Dawkins is wrong: a scientist can believe in a real God

Richard Dawkins’ new book The God Delusion seems to be causing a bit of a stir. I haven’t read it, and I probably won’t. Not long ago I sat through a series on Channel 4 TV in which Dawkins presented his views on the same subject, and that was more than enough to put up with!

But I would like to respond to one of Dawkins’ points which is highlighted by Al Mohler in his commentary article The Dawkins Delusion. And as Mohler has not enabled comments on that article, I am responding here and in more length than appropriate for a comment.

Mohler writes, in part quoting Dawkins in The God Delusion:

In [Dawkins’] opening chapter, he argues that most legitimate scientists–indeed all who really understand the issues at stake–are atheists of one sort or another. He defines the alternatives as between a stark atheism (such as that Dawkins himself represents) and a form of nonsupernatural religion, as illustrated by the case of Albert Einstein. “Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply,” he explains. As examples, Dawkins offers not only Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking but also Martin Rees, currently Britain’s Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society. … He cites Einstein to the effect that he was a “deeply religious nonbeliever”–moved by the majesty of the cosmos but without any reference whatsoever to a supernatural being.As Dawkins explains, real scientists are naturalists. As such, they eliminate entirely the question of a supernatural being’s existence. “The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.”

Thus Dawkins claims that scientists are never true theists, believers in a living and personal God separate from his creation, but if they are not atheists they are more like pantheists, believers in the divinity of the universe. But this claim is so wide of the mark as to be ludicrous. For centuries there have been many scientists who have been theists of one sort or another. Indeed the founders of modern science were almost all theists, even though many, such as Isaac Newton, were not orthodox Christians, and some tended towards deism (which is rather the opposite of pantheism, not identifying God with the universe but separating him entirely from it). Einstein also seems to have been a theist, despite what Dawkins claims, as shown by his famous statement “God does not play dice with the universe” (is that “without any reference whatsoever to a supernatural being”?); so apparently is Stephen Hawking, for he has insisted that “God does play dice with the universe.” Indeed, in our own time there are many good scientists who are theists, indeed who are orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

As an example, I can mention John Polkinghorne. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge, in the same department as Stephen Hawking (although not then in its beautiful new building). In fact Polkinghorne taught me astrophysics, when I was a graduate student of physics at Cambridge; I still remember his graphs of the life cycle of a star. He would never have got that post, nor been elected FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society), if he had not been a good scientist! He was also a reader (effectively a part-time assistant pastor) at a local Anglican church; I remember receiving communion from him. At about the time that I left Cambridge, 1978, he also left to train for ordination in the Church of England; he was then in his late 40’s. He ministered in churches for some years before returning to Cambridge as President of Queens’ College.

Polkinghorne has written a number of books on the subject of science and faith. In the one I have in my hand, Science and Christian Belief (SPCK, 1994), based on the prestigious Gifford Lectures for 1993-4, he argues from scientific first principles for an orthodox Trinitarian Christian faith, with a very definitely theistic God. Now I don’t agree with everything that Polkinghorne writes in this book. But he is certainly a counter-example to Dawkins’ claim. And Dawkins must be aware of him. Does he get a mention in Dawkins’ book, I wonder, or is this an embarrassment which is simply ignored?

But does Dawkins in fact have a point that these scientists have “a form of nonsupernatural religion” which is “light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible”? Well, yes, although this concept of a non-interventionist God is not pantheism but deism. As I mentioned before, there has certainly been a tendency towards deism among scientists, and more widely, since the 18th century Enlightenment. Indeed, as I have discussed elsewhere, a form of deism is found even among many Bible believing Christians, whose God is not really “interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, … prayer-answering”, and is “sin-punishing” only outside this world; they too hold to “a form of nonsupernatural religion” at least since the end of the apostolic age. But that is another issue.

