Archives For Dawkins

I don’t want to suggest Richard Dawkins and his other two horseman friends (following the very tragic demise of Christopher Hitchens) aren’t effective in their campaigns against religion, and for atheism… but I’ve been reading some David Hume (Dialogues on Natural Religion) for the Philosophy subject I’m taking at college this year, and he’s much more interesting and engaging, and therefore more dangerous, than today’s $2 shop atheists like Richard Dawkins. He makes some of the bilious rhetoric these modern guys employ seem very cheap indeed, not because the substance of his argument is all that different – in many ways Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins have all simply been developing Hume’s arguments in line with modern knowledge, but because he is all style. He’s just so winsome, and gentle, it’s like one of those kung-fu moves from the B-Grade movies out there, where you don’t know he’s actually started hitting you until it’s too late – unless, you are familiar with kung-fu.

I can’t help but make comparisons with Dawkins as I read Hume (By the by, Hume’s Dialogue, while it was said to undermine “natural theology” and the argument from design pretty much assumes the conclusions it then sets out to prove, by essentially ruling out divine revelation by looking for natural causes of both nature and religion, and then admitting that such revelation is probably necessary to know anything about the nature of God).

Hume is wrong because he essentially fails to engage with the question of who Jesus is – God made incarnate. God made subject to empirical observations. God made man – a man who was real, historically verifiable, and whose death and resurrection didn’t just legitimise his claim to be king – but all the stuff he said was written to point to him from beforehand – the Old Testament, and the testimonies that are written about him are the empirical evidence offered to support his claims. Written documentation of history – Hume was a history writer himself, so it’s surprising he’s so dismissive of history’s ability to contain and describe truth.

But back to the comparisons…

I like how at times Hume, in contrast to Dawkins, will engage with some of the big theological questions that present themselves in the course of his argument (lets not forget how Dawkins chooses not to engage with where hard Christian thought is happening), here he is highlighting the dangers of trying to draw an analogy from the creation to the creator:

“But as all perfection is entirely relative, we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine Being, or to suppose that his perfections have any analogy or likeness to the perfections of a human creature. Wisdom, Thought, Design, Knowledge; these we justly ascribe to him; because these words are honourable among men, and we have no other language or other conceptions by which we can express our adoration of him.”

At that point he presents a much bigger picture of God than he seems to employ throughout the book, where his God, if he exists at all, is a neutered, deistic god, who has no influence on natural events, and potentially even less interest. It’s a bigger picture of god than some modern Christians are willing to conceive. God is so far beyond comparison to man that drawing analogies is largely futile… unless, of course, you have something that claims to be the word of God which essentially establishes a comparison between God and man (Gen 1:26-27) right off the bat…

Anyway, like I say, I’ve enjoyed reading Hume because he seems genuine in grappling with the issues he’s writing about – though you’re never really sure, at this point, how much legitimacy he’s giving to opinions other than his own when he writes, his Christian character, Demea, who promises to indoctrinate her children before they’re taught any “scientific” enquiry, is pretty much a caricature with very little of substance to contribute.

Where Dawkins is shrill, Hume is gentle. Where Dawkins is bombastic, Hume presents with doubt and not a little epistemic humility. Where Dawkins is brash and intolerant, Hume is empathetic and questioning. Where Dawkins is filled with smug certitude and self-righteousness, Hume is a little bit charming and self-effacing. Where Dawkins can’t see much good in any religious people, Hume was enamoured with the leading Christians of his time (he used to go to see Whitfield preach, not because he believed what Whitfield was saying, but “because he [Whitfield] does.” Where Dawkins seems to want the quick victory, Hume amassed a pretty comprehensive case against Christianity almost by stealth – with snippets in all sorts of publications that almost needed to be put together posthumously.

This article in the New Yorker comparing the atheists of old with the new atheists has a nice little para on Hume…

“Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.”

