Richard Dawkins, C. S. Lewis, and the Meaning of Life

Over my years of teaching new member classes, I was continually surprised that the creation story caused so little discomfort with people’s public-school training in evolutionary theory. These were adults, and maybe the implications of the modern understanding had not caught up to them, especially the older ones.

I was and remain a big fan of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life, published almost twenty years ago. He addressed what has to be a basic source of confusion behind the increasing disinterest in church life. Is there a God, or not? If there is a God, what difference does he make? Most Americans do not think deeply on this tension. They drift into indifference and join the “nones,” who have no commitments.

I offer here a quick summary of recent discussions on the competing explanations. Alister McGrath has emerged as a good discussion leader, with one foot in science and the other in theology. He first gained attention with his 2007 best-seller publication on the Dawkins Delusion: Engaging with the New Atheism.  His latest (2019) is Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life.

Dawkins’ big picture is Universal Darwinism, that the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind indifference.” He maintains his view offers an explanation of what is observed in the biological world, and that this understanding is superior to belief in a creator God.

C. S. Lewis gained popularity in the 1950s and 60s. He initially considered himself to be an atheist, especially after his Army experience witnessing the devastation of World War I. But he soon concluded that the world of the logically provable was inadequate and unsatisfying; he became convinced there had to be more to life. “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”

His 1976 book The Selfish Gene brought Richard Dawkins international recognition. He argued that whether we like it or not, our motivations and actions are shaped by our genetic inheritance—by DNA, which codes and transmits our individual genetic identities: “DNA neither knows or cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” The moderator McGrath observed the resonance between Dawkins’ narrative of genetic entrapment and the Christian understanding of captivity to sin.

For Lewis, any scientific account of human nature is inadequate. It needs to be supplemented by something deeper: knowledge of where we really belong and what we really mean. Lewis found himself reflecting on the implications of a profound and elusive sense of longing, heightened rather than satisfied by what he found around him. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

For Dawkins, God is an unevidenced delusion. For Lewis, God is “a dynamic, pulsating activity, a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” To have faith in God is not primarily to give intellectual assent to an idea about God but to step into a greater picture of our world and become part of it. There is no other way to the happiness for which we are made.

Alistair McGrath ends his discussion with reference to Paul Kalanithi, promising neuro-surgeon who died young of lung cancer. He had cause to think about the meaning of life, as reflected in his best-selling book When Breath Becomes Air, published after his death in 2015. Kalanithi wrote that “science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.” He notes that to deal with the many questions and challenges of real life we need more than one conceptual toolbox.

A last observation from C. S. Lewis: “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”

I think Lewis would agree that Scripture offers us the biggest possible story of the meaning of life—from its creation, to its redemption, to the power to live better in this world, to fulfillment in the next.

What is your reaction to contrasting the atheism of Dawkins and the affirmation of God and biblical truth by C. S. Lewis?  Have you experienced “a profound and elusive sense of longing to know who we are and why we are living?”

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