Well, as we have seen, Hawking is certainly not a deist but a theist if he is serious in asserting that “God does play dice with the universe,” for this is a personal God intervening in the universe after its creation. Einstein’s denial of this did not make him a deist either, for, according to a BBC programme, “Einstein’s work was underpinned by the idea that the laws of physics were an expression of the divine.” It seems rather that their concept of God is a classical theistic one: God perpetually controls and upholds the universe which he created. But at least for Einstein this seems to have implied that God always works in a way determined by the laws of physics, thus ruling out miracles as well as randomness.

Polkinghorne, although not in the same league as Einstein and Hawking as a scientist, is certainly not a deist. He also goes beyond Einstein’s kind of theism to accept that God can work outside and beyond the laws of physics, for he accepts that at least one miracle took place: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if one miracle is possible, then there is no reason why others should not be. So, while Einstein’s God is not “the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible”, and while Polkinghorne might not identify completely with this rather tendentious description, Polkinghorne’s God is able at least in principle to do all these things, and his religion is not “nonsupernatural”.

And where my former science professor led, I am not afraid to follow. Indeed I would go further, and claim that God does indeed intervene in our world, work miracles, read thoughts, punish sins (but more readily forgive them), and answer prayer. There is nothing in science, understood properly, to say that these things are impossible. But I have seen these things happen, and as a scientist I need to take this as evidence that they are possible, and indeed should be expected to happen today.

Deborah and a woman from Bethlehem

I usually agree with my blogger friend Lingamish, and I regret that I will not have time to meet him in person when he passes through London next week on his way back to Mozambique.

But I do have to disagree with one part of his recent posting on misogyny in the book of Judges, specifically his assessment of the role of Deborah. He quotes from my comment about her place in the book:

Indeed this “misogynist” book in fact gives one of the strongest biblical examples about a woman in leadership.

I was rather taken aback by his response to this:

Even the story of Deborah in Judges 4 & 5 is given not to show a woman in a positive leadership role but rather to shame the man who abdicated his responsibility. I’m not against women in leadership, but I don’t think you should look to the story of Deborah to show a positive role model.

Now it would come as no surprise to hear such teaching in some church circles. It is an embarrassment to those who have strong views about leadership being inherently male that the woman Deborah was clearly leading the people of Israel. But I can see no justification for treating her as a secondary character or a negative model in this picture. As I commented on Lingamish’s blog:

I don’t think you are fair to Deborah to treat her simply as a minor character in the story of Barak. From a literary viewpoint she is the main character in the story, in both chapters 4 and 5. She, not Barak, was the judge with the authority to command even Barak in God’s name, 4:4-6. Those who downplay her part in the story to a mere foil for Barak are more guilty of misogyny than the author of this part of Judges.

I hope it is not fair to suggest that Lingamish himself is guilty of misogyny, but I would claim that, if not, he is uncritically accepting an interpretation of this passage by misogynists.

This is how I would interpret this passage:

All of the judges in the book of Judges should be understood as positive role models for us to the extent that they took up God’s call to lead his people, and by following his leading defeated their enemies. But many of them are also presented as flawed individuals, with faults which are clearly pointed out. While it is an encouragement to us that God can use even imperfect people, the judges’ faults are clearly not for us to copy.

Deborah is the judge in her time, the divinely called leader of Israel. She is also a prophet (4:4) and “a mother in Israel” (5:7). I note that there is no justification in the Hebrew for the distinction between “became Israel’s judge” (3:10 TNIV, of Othniel) and “was leading Israel” (4:4 TNIV, of Deborah); in each case a verb “judge, lead” is used with “Israel” as the object. But the distinction is not gender-based, for oddly enough Othniel is the only individual called a “judge” in the book of Judges, in both NIV and TNIV. So there is no justification in the text for considering Deborah to be anything less than a full member of the succession of “judges” after whom the book is named.

The relationship between Deborah and Barak seems to have been that of political leader and appointed army commander, like that between King David and Joab. The ancient tradition was that the political leader personally led the troops into battle; indeed this was still common practice in Europe into the early modern period. In 2 Samuel 11:1, however, we read that David sent Joab off to fight his battles while he himself remained in Jerusalem, presumably busy with affairs of state as well as with his affair with Bathsheba. The often rebellious Joab doesn’t seem to have complained on this occasion at being given his freedom.