What’s particularly interesting to me, given my recent penchant for all things Ciceroesque, is how much Hume follows Cicero. Deliberately and unabashedly. While there’s a fair bit of overlap in philosophical approach and the questions both men asked, there’s a style comparison as well. It’s, I think, a testimony to the quality of the communication advice and approach to life that Cicero laid out for communicators (believe in your cause, live for it, speak eloquently and passionately, write often, etc). This too, is why I think Dawkins and his ilk, though they persuade some, will eventually fade away into insignificance – their “rhetorical triangle” is not particularly balanced, they’re heavy on the pathos, with not much logos, and not a whole lot of conduct worth imitating or being convinced by…

So Q&A was a bit of a letdown, even for those of us who had low expectations. But one cool thing that’s come from the world’s leading atheist thinkers descending on Melbourne this week is this website. DoubtingDawkins.com from OutreachMedia. Which provides some food for thought for Dawkins fans. Each of the statements is a link. That took me a little while to figure out.

It features some pretty sharp videos. Like these.

Fine tuning

Nathan Campbell —  November 17, 2009

I’ve been thinking a little bit about why I am convinced of the truth of Christianity a little since Mark Driscoll’s Jesus based apologetic made me question the way I approach “theism”, and Dave’s thoughful series on atheism concluded with Jesus as a foundational reason for rejecting atheism and adopting Christianity (not theism). I tried my hand at defending Christian belief on the basis of the historicity of Jesus and the veracity of claims made about him in the Bible here.

I’ve been thinking that while my adherence to Christianity as an accurate representation of a monotheistic God hinge on Jesus and his claims – there are other reasonable reasons to believe in a God who creates and sustains the universe.

The Fine Tuned Universe argument, the idea that conditions in the universe are extraordinarily balanced and complex, has its detractors. It has its scientific explanations – like the anthropic principle (that things could only be this way for life to exist – ie that life couldn’t possibly have happened in any other way). And it has its Christian proponents – like William Lane Craig.

I find it pretty compelling. Atheists using a frame work of naturalism find it mind blowing but explainable. And once they have an explanation they don’t need a cause. Because to add a creator to the mix would create something else that needs a creator. I think it’s an odd paradox that none of their equations of chance – including the whole multiverse concept – ever factor in a universe with an omnipotent God. Surely if multiple universes exist then each one has a probability of developing a God powerful enough to destroy all the other universes? Monotheism is the natural outcome of this school of thought.

On a side note – I want to ask Dawkins or any evolutionary biologist a question. Given infinite time will humans eventually evolve into shapeshifting aliens? That would seem, based on Transformers, to be the evolutionary pinnacle.

I’m happy to accept much of the science of evolution. But I wonder what happens when you do that and remove God from the picture. What does the end point look like? How long before we can fly?

The quote below is the reason for this post. And it seems particularly dumb. To me the idea that there are a lot of things in the universe that can kill us, and want to, is a case for an intervening creator, not a case against…

I want to do a fast tirade on stupid design. Look at all the things that just want to kill us…
Most places in the universe will kill life instantly – instantly! People say that the forces of nature are just right for life. Excuse me? Look at the volume of the universe where you can’t live. You will die instantly. That’s not what I call the garden of Eden.

This is all stupid design. If you look for what it intelligent, yeah you can find things that are really beautiful and clever – like the ball socket of the shoulder – there are a lot of things you can point to. But then you stop looking at all the things that confound that revelation. So if I came across a frozen waterfall and it just struck me for all its beauty, I would then turn over the rock and try to find a millipede or some kind of deadly newt, put that in context, and realize of course that the universe is not here for us – for any singular purpose.

So now nature is not right for life which makes life less probable, not more, and the atheists embrace it. I would have thought the greater the improbability of life the greater the case for God. Am I missing something? The fact that bad stuff happens naturally – and that there are things out there that can kill us fits with Christian doctrine rather than contradicting it…

I love the part of the quote that equates the concept of Eden – a safe haven – with the whole universe. It’s just dumb.

