God, Richard Dawkins, and the meaning of life

February 28, 2012

Two clever men, long past the first flush of youth, took part in a debate on God’s place — or absence — in the meaning and origin of life last week in Oxford. They differed; and to no one’s surprise, each remained unconvinced by the other’s argument at its end. Oxford University has been hosting such encounters for centuries.

So why was the University’s Sheldonian Theatre packed, with two other theaters full of people watching the debate on closed-circuit screens? Why was it covered by the news media? Why had it been sold out within hours? Who still cared about this stuff in a society that — for all that the Church of England is an established religion and the queen is its head — is as secular as any in the democratic world?

Judging by the response of the audience, including this writer, that last question’s answer emerged in the Oxford debate. We realized, as we listened to the moderate, educated English cadences of the debaters, that we care because no matter how indifferent to religion we are, or even how certain that it is a purely human construct rather than a divine revelation, we are made uneasy by its claims and miss its promise of grace and eternity. More practically, we care because many can feel morally adrift without its guidance. In his just-published book, Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain de Botton argues that, as he put it in an interview, “religions are full of interesting, challenging, consoling ideas … they do community really well, they’re very good on ethics, they teach us to be good, to be kind.

And the fact that the Oxford debate was a clash, with the promise of a victor, added to the fascination of the event. One of the two debaters was Richard Dawkins, a fellow of Oxford’s New College, a famed biologist, yet more famed for being the world’s most prominent and aggressive atheist. The other was Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the world Anglican communion, thought to number some 80 million. The stakes were high for both men –neither wanted to be seen as being bested. And for the audience, among whom were many priests and students of theology, to see a winner or loser was to offer reassurance that their faith, or lack of it, had support at the highest level available.

The title was “The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of Their Ultimate Origin” — as the chairman, the philosopher Anthony Kenny, remarked, more than enough to fill an evening. The evening was filled, to overflowing, intellectually and in attendance, but for much of the time it was even more replete with courtesies and agreement, a tone underscored by Kenny’s insistence that, first, both agree on three underpinning issues. These were: that they both believed there was such a thing as truth; that they believed in logic (as in, two contradictory statements cannot both be true); and that they believed in science’s claims to describe the observable world. Both agreed. And like well-tempered chess players, once agreed on the rules they then played the game with grace and humor.

They agreed on more than Kenny’s rules. Williams, probably the most brilliant mind ever to wear the archbishop’s mitre, showed himself versed enough in evolutionary biology, in analytical philosophy and in neuroscience to maintain a conversation with Dawkins on his own ground. Confident enough, too, to concede that the story of evolution as unfolded by Charles Darwin a century and a half before was established fact, and that Christianity — or at least his understanding of it — gained nothing from its denial.

The flash of fire in the debate, which came well into its second half, was when Dawkins pressed his advantage on just this point. Why was the beauty of Darwin’s insight, and all the advances in understanding the body and the mind that have flowed from it, not enough for Williams? Why “clutter the thing up” with talk of God?

Because, said Williams, the fact that we are conscious beings allows us to comprehend God. For Dawkins, consciousness is something that, to be sure, we don’t yet understand — but neuroscience will probably give us the answer soon enough. But for Williams, consciousness is not just what may set us apart from animals. It both makes us distinctively human — and allows us to join our consciousness with “an unconditional creative energy” that he calls God. For well over an hour, Williams could have been a formidably learned man debating with an expert; suddenly, he was a priest as well.

An “unconditional creative energy”: the nearest Williams came to a definition of the divine, which Dawkins did not challenge. Dawkins did, however, ask, more sharply than he had before: When did this relationship between man and the divine begin? When the first humanoids walked? When they talked? Was this God-energy around before the first humanoids, waiting for them to be fit to respond to Him? Well, said Williams, I think there has to be a point in the evolutionary process where the proto-human is aware of an address from God. I think, he continued, that there was a moment when Homo sapiens was both aware of himself and aware of the divine.

But, said Dawkins, moving in for a check, if not a checkmate, is not the world tragic? Look at the amount of suffering there is. Kenny, turning in his moderator’s chair to Williams on his left, said: That is much more of a problem for you. Williams took it on his bearded chin: Our God is an intelligent God. He created a universe that hangs together. But indeed, yes, the most difficult case is: If God can create such a universe, why can’t he do more?

