There is no good reason to believe in a supernatural creator, says a leading British atheist who believes religious explanations of how the world came to be, such as creationism, are petty and outdated – especially when modern science can now offer a better understanding of the existence of life.
Bestselling author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, defended his atheistic view and contested Christianity in a much anticipated debate with Christian apologist John Lennox Wednesday night in Birmingham, Ala. It was a rare opportunity for Americans to witness two popular thinkers from Oxford University engage in a contemporary spiritual warfare – a friendly one – on the existence of God.
"Neither of us wishes to base his life on a delusion," said Lennox in his opening remarks. "But which is the delusion? Atheism or Christianity?"
Faith is blind. Science is evidence-based.
"Science uses evidence to discover truth about the universe. It's been getting better at it over the centuries," said Dawkins to a public audience. "Religion teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding."
Dawkins was elaborating on one of six major theses presented in his popular book that faith is blind while science is evidence-based.
After discovering Darwinism in his mid-teen years, Dawkins left his Anglican faith, never to return. And he has been defending Darwinism ever since, earning him the label "Darwin's Rottweiler" from the media.
Arguing that religion cuts through trying to understand the universe and provides an easy answer to its existence – attributing the cosmos to a maker – Dawkins says religion isn't really an explanation of how the world came about and "prevents further work on the problem." And he believes advances in science have achieved "an emancipation from that impulse to attribute these things to a creator."
Some faith is blind, Lennox agreed, but not all faith.
"As I read it, blind faith in idols ... in other words delusional gods, is condemned in the Bible," Lennox rebutted. "My faith in God and Christ as the Son of God is no delusion. It is rational and evidence-based. Half of the evidence is objective, some of it comes from science, some come from history and some is subjective coming from experience."
Further arguing against the notion that science contrasts with religion, Lennox reminded his opponent that science rose out of a theistic background, as Dawkins had also admitted earlier in the debate.
With time constraints, the debate provided little opportunity for a rebuttal from Dawkins, who spent much of his time contextualizing passages used from his book as points of debate.
The Designer is dead
Addressing the age-old topic of who created the Creator, Dawkins said as of now, science doesn't have an answer to the origin of the universe although Darwinism explains how life thereafter came about, he said.
"In a sense, you can say cosmology is waiting for its Darwin," said Dawkins.
Emphasizing that science is always making progress, Dawkins staunchly stated that the "creative designer cannot be a satisfying explanation."
"It's tempting once again to import the easy facile idea of a designer and to say that the designer twittled the knobs of the universe and the big bang and got them exactly right," he said, alluding to the physical constants (numbers) physicists assume to derive the rest of their understanding of cosmology. If the numbers were even slightly different, we wouldn't exist, he said.
"But it seems to me to be manifestly obvious that that is a futile kind of explanation because as the quotation says 'who designed the Designer?' You have explained precisely nothing."
Giving a straightforward response, Lennox said the God who created the universe is not created. "He is eternal," he argued.
"None of us believe in created gods – Jews, Muslims, or Christians," Lennox said. Created gods are by definition a delusion, he added.
Although uncertain on whether Dawkins believes if matter and energy and the laws of energy were always there, Lennox argued that if he does, then he does believe in something eternal.
Christianity is dangerous
On a more sensitive topic, the staunch atheist opposed teaching faith to children because of the dangers of extremism.
"The point about teaching children that faith is a virtue is that you're teaching them that you don't have to justify what you do, you can simply shelter behind the statement 'that's my faith and you're not to question that,'" Dawkins argued.
He said what he objects is the convention that society has bought into, that religious faith is something to be respected and not questioned. "Faith is a terrible weapon because it justifies the performance of terrible acts," said Dawkins as he imagined a world without religion.
Lennox agreed with the danger of teaching children to be fanatics by not allowing them to question, but he asked the audience to imagine a world without atheism, without Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot and the thousands of churches that were destroyed.