These arguments come from this video – and I found them here. Be warned – this video contains a frame depicting abnormal and aborted fetuses.

Even without the specifics of Jesus I find the argument for a creator much more compelling than a naturalistic understanding of things.

Colbert v Dawkins

Nathan Campbell —  October 2, 2009

Given that (thanks to PZ Myers) 90% of my current visitors are atheists, I’m going to keep writing about atheism.

Here you go, a nice dialogue, between two people, about God… both are smug.

Everybody wants to claim Colbert as one of their own – either he’s a Christian satire, a conservative satire, an actual conservative, or a Christian… He’s probably a mix of all of those. He certainly has a track record of active involvement in church. And he looks like Will Bailey from the West Wing…

Anyway. This made me laugh. If only atheists were really like Richard Dawkins. Online, anyway.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Richard Dawkins
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Michael Moore

A couple of extra links

Nathan Campbell —  February 10, 2009

Interesting piece in the SMH on Darwin and limitations of Darwinism/new atheism as a worldview by Charles Sturt University Theology Lecturer Tom Frame. Highlight:

“Even his [Dawkin's] much-publicised atheism lacks commitment and courage. It is a cultural preference rather than a philosophical conviction. Nietzsche and Camus believed the death of God would be revolutionary and terrifying. Jean-Paul Sartre said “atheism is a cruel and long-range affair”. All that Dawkins can offer is a revival of old-fashioned secular humanism, whose hopes and aspirations are summarised in John Lennon’s insipid 1971 composition Imagine.”

And arch-conservative Andrew Bolt on the unfortunate statement from Catch the Fire Ministries.  Highlight – the whole string of comments showing why this isn’t a case of being seasoned with salt and loving non-believers.

Odds on God’s on

Nathan Campbell —  November 6, 2008

British betting agency Paddy Power are taking bets on the existance of God.

Current odds are 4-1 that God exists – down from 33-1 at the opening of betting.

Unfortunately scientific proof is required prior to a payout being made.

Perhaps Dawkins will pull a Satan from South Park and bet on himself then throw the fight…

From the article:

“Interest in the wager has increased greatly following the recent launch of a campaign to have atheist adverts placed on London buses declaring that “there’s probably no God”.

As a result of a flurry of small bets Paddy Power, which also runs books on who will be the next Pope and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has cut the odds on proof being found of God’s existence to just 4-1.”

“The atheists’ planned advertising campaign seems to have renewed the debate in pubs and around office water-coolers as to whether there is a God and we’ve seen some of that being transferred into bets.

I have some friends who are atheists – not just soft agnostics like most of society – but reasoned, secular humanists who think Dawkins lacks objectivity and is a rabid fundamentalist. You know, the logical type of atheists who have thought through life and made their own conclusions on the basis of the evidence they see around them. The type who make “moral judgements” based on empathy and reason. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in pretty intense debate with them via email. The discussion has been protracted and mostly frustrating. I’ve also been feeling pretty outnumbered – it was three to one and then they introduced these two guys I’ve never met into the email circle. One of them is pretty much the only person who now reads this blog – so hi. I actually don’t know where he sits on the issue because he just commentates on the debate – and how much he hates analogies. 

This debate has made me question – not my beliefs – but my response to having them attacked. Pride is something I struggle with. I want to be right, I want to engage in the debate in an intellectual sense and essentially prove my faith* and convince these guys they should convert – and be just like me. Which again, kind of misses the point of Christianity – because I should be trying to convince people to be just like Christ. Here’s the rub – the Bible promises that the world’s wisdom will see Christianity and its message of a capitally punished God as foolishness (1 Corinthians) – so I can’t expect to be convincing, nor can I mention this in some kind of argumentative context – because to argue the veracity of something using that thing doesn’t really stack up. I can’t say “the Bible is true because it says it is.” Nor can I say “the Bible is true because I have experienced that it is” – because that is subjective. I also can’t say – “the Bible is true because all the observable evidence (ie pain and suffering) suggest it is” – because all the observable evidence is observed, and compartmentalised based on the starting hypothesis – ie if God is not there it’s all just chance and coincidence. My basic instinct in this debate is to debate. To apologise (in the “mount a defence for” sense) for my beliefs. Is this the right way to respond? I’m not convinced that it is – not in the frames of science and philosophy.

