Mar 26, 2012
What Do You Find Most Interesting or Surprising About the S&R Discussion Today? Karl Giberson Answers
Last month, Richard Dawkins made headlines after a debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Religion News Service offered this response, which was fairly typical: “A controversial Oxford University professor billed by many as the world’s ‘most famous atheist’ now says he is not 100 percent sure that God doesn’t exist—but just barely.” Many media outlets jumped on the admission as if it was big news.
The phrase “now says he is not 100 percent sure” is provocative. Taken out of context, it hints that Dawkins might be rethinking his atheism, just as particle physicists were starting to wonder six months ago whether the absolute prohibition against particles exceeding the speed of light might not be so absolute.
The reaction to Dawkins’ comments frustrates me in the same way that the current political season frustrates me: It shows that there just isn’t much genuinely intellectual discourse in public any more. Everything is political. Nobody wants to dialogue about their positions—they want only to defend and promote them, and assault the other side.
Dawkins’ comment is the sort of appropriately restrained affirmation that thoughtful people make, when they are speaking carefully. Although he doesn’t believe in God, Dawkins is not so philosophically reckless—i.e., political—as to say that he knows with 100 percent certainty that there isn’t some transcendent being of some sort that we cannot detect. But Dawkins’ admission does not represent in any way a weakening of his atheism, a trickle of water starting to run down the iceberg of his nonbelief, as the news reports suggested.
I raise this concern as someone who is trying to work in the space between Dawkins and anti-science fundamentalists like Ken Ham and Al Mohler. On various occasions, I have suggested that Ham and Mohler need to pay more attention to science and stop trying to get modern science from the ancient stories in the Bible. But such efforts are met with hyperbolic ridicule. Mohler, for example, described one of my efforts as “quite simply, one of the most ridiculous statements concerning the Bible one might ever imagine,” and accused me of “throwing the Bible under the bus.”
On another occasion—speaking to a quite different audience—I tried to suggest that mathematics had a transcendent dimension that motivated a “religious impulse.” That was the extent of my claim—I made no argument that mathematics proved the existence of God or anything remotely like that. I suggested only that it hinted at “realities that go beyond what science can establish with clarity.” Jerry Coyne, in a piece called “Math works: ergo Jesus” responded by describing my argument as “an empirical justification for believing in God and for the happy coexistence of science and faith.“ More hyperbole.
And I must confess that I, too, have occasionally lapsed into hyperbole, so my criticisms here are also leveled at myself.
I am surprised and disappointed that there is not more interest in stepping back from the defense of entrenched positions and getting into serious conversations about the very engaging questions at the intersection of science and religion.
Karl Giberson is the author of a number of books on the interface of science and religion, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science and Faith (with Dr. Francis Collins), The Anointed (with Randall Stephens), and The Wonder of the Universe.