MOUNT VERNON, Ga. (BP)--One fine Sunday morning biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett were strolling leisurely along an English country lane near the North Yorkshire county village known as Giggleswick. In crossing an adjacent heath, Richard pitched his foot against a stone, causing him to stumble headlong to his knees, tear his pinstripe pants, and despite the pain ask angrily how the devil the stupid stone came to be there in the first place.
With Paleyan aplomb, Daniel answered with a half-smile, 'For anything I know to the contrary, Richard, it has lain there forever.' Embarrassed, Richard tossed back a 'very funny!' to his eminent friend. Moments later they carried on with their walk and conversation, musing on the delights of gazing at countless stars through a powerful telescope the night before, not to mention a multitude of cells through an equally revealing microscope.
The long-anticipated conference at the University of Leeds celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin's 'The Origin of Species' was now over, and there was time for a little reflection on matters of mutual interest -- evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and the like.
As the dialogue wore on, they rounded a jagged rock hillock only to catch glimpse of a small English Baptist church some 30 meters distant, erected beautifully stone upon stone no less that two centuries earlier, according to the bronze placard nearby. Still grimacing a bit from skinned knees, Richard inquired of his friend, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and with a little payback in mind, 'How is it that a church should happen to be in this place, and for two centuries at that? I should hardly think for anything you knew, Daniel, that the church might have always been here -- like that stone back there -- except for the fact the sign says otherwise.'
Looking askance at Richard, Daniel turned his thoughts to the train ride back to London and perhaps catching an earlier flight back to Boston. All at once Richard exclaimed loudly, 'Hey, good timing! Let's go to the service. It's just starting.' Reluctantly and only after arguing for a while, Daniel finally acquiesced, 'OK, OK! Let's check out these hypocrites. All that mystical nonsense and those informal fallacies they use. If we're lucky, they won't be as irritating as that gaggle of Intelligent Design guys at the conference. After all, these are your fellow Brits, Richard. I'll give you that much!' While Daniel seemed to derive some comfort, psychological or otherwise, from his announced intentions, they fell in line with other churchgoers and entered through the gate, although a bit uneasy about it all.
To their surprise, the pastor himself, Jonathan Sibbes, was standing at the front door of the church, and so the aging gentleman introduced himself and personally escorted the two new faces to a front pew. The elderly Dr. Sibbes was certain he had seen these chaps before when it suddenly dawned on him just who the famous pair was, and so he resolved to preach even more fervently on his text for the day, Romans 1:18-20. Fancying himself something of a scientist, at least by avocation, he wracked his brain for last-minute illustrations to capture the interest of both the British biologist Dawkins and his atheistic collaborator, the Tufts University philosopher Dennett.
At the close of the service some two hours later, Richard became strangely pensive despite the lengthy preaching, as though moved deeply by the memory of some sacred experience of more youthful, less cynical days. The refrain from the last hymn, an old Puritan standard, was chiming in Richard's brain as if issuing forth from the lips of unseen angels:
'Thy praises Lord, I would resound
'To all the list'ning nations round'
Daniel whispered to Richard cautiously, 'C'mon, friend, snap out of it! The old fool sounded good, I'll grant him his oratory. You're not disturbed or persuaded by all that design-talk of his, are you? His sources were as antiquated as he is! Plus he went on forever!' Unable to reply, Richard rose slowly from the pew and walked with heavy heart and footfall down the center aisle to the exit, oblivious to the open smiles directed his way. Pastor Sibbes, already at the door, thanked them warmly for visiting and invited them back, although he had doubts he would ever see them again.
Reaching the gate at path's end, Richard, now emotionally and rationally overcome, was compelled to fall to his knees for the second time that day. Sobbing deeply now, he knew deep down how flagrantly he had cursed and blasphemed his Maker, his Designer, all these many years. Mortified beyond words, Daniel stepped away a good distance and could only resolve to wait out this whole exceedingly mercenary episode.
As providence would have it, pastor Sibbes slipped up quietly next to Richard's side as church members stopped in their tracks to pray. A godly presence fell over the group. Richard's convicted countenance said it all, 'Man of God, I don't know where my words are coming from, but my mind and heart are pricked to the core. Tell me, what must I do to be saved?'
Six months later, Richard was enjoying the lecture circuit scene, both in his beloved Britain and the United States. What the now-humble Dawkins once rejected, he now proclaimed to everyone within his varied circles of influence. 'To all the list'ning nations round,' the hymn had said. Rising to become the most noted ID theorist and even biblical creationist to date, his tandem message -- God is Creator and Jesus is both Lord and God -- never failed to impress, even as his watchword became, 'All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men' (John 1:3-4).
Hal Ostrander is chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Ga.
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