A Deadly Certitude
On God, Christianity and Islam
Steven Weinberg/Times Literary Supplement, January 17, 2007
Of all the scientific discoveries that have disturbed the religious mind, none has had the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. No advance of physics or even cosmology has produced such a shock. In the early days of Christianity, the Church Fathers Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria rejected the knowledge, common since the time of Plato, that the Earth is a sphere. They insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, and from Genesis to Revelation verses could be interpreted to mean that the Earth is flat. But the evidence for a spherical Earth was overwhelming to anyone who had seen a ship’s hull disappear below the horizon while its masts were still visible, and in the end the flat Earth did not seem worth a fight. By the high Middle Ages, the spherical Earth was accepted by educated Christians. Dante, for example, found the core of the spherical Earth a convenient destination for sinners. What was once a serious issue has become a joke. A friend at the University of Kansas has formed a Flat Earth Society to demand – in mockery of the demand by Kansas creationists that schools present “Intelligent Design” as an “alternative” to evolution – that Kansas public schools teach flat-Earth theory as an “alternative” to spherical-Earth theory.
The more radical idea that the Earth moves around the Sun was harder to accept. After all, the Bible puts mankind at the centre of a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation, so how could our Earth not be at the centre of the universe? Until the nineteenth century, Copernican astronomy could not be taught at Salamanca or other Spanish universities, but by Darwin’s time it troubled hardly anyone. Even as early as the time of Galileo, Cardinal Baronius, the Vatican librarian, famously quipped that the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
A different challenge to religion emerged with Newton. His theories of motion and gravitation showed how natural phenomena could be explained without divine intervention, and were opposed on religious grounds at Newton’s own university by John Hutchinson. But opposition to Newtonianism in Europe collapsed before the close of the eighteenth century. Believers could comfort themselves with the thought that miracles were simply occasional exceptions to Newton’s laws, and anyway mathematical physics was unlikely to disturb those who did not understand its explanatory power.
Darwinism was different. It was not just that the theory of evolution, like the theory of a spherical moving Earth, is in conflict with biblical literalism; it was not just that evolution, like the Copernican theory, denied a central status to humans; and it was not just that evolution, like Newton’s theory, provided a non-religious explanation for natural phenomena that had seemed inexplicable without divine intervention. Much worse, among the natural phenomena explained by natural selection were the very features of humanity of which we are most proud. It became plausible that our love for our mates and children, and, according to the work of modern evolutionary biologists, even more abstract moral principles, such as loyalty, charity and honesty, have an origin in evolution, rather than in a divinely created soul.
Given the battering that traditional religion has taken from the theory of evolution, it is fitting that the most energetic, eloquent and uncompromising modern adversaries of religion are biologists who helped us to understand evolution: first Francis Crick, and now Richard Dawkins. In The God Delusion, Dawkins caps a series of his books on biology and religion with a swingeing attack on every aspect of religion – not just traditional religion, but also the vaguer modern assortment of pieties that often appropriates its name. In the unkindest cut of all, Dawkins even argues that the persistence of belief in God is itself an outcome of natural selection – acting perhaps on our genes, as argued by Dean Hamer in The God Gene, but more certainly on our “memes”, the bundles of cultural beliefs and attitudes that in a Darwinian though non-biological way tend to be passed on from generation to generation. It is not that the meme helps the believer or the believer’s genes to survive; it is the meme itself that by its nature tends to survive.
For instance, the persistence of belief in a particular religion is naturally aided if that religion teaches that God punishes disbelief. Such a religion tends to survive if the threatened punishment is sufficiently awful. In contrast, a religion would have trouble keeping converts in line if it taught that infidels are subject after death to only a brief spell of mild discomfort, after which they join the faithful in eternal bliss. So it is natural that in traditional Christianity and Islam, disbelief became the ultimate crime, and Hell the ultimate torture chamber. No wonder the mathematician Paul Erdos always referred to God as the Supreme Fascist. Dawkins’s book focuses on Christianity and Islam, which traditionally emphasize the importance of belief, rather than on religions like Judaism, Hinduism or Shinto, which are tied to specific ethnic groups, and tend to stress observance more than faith.
Dawkins, like Erdos, dislikes God. He calls the God of the Old Testament “the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”. As for the New Testament, he quotes with approval the opinion of Thomas Jefferson, that “The Christian God is a being of a terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust”. This is strong stuff, and Dawkins obviously intends to shock the reader, but his invective has a constructive purpose. By attacking the God of sacred Scripture, he is trying to weaken the authority of that God’s commands – commands whose interpretation has led humanity to a shameful history of inquisitions, crusades and jihads. Dawkins treats the reader to many brutal details, but we only have to look at today’s headlines to supply our own. For some reason, Dawkins does not comment on the God of the Koran, who would seem to provide equal opportunities for invective.
