A Bowl of Sawdust Paste

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In this last Dawkins installment, I want to do two things. The first is to briefly summarize his last chapter and respond to it. The second task is to develop something I mentioned in an earlier post — viz. that Dawkins is more than half ashamed of what he is doing — and for good reason.

This last chapter can be divided into two portions. The first part addresses issues like the power of religion to console.

“What have you to offer the dying patients, the weeping bereaved, the lonely Eleanor Rigbys for whom God is their only friend” (p. 352).

Dawkins responds to this by pointing out, quite rightly, “Religion’s power to console doesn’t make it true” (p. 352). Of course not — a doctor could console a terminally ill patient by lying to him, and telling him he is going to get better. Lies that offer good news can console along with truths that actually are good news. Quite right. False gods can be a consolation just as the true God can be.

But there is a deeper question. Why does the human creature need consolation? A desperate longing thirst in the desert doesn’t turn every mirage into water. But surely it argues that there is such a thing as water. Why would natural selection develop such an odd dead end? It would be as though we were all thirsty in a world without water, or hungry in a world without food, or full of sexual desire in a world without another sex, and so on. When we long for consolation, Dawkins tells us that it need not be God that we are longing for. He probably isn’t there, and so we should just deal with it. All right. What is it that we are longing for? And why does atheism fail, in a spectacular way, to address this particular need? Scripture says that God has placed eternity in our hearts, which accounts for this longing for the transcendent. But on Dawkins’ account, this longing is entirely illusory, and so he offers us something else. But why does that something else fail to satisfy? It is as though I am fainting from thirst because I want to drink from one of the brooks cascading off one of heaven’s mountains, and Dawkins offers me a bowl of sawdust paste instead.

Dawkins is capable of fine description in his writing, and in the second part of this final chapter, he sets out to tout the marvels of the sawdust paste. He tries to generate a lofty feeling of awe in us by describing various aspects of the physical universe in such a way as to make us say whoa.

“We try to visualize an electron as a tiny ball, in orbit around a larger cluster of balls representing protons and neutrons. That isn’t what it is like at all. Electrons are not like little balls. They are not like anything we recognize” (p. 363).

“Quantum mechanics, that rarefied pinnacle of twentieth-century scientific achievment, makes brilliantly successful predictions about the real world” (pp. 364-365).

“The entire dune walks across the desert in a westerly direction at a speed of about 17 metres per year. It retains its crescent shape and creeps along in the direction of the horns” (p. 370).

“Could we, by training and practice, emancipate ourselves . . . and achieve some sort of intuitive — as well as just mathematical — understanding of the very small, the very large, and the very fast? I genuinely don’t know the answer, but I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits” (p. 374).

No limits. And we shall be as God, knowing good and evil.

But the problem is that the religious need that human beings have, created as we have been in the image of God, cannot be satisfied by the pretensions or posturings of any idol. Eternity is in our hearts, and that longing cannot be filled by watching things go by us really fast, by becoming the most famous person in the world, by sacrificing a virgin in front of a stone idol, or by anything else that men may think up to do. If we understand that the created heavens and earth are a metaphor for the triune God who made them, we can be satisfied to hear of Him through His creation. The heavens declare the glory of God. Through the things that have been made the divine majesty is announced to every sentient creature. But when His creation is severed from Him, as atheism seeks to do, all we have is a bunch of stoms banging around. And if we reflect a bit more, we realize this means that our thoughts are just the result of atoms banging around, which means in turn that we have no reason for trusting our thoughts. But that means we don’t even know if there is such a thing as atoms banging around. Martin Luther famously took his stand because that is where God had lead him, and his heart was captive to the Word of God. Richard Dawkins takes his stand because he doesn’t have anywhere to go.

And this leads to the broader point. Dawkins’ college at Oxford, New College, was founded in 1379 by William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. In the endowment, he provided for ten chaplains, three clerks, and sixteen choristers. If the college income failed, they alone were to be retained. The purpose of the college was to provide for a place where people would be enabled to pray for the good bishop’s soul. “Presumably he trusted us to continue to pray for his soul through the centuries” (p. 359).

“Today the college has only one chaplain and no clerks, and the steady century-by-century torrent of prayers for Wykeham in purgatory has dwindled to a trickle of two prayers per year . . . Even I feel a twinge of guilt, as a member of that Fellowship, for a trust betrayed” (p. 359).

