Dawkins, Christianity, and the Meaning of Life

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. 

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Socrates and Jesus Christ

Socrates and Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ and Socrates are often compared: 

  • Both were put to death for their beliefs. 
  • Both sought to make the people they lived among better, which is the reason they were killed. 
  • Both believed in the immortality of the soul.
  • Both sought to teach humans how to be the best humans they could possibly be.
  • Jesus taught in parables; Socrates by asking questions.  Not the same thing, but both subverted ordinary discourse.

Both lived at approximately the same time in the same corner of the world.  Socrates died first in 399 BCE.  Jesus died around year 4 of the Common Era, about a 400 year difference.  There was contact between Judea and Athens.  Paul’s longest sermon was delivered in Athens (Acts 17:16–34), where Socrates lived and died.  People have wondered about cross-cultural influences, but there probably were little or none.  Philo of Judea, a Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish philosopher, sought to harmonize the Torah with Greek philosophy.  Evidently, he persuaded more Christians than Jews, but played no role in the development of Christianity or Judaism. 

Western Civilization, it has been wisely said, is a combination of Athens, the home of Socrates, and Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified.  Classical Athens valued reason, the examined life, or at least her philosophers did.  Jerusalem represents the value of faith.  It is this combination that has characterized life in the West for almost 2,000 years.  For most of that time faith was dominant.  More recently, faith has taken a back seat to reason, even if this reason is not always very reasonable. 

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Why the Bible is subtler than Homer or Plato

Why the Bible is subtler than Homer or Plato.  I taught ancient political theory for 38 years.  More than any single thing I learned, what remains  is the insight (hardly mine alone) that Western civilization is the conjunction of Athens and Jerusalem.  The way we think even today is a combination of the rationality of the Greeks with the transcendent vision of The Bible. 

Now this isn’t quite right, for Plato certainly had a transcendent vision of what he called the forms (eidos).  The forms exist in a world beyond time and space; they represent standards of perfection in almost everything and every virtue.  Plato has been called a pagan saint, and it’s easy to see why.  It was not difficult to Christianize Plato.

On the other hand, there are fundamental differences between the Platonic and Judaeo-Christian worlds.  The most important difference is their table of the virtues.  For Plato, and the ancient Greeks in general, wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice are the highest virtues.  Lacking are the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (caritas).  Charity is the unselfish love of others, especially those in need.  Plato wrote for fellow aristocrats.  The Judeao-Christian tradition speaks for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  Today the stranger is likely to be an immigrant, refugee, or displaced person.

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