Richard Dawkins And The Problem Of Faith
By Zachary Smith
ichard Dawkins isn’t exactly a friend to Evangelicals. His popular book, The God Delusion, equates belief in God itself with moral depravity and worldwide atrocities. Dawkins argues upon viewing atrocities like 9/11 or Palestinian suicide bombings, “[W]e should blame religion itself, not religious extremism—as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion.” Dawkins’ caustic belief that “decent religion” is an oxymoron has led to his being summarily ignored by all Christians save the most stubborn apologists.
But I am indebted to Dawkins for changing the way I see Christianity. It wasn’t easy reading his book. Bristling at the title alone, I consumed The God Delusion with pencil, pens, and highlighters at the ready, anxious to deconstruct his silly, failed Enlightenment worldview and, to be candid, I don’t think I would have been vulnerable enough to read it had he not allied himself with the “thoughtful theologian” Dietrich Bonhoeffer when discussing the relationship between faith and reason. Dawkins, like Bonhoeffer, believed one of the biggest problems in the Faith vs. Science debate was “God of the Gaps” theology.
“God of the Gaps,” a witty little catchphrase that every seminarian would love to have coined, is a theology which fills in our ignorance concerning the world with God. God exists, dwells, and acts in the gaps transcending our knowledge. When those gaps in our knowledge begin to close, we can either retreat or refute. Bonhoeffer was worried about retreat, in which God was forced to exist in a shrinking sphere of influence. Dawkins was worried about refute, in which newly found knowledge is ignored and ridiculed while scientific curiosity is stifled. Both are valid concerns in which we’ve ensured that God has only the room that we give him. “God of the Gaps” effectively makes God into our own image.
While I agree with Dawkins insofar as he agrees with Bonhoeffer, what about Dawkins’ bigger agenda that religion is inherently evil? Surely we couldn’t find common ground there.
Dawkins’ primary issue with religion is that “The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” For Dawkins, faith of any kind leaves the door open for evil in all forms to have unobstructed access. Dawkins sees “moderate” religion as a “gateway drug” providing access to further religious wrong-doing. He’s worried that faith and religion inherently allow themselves to be subverted into a vehicle for ostracizing, imprisoning, or even killing those who don’t believe the same things as you is okay.
Rather than rush apologetically to note that reason isn’t exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card, we should pause and allow Dawkins’ critique to work on us a little bit. Does my faith allow extremism? Does my faith leave the door open to subvert the message of Christ?
It’s not that my faith allows me to commit atrocities, but maybe it allows me to scoff at Dawkins and the New Atheists, or even Historical Jesus scholars. Maybe it allows me to enact legislation trying to keep atheists, Muslims, or LGBT’s from enjoying all the civil rights that Christians do. Maybe it just allows me to think of myself as better than the Mormon next door. Then again, maybe my faith leaves the door open for others to misappropriate the message of Christ even further than I have.
I may not agree with Dawkins when he proposes reason usurps and supplants faith, but I think Dawkins’ analysis of the problem is sadly accurate. If Christians aren’t actively being transformed in mind and heart to the way of Jesus in non-violence, justice, and fairness, then our faith has become subservient in practice to the very atrocities we denounce in theory. If we have to explain to the world over and over again how people like Terry Jones, Fred Phelps or Anders Breivik are not representative of Christianity as a whole, we’re missing the point. Dawkins helps keep so-called “moderate” religion honest by not allowing us to pretend that our lack of extremism is somehow a free pass when evil is done in God’s name. Shouldn’t Christianity be so inherently protective of people, so willing to turn the other cheek, so radically compassionate, that any attempt to make Jesus serve inhumane causes founders on the shores of true faith?
Richard Dawkins helped me to see how my faith must be in fundamental, essential opposition to any forms of extremism that would offer up human lives on the idolatrous altar of religious piety. He still thinks religion is evil, and I still think he’s wrong. But the Gospel of Christ and the Kingdom of God are inherently and profoundly transformative, and Richard Dawkins doesn’t see that. And when I had finished reading The God Delusion, I finally realized that’s partly my fault.