An Evidence-Based Faith

From “God's Undertaker:
Has Science Buried God?”
by John C. Lennox, b.1943

It is a widespread popular impression that each new scientific advance is another nail in God's cofin. It is an impression fuelled by influential scientific thinkers.

Oxford chemistry professor, Peter Atkins writes: ‘Humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose and that any survival of purpose is inspired only by sentiment."

Now, how science, which is traditionally thought not even to deal with questions of (cosmic) purpose. could actually do any such thing is not very clear. What is very clear is that Atkins reduces faith in God at a stroke. not simply to sentiment but to sentiment that is inimical to science. Atkins does not stand alone. Not to be outdone. Richard Dawkins goes a step further.

He regards faith in God as an evil to be eliminated: ‘It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, “mad cow” disease and many others, but I think that a case can be made that faith is one of the world‘s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate. Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion.”

More recently, faith, in Dawkins’ opinion, has graduated (if that is the right term) from being a vice to being a delusion.

In his book “The God Delusion,” he quotes Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.”

For Dawkins, God is not only a delusion but a pernicious delusion. From what he says it is clear that one of the things that has generated Dawkins’ hostility to faith in God is the impression he has (sadly) gained that, whereas “scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops.” In other words, he takes all religious faith to be blind faith. Well, if that is what it is, perhaps it does deserve to be classified with smallpox. However, taking Dawkins’ own advice we ask: Where is the evidence that religious faith is not based on evidence? Now, admittedly, there are, unfortunately, people professing faith in God who take an overtly anti-scientific and obscurantist viewpoint. Their attitude brings faith in God into disrepute and is to be deplored. Perhaps Richard Dawkins has had the misfortune to meet disproportionately many of them. But that does not alter the fact that mainstream Christianity will insist that faith and evidence are inseparable. indeed, faith is a response to evidence, not a rejoicing in the absence of evidence.

The Christian apostle John writes in his biography of Jesus: “Those things are written that you might believe."

That is, he understands that what he is writing is to be regarded as part of the evidence on which faith is based.

The apostle Paul says what many pioneers of modern science believed, namely, that nature itself is part of the evidence for the existence of God: “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

It is no part of the biblical view that things should be believed where there is no evidence. Just as in science, faith, reason and evidence belong together. Dawkins’ definition of faith as “blind faith” turns out, therefore, to be the exact opposite of the biblical one. Curious that he does not seem to be aware of the discrepancy. Could it be as a consequence of his own blind faith?

Dawkins’ idiosyncratic definition of faith thus provides a striking example of the very kind of thinking he claims to abhor, thinking that is not evidence-based. For, in an exhibition of breathtaking inconsistency, evidence is the very thing he fails to supply for his claim that independence of evidence is faith's joy. And the reason why he fails to supply such evidence is not hard to find, there is none. It takes no great research effort to ascertain that no serious biblical scholar or thinker would support Dawkins’ definition of faith.

Francis Collins says of Dawkins' definition that it “certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor of most of those in my personal acquaintance.”

Collins' point is important for it shows that the New Atheists, in rejecting all faith as blind faith, are seriously undermining their own credibility.

As John Haught says: “Even one white crow is enough to show that not all crows are black, so surely the existence of countless believers who reject the new atheists’ simplistic definition of faith is enough to place in question the applicability of their critiques to a significant section of the religious population.”

Alister McGrath points out in his recent highly accessible assessment of Dawkins’ position that Dawkins has signally failed to engage with any serious Christian thinkers whatsoever.

What then should we think of his excellent maxim: “Next time that somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you‘ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say’”?

One might well be forgiven for giving in to the powerful temptation to apply Dawkins’ maxim to himself and not believe a word that he says.

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