Shaking the belief of atheists

Universe Column for May 7th 2006

by David Alton

Oxford University’s curiously titled “Professor of the Public Understanding of Science” has recently been on television hotly disputing the existence of God. Professor Richard Dawkins is an avowed atheist who spends a great deal of his time asserting that it is a statistical improbability for an Omnipotent Being to exist. How could there be a God who is more complex than either the universe, or even the smallest  living cell? For Dawkins it is inexplicable that anything could be more complex than the created order of which we are all a part.  Dawkins’ problem is that he starts off by looking for God as a potential contour on a map rather than as the map maker; and, as someone has put it rather well, nothing that is merely a part of the puzzle can account for the whole.

This is an argument that is incapable of resolution by Professor Dawkins or by science – or for that matter by religion. For those of us who see the hand of an intelligent Designer on the world around us it is simply a matter of faith and belief.  We think we can see the Designer’s footprints in the sand and the sign-posts on the way. But just as Professor Dawkins should not try to imply that science can confound this belief we should not seek to teach our beliefs as a form of science.

Catholics do not teach that the beautiful Semitic account of Creation contained in the Book of Genesis is a scientific theory. It is a stunning narrative, based on received wisdom, which sets out the story of how we came to be.  It has been passed from generation to generation and every child and every adult deserves to know that story.

Children also need to know that many scientists themselves see the hand of an intelligent Designer on all that we see and encounter. To deny them that knowledge and to deprive them of their own narrative is to distort our most fundamental human identity.

Professor John D Barrow is the professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and was recently awarded the Templeton Prize for “expanding human perceptions of divinity.” Tracing the links between religion and scientific truth he argues that astronomy illuminates the glory of God -and certainly does not disprove His existence, as Professor Dawkins would have us believe.

John Barrow compares the universe to an experience which he had in the beautiful Venetian Basilica of St. Mark. He says that we still do not understand the processes which were used by the craftsmen of 700 years ago to produce the 11,000 square feet of gold mosaic in St. Mark’s.  Nor, he says, did those master craftsmen live to see the fruits of their labours. He says “our universe is a bit like that” and says that modern science has revealed a universe “far bigger, more spectacular and more humbling than we ever imagined it to be.”

Professor Barrow argues that “There are some who say that because we use our minds to appreciate the order and complexity of the universe around us, there is nothing more to that order than what is imposed by the human mind. That is a serious misjudgement.”

And he adds that “Our scientific picture of the universe has revealed how blinkered and conservative our outlook has often been, how self serving our interim picture, how mundane our expectations, and how parochial our attempts to find or deny the links between scientific and religious approaches to the nature of the universe.”

Men like Barrow want us to have open and inquiring minds; men like Dawkins want us to close our minds. Insistent atheism is simply the mirror image of those forms of religion which become incapable of dialogue. But all is not lost for Richard Dawkins. He may not believe in God but fortunately God still believes in him.