Folklore is not faith
Sneering remarks claiming that religion is nonsense are heard nowadays with increasing frequency. For example, the evolutionary biologist and proselytising atheist Richard Dawkins said: “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence” in a lecture at Edinburgh Science Festival. And again in a BBC2 TV Newsnight interview in 2009, he said: “God has the same status as fairies.”
Many people are taken aback by the unexpected vehemence of such remarks, and shocked into doubting religious beliefs they heretofore held with easy minds. Is evidence for God really any stronger than the evidence for fairies they wonder? – after all, Dawkins is undoubtedly a very clever fellow.
Well, the surprising thing is that, for a very clever fellow and a brilliant science communicator, Dawkins makes many exceedingly flimsy assertions about religion.
As regards religion, I will speak only of Christianity. In my opinion, the belief of the average Christian in God is not unreasonable and is significantly evidence-based – although the type of evidence is somewhat different from that used in the natural sciences.
For a Christian, belief in God is tied to one’s reaction to Jesus Christ. Jesus claimed to be in constant communication with God whom he addressed familiarly as Father. Belief in the Christian God is reasonable for the average Christian when he/she can answer ‘Yes’ to the following questions. Do you believe Jesus was sane? Do the teachings of Jesus stake a claim on your heart and on your mind? Does the application of these principles in your life bring the benefits that Jesus claimed?
If you answer ‘Yes’ to the questions listed above, then it is as reasonable for you to take the word of Jesus about God as it is for you to take the word of any tried and tested friend about a matter of which you have no personal experience.
But, of course, if you answer ‘No’ to any of these questions it would not be reasonable for you to take the word of Jesus about God. To return to Dawkins’ definition of faith, I hope it is clear that what he is describing is not faith but credulity.
Obviously also, belief in a God will be encouraged or inhibited by the quality of the teachings/principles advocated by God. So, how does the God of whom Jesus spoke ask believers to behave?
God asks Christians to love God the Creator, to love their neighbours, to forgive their enemies, to help the poor and the downtrodden, to eschew violence, to be honest and truthful, to work diligently, to live frugally, to avoid being seduced by money, to live in the present, to control natural appetites, to avoid sexual promiscuity, and so on. These Christian principles (with the exception of the first for the non-religious) are hallmarks of civilised behaviour for religious and non-religious people alike and are endorsed by rational secular analysis as the building blocks of a good life.
Anyone who wishes to pursue the rational case for God more comprehensively can consider several other specific arguments that are made in this regard. For example, scientific consideration of the world raises a number of interesting questions, and one not unreasonable answer to these questions, going beyond science, is God.
I emphasise going beyond science because science itself cannot make conclusions about the supernatural realm. I must admit that arguments made arising out of these scientific considerations are not individually blindingly persuasive – they are little more than ‘straws in the wind’, but they are not unreasonable arguments and they add up collectively to a substantial amount of straw blowing in the direction of God.
One argument derives from the Anthropic Principle that draws our attention to the fact that a scientific understanding of the world shows that many of its properties are precisely the properties necessary for life to arise and to thrive in the universe. If these properties were ever so slightly different, life would not be possible. Why is this? One possible and not unreasonable answer is that the basic fabric of the universe was designed so as to allow life to arise and to evolve.
For example, the physical universe operates in accordance with physical laws (e.g. the law of gravity) and force constants (e.g. the strength of gravity). Apparently, the values of the force constants fell out randomly when the world began and they could have assumed different values.
However, if the values of about 11 of the fundamental force constants differed even slightly from their current values, life would either never have arisen on earth are else would never have evolved into anything interesting.
For example if the force of gravity was slightly stronger than it is, the stars would burn much more intensely, radiating heat too briefly to support life on a neighbouring planet for long enough to evolve.
If the force of gravity was slightly weaker than it is, the stars would burn too weakly to support life on a neighbouring planet.
So, these are some of the reasons why belief in God can, at least in substantial part, have a rational basis. Now let us turn to the fairies which Dawkins claims to have the same status as God. Fairies are mythical beings in folklore, said to have magical powers and to be malicious creatures.
Their origins may lie in religious beliefs that lost currency with the advent of Christianity. Much fairy folklore is concerned with how to protect oneself against fairies. The fairies are said to occasionally kidnap babies, leaving a fairy child (changeling) in place of the stolen child. The fairy way of life is described as revolving around feasting and making merry.
I know of nobody who believes in fairies or who advocates belief in them and I know of no reason why anyone would seriously consider believing in fairies. What is the fairy philosophy of life that one might wish to emulate – eat, drink and be merry and behave maliciously? How could the notion of fairies compete with Christian philosophy or with any of the mainline religions? The whole idea of fairies is clearly just a mishmash of folklore and superstition and Dawkins’ assertion that belief in fairies is as reasonable as belief in God is ridiculous.
Richard Dawkins would like to get rid of religion in order to usher in a new world ruled only by cool scientific rationality. However, if you got rid of mainstream religion tomorrow, I don’t believe that Dawkins’ vision would be realised. I believe that mainstream religions would be substituted on a widespread basis by much less rational forms of religion, e.g. various New Age varieties.
There is a widespread tendency in that direction – witness the popularity of zombie and vampire films.
The most popular genre in books, video games and TV series at the moment with young people is the zombie genre. Dawkins should ponder G.K. Chesterton’s reputed remark: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.”
Dawkins equates God with fairies in order to make God look ridiculous. Ironically, if he removed God from people’s minds, he would probably only succeed in making room for fairies.
William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC http://understandingscience.ucc.ie