If Dawkins Makes Sense to Me, Does That Make Me an Atheist?
Richard Dawkins doesn’t suffer fools kindly. That’s part of his appeal. But isn’t there a middle ground between atheism and creationism?
By Benjamin Shobert
If you like indulging in guilty pleasures, then by all means drop in at Richard Dawkins’ website and take a glance at the YouTube videos of his speech in Lynchburg, Virginia. In that speech, the famed British evolutionary biologist/ethologist/atheist—who maintains in his current New York Times bestseller, “The God Delusion,” that evolution by natural selection is overriding proof of the non-existence of God—is the essence of forced civility, until he suggests that audience members who are professors or students at Jerry Falwell’s nearby Liberty University find a reputable school to either teach or study at. We giggle and find ourselves murmuring “Yes, that’s about right.”
Of all the delicious little insights that come from wrestling with Dawkins, few are probably more delightful than the realization that Dawkins’ recent fame owes more to Dobson than Darwin. American evangelical Christianity has embraced an ironic sensibility that believes faith is essential for everything but the most supernatural of events upon which its very belief system is based. At the same time Christians are encouraged to blindly believe in the unseen, they must also provide proof of the miraculous events that attest to their religion’s validity, to counter the scientific evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately, however, instead of beefing up the argument for God, such proof has sideswiped our willingness to revel in the mystery of the unknown, limited the ability of modernity to penetrate ideas which evidence cries out be discarded, and blocked the growth of an empowered grace whose basis is an acknowledgement that we may not hold a monopoly on truth.
Faith and belief should be words we use carefully but tend to use cheaply. Because these two concepts have been mixed and diluted, they no longer hold the precision each should. As a result, theorists like Dawkins can step in and dissemble much of an entire belief system by rightly pointing out that our language is muddled and our apologetic incomplete. The recent spate of atheistic books by Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett and Sam Harris are no coincidence; capping all of these off will be this spring’s release of “God Is Not Great,” Christopher Hitchens’ tome on atheism, certain to be brutal, effective, and sinfully hilarious—a guilty pleasure no spiritual prophylactic is likely to prevent many believers and agnostics alike from relishing.
If ignorance is bliss and religion is the opiate of the people, it’s not surprising that Dawkins’ Lynchburg speech resulted in a number of Liberty University students being found outside the assembly hall in tears, the surety of their beliefs having been shaken, the foundation of what they saw as perfectly obvious and immutable suddenly anything but.
What gives Dawkins the edge is a combination of spot-on arguments and floundering adversaries. Like a chess strategist, Dawkins expertly maneuvers into position while his opponents lose pieces right and left, overreaching into areas they know little about and ineptly seeking to remake faith into fact. It’s precision-honed intellectualism versus religion’s bad-mannered and ill-tempered offspring, fundamentalism. For those like myself, who happen to view fundamentalism as something to be concerned about, Dawkins can be a frustrating necessity. And herein lies the problem: the lucidity of his analysis and argument begs the question of whether accepting his work requires that we also adopt his particular brand of atheism.
As much as I appreciate the kindness with which moderate-to-liberal Christian theologians and practitioners make room for fundamentalists at the table, I can not put to bed a gnawing suspicion that doing so mistakes civility for rightness and results in a uniquely postmodern mish-mash of opinions which seem to be willing to sacrifice truth for peaceful coexistence. This is a mistake Dawkins does not make, and as such, inevitably I find myself drawn to his argument.
My sense that fundamentalism is a cancer to modern society means that I cannot afford to have the surgeon jostle me awake post-op and suggest that he did not get all the tumor, but nothing is perfect, so why not just see how things shake out? If I have to pick a surgeon, something about Dawkins’ candor and directness seems apropos to the task at hand. The conundrum is that I, who am not an atheist, agree with Dawkins on a very basic premise: fundamentalism represents one of the basic threats to both our democratic way of life and ongoing progress in areas of science, technology and morality.
Disenchanted former evangelicals and atheists make for strange bedfellows. I would quite like to keep my hope that there is a benevolent purpose behind the universe. Similarly, I realize that my own rare moments of transcendence are fragile, and will quickly dissipate if I subject them to the withering gaze of scientism.
And I long for a happy medium, a comfortable fit somewhere between fundamentalism and atheism. If Dawkins makes such sense to me, is my only choice left to become an acknowledged atheist? As dilemmas go, this is a good one, but it may also represent a false choice no more systematic and insidious that the choice fundamentalism offers between literalism and informed moderation, which acknowledges limitations to human knowledge and respects the unknown.
Regardless, I hope Dawkins shows up at Bob Jones University next. Now that would be a YouTube for the ages.
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Benjamin Shobert is the Managing Director of Teleos, Inc., a specialist on US-China relations, and a freelance writer on culture, religion and politics. He maintains a blog on these topics at www.MysteriousFaith.com.
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