On my way home from church on Sunday, I listened to “City Arts and Lectures” on public radio. The guest was evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has been described as an evangelist for atheism, although he denies this. He says he doesn’t stand on street corners and harangue people, after all. Which points to the first of two problems I have with Richard Dawkins. When he talks about “religion,” he sets up a straw man and then knocks it down. He pretends that all people who are “religious” are politically conservative creationists (that is, believe God made the whole cosmos in six days a few thousand years ago) who knock on people’s doors to ask whether they are “saved,” who care more about what happens to people after they die than before, and who need to believe in a higher power because they are unwilling to address the world’s problems with political or economic solutions.
If Dawkins had to deal with actual religion instead of these stereotypes of religion, his case would fall apart. As Texas pastor and activist Jim Rigby puts it, “Most of the ‘New Atheist’ books don’t even define what they mean by religion. It’s just an amorphous image of all that is superstitious and oppressing. Most of those books would fail a Philosophy 101 paper for failing to define precisely what it is they are attacking.” It isn’t that the “superstitious and oppressing” aspects of religion don’t exist. It’s just that there is so much more that Dawkins conveniently ignores.
He ignores religious movements like the Quakers and the Mennonites, with long histories of focusing on peace and human rights. He ignores the fact that King George III, king of England during the American Revolution, called that conflict “that Presbyterian rebellion” because the cause of freedom from tyranny was so identified with Presbyterian principles. He ignores religious leaders like Bishop Romero, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, all shot down because their religion called them to risk death itself for the cause of human liberation. He ignores Jim Wallis and Sojourners, long the voice of faith in action and ethics in public life. He ignores Gordon Cosby and Church of the Savior in Washington D.C., an icon of Christian activism addressing real needs of real people. He ignores the way neighborhood churches all over the world are doing the same thing, in bigger and smaller ways.
There’s a second problem I have with Dawkins. When I was 8 years old, my sister and I were in a high school production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.” We played two of the king’s many children, and each of us had a short, easy line (probably because we were the principal’s daughters). The scene was in the classroom, where Anna was teaching the king’s children about the bigger world beyond Siam. My sister’s line was, “I do not believe in such a thing as snow!” A child growing up in Siam (present-day Thailand) would never have experienced snow. How could anyone expect her to believe it existed?
Dawkins has never experienced the presence of God, so how could he be expected to believe in God? It doesn’t follow that because he has not experienced God, God and the experience of God are not real. I suspect Dawkins would argue that the people who claim to have experienced God are making it up, are delusional, or have some pathetic need to believe. But this argument is just a belief. It is a belief, just like the belief in God. Dawkins can’t prove he is right about the non-existence of God – that his belief is true – any more than I can prove to him that God exists and I have experienced God’s presence. He is operating under a belief system, just as people of faith are. His brand of atheism is just another kind of religion.
Would Dawkins say that qualities like love, trust or loyalty don’t exist because you can’t see them? I suspect not. I suspect he’d say that you can tell they exist because you can see the results. That, however, is a belief, as well. No one knows the truth of an individual human heart. No one can know for sure that someone’s actions are motivated by love as opposed to, say, greed, self- interest, fear, etc. We have to decide based upon belief.
I have experienced what I believe to be a divine presence at work in my life – something bigger than myself; something that is a power for good; something that inspires me to be better. I call this presence God. As a practicing person of faith, I am humble about defining God and claiming that my definition and my understanding are better than anyone else’s. I practice my faith within a community and within a particular tradition. This keeps me grounded and on track. In my experience, faith practices developed over centuries by faithful people have survived because they are effective practices.
Like most people of faith, I continue to have questions and doubts. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. In my community of faith, we like to say we don’t have all the answers but we try to ask the right questions. I continue to see the very real evidence of the power of God in the lives of individuals and communities. I can’t prove it. Neither can Richard Dawkins.
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