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Sermon for Matins: Dawkins and The God Delusion (Part 1)

Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian

Sunday, 4th February 2007

During February I shall be preaching each Sunday at Matins. I had been working out a nice little series of sermons on a subject that interested me (never mind you!) but then everywhere I went I seemed to see Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion.1 I am told it has been in the Amazon top ten since it was published. Clearly, lots of people are reading it, just as a year ago lots of people saw Dawkins' television programme 'The Root of All Evil?. Dawkins must be the best-known and most articulate critic of Christianity, indeed of all religious belief, writing in English today. This is a challenge a Christian like myself cannot ignore, so over the next four weeks I plan to discuss the four reasons he says people are religious, and to try to respond to the critique of religious belief in The God Delusion.

Though I had been aware of the book for some time, I didn't immediately buy it. Some years ago I tried to read The Selfish Gene2and failed. As it happens, Dawkins and I went to the same school so we had the same school chaplain, who is clearly identifiable in The God Delusion, and I presume we had the same biology teacher, who was furious when I got an A in A level biology. He said I didn't know any biology but just knew how to pass exams. My experience with the Selfish Gene undoubtedly proved him right.

But The God Delusion isn't about biology. It's a searing attack on religion and a searing attack on the God who is worshipped in monotheistic religions. As an attack on religion, it might have been better entitled The Religion Delusion. As an attack on God, it is very much the Western God (the God of Aristotle and of some of the Hebrew Scriptures, so some of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Scriptures) who is in the line of fire. Dawkins is passionate about the damage done by belief in God and clearly wants to stop it.

There is much here to agree with. The trouble is he goes over the top. So, he writes, 'Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers', no Northern Ireland 'troubles', no 'honour killings' ... . Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no beheadings of blasphemers, no floggings of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it ... ' (pp. 2-3). And so on. Dawkins specifically rejects making religion the 'root of all evil'. Nevertheless, he comes close to blaming religion for most of the conflicts in the world, and slides gently into blaming God. On the other hand, his belief that atheism causes no such evils passes silently over the anti-religious persecutions of the French and Russian revolutions, the enormous sufferings of Christians and Jews in Soviet prison camps, and of the Chinese people in the Cultural Revolution.

The book has received mixed reviews. There is a good deal to criticise about it as a book written in a popular style for a popular market, but it is at the same time a serious and powerful critique of religious belief which throws down the gauntlet, in particular to theologians. In a series of sermons, I can't do more than sketch a response to Dawkins, but I hope that what I can say helps to show there are powerful arguments to be put on the other side, that it is possible to be religious without being irrational, that we can (indeed we must) learn from Dawkins' critique but we don't have to accept everything he says.

Dawkins chooses his ground very carefully. He outlines four functions of religion, which he lists as explanation, exhortation, consolation, and inspiration, in that order. I shall discuss each of these over the next four weeks, but it seems obvious to me you can't give a satisfactory account of religion without taking into that account the nature of the god or gods that are worshipped. Different religions have different pictures of God, so different religions don't all serve the same function or functions. Dawkins gives an inadequate and partial account of the God that Christians worship. If he had given a fuller account he would have had to give a different and fuller account of the functions of the Christian religion, for instance in inspiring Christians to fight for justice and confront oppression - but we shall come to that. What I want to discuss this morning is Dawkins claim that a primary function of religion is explanation.

Dawkins returns again and again to religion as explanation. Clearly, as a biological scientist (he is an ecologist), explanation means a great deal to him; and the Christian right, who are one of his main targets, do hold onto their beliefs, and especially to the account of creation in the Book of Genesis, as a means of explaining how the universe and this world in particular came into being.

But many religious people do not. We gladly concede the power and the duty of science to offer explanations of the universe that can answer questions like, 'Where have we come from?' and 'How does this or that natural process work?'. It has taken Christians several hundred years to learn this. Painfully, we have learnt that the premises of Christian Faith and the premises of science are different, but complementary.

The premises of science are that human beings can investigate and find out all sorts of things about the world which we can organise into a reliable body of knowledge. We distinguish between natural science, or the natural sciences (such as physics and chemistry) and human science, or the human sciences (such as sociology and anthropology). The natural sciences study the natural world (actually, they study the natural universe) and the human sciences study everything to do with what is specifically human. There is, of course, another branch of knowledge, which is usually referred to as the Arts or Humanities, and there is much debate about the kind of knowledge we can gain through the study of the Arts: history or languages or literature. Clearly, such knowledge is not scientificin the sense that the knowledge in physics or chemistry is scientific - it doesn't depend on experiment. But it is knowledge. And there is another kind of knowledge again, which looks like scientific knowledge but doesn't depend on experiment: that is mathematics.

The point I am making is that there are different kinds of knowledge, which are related but distinct. If you misunderstand the kind of knowledge on offer in a discipline you will misunderstand the whole discipline. This is what Dawkins does with religion. He thinks that religion is about explanation, and that the explanations religious people offer as to why the universe and this world are as they are are very bad explanations. Though I would not say that religion has nothing to do with such explanation, and would have to acknowledge that in the past the only explanation for the big questions people had about their lives were religious explanations, I would argue that the Christian belief which most Christians hold has very little do with the kind of explanation that Dawkins is talking about.

Being a Christian for me is much more like being a character in The Complete Works of Shakespeare than a scientist in a laboratory. The reason Shakespeare is so popular is that he knows so much about the human condition. Through his poetry and his plays he shows us why people do things, and what certain human actions may lead to. He has an extraordinary intuition: how on earth did he know so much about people and the world? But what he had was not scientific knowledge. There is truth in Shakespeare but it is not scientific truth. We can find explanations in Julius Caesar as to why Caesar falls, or in Hamlet as to why Hamlet is in an agony of indecision, or in King Lear as to why Lear ends up a penniless outcast - but these are not scientific explanations. The explanations in religious belief are much more like this than scientific explanations - and we need such explanations better to understand all sorts of truths about being human. This is why a research scientist will work in the lab all day and in the evening go to see A Winter's Tale.

Dawkins has a good deal to say about the Bible, both about Genesis (and especially the way Genesis gets mis-used by creationists to explain how creation came about), and about some of the bloodier and more shocking parts of the Old and New Testaments. He has relatively little to say about Jesus and the New Testament. But this is where the Christian Faith begins, and everything else follows from this. In this sense the New Testament is like a play of Shakespeare: like a Shakespeare play, it is clear that it comes from a different time when there was a different worldview. But also like some of the best-loved plays of Shakespeare, it has a central character whose life and death engages us completely - so completely that we, as it were, become not just spectators, but participants in the action. We say, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God'; we say 'Crucify him;' and we say, 'My Lord and my God'. And as we do so, we find new, Jesus-centred explanations as to why we experience life the way we do. Not scientific explanations, but not irrational either.

Of course, there are tensions at the interface between religious and scientific knowledge. These days, we rightly ask about the genetics of Jesus and about the things that happen in the brain when people practise their religion. Dawkins is right passionately to ask why religions that preach peace so often produce violence and to insist that we must resist the destructive power of simplistic religion, before it destroys us all. But the answer is not to try to abolish religion altogether. Nor wrongly to classify what religious belief is all about and then attack it as pseudo-science. Christianity begins with Jesus Christ and his summons to discipleship. Everything else in the Christian religion flows from that.


1 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006).


2 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

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