Science is limited. Science has merit, and a place in the world. Science answers questions of cause and effect, and makes observations to test and demonstrate hypotheses – science is good at what it does. What it can’t do is test that which can not be observed – and it is limited to the theories and subjective whims of those testing them through hypothesis. I can observe “facts” and essentially plug them into my frame of reference to demonstrate a theory. The theory always comes first.

History also has limits – postmodern criticism has merit – but to rob any text of the chance of being true and accurate objective history does a disservice to our understanding of human history and anthropology. Why can’t we trust the accounts of a number of people recorded in the one book – from very separate original documents – to reveal truth? This exercise also taught me that those who are passionately disinterested – or dispassionately interested – in Christianity have very little knowledge of the actual text of the Bible – and its history. Instead relying on years of inaccuracies and insipid, purposeful lies. “The bible has been changed over time” is one of those half truths that misses the point – it hasn’t been changed by whim – but by desire to bring it closer to the original text based on rigourous academic scholarship. It has been used as a political tool in the past – and those who most stridently opposed that were the Christian church – and these men were martyred for the cause. This sort of shoddy criticism has no grounding in anything but what my atheist friend told me in primary school so I believed it.

I think it’s unhelpful to present this debate (theism v atheism) in the sphere of the rational, observable or philosophical. To do so puts the existence of God on our terms – a God by nature transcends the rational and observable. God sets the rules for this debate – not humans. To move God into these realms, and into our terms is not rational or reasonable – if God exists then there is no reason for him to conform to our experience of the world – or human conventions of understanding – anymore than there is reason for us to bark when communicating to dogs. We do not do this when interacting with our subordinates (the animal kingdom).

Thanks to Dawkins, Atheists now tackle these arguments by realigning the burden of proof and changing the terminology – now we, “theists” have to demonstrate why God must exist – before even tackling which God they should believe in. Therefore the Bible is dismissed as an authority (partly because post-modern literary criticism means nothing can be trusted as true anymore), Christians can’t claim any unique authority on the debate on the basis of the historicity of Jesus – particularly because any of the eye-witness accounts to his life must now be ignored or disputed, any third party accounts of Christianity – and the leaders of the early church – are not as valuable as “modern science” and observation – and the default position is now that the complexity of life is a product of randomness and an infinite spectrum of time. I don’t really understand that being the default. Atheists are now critical of the “watchmaker” assumption – ie when you see a wristwatch in a field you assume based on complexity the watch was designed and placed there. I think that’s something that’s been slowly indoctrinated. Atheists are now taught to proselytize in the same way they accuse Christians of brainwashing their children and others.

One of these guys scoffed at my suggestion that his lifestyle is the result of his atheism – and vice versa. He suggested the two were not linked. The atheist point of view by definition dismisses the idea of God – and hence questions regarding whether their atheism influences the way they live are flawed – theism v atheism is still the fundamental question that ultimately shapes the worldview of the individual – morals, ethics, philosophy and conduct all stem from this fundamental position – whether we (or they) like it or not.

The “church” has been responsible for some terrible injustices over time – or at least these have been conducted in the name of the church – ignoring the wildly publicised misdemeanours and wars, in a broader sense the church has failed to adequately educate casual church attendees. Both these atheists had backgrounds including church attendance. Both had strong – and in my opinion inaccurate – understandings of the “teachings of the church” and felt adequately qualified to make assessments on the basis of their childhood experiences. This may be unfairly representing their opinions and positions – but in my opinion something as serious as religion – and the underlying foundation we build our lives on – should be considered by adult minds. Both in the case of people who have always been Christians – and in the case of people who have chosen not to be. In either case I’d hate to think this is the kind of decision you make at 10 and never revisit.

