Friday, September 5, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Three: Today's Warring Intellectual Context

Jesus’ claim that he came into the world to testify to the truth implies a domain of truth beyond the world. The Prologue of The Gospel According to John says that the Godhead itself is that “realm” and that Jesus is to be identified with the Godhead. Now that is a large claim. We can get a better view of the present intellectual climate toward such claims by considering the following exchanges about the possibility of a transcendent realm.

The British magazine Prospect bestowed the title of England’s leading public intellectual on Richard Dawkins in 2004, and Dawkins may be the most famous atheist in the world today. He is also famously vehement in his unbelief. According to an article in Discover magazine, verbal jousting broke out between Dawkins and Brown University professor Ken Miller during a symposium at the New York Institute for the Humanities. Dawkins prompted the jousting when he challenged the legitimacy of Miller’s traditional Christian beliefs.1

One might well be surprised that two eminent scientists who both believe that evolution provides the sole scientific basis for teaching natural history in the life sciences would come to loggerheads over religious belief. Haven’t many scientists and religious authorities been telling us for years that science and religion answer different questions and so do not conflict? In fact, Ken Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God, is one of the scientists who have been telling us that: “I will persist in saying that religion for me, and for many other people, answers questions that are beyond the realm of science,” he told Dawkins.2 And he added, “I regard Genesis as a spiritual truth. And I also think that Genesis was written in a language that would explain God that was relevant to the people living at the time. I cannot imagine…Moses coming down from the Mount and talking about DNA, RNA, and punctuated equilibrium. …”3

According to the Discovery article, “Dawkins, at the far end of the table, almost levitated out of his seat with indignation. ‘But what does that mean?’ he demanded, voice rising. The audience rewarded his indignation with combustive applause.”4

It seems that “positivism,” the notion that there is nothing cognitively meaningful to be said beyond the realm of science, resonated with the audience—despite the fact that the notion fails by its own criterion (positivism is a philosophical view, not a scientific one). Nevertheless, Dawkins did pose a worthy challenge, best stated in question form: If religion does not supply meanings that can be understood within a scientific framework, within what meaningful framework are we to judge its statements for veracity? Bluntly, how can Jesus meaningfully be “the truth” for a Christian like Miller?

So we are back to the big question. And it poses the critical challenge to a religious person who wants to affirm a truth outside of science’s purview. Thus—without endorsing the “combustive” applause Dawkins’ query received, which suggested a prejudiced crowd—a fair-minded critique of the exchange will acknowledge that Dawkins’ challenge requires a good answer.

We can deepen the question by looking to another forum comprised of intellectuals who were considering—among other topics—the roles of religion and science in the public square. The forum, sponsored by the on-line magazine The Nation to discuss “The Future of the Public Intellectual,” included comments similar in substance and tone to those exchanged between Dawkins and Miller. According to Yale University professor Stephen Carter, “There’s a tendency sometimes to have an uneasy equation that there is serious intellectual activity over here, and religion over there, and these are, in some sense, at war. That people of deep faith are plainly anti-intellectual and serious intellectuals are plainly antireligious bigots—they’re two very serious stereotypes held by very large numbers of people. I’m quite unembarrassed and enthusiastic about identifying myself as a Christian and also as an intellectual… …[though] there are certain prejudices on campus suggesting that is not a possible thing to be or, at least, not a particularly useful combination of labels. … And yet, I think that the tradition of the contribution to a public-intellectual life by those making explicitly religious arguments has been important…”5

As if to confirm the sense of war between science and religion that Stephen Carter noted, columnist for The Nation and forum participant Christopher Hitchens proposed, “The first [task for the public intellectual], I think, in direct opposition to Professor Carter, …[is] to replace the rubbishy and discredited notions of faith with scrutiny…”6 Hitchens went on to say that “This is a time when one page, one paragraph, of Hawking is more awe-inspiring, to say nothing of being more instructive, than the whole of Genesis… Yet we’re still used to [religious] babble.”7 Then, quite interestingly in this context, Hitchens said, “…I think the onus is on us [as public intellectuals] to find a language that moves us beyond faith, because faith is the negation of the intellect…”8

Note the clashing claims about religion made by Hitchens in this forum and Miller in the previous one. Here Hitchens claims that the role of the intellectual—as epitomized by the scientist Stephen Hawking in his estimation—is to take us beyond the anti-intellectualism of religious “babble.” Miller, by contrast, believes that religion answers questions that take us beyond the realm of science.

Yet another exchange will help us focus on the kind of answer needed to make a responsible choice between these conflicting views. Celebrated British television personality, David Frost, used to host a show on which he interviewed famous intellectuals. During the interviews he would sound those who were atheists on the reasons for their unbelief. In an address to The National Press Club in the United States, he told the following story as his “most embarrassing moment.”

Famed atheist and science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, had rebutted all of Frost’s attempts to gain a concession for theism out of him. In a last ditch attempt to get one Frost implored, “But isn’t it possible that there is something out there that we just don’t know about?”9

Asimov replied, “Yes, but then we just don’t know about it.”10

The moral of the story is that it’s a bad idea to stake one’s belief in God on an empty claim. To the point at hand, if Miller’s contention that religion answers questions beyond the realm of science cannot be given some substantive grounding, his view is no better than Frost’s—and Jesus’ claim to have come into the world to testify to the truth is empty. We would be forced to agree with Nietzsche that Pilate’s famous question is the only saying that has value in the New Testament.


1. Stephen S. Hall, “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Discover, Vol. 26 No. 9, September 2005, p. 55 (
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid, p. 56.
4. Ibid.
5. Quoted in “The Future of the Public Intellectual: A Forum” in The Nation, February 12, 2001 (
6 .Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. David Frost in a National Press Club address from March, 1990 (as recalled by the author, who heard the address over National Public Radio: no recording of the address is available).
10 .Ibid. Asimov was quoted by Frost.

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