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The Scrivener: The Great Debate

...Science is not a static set of ideas or beliefs. Astrophysicists are making discoveries every day. The Big Bang theory is widely accepted, displacing a previous 'Steady State' theory. Evidence is therefore in the form of observation, research, new findings, new facts, and new theories based on physical research and Mathematics. They become 'knowledge on which to base belief' where belief is intellectual assent to what is probable or possible as well as what is demonstrable and replicable.

On the other hand, evidence offered for the existence of God and his role in Creation is in the form of testimony based on what is written in scriptures. Whether or not this equates with scientific evidence is open to question but serious debate is not helped by the scornful responses which Dr Dawkins occasionally provides...

Brian Barratt brings a lifetime of experience and deep thinking to this consideration of the most significant of all debates.

Brian's essay is a generous stimulus to further reading and self-questioning.

In a televised debate between Dr John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and Dr Richard Dawkins, Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford, the following exchange took place:

Dawkins: We only need to use the word ‘faith’ when there isn’t any evidence.

Lennox: No, not at all. I presume you’ve got faith in your wife — is there any evidence for that?

Dawkins: Yes, plenty of evidence.

Perhaps we need to clarify what we mean by faith in God and faith in one's wife, spouse or partner. Do they belong in the same pigeon-hole?

The first of three main definitions of faith in Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary is 'Allegiance to duty or a person; loyalty; fidelity to one's promises'. This is echoed in the fifth definition in Collins English Dictionary: 'Complete confidence or trust in a person'.

Loyalty, fidelity, confidence and trust are based not only on our knowledge of a person but also, in the case of a partner, on shared experience. Our senses are involved — we can see, hear and touch that person. The evidence of our faith is in actually living together.

It's relevant to ask if we can also have faith in people we have never met, such as a politician or an expert in a particular field. We might have seen them on television and heard them on both TV and radio. We might not have been in the same room, let alone touch them, but our loyalty and trust are based on what we know about them and what they say. The first definition of evidence in Collins Dictionary is 'Ground for belief or disbelief; data on which to base proof or to establish truth or falsehood'.

The first definition of faith in Collins is 'Strong or unshakeable belief in something, especially without proof or evidence'. This is the type of faith Dr Dawkins was implying in the debate about his book 'The God Delusion', the title of which is self-explanatory.

Without proof or evidence? What constitutes evidence? Other definitions of evidence include 'something that furnishes proof'; 'ground for belief or disbelief'; 'your basis for belief or disbelief; 'knowledge on which to base belief'; 'something that furnishes proof' and 'testimony'.

A major ground for belief of committed Christians is the complexity and wonder of the universe. In very recent times, some have used the term Intelligent Design to indicate that they believe the universe did not just happen but was designed. This implies the pre-existence and continuing existence of a designer. That designer is a supernatural being, God.

Behind the idea of an Intelligent Design is a belief that God is the Creator. This is based on the two accounts of Creation at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Bible. Believers in this idea do not agree on the major point as to whether God created everything about 6,000 years ago or over a much longer period of time. The ground for belief becomes somewhat shaky if the testimony of the Bible stories cannot be agreed upon.

In an interview published in The Guardian on 11 September 2010, Professor Stephen Hawking, renowned theoretical physicist, was asked, 'What is the one bit of science from your field that you think everyone should know?' He replied, 'Science can explain the universe without the need for a Creator'.

Professor Brian Cox, the personable and articulate physicist at the University of Manchester, made no reference to a Creator or to God in his remarkable TV series 'Wonders of the Universe'. Nonetheless, he covered many aspects of who we are and where we came from, in relation to the greater cosmos, with a constant note of wonder in his voice. His equivalent to 'God created the universe' is, more or less, 'There was a Big Bang'. He did not go into the question of what existed prior to the Big Bang, or caused it, or whether the cosmos is finite and, if so, what exists outside its finite limits. If, as we are told, the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang and is still expanding, we need to consider what is 'outside' it and, by definition, does not have the attributes of either time or space. Fair enough; that would have needed another series of programmes to explain and simplify.

Science is not a static set of ideas or beliefs. Astrophysicists are making discoveries every day. The Big Bang theory is widely accepted, displacing a previous 'Steady State' theory. Evidence is therefore in the form of observation, research, new findings, new facts, and new theories based on physical research and Mathematics. They become 'knowledge on which to base belief' where belief is intellectual assent to what is probable or possible as well as what is demonstrable and replicable.

