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A Place for Religion

So, this one has been making the rounds in the social media universe… Apparently, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has “defeated” the world’s leading atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins in a recent debate at Cambridge University. Quite handily, in fact—324 votes to 136. The resolution under discussion was “religion has no place in the 21st century.” Apparently it still does. Rowan Williams has saved the 21st century… or at least the day. We can all take a deep breath and relax. Religion will be around for a while.

I’m hardly alone in this, I suspect, but I have serious reservations about the merits of these high-profile public debates. There might be the odd person who turns up at such events with a genuinely open mind, pliantly expectant, ready to be persuaded, anticipating a fair and reasoned exchange of ideas, but I think most people’s minds are made up before they come. And the adversarial nature of the “debate”—the serve and volley structure, the vote at the end, the declaration of a “winner” and a “loser”—almost rules out from the outset the possibility of anything like a genuinely mutual exchange of ideas where learning and growth could, in theory, happen on both sides.

I didn’t even watch the video, to be honest. I watched and read enough of these kinds of debates when I was researching Dawkins & co. a few years ago for my thesis and my appetite for the science vs. religion wars has waned a bit since then. But I was intrigued by this comment from Dawkins in the article at The Christian Post. Rehearsing familiar ideas about religions as a “cop-out,” Dawkins said this:

It is a betrayal of the intellect, a betrayal of all that’s best about what makes us human,” he argued. “It’s a phony substitute for an explanation, which seems to answer the question until you examine it and realize that it does no such thing… It peddles false explanations where real explanations could have been offered, false explanations that get in the way of the enterprise of discovering real explanations.

Of course, Dawkins has offered some version of this story this before—loudly and tirelessly, in fact. But a couple of things stood out in this quote. First, the idea of “betrayal.” Richard Dawkins is of the settled conviction that human beings have a duty to always and only believe what is true about the world. To believe things that are false or even half-true, in Dawkins’s world, is not just regrettable or unfortunate but in many cases worthy of condemnation. Willfully believing what is false is an offense against reason for which human beings are morally culpable.

It is an admirable conviction. It is also a conviction that cannot be derived from or supported by his professed worldview of scientific materialism. For Dawkins, everything about who we are and what we hope for, about what we prefer and what we pursue, about what we love and what motivates us—everything owes its origins to a purposeless amoral process by which what is adaptive survives and what is maladaptive does not. The logical question, from this perspective, is not, “Is it true?” but “Does it work?” or “Does it enhance survival value?”

If believing what is false has proved useful for human beings, then consistency would seem to demand, on Dawkins’s view, that rather than railing against it we ought to encourage it. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. Evolution doesn’t care about truth only adaptive utility. Truth has no claim on human beings whatsoever. What we call “truth” is nothing more than a peculiar bit of epiphenomena produced by a collection of strangely overdeveloped bipedal brains that prance self-importantly across the cosmic stage for a brief flicker of time and then are neither seen nor heard from again.

So, it’s curious that Dawkins feels so strongly about truth, that he seems to feel that truth it is something that we humans owe our allegiance to. It doesn’t seem to follow from Dawkins’s own professed worldview.

The second phrase that caught my eye in the quote above is “all that’s best about what makes us human.” For Dawkins, this “best” is the ability to pursue, understand, and live according to what can be demonstrated to be empirically true. But clearly not everyone would share his conviction here. Many would claim (and have claimed) that love or beauty or compassion or worship would more appropriately belong in this category of “the best about what makes us human.” Indeed, the reason why many so stubbornly (and inconveniently, for Dawkins) cling to religion is because they believe that it is precisely in worship, in service to God and others, that “all that’s best about what makes us human” is most properly located and where its ultimate value is most properly acknowledged and honoured.

I don’t know what Rowan Williams said in the debate, but I imagine he would have in some (more eloquent) way pointed to the fact the Christian conviction is that truth does have a claim on human beings because we were made to hunger for it, and because truth has come near in the person of Jesus Christ. And that the best part of human beings—including our ability to reason and discover and pursue truth—can be (and often is!) gratefully and humbly located within a religious view of the world where truth, beauty, goodness, and justice are all part of the same life-giving and life-affirming package. In the twenty-first or any other century.

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