Richard Dawkins on Why the God Debate Still Matters Now
Outgrowing God, the new book from renowned scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, presents an argument against the existence of God and the doctrines of organised religion, aimed at a younger audience than his previous iconoclastic works The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker. The exclusive essay below underlines why Dawkins feels the debate about the reality of a divine creator is still so relevant and urgent in the twenty-first century.
Why the God debate still matters now
‘Still’? ‘Now’? What do you mean, ‘still matters now’? Was there ever a time when it didn’t matter? Will there ever be a time when it won’t? How could it not matter?
If the universe has a supernatural creator, it would be the most important fact we could imagine. It would also be a fact of science, a fact that pervades all space and all time. This is not a matter of fad or fashion (‘Oh, atheism is so last year’) like bell-bottoms or Mohican haircuts. ‘God or no God: whatever turns you on’? No: the universe doesn’t care a fig for what turns you (or me) on. ‘God may not exist for you but he exists for me’ (or vice versa). No: if he exists at all he exists for you and me and for every being in the observable (and unobservable) universe.
More interestingly, it’s not the sort of question to which you can reply, ‘It all depends what you mean by God.’ No it doesn’t, not unless God is as nebulous as ‘Mother Nature’ or ‘The Ground of all Being’. The cosmos either was created by a creative intelligence or it wasn’t. If that is what we mean by God (and for most of us it is) there are no half measures.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we shall ever be able to answer the question. It may be forever beyond our reach. But it is still a factual question. A created universe would be an entirely different kind of universe from a universe that happened through the exercise of scientific laws.
That, then, is the main reason why it matters. As a scientist, I’d be happy to leave it at that. But, aside from the matter of cosmic and eternal truth, there are also more human reasons why it matters. There are people who are unshakeably confident that the answer to the question of God’s existence is yes. Of those, a substantial number are so convinced that they force their beliefs on others, including – lamentably – children. And a minority push their conviction to the point of being willing to die and – which matters more – to kill for it: to kill or persecute those who dissent, or those who transgress the scriptural wishes of their god – for example in their choice of sexual partner.
Those of us who are unconvinced by the alleged evidence for any kind of supernatural creator have never shown any inclination to kill for our lack of conviction. Whyever would we? People kill for reasons of positive conviction: nationalistic patriotism, say (‘My country right or wrong’) or political ideology (‘The superior Aryan race’ or ‘The Party of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’). But to kill for belief in an absence of something? How could anyone do that? What would be the sense in it?
As an educator I am especially concerned that defenceless children should not be taught dangerous falsehoods. Or alleged facts for which there is no evidence. But as a scientist, the reason my concern rises to a passion is this: the scientific world-view is so enthralling, so spellbinding and life-fulfilling, that to wantonly deprive children of the privilege of understanding it, in the name of some old book whose authors knew no more than you’d expect of a tribe of desert camel-herders, is a sin of grievous weight.
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