On the Beach

Outgrowing God, A Beginner’s Guide, by Richard Dawkins (Bantam Press, 2019).

No doubt it has been a perverse thing to do, the week before Christmas, to read a book about atheism. But I was curious. I was curious to know why anybody would go to all the bother.

It is an unusual book in that it lays out an argument without any executive summary; no introduction or preface to set the scene. You just have to read the twelve chapters (six in Part One, Goodbye God, and six in Part Two, Evolution and beyond), and gradually see where it takes you. As I read, I became aware that Prof Dawkins was addressing a young readership. Teenage, I’d say – it is after all a beginner’s guide. I don’t mean the tone is condescending, but it is chatty and avuncular, and the arguments, which are predominantly scientific, mostly biological, are pitched in lay terms, with explanations accessible to a curious and enquiring youngster.

I say there is no executive summary, so perhaps I should attempt a brief précis.

  1. There is no reason to believe in something, or somebody, whose existence cannot be demonstrated.
  2. Whatever you’re liable to read in the bible, it ain’t necessarily so.
  3. The bible is not history; it is myth.
  4. The God of the Old Testament is a deeply unpleasant fellow.
  5. You don’t need to believe in God in order to be good.
  6. Things are getting better all the time.
  7. Complex biological systems come about as a result of evolution through natural selection.
  8. Improbable events occur incrementally.
  9. Biological complexity results from DNA triplet nucleotide bases coding for amino acids assembled to form enzymes.
  10. Complex multicellular systems arise from unicellular systems interacting at a local level.
  11. Religious belief has an evolutionary adaptive value. Kind of.
  12. Amid billions of unfriendly parallel universes, we inhabit the Goldilocks Zone. Take courage!

Fair enough. I suppose I did baulk a little at chapter 12 and the parallel universes, and wondered if there was any more reason to believe in them than to believe in a Creator. Was it G. K. Chesterton who remarked that, once you stopped believing something, you would end up believing everything? But it certainly is true that the universe – or universes – are infinitely queerer places than we had previously imagined. Richard Dawkins was brought up as an Anglican. He lost his religious faith as a teenager because he preferred Charles Darwin’s explanation as to why complex life forms have arisen, over that of the Reverend William Paley. The Reverend Paley propounded the so-called “Argument by Design” for the existence of God. You are walking along a beach and you stumble upon a watch. You examine it, you realise that it is a machine with an exquisitely intricate mechanism, designed for a purpose. There has to be a watchmaker. Well, how much more exquisitely designed are we, with our cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, renal, locomotor, endocrine, neurological, and reproductive systems? You see where this is going.

But arguments for the existence of God are as arid as those for his non-existence. I don’t know anybody who believes in God because he once examined a watch on a beach. I do know people who believe in God because while they were walking along a beach they suffered a profoundly spiritual experience which they were unable to convey in words. Perhaps they felt reassured that the universe was fundamentally a benign place. Perhaps they felt loved. Perhaps they felt resentful, threatened, and afraid, and did all in their power to silence the still small voice.

But I come back to my initial question. Why bother? Clearly Prof Dawkins is on a mission. He is propounding a doctrine. You might even call it an evangel. He wants to consign religion to the rubbish dump of history. He thinks it’s a load of twaddle. Dangerous twaddle.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to consign an entire area of human experience to the dustbin. Imagine, for the sake of argument, you are sitting in the Georgenkirche at Eisenach, privileged to hear a rendition on the organ of the St Anne Prelude and Fugue in E flat Major BWV 552 given by none other than the composer himself, J. S. Bach. One small problem: you are tone deaf. Bach signed off all his compositions with the dedication Soli Deo Gloria – To the Glory of God Alone. The great master felt that he was merely a conduit conveying a message from, and giving expression to a Supreme Power. But to you, this expression just sounds like an infernal racket. You have a choice. Either you say, what a load of rubbish, this is a fake, a con, emperor’s clothes, a load of bull and so on; or you say, this means nothing to me, but I see all around me people who are moved by something; I can only assume I’m not privy to it.

Amid the grand smörgåsbord of human activity I suppose we all have at least one dish we would assign to the waste disposal. For example, I lack a taste for jurisprudence. My view of the law is Dickensian. I think of Bleak House – endless litigation, suits lost in a welter of mounting costs. The law is an ass. Sometimes it appears to be entirely lacking in common sense. Who would go near it? Of course I realise deep down that actually I know nothing about the law. I am, in fact, a barrack-room lawyer. I once attended a medical conference, in Trump Turnberry of all places, where a lawyer gave a talk about various aspects of medical misadventure. He issued an admonition. “When you go to law,” he said, “you may imagine that you are inviting us to enter your world. But you are mistaken. You are entering ours.” No thank you. Yet I realise it would be folly to dispense with the law. There is a character in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, suitor to Sir Thomas More’s daughter, who would dismantle the laws of England, like cutting down trees in a forest, in pursuit of the devil. Sir Thomas asks him, once you have cut them all down, when the devil turns on you, the laws all being flat, where will you hide? So I will leave the law undisturbed, until I have need of it.

It seems to me that a preeminent characteristic of scientific enquiry that is lacking in Outgrowing God, is humility. I think Prof Dawkins should go for a walk along the beach. There are other stories about learned men walking along the beach. Isaac Newton described his life’s work in terms of beachcombing. He said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Isaac Newton is widely thought of as the greatest scientist ever to have lived, yet, as Richard Feynman has pointed out, his laws of motion are wrong. Principia was published in 1687 and superseded by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. So F = ma lasted 218 years. Now Richard Dawkins says Darwin is “right”. But that is a profoundly unscientific thing to say. To say that Darwin is “right”, or that his theory is “true”, is akin to a statement like “The purpose of the heart is to pump”. In Medicine, and I think Prof Dawkins would approve of this, we are taught to avoid statements that are teleological. You may say, “The heart functions as a pump”. Darwin’s Origin of Species was first published in 1859 so we may say that it has not been significantly challenged for 160 years. But that is not to say that it is “true” or it is “right”. All we can say, until something comes along to contradict us, is that his hypotheses appear to fit with our understanding of reality. Prof Dawkins also says with respect to the theory of evolution, that there are only “a few details left to clean up”. The same was said of physics at the end of the nineteenth century. Then look what happened.

I return to Prof Dawkins walking along the beach. Somerset Maugham tells the story of an eminent man, a “Great Religious”, who encounters a primitive elder in some remote corner of the empire, PNG perhaps. He comes prepared to disabuse the savage of his ancient superstitions. (Maybe not so ancient. Think of the Cargo Cult. Or the worship of the Duke of Edinburgh.) As it so happens, he meets him on a beach. The elder arrives by boat, disembarks, and gracefully walks across the water to reach the shore.

I wonder what Prof Dawkins would do if, walking on the beach, he had a Damascene moment, and heard the still small voice, “Richard, Richard, it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

I suppose he would check into the nearest psychiatric clinic.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Felice Navidad!






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