How could you not admire Richard Dawkins for his wonderful writing, his enthusiasm for science and even more his courage, his determination and his unwavering pursuit of truth? The publication of The God Delusion was a great event. It has challenged us all, and has delivered a grIevous blow, perhaps terminally, to the God who existed outside the universe and constructed it like a watch. Nevertheless, I think Dawkins is wrong about religion. Like many atheists, he belabours a ridiculous straw God in whom no intelligent religious believer believes. He has quite misinterpreted the Bible, especially the Christian doctrine of the Redemption. He has completely misunderstood Aquinas, especially Aquinas’s argument from design. More important still, he has totally missed Keats’s point about the awesome rainbow. One of the best things about Dawkins is his strong sense of wonder in nature. Yet when we turn to his discussion of these wonders we find that, marvellous as they are, his marvels are always mechanical wonders: how spiders solve the engineering problems of spanning a wide space with their webs, how the eye measures colours in raindrops.
You would have thought that someone who wrote an autobiographical account of an idyllic childhood in Africa would have been falling over himself to tell us of awesome natural wonders. Instead, it turns out to be mostly about what he himself confesses is his ‘love affair with machines’.
Keats was not talking about a love affair with machines but another kind of wonder altogether. Since the beginning of time human beings have felt and worshipped an awesome, numinous presence in nature that the mechanical structures of nature cannot themselves explain. I feel it acutely and Keats clearly felt it acutely. It is in this sense of numinous wonder in nature, not in the cerebral arguments Dawkins dismisses with such contempt in The God Delusion, that religion is rooted.
It is no longer reasonable to believe in a God outside the universe. But it is reasonable to think that there is a cosmic intelligence deep within the universe, that the universe, one might almost say, is itself intelligent. ‘God is within the universe and that innermostly’ wrote Aquinas. God does not exist, he thought, God is existence. Far from Stephen Hawking’s assertion that the universe was not constructed by a divine designer but spontaneously emerged from nothing destroying religion, this is just how Aquinas too would have viewed the beginning of the universe, except that he would have called Hawking’s nothing existence itself.
The default proposition of religion is not that there is a God outside the universe who constructed it, but that there is a further dimension of reality beyond our present powers of reason and imagination to grasp. Science is, of course, wonderful. But it can only tell us what it can tell us. By definition science examines material reality and if there were an immaterial reality it would not locate it. But it might point us towards it and, that is exactly what it does. I put forward arguments to show that belief in a further immaterial dimension makes far more sense of science than the proposition that the universe, so full of intelligibility, is itself just unintelligibly there.
My chief objection to Dawkins is his tone of certainty that there is nothing in reality but matter. That is certainly not what science, particularly quantum physics, is telling us. Science only ever sheds light on reality through discoveries that are only ever made at the price of revealing yet further darknesses that, before the discoveries, were not even thought of. Those mysteries are now so impenetrable they bewilder the mind. What would an infinity of universes look like and how would we ever examine it? How can material things be both particles and waves? How can subatomic entities communicate instantaneously with each other across the whole universe? A little less certainty please, Professor. Science can tell us that these extraordinary things exist but it cannot begin to tell us what they mean. Religion can at least suggest possibilities. For thousands of years, through experiments in the internal sphere just as disciplined and rigorous as those of science in the outer, mystics have been reporting remarkably similar experiences of a dimension of reality where everything is intensely itself because it is not itself but a unity with everything else, a contradiction that quantum physics is beginning to make us aware is intrinsic to dimensions of reality beyond that present one we so complacently inhabit. Would I be wrong in thinking that Dawkins’ acquaintance with the vast mystical literatures of the world is slight? It is this unity of anything with everything towards which both quantum physics and the Bible are both pointing us. The Bible teaches us not that an angry Jehovah requires the sacrifice of his own son to appease his wrath, as Dawkins, whose knowledge of contemporary theology appears to be severely restricted, imagines. On the contrary, in a further dimension of reality we ourselves, and everything else too, do not just worship but become God. ‘As Christ partook of our humanity so we shall share his godhead’ says the collect for Christmas day. ‘God will be everything to everybody’ says St Paul.
Our last end, the old penny catechism used to tell us, is to love God. But love can only happen between independent and freely loving equals. How often has religion destroyed that very independence that is its own condition? Imagine you are God. Would you want as a lover some caitiff who follows you everywhere crawling along the ground muttering I’m a worm. I’m a worm? Or would you want a proud, independent person who thinks for himself and simply won’t have the false God with whom religion has so often fobbed us off? I think Dawkins is less than well informed theologically. But he’s great. I’ve learnt so much from him.