Darwin’s Faith: The Religion of the New Atheism

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The New Atheists are know for scoffing at people of faith. Richard Dawkins famously urged his followers to mock people of faith. The Dawkins of the world champion themselves as bastions of logic who dispel the blind faith of the masses.

Dawkins is sweeping in his statements, defining faith as a master of logic, taking no prisoners. But his definition of faith faulty and is loaded with assumptions, ignoring the evidence – even the evidence right in front of him. This the conclusion I reach as I consider his first debate with John Lennox.

I find that Dawkins is guilty of the very same charge he levels against Christians and other people of faith. Let me explain.

First, Dawkins’ definition of faith is a straw man. His definition may fit the militant extremist who doesn’t care a whit about facts, but it doesn’t fit people of intelligence and thought.

Dawkins defines faith as “belief without evidence” or belief “in the teeth of the evidence” (holding stubbornly on to faith in spite of evidence to the contrary). Dawkins limits faith to what we might call blind faith, allowing for nothing else, and ignoring that faith is more robust that is built on facts and evidence.

Dawkins’ definition of faith is a straw man because there is nothing about faith, at least robust, Christian faith, that excludes evidence or reason. We see examples all over the Judeo-Christian scriptures urging people to rely on evidence and reason. (For instance, the exhortation of the Prophet, Isaiah: “Come let us reason together.” Isaiah 1:18)

John Lennox, the Oxford mathematician, counters Dawkins with the assertion that his faith is evidence-based. Lennox put forth a different definition of faith: putting trust in conclusions that are reached based on evidence. I note that Dawkins does this exact same thing: he puts trust in the conclusions that he has reached that this natural world is all there is, that no super natural reality exists and no God exists. But we will use Dawkins definition for now.

Stephen Meyer wrote a book called Darwin’s Doubt. The book  is a play on the idea of Darwin’s doubt about being able to trust his own “inward convictions”. According to Darwin, his “inward conviction” suggested to him “that the Universe is not the result of chance” and has purpose.[i] This is not the doubt to which Stephen Meyer refers, however.

Meyer turns Darwin’s doubt about his intuition on its head.

The book, Darwin’s Doubt, is explores modern knowledge of the Cambrian Explosion, which Darwin conceded was a potential problem for his theory of evolution. The Cambrian Explosion refers to the period of time in which most of the major phyla appeared in the fossil record “suddenly”, over a relatively short time span. That’s why it’s called an “explosion”.

The theory of evolution depends on gradual mutations and changes caused by natural selection over a very long period of time. The Cambrian Explosion poses an obvious problem for evolution because most of the major phyla appeared in the fossil record “suddenly” during the Cambrian Period without evident precursors leading up to them.

Where is the evolution? This was Darwin’s concern, but he expressed confidence that subsequent discoveries would reveal the evolutionary forms that led to the myriad life-forms found in that Cambrian time period.

Stephen Meyer begins his book by updating the fossil finds since Darwin’s time. Far from revealing the evolutionary precursors predating the Cambrian Period, the fossil finds from Darwin’s time up to the present time have accentuated the problem. The modern discoveries do not bridge the gap that Darwin predicted would be closed by future finds. The book title cleverly suggests that Darwin’s confidence might be characterized, now, as Darwin’s doubt.

Though Darwin had confidence that future discoveries would vindicate his evolutionary theory, Darwin did have doubts. His doubts clouded his mind on metaphysical matters. I will explain how that it, and then I will bring this article back to the present to conclude my thoughts on Richard Dawkins.

Darwin explained in a letter to his colleague, William Graham, that he could not trust his “inward conviction” because “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy”. Then, Darwin adds the rhetorical question: “Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”[ii]

Some people have called this expression of doubt, “Darwin’s blind spot”.[iii] Darwin’s blind spot arises from the fact that, while he doubted his inward convictions, he implicitly trusted his intellectual capacities. He implicitly trusted his capacity to observe, analyze and reason to the conclusion that life evolved slowly over a very long period of time by “natural selection” operating on random mutations.

