Christopher Lamb–Richard Dawkins' debate with Rowan Williams showed some telling misconceptions

During the debate, it seemed that at the heart of Dawkins’ difficulty with faith is his impoverished view of God and is failure to grasp more than the most simplistic understanding.
Towards the end he asked the archbishop: “Why don’t you see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that we can explain the world, life, how it started, from nothing? … Why clutter it up with something so messy as a god?”

Dr Williams replied that he doesn’t see clutter: “I’m not thinking of God as being shoehorned in.”

Dawkins then said: “That is exactly how I see God.”

Read it all.


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10 comments on “Christopher Lamb–Richard Dawkins' debate with Rowan Williams showed some telling misconceptions

  1. Daniel Muth says:

    [blockquote]If God to the atheist professor is simply an “add-on”, someone who has to be found a place for, you can see why he is not attracted. For the believer, however, God is in all things and of all things.[/blockquote]
    I concur with the general thrust of this article. However the later part of the above statement is (I hope) poorly constructed. God is not “of all things”, for Christians at least. It’s the other way around. All things are of Him, which is what I think the author meant. Using the term “God” for whatever brought the physical universe into being might be helpful for people like Dawkins. In that case he might be brought to see that it is not the “existence” of God that he has trouble with, but more precisely, the [b]transcendence[/b] of God that he rejects.

    We can all share Dawkins’ rejection of a giant invisible man in the sky since such a thing has never been propounded by any religion that I know of. If we note such a fantasy is of a non-transcendent god, as is his apparent preferred creator being the laws of the universe or something of that sort, I think we can more clearly see that the debate is really over transcendence, [i]per se[/i]. Dawkins doesn’t appear capable of understanding the concept so I doubt the clarification would help him. Christians, though, should recognize that, while non-transcendent gods are of a virtually infinite variety – the godlings of mythology, the universe of pantheism, the fundamental physical laws of Scientism, etc. – a transcendent God must have certain qualities. He must be at least personal, infinite, omnipotent, and outside of time. His creation, by its very finite nature must be a separate substance from Himself. It’s not hard to go on – even if we only arrive at the god of the philosophers rather than the God of Israel. Ultimately of course, a truly transcendent God can only be known by self-revelation. Grasping that reality seems to call for something Dawkins (and I wonder how many others) doesn’t seem to have. What a shame.

  2. NewTrollObserver says:

    “Using the term “God” for whatever brought the physical universe into being might be helpful for people like Dawkins.”

    I think this use of the term “God” is precisely what Dawkins and other theist-skeptics (like physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of the recent [i]A Universe from Nothing[/i]) argue is scientifically meaningless, since what brought this physical universe into being may have been a number of factors (quantum vacuum, the fluctuations therein, a previous universe, etc.)

  3. Daniel Muth says:

    #2 My mistake. I shouldn’t have capitalized the term. The point is that fluctuations in a quantum vacuum essentially function, along with strong atomic forces, electromagnetism and gravity (or whatever superstring theory or the next thing that comes along does to unite them), as a nontranscendent god. The existence of this or any god is not at issue. Dawkins & co.’s rejection is of a transcendent God and, likely, of transcendence itself. Imprecise use of the word god prevents clarity about what is actually being denied. It is the nature of the divinity, not its “existence” that is at issue.

  4. William Witt says:

    Quantum vacuum, fluctuations, previous universes would not have “brought this physical universe into being. They would simply have been the physical universe in a previous state of being. A god who brought the universe from one state of being to another state of being would not be a Creator, but a Platonic demiurge.

    The crucial metaphysical question is not “How do we account for the current state of the universe?’ but “How do we account for the universe existing at all?” That is, “Why is there something rather than nothing whatsoever?” To push that question back to pre-existing states of being of a previous something in order to account for the state of being for the currently existing something does not begin to address the crucial question.

    The question is not one of an endless temporal regress, but of a metaphysical contingency. The physical universe as we know it consists entirely of contingent beings, beings that are not self-existent, do not exist necessarily, and thus cannot account for their own existence. To postulate previous states of contingent beings (no matter how far back in time) or no matter how many alternative or previously existing universes, does not account for the actual existence of anything whatsoever. For all previously existing states of being are themselves contingent in that they they cannot account for their own existence, and might not have existed at all. There is no reason for them to exist. Yet they are.

