Some Thoughts on the Dawkins/Lennox Debate

I visited Richard Dawkins’ website the other day to see if he had an audio of his recent debate with Dr Jon Lennox. He did indeed, although it is my understanding that it won’t be available for too long. Here are my thoughts about the debate, particularly about Prof. Dawkins’ contributions.

First, I should say that in my personal opinion Lennox won the encounter. He scored some important points on the limitations of science (E.g. “Science can tell you that if you put strychnine in your granny’s tea she will die. But it can’t tell you whether what you did was right or wrong.”); on the impossibility of deriving rationalism out of ultimate irrationalism; about the imposition of atheism in the former Soviet Union, and its effects; and, most tellingly, that “if we are all dancing to the tune of our DNA” it makes no sense to talk about morality. As he stated, “atheism doesn’t support morality, it dissolves it.”

I was disappointed (although not at all surprised) that Lennox came across as a theistic evolutionist and a believer in the Big Bang. However, he did make it clear that he holds thoroughly evangelical views of salvation and Christology. I am thankful for his witness.

What about Dawkins? Well, as usual, he was very eloquent and rhetorically persuasive. In substance he was not so imposing.

1. One of his main objections to “religion” (read “Christianity and other theisms”) is that if God is given as the final explanation of all the questions of life there is no impetus to delve very deeply into those questions. Theism says “we don’t need to work on it.”

Now, if ones view of Christianity is that of a Bible-punching bigot who has never thought seriously about his beliefs, or a money-fleecing TV evangelist, who has only thought deeply about how to appeal to people’s pocket books, I must express sympathy with Dawkins. The trouble is that those sorts of people are not the only ones who he feels hold up the pursuit of truth. He also lumps Bible-believers of any stripe in with this crowd of cognitive ingrates.

But if we could take the debate back 150 years or so we would see that such a stance as Dawkins takes would appear laughable. What would Faraday, Pasteur, Kelvin, Maxwell, Maury think of this claim? And what about Boyle, Newton, Ray or Kepler? Surely their theism did not get in the way of their scientific motivation? Yes, the motivation itself was different; it was not atheistical and materialistic, but that fact does not overthrow the point that for these men (and many like them today) the attitude of “we don’t need to work on it” was completely unacceptable to them. In fact, they would have considered such thinking as an insult to the God who they believed placed the facts of experience before them to be searched out scientifically!

The issue today is all about whether the atheistic establishment should define science in such a way as to disallow theistic explanations at the outset. And the problem with that is that atheists do not have a coherent frame of reference within which any non-theistic definition of science makes any sense. As David Hume showed, there are no grounds for induction from ‘immanent’ premises. Also, naturalism cannot give grounds for normative psychological states and universal ethics (and the debate brought these problems clearly to light). Moreover, since, as Alvin Plantinga has demonstrated, naturalism itself must hold on to physicalism (Dawkins himself has said on record more than once that “mind” is nothing more than neurons firing in the brain), making all our beliefs chemically structured beliefs – including the belief in naturalism, that would not allow us to know whether or not any of our beliefs were in fact true. Such ultimate skepticism would destroy science, not promote it. It would give us the perfect excuse not “to work on it.”

2. Dawkins pointed out that “If faith is evidence-based, you wouldn’t need to call it faith, you would just call it evidence.”

He, like most atheists, equates faith with a kind of “cross my fingers” attitude; blind and irrational. But that is not the Bible’s teaching. Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). The invisible things of reality are “clearly seen,” because they are understood as the precondition of what we do see and experience.

