evidence. But has science really disproved the existence of a personal Creator? Well, just the opposite may be true. According to John Lennox, professor of mathematics and philosophy of science at Oxford, the evidence actually points us to belief in a purposeful Creator of the universe.

His monograph “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?” represents a sustained response to Dawkins’ challenges from a Christian perspective. Since then, both eminent scientists had conducted their debate live before sold-out crowds. The most recent encounter was held at the Oxford Museum of Natural History where the famed evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce took place in 1860. More than 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the question of God in relation to science is as fascinating and fierce a topic to engage the human mind as ever.  The format of this debate also entitled “Has Science Buried God?” was unusual in that both proponents engaged in extended conversations without much intervention from a moderator. Although it allowed for more spontaneous exchanges, the lack of a clear structure also meant that various issues cropped up that deviated somewhat from the main topics.

The Intelligible Universe

In his opening gambit, Dawkins made a surprising concession that “a reasonably respectable case” can be made for a deistic God, who merely set up the laws of nature, sat back and watched the show. It seemed like an about-turn from his de facto atheist position. In The God Delusion, Dawkins rated belief in God as highly improbable comparable to belief in fairies beneath a garden[1]. But he immediately went on the offensive by chastening Lennox for his specifically theistic beliefs, such as Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine. Dawkins found it unbelievable that the Creator of the universe, this Paragon of mathematical laws and physical science, should intervene to rid the world of sin by being personally tortured and executed. In start contrast, what he saw as “profoundly unscientific” and “petty” would inspire the Psalmist’s awesome wonder when he marveled in song, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?[2]

In response, Lennox found it equally hard to believe the atheist’s claim that there is no rationality behind the universe’s existence. How could an intelligent mind such as Dawkins’ be produced by “freak accident”? As scientists, both men operate on the assumption that the world and its laws could be studied and understood rationally. But how do we account for the intelligibility of the universe? The entire scientific enterprise is undermined if the reliability of our cognitive faculties is in doubt. For Dawkins, the truth-discovering faculty of a brain is obviously useful for our survival in the real world. It would not help the propagation of genes if animals often made misguided jumps off a cliff. Lennox quipped that some human beings do very well by telling lies. The problem is also known as “Darwin’s doubt”: How can we really trust a mind that has been determined by unguided, mindless evolution interested only in reproductive success rather than the truth? For a Christian scientist, the world is ultimately intelligible because there is Logos (or a rational Mind) behind it. The present impasse may be transcended with further exploration into whether truth-discovery is necessarily helpful to survival or paranoid false beliefs could function as a survival strategy too.  

The Origin of Everything

Fred Hoyle once said that the probability of life appearing on Earth is like the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a junkyard, would assemble a Boeing 747. Dawkins admitted that scientists do not yet have an answer to explain how the extremely precise balance of physical laws and gravitational constants necessary for organic life came about. However, such gaps in our current knowledge should not be a license to bring in God as an explanation. The “parable” of Darwin’s theory showed that even seemingly designed living organisms could emerge from blind processes of natural selection. Perhaps we should wait patiently for a cosmologist “Darwin” to arrive on the scene. But even if science could never fill these gaps, he added, the God hypothesis would still be far more complex to explain than the “simpler” problem of the universe’s origin. Dawkins also had little patience for the idea that God may guide the evolutionary process in order to create life because it would be an unnecessary add-on explanation for something that could be exhaustively explained with natural causes. If we can explain a falling object by gravitational force, we wouldn’t dream of saying “Oh! There must be a God pushing it down”?    

Lennox took issue with the false dichotomy that just because a scientific mechanism has been discovered (evolution or gravity), the role of God as an Agent is ruled out of court. He believed that science could open up a few “good gaps” that we would expect if God indeed created the universe. Perhaps it would be helpful if he could distinguish between “bad gaps” caused by ignorance and “good gaps” revealed by more accurate scientific knowledge. For example, recent discovery of complex DNA language coded in the book of life is a clue inferring to the existence of a rational Mind behind it. For Lennox, the atheist’s assumption that there must be an exhaustive, reductionistic and natural explanation for all things is itself a faith position that cannot be verified by scientific experiments. Philosophically, he argued that the question “Who created God?” is meaningless because by definition, God is eternal and not caused by anything else.

As an analogy, we may imagine the sight of a tree being struck down by lightning while driving north from Simpang Pulai on a rainy monsoon day. The tree fell from a hill, washed down by pouring water and triggered an avalanche of rocks. At the end of these observable natural processes, a long string of rocks formed the words “Welcome to Ipoh!” Would we be inclined to think that it was no freak accident and that the natural processes themselves were directed by intelligence? It is not a superfluous but reasonable inference to the best explanation. If that simple rock-based information leads us to such a conclusion, how much more compelling is the complex, ancient DNA language written in each and every cell within our bodies? To borrow a quote from Lennox, “You don’t argue away the existence of an agent by explaining the natural mechanism.”

