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ss nucleus - summer 2007,  The God delusion and the human illusion

The God delusion and the human illusion

Jim Paul considers the implications of atheism

Richard Dawkins (Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford University) is best known for championing evolutionary theory in his books, The Selfish Gene [1] and The Blind Watchmaker.[2] However, his focus has gradually turned to a critique of religious faith, with titles such as A Devil's Chaplain.[3] In 2006, he published The God Delusion, a 'hard-hitting, impassioned rebuttal of religion of all types',[4] which soon became a bestseller. This article is a response to the atheist ideas described by Dawkins in his book, which I think is the most popular form of atheism today.

I call Dawkins' atheism 'scientistic atheism', since it is based upon a scientific paradigm. I use the term 'scientistic' because I don't want to let atheism lay claim to science as its sole prerogative, as if science were only found in the atheistic worldview. I am a firm believer in science as one way of arriving at knowledge, but not the only way. Dawkins, however, has turned science into scientism. He has expanded the scientific method so that it becomes a total worldview, such that no other form of human knowledge is valid.

the starting point

There have been many critiques of Dawkins' book, highlighting his poor grasp of history, philosophy, logic and theology.[5] But I start in a different place. Rather than critique Dawkins himself, I would like to examine the worldview of scientistic atheism, beginning with its presuppositions – the unquestioned starting points that underlie any view of reality. It is possible to build a logical atheistic system from the starting point of scientistic atheism. However, it is not just the logic of the system we must consider, but the validity of its starting point.

The starting point for scientistic atheism given by Dawkins is that everything in the universe began with the most basic physical substance. Everything started from this one singularity. Dawkins quotes Atheism: A Very Short Introduction:

What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life. [6]

Scientistic atheism states that the complexity of life we see today evolved from this physical singularity. Through an initial process, as yet unidentified, this singularity gave rise to the first piece of genetic material (probably like RNA). Then through the process of natural selection (survival of the fittest) first popularised by Charles Darwin, that RNA developed more and more complex phenotypically expressed survival mechanisms to ensure that its particular genome was passed on to the next generation. All the diversity of life we see today is due to these attempts of the selfish gene to survive in a competitive environment.

If, from this beginning, we ask 'what is the human body?' the answer is, 'a very complex biological machine to ensure survival of the enclosed selfish gene'. If we ask 'what is human behaviour (ie all culture, art, language, and religion)?', the answer is, 'a very complex set of behaviours (phenotypes) to ensure survival of the selfish gene'.

In Dawkins' view, some behaviours, such as the belief in a supernatural God, are 'by-products' [7] of this Darwinian process. They are survival mechanisms that once may have given some benefit but which no longer do. Religious belief in the past may have given some genes a survival advantage, perhaps promoting communal efforts at survival. But such beliefs are genetically induced illusions; no longer helpful; indeed rather harmful, and we need to expose God as the delusion he is.

Now what are the logical conclusions of such a starting point? If life, the universe, and everything is derived from a physical singularity; and all human life and behaviour is a complex survival mechanism for the selfish gene – what then?

1) personhood is an illusion

As you sit reading this, you assume that you are you and I am me. We are distinct individual persons and we cannot be reduced to the same thing. But the worldview of scientistic atheism would tell us otherwise.

The beginning of all things, a physical singularity, has no thinking, choosing, and consciousness. It would be impossible to describe such a beginning as possessing personhood. If everything that exists came from this beginning, through the impersonal system of cause and effect, then human life is merely the complex organisation of this impersonal singularity. Since the personal cannot be made from the impersonal, human life must also be impersonal. Dawkins says this about life:

Molecules that would normally make nothing more complicated than chunks of rock, gather themselves together into chunks of rock-sized matter of such staggering complexity that they are capable of running, jumping, swimming, flying, seeing, hearing, capturing and eating other such animated chunks of complexity; capable in some cases of thinking and feeling, and falling in love with yet other chunks of complex matter. We now understand essentially how this trick is done, but only since 1859 (the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species). [8]

According to Dawkins, you may feel like a personal being, but you are actually a chunk of complex matter; a sophisticated reorganisation of the original impersonal singularity. But complexity does not make personhood in any real way. A computer, though complex, is not a person. According to scientistic atheism, the sense of personhood that we all feel is an illusion, a trick of the selfish gene.

I kissed my wife the other day, and I found that a smile came to my lips; a smile of joy in our relationship and my love for this person who had agreed to share her life with me. If scientistic atheism is correct, then that smile was just part of a complex genetically driven behaviour to ensure the survival of my genome. No real meeting of two people, but an illusion as one chunk of complex matter ensures that its genome can survive by using another complex chunk of matter.

If the beginning of scientistic atheism is correct, then human personhood is an illusion.