In the rather similar position in Judges 4:6-9, Deborah clearly has the right to give orders to Barak in God’s name, but she is reluctant to go into battle herself. We don’t know why: maybe she thought this was not a woman’s place, or maybe she had other work to do. But Barak refused to go into battle without the divinely appointed leader of the nation. Again we don’t know why, but it certainly wasn’t out of misogyny!

It is frequently alleged that Barak should have been the judge but that he refused the job and so Deborah had to do it. But that is not what the text says. It says that she was already the judge before there is any mention of Barak. And, while Deborah as a prophet speaks in the name of God, Barak does not; he is simply a soldier who follows God’s guidance as relayed to him by Deborah and wins a battle (4:14-15). Maybe this is the key to Barak’s reluctance: he knew that he needed God’s help in this battle and he wanted the prophet Deborah to be on hand to pass on God’s tactical guidance. But he need not have worried, for it was not him but God who routed Sisera and his army (4:15).

But there is certainly some truth in the suggestion that God uses women in leadership when they are willing to serve in this way but men are not – and when they are allowed to. The following story is taken from Light Force by Brother Andrew, about which I recently posted. It concerns a middle-aged Arab woman from the modern town of Bethlehem, who is already a Bible college graduate. This event took place in 1996 (p.200):

Nawal Qumsieh was ready and eager to go into ministry. But where? And how? At a seminar in Bethlehem, Nawal responded to the challenge. ‘If anyone wants to dedicate his life to ministry for Jesus,’ the guest speaker intoned, ‘now is the time to come forward!’ The man stepped back from the podium and bowed his head in prayer. Nawal slipped out of her seat and hurried to the front of the room. Out of some fifty in attendance, she was the only one to answer the call.

The speaker opened his eyes and looked around the room, then down at Nawal. He shook his head and said quietly so only Nawal could hear, ‘Go back to your seat, please. Women cannot help in this society. We need men.’

Again the speaker challenged the audience. ‘We need men to stand up for Christ in this culture. Will you come forward? Will you be part of the solution?’

Fighting back tears, Nawal walked slowly back to her seat. She felt like she’d been hit in her heart by a rubber bullet. Not one man took her place in the front. Now weeping, she prayed, ‘Lord, who will minister to my people?’

And within her heart, she immediately sensed the answer: ‘I am calling you to be in ministry.’

A little later in the book (pp.225-228) we find Nawal ministering in healing prayer and evangelism.

This happened in Bethlehem, but could it happen in your church, here in the west? Maybe it would be done a bit more subtly, but is the message going out that some classes of people, such as women or maybe less educated or ethnic minority people, are not really wanted for God’s service?

Jesus said to his disciples,

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

(Matthew 9:37-38, TNIV)

And he said the following just as a woman was bringing many people to meet him:

“… 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now those who reap draw their wages, even now they harvest the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

(John 4:35-38, TNIV)

Yes, the workers are few. Sometimes the only workers available are women, but even when men do come forward there are rarely enough of them. And there is still a plentiful harvest: people who are going to a lost eternity unless they are reached with the gospel message. So let’s not discourage any believers who God is calling to take a part in bringing in his harvest. Let’s not reject them just because of their gender, or anything else, but let’s encourage them all to find their place in God’s work.

In the lands of the Bible God has been able to use women in his service, from the time of Deborah up to today when he is using women like Nawal. If he can use women even in the strongly patriarchal cultures of ancient Israel and modern Palestine, surely he can use them also in our own western cultures.

The acceptable face of charismaticism?

In a post on his blog today, linking to sermons by one of his heroes, Adrian Warnock wrote:

C.J. Mahaney is well-known as the acceptable face of charismaticism.

I commented in response:

If CJ “The Father killed the Son” Mahaney is “the acceptable face of charismaticism“, then may God preserve the non-Christian world from its unacceptable face!

