Theology

The Debating Society.

I’ve recently found my attention verging towards that extremely intelligent atheist Richard Dawkins; someone who I’ll admit knows more about the world of science than I ever will. To try and argue with him on that (or, to be precise, his) level would be rather arrogant of me. Nonetheless, Dawkins is an interesting guy, and worth consideration despite my disadvantage. Here’s a quote that he made in 2011, in a debate with fellow scientist and Christian, John Lennox:

John Lennox is a scientist who believes that Jesus turned water into wine. A scientist who believes that Jesus somehow influenced all those molecules of H20, and introduced proteins and carbohydrates and tannins and alcohol, and turned it into wine. He believes that Jesus walked on water. I had been accustomed to debating with sophisticated theologians and I come across John Lennox, who is a scientist who believes in all those things. In particular, he believes that the creator of the universe, the God who devised the laws of physics, the laws of mathematics, the physical constants, who devised the parsecs of space, billions of light years of space, billions of years of time; that this paradigm of physical science, this genius of mathematics couldn’t think of a better way to rid the world of sin than to come to this little speck of cosmic dust, and have himself tortured and executed, so that he could forgive himself. That is profoundly unscientific. It doesn’t do justice to the grandeur of the universe. It’s petty and small-minded. And that’s the God that John Lennox believes in.

Well, Dawkins has helpfully summarised most of his thoughts on religion in a nutshell for us right there. Most of what he says is factually accurate, but in getting caught up in that, he has missed the most obvious point – the ‘elephant in the room’, we could say. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Firstly, the main thing that we get from this passage is the tone of mockery that Dawkins takes in relation to Christianity. This is instinctively what we pick up from Dawkins’ words and body language, and if you weren’t intimately familiar with the Christian God before coming to it, it’s likely that this is as far as you’ll go. He points out how absurd this whole ‘religion’ sounds and it’s hard to disagree if you don’t know better. You may even discover a desire to get a few digs in yourself. This is true of both sides; if you’re sitting across from him as his opponent, you’ll feel almost obliged to do so, having been horribly offended by his derogative tone in a way that Jesus never was.

You see, when Jesus was around, he had to take this kind of treatment regularly as well. It isn’t exactly a new thing, much as Dawkins would like to believe that the 19th century made everyone feel suddenly enlightened; a time when apparently it became ‘uncool’ for educated people to believe in a being who, based on this ‘pettiness’ and ‘small-mindedness’ in lowering himself to the level of the common man, was clearly below them intellectually.

Knowledge of physics, biology and any other kind of science tells us that the things Jesus did are just not possible. Therefore, Dawkins would say God doesn’t exist, without considering the possibility that God is far above the human standards that he has set for Him. Dawkins is saying God doesn’t exist because he cannot exist. Is that proof? If Jesus were simply man, maybe, but He never claimed to be just that, and if, as Dawkins himself has said in the above quote, God is indeed the creator of everything and therefore far above our ‘petty little speck of cosmic dust’, shouldn’t we also consider the possibility that judging him by what we think is possible or impossible may not be the best starting point in the argument?

I digress, for I’m not writing this post to present a counterpoint to Dawkins’ argument. As I’ve stated earlier, I don’t think I’m on his level intellectually. He can stay up there on his perch. I’d sooner tell him I love him than speak of him in the same manner that he would speak of me.

But I have another reason for not wanting to get into this kind of debate with a hot head. I hinted at it before; Dawkins is completely accurate when he says the things that Jesus did are not possible (or else they wouldn’t have been miracles, would they?). We can not, and should not, convince him otherwise, because that would be missing the point. Rather than arguing with his facts, we need to show him what he does not yet know, in the same way that he could educate me with his scientific knowledge.

That word was largely the focus of my last post and again it is the focus here; it is Dawkins’ own knowledge that presents the biggest barrier to his possible relationship with a God who is simply ‘impossible’ by the standards set for Him. Take the line, “a scientist who believes that Jesus turned water into wine. A scientist who believes that Jesus somehow influenced all those molecules of H20, and introduced proteins and carbohydrates and tannins and alcohol, and turned it into wine” as an example. Dawkins is mocking the fact that anyone can believe this. In his mind, he knows all of these (completely accurate) physiological factors that go into the production of wine, and he knows that it is not as simple as many Christians would like us to believe, that Jesus couldn’t have just waved his hand and turned water into wine within seconds. There would surely at least have to have been some kind of scientific process. It is the lack of this, something he has spent his entire life studying, that Dawkins can not accept. Yet this effortless action is exactly what Jesus did. In the miracle of turning water into wine, He humbles the complicated process of science. Dawkins having a problem with it doesn’t by any means prove that the miracle didn’t happen (in much the same way that Dawkins – or anyone else for that matter – having a personal problem with God’s character doesn’t disprove His existence for anyone else).