2) morality is an illusion

If the basic reality of the universe is a material singularity, then there cannot be right and wrong in that beginning. One cannot say that an H20 molecule is evil or good, right or wrong. It is just a water molecule. Impersonal material cannot be moral, even if it is as complex as human life.

Furthermore, there can be no difference between things in their origin. Everything collapses into a unity of oneness, or to give it its philosophical term 'monism'. If everything is one, there are no separate categories of good and evil, or ought and ought not. The Marquis de Sade understood the logical conclusion of this worldview when he said, 'what is, is right.'

Now this does not mean that atheists can't be 'good'. An atheist can live a good life, and can be morally better than a Christian in their actions. Neither does it mean that atheists are all moral anarchists. There are many atheistic moral systems, such as Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism or Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative.

The problem for atheism, however, is deeper than this. From the origin of an impersonal physical singularity, words such as right and wrong have no basis for meaning. When an atheist claims to be doing good or following a moral law, they are borrowing the terms good and moral from a system of thought that is outside their own. Within scientistic atheism itself, there is no explanation for calling anything good or evil. A scientistic atheist may call something good or evil. But when they do so within their own system they can only mean 'I like that' or 'I don't like that', or 'that leads me to survive better' and 'that doesn't lead me to survive better.'

And yet we all feel as if there is right and wrong, good and evil. When a paedophile rapes and murders a five-year-old child, we feel that gross evil has been done. When six million people are imprisoned, beaten, tortured and gassed to death in the Nazi Holocaust, we feel as if the most evil event of the 20th century has occurred. But if all life comes from a physical singularity, then such human moral motions are totally out of step with the universe.

If all human life originated from an impersonal physical singularity, then feelings of morality are an illusion.

3) knowledge is an illusion

If a physical singularity is the origin of all things, then everything we see, including you and me, came from this singularity through the blind process of cause and effect. The universe is a closed physical system; there is matter, time, cause and effect plus nothing. In this worldview, everything is determined by something before it. And that was determined by something before it, and so on – until we get right back to the original singularity.

If it is true that everything is determined, then so is all human thought. Each of us is determined to think a thought by a physical cause before, and this was caused by a physical cause before it, and so on, right back to the beginning. All originality and personal creativity in thought disappears. At a book signing for The God Delusion, one questioner asked Richard Dawkins:

You seem to take the position of a strong determinist…but on the other hand it would seem that you would do things like taking credit for writing this book... But it would seem, and this isn't to be funny, that the consistent position would be that the authoring of this book was necessarily set from the initial conditions of the Big Bang, so that this would be the product of what we see today.

Dawkins responded:

The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question… Now I don't actually know what I think about that… It's not part of my remit to talk about the philosophical issue of determinism. What I do know is what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us. We don't feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do.

The questioner went on to ask, 'But do you personally see that as an inconsistency in your views?' Dawkins replied:

I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with, otherwise life would be intolerable. But it has nothing to do with my views on religion. It is an entirely separate issue. [9]

I think Dawkins is avoiding the issue here. To be a consistent scientistic atheist, you have to be a strong determinist and therefore admit that all originality, creativity and human responsibility disappear.

Furthermore, if all human thought is determined purely by the physical laws of cause and effect in a closed system, how can we know whether any thought we have is true or false? Any thought we have is determined by the causal chain that occurred before it, not by any relationship to reality. We can never know the truth or falsity of any human knowledge. Dawkins appears to agree, at least in part, with this conclusion when he says, '”Really” isn't a word we should use with simple confidence… “Really” for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to assist its survival.'[10]

If Dawkins is correct here, then human knowledge bears no resemblance to reality itself, but it is an illusion. The whole basis for the certainty of any knowledge, including scientific knowledge, vanishes. Dawkins' scientistic atheism becomes just a brain driven survival mechanism in the same way he claims religious belief to be! Within his belief system, God may exist, but Dawkins can never know because his beliefs are driven by the survival mechanism with no relationship to reality outside him.

If an impersonal physical singularity is the beginning of all things, then any certainty of knowledge is an illusion.

4) significance is an illusion

The original physical singularity can have no meaning or purpose in itself, for it is not conscious or able to choose. If everything that exists is merely a complex organisation of the original physical singularity, then life, the universe and everything (including human life), can have no meaning or purpose either.

Douglas Adams, in his book The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, tells of a race of pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent beings who construct the second greatest computer in all time and space, called Deep Thought. It was to calculate 'the ultimate answer to the great questions of life, the universe and everything'. After seven and a half million years of pondering, Deep Thought provides the answer…'42'. When the answer is queried, the computer replies:

I checked it very thoroughly and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is. [11]

Douglas Adams understands the logical conclusion of scientistic atheism very well. If the beginning of all things is an impersonal physical singularity, then the answer might as well be 42, because there is no answer. There isn't even a question. There is no communication because there is no person to communicate with, just the physical oneness of the singularity. There is only a cosmic silence on the question of meaning and significance.