On the other hand, evidence offered for the existence of God and his role in Creation is in the form of testimony based on what is written in scriptures. Whether or not this equates with scientific evidence is open to question but serious debate is not helped by the scornful responses which Dr Dawkins occasionally provides.

For Christians, the testimony is found in the Bible, comprising the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. That applies to the Bible used by Protestants. The Roman Catholic version of the Bible has an additional 12 books which are regarded as apocryphal (of questionable authenticity). Greek and Russian Orthodox versions have another 4 books. There are other versions. There are also many different English translations. This multiplicity of versions raises doubts about the claim that the Bible is the 'word of God'. One might also ask why God took a couple of thousand years to put it together.

The secondary claim is that it 'contains the word of God'. The Old Testament contains history mingled with laws, prophecy, poetry and myths. There are two stories of the Creation in the book of Genesis, written at different times about 2,600 years ago. Scholars inform us that they are similar in many ways to contemporary Babylonian myths, the main difference being the Hebrew emphasis on there being one God rather than several. There is a third Creation myth in the book of Job which is quite different from those in Genesis.

The New Testament was assembled, and eventually accepted as an authoritative collection, in a period 100 to 700 years after the death of Jesus Christ. It certainly contains some of the words of Jesus, as passed down to the men who wrote the four Gospels. Its testimony about the life of Jesus is, however, confused. For example, the story of Jesus being born to a virgin mother is mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but not in the Gospels of Mark and John. There are several different versions of the story of the resurrection of Jesus. These are in the four Gospels and the letters of Paul, whose claim that Jesus appeared to him is disputed or otherwise explained by Bible scholars. Overall, on the stories of the resurrection, Dr Ed P. Sanders, Arts and Science Professor of Religion at Duke University comments in Encyclopædia Britannica:

'Because of the uncertain evidence it is hard to say what really happened. Two points are important: the sources describe the resurrected Jesus as neither a resuscitated corpse, a badly wounded man staggering around, nor as a ghost.'

In the Dawkins/Lennox debate, Dr Lennox's closing words were: 'Miracles are not violations of natural laws. Jesus' resurrection is the basis of my faith and the historicity of His existence a fact.' He was perhaps echoing the words of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, 'If Christ had not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins'. Paul continues in the same chapter (15) to make it clear that the resurrection body is a spiritual body, quite different from the physical body. In the book of Acts (chapter 9), the writer describes how Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, and those around him heard but did not see the resurrected Jesus. However, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that he had seen Jesus.

On the other hand, in Luke's Gospel, Jesus says to people who were startled to see him after his crucifixion, 'See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see I have'. In John's Gospel, there is the story of Thomas who doubted what he saw until Jesus told him to touch him and place his hand into the wounds. In other words, the resurrected Jesus had a real physical body. In this vital part of the evidence for faith, the testimony is contradictory. As Dr Sanders wrote, it is hard to say what really happened.

In another debate, in 2006, (http://richarddawkins.net/articles/4047-god-vs-science-a-debate-between-richard-dawkins-and-francis-collins)
this exchange took place:

'TIME: Dr. Collins, the Resurrection is an essential argument of Christian faith, but doesn't it, along with the virgin birth and lesser miracles, fatally undermine the scientific method, which depends on the constancy of natural laws?

COLLINS: If you're willing to answer yes to a God outside of nature, then there's nothing inconsistent with God on rare occasions choosing to invade the natural world in a way that appears miraculous. If God made the natural laws, why could he not violate them when it was a particularly significant moment for him to do so? And if you accept the idea that Christ was also divine, which I do, then his Resurrection is not in itself a great logical leap.'

Dawkins responded:

'If ever there was a slamming of the door in the face of constructive investigation, it is the word miracle. To a medieval peasant, a radio would have seemed like a miracle. All kinds of things may happen which we by the lights of today's science would classify as a miracle just as medieval science might a Boeing 747. Francis keeps saying things like "From the perspective of a believer." Once you buy into the position of faith, then suddenly you find yourself losing all of your natural skepticism and your scientificؙ — really scientific — credibility. I'm sorry to be so blunt.'

If, as Dr Dawkins insists, God is a delusion, then we should look at the history of ideas about gods in general. This is something that cannot be covered in the time limit of a debate of this kind on TV. A few examples will have to suffice for the present.

