Richard Dawkins recently attracted attention for his admission that his atheism was more properly a scientific agnosticism. This admission, though it caught the notice of the media, was not really anything new for Dawkins, who has made similar concessions in the past. Dawkins’ approach to all knowledge is strictly scientific. And since scientific knowledge is always technically tentative, so too must his ostensibly scientific opinion of the non-existence of God. Dawkins dismisses God because he finds no scientific evidence for God, but he must make allowances for the fact that scientific knowledge is always expanding.
In the course of the same discussion, Dawkins made another, more interesting comment that has not received quite the same attention. Speaking to his believing conversational companion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Dawkins said, “What I can’t understand is why you can’t see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that life started from nothing—that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something so messy as a God?”
The archbishop, rather than disputing, agreed with Dawkins about the beauty of the scientific description of the development of life. But he then explained that God was not an extra that was “shoehorned” onto the scientific explanation. Dawkins’ mistake, the archbishop attempted to show, was to suppose that the scientific explanation suffices, and the religious one is an unnecessary complication. The beauty that Dawkins finds in science is not challenged by belief in God; it presupposes it.
Beauty is something reasonable. The beauty of scientific explanation comes from seeing that the arrangement of things is so ordered to produce the phenomena we observe. The scientist begins with a mess of clues and an unfinished puzzle. He begins with a mystery. He seeks that moment when the pieces fall into place. Dawkins’ picture of scientific beauty comes from seeing just this arrangement in evolution, in the material development of the universe. But where creation presents a unified theme returning, finally, to reason, atheistic scientism must insist that at bottom is only unreason.
Dawkins supposes that the doctrine of creation requires a Divine Tinkerer, interfering with or co-opting the natural beauty present in the workings of the natural world. Whether or not God tinkered with creation in the manner envisioned by creationism or some versions of intelligent design, such tinkering is neither necessary to the doctrine of creation nor is it the source of the beauty seen by the believer.
To use an analogy previously developed by Stephen Barr, to ask whether God or evolution created life is like asking whether Shakespeare or Hamlet killed Polonius. If there is no Shakespeare, Hamlet’s act is meaningless. It is merely the accidental arrangement of ink on a page. If there is a Shakespeare, however, his existence as the creator of the literary Denmark does not obviate the drama of the play. It is rather a necessary prerequisite for it. Shakespeare, as a playwright, is not a competitor with the drama of the play.
God as creator is not in competition with the beauty and causality of nature. Nor is God an unnecessary ornament added as a beautiful but superfluous extra onto the complete and subtle explanations offered by science, anymore than Shakespeare is a superfluity to the play Hamlet. The beauty seen in the working out of nature’s laws is not commandeered by God; God is the source of it, just as Shakespeare is the source of the drama in Hamlet.
Old debates about evolution often turned on the question of whether a million monkeys could accidentally type Hamlet in a given amount of time. The more important question is whether Hamlet could even be Hamlet, whether typed by monkeys or no. In recognizing the text of Hamlet, we see something beyond letters on a page. In recognizing the beauty in nature uncovered by science, both the believer and Dawkins see something beyond an arrangement of atoms. The believer can trace the source of this beauty to an ultimate source and declare that it is real. Dawkins must trace this beauty to a mere subjective reaction, and declare that it is an illusion. In presenting beauty as evidence against the archbishop, Dawkins invokes something that he, as an atheist, cannot finally believe in. He highlights something that the archbishop’s faith can plausibly give grounding to, but his atheism cannot. Dawkins attempts to challenge the believer with a weapon only the believer can legitimately wield.
But we cannot blame Dawkins too much: He accepts the evidence of what he sees even over the conclusions of his ideology. Recognition of the divine is something that flows naturally from contemplation of nature. Philosophically, the mind knows that mere matter as such cannot be the source of the beauty that the mind sees, and looks beyond it to find a source. The heart also, even the heart of the scientist, is moved to rise above mere physical description and be lifted into wonder, marveling, and praise.
Michael Baruzzini writes from Colorado Springs.
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