Matthew – Year 11 Student
Editor’s Note: Matthew reflects here on a talk that he attended recently in which Richard Dawkins discussed scientific truth, outgrowing God and life beyond Earth. This is Matthew’s second contribution to The GSAL Journal: his previous submission was The Cryptanalysis of Enigma. CPD
‘Outgrowing God: a myth or a reality?’
For those of you who don’t know him, Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and arguably the most notable atheist to have walked the earth. He has written many books, however his two most famous are ‘The Selfish Gene’ and ‘The God Delusion’. ‘The Selfish Gene’ tackles the question ‘What is life?’ in which Dawkins takes the genetically radical stance that humans are just ‘gene-carrying machines.’ ‘The God Delusion’ looks at the idea of life without God and how humans can live and understand life without the need for God.
During a talk on this cornucopia of philosophy, Dawkings addressed five key questions. In this review, I hope to outline each one, and provide a personal insight into these meaningful questions which indubitably shape our lives.
Is there life on other planets?
During the evening, Dawkins was interviewed by an astrobiologist. Astrobiology is the study of life on other planets. Therefore, the interviewer was far better placed, in terms of background knowledge, to answer the questions he provided than Dawkins himself was. Dawkins said that ‘if we ever have contact with extra-terrestrial life from outside our solar system, it will be intelligent’. The reasoning behind which was because of the huge distances between Earth and other planets. Beyond that, this may be the only thing we have in common with aliens. Life on our planet is carbon-based, but as Dawkins argues, it is not totally out of the question to have life based on silicon – robotic. Alien beings may be nothing like us – so if we meet, it will perhaps also transform our understanding of the Universe in which we live.
The interviewer then went on to explain the future of astrobiology before they both talked about how extra-terrestrial life may be structured. Dawkins explained that all life is composed of DNA which codes for our characteristics. This includes our eye colour, the possession of a cleft chin, hair colour and more. Dawkins explored the idea of how extra-terrestrial DNA may look. Will there be the four ATCG bases or will there be different base molecules? Although this portion of the talk was quite scientific and not intrinsically tied to philosphy, Dawkins was able to reason that the vastness and complexity of the universe was not due to a designer, but due to simple probability and science. If science allows for life (as it clearly does, evidenced via human existence alone), then given enough galaxies and planets, life is bound to form again.
Do the miracles at Lourdes prove God’s existence?
Countless theists have tried to argue with the purely rational minds of atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens and Nietzche over the idea of God. One argument that the theists often fall upon is the idea of miracles. Miracles are supernatural events that cannot be explained by science, as of current scientific development. Theists believe that countless people have been to Lourdes with incurable cancers and other such diseases and have miraculously been cured by the healing powers it possesses.
At Lourdes, there have been 66 declared miracles and 2000 unexplained cures. Dawkins reasoned that unexplained cures happen every day in every hospital. Science is not complete therefore, some things will happen that we cannot explain yet, he believes that that is okay. However, the theists state there are 66 declared miracles, not one not two, but 66! Dawkins reviewed the numbers and argued that 80,000 people attend Lourdes each year and Lourdes has been open for 150 years, therefore 12,000,000 people have attended Lourdes and only 66 have been cured. This means that 99.9995% of people who go to Lourdes are not cured. Dawkins said that, ‘the hard fact is that over the years with millions of pilgrims there have only been sixty-six supposed miracles. Statistically, it adds up to no evidence at all. I can’t help remarking that nobody has ever had a miraculous re-growing of a severed leg. The cures are always things that might have got better anyway.’
Why is the Theory of Evolution better than the Theory of God?
Many theists have tried to argue with atheists over this. They say, ‘why can’t I believe in my theory if you believe in your theory; they’re both theories.’ The theory of evolution is not just a theory. It is a scientific theory. Gravity is also a scientific theory. Everyone believes in gravity, but it too is a scientific theory, although it appears to just be a ‘given’ within the constructs of basic human knowledge. Everyone trusts in gravity, yet scientists don’t truly understand. During the evening Dawkins explained this beautifully, saying that: ‘Our habit of referring to the “theory” of evolution is similarly used to mislead. Huge numbers of people are bamboozled by the phrase “Only a Theory.’
Scientists believe that a theory is ‘A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena’, and I have followed that notion until today. However, I want to break from this definition. I now think that trying to clear up this terminological point about the meaning of “theory” is a losing battle. We should stop using “theory” altogether for the case of evolution and insist, instead, that evolution is a fact. It is a fact that New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, Donald Trump is the US President, grass is green etc. It is this everyday usage of “fact” that we should be concerned with when we advocate evolution to lay audiences. Most people think of theory as a tentative “mere” hypothesis. However, we must admit that scientists themselves use “theory” in a way that might strike the poor layman as confusingly inconsistent.
Charles Darwin made frequent reference to his “theory”, and in his time it was a hypothesis with which the supporting evidence persuaded some scientists but by no means all. In the succeeding century and a half, a mere hypothesis has moved to a definite theory. Nowadays no knowledgeable scientist has any doubt about the fact of evolution. It is an indisputable fact that we share common ancestors with our cousin the gorilla and with our more distant cousin the kangaroo. Some scientists speak of the fact of evolution, as distinct from Darwin’s hypothesis of its mechanism (natural selection). They would relegate natural selection, but not evolution itself, to a tentative theory.
