Dawkins, Deism and Jesus

Arch-atheist Richard Dawkins is an evolutionist. But many are now asking whether the dyed-in-the-wool critic of religion may be, well, evolving in his views about God. You see, in a recent debate with theist and Christian John Lennox, he let slip what many would regard as a major blooper: he actually admitted that there might be a case for theism of sorts.

Here is the background to the story. In October of 2007 Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins debated his Oxford colleague Dr. John Lennox in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a lively affair, with Lennox arguing for theism in general and Christianity in particular. Lennox is a worthy opponent, since he is a philosopher of science and a mathematician. So he can match Dawkins on the scientific issues.

That debate, which is well-worthwhile watching, can be seen here: www.dawkinslennoxdebate.com/  And everyone should really get hold of the brilliant book by Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Lion, 2007). It is a devastating critique of Dawkins in particular and naturalistic evolutionary thinking in general.

A second debate between the pair was held at Oxford’s Natural History Museum last week (21 October). In this debate Dawkins spent much of his time attacking the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus, while Lennox of course defended it. But early on in the piece Dawkins made this amazing remark: “A serious case could be made for a deistic God”.

Now the debate does not yet seem to be on the Net, so I have only second-hand accounts to go by here. But if these reports are correct, then this is a very startling admission indeed. One person who attended the debate was British commentator Melanie Phillips. I will deal with her remarks and observations in a moment.

But first let me say a few words about deism. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what deism actually is. Indeed, I get many atheists on my website talking about deism but they clearly do not understand the concept very well.

For example, in 2005 Professor Antony Flew – perhaps the most well-known and important atheist in the world for many decades – announced that he was no longer an atheist. He said the evidence forced him to abandon atheism, and that he was now a deist. He even wrote a book about it all in 2007 called, There is a God (HarperOne).

This was a worldview change of seismic proportions. It was a most remarkable turnaround. For someone who had spent over five decades championing the atheist cause to all of a sudden renounce it was an incredible achievement.

Of course fellow atheists were livid, and denounced him in most scathing terms – or, sought to ignore the whole affair altogether. He was seen as a traitor, a turncoat and an apostate by other atheists. So much for the tolerance and open-mindedness of unbelief.

And whenever I would mention Flew and his conversion to theism, I would have angry atheists write in accusing me of lies and deception. ‘He is not a Christian’ they would exclaim. ‘He is not even a theist – he is just a deist.’ Of course I never said he was a Christian. Flew has never claimed to be a Christian either. However it is quite interesting to note that at the end of his book there is a chapter on the resurrection of Jesus Christ by NT Wright. Flew said this about the case for Christianity presented by Wright: “It is absolutely wonderful, absolutely radical, and very powerful.”

Thus Flew is not a biblical Christian, but he seems pretty open to it. So what about Flew’s deism? My atheist buddies keep trying to say that Flew is not a theist, but a deist. For some reason they cannot seem to grasp the fact that deism is simply a subset of theism. Very simply stated, deists believe that there is a God who has created the world, but he now acts as an absentee landlord.

That is, deists believe in a creator God, but nothing further. They do not think God continues in any way to be involved with this world, or interact with creation, or answer prayer, and so on. He created the universe much as a watchmaker winds up a watch, but then the world, like the watch, is left to unwind on its own.

Thus deism is clearly a far cry from revealed religion (eg. Judaism and Christianity), and is largely the playground of rationalist philosophers, not biblical believers. Deism denies God’s immanence (his personal involvement in this world) and of course denies basic Judeo-Christian beliefs, such as miracles, divine revelation, and a personal relationship with God. It posits a transcendent, but impersonal God, and is very much the God of the philosophers, not the God of revelational religion.

But deism still asserts belief in a creator God, no matter how far such a notion of the divine differs from the Judeo-Christian understanding. So this brings us back to Dawkins and his claim: “A serious case could be made for a deistic God”. For an anti-supernaturalist, materialist and atheist like Dawkins to even open the door ever so slightly to allow the possibility of a deistic God is a huge ideological jump indeed.

It seems however that he backtracked on his comments almost immediately afterwards. As I mentioned, Melanie Phillips was at the debate, and she had a chance to ask him a few questions afterward. I let her pick up the story: “Afterwards, I asked Dawkins whether he had indeed changed his position and become more open to ideas which lay outside the scientific paradigm.  He vehemently denied this and expressed horror that he might have given this impression. But he also said other things which suggested to me that some of his own views simply don’t meet the criteria of empirical evidence that he insists must govern all our thinking.”

“For example, I put to him that, since he is prepared to believe that the origin of all matter was an entirely spontaneous event, he therefore believes that something can be created out of nothing — and that since such a belief runs counter to the very scientific principles of verifiable evidence which he tells us should govern all our thinking, this is itself precisely the kind of irrationality, or ‘magic’, which he scorns. In reply he said that, although he agreed this was a problematic position, he did indeed believe that the first particle arose spontaneously from nothing, because the alternative explanation – God – was more incredible. Later, he amplified this by saying that physics was coming up with theories to show how matter could spontaneously be created from nothing. But as far as I can see – and as Anthony Flew elaborates – these theories cannot answer the crucial question of how the purpose-carrying codes which gave rise to self–reproduction in life-forms arose out of matter from which any sense of purpose was totally absent. So such a belief, whether adduced by physicists or anyone else, does not rest upon rational foundations.”

“Even more jaw-droppingly, Dawkins told me that, rather than believing in God, he was more receptive to the theory that life on earth had indeed been created by a governing intelligence – but one which had resided on another planet. Leave aside the question of where that extra-terrestrial intelligence had itself come from, is it not remarkable that the arch-apostle of reason finds the concept of God more unlikely as an explanation of the universe than the existence and plenipotentiary power of extra-terrestrial little green men?”

“The other thing that jumped out at me from this debate was that, although Dawkins insisted over and over again that all he was concerned with was whether or not something was true, he himself seems to be pretty careless with historical evidence. Anthony Flew, for example, points out in his own book that Dawkins’s claim in The God Delusion that Einstein was an atheist is manifestly false, since Einstein had specifically denied that he was either a pantheist or an atheist. In the debate, under pressure from Lennox Dawkins was actually forced to retract his previous claim that Jesus had probably ‘never existed’.”

So what is one to make of all this? Well, as much as ol’ Richard may not like me saying so, miracles evidently still happen. If uber-atheist Antony Flew can abandon his atheism, and even consider the case for Christianity, then maybe there is a God after all! And if Richard can even contemplate the fact that his materialistic straightjacket is just a bit too tight, and allow for something other than his doctrinaire atheism, then there may be hope yet for all of us.

Suffice it to say, I have been praying, and will continue to pray, for Flew, Dawkins, Harris and others like them. I pray that Flew keeps going in his spiritual quest, and finally discovers the liberating experience of undertaking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

I pray that Dawkins and the other belligerent atheists also see the light. Of course even if Dawkins concedes only a little ground to deism, then he will not believe there is a God who will be interested in my prayers. But my God is not the abstract rationalistic construct of the philosophers, but is the living God of the universe who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and who invites every single one of us to abandon the dead-end roads we are on, and come into newness of life with Him because of what Jesus Christ accomplished on our behalf at Calvary.


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