Dawkins proceeds to outline for us, in a compact and useful description, how much bigger and greater God is in comparison to us in the universe. Honestly, I couldn’t have done a better job with that part myself. But in believing that Jesus came to dwell among us because that was the only method God could think of to rid the world of sin, and in thinking this was a petty and small-minded course of action, Dawkins is very wrong indeed. For Jesus did not come to rid the world of sin; He came to rid us of sin. The world was against Him all the way, and still is. Dawkins himself is ample proof of that.

The reason it was necessary for Jesus to come and experience suffering in the world is not simply because it was the only way God could forgive us. Sure, that’s the light, easier version that works for people who don’t feel they need to fully understand it (not that I’m saying we ever can fully understand it) for it to be true. Clearly, Dawkins is not one of those people. He is much more demanding. So a more satisfying answer would be this, and it is the message on which the whole of Christianity rests. It is that God the Father desired a close, personal relationship with us. He made the first move and said; “I’m taking the lead in this relationship, so that I know your pain – now, unlike before, I am not so far above you that you cannot reach me. We are of the same family”. This realisation makes us love Him. It is why we depend on Him. It is also why we make the choice to serve and worship him, to give back some part of what we have been given.

Yet even this may not resonate with Dawkins, or someone like him. It may sound like a childish answer for lonely, sentimental people (not that this is the case, but from Dawkins’ viewpoint it would be). So let me put it another, almost more straightforward, way: we can never reach God’s standard by our own efforts. Even if we did not sin, this would still be the case. He is far too big for us to even imagine it. Dawkins pretty much says it himself, in the above quote. In realising this, he has unknowingly touched upon the core reason why Jesus entered the world; lowering Himself to our level, stripping away His own birthright and making Himself petty, not primarily to take all of our sin, but also to give us his status in return. Essentially, we swapped places. This opens the way, a path to God that wasn’t possible before. It is the very essence of grace, something that we didn’t deserve and couldn’t possibly ever earn. Forgiveness is really only the start of it; the tip of the iceberg. But of course, it is only in accepting that forgiveness that God gives you a further glimpse behind the curtain.

Dawkins argument is a roundly negative one that insists on telling people ‘the God of the Old Testament is not a very good God at all’. Here, we have the point that Dawkins makes any time I’ve seen him in a ‘religious’ debate: that God doesn’t exist simply because a lot of people don’t really like the idea of him. When Dawkins says God has done evil things, what he actually means is people have done evil things in God’s name, and he would rather there was no God. It is wishful thinking at its most intelligent and intelligible. Our challenge is not to be intimidated into submission by it. His is not so much a case against God’s existence as a case against humanity’s failed attempts to understand God’s will.

Christians have scoffed at Dawkins for not knowing scripture inside out before making judgements on whether or not God exists, but can we really blame him for this? What good would it do him, from his point of view, to read through the full Bible and study its aspects, when he doesn’t actually believe that it stands for anything true? Can the Christians who oppose him say they have knowledge of science to the same degree as he does? I know I certainly can’t. I am willing to say that the fact that he doesn’t know scripture as well as he could is not a mark against him; it is merely a consequence of our different worldviews and situations in life. If I didn’t believe in God with the same passion as Richard Dawkins, whose passion for science equally outweighs my own interest in the subject, I would have no interest in reading the Bible either. Why? Because if he is right, which he believes he is (however deceived he has been to reach that point), then the Bible has no meaning, and anything that the Bible has to teach us also has no meaning.

We can, of course, follow this line of thought through to a frightening conclusion.

There would be no need for all that rubbish about the book being a good moral teacher if there was no God behind it, because the fact that it would have been built on a lie is a contradiction of that claim. If it was fiction, then it would be one of the worst crimes in the history of humanity for it to have such influence over our society today. If it was fiction, we should hold the same anger towards it that Dawkins does. As a person, he is as admirable as any of us are for wanting people to know the truth. His character faults can be put down to the same thing that our own can: sin. Let’s hold no illusions about that if we’re willing to meet Dawkins, or anyone else, in a debate.

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