Friday, November 5, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism – Part 3 – We’ve grown out of the need for faith in God

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to return to the theme of faith, specifically faith in God.

Professor Richard Dawkins (author of “The God Delusion, a vocal atheist whom the BBC seems to like) argues that early humans needed faith in a deity to fill in the gaps of their knowledge of the universe; what they could not explain, they attributed to a supernatural deity. He goes on to argue that now our scientific knowledge is complete, particularly with respect to the origins of the universe, we no longer need the hypothesis of God. Everything we need to know about ourselves, he has stated on air, can be explained by our knowledge of evolution. God, Dawkins says, was needed to fill the gaps, but now that the gaps have been filled, we no longer need him.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a Professor of evolutionary biology at Oxford University should interpret the whole faith/God thing from the perspective of our knowledge of our origins. However, he profoundly misunderstands faith – what it is and what it does.

One reason I wanted to return to this topic was that on Monday my family and I attended the homecoming dinner of Michael Young, who became the youngest person to cycle around Australia. He, and his support driver Glenn Walker, are friends of ours from Church. Michael’s ride raised about $28,000 for the Cancer Council of Queensland.

Michael’s venture, to me, is a superb example of faith. Michael Young’s faith was not “needed” to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of what lay ahead. Michael had planned the route very carefully, but he still did not know what to expect when he set out. There remained plenty of unknowns and risks, not the least of which was the risk that Michael could become another tragic road traffic statistic (which, thankfully, did not eventuate). I recall seeing Michael set out from one of the parks in Brisbane and it was clear that there was so much he and Glenn did not know. They did not even know if they would finish.

But, and this is my point, Michael’s faith was the thing that drove him to action. It was a faith that fully acknowledged what he did not know, but it propelled him to launch into the venture anyway. Without his faith, he could not have cycled into the unknown.

The intrinstic aspect of Michael’s faith is that it produced action. I don’t think Michael theologized too much about it; judging from my conversations with him, he seemed content to believe that he would do this thing and some good would come of it. However, I find it remarkable that Michael’s faith did not simply result in him adopting a particular intellectual position; it resulting in him doing something. Contrary to Richard Dawkin’s assertion, faith isn’t about simply changing intellectual property; it’s what gives us our reasons to do the things that we do.

That’s precisely what the New Testament author is writing about in James 2:26 “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” Another passage on faith is in Hebrews 11, which lists out the heroes of faith and identifies them by what they did. John writes that the dead would be judged according to what they had done (Revelation 20:12,13).

It’s not that our deeds justify us before God (that’s a whole topic in itself), rather that our deeds tell us about the kind of faith that we have. And where there are no righteous deeds, there can be no faith in God. The kinds of deeds we carry out tell us about the kind of God we worship

I’m qualifying this faith-deeds relationship because everybody, including atheists, is moved by faith. Hitler had so much faith in his Third Reich that he was willing to send his armies into Western Europe and Russia and murder 7 million Jews for it. Dawkins has so much faith in his atheism that he is willing to publish books to promote it. Michael Young had so much faith that he was willing to cycle into the unknown for it. There’s no differentiation. This isn’t about who has faith and who doesn’t; it’s about what or whom we put our faith in.

Jesus had so much faith in his God, that he was willing to be crucified for it.

Faith is part of what it means to be human. Everybody has it, and every person’s actions are directed by it. The question is not whether we “need” it, or whether we’ve outgrown it. The question is what we have put our faith in.

Faith came up in another context this week. I watched the TV show on the rescue of the Chilean miners. In reflecting on what brought the miners through their ordeal, the narrator commented that if the psychologists summed it up in one word, it would be faith. The program then cut to a psychologist who expanded with words to the effect that it was “…faith in their fellow miners, faith in their families that they were doing all they could to rescue them, faith in themselves and their religion.”

I was disappointed to hear the psychologist’s voice trail off as he got to the bottom of the list and the “religion” word. It’s as if he was afraid his fellow practitioners would chastise him if he acknowledged this aspect of the miner’s perspective. Other footage showed the community bringing in the statue of Mary and relieved and grateful miners and families genuflecting, praying and crossing themselves. I’m not going to speculate on what this overtly Catholic faith meant to the miners and their community, but it was obvious that they were looking to God to save them. As far as they were concerned, He did.

The miners had appealed to one who was outside their imprisonment to save them. They acknowledged that they could not save themselves, not even by trying harder at being better miners. This is a fantastic example of the faith that the Christian Gospel seeks to promote. It reaches beyond ourselves into the unknown, with the hope that the God of the unknown will welcome us because of His own great love and mercy. (He can and He does because of the cross of Christ, but that's another story.)

We have not outgrown the need for faith. Our faith, which is part of what makes us human, continues to be worked out in our deeds, great and small. Without faith in a great and loving God, this faith becomes small, mean and self-centered, and so do our works.

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