Dawkins tries to say this with a sense of ironic detachment, but he covers up his sense of unease unsuccessfully. It comes out in a number of places in the book.

“The present Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, told me that he goes to church as an ‘unbelieving Anglican . . . out of loyalty to the tribe’ (p. 14).

It is a loyalty that Dawkins wishes he could participate in, his wistfulness barely concealed.

“When I was a child and still carried a guttering torch for the Anglican Church . . .” (p. 261).

In various places in the book, Dawkins refers to his Anglican upbringing, and in a number of places some sort of affection and yearning show through. At the end of chapter nine, he takes an odd turn, arguing for the retention of the Bible as a significant part of literary culture.

“But the main reason the English Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture” (p. 341).

This is followed by almost two pages of phrases taken from the Bible that enrich our reading — phrases like “go to the ant,” physician heal thyself,” “through a glass darkly,” and so on. Immediately after the list, Dawkins says one of the few things that I agreed with completely, not to mention enthusiastically.

“P.G. Wodehouse is, for my money, the greatest writer of light comedy in English, and I bet fully half my list of biblical phrases will be found as allusions within his pages” (p. 343).

He has a point. My kids learned a great deal about the Bible from reading it themselves, and from church, but they also learned a good bit of it from Bertie Wooster who, as you should know, once won a prize for Scripture knowledge.

But this kind of affection is not sustained or consistent. The mask goes back on, and Dawkins is back to snarling about how the Bible is a pathological piece of work.

“And of course we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism, or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage” (p. 344).

In other words, we can cut down the tree and still treasure how the leaves shade the house in the late summer. Dawkins wants to hate the root (which is our Lord Himself) and somehow retain the fruit.

All this is to say that Dawkins is not a sheer atheist, not by a long shot. He still feels the gravitational pull of the Christian faith, particularly of Anglicanism. And because a man is more than the sum of the propositions he affirms in his head, this is highly significant.

I have to assume some things here, but I think they are safe to assume. It is clear that Dawkins is a baptized Christian, brought up in the Anglican communion. I don’t know if he was disciplined or excommunicated, but, given the state of the Anglican church, that is unlikely in the extreme. He is one who lost his faith, and his way, but this does not change the covenantal obligation he still has (and obviously still feels) to the Church he grew up in. That obligation is objective — it has nothing to do with what Dawkins says he believes. He is a baptized Christian, which means he does not have the right to his unbelief. This means that Richard Dawkins has a covenantal obligation to repent by next Saturday night and return to communion on Sunday.

For American evangelicals, I have to translate. I am not saying here that Dawkins is saved, or that his hatred of God is somehow okay because he was baptized as an infanta. I am saying that being a Christian has two levels. One is objective, like a man getting married. The other is subjective, like a man loving his wife. In the Church, the former is sealed by the sacraments of the Church. The latter is sealed by the Holy Spirit when He converts our hearts so that we come to love God through Jesus. Richard Dawkins still has the former, and it still eats at him. He has never had the latter.

Use the illustration of marriage. Dawkins is like a man who got married, and who had a covenantal obligation to remain with his wife, loving her. But for some reason, he lost that love, and walked away from his obligation, discarding his covenantal vows. The subjective loss of love accounts for the walking away, but it does not justify it. Neither does the loss of love erase the obligation. At times he speaks of his previous attachment with affection, but at other times he remembers he has to justify his infidelity, and so the anger returns.

And this accounts for Dawkins’ strange obsession with people saying things like “a Christian child.” He spends a good portion of chapter nine on it (p. 311), but it was a point he made early on in the book as well (p. 3). This is worth mentioning because this is what was done to Richard Dawkins. He was baptized in infancy, and brought up in the faith. He mentions that his parents taught him to think for himself, but at the same time they did commit him in certain ways, and Dawkins is still bothered by it. This is not irrational; he ought to be bothered by it. He is still obligated. It is strange that he has this degree of sensitivity, because almost no one talks this way about baptism anymore, or teaches this. But he feels it nonetheless.

The water of his baptism has not yet evaporated. We should pray that he is increasingly bothered, and that he comes to the point of full and deep repentance.

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