And, said Dawkins, why go back to a story, Genesis, written in the eighth century B.C.? There is no reason to suppose the writers of it knew much. And now we do know much. Williams, with as near to asperity as his gentle demeanor allows, came back: If I want to understand 21st century science, I use its language. If I want to understand my moral and ethical place in the universe, I go to Genesis.

So there it was. Williams has probably mobilized more intellectual firepower in the retention of his faith than any other priest, rabbi, minister, imam or guru in the world. And when pushed by his most doughty opponent, the archbishop brings out, in an almost apologetic way, a confession. That, in the end, faith is what sustains him. That to locate himself as a moral actor in the world, he has chosen to believe; to accept the vast narrative that is the Christian tradition; to imagine his consciousness as part of an unconditional creative energy. He calls that energy God.

PHOTO: Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University, before their debate in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, England, February 23, 2012.  REUTERS/Andrew Winning



We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The Archbishop is an intelligent man of faith. I had long thought that an oxymoron.

It has been my considerable experience that the less a person of faith “knows” about the consistency and/or logic which “supports” their belief, the sooner volume and enthusiasm close their mind to informational exchanges inseparable from genuine communication and “truth”. I could not believe as he obviously does, as a matter of choice; but he honestly earns respect him and I do envy him his simplicity and purity of belief.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

In the comparison of mental prowess between science-based Atheists and educated Christians, it is curious to me why people of faith are seen as simpletons, dullards, and fools. Is it because they see hope in desperate situations and have compassion for their persecutors instead of continuing the violence by seeking revenge?

Who then is wiser: the person who says there is no god that can dictate ultimate right or wrong; or the person who seeks forgiveness for their wrongs because they know God who is perfectly righteous.

To put this matter, which sadly continues to cleave this generation, into plain language – Faith is more than a loud clamoring or ebbing excitement. It is the truth in action by intelligent beings who seek to live beyond their prideful human constraints and receive mercy from God. Humans are created to worship God through faith.

Posted by LightInDarkness | Report as abusive

Philosophy was never a tool for delving into Religion, which is why Paul the Apostle resisted the philosophers of his day. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” (Colossians 2:8; KJV). Philosophy can be a tool to measure certain things of the world, but it cannot measure things beyond the world, ie., the Spiritual. Atheism certainly never claimed to understand God, so this fight was one-sided. An atheist should argue from his or her corner on the views of the world.

Posted by opuntia | Report as abusive

Religion is a legitimate subject for discussion among civilized people. The “stick in the spokes” is an absolutist mind set by believer or non-believer. One learns by listening…not by talking.

I discuss Religion, not to convince, but to understand the “other side”. One had to understand the philosophy of the Thuggee of India before eradication became the sole possible “solution”.

It may yet come to such with regard to Islam if fanatics continue to be the public face of that faith, controlling their “moral majority” through fear and intimidation. The Nazis seized and steered Germany into and through World War II, and the followers of Islam stood with the Axis powers.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Both Williams and Dawkins are wrong. As for Williams, if we assume the existence of God, it is not the case that “the fact that we are conscious beings allows us to comprehend God” as he argued. Indeed, the mere fact of this debate demonstrates (again, if we assume the existence of God) that we do not comprehend God. Otherwise, there would be nothing to debate. If one presumes the existence of an omnipotent, omnipresent and eternal being, there is no reason to suppose our limited human consciousness is adequate to “comprehend” such a being.

As for Dawkins, if one assumes the existence of God as typically postulated, that is, as an omnipotent, omnipresent and eternal being, there is no reason to suppose that there would be an opportunity to prove or disprove the existence of such a being from the point of view of natural science. For example, in natural science, the Observer Principle is a shorthand way of referring to the fact that nothing can be perfectly observed, because the act of observation necessarily involves the observer acting on, and in some way changing, what is being observed. A corollary to the Observer Principle may be that an omnipotent being cannot be observed since an omnipotent being cannot be acted upon or changed by the observer. An omnipotent being might act upon or change other beings in a manner that might lead them to infer the existence of the omnipotent being; however, they would not have direct evidence. Thus, the existence or nonexistence of an omnipotent being may not be be a reasonable subject for scientific inquiry.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

It’s interesting that neither debater is on firm ground. Williams, as most theologians, defines attributes he attributes to God, as if such a thing were possible, and then stands for the existence of his definition of God, i. e., omnipotent, omnipresent, etc. Dawkins continues to believe you can get beyond our experience to infinite knowledge, when there is really no way to get there. If you would like to read a clearer explanation of the issues they discussed, go to toreasonpublishing.com and read the free selections from Life Itself As A Modern Religion by Charles Blaise. His approach of finding sanctity in within our experience is, compared to the confusion of these two gentlemen, revelatory.