    How do we account for the existence of a single contingent being without postulating that something that exists is necessary, and therefore self-existing? A host of of contingent beings, no matter how many, is simply a host of beings that cannot account for their own existence. Such a host (even if we use terms like quantuum vacuum, fluctuations, or previous universes do designate it) does not add up to a single necessarily existing reality. There is no reason for it to exist. Yet it does.

    Moreover, the postulation of quantuum vacuum, previous universes, etc. is whistling in the dark. All scientific evidence points to the current universe as having originated in the big bang from nothing. Anything beyond that is speculation. Since existence from nothing is inexplicable in a non-theistic universe, non-theists need to come up with an alternative way to maintain that the universe does not actually have a beginning after all. Appeals to previously existing states of being prior to the big bang are as much exercises in faith as the theist’s belief in God. Moreover, it does not address the crucial question. There is no reason for quantuum vacuums, fluctuations, or previous universes to have existed. Yet, according to the non-theist, they must have. The alternative is unacceptable.

  5. Archer_of_the_Forest says:

    Likewise, Dr. Witt, the basic question I ask atheists, which they try to avoid because there is no good logical answer, is simply, “If there is no God, then why is there something other than nothing?” If there is no God, there is no logical reason why anything exists at all, whether it be life or quantum vacuums or primordial pre-Big Bang matter or whatever. There is no reason why all of the universe is a vast nothingness. If there is no God then there should be nothing else either, and yet there is something other than nothing.

  6. Ross says:

    #5 Archer_of_the_Forest says:

    Likewise, Dr. Witt, the basic question I ask atheists, which they try to avoid because there is no good logical answer, is simply, “If there is no God, then why is there something other than nothing?”

    I’m no atheist, but the comeback to that is obvious: “I don’t know why there’s something rather than nothing. Nobody ever said we had all the answers. But let me ask you: by exactly the same reasoning, why is there God instead of no God?”

    William Witt in #4 invokes the notion of contingent beings vs. non-contingent beings, but to someone who isn’t convinced of the conclusion this is just philosophical hand-waving. The atheist would argue that you are faced with exactly the same problem as he is of how “something” (in his case, the universe; in your case, God) came from nothing. You attempt to square the circle by postulating a class of entities that do not need to come from something, and then asserting that there is exactly one member of this class and it is called God. The atheist would ask why you couldn’t eliminate a step and assert that the universe itself belongs to this class.

  7. William Witt says:


    The metaphysical position is not that God comes from nothing, but that God is self-existent. In a universe in which anything exists, something must be necessary, or nothing whatsoever would exist. The something that is necessary cannot be one of the contingent beings in the universe, because, by definition, that which is contingent is dependent on something else for its existence.

    It follows that either the universe as a whole exists necessarily or that there is a single necessary existent that can account for the existence of the universe. But the universe as a whole is simply an abstraction. “The Universe” is simply a short-hand term we use to mean all the contingent beings that there are considered all at once. A collection of such contingent beings, no matter how many, does not suddenly become necessary because we consider them all at once.

    Of course, the atheist can say that he or she does not know why there is something rather than nothing, and that no one has all the answers. The proper response to that is that it is human nature to try to seek out whatever answers are available. The existence of contingent beings is a fact that depends explanation. Contingency indicates dependency, and cries out for a rational explanation. Contingency points beyond itself to something on which it is dependent. One can claim that there is simply an infinite collection of contingent beings, each dependent on something else for its existence, and no explanation for the existence of all of them together, but this is rather something like the “It’s turtles all the way down” response of the proverbial yogi. It is an explanation that explains nothing.

    So the multitude of things around us that we designate in shorthand as “the universe” has two characteristics that cry out for explanation. First, they are, but do not have to be. (Why something rather than nothing?) Second, in no case is their existence necessary. They come to existence, and cease to exist, and this points to dependency (contingence). (On what are they dependent?)

    The atheist can certainly reject the notion of necessary being as a plausible explanation for the existence of contingent beings, but the rejection is an assertion of will, not a rational inference.

