“From Everlasting to Everlasting”: Marilynne Robinson on Richard Dawkins


You have probably come across reviews of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but the best and most comprehensive review that I have read was contributed by Marilynne Robinson to Harper‘s. Robinson is best known as the author of the excellent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. She is also a Reformed Christian who carefully reads John Calvin and is very attentive to the dangers of human pretension. Readers of her essays will not be surprised that she queries Dawkins’ tendency to compare the worst of religion with the very best of science (“But eugenics is science as surely as totemism is religion,” she protests), or that she notes that Dawkins’ confident claims about an upward moral drift in history do not sufficiently explain why one should have preferred the Christian abolitionists to the learned racism of T.H. Huxley. Dawkins, Robinson says, is also a poor reader of Holy Scripture. His claim that Judaism is something of a “group evolutionary strategy” fails to account for Leviticus 19:34: “You shall love the alien as yourself.”

Here is Robinson on Dawkins’ failure to account for God’s not being subject to time (a point also made by Terry Eagleton):

The chapter titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God” reflects his reasoning at its highest bent. He reasons thus: A creator God must be more complex than his creation, but this is impossible because if he existed he would be at the wrong end of evolutionary history. To be present in the beginning he must have been unevolved and therefore simple. Dawkins is very proud of this insight. He considers it unanswerable. He asks, “How do they [theists] cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?” And “if he [God] has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know,” and “a first cause of everything.. . must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers).” At Cambridge, says Dawkins, “I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology.” Dawkins is clearly innocent of this charge against him. Whatever is being foisted here, it is not a scientific epistemology.

Evolution is the creature of time. And, as Dawkins notes, modern cosmologies generally suggest that time and the universe as a whole came into being together. So a creator cannot very well be thought of as having attained complexity through a process of evolution. That is to say, theists need find no anomaly in a divine “complexity” over against the “simplicity” that is presumed to characterize the universe at its origin. (I use these terms not because I find them appropriate to the question but because Dawkins uses them, and my point is to demonstrate the flaws in his reasoning.) In this context, Dawkins cannot concede, even hypothetically, a reality that is not time-bound, that does not conform to Darwinism as he understands it. Yet in an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins remarks that “further developments of the [big bang] theory, supported by all available evidence, suggest that time itself began in this mother of all cataclysms. You probably don’t understand, and I certainly don’t, what it can possibly mean to say that time itself began at a particular moment. But once again that is a limitation of our minds.. . .”

That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology. The faithful are accustomed to expressions like “from everlasting to everlasting” in reference to God, language that the positivists would surely have considered nonsense but that does indeed express the intuition that time is an aspect of the created order. Again, I do not wish to abuse either theology or scientific theory by implying that either can be used as evidence in support of the other; I mean only that the big bang in fact provides a metaphor that might help Dawkins understand why his grand assault on the “God Hypothesis” has failed to impress the theists.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to “From Everlasting to Everlasting”: Marilynne Robinson on Richard Dawkins

  1. Pingback: How God Does (and Does Not) Exist « Catholic Sensibility

  2. Pingback: Is Christianity a Delusion? « Catholic Sensibility

  3. Enlow says:

    Chris Andersen wrote a great book on the subject of free. I believe its still available, free, in audio form from audible. The wonderful thing about the internet is it gives all of us the chance to build relationships at little more cost than our time. Which is slowly killing off the yellow highlighter scorched-earth crowd who still believe they only have one shot at you. Thanks for the great post.

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