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 

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