If any purpose of human life can be suggested by scientistic atheism, it is only the continuing existence of that complex singularity, of the selfish gene. And even this loses its meaning when 'all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins,'[12] in the words of Bertrand Russell, the great 20th century British atheist philosopher.

All meaning we humans give to life, all sense of achievement, the heights of human creativity; art, science, and beauty – are in fact an illusion. This is not saying an atheist cannot find meaning in the things they do and the relationships they have. But by starting with an impersonal physical singularity, this sense of meaning is actually an illusion. It is a complex behaviour that has developed in order to increase the chances of gene survival.

a different foundation

If we start with the basic reality being a physical singularity, most if not all of the characteristics that we take to mark out our human nature become an illusion: personhood, morality, knowledge, and significance. There is only the impersonal, amoral, unknowing and meaningless. If God is a delusion then human life as we experience it is an illusion. But this is not the only starting point.

In his account of the life of Jesus, the gospel writer John begins his explanation of reality with these words:

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' [13]

Like Dawkins, John starts at the beginning of all things. But his presupposition is that there was 'the Word', rather than an impersonal physical singularity. In the beginning there was not cosmic silence, but meaningful communication.

The next thing he tells us is that the Word was with God, and that the Word was God. He tells us that there is a relationship and a personal being at the source of all things. The beginning is not impersonal. And the logical conclusion of this starting point is that the things we hold dear about human life are not an illusion – they are real.

Human personhood has genuine validity because the source from which we come is personal. There is a real difference between you and me; we are not just complex arrangements of the same singularity. We can't all be reduced to the same one thing. We are separate persons and therefore we can have real relationships. When we love another person, we do not just love a complex chunk of the same stuff as us, but a real other person.

Human morality has real meaning because there is a source of morality in the beginning. In the beginning, there is ought and 'ought not'. For the personal beginning knows that he ought to keep his Word. There is ought and 'ought not' in human life too, because we are made 'in his image'14 and in relationship with him. Because that relational beginning has communicated, we can know what ought and 'ought not' are; we can know what good and evil are. There is not just a huge cosmic silence.

Human knowledge has real validity because the source has communicated truth to us about himself, ourselves and the world in which we live. Since he has made us in his image, we can think, wonder, investigate, ask questions and explore reality in order to truly know it better.

Human life has meaning because the source is personal and communicative. The source has meaning and it has communicated that meaning in all that he has made. There are real relationships, to be entered into and enjoyed, that give significance to all we do.

can it be true?

John asks us to imagine a different beginning. Not the impersonal singularity of scientistic atheism, but a personal relational communicating beginning. Could this other beginning be true?

John goes on to tell us that he has come to believe it to be true because of something that he witnessed, 'The Word became flesh'.[15] The personal, communicative, relational beginning of all things became a human being. This beginning came into our history and geography; he came on our terms. This was the ultimate communication of love and truth about the beginning of all things. This is what John says he saw, touched, shared a meal with and spoke to. It was this source of all things, in human form, that John himself struggled so hard to comprehend. Rejected by the people of his day and then killed on a cross; it was this Word made flesh that John saw live again, and so come to believe in the truth of this Word.

John wrote his account of what he witnessed that others might come to the same conclusion. He asks us, just as he asks Dawkins, which beginning makes better sense of what we know of ourselves and the world in which we live? John knew which beginning made better sense of what he saw, heard and touched.

in conclusion

If scientistic atheism is true, human life becomes empty, for everything we value about it is an illusion. But if the Word is the beginning of all things then life is full of richness of meaning. John tells us this is exactly why the Word became flesh, to restore life to all whose lives have become empty, bringing life in all its fullness.[16]

Dawkins wants belief to be based on evidence, not to exist as 'blind faith'. But I think it takes more blind faith to be a scientistic atheist, believing all my human experience to be an illusion, than to be a Christian and believe in the Word who became flesh. Dawkins should be congratulated as a man of great faith. I, however, am not. And that is why I am a Christian.

  1. Dawkins R. The Selfish Gene (3rd ed). Oxford: OUP, 2006
  2. Dawkins R. The Blind Watchmaker (revised). London: Penguin, 2006
  3. Dawkins R. A Devil's Chaplain. London: Phoenix, 2004
  4. Dawkins R. The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press, 2006: inside front cover
  5. McGrath A. The Dawkins Delusion. London: SPCK, 2007
  6. Dawkins R. Op cit:13
  7. Dawkins R. Op cit:172
  8. Ibid
  10. Dawkins R. Op cit:371
  11. Adams D. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. London: Pan Macmillan, 1979
  12. Russell B. Man's Free Worship. The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell (vol 12). Oxford: Routledge, 1985
  13. Jn 1:1
  14. Gn 1:27
  15. Jn 1:14
  16. Jn 10:10
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