"You contend that the teachings of modern religion are an open invitation to extremism," said Lennox. "Well, that is not true of the teachings of Christ, I can't speak for other religions but what about the modern teaching of atheism?"
Clarifying his remarks, Dawkins said he was not trying to say all religious people do bad things. And atheism may have even been an integral part of the Marxism that led Stalin and other infamous atheist despots to do terrible acts, but Dawkins stressed that atrocities are never committed in the name of atheism while that's not the case for religion.
"If you really, really believe that your god, Allah, whoever it is, wants you to do something and go to heaven or go to paradise if you do it, then it's possible for an entirely logical, rational person to do hideous things," he explained. "I cannot conceive of a logical path that would lead one to say 'because I am an atheist, therefore, it is rational for me to kill.'"
"You will not do terrible deeds because you are an atheist not for rational reasons, though you will for very rational reasons do terrible things because you are religious. That's what faith is about. That's what faith means," he said to applause.
In response, Lennox argued that atheism is a faith as well - a claim which Dawkins denied.
The debate heated up but arguments were cut short to move on to the next thesis and left the audience in suspense for more.
We do not need God in order to be good or evil
Although there seems to be a universal kind of acceptance of what's right or not, Dawkins said people are automatically able to discern in the Bible what is good and what isn't. You didn't need the Bible to tell you what's morally right.
"Our evolutionary past built into us a lust for sex and by the same token it built into us a lust to be good," Dawkins purported. "I think it partly comes from that."
It also comes from something else, something he calls the Shifting Moral Zeitgeist. Racism, sexual discrimination, and cruelty widely regarded as wrong characterize those living in the 21st century which would not have necessarily characterized ancestors from 200 years ago. Scripture, however, doesn't change in the way that people's attitudes have, he said, rejecting that morality comes from religion.
Dawkins couldn't pinpoint what exactly it is except that there's "something in the air" of what is moral and that "whatever it is, it's not religion."
Meanwhile, Lennox rebutted that the fact that human beings do show a common core of morality "is evidence that we are moral beings made in the image of God."
"Of course we can be good without God ... but I'm not sure we can find foundations for the concept of being good without God."
In his concluding argument, Lennox defended the person of Jesus Christ, his mandates to do good, and his resurrection.
"The justice is real. And our sense of morality does not mock us because if there is no resurrection, if there's nothing after death, in the end the terrorists, the fanatics have got away with it," he said.
The debate gave Dawkins the last word out of "Christian charity," as the moderator stated.
"It all quite really comes down to the resurrection of Jesus. It has a fundamental incompatibility [with] the sophisticated scientist," said Dawkins.
"It's (resurrection of Christ argument) so petty, it's so trivial, it's so local, it's so earth-bound, it's so unworthy of the universe."
In the end, Darwin's Rottweiler stayed loyal and praised Darwin.
"It seems so obvious that if you got a garden, there must be a gardener who created it," said Dawkins, alluding to the common argument Christians use to defend creationism. "What Darwin did was to show the staggeringly counterintuitive fact that this not only can be explained by an undirected presence (natural selection). He showed not only a garden but everything in the living world and in principle not just on this earth but on any other planet, wherever you see the organized complexity that we understand, that we call life, that it has an explanation which can derive it from simple beginnings by comprehensible, rational means.
"That is possibly the greatest achievement that any human mind has ever accomplished," he concluded.
The God Delusion debate, sponsored by Christian think tank Fixed Point Foundation, comes as more atheists in the United States are "coming out" of the closet, as Dawkins has encouraged them to. About 5 million American adults claim to be atheists and staunchly reject the existence of God, according to The Barna Group. If adding the agnostics and other Americans who have doubts of God's existence but do not outright reject a Supreme Being, roughly 20 million people in the nation belong to the "no faith" group.
This fall, Lennox releases God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? - a response to the atheist's position that the nature of science points toward the non-existence of God.