Blue whale in a bathtub

Professor Dawkins’ assault on the existence of a divine being looks for evidence in all the wrong places.

Professor Richard Dawkins insists on evidence and says that there is no "evidence" for God [AP]

“I have been studying my bathtub all my life; I have researched all the bathtubs in my neighbourhood, and have done a lot of work on bathtubs all over the country; I am one of the greatest scientific experts on bathtubs in the world, and I have never seen any evidence of blue whales in bathtubs. I am completely certain that there are no blue whales in bathtubs, and therefore blue whales do not exist. Anyone who believes in blue whales, or claims to have seen or heard of one, must be lying or deluding themselves – like believing in pink unicorns – and must be mad, bad or stupid.”

Thus runs the logic of Professor Richard Dawkins as aired on Al Jazeera’s special programme on December 22, 2012 – and in his writings – on the existence of God. As I understand it, Professor Dawkins’ first book The Selfish Gene (1976) argues against altruism in nature and reproduction. His book The Blind Watchmaker (1982) argues against “intelligent design” in nature, and by extension against what is known as the Teleological Argument for the Proof of God (as propounded by Ibn Rushd and St Thomas Aquinas from Aristotle). His book The God Delusion (2006) argues explicitly against the Cosmological Argument for the Proof of God (as found in Aquinas’s Five Proofs in his Summa Theologica, and originally in the writings of Aristotle), and also St Anselm’s Ontological Argument (in his Proslogion) which Professor Dawkins describes as “infantile” and “logomachist [that is, word-based] trickery”. Thus Professor Dawkins in his writings and thinking systematically attacks the three most famous logical a posteriori proofs for the existence of God.

Space does not permit me to discuss these proofs here – they are anyway among the most discussed issues in the history of philosophy – nor Dawkins’ attacks on them and the counter-attacks on him by people like fellow Oxford professors Terry Eagleton and Alister McGrath (author of The Dawkins Delusion and Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life), except to say the following:

Dawkins’ refrain is that he is only interested in the truth, and thus he insists on evidence, and he says that there is no “evidence” for God. However, what does he mean by “evidence”? He means evidence that comes from empirical facts derived from scientific research communicated to the mind necessarily via the physical senses (since he does not believe in a soul either). But God is not known by adding up empirical facts or by information that comes to us from our physical senses (at least not at first), and I have never heard of a world religion that has ever claimed this.

God is known through the heart and through its fruit in the soul and the mind, faith. This “heart” is not the physical heart that pumps blood around the body but rather the locus of spiritual love and knowledge in the soul. It is thus through this “subtle” heart that spiritual vision and knowledge come. Hence God says in the Quran of the Prophet Muhammad’s r heart: The inner heart denied not what it saw. (Al-Najm, 53:11) and conversely: It is not the eyes that turn blind, but it is the hearts that turn blind within the breasts. (Al-Hajj, 22:46).

It is not only Islam that teaches of this spiritual heart and its crucial importance to human beings, but rather all traditional religions (despite other, irreconcilable differences between them). Indeed, Jesus Christ u says, in the Gospel: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew, 5:8); and in the Torah, Moses says: …[F]rom there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul (Deuteronomy, 4:29).

Universal doctrine reflecting a universal reality

I will not go into detail to show how this is a universal doctrine reflecting a universal reality – others have already done so – but I will simply cite from two very different non-Abrahamic sources; the first is from Black Elk, a 19th-20th century Native American Medicine man: [I]t is the wish of Wakan Tanka [the Great Spirit] that the light enters into the darkness that we may see not only with our two eyes, but with the one eye which is of the Heart, and with which we see and know all that is true and good. (Black Elk, in Joseph Epes Brown, The Sacred Pipe, p.42). 

 Special Programme – Dawkins on religion

The second is from the 7th or 8th century Hindu sage, Adi Shankara, who says: The Atman, the Sun of Knowledge, that rises in the sky of the heart, destroys the darkness of ignorance, pervades and sustains all, and shines and makes everything to shine (Atma Bodhi, v.67).

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783) argued that knowledge of things in themselves (which he called “pure reason”, but which in fact is none other than the spiritual knowledge communicated through the heart) cannot exist. Kant’s view has dominated Western academic thought to this day, but for all that, the heart has evidently not ceased to exist.