Ultimate Meaning and Purpose in Life

What can science tell us about morality and the purpose of life? Is there any ultimate justice in a world of suffering and injustice? The practical implications from both worldviews came into stark relief when such fundamental issues were addressed. When pressed for his own position, Dawkins bit the bullet with admirable clarity, “OK, suppose there is no hope. Suppose there is no justice. Suppose there’s nothing but misery and darkness and bleakness. Suppose there’s nothing that we would wish for… Too bad!” He proposed that it is a nobler alternative to face up to our inevitable death in a silent and cold universe than pinning our hopes on childhood illusions and imaginary friends. It is completely irrelevant whether a belief is comforting because the psychological benefits don’t make it true. We need to have solid evidence to ground our beliefs. Within an atheistic framework, Dawkins believed that each one of us could make up a meaning for our own lives. However, not all constructed meanings are equally valid. From his own subjective standards, Dawkins believed that it would be a “tragedy” that people waste their lives devoted to religion.

Lennox would agree that beliefs should be evaluated based on evidence rather than the emotional comfort it offered. He pointed out that atheism could be guilty of Freudian wish-fulfillment as well – “a flight away from the reality of God”. Lennox stressed the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection from the empty tomb and eyewitnesses. If Jesus rose from the death, it is a worldview-shattering event that expands our “horizon of hope” beyond the bounds of death. At least, in view of mainstream scholarship, Dawkins was forced to take back his claim that Jesus’ existence was disputable. Through God’s self-revelation in Christ, Lennox testified that it was a personal relationship with Him that offered fullness of life (science included!).

Under the looming shadows of a T-Rex skeleton, both participants did a good job comparing the worldviews they represented. Dawkins held the rhetorical edge with his engaging analogies, but Lennox held his own with careful philosophical arguments. It is a worthwhile experience to listen in order to understand the views of someone you do not agree with. The full debate may be viewed from YouTube or

[1] The God Delusion, pages 51-53
[2] Psalm 8:3-4 

Book Review: The Other Six Days

Review: The Other Six Days (Paul Stevens)

For most of church history, the people of God have been divided into two categories – those who “do ministry” (the clergy) and the objects of ministry (the laity). This clergy-laity division perpetuates a caste system of “spiritual” work with missionaries and pastors at the top of value chain, followed by people-helping professionals (like doctors, teachers, nurses) and “barely-religious, secular” jobs (such as lawyers, politicians and jazz musicians) close to the bottom! In The Other Six Days, Stevens challenged that dualism with provocative biblical, theological and practical reasons.

In Part I of the book, the author sounded a clarion call for reframing a theology “of the whole people of God” (where every member of the church is gifted, chosen and called by God for service in the world), “for the whole people of God” (which intentionally empowers the ordinary believer for practical, applied living) and “by the people of whole people of God” (where academic theologians work together with ordinary believers in the furnace of marketplace realities). By doing so, we recover an ecclesiology where each member is “ordained” to do the Lord’s work from Mondays to Saturdays and equipped to apply biblically Kingdom values to his daily concerns.

He argued that even in the Old Testament, the entire nation of Israel was called to belong to God and serve His purposes (Exodus 19:6). But within that people, were not some given a special call to be priests, prophets and kings? According to Stevens, the new covenant envisaged by the Old Testament promised a day in which all people will have God’s law written in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:34). The once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus the great High Priest has fulfilled the function of the Old Testament priesthood so that now the entire church is a royal priesthood. But he cautioned against ‘anti-clericalism’, stressing the need for gifted leadership of dedicated pastors as God’s will for the church (page 53). Drawing from the doctrine of Trinity, he outlined how the church needs to mirror that perichoretic life of God by rejecting individualism and embracing every member to contribute to the unity/ministry of the whole community of faith.

In Part II of the book, Stevens explores the thorny subject of calling and vocation in a culture where we no longer find meaning at work in relation to God. It is common to hear believers in ‘full time’ ministry speak of a special call from God but it seems not to apply to other believers. Stevens proposed that we do not separate God’s calling for humanity into two, disconnected mandates – The Creation Mandate (Genesis 1:27 – 30) and The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). It has tragic consequences to emphasize one and downplay the other. Rather, we ought to see our human calling in terms of a “covenant encompassing creation, redemption and final consummation. Salvation is both a rescue operation (recovering our lost vocation in Eden) and a completion project (preparing for the final renewal of creation at the second coming of Jesus)” . In that sense, all believers are called to communion with God, community-building (relationships, family and holy sexuality) and stewards in caring for the creation. “Every legitimate human occupation (paid or unpaid) is some dimension of God’s own work: making, designing, doing chores, beautifying, organizing, helping, bringing dignity and leading.”

In Part III of the book, Stevens explores how the biblical ministries of prophet, priest and king relate to the whole people of God in the wider world. As priests, the church intercedes for others in God’s presence and offers up everyday life as ‘spiritual worship’ (Romans 12:1). As regents, they bring in Kingdom values to bear on all of life. They embody the rule of God on earth as it is in heaven. As prophets, they bear witness to the gospel and challenge dehumanizing powers and idolatrous systems. People can be encouraged to see the marketplace as a natural place for evangelism by “using workplace terminology to share our faith; by connecting Sunday and Monday through interviewing people about their work, and praying for them; by extending pastoral care to the workplace, especially when there is injustice or unemployment; and dealing with workplace sins and temptations as part of church discipline” .  I am encouraged to put into practice some of these recommendations on a weekly basis during worship service to facilitate this paradigm shift.

