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The God Delusion? Part 1

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Recently there have been a spate of books about God from scientists responding to the debate over intelligent design that flared up last year. These books raise a chorus of skepticism that God exists, most in no uncertain terms. Science stands for rational thought, faith for superstition and unreason. The latest bestseller in this vein is Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," and since I had the chance to debate Dawkins on Channel 4 in England, I wanted to pick up the subject here.

Dawkins has written extensively on evolution, holds a chair at Oxford University, and speaks out loudly against any possibility that God is real. He makes many points to support his claim that religion is nonsense and that there isn't the slightest shred of rational proof for God, miracles, the soul, etc. Since this is such an important issue, I want to argue against him point by point in some detail.

1. Science is the only valid way to gain knowledge. Nothing about God is needed to explain the world. Eventually science will uncover all mysteries. Those that it can't explain don't exist.

This is the bedrock of Dawkins' argument, as it is of most skeptics and scientific atheists. In his new book Dawkins expresses his position with deep disdain for those who disagree, and his poisonous tone weakens his argument. Yet there's no doubt that with current advances in genetics and brain research, scientists have more confidence than ever that mysteries are being unraveled as never before. By the same token, something as primitive as faith in God looks more and more pointless and misguided. At best God is a matter of personal belief, at worst a superstition that blocks progress (in the way the Bush Administration uses theology to block stem-cell research).

The unfairness of this argument is that it squeezes God into a corner. Dawkins makes it an us-versus-them issue. Either you are for science (that is, reason, progress, modernism, optimism about the future) or you are for religion (that is, unreason, reactionary resistance to progress, clinging to mysteries that only God can solve). He goes so far as to tar anyone who believes in God with the same brush as extreme religious fanatics. Sadly, the media often follow his lead, erasing the truth, which is that many scientists are religious and many of the greatest scientists (including Newton and Einstein) probed deep into the existence of God. Not to mention the obvious fact that you don't have to go to church, or even belong to a religion, to find God plausible.

But let's leave Dawkins' heated and unfair rhetoric aside. Is science the only route to knowledge? Obviously not. I know that my mother loved me all her life, as I love my own children. I feel genius in great works of art. None of this knowledge is validated by science. I have seen medical cures that science can't explain, some seemingly triggered by faith. The same is true of millions of other people. I know that I am conscious and have a self, even though Dawkins--along with many arch materialists--doesn't believe that consciousness is real or that the self is anything but a chemical illusion created in the brain. By Dawkins' reasoning a mother's love is no more real than God as neither can be empirically quantified.

A materialist could conceivably analyze the brain functions of a Mozart or Beethoven down to the last synaptic firing, but that would tell us nothing about why music exists, why it is beautiful, where great symphonies come from, why inspiration uplifts the listener, or in fact any relevant thing about the meaning of music. The world in general has meaning, deep meaning at times. This cannot be dismissed as a delusion, an artifact of chemicals. Beauty and meaning can be known independent of a biochemical analysis.

The same analogy comes to mind whenever one hears that brain research will eventually explain all human thought and behavior. If a scientist could map every molecule in a radio as it was playing the Beethoven Fifth, there would be a complete diagram of the symphony at the level of matter. But the radio isn't Beethoven. It isn't his mind, and a diagram of Beethoven's brain, which would also be at the level of matter, is equally futile to explain what his mind was like except in the crudest terms.

For thousands of years human beings have been obsessed by beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. They all go together as subjective experiences, and it's a straw man to set God up as the delusion. If he is, then so is truth itself or beauty itself. God stands for the perfection of both, and even if you think truth and beauty (along with love, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and other divine qualities) can never be perfect, to say that they are fantasies makes no sense.

Science knows about objective reality, the mask of matter that our five senses detects. But the mind goes beyond the five senses, and it does Dawkins no good to lump the two worlds of inner and outer together. In fact, insofar as brain research can locate centers of activity that light up whenever a person feels love or pleasure or sexual arousal, these subjective states leave objective traces behind. That makes them more real, not less. In the same way, the brain lights up when a person feels inspired or close to God; therefore, we may be getting closer to the connection between inner and outer states, not further away.

This is only the outline of an argument against science as the only valid route to knowledge. Before going on to Dawkins' other points, let's see what responders have to say.

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