Adrian deleted my comment, as he did not want to open up a new debate on this matter. In fact I had no intention of taking it any further, but maybe others would have tried to reopen the debate we had in June. (By the way, I don’t want to reopen it with this post either.)

Well, I sympathise with Adrian to some extent. He recently had the comment thread on an excellent post on the charismatic debate hijacked by an irrelevant discussion about Benny Hinn. But in this case I was responding directly to a statement Adrian was making about Mahaney. It seems that Adrian is not willing for his statement to be questioned. He allowed all kinds of frankly libellous accusations to be made against Hinn (in fact he could probably get in legal trouble for publishing them), before eventually calling an end to that discussion. Could it be that he is so sensitive to a negative opinion about Mahaney because he doesn’t personally agree with it?

Is censorship “the acceptable face of charismaticism”?

Bibles from China

I never got round to posting about the Momentum conference as I had promised. I still might do. But for now all I will say was that one of the highlights was to hear Brother Andrew, of God’s Smuggler fame. He was talking mainly about his more recent work in various Middle Eastern countries. This is also described in his more recent book Light Force, which I am currently reading. Brother Andrew also reminded us that Jesus told us to “Go and make disciples…”, but didn’t say anything about coming back!

Today I happened to read, in the latest issue of the Evangelical Alliance’s idea magazine, that Brother Andrew’s organisation Open Doors is marking 25 years since “Project Pearl”, in which it successfully smuggled a million Bibles into China. Sadly, 25 years on there is still a severe shortage of Bibles in China.

In the light of this, I found it rather ironic that Bibles in the Momentum conference bookshop were being unpacked from boxes labelled “Printed in China”. It was not just one version or edition, but a wide variety as far as I could tell, which came in boxes so marked. It seems that the People’s Republic is quite happy to make money by printing cheap Bibles for export to the West, but does not allow them to be printed or imported in adequate numbers for its own people.

As Christians, should we buy Bibles which are printed in a country which does not allow its own people access to Bibles? Should we support the Chinese economy in this way? Maybe that is worth thinking about.

At least the Bible which I bought there, a small format TNIV reduced from £18.99 to £8.99, was “Printed in Great Britain”, although that is not why I chose it.

Theology, language or world view?

I have been rather quiet recently on this blog. But I have just uploaded to the Better Bibles Blog a post which may be of general interest, on The TNIV controversy: a matter of theology, of language, or of world view? This post takes as its starting point the ongoing controversy on that blog about the TNIV Bible translation, and relates it to the general conservative world view, and to the need for Christians to put God before their world views.

Adrian defends charismatic experience of God

Adrian Warnock has written an excellent defence of the charismatic position, especially against negative comments from the cessationist Dan Phillips. Adrian contends powerfully for “an authentic, experiential, and relational Christianity”, and for the legitimacy of charismatic experience of God’s presence. He also quotes passages from Piper, Lloyd-Jones and Spurgeon in support of his position.

Here are some extracts, all Adrian’s own words:

The desperate need of the hour is a vibrant, living Christianity which worships a God who is not dead, but acts today! …For most of the charismatics I know at least, it is NOT mere emotion that we seek; rather we seek an appropriate emotional response to the presence of God, and we seek His activity in our lives and churches to be manifestly present. …

We must approach the Bible prayerfully, with an open heart, and cry out to the God of the Bible to make Himself plain to us as we read. I seek my experience of God within the context of His revealed Word to us – not outside it. …

Such knowledge is, of course, only perfected when we see Him face to face, but in the meantime, here on earth, I do believe we can expect moments when heaven seems almost to break in and we respond with joy and wonder at the manifest presence of our coming king.

I have experienced such “moments when heaven seems almost to break in” myself. Indeed something like this was happening at our church worship and prayer meeting last night. Such experiences must not of course be sought for their own sake, and must not be separated from proper biblical understanding. But I too long to “respond with joy and wonder at the manifest presence of our coming king”.