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.

0 thoughts on “Dawkins is wrong: a scientist can believe in a real God

  1. Peter,

    I am saying nothing original in noting that Dawkins often seems as shrill and lacking in nuance on the skeptical side as his counterparts among ultra fundamentalist believers. Neither does their side as much good as they aim. But it often feels good to be blunt and insensitive, after all.

    I appreciate John Polkinghorne’s books, even if they seem repetitve. It’s important in these cynical postmodern times to remind people that you can believe and still respect science. I would like to sit Polkinghorne down and say “Could you say that again in simpler english, sir?” To which he might suggest I might re-read him and try harder this time. Which is not a bad idea.

    Science, bible scholarship, blogger– the list of your accomplishments grows, Peter. People such as you and Polkinghorne make me feel lazy and unaccomplished. Nice to know the “well-rounded person” ideal has not vanished in a time of linear, functional education.

  2. Dawkins is an unphilosophical loon. I don’t know if he’d consider Francis Collins an “eminent” scientist or not–he discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis (and identified some of the defects) as well as the gene for neurofibramatosis (he was a co-discoverer of that) and then he directed the Human Genome Project in the US. In any case, he just wrote a book intellectually defending his faith in the God revealed in the Bible as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost–using CS Lewis-like arguments on the philosophical side and design-type arguments on the side of cosmology.

    I’m a biochemist and I found that Christians and believing Jews were a not-insignificant minority throughout my undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral educations. There is a somewhat strange hostility to particular expressions of religion, particularly acute in biology departments in the US (I taught for two years), but I think this is due to the whole evolution controversy. So Dawkins is just throwing fuel on that fire.

    (Incidentally, I got to your site from Touchstone and it only appears to have the link to your website and *not* your email address. In any case, you can’t Google the Touchstone pages so I think you’re protected from the normal sorts of indexing robots that might find your email address.)

  3. Chuck, I hope to explain here some time in more detail the variety of things I have done in my life.

    Gene, thanks also for your comments. Certainly when I was a student at Cambridge there was a high proportion of evangelical Christians among science students, indeed something like half of the 50 or so of us at my college, although I can’t be sure what all of them really believed.

    I agree with both of you that Dawkins is philosophically and theologically ignorant. Unfortunately he can’t be ignored, because his books sell!

  4. Poor old Einstein! He always seems to get dragged in!

    “Einstein was an atheist. He was not brought up in a deeply religious home. Einstein did not assume or believe in any god, or practice a religion… His public statements have been interpreted by those that believe in some god, as Einstein wanted them to be interpreted: WRONGLY; and for good reason (i.e. to avoid him being crucified by religious people everywhere)!”
    (Phillip Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times, Alfred A. Knopf, 1947).

    People often quote Einstein’s remarks such as “God does not play dice”. This remark is commonly mentioned to show that Einstein believed in the Christian God. But it is out of context; it actually refers to Einstein’s refusal to accept the uncertainties indicated by quantum theory.

    Here’s a longer quote:

    “The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events. To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

    “But I am convinced that such behavior on the part of representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task …”
    (Science, Philosophy, and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941.)

    On his own beliefs, he later said:
    “I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”
    (Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, and published by Princeton University Press.)

    As for Polkinghorne, while I’ve never met the man, I’m not aware that he actually has a towering reputation as a scientist. He’s certainly a most assiduous Christian apologist, but he has never, to my knowledge, adduced a scrap of evidence for the existence of a god. Come to think of it, neither has anybody else.

    As for the claim that Dawkins is theologically ignorant, liten to what the man said himself:

    “Yes, I have, of course, met this point before. It sounds superficially fair. But it presupposes that that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about. The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject. It is empty. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content. I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer. How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?

    The only part of theology that could possibly demand my attention is the part that purports to demonstrate that God does exist. This part of theology I have, indeed, studied with considerable attention. And found it utterly wanting.

    As for {Alister] McGrath’s book [The Science of God], I read it with genuine curiosity to discover whether he had any argument to offer in favor of his theistic belief. The nearest I could find was his statement that you cannot disprove it. Well, that may be true, but it isn’t very impressive, is it?”

    So perhaps being theologically ignorant is not such a bad thing after all!

  5. God exists in the actions performed in his name.

    As long as people believe in god, he exists, and can perform great and terrible acts.

    We have evidence of this fact. We have traced back directly to him the origins of nation of Arabia. A thousand year old conspiracy to eliminate all the Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem is a direct result of his influence of the continent of Europe.

    Of course the Pope was the real mastermind behind this operation; but if it weren’t for god’s influence, no one would follow him.

    He may not have any actual power, but in his ability to manipulate people, he is more powerful than Hitler ever was.

  6. Dawkins does in fact mention Polkinghorne and a few other similar scientists in his book, “The God Delusion”. He implies that they are the exception rather than the rule and puts forward the view that they are essentially compartmentalizing their beliefs with their scientific training. In otherwords if they were to apply the scientific method to the concept of God they too would be left with the conclusion that the concept of God is highly improbable.
    Dawkins also gives statistics in his book noting that the most published and well-known scientists tend to be Atheists or Agnostics. I guess his implication is that the most intelligent scientists represent the best understanding of the conclusions of science.

  7. Josh, thanks for the comment. I wonder if Dawkins has read Polkinghorne’s Science and Christian Belief. This is certainly an attempt to “apply the scientific method to the concept of God“. Dawkins can try to argue that Polkinghorne’s reasoning is faulty, or that he makes false assumptions. But he cannot argue that if Polkinghorne did this he would “be left with the conclusion that the concept of God is highly improbable“, because in fact Polkinghorne has done this and has come to a very different conclusion. If this is an example of Dawkins’ logic, and if Dawkins cannot find actual errors in Polkinghorne’s logic, I will stick with Polkinghorne’s logic.

  8. Pingback: I'm a Master of Mathematics, they tell me - Gentle Wisdom

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