Peter Byrom thinks Richard Dawkins made some of his most revealing remarks during his recent discussion with Francis Collins on The Big Conversation, owing mostly to the good-natured relationship between the two guests, which allowed Dawkins to lower some of his usual defences.

Bygone militancy

I owe Prof Richard Dawkins a great deal of thanks, because it was his book The God Delusion and the ensuing debates that provoked me to explore the question of evidence for God’s existence, which eventually brought me to Christian belief. I was used to the militant, sometimes incandescent Dawkins, often describing religious faith as a “virus” while pitting himself against sometimes equally antagonistic opponents.

Yet his recent dialogue with Dr Francis Collins on Premier Unbelievable?’s The Big Conversation was a breath of fresh air and an inspiring departure from that combative style. It’s clear that these two gentlemen, while holding completely opposite views about God, have profound respect for each other (the only references to viruses here came when both scientists revelled in discussing genetics and the causes of the COVID19 pandemic).

A big admission… but not the one you think!

It is precisely because of this warm and genuine rapport that, I think, Dawkins opened up and made some of his most remarkable admissions and concessions to date – in a way that would not have happened had his back been against the wall.

I am not referring, however, to Dawkins’ remarks that “you could possibly persuade somebody like me to become a deist” and that “if somebody were to convince me of the need for a God, it would be there” (referring to the Argument from Design based on the “fine-tuning” of the universe’s fundamental physical constants). As Dawkins took pains to point out, those types of comments have been sensationalised and taken out of context before. While Dawkins did indeed refer to fine-tuning as “a good argument”, he made it very clear that he still has a major roadblock to accepting it, and thus is most definitely still not a convert, not even to deism (he was even able to joke about this with Collins).

Presuppositions

Rather, I am referring to an admission by Dawkins concerning that roadblock itself. This was not a “gotcha”, but instead was freely offered in a commendable moment of self-reflection (which, once again, I attribute to Dawkins’ feeling at ease in the conversation with Collins).

When asked whether he’d be dissatisfied with a non-material explanation for the universe, Dawkins replied:

“That’s part of it. I suppose perhaps we both come at it with a bit of… presupposition. As somebody who’s deeply steeped in evolution, I am kind of in love with the idea that it’s possible to explain complex things in terms of simple things.…  And that’s such a beautiful idea, that inventing a big complex thing, which God must be if he exists, throws a ruddy great spanner in the whole works of the beauty of that Darwinian concept.”

This was something I had not seen before. Dawkins was ready to acknowledge that he may be approaching the question of God’s existence with materialistic (or naturalistic) preferences (indeed, the very word he used, “presupposition” is striking because it is most commonly used by Christian apologists)!

Not only did he readily open himself up to considering the possibility that he has materialistic, and specifically Darwinian, presuppositions against God, but Dawkins agreed that God, if he exists, “must be” a mind when Collins was invited to respond:

Collins: “I think of God as a mind, not as some grey-haired guy in the sky, which has been an unfortunate image foisted on generations of believers. I don’t think God has gender; I think God is a mind that is capable of things that you and I cannot possibly imagine.”

Dawkins: “If he exists, then that must be what he is, yes.”

Is complexity the problem?

One wonders, therefore, where Dawkins stands now, regarding his roadblock to accepting the fine-tuning argument. He has conceded that God would have to be a mind, which, as many of Dawkins’ critics have pointed out, is an immaterial entity. This would entail that, despite having complex thoughts and powers, God is ultimately simple in structure (no parts to assemble, unlike the material universe).

This, in two ways, undercuts Dawkins’ central atheistic objection, from his book The God Delusion as well as this discussionthat God must be “complex”:

Firstly, this objection depends upon the very presuppositions that Dawkins has just admitted to. By objecting that God must be “complex”, Dawkins has to assume that God must be physical in some way (so that, on pain of equivocation, God’s “complexity” would be of the same type as the appearance of design in the universe: namely a statistically improbable configuration of parts). But such a being, by definition, would not be God (i.e. it would not be a transcendent, eternal, unembodied mind who created the material realm, but merely a larger “creature” confined within that realm itself).

Dawkins never gives us an argument for why unembodied minds cannot exist, nor why only material beings can exist. Instead, he simply assumes that because God has complex capabilities, that therefore he must be built out of complex parts. This is arguing in a circle: presupposing the naturalism that he’s supposed to be substantiating.

Not only have Christian apologists pointed this out to Dawkins, but also fellow atheists, such as the philosopher Thomas Nagel:

God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation of his existence as a chance concatenation of atoms is not a possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is not what anybody means by God. If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them. [1]

 

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Secondly, however, if God is a mind (as Dawkins conceded to Collins) then, ironically, God would fit perfectly into the “simple to complex” model that Dawkins is so “in love” with! If God is immaterial, then he would always be simpler than the material universe (even in its earliest state). What could be a more elegant fit than a divine mind, with no material complexity at all, who creates the material universe and allows it to grow, unfold, and evolve in all its glory? Again, this has also been pointed out by Dawkins’ critics.

