Dr Graeme Finlay is a researcher at the University of Auckland and director of New Zealand Christians in Science.
What prompted you to write “The gospel according to Dawkins”?
I am a teacher, and react to falsehood. It has been said that we now live in a ‘post-truth age’. As a cancer researcher, I have seen this coming! The tobacco industry lied about the smoking-cancer link for fifty years. This culture of deceit was then applied to the CO2-climate connection. Polarised positions on biological evolution have contributed to post-truth debates. And when Professor Dawkins used his immense prestige to perpetuate popular myths about the historical basis of Christianity, which many grownups uncritically accept, I felt that I had to put the record straight.
How do you see the conversation around faith and science in NZ and how do you want it to change?
When I was a boy, I read George Orwell’s depressing novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It describes a society in which history was re-written to comply with the ideology of a totalitarian elite. It seems to me that society is now rewriting history: for the last two thousand years of Western civilisation, Christian faith has underlain human dignity and compassion, learning and the arts, science and medicine. But time and again I read of Christianity as the villain. The relationship between Christianity and science needs to be celebrated! Indeed I do not believe that humanity can address the threats bearing down on it without the theology-science synergy.
What is the main thesis of the book in a few words?
Dawkins says faith is an evil; in reality faith is a disposition that is central to humanness. (A reasoned faith underlies science, for example). Dawkins perpetuates urban myths about Jesus: maybe he did not even exist; the New Testament gospels were written long after Jesus was supposed to have lived; their texts are hopelessly corrupted; they were selected at random from a large number of equivalent stories; and when Jesus said ‘Love your neighbour’, all he meant was ‘Love a fellow Jew.’ At the least, these assumptions are rejected by many of the most erudite scholars in the relevant fields. At the worst, they are post-truth fabrications.
How did you research the topics in the book?
I read whenever I am able, and two of my favourite topics are the historical basis of Christian faith, and the historical connections between theology and science. It is fascinating that biblical studies and the historical sciences (cosmology, geology, biological evolution) share the same mind-set, which explains why scholars who were interested in the former promoted development of the latter.
What is the most convincing aspect of the historical evidence for Jesus being alive?
The Romans ruthlessly suppressed dozens of popular movements in the centuries on either side of the life of Jesus. Most of their victims have disappeared without trace – except in the researches of historians. Jesus provides a stunning exception. His ignominious execution and the exuberant preaching of his followers must have been bridged by an event of life-changing (and history-changing) impact. The first Easter was a hinge of history.
What is your favourite book (besides the bible)?
That’s not easy – there is a continual stream of wonderful books coming out. If I were to be locked in a cell for a year, I would take Tom Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series, Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and any one of a number of books on science and theology by some wonderful scientists, Tom McLeish, Andrew Steane, Andrew Briggs, or Owen Gingerich.
What advice would you give yourself while you were a student of science?
Science is a sacred calling – give it your best. However, avoid the caricatures. Science is a cultural achievement that enables humanity to probe the nature of matter and energy. But it is not the only way to truth. It is in human history that we discover the nature of love, justice, compassion, and of every virtue that makes personhood so amazing.
What would you say to Dawkins if you were to have a conversation?
I would congratulate him for his brilliant promotion of evolutionary biology. And then I would point out that the Christian faith facilitated the development of learning and science for over a thousand years before Darwin (only it was called natural philosophy for most of that time). Science cannot exist in a metaphysical vacuum, and Christianity from Philoponus to the Royal Society provided that supportive milieu by presupposing a God of authority, rationality, consistency, faithfulness, purpose and sheer goodness. It’s interesting how Dawkins has inherited so many of his presuppositions from Christian faith.