Confusion of a different kind is introduced by those who agree to abandon “theory of evolution” but try to replace it by “law of evolution.” It is far from clear that evolution is a law in the sense of Newton’s Laws, Kepler’s Laws, Boyle’s Law or Snell’s Law. These are mathematical relationships, generalisations about the real world that are found to hold true when measurements are made. Evolution is not a law in that sense (although generalisations such as Dollo’s Law and Cope’s Law have been somewhat dubiously introduced into the corpus of Darwinian theory). Moreover, “Law of Evolution” conjures up unfortunate associations with grandiose overgeneralisations linking biological evolution, cultural evolution, linguistic evolution, economic evolution and evolution of the universe. So I implore you, don’t make matters worse by turning evolution into a law.
Furthermore, Dawkins gave the simple example of a giraffe’s laryngeal nerve. It runs from the brain and its end organ is the larynx. You think it would go straight there, but in fact, in a human it takes a great long detour, looping round one of the main arteries in the chest before going back up to the larynx. In the giraffe, with a neck much longer, it takes a 2-metre detour when actually, if it were to go straight there, it would be just 5cm. Clearly, this is not an intelligent design. Why would a designer God ever design this? Religion and creationism cannot explain this. However, evolution can. All animals evolved from fish. In fish, the most direct route is past the chest, considering they don’t have necks. Once you introduce a mammalian neck, the heart is displaced down lower. Over millions of years later, as necks gradually increased in size, the nerve gradually increased in size. Now, it seems ridiculous, but because evolution happens over such large time scales, it makes sense. Each gradual step is much easier than a total rewiring of the nerve.
Are the four gospels reliable?
In ‘Outgrowing God’, unlike in ‘The God Delusion’, Dawkins looks at the Bible and what makes it so believable for Christians. He then attempts to find out what is wrong with the Bible. Dawkins explores the four gospels and finds there were many more gospels that haven’t been included in the Bible. These include, The Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical Christian doctrine discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, more than half a decade ago. Scholars speculate that the works, which date to 340AD, were buried in response to a letter from Bishop Athanasius declaring a strict canon of Christian scripture. Unlike the canonical Gospels, it is not a narrative account of the life of Jesus, instead it consists of stories attributed to Jesus, sometimes stand-alone, sometimes embedded in short dialogues or parables. Dawkins said:“It’s no surprise that they didn’t want the infancy gospel of Thomas. As usual, nobody knows who wrote it, contrary to rumour, it was not Doubting Thomas, the disciple who wanted proof before he believed in Jesus’ resurrection. This gospel includes amazing stories about Jesus’ childhood, a period in his life that’s almost completely missing from the official canon.”
“By its accounts, Jesus was a mischievous child who was not shy of showing off his magic powers. At the age of five, playing by a stream, he took mud from the stream and fashioned it into 12 live sparrows. He added: “A sparrow is made of more than 100 billion cells, nerve cells, muscle cells, liver cells, blood cells, bone cells, and hundreds more. Every one of those is a miniature machine of mind-blowing complexity, every one of each sparrows two thousand feathers are marvels of delicate architecture. Nobody knew those details in Jesus’ time Even so, you’d think that the adults would have been pretty impressed.” Dawkins explained why he thought the text was not included in the New Testament. He continued: “But no, Joseph gave higher priority to scolding Jesus because he did it on the Sabbath day, when Jewish law forbids you to do any work.” Some modern Jews won’t even flick a light switch on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response to being scolded was to clap his hands and say: ‘Be gone’ and the sparrows flew off, chirping.” In the Bible, the miracles of Jesus are supernatural deeds that include faith healing, exorcism, resurrection, control over nature and forgiveness of sins. In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus refuses to give a miraculous sign to prove his authority. However, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is said to have performed seven miracles from changing water into wine to raising Lazarus from the dead. For many Christians, these are seen as actual events, but others, including many liberal Christians, consider the stories to be figurative. So, in conclusion, there is nothing special about the four chosen gospels, and also, nothing that makes them factually more accurate. Out of many gospels, they were the four chosen ones and people now dedicate their life to what they say, when in fact if a different gospel was chosen, it wouldn’t be the case.
Do we need religion to be moral?
One of the things atheists often are accused of by theists is that if they have no God, what is to stop them from committing evil acts? Dawkins had noticed that the question of morality always appears to rear its head as an argument against atheism. Christopher Hitchens, former friend of Dawkins, brilliantly devised a wager asking anyone to present him with a moral action that a theist could perform but that an atheist could not. He also inversely asked of an immoral action that could only be undertaken by a religious person. This, to great effect, fleshed out Weinberg’s claim that “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
Dawkins said that ‘nobody gets their moral compass from religion. If you did, then according to Leviticus 20:10 you would be ‘stoning adulterers to death’, or according to Exodus 31:14, you would be ‘executing people for breaking the Sabbath.’
Clearly, we don’t get our moral compass from religion. Humanity’s moral compass changes by the second and this has nothing to do with religion. Theists will often find the occasional verse in the Bible that accords with what we see as moral. However, by doing this, you must ignore page after page of very immoral verses, including those mentioned earlier from Exodus and Leviticus. Now, we regard slavery as abhorrent, yet 2000 years ago it was seen as normal. This has nothing to do with religion. Furthermore, religion makes people behave in a moral way because they are frightened of God and Hell. I [Dawkins] see this as a rather ignoble reason for being good. Wouldn’t you rather be good, for the sake of being good?