I owe Prof Richard Dawkins plenty of thanks because his book The God Delusion and the ensuing debates provoked me to explore the question of evidence for God’s existence, which eventually brought me to Christian belief. I was used to the militant, sometimes incandescent Dawkins, often describing religious faith as a “virus” while pitting himself against sometimes equally antagonistic religious opponents.
A Less Militant Dawkins
Yet his recent dialogue with Dr. Francis Collins on Premier Unbelievable?’s The Big Conversation was a breath of fresh air and an inspiring departure from that combative mode of interaction. It’s clear that these two gentlemen, while holding completely opposite views about God, have profound respect for each other (the only references to viruses here came when both scientists reveled in discussing genetics and the causes of the COVID19 pandemic).
Because of this warm and genuine rapport, I think Dawkins opened up and made some of his most remarkable admissions and concessions to date – in a way that would not have happened had his back been against the wall.
I am not referring, however, to Dawkins’ remarks that “you could possibly persuade me to become a deist” and that “if somebody were to convince me of the need for a God, it would be there” (referring to the Argument from Design based on the “fine-tuning” of the universe’s fundamental physical constants). As Dawkins pointed out, those types of comments have been sensationalized and taken out of context. While Dawkins referred to fine-tuning as “a good argument,” he made it clear that he still has a major roadblock to accepting it and thus is not a convert (he was even able to joke about this with Collins).
Admitting to Presuppositions
Rather, I am referring to an admission by Dawkins concerning that roadblock itself. This was not a “gotcha” rather it was freely offered in a commendable moment of self-reflection (which, once again, I attribute to Dawkins’ feeling at ease in the conversation with Collins). When asked whether he’d be dissatisfied with a non-physical explanation for the universe, Dawkins replied:
“That’s part of it. I suppose perhaps we both come at it with … a bit of presupposition. As somebody who’s deeply steeped in evolution, I am kind of in love with the idea that it’s possible to explain complex things in terms of simple things.”
This was something I had not seen before. Dawkins was ready to acknowledge that he may be approaching the question of God’s existence with materialistic (or naturalistic) preferences (indeed, the very word he used, “presupposition,” is striking because Christian apologists most commonly use it)!
Not only did he readily open himself up to considering the possibility that he has materialistic, and specifically Darwinian, presuppositions against God, but Dawkins agreed with Collins that God if he exists, “must be” a mind.
One wonders, therefore, where Dawkins stands now regarding his roadblock to accepting the fine-tuning argument. He has conceded that God would have to be a mind, which, as many of Dawkins’ critics have pointed out, is an immaterial entity. This would entail that God is ultimately simple in structure (unlike the material universe), which would undercut Dawkins’ central atheistic objection: that God must be “complex.” This objection depends upon the very naturalistic presuppositions that Dawkins has admitted to.
Miracles Remain a Stumbling Block
But perhaps most noteworthy is how this affects how Dawkins interacts with the case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Throughout the conversation, Dawkins expressed incredulity at the idea that God would perform miracles, calling Collins out for his “unscientific” view in this area, to which Collins responded:
“You must see that you’re applying your own view, that anything that can’t be explained naturally must be an intellectual error. And you and I are different in that regard. I’m allowing the possibility of the supernatural – a Creator God who’s responsible for everything.”
As Collins pointed out, Dawkins’ presuppositions have rigged the outcome. If the material universe is a closed system, and miracles by definition cannot happen in the first place, then no amount of evidence for miracles will ever be acceptable (even if, as Dawkins himself helpfully reminded us, a spate of them happened “between 0AD and 30AD” – anno Domini meaning “in the year of our Lord”)!
One cannot help but wonder what Dawkins would make of NT Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which Collins recommended to him during this conversation. I suspect that, given the rapport between these two gentlemen, despite their differences, the fact that this recommendation came from Collins might mean that Dawkins has the most likelihood of giving it a chance!
That’s why I think Dawkins’ willingness to reflect upon the role of presuppositions was his biggest admission in this terrific exchange, aided by his respect for Collins.
The Questions We Should Be Asking
In short, tabloid headlines along the lines of “is Richard Dawkins converting?” do not ask the right questions.
What we really need to be asking is:
To what extent are all of us (including Richard Dawkins) prepared to question our most fundamental assumptions, and what are we doing to create the kinds of environments and relationships that most encourage this to happen? Are we willing to engage in dialogue with those with whom we might disagree to better understand their arguments and defend our beliefs?
I believe that The Big Conversation is a big step in the right direction! Our reasoning and arguments can only be strengthened by hearing the top thinkers in their field discuss their beliefs about life, faith, and meaning.
Peter Byrom is an administrator with Premier and is contributing his conversion story to a collection of essays entitled Coming to Faith Through Dawkins – publishing soon by Kregel Publications, by 12 authors from five countries explaining how the New Atheists played important roles in their pathways to Christian faith.
By Peter Byrom