For example, later in the debate, when speaking about cosmologists use of numbers to get their physical constants, Dawkins says that physicists “have to assume the half dozen or so numbers” that they need. These assumptions are surely evidence-based, yet they are assumptions – they are believed by faith! Blind faith? No. But Christians don’t believe in God by blind faith. Our faith is reasonable, rational. In fact, the Christian worldview is the only framework in which the assumptions of these physicists, be they saved or lost, have any epistemological foundation, since numbers (not numerals, which are written representations of numbers) are not material things. Numbers, like everything else, reveal something about their Source. God is ultimate rationality, and He has made us in His image. That isn’t blind faith in the face of science. It is cogent explanation amidst an avalanche of futile alternatives. No other attempted explanation of reality comes anywhere near being able to make sense of final things.

The world has structure – mathematical structure – and our minds are able to delve into that structure. That is why we can send satellites into orbit or span great rivers with bridges, or produce so many different musical instruments. But why? On Dawkins’ view of reality there is no explanation! Just that ultimate irrational chaos produced multitudinous complex rational orders, and then gave us the ability to perceive and understand them. Underlying all atheist assumptions of fact is endless skepticism. If pressed to provide a rational explanation of ultimate meaning, he would say (as he has on other occasions) that it is pointless to ask such questions. That is just the way things turned out – fortuitously for us. But then who is it that is saying, in effect, “we don’t need to work on it.”? It’s like Cornelius Van Til once said, “What my net can’t catch, ain’t fish!”

3. Dawkins refers to his thesis that God must be impossibly complex.

Has he forgotten that God is a Spirit? Does he not understand that classical theology teaches that God has “no parts” and that He is, therefore, a simple Being? And even if He weren’t, how can a finite man, who due to his existence as a man, have any idea what “impossibly complex” means? It strikes me that an individual living a hundred (or less) years ago would not begin to comprehend all of the complex things in the modern world – from i-phones to Hubble telescopes.

Further, Dawkins’ opinion of “impossibly complex” presupposes the very materialism he is supposed to be debating. Not a very threatening argument to any one who does not share his starting assumptions.

4. Dawkins stated that we “do not need God to be moral…Some people are moral and some people are not.”

This is just another example of his inability to provide rational grounds for his assertions of fact. For instance, in the debate he said that “Terrible acts are done in the name of religion.” But what makes them terrible in Dawkins’ universe? Consensus? Is the majority always right? Was the majority right in Nazi Germany? (Yes, I know that many who supported Hitler called themselves Christians, but were they? The vast majority of those people were liberal unbelievers who rejected the biblical Gospel and the inspiration of Scripture. Meaning that they were not Christians, any more than the Roman Catholic crusaders of the Middle Ages were. The Bible defines what a Christian is, not the dictionary).

In the Christian view it is God who defines what “terrible” means and gives it a universal significance. In the same way it is God who defines right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood. These words only possess the universal meaning Dawkins seemed to ascribe to them because God has ascribed these values to them previously as properties (and their opposites) of His eternal character.

Towards the end of the debate Dawkins (who is more candid and up-front about these things than most atheists) replied to Lennox’s dreary portrait of an atheistical universe: “Maybe the world is a hideous world, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.” Apart from the fact that his own worldview empties those value-laden terms of any real meaning beyond his personal opinion, I couldn’t help noticing again the same old refrain: “It just is the way it is.” That’s blind faith! That’s irrationality at work. There are no final explanations in atheism. All predication is taken for granted without even thinking about whether ones assertions about states of affairs make sense within the atheistic outlook.

5. Finally, a word about Dawkins continual use of pejoratives. These can sound intimidating coming from an articulate Oxford don, but it doesn’t make them anything other than autobiographical. I could say that I like dark chocolate (and I do), and someone else might say they prefer milk chocolate. Now it would be silly of me to say that it is petty, unworthy or feeble to prefer milk chocolate over dark chocolate, unless I brought forward substantial arguments to prove my point. If I couldn’t, I would just be giving my (unwelcome) opinion, nothing more. But this is what Dawkins resorted to time and again. Fine enough for the peanut gallery, but hardly convincing. Dawkins and his ilk might think my Christian interpretation of the world is “petty,” “unworthy,” or what have you, but that does not make it so.

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