Dawkins & God

(September 22, 2009)


In a recent article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the well-known biologist and loudly self-proclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins (his latest book is titled The God Delusion) criticizes those contemporary theologians would tempt to avoid the whole question of the existence of God and who retreat to defending the notion of God as something useful for giving us a sense of meaning.  As well he might.  If God does not actually exist or is simply a mythological creation of our own minds, what is the point of theology – which means the knowledge or science of God -- in the first place? 

What is missing in Dawkins’s argument (at least in the short article) is this is anything resembling a definition of what he means by the term “God”. Nevertheless it seems obvious that what he has in mind is the image of the old man upstairs complete with a long white beard hurling thunderbolts from heaven and creating creatures like so many little mud pies.  And of course, for anyone versed in evolutionary biology, such a concept is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, Dawkins seems completely ignorant of another approach to God, one that has existed long before Dawkins, his hero Darwin, or even the beginnings of modern science. Some four centuries before the time of Christ, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had described God as the “prime mover” or cause of all existence.  Yet Aristotle also believed that the universe had not been “created” (at least in the sense of the usual Christian understand of the term) but instead had always existed.  Now if this view seems contradictory or confusing, it is because we in the habit of taking existence for granted. We tend to confuse the question of what with question of why, or as Dawkins asserted in an interview some years ago, that asking “why” is an entirely useless question in the first place (so much for philosophy or philosophers in the first place!).  

Or to paraphrase the words of the last great philosopher of the ancient pagan world, Plotinus, it is not so much that God is everywhere (which would be to describe an attribute or quality of God) but that God “is that everywhere” from which everything else derives its own existence – in other words, the term “is” is here being used to describe the very nature or essence of God. This is so much so that St. Augustine, who traced his own conversion to Christianity as being in part due to the influence of Plotinus and the neo-Platonist philosophers, described God as “Being” in itself, a theme taken up by later medieval theologians such a Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus.  In fact, the late medieval mystic and preacher, Johann Eckhart, went so far as to say that to the extent that we exist, we ourselves are divine, because we partake or share in the essence of God’s own being!

All this long tradition of Christian theology and even pagan philosophy seems lost on Dawkins. From Dawkins’ point of view, of course, nothing but the universe itself exists.  Apparently his view of the big bang is something that unaccountably has always existed, at least in potential.    Yet, from the point of view of science – at least of  hard” or testable science as distinct from the flights of imagination on the part of some regarding other undetected or even undetectable “universes” – we are still led back to what has been described as the fundamental question of philosophy, which is to say “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

But if nothing else, I would credit Dawkins whose enthusiasm for atheism (one observer of modern atheism has even described Dawkins as “a born-again atheist) with forcing us to take another and more careful look at the long-standing, yet too often long-forgotten, riches of classical philosophy and Christian theology.