    The answer to the question “Why is there God instead of no God?” is that God simply is: purus actus ipsum esse subsistens (the pure act of self-subsisting existence). Self-subsisting existence does not demand an explanation for its existence. On the contrary, the one thing we can be certain of the things we see all around us it that they are not self-subsisting. They regularly come into being and cease to exist.

    And, as any competent metaphysician could tell you, God is neither an entity nor a member of a class. To suggest that God would be the single member of the class of necessary beings is to place God as an object in the world, and to re-introduce a non-transcendent godling.

  8. Ross says:

    I’m aware of the philosophy around contingent and necessary existence; I simply (in company with the hypothetical atheist here) find it unconvincing. And I’m aware that this puts me in opposition to Aristotle and Aquinas and any number of others, but there it is.

    “In a universe in which anything exists, something must be necessary, or nothing whatsoever would exist.”

    Why? I’m not trying to be contentious or difficult; I simply do not see how that conclusion follows.

    I think the terminology “contingent” conflates at least two things that do not necessarily go together. This coffee cup on my desk, for instance, could possibly not exist (its existence is not necessary) and it also depends for its existence on other objects (the maker of the cup, among others.) But I don’t see that these properties are inextricably linked. I can imagine a class of objects that could possibly not exist, but which are not dependent for their existence on other objects. Obviously there might not be any actual examples of such entities, but then again, there might be. And if there were, then other objects, both un-necessary and dependent, could exist — dependent in the first instance on those initial un-necessary but not-dependent entities.

    Of course this is all abstract and ungrounded, but so is the standard argument about contingency.

    The fact is, none of the standard rational arguments for the existence of God are convincing to someone who doesn’t already believe. The contention that God’s existence is self-evident and logically obvious is just self-congratulatory back-patting among the faithful. It is entirely possible to honestly and self-consistently look at the evidence and not find a reason to believe in God. It is of course also possible to be a self-righteous prat about it, as Dawkins often is.

    I say all this as one of the few people (in my experience) who DID actually reason my way back out of agnosticism and into belief in God. But it was not a path of mathematical proof; it was that God seemed the most probable explanation for, well, a lot of things. But other people apply different razors and get different least hypotheses, and I can’t necessarily refute them.

  9. Daniel Muth says:

    “Ross” – I have heretofore been willing essentially to concede the point and conclude that, while belief in non-transcendent godlings requires as much faith as that in a transcendent God, your #8 has me really wondering. Is it actually faith or just metaphysical laziness that claims, utterly without evidence or argument, that the class of non-contingent, non-transcendent entities you propose could possibly exist. Since you say that you could posit such a thing, I would like some description. Would it look anything like what the “New Atheists” have put forward? As I say above, a transcendent God has to meet certain criteria. Would or wouldn’t such an entity or set of entities as you propose? If not, why not? I’m intrigued.

  10. William Witt says:

    I certainly do not believe that God’s existence is “self-evident” or “logically obvious.” I do think some of the traditional metaphysical arguments for the existence of God are valid.

    I think it intuitively obvious that the properties of non-necessary existence and contingence are linked. You say that you can imagine a class of non-necessary but not contingent existents. I can say the words but I don’t know that the combination is coherent. Perhaps you are imagining something like Liebniz’s monads or Aristotle’s unmoved movers. (Aristotle thought there was more than one.) But Liebniz and Aristotle both claimed that the monads and the unmoved movers existed necessarily.

    The chief metaphysical problem with such a claim would be explaining the correlation between such objects. Do they exist in the same universe? Do they precede and survive the big bang? Is their existence eternal? If not, how do they come into existence and cease to exist? Are the objects simple or complex in structure? If complex, does not their unity demand some source of integration of parts? If simple, how do we distinguish between one such object and another? Do they exist in space and time? How are such objects related to contingent dependent existents? Do the dependent existents rely on the non-dependent for their own existence, or on something else? Are the objects intrinsically related to one another? If related, how do we account for such relation in a way that we can speak of a single universe? Is there a metaphysical source of unity coordinating the objects? The problem of the one and the many will inevitably raise its head. A single source of transcendent unity makes a cleaner picture.

    At any rate, I don’t think Dawkins & Co. are imagining that such objects exist or provide an explanation for the existence of the rest of the universe. The metaphysical claim of naturalism is that all that exists is matter in motion, that is non-necessary contingent beings. It is turtles all the way down.