Jonathan Sacks, the soon to retire Cheif Rabbi of Great Britain, recently joked about how his country will cope with the loss of a much loved Cheif Rabbi and Archbishop of Canterbury at pretty much the same time: “There’ll be fewer beards and hairy eyebrows on television…” (I understand that Rabbi Sacks recently experimented with going beardless as a statement that Jewishness does not depend upon the beard – I wish Rowan would try the same experiment…)
Apart from being very hairy, Rowan Williams and Jonathan Sacks are also members of the English House of Lords. Despite one being Christian and the other Jewish, they have remarkabley similar approaches to theology. They have both engaged with the claims of Professor Richard Dawkins, who, though neither a hairy man nor a member of the House of Lords nor for that matter, a theologian, could probably be described as the “chief rabbi” or “archbishop” of the new (or “evangelical”) atheism.
I have already mentioned the recent “debate” between Williams and Dawkins. Sacks has responded in a book called “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning”, in which he fundamentally rejects Dawkins’ approach which pits science and religion against one another. He was talking about his book to Norman Swan on a recent edition of “Big Ideas” on ABC Radio National. Having listened to the discussion between Dawkins and Williams just the day before, I found many resonances between what Sacks was talking about in this program and what Williams had to say in his conversation with Dawkins.
In these two programs, Williams and Sacks both challenge Dawkins on one some of his pet arguments against the existence of God. Here are two of them.
Dawkins has long argued that one problem he has with “the God Hypothesis” is that God is a complex being. Whereas theists posit a complex being at the very start of everything, the theory of evolution teaches us that creatures develop from the simple to the complex. Therefore something as complex as “God” could not exist at the origin of all things. Every theologian knows this is bunk, of course, and Williams points out the flaws of this argument in his conversation with Dawkins. For a start, God is not a part of creation. He is not a part of the evolutionary chain. The rules of evolution do not apply to God. Secondly, a central conviction of monotheistic theism is that God is fundamentally “simple” – which is what is meant by the doctrine of the Unity of God. But yes, God also encompasses all complexity – a truth that is revealed in the Christian idea of the Triunity of God. This is really a failure in Dawkins conception of the Divine, rather than a failure of logic.
Sacks takes Dawkins to task on the topic of those London Bus posters which declare “There probably isn’t a God…”. In his conversation with Williams, Dawkins denies that he is an absolute atheist in that he does not claim he can prove that God does not exist, he is simply convinced that there is very little probability that he does. Sacks pounces on this idea of “improbability”. He cites the figures for the improbability of the existence of this universe, and the even greater improbability of the existence of life in the universe (both facts which Dawkins himself acknowledges in his conversation with Williams). Given this enormous improbability, we nevertheless exist. How then, argues Sacks, can “improbability” be an argument against the existence of God, given that it would also logically be an argument against our own existence?
I find both Sacks and Williams more than capable of standing up to the arguments of the new atheists and showing where, more often than not, they simply fail to convince.