On Debates, Differences, and Dismissals

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My first seminary course with Wentzel van Huyssteen introduced me to Paul Davies through his classic 1993 book, The Mind of God. So I was thrilled a few years later when Davies was in town to debate British chemist Peter Atkins.

The majority of the debate was spent narrating how the universe came to be according to science. There were subtle differences in each telling, but the stories were mostly identical. Davies and Atkins agreed on the science. Their conclusions, however, could not have been more different. That led Davies to point out that they differed not about the science, but about what it means.

For Atkins, science provides clear evidence that God had no role in creation; moreover one should infer from science that there is no God. For Davies, science allows for, maybe even invites, an inference to the existence of a creator God.

It was the last scientific debate I attended to for nearly two decades because there was so little substance to it. Davies himself indicated that he and Atkins were talking past each other. For me to want to tune in, debaters need to engage the issues about which they differ.

Finally, Dawkins v. Collins

That is precisely what happens in Justin Brierly’s recent Big Conversation with Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Dawkins v. Collins should make you want stop reading and watch. Go. Enjoy about 85 minutes of discussion on how these esteemed scientists differ on topics including evolution, what Collins calls “physical evil,” fine-tuning, miracles, altruism, Covid-19, and the moral argument for God’s existence. It will be time well spent.

Unlike my reaction to the previous debate, I was pleasantly surprised by Dawkins v. Collins. There was mutual respect. Dawkins expressed his gratitude for all Collins did to care for their mutual friend, Christopher Hitchens. He also deferred to Collins’s expertise and leadership around Covid-19. It was clear they generally share the same understanding of evolution and science. They also share a common pursuit of truth, especially around the biggest question, Is there a God?.

There were even some light-hearted moments when Dawkins gave an inch—tune in to find which argument for God he finds somewhat compelling—and the three had fun joking about Dawkin’s affinitiy for Deism. (To be clear, this affinity does not mean Dawkins is converting.) Later in the conversation, they both agreed that if there is a God, that deity could best be understood as a very advanced, complex mind.

Collins even pointed out, much like Davies, that their differences are less about science and more about what it means. Unlike Atkins, Dawkins acknowledged that “presuppositions” inform both debaters’ approaches to science. He added, “We’re both really talking about how we’d like the universe to look.”

  • Most of us are familiar with Collin’s The Language of God and Dawkin’s The God Delusion. They are must-reads for church leaders who want to engage in this space.
  • In their conversation, Collins reveals that a revised version of The Language of God is in the works.
  • For those new to apologetics and science, this flier from Christians in Science may be helpful.

Understanding Differences While Avoiding Dismissals

Of course, fundamentally, Dawkins and Collins differ on the question of God’s existence. We didn’t need a debate to know that. (To be clear, I side with Collins as a Christ-follower.) However, I want to close with an important point Dawkins makes that is unintentionally helpful for the church.

Collins challenged Dawkins’s evolutionary explanations for altruism, goodness, and beauty. He suggested that they dismiss or belittle the significance of what Oskar Schindler did or the enjoyment of beauty in Beethoven’s compositions. In response to Collins, Dawkins states, “The fact that you can give it an explanation is not to dismiss it or demean it or reduce it some way.”

Dawkins admires Schindler and enjoys Beethoven even though he uses evolutionary science to explain such phenomena. Moreover, like Collins, he values good over evil, appreciates beauty, and is moved by altruistic acts.

One lesson in Dawkins’s reply is this: We should not dehumanize those who share some of his atheist “presuppositions.” They are also fully human, and even though they value evolutionary explanations for things we attribute to God, it does not mean atheists like him fail to grasp their significance. After all, they know that believer or not, evolution has given us all the capacity to love, to choose good, to enjoy beauty, and even to sacrifice for others. Those are not uniquely Christian capacities.

But there is a deeper, unintended truth in Dawkin’s statement. Christians like Collins understand true scientific explanations as descriptions of how God created. As such, science cannot dismiss, demean, or reduce God. The fact that our synapses fire in a certain way or that we evolved certain capacities in the distant past for this or that reason does not mean that the experience of beauty, an altruistic act, our experience of prayer, or even religious belief are somehow invalidated. Science merely gives us one level of causal explanation that in no way negates the ultimate causes God might have in mind.

In many ways, this is why Science for the Church exists. The church should not fear scientific explanations; it should welcome them (as well as the scientists doing the explaining).  We must be aware that we might differ in our presuppositions and on what the science means, but that should not be grounds for dismissing science.

Be it King David, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork;” or Dawkins, “The fact that you can give it an explanation is not to dismiss it or demean it or reduce it,” the church has much to learn from scientists. We can learn from Christians like Collins; atheists like Dawkins; and the many others who fall somewhere in between.


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