It’s been a pretty interesting discussion all told – and I’d love any readers input on the issue. This post ended up being much longer than I planned.

*Not technically scientifically possible because faith is the belief in something that can’t be observed.

God has been getting a bit of publicity lately – and not much of it is good. This is likely to continue as long as his representatives (the church) keep screwing up their key messages. Public Relations strategy centres on sticking to a key message – and not straying to the peripherals. Andrew Denton’s balanced “God on My Side” was screened on the ABC last night and showed the American Religious Right for what it is – a mixture of crazy zealots hoping to bring about Armageddon through war in Israel and a group of well intentioned Christians keen to spread the gospel through whatever mean necessary. As Christians we are called to preach Christ crucified. To proclaim the “good news” that Jesus is the key to forgiveness for our inability and refusal to live life God’s way, using puppets is fine for that. We are not called to get on TV and promise new pancreases to diabetics. While the concept of judgement is a pillar of Christianity there is no biblical text to support the idea that we should be acting to hasten judgement – instead we’re called to make hay while the sun shines (John 4:35). The church’s inability to stay on message sees it getting bogged down in debates it doesn’t belong in. Obscure theological debates (premillenialism v postmillenialism etc) should be played out in bible colleges and published journals – not fought out in public between churches or Christians. The issues of sexuality and sin – which the bible is quite clear on – need to be presented in the light of the gospel – yes, the bible clearly says God is against homosexuality, but he’s also against lying, any sex outside of marriage, pornography and any form of theft. People who indulge in any of these areas are unfit for ministry – but are more than acceptable to God if they repent. There is no sin that God won’t forgive (except final and absolute rejection of him). When the church publicly condemns sexual sin it opens itself up for accusations of hypocrisy. It is not the church’s place to judge – or condemn anyone – there but for the grace of God we all go. While a belief in Christianity fundamentally (and logically) renders every other religion false – that does not mean that we should hate – or want to nuke – followers of other religions.
The intersection of Christianity and politics is one that has raised the ire of many over the years – and interestingly the separation of church and state is not really constitutionally enshrined – the role of Christians in parliament is something Ben and I have fiercely debated all year. Non-Christians should not be worried that Christians will impose their system of morals and beliefs onto everybody as law – Christians are called to be counter cultural – not to set the culture. We should be lights to the world – we can’t do that if everybody is doing the same thing.
The scary reality is that God is real, he’s in control. If God is God – we can not dictate how he should rule, or make him in our own image. We can’t stand here and shake our fists at perceived injustices.That’s not how the philosophical concept of God works – nor is it how the God of the Bible works. People who have problems with God have a problem. People who have a problem with the behaviour of the church I can sympathise with. There have been terrible atrocities committed in God’s name. There are people around with a terrible understanding of how the Bible fits together. But I can’t help but lack tolerance for this guy. Dawkins is the pin up boy for atheists. He has written a number of books criticising belief in God. He is to atheism what terrorists are to Islam and what the crazy eyed fundamentalists from the American far right are to Christianity. But he’s also widely respected as a scholar and an intellectual. Dawkin’s extremes make his fellow atheists so uncomfortable they feel compelled to explain his statements – in the same way that Muslims dealt with the uncovered meat statements from Hilaly. While I’m not sure I completely agree with the idea of persuading people based on the odds – Pascal had a logical argument or wager supporting belief in God.
Being a Christian isn’t the latest intellectual trend – but the church does itself a disservice whenever it strays from its calling and into the murk and mire of stupid debates. Let God worry about when the world is going to end. Let God worry about bringing punishment to sinners. The more we focus on what divides the church, and what divides society, the less people are inclined to listen to what we’re saying and the more likely we are to do something stupid like invading the Middle East under the pretext of a holy war. In conclusion – Dawkins is an idiot but then the wider church is full of them.