Posted by intelliword | Report as abusive

In the West, everything should be up for discussion – and particularly religion.

Otherwise, we are reduced to the level of Sunni Muslims whose only recourse is to kill those branded infidel. Even when the latter profess to follow essentially the same religion (e.g. Shia Islam, Sufism, etc.)

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

I agree with Bob9999 that both Williams and Dawkins are wrong. It’s an absolutely pointless argument that should not occupy an intelligent person, since there is no way to prove or disprove the existence of God at all.

In fact, discussions of this kind are detrimental, since they tend to bring out the worst in human nature.

What I will never understand is why people insist upon forcing their personal beliefs on others.

Since EVERYTHING is filtered through the human brain, we have NO idea what “objective reality” might be like.

We are like people who were born blind and are living in a cave arguing about light (i.e. whether it exists or not, and if so, what might it be like?)

Descartes arguably came the closest of anyone to defining the problem scientifically — I think, therefore, I am — just about sums up our total knowledge of the universe, but even the “fact” of self-awareness may not be true.

Consequently, I fail to understand how it can be a subject a reasonable subject for scientific inquiry either.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive


This in no way changes my opinion of the validity of your argument, but your reference to the Observer Principle bothers me.

As you said, “the Observer Principle is a shorthand way of referring to the fact that nothing can be perfectly observed, because the act of observation necessarily involves the observer acting on, and in some way changing, what is being observed.”

Basically, this is the standard convention of quantum physics, which I reject since it implies/imparts a power to humans that requires them to change from observer to operator/actor. Supposedly, nothing can occur without human intervention, and once that happens, it forever changes reality.

Frankly, this smacks far too much of religion to me to be an acceptable hypothesis.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

” Williams has probably mobilized more intellectual firepower in the retention of his faith than any other priest, rabbi, minister, imam or guru in the world.” Oh please. These events are about as meaningful and real as professional wrestling matches in the US. Dawkins never deals with any first rate philosophical thinkers who can quickly destroy his absurd pop culture image and franchise as world heavyweight champion atheist.

Posted by jbgfour | Report as abusive

In reference to “The act of observation necessarily … changing what is being observed” applies strictly to quantum mechanics. It is incorrect to apply it to everything.

Posted by Freethinker2012 | Report as abusive

What Bob9999 refers to is a concept of agnosticism, and of empirical limitations. Concepts like “god” are indeed useless to bandy about; they can’t be proven one way or the other.

At best our arguments should consider religion as pointless, being based on an unverifiable (and therefore worthless) premise. At worst, the sentence “god exists” proposes a such vague and indefinite concept, and has such conflicting properties, that it should not be considered a logical proposition, and therefore is not worth considering until logically defined (this position is typically known as “theological non-cognitivism,” with relation to relation to religion).

Unfortunately for Abrahamic religions, a definition of god has already been posited in their holy books and it is certainly not a logical proposition.

Posted by fortuntek | Report as abusive

It is often thought that only the simple, uneducated people cling to the idea of god, with its promise of an afterlife. I have found many modern, instructed men and women want to believe there are such places and things – out of a deep longing to be, at the end of times reunited with their loved ones, (though the naughty neighbour seems to hold the same hope), they most of the time, when asked rationally do agree it to be more of a childhood dream but then, it doesn’t cost much to hold on to these dreams, does it… and on the other hand it’s especially hard for educated, travelled, informed, modern people to accept that they are the product (and what a most lucky one!) of chance and necessity, that the world will end for them and the universe won’t bother, that they will be gone like those who came before, that, in the end, they will be forgotten….

Posted by GGA | Report as abusive