The New Atheists Should Get Out More


One of the more astonishing claims made over and over by Richard Dawkins (you can start with his bestseller, The God Delusion) is that Christian faith is simply incompatible with reason, with natural science being viewed as the paragon of rationality.

True, Dawkins admits to being acquainted with a handful of indisputably accomplished scientists who are also Christians, but he clearly finds it impossible to explain these few absurdities—as if he has happened to have come across several unicorns.

In the face, however, of polls showing that a great many scientists are believers in the Christian God—and many more in the almost-equally indefensible versions of God held by Jews and Muslims—other atheists have suggested more recently that human beings generally are wired to believe in explanations that aren’t true. And that trait explains religious belief.

The argument goes something like this. Our ancestors were more likely to survive (and thus procreate—the main concern of Darwinist evolutionary theory) if they spotted dangers before they were harmed by them. Spotting dangers means noticing patterns: that patch of bush over there seemed to move all at once, as if it were a body; that set of sounds is rhythmic, thus making me think of breaths or footfalls.

This penchant for spotting patterns is advantageous especially if it is excessive. It’s better to be wrong a few times about the presence of a bear or lion than ever to miss even one such threat.

This penchant has carried over, the story continues, to our big brains spotting other patterns that don’t exist in completely different domains: such as noticing “design” in nature, or in the shape of our lives, that we attribute (wrongly) to a Divine Providence. Thus even scientists believe in God.

Well, maybe.

But I’ve just spent three days in company I wish Dawkins & Co. could have enjoyed. Thirty people were convened at St Anne’s College, Oxford, for a discussion of religion and science. All were believers in the Christian God. And they didn’t strike me as people inclined to see things that aren’t there.

Most had backgrounds in the “hardest” of sciences: physics and chemistry. Indeed, two of the convenors are known widely for their work at Oxford in quantum mechanics both theoretically and experimentally. But other sciences were represented as well, from meteorology to biology to astronomy.

Perhaps, however, they were trained at inferior schools and just weren’t very bright? Not hardly. Almost everyone was a product of a top university: Oxford, Cambridge, London, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Harvard, Yale.

Rather desperately, one might yet guess that the conferees were competent enough at bench science, but lacked the philosophical or theological or psychological sophistication to understand the issues they were dealing with. Again, however, the presence of such people from Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Georgetown, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Durham, and Chicago turns that possibility rather easily aside.

Ah, but such people’s very interest in a dialogue on science and religion shows that they are defective in the pertinent way: pattern-spotters to the pathetic extent that they see evidence for God where there are neither data nor divinities.

Well, maybe.

At some point, however, one must pause to decide whether the evolutionary hypothesis to explain (away) belief in God is adequate to the evidence.

I met thirty impressive “data points” this past weekend who together make that hypothesis dubious indeed.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).