In ancient Egypt, around 4,000 years ago, Re was the sun-god who creates himself just as the sun is born in the morning, travels across the sky, apparently dies in the evening, only to be reborn the following day. The gods Osiris and Isis became a foundation for beliefs about death, the after-life, and resurrection. Isis was also the god of fertility. Anubis, the jackal-headed god, weighed the heart of a deceased person. If it was lighter than a feather, that indicated that the person had lived a good life and was therefore admitted to the presence of Osiris. This would seem to be an early example of religious belief as a foundation of morality.

The main gods of ancient northern Europe were Odin, the all-seeing Father-god, also known as Wotan; Thor, the warrior-god; and Freyr, the god of fertility. Their names are echoed in the names of days we still use: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We have hung on to some of those ancient gods!

The huge collection of beliefs we know as Hinduism offers a trinity of gods: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. Krishna, who was probably a historical figure more than 2,000 years ago, is revered as an incarnation of Vishnu. A philosophical proposition is that creation and existence are caused by two principles: purusha, the passive male factor and prakriti the active female factor, sometimes given the status of gods. There are many other gods, the two most popular being Ganesha, portrayed as a child-elephant, who guides and leads through difficult circumstances; and Hanuman, in the form of a monkey, noted for his persistence and perseverance. Quite different to those gods, a widely found sculpture is a symbolic representation of the lingam (penis) and yoni (vulva). Perhaps we can say that in this plethora of ideas, beliefs and symbols there is an underlying philosophy that 'godness' is present in every aspect of the world around us.

Though some might say that God is a delusion, it is obvious from the existence and continuance that people needed and still need a god, or gods. It is reasonable to surmise that this arose because there were questions to be answered, intrinsically related to where they lived and to the natural phenomena they saw and heard.

Some of these questions could have been about: The sun, its movement across the sky, and its disappearance at night. The changing shape of the Moon. The origin and purpose of thunder and lightning. Fire. Floods. The seasons. Seedtime and harvest. The life cycle of procreation, pregnancy, birth, puberty, ageing and death. Pain and pleasure. Animals and their behaviour.

In the absence of scientific explanations as we know them, it is a short and contextually logical step from 'What makes this happen?' to 'Who makes this happen?' The 'who' inevitably had to be supernatural because she, he or it could not be seen or heard directly. In its evolutionary origin this is an assumption rather than a delusion. The English word 'god' and its equivalents in other European languages comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning 'to invoke', 'to call upon'. 'Deity' and related words come from an Indo-European root meaning 'to shine' and terms to do with sky and heaven and thence to gods of the sky.

Monotheism, belief in a single God, is essential to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The ancient Hebrews had a god whom they named YHWH, initialised in this way because they were not allowed to speak his name. Vowels were later added from the word Adonai, Lord, to produce Yahweh, from which the name Jehovah was coined. Scholars suggest that he was not at first the only god of the Hebrews. The idea of a single God, superior to the other gods who were worshipped at the time, gradually emerged as different tribes came together. It was formulated in the Ten Commandments, which were received in an atmosphere of thunder and lightning, according to the book of Exodus in the Hebrew scriptures.

This development of this concept of God probably started around 3,000 years ago. Christians retained the same God as the creator, protector and guide, with Jesus as his son sent to this world to save them from sin and its consequences. In the centuries following the crucifixion of Jesus, the concept was enlarged to create a God who is a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The theology might be complex and, for some, the whole idea is a delusion, but for many believers God is anthropomorphic (meaning he has human attributes) and relationship with him is regarded as personal. What is perceived as evidence in their personal experience reinforces and confirms their faith. There is little or no point in debating this belief with those who say it is all a delusion with no scientific basis. The TV debates and discussions have become futile — atheistic proponents cannot prove scientifically that God does not exist, just as believers cannot prove scientifically that there is a God. Both sides are limited to presenting their own versions of evidence for their cases in the argument which amounts to science versus faith.

A third viewpoint is needed. Perhaps two more viewpoints expressed by experts in other disciplines: a psychologist who has insight into human needs, and an anthropologist who has explored the growth of the idea of a personal God. They might help to provide a balance between the otherwise irreconcilable ideas and opinions.


Omar Shahid is politics editor at Live Magazine, a freelance journalist and a student at City University London. His comments here are worth reading:



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