Ernest Lucas ponders Richard Dawkins’ “laws of nature’ and the hypothesis of God

DR. RICHARD DAWKINS is a very good communicator and populariser of science, particularly in the area of his own speciality, zoology. That is why he has recently been appointed as Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Unfortunately, he is also an outspoken advocate of the view that science and religion are inevitably at war with one another. Superficially, history seems to support this view. The media sometimes make much of the conflict between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century and on the debate over Darwinism between the Bishop of Oxford and Thomas Huxley in Oxford in 1860. However, these are not typical examples of the interaction between science and Christianity.

The truth is that on the whole the interaction has been positive. After all, nearly all the founders of modern science, including Galileo, were devout Christians whose faith motivated their study of God’s creation and whose discoveries, they thought, redounded to the glory of the Creator.

However, Dawkins does not press the historical argument. He simply insists that, “…until recently one of religion’s main functions was scientific; the explanation of existence, of the universe, of life … So the most basic claims of religion are scientific. Religion is a scientific theory” [SCAG]1.

Following from this, he sees the ‘hypothesis of God’ as an explanatory hypothesis, which is in competition with scientific explanations. For example, ‘God and natural selection are, after all, the only two workable theories we have of why we exist’ [EP p.181]2. This view of religion and of God is flawed both logically and theologically.

The logical flaw rests in Dawkins’ confused use of the word ‘explanation’. We quite commonly accept that something can have a number of different but compatible explanations. A simple approach makes a distinction between explanations which answer the questions ‘What?’, ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’. When asked to ‘explain’ a thermostat an answer can be given in terms of what it does, or what the different parts are that make up a thermostat, or how they work, or why people have them. There is also a ‘Who?’ question to be answered – who invented the thermostat?

There are not competing explanations. They are totally compatible with each other. Any, or all, would be the appropriate answer to give to the original question. The same is true of answers to questions like, ‘Why does the universe exist?’ or ‘Why does the human eye exist?’. Most people fail to realise that the scientific answers to these questions are really answers to ‘How?’ questions. The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe explains how the universe could have come into being from what is called a ‘quantum vacuum’. The theory of natural selection explains how the human eye might have come into being by a slow process of gradual change from simpler structures.

That still leaves open some ‘Why?’ questions. Why should there be such a state as a quantum vacuum? Why should the basic laws of physics be such that a quantum vacuum could produce a universe like ours? Why should the properties of matter and the laws of nature be such that a complex entity such as the human eye could arise by a process of natural selection?

The Christian claim is that these questions are answered by the ‘hypothesis of God’. They find their answer in that of a ‘Who?’ questions – Who planned it this way? Understood like this, the ‘hypothesis of God’ answer is not in competition with the scientific answers, but is compatible with, and complementary to, them.

The theological flaw in Dawkins’ position is that he talks about God as if God were nothing more than another ‘force’ alongside the forces of nature such as gravity and electromagnetism. So there is always an either/or. Either something is directly due to God’s action or it is due to a ‘natural’ force such as gravity.

Some Christians in the past, and even today, have given Dawkins cause to talk like this. They have tried to prove that God exists by appealing to God as the explanation of things which scientists cannot explain. The problem for them is that, on the past record, what scientists cannot explain now, they very likely will be able to explain in 5, 10 or 50 years time. When that happens the evidence for God’s existence seems to crumble. So, Dawkins says that ‘Christians are people who look for God in the crevasses of the universe’ [SCAG] but, he adds, then crevasses are closing! This ‘God of the gaps’ view of God, as it has been called, is not biblical. God is not to be thought of as a force at work in the universe. God is the One who ‘is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Col. 1:17) and who ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Heb. 1:3). God is the Creator and sustainer of the forces of ‘nature’.

The fact that there are regular patterns in nature (‘laws of nature’) is a reflection of God’s faithfulness (e.g. Gen. 8:22). These are God’s normal way of working in creation at the physical level. The biblical writers express this outlook when they say there is no contradiction involved in believing that God created the universe and accepting that he did so through the working of the forces and laws of nature in the way that scientists describe in the Big Bang theory, or that he brought the eye into being by a process of natural selection.

Finally, a point that Dawkins ignores, is that for the Christian the crucial evidence of God’s existence has nothing to do with science. It has everything to do with the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth and the personal experience of him as a risen Lord and Saviour today.

1.SCAG: “A Scientist’s Case Against God”, The Independent, 20th April 1992.

2.EP: The Extended Phenotype, OUP, 1982.

Ernest C Lucas, a former research biochemist, is now Tutor in Biblical Studies at Bristol Baptist College