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Richard Dawkins as an "enthusiast"

On Becky’s blog she is quoting Richard Dawkins who makes the claim that he may be passionate but is not a fundementalist.

No, please, do not mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Passion for passion, an evangelical Christian and I may be evenly matched. But we are not equally fundamentalist. The true scientist, however passionately he may “believe”, in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will.

First of all, I might as well just say this. I am an evangelical but I am not an fundamentalist.

The confusion of these terms is irritating and until George W. Bush became President, they did mean separate things. Jimmy Carter is an evangelical. Tony Campolo is an evangelical. Jim Wallis is an evangelical. At the same time James Dobson, John Hagee, Ralph Reed, and Jerry Falwell all claim to be evangelicals as well. It is an awfully large camp but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists and to be honest, we don’t all believe the same things like evolution, only male leadership, or Biblical literalism. I grew up in an evangelical household and I don’t even remember discussing these things growing up. I think my mom may have been a closet literalist but the lack of moat and parapit around our house meant that she was too ashamed to being it up much :-)

Secondly, I disagree Dawkins insistence that science is somehow pure in its pursuit of knowledge. One of the better books I read last year, 1491 (Amazon.com) is a tale of scientists refusing to give up on their theories and attacking other theories of the origin of civilization in North America. It is a story of people not changing their minds in face of evidence. I am not saying all scientists are fundamentalist, just that fundamentalism can be found in all fields. If you have ever listened to Joe Morgan call a Oakland A’s game, even baseball has people who can’t see something that is outside of how they see the world and this is a game which is supposedly all statistics (and yes I am killing the metaphor by calling Joe Morgan a fundementalist but his closed mind approach to sabremetrics shows an awfully closed mind).

Also, in one of my favorite blog posts of all time, AKMA, writes to incoming seminary students about the pursuit of truth in theology and the Christian life.

I start from the premise that everything about discipleship (and ordained ministry is in many respects simply an intensified mode of discipleship) grows out of the practice of truth. All the different theological disciplines, all the techniques and skills and habits you learn, derive their importance from the Truth you live; whatever facts you memorize, whatever devices for handling parish (diocesan, academic) organization, if they do not contribute to articulating a Truth that goes deeper than your personal preferences, your family’s habits, your community’s prejudices, those learnings amount to nothing more than gilding on a goose-egg. sooner or later, the egg will rot, and a pretty exterior won’t take away the stink.

The Truth will sustain your discipleship, even the intensified kind, with a nourishment, a light, a harmony, and a sense that do not depend for their validity on buzzwords, platitudes, fads, simple answers or correct answers (whether of the popular or academic sort). It’s not for nothing that Acts shows us the earliest followers of Jesus calling their fellowship as “the Way.” Ours is a Way entrusted to us from saints who knew it much better than any of us is likely to know it. That Way grows in us by the work of the Spirit, but we ought to make room for the Spirit to form us in the Way and cooperate with the Spirit in bodying forth the Way in our lives.

Are there fundamentalists out there that fear a truth outside of their worldview? Absolutely. Some of them are listed above and proclaim their fundamentalism proudly. Even among the GOP presidential candidates, some believe in a young earth seven day creation of the earth in face of overwhelming scientific evidence (This undermines my argument but last summer at Arlington Beach during the Free Methodist camp, there was a display up that linked people like me who don’t accept a seven day creation/young earth to secular humanists and homosexuals who are destroying the faith – I thought I should let you know what a heretic I am). While there are Christian fundamentalists out there that can not or will not accept new information outside of a specific framework, there are many of us whose pursuit of truth lead us to faith. For others it was witnessing the supernatural (in my case seeing a miraculous healing in response to prayer growing up) while for others it was a personal encounter with God or as Plantinga has written over the years, some of us just have “faith in God” and it is logical to do so. I don’t see that as a contradiction to evidence. In the end, I have to disagree with Dawkins, he is as much of a fundamentalist that he claims to be against.

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5 Comments

  1. knsheppard says:

    Great post Jordan. You might also see the recent review in Books & Culture by evangelical scholar David Bebbington on the subject of evangelicalism. It’s worth the read.

  2. LT says:

    I’d say Dawkins is a fundamentalist.

    First off, he doesn’t get to decide what a fundamentalist is. His definition is flawed. A fundamentalist isn’t someone who isn’t swayed by evidence, but someone who adheres strictly to certain principles. Websters defines it as thus “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” A fundamentalist can be swayed by evidence, they just choose to abide by a specific authority. For Christian fundamentalists this is, of course, the bible. The downside to fundamentalism is that it leads people to casually disregard evidence from authorities other than the ones they accepted. A young earth Creationist cannot reconcile Genesis with radiocarbon dating so they reject it.

    Dawkins accepts the scientific method as his chosen source of authority but he disregards anything that can’t be proven in that grid. Spiritual realities cannot be proven in a lab, but they are no less real to millions upon millions of people. He calls it a delusion because his fundamentalism doesn’t allow him to accept any sources of authority outside the one he accepted.

    His fundamentalism, like others, leads him to demonize those who hold alternative viewpoints skewing his perception. Dawkins also wrote “If subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that decent, understated religion is numerically negligible. Most believers echo Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men. The world needs to face them, and my book does so.”

    I’ve been a Christian for half my life. I’ve met very few like Robertson, Falwell or Haggard. For someone who claims to adhere so strictly to evidence he seems to have a very skewed view of the situation. He often blames religion for that which human nature is at fault.

  3. Becky says:

    I think the larger issue is being ignored here. Dawkins’ point has been that the vehemence aimed at his book/argument is largely due to its subject matter, as a critique on religion. If you found an equivalent book that instead harshly criticized politics or economic policy, you wouldn’t hear nearly so much said about the author’s tone in presenting his argument, nor would such labels be pasted upon the author.

  4. Jordon says:

    Becky, I disagree with Dawkins on that as well. While I lament the level of discourse that happens in politics, economics, history (as documented recently in 1491), poor arguments tend to get poor responses by the academy, especially when one makes the kind of absolute statements that Dawkins does. Part of the response is dictated by what some see as poor arguments but also Dawkins personality and writing itself which is quite absolute and dogmatic which generates that kind of response from people. It is like when I read D.A. Carson’s or John MacAuther on the emerging church. It isn’t written as a conversation but as an absolute and it often generates that kind of reply.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I have read a lot of Dawkins and I would say he is a fundamentalist atheist. He doesn’t have a lot of respect for those that he disagrees with which and at Oxford is known to have a big ego. Of course he seems surprised when Alister McGrath and others don’t seem to embrace his views and actually disagree and call out his writing. In addition, there are some other scientists who are Christians who disagree with him. In addition to being at places like Oxford but they are at Harvard (Owen Gingerich), MIT and other places who are writing in favor of faith from the basis of real science. Even Stephen Hawking writes of that in The History of Everything and Bill Bryson (who writes about science but is not a scientist) does a good job of differentiating the difference between science and philosophy (the how vs. the who).

    Good post Jordan.