The Dawkins Challenge

The noted atheist Richard Dawkins has been very active recently in his campaign to discredit religious belief, in particular Christianity, and Roman Catholicism has been a special target. He had a debate of sorts with Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and appeared on an Australian television program, “Q and A,” with Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney. His animus against Catholicism was also evident in a joint appearance with Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and fellow non-believer (as Krauss likes to be called), at the Australian National University.

Krauss is the author of the much heralded, A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, in which he argues that it is highly plausible that we will soon be able to understand how the entire universe, including the fundamental laws of physics, can start from “absolutely nothing” without any need to appeal to a creator or supernatural agency.

When he speaks of the irrationality of religious belief, Dawkins often invokes Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Church teaches that with the priest’s words of consecration the bread and wine really become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

The rationale behind the doctrine, which is known as transubstantiation, employs categories of substance and accident, which have their origin in the philosophy of Aristotle. According to the Church, the underlying substances of bread and wine are replaced by the body and blood of Christ while the external appearances of bread and wine remain. A scientific analysis of the consecrated host and wine would only detect these external appearances.

Dawkins opined both in Australia and previously at the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. that people should be encouraged to confront Roman Catholics about transubstantiation. Do they really hold the “utterly nutty belief that a wafer turns into the body of a first-century Jew just because a priest blessed it?” Such a view is “barking mad.” 

He told Cardinal Pell that he could be charitable and accept that the Cardinal might believe that the host came to symbolize the body of Christ, but to think that it became really the body of Christ was absurd. The wafer does not become the body of anyone, he said, given “normal English usage” of the word “body.” 

Dawkins also told the Cardinal that any idea of the resurrection of the body was absurd since we know for sure that after death the body disintegrates. Again, he appealed to a common-sense meaning of the word “body.” How, Dawkins asked, could anyone really defend views so obviously indefensible? Public ridicule of these claims is necessary.

         Atheists Richard Dawkins (left) and Lawrence Krauss, enthroned

Belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist comes from an acceptance, in faith, of God’s revelation. Appeals to divine authority as a source of truth do not fall within the realm of the credible for Dawkins. Any defense of faith in the real presence and of the doctrine of transubstantiation – and the Church does not lack such defenses – involves appeals to arguments in metaphysics and theology, disciplines which people like Dawkins and Krauss dismiss as telling us nothing about reality.

Dawkins and Krauss would first have to see that there is more to what we know about the world than what the natural sciences tell us. But Krauss himself notes of certain effects in modern physics, that “‘nothing’ is every bit as physical as something” and accordingly we need “to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities,” that “without science, any definition is just words.” 

To which a Catholic can say: Amen. Reason can refute objections to what is believed. If Dawkins and Krauss want to understand what Catholics believe, there would have to be preliminary discourse about a richer sense of rationality, one not limited to the natural sciences. To say that only the natural sciences reach truth is to make a philosophical claim about truth, which goes beyond the sciences themselves.

In Australia, Dawkins observed that to take seriously the views of contemporary science, especially the cosmology that argues about getting something from “absolutely nothing,” we need to be willing to move well beyond our “common sense” understandings of the world. In this particular case, we will otherwise misunderstand what physicists like Krauss mean by “nothing.” According to Dawkins, the “whole point of modern physics is that you cannot do it by ‘common sense.’” 

This from a man who ridiculed the use of the word “body” in Catholic teaching about the Eucharist because it went against common sense. The vocabulary of faith, like that of physics, needs to be understood in technical terms. But Dawkins does not allow for the kind of specialized vocabulary in theology and philosophy that he is so willing to grant to physics.

The body of Christ, present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, although real (neither symbolic nor metaphorical), is vastly different from the ordinary bodies subject to empirical analysis. It is sacramental presence and theology, aided by philosophy, that help to make intelligible what is believed.

Even Catholics often fail to realize – and defend – this fundamental truth. When a young woman in the audience at the Australian National University, who identified herself as a Catholic, challenged Dawkins and Krauss to distinguish their position from that of a religion, Dawkins asked her directly whether she really believed in the doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist. She was quick to say that, of course, she did not.

Catholics need to be ready to take up this challenge. The arguments in theology and philosophy may not seem compelling – or even worthy of rational attention – to Dawkins and his followers. But informed Catholics ought to be far better prepared to use reason itself to defend what they believe on faith.


William Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars, University of Oxford.