Dawkins, Christianity, and the Meaning of Life.* Many readers will be familiar with Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, among other works promoting atheism. Darwinism, argues Dawkins, offers a better explanation of what we observe in the world than does the assumption of a creator God.
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. (1995, p 133)
The world is exactly as it appears to be if there were no God and no higher purpose to human life.
The trouble is, the world is also exactly as it appears if there were a creator God and a higher purpose. One doesn’t look at the world as a blind set of facts, and conclude there is no God. Instead, one begins with a general outlook on life, and then chooses the facts that support this view. Unlike so much in life, our religious views are not primarily expressions of early childhood experiences. People seem to choose, and change, their worldviews later in life, often in the late teens or twenties.
Consider the basic questions of life: why are we here, what’s the meaning of our lives, where are we going, what may I hope, what should I do? One does not find these answers in the facts; the facts are interpreted in terms of these questions.
C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity (by which he means Christianity regardless of denomination), argues that because we can imagine an ideal world, it must exist somewhere, or we could not imagine it. On the basis of this thought, Lewis became a believer.
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? . . . In the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. (p 38)
Lewis’ argument doesn’t work. Just think about it for a minute, using the example of a straight line. The perfectly straight line exists—but only in the imaginations and theorems of geometers. It doesn’t exist in any place but our own minds, and this is certainly not what Lewis is trying to say. He is trying to say something like `if I can imagine it, then it must be real.’ Lewis is a perfect Platonist, a follower of Plato, for whom the Ideas exist because we can imagine them: a perfect horse, a perfect chair, and so forth (Plato, Republic, 514a-524d).
Lewis’ arguments for the existence of God are surprisingly weak. And no wonder. For the religious, God isn’t the conclusion of an argument. He is the premise, from which we view the world. Lewis has an answer for my position, but it turns out to be identical to Plato’s. For Lewis, our earthly longings and desires are “only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage” of our true homeland (p 137). Since these longings and desires cannot be fulfilled in this world, Lewis suggests that their ultimate object lies beyond this world. This, Lewis concludes, is the most “probable” explanation for heaven.
Well, there is nothing “probable” about it. It’s just Plato again. If I long for something, then it must exist, if not here, then in another world. But humans have so many longings and desires they can’t satisfy. Does that mean that their fulfillment exists in another world? I really long to be able to fly unaided, like a red-tailed hawk (I really do). But that doesn’t mean that the reality of a flying Fred exists in another world. That desire, like so many of my desires, like most human desires, is destined to remain unfulfilled.
Lewis demurs. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (pp 136-137) I would say the most probable explanation is that humans long for what they cannot have, as they long for what they cannot be. Lewis has reduced the term “probable” to “I would like it to be this way.”
Not siding with Dawkins
I’m not siding with Dawkins. I’m just saying that Lewis’ arguments for the existence of God and heaven are terrible. For Lewis, our intuitions are clues that are meant to “arouse our suspicions” that there is indeed “something which is directing the universe.” We aren’t adapted to this world, “not at home in it. If that is so, it may appear as a proof, or at least a powerful suggestion, that eternity exists and is our home.” Our deepest intuitions suggest that we pass through this world – that we belong somewhere else (McGrath, quoting a letter from Lewis, p 42, my emphasis).
Almost any argument for the existence of God and heaven is bound, at the end, to rely on intuition. Now intuition is good for a great many things, but not for the proof of God. One man’s intuition is another man’s fantasy. In fact, any argument for the existence of God is bound to be terrible, because it is not a matter of argument. It is a matter of stories, and a good argument for the Christian story is that the Christian story makes life more interesting, deep, and meaningful. Maybe it also encourages people to behave better, as well as telling us what “better” is.
Of course, reality exists, but it enters into our stories along the way. It’s not evidence; it’s more like inspiration. And some stories are better than others. The best stories of Philip Roth are better than any of the stories of Tom Clancy: deeper, richer, more revealing of human character. Similarly, I’d say that the gospels are among the best stories ever told. This claim is as much a literary as a theological argument, but then these two enterprises aren’t so very different, at least when they are done well.
If we are honest, we must pay attention when our story and reality are way out of sync. For example: an omnipotent God (all good, all knowing, all powerful) really doesn’t fit this world, which for many is more like Hell: filled with pain, hurt, loss, insecurity, and fear.
Nevertheless, it’s complicated. Job has an answer: God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (from Isaiah 55:8). All we can do is accept that we don’t understand, and will never understand, unless God decides to tell us, which is unlikely. We live in world far more opaque to human understanding than we know. I don’t like this answer, but it’s honest; it’s not intellectual cheating.
Another answer is that good things happen to good people. When bad things happen, we are being punished. This is the answer of Job’s friends. But Deuteronomic theology, as it’s called, isn’t very interesting. Consider the Holocaust. Abraham Heschel has the best argument as far as the Holocaust is concerned. You blame God. But humans did it, humans could have stopped it. Blame humanity, blame yourselves/ourselves.
Dawkins’ argument is surprisingly similar to Christianity’s position on original sin
For Dawkins, building a decent society means overcoming our natural selfishness, our genetic legacy. We need to teach generosity and altruism, for we are born with neither.
Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs. (Dawkins, Selfish Gene, p 10)
Unlike any other animal, humans can recognize the way we are shaped by our genes and devise strategies for regaining our autonomy in the face of genetic determinism.
We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth . . . We have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. (Dawkins, Selfish Gene, pp 200-201)
Dawkins would surely resist any attempt to claim that his argument is theological. Yet, McGrath and others have noticed a similarity between Dawkins’ story of genetic entrapment and the Christian story of captivity to sin. Religious conversion delivers us from a life of sin, but conversion does not allow us to break free of our past, which remains active even in the life of the faithful (McGrath, p 41-42). Augustine made a similar argument.
Conclusion: to see life whole
“This is our first demand of religion – that it should illumine life and make it a whole.” (Wood, p 102) Alexander Wood was a physicist who thought that science and religion could work together to help us have some sense of the whole, and our place in it.
Cosmology helps me appreciate the Bible, particularly what light says about time. The big bang, scientists tell us, happened approximately 13.8 billion years ago, creating all matter and energy in the universe. The universe will begin its end (no new stars) about 100 trillion years from now, and conclude in one dark hole just above absolute zero (heat death).
But not to worry; ”on this timescale of trillions of years, even the existence of our entire species registers as but a brief ray of sunlight before an infinite winter of darkness.” One thing I conclude, but should have grasped this already, is that eternity is not just endless time; it lies outside of time. The other thing I conclude is that our existence is a miracle. What a wonder life is, what a miracle self-conscious life is: humans. Not only do I exist in a teeny tiny fraction of historical time, but historical time is but the tiniest fraction of cosmological time. What an unlikely and magnificent gift we have been given. For me, a scientific understanding of the universe makes God’s gift even greater: against all odds we exist, at least for a little while.
* Though this essay is not a review of Alister McGrath’s, Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life, it draws upon it.
Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. Phoenix, 1995.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1976.
Alister McGrath, Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life. SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), 2019.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. HarperCollins, 2012 [original 1952].
Alexander Wood, In Pursuit of Truth: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion. Student Christian Movement, 1927.