The reviews of The God Delusion in the New York Times and the New Republic took Dawkins to task for his contemptuous rejection of the classic “proofs” of the existence of God. I agree with Dawkins in his rejection of these proofs, but I would have answered them a little differently. The “ontological proof” of St Anselm asks us first to agree that it is possible to conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived. Once that agreement is obtained, the sly philosopher points out that the thing conceived of must exist, since if it did not then something just like it that actually exists would thereby be greater. And what could this greatest actually existing thing be, but God? QED. From the monk Gaunilo in Anselm’s time to philosophers in our own such as J. L. Mackie and Alvin Plantinga, there is general agreement that Anselm’s proof is flawed, though they disagree about what the flaw is. My own view is that the proof is circular: it is not true that one can conceive of something than which nothing greater can be conceived unless one first assumes the existence of God. Anselm’s “proof” has reappeared and been refuted in many different forms, it is a little like an infectious disease that can be defeated by an antibiotic, but which then evolves so that it needs to be defeated all over again.
The “cosmological proof” is no better logically, but it does have a certain appeal to the physicist. In essence, it argues that everything has a cause, and since this chain of causality cannot go on forever, it must terminate in a first cause, which we call God. The idea of an ultimate cause is deeply attractive, and indeed the dream of elementary particle physics is to find the final theory at the root of all chains of explanation of what we see in nature. The trouble is that such a mathematical final theory would hardly be what anyone means by God. Who prays to quantum mechanics? The believer may justly argue that no theory of physics can be a first cause, since we would still wonder why nature is governed by that theory, rather than some other. Yet, in just the same sense, God cannot be a first cause either, for whatever our conception of God we could still wonder why the world is governed by that sort of God, rather than some other.
The “proof” that has historically been most persuasive is the argument from design. The world in general (and life in particular) is supposed to be so marvellously shaped that it could only have been the handiwork of the supreme Designer. The great achievement of scientists from Newton to Crick and Dawkins has been to refute this argument by explaining the world.
I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgement is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.
Where I think Dawkins goes wrong is that, like Henry V after Agincourt, he does not seem to realize the extent to which his side has won. Setting aside the rise of Islam in Europe, the decline of serious Christian belief among Europeans is so widely advertised that Dawkins turns to the United States for most of his examples of unregenerate religious belief. He attributes the greater regard for religion in the US to the fact that Americans have never had an established Church, an idea he may have picked up from Tocqueville. But although most Americans may be sure of the value of religion, as far as I can tell they are not very certain about the truth of what their own religion teaches. According to a recent article in the New York Times, American evangelists are in despair over a poll that showed that only 4 per cent of American teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. The spread of religious toleration provides evidence of the weakening of religious certitude. Most Christian groups have historically taught that there is no salvation without faith in Christ. If you are really sure that anyone without such faith is doomed to an eternity of Hell, then propagating that faith and suppressing disbelief would logically be the most important thing in the world – far more important than any merely secular virtues like religious toleration. Yet religious toleration is rampant in America. No one who publicly expressed disrespect for any particular religion could be elected to a major office.
Even though American atheists might have trouble winning elections, Americans are fairly tolerant of us unbelievers. My many good friends in Texas who are professed Christians do not even try to convert me. This might be taken as evidence that they don’t really mind if I spend eternity in Hell, but I prefer to think (and Baptists and Presbyterians have admitted it to me) that they are not all that certain about Hell and Heaven. I have often heard the remark (once from an American priest) that it is not so important what one believes; the important thing is how we treat each other. Of course, I applaud this sentiment, but imagine trying to explain “not important what one believes” to Luther or Calvin or St Paul. Remarks like this show a massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude.
Much of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West can be laid at the door of science; even people whose religion might incline them to hostility to the pretensions of science generally understand that they have to rely on science rather than religion to get things done. But this has not happened to anything like the same extent in the world of Islam. One finds in Islamic countries not only religious opposition to specific scientific theories, as occasionally in the West, but a widespread religious hostility to science itself. My late friend, the distinguished Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, tried to convince the rulers of the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf to invest in scientific education and research, but he found that though they were enthusiastic about technology, they felt that pure science presented too great a challenge to faith. In 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt called for an end to scientific education. In the areas of science I know best, though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder. After al-Ghazzali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.
The consequences are hideous. Whatever one thinks of the Muslims who blow themselves up in crowded cities in Europe or Israel or fly planes into buildings in the US, who could dispute that the certainty of their faith had something to do with it? George W. Bush and many others would have us believe that terrorism is a distortion of Islam, and that Islam is a religion of peace. Of course, it is good policy to say this, but statements about what “Islam is” make little sense. Islam, like all other religions, was created by people, and there are potentially as many different versions of Islam as there are people who profess to be Muslims. (The same remarks apply to Eagleton’s highly personal account of what Christianity “is”.) I don’t know on what ground one can say that a peaceable well-intentioned person like Abdus Salam was any more a true Muslim than the murderous holy warriors of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, the clerics throughout the world of Islam who incite hatred and violence, and those Muslims who demonstrate against supposed insults to their faith, but not against the atrocities committed in its name. (Incidentally, Abdus Salam regarded himself as a devout Muslim, but he belonged to a sect that most Muslims consider heretical, and for years was not allowed to return to Pakistan.) Dawkins treats Islam as just another deplorable religion, but there is a difference. The difference lies in the extent to which religious certitude lingers in the Islamic world, and in the harm it does. Richard Dawkins’s even-handedness is well-intentioned, but it is misplaced. I share his lack of respect for all religions, but in our times it is folly to disrespect them all equally.
Steven Weinberg is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Texas. He is a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics and the US National Medal of Science, and is a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. His books include The First Three Minutes, 1977, Dreams of a Final Theory, 1992, and Facing Up, 2001.