I have a friend, well probably several who fit this description, who I will call Jim. Jim is a Christian and very proud of that fact (and I’m glad for that). If you talk to Jim you will know quickly that God and his church are very important to him. If you ask Jim about the Bible you will get very straightforward answers, Jim doesn’t mince words. Ask Jim about Genesis 1 & 2 and you will hear a strict literal understanding of those chapters (and every chapter thereafter). Jim only knows one definition for “day”- the period of time it takes the sun to go from east to west and back. I said Jim is straightforward and so he looks at the Bible in a straightforward way– whatever is the simplest way to read the text is best. Atheists love Jim because he is so matter of fact; in fact, when I read The God Delusion I thought Dawkins was writing a caricature of him. Dawkins, like so many atheists, is a committed materialist who only subscribes to a scientific understanding of the world, meaning they like to deal in falsifiable claims using the scientific method. The friend of this way of thinking is a theory with fixed points to research and very little flexibility. Jim’s understanding of God fits well into this description. Jim’s idea of God fits neatly into a box that can be measured– after all, Jim’s idea is that totaling the genealogies in the Bible will amount to a correct date for creation. Once these atheists hear Jim’s perspectives on the Bible they assume (like Jim) that God fits nicely into this box. For many atheists with a predisposition to science, this box is readily destroyed and with it God.
Atheists love Jim because they can “disprove” God because Jim’s understanding of God and the Bible is in some senses narrow. But of course this leaves atheists like Dawkins dumbfounded because people like John Polkinghorne & Francis Collins continue to believe. Dawkins (I think laughably) knows these and other Christian scientists exist and is puzzled by their belief but never seems to actually listen to them to find out if his picture of God and faith is accurate. Rather, Dawkins assumes he understands belief in God and so these individuals are a quandary. Atheists have a difficult time with the God Polkinghorne & Collins present because that God has more flexibility. Their God is not as easy to pin down and so more difficult to falsify. But this is what we should expect from God. If God created the universe then we should expect that God would be difficult to pin down and thus prove or disprove based on observation. If God makes the rules then it is difficult to prove God because of the rules (though many argue– with some merit– that because there are rules God exists). We should expect that a God greater than our cosmos would be difficult to pin down by us limited to thinking within this cosmos. The God expressed by Collins & Polkinghorne is, in many ways larger and more complicated than Jim’s picture of God. Their picture is not nearly so easy to falsify as Jim’s– perhaps this is why Dawkins only confronts a straw man version of Jim’s arguments and avoids the other picture.
It is easy for me, who learns from Collins & Polkinghorne and shares many of their ideas, to simply call out atheists like Dawkins and tell them to challenge the intellectual giants of the Christian faith instead of creating these straw man arguments or attacking people like my friend Jim. But Jim’s faith also confronts the atheist claims, and in a way they are completely unprepared to see. Jim’s life reflects a deep and committed relationship with God in the way he talks and acts. His understanding of God is rich and expresses itself in ways I cannot always comprehend and it is amazing how many “coincidences” surround Jim’s prayer life. Atheists might love Jim because his scientific understanding of God and creation might be easily disproved, but his life reveals a level of knowledge to which they are often blinded. Those in the Dawkins school are blinded by scientism, a misguided notion that all questions can be answered by scientific means. Yet, Christianity is based on a claim that is inherently unanswerable by science– Jesus rose– there is no scientific experiment which can falsify this claim. Science deals only in repeatable events (every scientific truth must be measured at least twice) and this was a one off event. We also know that relationship words like love, trust, caring, & compassion are not scientifically measurable (at least not completely). In other words, though people like my friend Jim are often discounted when we talk of proofs for God, he is actually a tremendous proof. The requirement, though, is that we recognize there are means of knowing truth other than scientific means.
It is unwise to think that every uneducated Christian represents the same level of proof for God as Jim. In fact, I know many who are simply ignorant, they have plumbed the intellectual or relational depths of life with God. And yes to some degree Dawkins is right to caricature the picture of God they paint, it is neither intellectually nor emotionally fulfilling. But what I want to highlight with Jim is the reality that sometimes we need to ask ourselves what true evidence for God looks like. Jim is not likely the first person apologists would look to for propositional support and when atheists look at Jim they discount the evidence he truly has to offer. But we should recognize the value implicit in the relational knowledge which individuals like Jim possess. I would accept such knowledge as factual in many other aspects of my life (I write letters of recommendation for people regularly) why not allow the same degree of certainty to impact our knowledge of God? The adage goes the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and the tasting for the Christian life is one’s relationship with God. Atheists often forget this fact and they will love Jim for perceived intellectual shortcomings and forget that Jim is not claiming to have great scientific (or intellectual) answers for questions about reality; rather Jim (like all Christians) makes the claim to understand God through a deep and committed relationship. With this in mind we need to ask different and better questions about God, like “How has God changed your life?” I suppose if more atheists do this they will love Jim less.