The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area.
Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.
Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science.
The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.
As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).
Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.
The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously.
One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought.
I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.