So where is the evidence for this heart, and how do we know it is not all mere hallucination or psychosis? The evidence lies first in the greatest and most influential testimony of humanity: that is to say, in the Scriptures and the illuminated testimony of countless prophets, saints, holy men, sages, ascetics, contemplatives, geniuses, polymaths, scholars, religious artists and mystics the world over since time immemorial who have testified and written about the reality of the Divine and their extraordinary experiences of it. Indeed, the greatest body of human witness in history consists precisely of this testimony and its study, and if all these men and women – the best of humanity over the ages and to this day – were mad or daft, how did Richard Dawkins suddenly become sane and intelligent? Among them were geniuses like Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (c. 1059-1111 CE) who, like Dawkins, started with doubts about the existence of God and then withdrew into solitude, prayer and contemplation – Jesus Christ said u: The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21) – for years to emerge with direct spiritual knowledge of the Truth, and then wrote arguably the greatest spiritual manual of all time, The Revival of the Religious Sciences.

Plato himself (424-347 BC) – of whom AN Whitehead wrote: “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Process and Reality, p.39) – said, referring to this kind of knowledge: “This knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences, but… suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightaway nourishes itself” (Seventh Epistle, 341c).

If it were only the Platos and Ghazalis of history who experienced the spiritual heart, one might understand how it is possible for empirical scientists to be ignorant of it. However, evidence for it comes daily from the 85 percent of humanity’s seven billion people who are actively either Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist (to say nothing of the adherents of all the other numerically-smaller religions). These of course are all different religions with apparently contradictory narratives, but all of them believe in a soul, in an afterlife, in spiritual enlightenment and in an absolute Truth, which is to say they all disagree with Dawkins.

And they provide overwhelming evidence.

For ordinary believers, the “evidence” for religion lies first of all in how belief and faith makes them feel. God says in the Quran: [B]y God’s remembrance are hearts made serene (Al-Ra’d, 13:28). This serenity is not the palliative of tea, biscuits and sympathy, or of an imaginary “agony aunt”, but rather real certainty and serenity in the spiritual heart. God also says in the Quran: He it is Who sent down the Sakinah [great peace] into the hearts of the believers, that they might add faith to their faith. (Al-Fath, 48:4).

Then, believers see “evidence” for God daily in a thousand improbable or impossible prayers that are miraculously answered; in their daily blessings; in a dawning understanding of the invisible hand that guides their destinies; and in the love and in the goodness they feel and receive daily and know for certain are not mere “heightened” or “sublimated” lust, or genetic strategies for passing on genes; and in beauty in nature (and perhaps in art) which has nothing to do with lust and exists independent of human beings.

The experience of the heart is real

They see “evidence” for religion in the very existence of God’s “great book”, the universe, with its perfect design which – despite Professor Dawkins and his intellectual colleague, wheelchair-bound Cambridge astrophysicist Stephen Hawking – does require a Creator to make, if not empirically, certainly philosophically-speaking, starting from the premises of the laws of logic.

They see “evidence” for religion in contemplating, along with the universe, God’s two other “great books”, the Scripture and the human soul: God says: We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth (Fussilat, 41:53). 

“There are countless instances where the spiritual heart reveals itself daily even to those who are not fervently religious.”

And yes, they see “evidence” for religion in occasional spiritual visions, auditions and other small miracles which foretell the future or console or warn, or suspend the laws of science. Indeed, millions of believers are personally familiar with such experiences – despite the scorn of Dawkins’ late friend Christopher Hitchens in his book God is not Great – and if they do not usually trumpet them in newspapers it is both because they are intensely personal and because religious commandments specifically prohibit this. Indeed, Jesus Christ u says: Do not give what is holy unto the dogs nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and turn and tear you in pieces (Matthew, 7:6), and this is precisely what Hitchens tries to do in his chapter “The Tawdriness of the Miraculous” in his aforementioned book.

Moreover, there are countless other instances where the spiritual heart reveals itself daily even to those who are not fervently religious. Who has not experienced déjà vu, or thought of a loved one just before they called and just as they were thinking of us elsewhere? When this happens, in Arabic we say, “al-qulub ‘ala ba’d” which means “hearts are in contact”, and in fact this is exactly what happens.

Who has not had a premonition exactly before something ill happens to someone one is close to, without ever usually having this premonition or fear? Who has never felt or heard someone in need of them, and responded only to be proved right? When, in Charlotte Bronte’s 19th-century novel Jane Eyre, Rochester calls out “Jane!” and she hears him halfway across England and then goes to him to find him in desperate need of her, Victorian readers did not think this an outrageous fiction because many of them privately had – or know people who had – similar experiences.

