The religious faith of Richard Dawkins

Professor Richard DawkinAP/Akira Suemori

Is Richard Dawkins religious? The obvious answer to many would be "no" since the principle basis of his notoriety is that he is perhaps the most outspoken atheist of the modern era. After all, his most totemic book, "The God Delusion" argued that all religion was a "fixed false belief", arguing instead that the scientific origin of the universe was sufficient, rendering all belief in deities superfluous. This book then went on to sell more than two million copies in the English speaking world between 2006 and 2010. Surely an academic that prolific wouldn't base all his hard earned book sales on a lie?

Well, Dawkins didn't lie. He is an atheist. But does his atheism have just as much faith in science as the Christian has in God? Again, the obvious answer is "no" since many would see science as fundamentally proven. After all, science is what makes the internet enabled device you're reading this on possible. Scientists tested metals to discover they were electrically conductive, tested the right balance of chemicals to get the perfectly clear and tough glass or plastic to seal in your screen, invented the light sources that brighten behind it, measured the voltage capacity of your power supply etc etc. But Dawkins' argument is that science works for these things. It's that science can explain everything.

To break down this argument, let us take the text from the horse's mouth. The following comes from pages 188-189 of the God Delusion.

"One of the greatest challenges to the [atheistic] human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises … It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a 'crane', not a 'skyhook', for only a crane can do the business of working gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection … We don't yet have an equivalent crane for physics … We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology."

In principle, this reveals Dawkins' faith. While there is a large flaw in the argument (Stephen Hawking has already explained that that which existed before the universe does not follow the universe's rules – therefore there is no problem in postulating something 'more improbable' as Dawkins puts it) that is not the biggest issue here.

Despite there not being any current 'crane' (borrowing fellow atheist Daniel Dennett's terminology), for the science of physics, Richard Dawkins is of the unshakable faith that at some time in the future one will emerge eventually. This is essentially the same as the Christian who believes that Jesus Christ will make his return. Faith, a trust in things hoped for, and evidence of what is not seen.

This argument will appear fraudulent to many atheists because they would argue that Dawkins actually has evidence. After all, we discovered a 'crane' for biology, what's to stop us discovering a crane for physics. Dawkins actually suggests one in his book, saying, "Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology."

But there are several problems with this position. Although a multiverse theory (the notion that there are infinite other universes, and ours is one of a small number where the laws of physics are capable of supporting life) is potentially plausible, it isn't the 'crane' for physics that Dawkins suggests. Physics literally means the science of the physical. Everything material is physical. Although a multiverse theory might explain lots of things, the next question is 'where did the multiverse come from?'

To compare evolution to a multiverse isn't accurate. The top of the 'crane' for biology reaches out of the science of biology itself. After all, biology is the science of living things, and so therefore while evolution explains the plethora of living things, it doesn't explain how the first living thing came to be itself. For a purely scientific answer to that question, you'd have to go to chemistry. Chemistry in turn is the study of how different atoms with different properties interact. The 'crane' of chemistry is therefore Mendeleev's periodic table of elements. Just as evolution predicts and explains how animals developed, so periodicity explains the nature of chemicals and how we might expect them to interact. But the top of that 'crane' is the atom, and the question 'how did we get the first atom?'. To answer that, you move into physics. And while a multiverse might answer the question of how our universe got its physical laws, there is then the question of how we even got a system of multiple universes with multiple physical laws. For that question, you're still in physics. You're still asking questions. You haven't got out of the science in the same way that evolution gets you out of biology, or the periodic table gets you out of chemistry.

Multiverses don't explain all of physics. They just offer a further level to explore. Yet Dawkins is convicted and of the conviction that there can be a grand explaining principle to all of physics. "But his conviction is not baseless," an atheist could respond. "After all, look at all we have discovered so far!"

And yes, scientists have discovered a great many things. But that in itself isn't evidence that everything can be discovered, any more than many things being be made from metal allows us to deduce that all things can be made from metal.

Commenting on Thomas Nagel's book "Mind and Cosmos", Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard explains the famous philosopher's position: "Here materialism [the belief that there is nothing but the physical] bumps up against itself. Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them … materialism doesn't account for the 'brute facts' of existence … it doesn't plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognise that some acts are virtuous and others aren't. These failures, Nagel says, aren't just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. 'There is little or no possibility,' he writes, 'that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.'"

Ultimately, Dawkins might believe everything can be explained scientifically, but by his own standards he has no definitive proof of this. The proof he has, that things have been explained by science in the past, is much the same as the Christian's faith in the Bible and its accounts of God's actions, along with his personal experiences of God today. Except the Christian has an advantage. A Christian can believe that science explains many things, and that God explains all things, even science. Richard Dawkins, in lacking that second aspect, is far worse off.

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