Religion impoverishes our view of the universe.
One of Dawkins' persistent complaints about religion is that it is aesthetically deficient. Its view of the universe is limited, impoverished and unworthy of the wonderful reality known by the sciences.
The universe is genuinely mysterious, grand, beautiful, awe-inspiring. The kinds of views of the universe which religious people have traditionally embraced have been puny, pathetic, and measly in comparison to the way the universe actually is. The universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited.
The logic of this bold assertion is rather hard to follow, and its factual basis astonishingly slight. The `medieval' view of the universe may indeed have been more limited and restricted than modern conceptions. Yet this has nothing to do with religion, either as cause or effect. It reflected the science of the day, largely based upon Aristotle's treatise de caelo (`on heaven'
. If the universe of religious people in the Middle Ages was indeed `poky', it was because they were na?ve enough to assume that what their science textbooks told them was right. Precisely that trust in science and scientists which Dawkins commends so uncritically led them to weave their theology around someone else's view of the universe. They didn't know about such things as `radical theory change in science', which causes twenty-first people to be cautious about investing too heavily in the latest scientific theories, and much more critical of those who base worldviews upon them.
The implication of Dawkins' unsubstantiated criticism is that a religious view of reality is deficient and impoverished in comparison with his own. There is no doubt that this consideration is an important factor in generating and maintaining his atheism. Yet his analysis of this issue is disappointingly thin and unpersuasive.
A Christian approach to nature identifies three ways in which a sense of awe comes about in response to what we observe.
1. An immediate sense of wonder at the beauty of nature. This is evoked immediately. This `leap of the heart' that William Wordsworth described on seeing a rainbow in the sky occurs before any conscious theoretical reflection on what it might imply. To use psychological categories, this is about perception, rather than cognition. I can see no good reason for suggesting that believing in God diminishes this sense of wonder. Dawkins' argument at this point is so underdetermined by evidence and so utterly implausible that I fear I must have misunderstood it.
2. A derived sense of wonder at the mathematical or theoretical representation of reality which arises from this. Dawkins also knows and approves of this second source of `awed wonder', but seems to imply that religious people `revel in mystery and feel cheated when it is explained'. They don't; a new sense of wonder emerges, which I will explain in a moment.
3. A further derived sense of wonder at what the natural world points to. One of the central themes of Christian theology is that the creation bears witness to its creator, `The heavens declare the glory of the Lord!' (Psalm 19:1). For Christians, to experience the beauty of creation is a sign or pointer to the glory of God, and is to be particularly cherished for this reason. Dawkins excludes any such transcendent reference from within the natural world.
Dawkins suggests that a religious approach to the world misses out on something. Having read Unweaving the Rainbow, I still haven't worked out what this is. A Christian reading of the world denies nothing of what the natural sciences tell us, except the naturalist dogma that reality is limited to what may be known through the natural sciences. If anything, a Christian engagement with the natural world adds a richness which I find quite absent from Dawkins' account of things, offering a new motivation for the study of nature. After all, John Calvin (1509-64) commented on how much he envied those who studied physiology and astronomy, which allowed a direct engagement with the wonders of God's creation. The invisible and intangible God, he pointed out, could be appreciated through studying the wonders of nature.
Dawkins' most reflective account of `mystery' is found in Unweaving the Rainbow, which explores the place of wonder in an understanding of the sciences. While maintaining Dawkins' core hostility to religion, the work acknowledges the importance of a sense of awe and wonder in driving people to want to understand reality. Dawkins singles out the poet William Blake as an obscurant mystic, who illustrates why religious approaches to mystery are pointless and sterile. Dawkins locates Blake's many failings in an understandable - but misdirected - longing to delight in a mystery:
The impulses to awe, reverence and wonder which led Blake to mysticism . . . are precisely those that lead others of us to science. Our interpretation is different but what excites us is the same. The mystic is content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery that we were not `meant' to understand. The scientist feels the same wonder, but is restless, not content; recognizes the mystery as profound, then adds, `But we're working on it.'
So there isn't actually a problem with the word or the category of `mystery'. The question is whether we choose to wrestle with it, or take the lazy and complacent view that this is conveniently off-limits.
Traditionally, Christian theology has been well aware of its limits, and has sought to avoid excessively confident affirmations in the face of mystery. Yet at the same time, Christian theology has never seen itself as totally reduced to silence in the face of divine mysteries. Nor has it prohibited intellectual wrestling with `mysteries' as destructive or detrimental to faith. As the nineteenth-century Anglican theologian Charles Gore rightly insisted:
Human language never can express adequately divine realities. A constant tendency to apologize for human speech, a great element of agnosticism, an awful sense of unfathomed depths beyond the little that is made known, is always present to the mind of theologians who know what they are about, in conceiving or expressing God. `We see', says St Paul, `in a mirror, in terms of a riddle;' `we know in part.' `We are compelled,' complains St Hilary, `to attempt what is unattainable, to climb where we cannot reach, to speak what we cannot utter; instead of the mere adoration of faith, we are compelled to entrust the deep things of religion to the perils of human expression'.
A perfectly good definition of Christian theology is `taking rational trouble over a mystery' - recognising that there may be limits to what can be achieved, but believing that this intellectual grappling is both worthwhile and necessary. It just means being confronted with something so great that we cannot fully comprehend it, and so must do the best that we can with the analytical and descriptive tools at our disposal. Come to think of it, that's what the natural sciences aim to do as well. Perhaps it's no wonder that there is such a growing interest in the dialogue between science and religion.