John Polkinghorne: The truth in religion

John Polkinhorne, possibly the preeminent scientist/theologian working today has an essay online in which he takes on two of the latest anti-religious/pro-scientific books.

He’s rather british and devastating in his criticism of the work of Richard Dawkins (as it’s presented in the first of the two books):

“Cornwell begins by pointing out that Dawkins makes no serious attempt to engage with the academic discussion of religious thought and practice. His book is ‘as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free from false modesty’. When it asserts that Jesus’ call to love our neighbour referred only to relations between Jews (despite this claim being in clear contradiction to the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan), the only support quoted for this highly questionable statement is a book written by an anaesthesiologist.

Over the centuries, theologians have wrestled with how human language can attempt to speak about the nature of God, emphatically rejecting the idea that the deity is simply an invisible object among the other objects of the world. Yet, as Cornwell points out, the God in whom Dawkins disbelieves is a kind of ‘Great Science Professor in the Sky’, a simplistic notion that any thinking theist would be quick to reject. We are continually told that theology is no proper academic discipline, a conclusion that could only be reached by someone whose knowledge of the subject was comparable to the scientific knowledge displayed by those who write in green ink that ‘Einstein was wrong’.

Dawkins is relentlessly rude about religious believers. They are said to be ‘malevolent, barking mad, mendacious, deluded’ and much more. He cannot have the courtesy to take seriously those of us who are both scientists and believers. Religious education of the young is equated with child abuse. Darwin’s angel pertinently asks, ‘Would you really trade child sexual abuse for being brought up in the religion of your parents?’. The tone of contempt – one might almost say hatred – that characterizes many of the assertions in The God Delusion is one of the most disturbing aspects of the book.”

(The zinger is the line “who write in green ink that Einstein was wrong”. If you worked in an academic physics department and got letters exactly like that every week or so, you’d recognize the slam…)

The article continues a bit further on:

Both Dawkins and Humphrys rightly engage with the challenge to theism that is represented by the existence of a world claimed to be the creation of a good and powerful God, but which nevertheless contains so much evil and suffering. This is surely the greatest difficulty holding people back from religious belief, and it is one that continually troubles religious believers. One could not claim that there is a complete and straightforward answer available to remove the perplexity. Yet there are some arguments, not discussed by either Humphrys or by Dawkins, which offer modest help as theologians struggle with the problems of theodicy. Interestingly, science is of some assistance in this regard. Its understanding of how the world works shows that natural processes are inextricably entangled with each other. They cannot be separated out, so that those with good consequences could have been retained by a competent creator who, at the same time, eliminated those with bad consequences. The integrity of creation is a kind of package deal. For example, the process of genetic mutation produced new forms of life, but it has also resulted in malignancy. You cannot have the one without the other. Humphrys asks why there are not repeated divine interventions to avert evil consequences. Such things could only happen in a magical world, and that kind of world is not this one, because its creator is not a capricious magician. Only a world with sufficient reliability for deeds to have foreseeable consequences could be one in which moral responsibility was exercised. These insights do not dispose of all the anguish and anger that we feel in the face of individual human suffering, but they suggest that it is not simply gratuitous, easily removable by a God who was a bit less callous.

Theodicy (the problem of a loving God allowing evil to exist) *is* the theological issue for the children of the enlightenment. But there are ways to answer the question that are much more helpful (I would argue) than simply saying that “God doesn’t exist”.

Much more at the link below. Thanks to “RobRoy” for pointing me to the article.

Read the rest here: The truth in religion – Times Online

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 thought on “John Polkinghorne: The truth in religion”

  1. ‘Dawkins is relentlessly rude about religious believers. They are said to be “malevolent, barking mad, mendacious, deluded” and much more.’
    A quick search of ‘The God Delusion’ reveals that Polkinghorne is being mendacious here. No religious believers are referred to as ‘malevolent’
    I admit though that The God Delusion refers to Joseph Smith as ‘mendacious’.
    Thank God Anglical priests are prepared to speak up for the veracity and downright honesty of Joseph Smith.
    Dawkins writes ‘I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity.’
    So Dawkins refers to ‘atonement’ as ‘barking mad’ and John (Liar, liar, pants on fire) Polkinghorne says Dawkins refers to religious believers as barking mad.
    Why do Christians feel the need to lie so much? Can’t they help it? Don’t they know how easily they will be caught out?

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