Safety from “interference”

It seems, rather, that Dawkins’ ultimate objection is not so much that he has a problem with God being “complex”, but that he doesn’t want the material world to be “interfered” with. When one listens to Dawkins speak so passionately about the self-sufficient beauty of the Darwinian model, compared to how incredulous he becomes when divine intervention is suggested, one gets the impression that Dawkins almost sees the universe as a precious, autonomous “body” that must be “protected” from aggressors or threats.

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Swans are my favourite wild animal, because it is fascinating to observe the varying degrees of defensive posture that they can exhibit. If they’re at peace, then their feathers will rest flat on their backs; but if a perceived predator is too close to them or their cygnets, they’ll arch their wings and prickle the feathers on their necks. If they think their territory is being outright violated, they’ll coil up almost into the shape of a missile, ready to strike (this is known as “busking”).

With Dawkins, the more divine involvement is proposed, the closer he’ll get to “busking”. Merely creating the universe and then standing back is one thing, but a God who goes further and “interferes” through miracles, personal relationship, special revelation and even delegation, is on a whole new level of dangerous (and it is indeed important, to an extent, to be on guard when going beyond deism – given that the potential for people to exploit and abuse religious belief is, sadly, all too real). Such tendencies need to be taken into account, in any dialogue, because there’s always a reason for them.

The Resurrection

Sure enough, the closest Dawkins came to slipping into this defensive posture (though he never went all the way, and the goodwill between him and Collins was never broken) was when the subject turned to the life of Jesus and the case for his Resurrection. Throughout the conversation, Dawkins expressed incredulity at the idea that God would perform miracles, calling Collins out for his “unscientific” beliefs in this area, to which Collins responded:

“You must see that you’re applying your own view, that anything that can’t be explained naturally must be an intellectual error. And you and I are different in that regard. I’m allowing the possibility of the supernatural – a Creator God who’s responsible for everything.”

As Collins pointed out, Dawkins’ presuppositions have rigged the outcome. If the material universe is a closed system, and miracles by definition cannot happen in the first place, then no amount of evidence for miracles will ever be acceptable nor credible. This denial would have to hold even if, as Dawkins himself helpfully reminded us, “suddenly during a thirty-year period from 0AD to 30AD, a whole spate of miracles happen”. Pause to consider even the dating convention that Dawkins was using (anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord”) and that ought to be a subtle clue that, perhaps, as Collins himself responded, “it was not just any thirty-year period”.

One cannot help but wonder what Dawkins would make of NT Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which Collins recommended to him during this conversation. I suspect that, given the rapport between these two gentlemen, despite their differences, the fact that this recommendation came from Collins might mean that it has the most likelihood of Dawkins giving it a chance!

The importance of respect

That’s why I think Dawkins’ willingness to reflect upon the role of presuppositions was his biggest admission in this terrific exchange, aided by his respect for Collins. Will Dawkins examine more deeply those materialistic and anti-interventionist roadblocks which are keeping him from reaching the deistic “base camp” and climbing beyond it to Christian theism (as Collins characterised it)? We don’t know, and shouldn’t presume to know, but we’ve been privileged to catch glimpses of his thought process, and there’s no doubt that his good relationship with Collins helped to bring this about.

In short, tabloid headlines along the lines of “is Richard Dawkins converting?” do not ask the right questions (and, again, just to be clear: while it could be argued that we’ve heard his swansong to New Atheism as a movement… no, Dawkins himself is still an atheist)!

What we really need to be asking is:

To what extent are all of us (including Richard Dawkins) prepared to question our most fundamental assumptions, and what are we doing to create the kinds of environments and relationships which most encourage this to happen?

Are we willing to engage in dialogue, with those with whom we might disagree, in order to better understand their arguments (and, in so doing, our own reasons for what we believe)? And when we do so, will we do our utmost to try to put our interlocutors at ease, or will we give them cause to go into “busking swan” mode?

I believe that The Big Conversation is a big step in the right direction! By hearing the top thinkers in their field respectfully discuss their views - about life, faith and meaning - our own reasoning, arguments, and hopefully even relational abilities, will be strengthened.

 

Watch the debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins on The Big Conversation

 

Peter Byrom is an administrator with Premier, and is contributing to a collection of essays entitled Coming to Faith Through Dawkins - publishing soon by Kregel Publications, by 12 authors from five countries explaining how the New Atheists played important roles in their pathways to Christian faith.

 [1] Thomas Nagel, “The Fear of Religion” p2