Indeed, it is a very sorry life that has never been touched or graced by an experience of the heart in some way, but there are mayflies that are born in the night and live their full lives before dawn, never experiencing daylight without that negating the rising the of the sun. 

The 19th-century British theologian and headmaster, Edwin Abbot, wrote a satirical novella called Flatland wherein he postulates two dimensional figures (squares, triangles and polygons etc) with no experience or possibility of sensing other dimensions, and then portrays how they innately resist the notion of other dimensions (such as spheres, cubes and solids) of which they have no perception. This is an apt metaphor for the denial of the heart and the spirit – except that the spirit is not merely one more unexpected dimension, but the infinite possible dimensions all at once.

Professor Dawkins might want to read this novella, because it is actually hubris to imagine that over 85 percent of the world is mistaken if they say that they see something, simply because one is part of the small minority that has not seen it yet, as if atheism represented a unique evolutionary improvement on the intelligence of the rest of humanity.

The onus is surely on those who do not know something to humbly suspend judgement on those who claim to know it, or at least to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when the latter have always been an absolute majority of humanity. Moreover, the reason why some people do not have faith has nothing to do with them being cleverer than anyone else, but rather with them being ensconced in their own egos and passions – and thus by the egoic deeds they have accumulated over their lifetimes – so that their own hearts are shrouded by these. God says precisely this in the Quran: No indeed! Rather that which they have earned is rust upon their hearts (Al-Mutaffifin, 83:14).

In short, the experience of the heart – its love, its knowledge, its ineffable mystery – is real, and in fact the most real experience human beings can have in their earthly lives, though it is not to be found in the bathtub of our own physical senses or in the shallow bathwater of empirical observation. As far as theology is concerned, Dawkins, Hawking and Hitchens do not know what the Dickens they are talking about.

If it is preposterous to look for blue whales – the largest and most intelligent animal ever to grace the earth – in bathtubs, it is only slightly less preposterous to try to stuff one into a bathtub. This, however, is metaphorically precisely what Mehdi Hasan’s 45 minute Al Jazeera programme tried to do. 

“Al Jazeera’s reporting has not only shifted a one-sided narrative with misleading language, but also ensured a more plural view of current events.”

Now, since it was first launched in November 1996, Al Jazeera deserves much credit for breaking the monopoly of a select few Western news channels had on the world’s news – channels, needless to say, with their particular own foreign policy agendas, cultural biases, intellectual prejudices and selective suppression of some stories and false inflation of others. Al Jazeera’s reporting has not only shifted a one-sided narrative with misleading language, but also ensured a more plural view of current events. For example, without Al Jazeera hundreds of thousands of US mercenaries would still be known as “civilian contractors” and now “civilian aides” – as if they were friendly building contractors – and Palestinians engaged in civilian resistance to illegal occupation would still be known as “terrorists” or “militants” (… actually, come to think of it, that is Russia Today – but perhaps Al Jazeera deserves credit for leading to RT). 

Mehdi Hasan also deserves credit for having the moral courage to state – at the risk of appearing ridiculous in that context – that he believed in the miraculous angelic steed, al-Buraq, of the Prophet Muhammad’s r Ascension (Isra wa Mi’raj) – albeit that al-Buraq is actually not a “mythical animal” as Professor Dawkins suggests, but rather the embodiment of human spiritual aspiration.

However, the programme starts with the premise that it was going to put “religion on trial” (oddly enough, with no “defence lawyer” arguing against Dawkins), and then almost immediately after that Mehdi Hasan offhandedly “intellectually concedes” to Dawkins the idea that there is no God(!). Mehdi Hasan then proceeds to gush at the “rhetoric” of Dawkins’ rather offensive diatribe against God as seen in the Old Testament in his book The God Delusion. He then argues that atheism has proved much more violent than religion (although he might have helped himself if he had actually had produced statistics on the subject, such as those available in the study Body Count as if this, rather than the inherent truth of religious claims, is what validates religion.

It thus seemed to me that this kind of provocative but underprepared intellectual overreach on a 45 minute programme on a news channel betrays not only a misunderstanding of the subject at hand, but also an abuse of the news medium itself. After all, there can never be a blue whale in a bathtub.

Note: This article represents strictly the author’s own personal views and opinions. 

H R H Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan is a Professor of Islamic Philosophy and holds a PhD from Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and another from Al-Azhar University, Cairo. He is well known as a Muslim and interfaith activist. He was the founder of the (2000) and the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ u (1997). He was the author of The Three Points of the Amman Message (2005), A Common Word Open Letter (2007) and the World Interfaith Harmony Week – UN Resolution (2010).