The new atheism, reconsidered

The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston – New York

In a world threatened by religious extremism, the need to take stock in religion and to search for new perspectives is an urgent one.

Among the most vigorous of such examinations is a movement dubbed “the new atheism,” led by scientists who argue that not only can science better explain reality than a belief in God but also that religious belief itself has become a threat to humanity.

Foremost among this group is Richard Dawkins, a British ethologist and evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, whose latest book, The God Delusion, has remained near the top of best-seller lists.

“Faith can be very, very dangerous,” writes Dr. Dawkins. “Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools: that duty to God exceeds all other priorities....”

But while Dr. Dawkins and other new atheists believe the way forward lies in a world without religion, Bahá’ís approach the issue of God, nature, and religion from an entirely different perspective.

Stating that traditional religious beliefs are inadequate for the modern age, the Bahá’í Faith recasts the whole conception of religion, suggesting it is the principal force impelling the development of consciousness.

In this light, there is much in Dr. Dawkins’ book that Bahá’ís would agree with — including his condemnation of religious fanaticism, his call for the application of reason and science in the battle against irrational theologies, and his argument that the theory of evolution can explain the emergence of complex life.

Central to Dr. Dawkins’ project of dismantling the foundations of religious belief is an attack on what he calls “the God hypothesis” — the idea “that the reality we inhabit also contains a supernatural agent who designed the universe and — at least in many versions of the hypothesis — maintains it and even intervenes in it with miracles, which are temporary violations of his own otherwise grandly immutable laws.”

The arguments in the first half of The God Delusion flow from this assertion, beginning with a solid, if at times dismissive, rebuttal of the traditional proofs for God’s existence and culminating in an exposition on how evolution explains how life might arise through a gradual and cumulative process without the need to invoke an intelligent designer. Indeed, Dawkins argues that a designer of the kind defined by his “God hypothesis” must be even more improbable than its handiwork.

When set against traditional religious understandings of God, Dr. Dawkins’ arguments are quite powerful. But against the Bahá’í understanding of God and nature, the contradictions that he identifies between science and religion simply dissolve.

Bahá’u’lláh describes God as an “unknowable essence,” “sanctified above all attributes,” and “exalted beyond and above proximity and remoteness.” As such, Bahá’ís understand that God is far above all that we can ever know. The very categories of “being” and “existence,” which underpin logic itself, are inadequate when referring to God.

Accordingly, Bahá’ís would agree that the traditional logical proofs for the existence of God fall short. But it does not follow that because God is far removed from physical reality that God is therefore irrelevant to the workings of the universe.

A number of passages in the Bahá’í writings suggest that God’s action and the laws of nature are folded together — and that the natural laws that, say, guide evolution, are merely an extension of God’s will. “Nature is the expression of God’s will in and through the contingent world,” writes Bahá’u’lláh, explaining that “all the atoms of the earth have celebrated Thy praise,” and yet are “under one law from which they will never depart.”

In this vein, distinct categories of natural and supernatural action blend together allowing Bahá’ís to view the physical world in both sacred and secular terms. God’s action in the world looks more like physics than magic.

Moreover, reason is given a place of honor in the Bahá’í writings. “Religion must conform to science and reason; otherwise, it is superstition,” said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Bahá’ís embrace the theory of evolution without believing that it implies that human life is merely some wildly improbable accident.

In the second half of the book Dr. Dawkins turns to the subject of religion and its effect on human society, attempting to extend the theory of evolution to explain our innate moral sense and the roots of the religious impulse. While this argument is intended to invalidate religion, here too the central idea under discussion is given an unexpected new meaning in the Bahá’í writings.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá stated that the founders of the world’s great religions are “aware of the reality of the mysteries of beings,” and that from this awareness they establish religion, which is defined as “the essential connection which proceeds from the realities of things.”

“The supreme Manifestations of God,” he said, “establish laws which are suitable and adapted to the state of the world of man.” Such Manifestations have included Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad — and, most recently, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.

While religion is seen in the Bahá’í writings as an expression of interconnectedness, so too is nature: “By nature is meant those inherent properties and necessary relationships derived from the realities of things,” said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Religion, then, becomes an expression of the limitless unfolding potentialities of creation; and revelation takes on, like nature itself, an evolutionary character: its form and content are a function of time and place, even as its underlying purpose, the transformation and sublimation of human consciousness, remains unchanged. The idea “that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is not final but progressive” becomes, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, “the fundamental verity underlying the Bahá’í Faith.”

From this perspective there is no necessary tension with Dr. Dawkins’ argument that our deepest religious and moral sensibilities might have an evolutionary explanation. Even if religion in principle arises from the natural order of things, there is no reason to assume that every part of that order can be encompassed by the ordinary human mind, or that religious morality is arbitrary.

Rather, Bahá’ís understand that those moral precepts which have most critically guided the development of human civilization, and which have resonated most deeply with the human soul, stem from the articulations of the Manifestations of God, who have been given a preternatural grasp of the deepest interconnections between things. Like all-knowing physicians, they perceive the disease afflicting human society in every age and prescribe the appropriate remedy.

The disease that is most gravely afflicting the world today is religious fanaticism and hatred, as Dr. Dawkins acutely observes in his closing chapters. With this Bahá’is would wholeheartedly agree. “The fire of religious fanaticism is a world-devouring flame,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh.

For Dr. Dawkins the source of the decline of religion in the modern age is in part a “changing moral zeitgeist” that has superseded much of the moral message of sacred scriptures of past ages, and in part a persistent rejection of reason and adherence to man-made doctrines. With this, too, Bahá’ís would fully agree.

The remedy lies in building up the new as the old collapses. Bahá’ís see religion as a living phenomenon, having its own life cycle on the scale of centuries — individual faiths have their birth, efflorescence, and decline, in the end providing the seeds for the renewal of the one “changeless faith of God.”

Without this larger perspective, it is easy to conclude in a world “dimmed by the steadily dying-out light of religion,” as Shoghi Effendi put it, that religious belief in any form is incompatible with the needs of the modern age. But evidence of a rebirth, embodied in the worldwide Bahá’í community, composed of millions who are gradually building open-minded and God-centered oases of faith in action, is dawning on the horizon.

by Steven Phelps