Are we aiding Richard Dawkins?

From: Joel Cannon <>
Date: Mon Nov 28 2005 - 08:52:04 EST

Hi Folks:

I have become uncomfortable with some elements of our discussion of
science and Christianity. There is a feeling that a good bit of what I
have said in the past (and the friends that I agree with have said)
may miss the point as far as Christianity goes. What follows is an
attempt to express some of those thoughts. It was catalyzed by being
part of a panel discussionn of ID, where while describing Richard
Dawkins it became even clearer to me that the discussion surrounding
Dawkins, ID, and others concerns an abstract entity who has only the
remotest relationship to YHWH and Christianity. Perhaps a better
question to have discussed is, "Why does this discussion go on?" But
that is for another day. Here is my attempt to give voice to my


Are We Aiding Richard Dawkins?

Michael Poole aptly observed that ``the `god' in whom Richard Dawkins
disbelieves is a `god' in whom the major world religions,
Christianity, Judaism and Islam do not believe either.''[1] Dawkins
believes that ``until recently one of religion's main functions was
scientific; the explanation of existence, of the universe, of
life...So the most basic claims of Religion are scientific. Religion
is a scientific theory.''[2] For Dawkins, God is nothing but an
explanatory hypothesis which is in competition with evolution by
natural selection.

Given how much Dawkins god differs from Christianity's God, we might
wonder why what Dawkins says would have any relevance for us.
Consider the fundamental discontinuity between Dawkins view of
Christianity's function and the founding of Christianity. Imagine a
Jewish peasant, living in first century Palestine between the violent
poles of Jewish nationalism and Roman occupation in conditions whose
closest modern parallel is ironically a Palestinian living in the
occupied West Bank[4]. The peasant ``prophetically'' explains the
existence of life and the universe to Israel, leading to his execution
as a political revolutionary, and the founding of a religion bearing
his name whose claims are ultimately scientific, and destined to
compete with evolution by natural selection to explain the existence
of the world we see.

Absurd! At minimum, it is an ethnocentric sin to imagine the
contemporary West Bank resident ruminating amidst the violence about
how the eye came to be so exquisitely formed, something Dawkins would
have a religious person do. But it brings new meaning to the word
anachronism to imagine how a first century Jewish contemporary of
Jesus in a similarly violent environment pondered the existence of the
universe 1500 years before the advent of modern science, and was
energized toward religious revolution by this meditation. The idea
that Jesus would be noticed in this environment for explaining life's
history, let alone executed, is an even bigger anachronism.

For Dawkins, Christianity is an abstraction, severed from any
connection to its roots.

``In an absurd situation, act absurd or you will be absurd,'' wrote
two of my college classmates.[5] Given the absurd intellectual
landscape of which Richard Dawkins is the archetype, Christians seem
to have a choice: 1) To be absurd relative to our environment in
proclaiming that the being we refer to as `God' can be known through
the peasant who was executed in first century Palestine; or 2) To
reinforce the absurdity of our intellectual environment by being
absurd relative to the roots of our religion.

What I am starting to feel with uncomfortable regularity is that many
of us have unwittingly reinforced the absurdity of our environment,
even if we disagree with it. I am not just thinking of Intelligent
Design proponents, although I do think it odd that Johnson and Dembski
have published thousands of pages defending in a very real sense a
god in whom Christians do not believe (Johnson started his
anti-evolutionary journey after reading Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker
[3]). I am thinking of Christians, including myself, who have (from
our own perspective!) brought to bear thoughtful and reasonable
theology within which we can understand science's activities and
findings and distinguish what questions science can and cannot
answer. By the arguments' very reasonableness (with no apparent
connection to first century Palestinian judaism), our arguments
reinforce the absurd intellectual landscape that is cut off from the
religion it seeks to discuss.

Indeed it seems to be the case that, for many of us, Christianity is an
abstraction (albeit an orthodox one) that is less disconnected from
the roots of Christianity than Dawkins, but still disconnected. The
life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, etc. in many of our mouths
are naked events, free of their historical and Jewish content. These
naked events, in turn, serve as axioms which support even more
abstract doctrines, which provide the framework with which we may
consider issues such as modern science which are, at best, tenuously
connected to first century Palestine.

 I am not arguing that the events of first century Palestine have
nothing to say about our modern 21st century world, that abstraction
should not be attempted (as if this were possible), or that we should
not ponder the nature of science, but I do have an increasing sense
that our willingness to view Christianity as an abstraction removed
from its roots may fuel, and make it more difficult to deal with more
heterodox abstractions such as those of Richard Dawkins. I believe
further that the disconnectedness of some of our abstractions make our
discussion of science irrelevant to the religion we claim. The test of
an abstraction is, after all, how well it is connected to what it


A Related Postscript

Historically, one of the most deadly disconnected abstractions (at
least in the way it has been passed onto us) came from William Paley,
who gave the argument from design its clearest and most lasting form,
a form that fits quite well into Dawkins absurdly disconnected
Christianity, and provided Dawkins with the metaphor and the license
with which to advance his prejudice.[7] Without the Christian Paley's
choice to argue the truth of Christianity in terms disconnected from
Christianity itself, Dawkins and Darwin would have no power. To my
chagrin, Christians (e.g. Dembski and Johnson) apparently continue to
view Paley's argument, however it has been adapted, as the principal
intellectual justification for Christianity, and believe that if the
argument fails, Christianity is not intellectually
credible. Unfortunately, those of us who do not support Paley have not
done a much better job at resisting and reshaping the landscape that
Paley helped to create for Dawkins and his ilk. Paley created Dawkins
playground and we have left that playground largely intact.

[1] Michael W. Poole, "A Critique of Aspects of the Philosophy and
Theology of Richard Dawkins", Science and Christian Belief, 6 (1),
pp. 41-59, 1994.

[2] ibid. p.42

[3] e.g. Tim Stafford, "The Making of a Revolution," Christianity Today,
p. 17, December, 1998.

[4] Despite differences, the similarities include 1) grinding poverty,
2) occupation by a brutal and much stronger power, 3) persistent
violent revolt reinforced by religious conviction (the religious
convictions seem to me to have been stonger in first century Israel),
4) an intolerance, even persecution, of moderate voices. Just as in
the modern West Bank, these factors would play a prominent role in the
psychology of a person in first century Palestine.

[5] This was the central line of two of my Willamette University
classmates' play. The classmates were Steve Sawyer and Andy ??? (last
known to me to be raising Llamas somewhere in Eastern Oregon).

[6] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 128,
Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1992.

[7] I anticipate that Michael Roberts will object. To try to avoid
that objection, I have tried to distinguish what we contemporary
Christians are aware of with regard to Paley as opposed to the actual
scope of his writings.

Joel W. Cannon | (724)223-6146
Physics Department |
Washington and Jefferson College |
Washington, PA 15301 |
Received on Mon Nov 28 08:56:53 2005

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