The Other Six Days is a most worthy and inspiring read for Christians who seek deeper connections of faith to their work in the office, factory, school, field or at home as well as pastors who seek to send out the congregation to minister in the world. When we recover a biblical theology of work, ministry will be transformed as pastors are liberated from the crushing burden to minister to every need in the church. Rather, they exercise leadership gifts to empower and equip the people to spiritual maturity and service with God’s word. Similarly, mission is transformed when a church of one hundred members serve throughout the week in all the contexts in which God has placed them. They do not need to go into the world because they are already there.

Book Review: How Long, O Lord?

Review: How Long O Lord? (DA Carson)

Despite advances in science, pain and death remain an inevitable part of life. Where is God when suffering abounds and tragedy strikes in the form of cancer, tsunami, wars and abuse? For some, it is an intellectual question to reconcile the existence of a loving and all-powerful God in the face of seemingly purposeless evil. For others, it is an existential cry from the heart. D. A. Carson wrote this book to help Christians not only to find assurance that their beliefs are consistent but to apply and draw comfort from them in the dark seasons of suffering.

In Part I, Carson cautioned us against false security that we could be insulated from suffering and radical evil through our own resources. Sometimes, we expect immediate relief from pain through our prayers and forget that God works for the good of those who love Him precisely in the midst of misery. It is not a promise to remove suffering altogether in this side of heaven. We may also draw false comfort from biblically indefensible notions of God as a sympathetic but less-than-omnipotent god or as a deistic Watchmaker who stay uninvolved with the world after setting natural laws in motion. Such attempts at justifying God’s ways with humanity (or theodicy) are sub-biblical, Carson argues, because Scripture reveals God as personally involved with the world and His omnipotence is not constrained with human freedom.

In Part II, Carson explores selective biblical themes relevant to the problem of evil and suffering to locate it within a Christian framework. From a survey of redemptive history, we find that an originally good creation is corrupted by human sin. Sickness and death entered the world as a result. While it does not mean that every bit of suffering is necessarily the immediate consequence of a particular sin, there is a profound sense that we are sinners who take part in and deserve the sufferings of a fallen world. We have forfeited any “right” to a life of ceaseless comfort. It is by God’s mercies that we are not destroyed. While discussing social evils, Carson pointed out that Jesus was not surprised by the prevalence of wars, famines and earthquakes (Matthew 24). Instead, the Lord treats natural disasters and injustices as incentives to repentance: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish”. It thus runs counter to our default expectation that we deserve prosperity and health while suffering and death are grossly ‘unfair’.

There are also sufferings peculiar to the people of God as a form of discipline for their ultimate good and intended to help them to fight sin. It is not necessarily a consequence for the lack of faith or prayer. Sometimes, mature Christian leaders may experience suffering closely connected to opposition to their courageous witness so that through their weakness, the life of Christ may be revealed and nourish the church (2 Corinthians 4:8-12). The chapter on Job is also a provocative challenge to the mistaken notion that the righteous will not suffer or those who suffer must have directly deserved it: The real question is whether we are more interested in seeking God for His own sake or for personal gain? Will we still worship Him when all worldly comforts are stripped away?  

Another helpful biblical theme is God’s promise to right all wrongs and wipe away all tears at the End. It assures us that wickedness will not prosper ultimately. Death will not have the last word. From that eschatological perspective, we cultivate homesickness for heaven in God’s presence and avoid putting our hopes on all things finite. Ultimately, however, only the cross of Calvary reveals to us the kind of suffering God that we can trust despite not having all the answers. It is not “a kind of immanentist identification of God with all human suffering” (page 189). The cross is the supreme display of God’s justice and love. Christ suffered once-for-all to reconcile His people to the Father. He knows first hand what suffering is and therefore, He is able to sympathize with our weakness. Whatever hidden reasons God has for allowing tragedies and disasters, the reason could not be that He does not care. Only the God who carries the scars of wounds on Himself could really speak to and heal our own brokenness.

In Part III, Carson discusses the mystery of providence in how the Bible affirms God’s all-encompassing sovereignty in a way that is compatible with meaningful human responsibility. It consists more of biblical expositions than philosophical speculations. God’s loving providence teaches us to trust and obey in spite of not having all the answers. “God is less interested in answering our questions than in other things: securing our allegiance, establishing our faith, nurturing a desire for holiness” (page 245).

Finally, the book concludes with some pastoral reflections that often in the midst of suffering, the most comforting “answers” are simple presence, practical help and silent tears with those who mourn. Overall, I found it to be most helpful to anchor our faith in solid biblical insights so that we will stand firm when the storm of inevitable of pain and death comes. It challenges our false demands for how life ought to be and our idolatrous dependence in our own resources to insulate life from pain. It offers much wisdom and sensitivity in dealing with the problem of suffering in a gospel-centered perspective.