Darwin came to trust his intellect so much that he let go completely of his inward convictions that he recognized earlier in his life (to which he alluded in his letter). He placed his trust increasingly in the theory of evolution, which was the product of his own observation and his capacity to analyze and reason.

To put it more bluntly, Darwin’s blind spot was a willingness to trust his ability to reason in spite of the fact that his intellect derived from lower life-forms. He didn’t trust his convictions, but he trusted his reasoning ability. His blind spot tis that he didn’t aske himself: “Would any one trust in the logic of a monkey’s mind, if there are any logic in such a mind?”

Perhaps we should not be talking about Darwin’s doubt. We should be talking about Darwin’s faith, because he put his faith implicitly, even blindly, in his own logic and ability to reason. This, of course, brings us back to Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins also puts his faith implicitly in his ability to reason. He may have doubt about God, doubt about religious faith, doubt about anything metaphysical at all, but Dawkins and the New Atheists (like Darwin) have implicit faith in the human capacity to reason. (More specifically, they have faith in their own capacities to reason.)

Since Dawkins defines faith for us and presumably intends for us to apply that definition of faith, we should apply that definition of faith to the theory of evolution. Darwin’s blind spot is Dawkins’s blind spot.

Dawkins is woefully wrong, of course, that all faith is blind. Very few people believe in God or anything else without any evidence, but his definition of faith as belief in the teeth of the evidence has some application here to the theory of evolution.

The problem that Darwin acknowledged, the sudden appearance of life forms in the Cambrian Period, has not been solved by future discoveries, which was his confident assertion. The problem has only become accentuated over time.

Today, there is still no fossil record of any explanatory scope to suggest that the Cambrian Explosion is a product of the evolutionary process. Yet, Neo-Darwinists continue to trust that Evolution happened in that period of time. The propose evolution at the atomic (unseen) level (for which we have no real evidence). This might be characterized as “faith in the teeth of the evidence”.

I am not saying we have no evidence of evolution, though we need to be more exact in our definition of evolution. There seems to be little doubt about micro-evolution. We have some evidence of macro-evolution not of the kind of explanatory scope that explains the origin of life. We must take that on faith, at this point, and there are some gaping holes in the evidence – the Cambrian Explosion being one of them.

Dawkins and others call evolution fact, scoffing at any other notion, yet the ability for evolution to explain origins is increasingly being questioned in the scientific literature. That doesn’t mean that most scientists are gravitating toward supernatural explanations, but evolution currently cutting it with the kind of explanatory scope necessary to the origin explain life.

This, too, reveals a kind of faith. There is a faith in the consensus of the scientific community that explanations exist that do no involve God creating the world. People like Dawkins trust that this is true, so much so that they scoff at any other notion. If this isn’t faith – believing in a proposition without ultimate proof for that proposition, I am not sure what is.

No one would say that Dawkins has faith in evolution without any evidence. Darwin had evidence, as do the Neo-Darwinists, and they put their faith in that evidence even where that evidence fails in its explanatory scope.

The same must be said of men of faith, like John Lennox. Their faith is informed by evidence, just like Dawkins and Darwin before him. The fact that they come to different conclusions based on virtually the same evidence does not mean that one group has faith and the other doesn’t. They both trust (have faith in) their conclusions.

Though Dawkins and others like him would not call their confidence faith, it’s a matter of semantics. They do have faith (trust) in their ultimate conclusions. They trust (have faith) in their own ability to reason. They trust (have faith) in the human intellect – even though the human intellect descends from a monkey’s mind (to give the evolutionary paradigm its full due).

More to the point, perhaps, people like Dawkins have put their faith in themselves and their own ability to think, rather than put their faith in God. This is the faith and the religion of the New Atheism.



[i] Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 13230,” accessed on 10 September 2017, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-13230

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See for instance, Darwin’s Blind Spot, by Gerard M. Verschuuren published online at www.strangenotions.com

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