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Defending Richard Dawkins: or The Open Windows of Science

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who is perhaps best known for his publicly proclaimed atheism. Some people find him “mean” and “arrogant” in his dismissal of religion and all things “spiritual.”

But if people could suspend their religious beliefs, they would recognize that there are few individuals as full of awe and reverence for natural existence as is Richard Dawkins–and that we can learn from him. It is that awe for what is all around us in its manifold splendor that renders Dawkins impatient with those who want more. Isn’t this enough? Why invoke another dimension to life? Why devote oneself to Forces or Beings beyond what we experience in the natural world when the natural world (in fact the universe) speaks to us constantly about what life is, how we came about, how we are connected to all other beings, and what an extraordinary reality we live and breathe every minute? This is Dawkins’ message and the energy behind his atheism. Seen in this light, Dawkins’ call to turn away from the supernatural and focus on the life around us is as heartfelt and loving of all existence as any religion or faith I’ve encountered.

But the universe and the natural world will only speak to us if we listen. Dawkins’ bet is that if we listen, we will fall in love. What does it mean to listen to the natural world? It means, alas, to do science.

Dawkins wrote a book, The God Delusion, that angered people of faith. But then he subsequently wrote a book titled The Magic of Reality. What he means by “magic” is not the supernatural. Rather he is referring to “poetic” magic:

We gaze up at the stars on a dark night with no moon and no city lights and, breathless with joy, we say the sight is “pure magic.” We might use the same word to describe a gorgeous sunset, or an alpine landscape, or a rainbow against a dark sky. In this sense, “magical” simply means deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more alive.

In The Magic of Reality, Dawkins then goes on to show us that reality–the facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science–is magical in this poetic sense, the good-to-be-alive sense. Many of us have had a bad experience with science. Too boring, too difficult, too detailed. And you’ve heard this sort of claim: “Science can’t draw meaning out of the world; it can’t speak to the holistic picture with which I am concerned. What can a bunch of isolated empirical facts tell me about existence and being?” Well, Dawkins would respond, “Try it. Ask the questions. Do the work to learn. (Or ask for help in understanding.) You will be gratified by the wonder and wisdom that come out of that effort.”

Take the question, for example: Why are there so many different forms of animals on the earth? In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas provides us with a supernatural explanation:

Because the divine couldn’t image itself in any single being, the divine created the great diversity of things so that the perfection lacking in one would be supplied by the other, and the whole universe of beings participate in and manifest the divine more than any single being whatsoever.

Does that explanation satisfy you? It’s simple and aesthetically pleasing, but it does not do justice to the extraordinary process of evolution that is in fact the driving force behind the vast diversity of species on our globe. In The Magic of Reality, Dawkins allows that process to speak to us when he carefully explains the emergence of three types of Iguanas on three of the Galapagos Islands. Originally migrating from the mainland, the Iguanas were all of the same species. The Iguanas became separated by geography into new and different island environments for which natural selection would have favored new survival skills needed to adapt (or die). Eventually, after a long passage of time, those Iguanas who could initially crossbreed with each other (the definition of species), evolved so differently that they were no longer capable of mating and producing offspring which could in turn produce viable offspring. Out of one species come three. Multiply that process a hundredfold, a thousandfold, across time and you have the awesome diversity of life forms on earth from a few ancestral species. In fact from a few forms of the original replicating cells we now know of as DNA. No reliance on supernatural Beings or transcendent forces to explain this astounding fact. Rather it is science that has led us to understand a key facet of our existence.

Or take just one other example: What is a rainbow? There are peoples throughout history who have believed a rainbow to be some sort of divine or supernatural presence. In the Book of Genesis, a rainbow is actually God’s bow, which he put up in the sky as a token of his promise to Noah and his descendants. And we all know the Irish myth of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Dawkins takes us back to Isaac Newton who did interesting experiments at his home with light and prisms. At that time, people believed that the prism somehow “colored” the white light going through it. Newton’s idea was different. He thought that white light was a mixture of all the colors and the prism was just separating them from each other into a spectrum. He was right, and he proved it with a pair of nifty experiments. In Dawkins’ words:

White light passed through a slit in Newton’s curtain and through the first prism, which spread it out into all the colors of the rainbow. The spread-out rainbow colors then passed through a lens, which brought them together before they passed through the second of Newton’s prisms. This second prism had the effect of merging the rainbow colors back into white light again. That already neatly proved Newton’s point. But just to make quite sure, he then passed the beam of white light through a third prism, which splayed the colors out into a rainbow again! As neat as any demonstration you could wish for, proving that white light is indeed a mixture of colors.

When a beam of light travels through air and hits glass, it gets bent. The angle at which light bends is slightly different depending on is color (and therefore its wavelength). Going through the prism (glass) bends all the colors making up white light in slightly different ways, separating them out into an array of colors as they emerge from the prism. Collectively (in a far more complicated process) raindrops act like Newtown’s prism, bending the sunlight through them and thereby separating white light into the array of colors that comprise those amazing rainbows we see. (Note: If you want to see a rainbow you have to have the sun behind you when you look at a rainstorm.) What might be explained away as a manifestation of some supernatural force becomes yet another instance of our incredible natural world when understood through science. And, in Dawkins’ words, “When we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful.”

One question that science has not answered, and may never answer, is why is there something rather than nothing? What started the whole process? St. Thomas and other believers would say that the divine, or God, started up all that is. But what we know from the natural world, as Dawkins emphasizes in The God Delusion, is that complexity on the level of a divine being who manages such a feat is something that comes only after a long incremental process of evolution or development. The natural world tells us in infinite ways that the natural flow of things has been from simplicity to complexity. So how can there be a God of such magnificent complexity at the beginning? In Dawkins’ words, “Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.” And finally, how does one avoid the infinite regress of then asking “How did God come about? Who/what created God?” An explanation along the lines of “the Divine just is” is no explanation.

So, like Dawkins, I remain at peace with the question of origins that remains unanswered–and full of awe for the wonder that science can reveal to us if only we listen. That is enough. Concluding The Magic of Reality, Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s 1925 essay “What I Believe,” from which the following excerpt seems germane to this whole conversation:

Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional religious myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.