Tag: Richard Dawkins

An open letter to the persons who named Richard Dawkins the top thinker in the world

To the Editor, Prospect Magazine,

Dear sir, it has come to my attention as a citizen of the internet, that your, until recently, esteemed publication has named polemicist Richard Dawkins as number one on your “world thinkers” list for this year.

I understand that this poll is, in essence, well in every sense, a popularity contest, and thus is not really indicative of the intellectual lay of the land… or globe. Even if some 70% of practicing “philosophers” are atheists according to a recent study, Richard Dawkins isn’t even atheism’s top thinker. Alain de Botton, and Lawrence Krauss must surely trump him in the brain stakes. Ricky Gervais tops him in the wit stakes. And Penn Jillette tops him in the making magic appear to happen when he opens his mouth or moves his hands stakes…

Far be it from me, an unpublished writer of an unpopular, by any real measure, blog, to call your judgment into account when it comes to publishing this sort of list after soliciting advice from an expert panel constituted of “the masses” (I understand your survey drew more than “10,000 votes from over 100 countries” in “online polls”) but I just wanted to humbly remind you that this is, after all, the same internet that attempted to send Justin Bieber to North Korea, sent Pit Bull to Alaska, and continues to be enamoured with web polls that present opportunities for Pharyngulation. This feels a lot like one of those events.

You see, dear Prospect, there is a real chance that in proclaiming that the person with a large social media presence is the world’s foremost thinker, in a study that is a result of a poll conducted on the Internet, that you may open yourselves to being considered what the youth of today might call a “numbnuts”… such polls aren’t just open to manipulation, they lend themselves to manipulation, and your analysis of the poll which trumpets the power of social media essentially invites manipulation.

Dawkins, as much more learned people than I – like literary critic Terry Eagleton – would attest, is guilty of a little bit of overreaching when it comes to lambasting his opponents, and underreaching when it comes to, well, thinking… As Eagleton puts it (in the London Review of Books):

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be…

…Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.”

In Dawkin’s defence – he doesn’t have time to worry about sky fairies, or publishing intellectually credible and honest works – he’s lining his pockets with the proceeds of the angry anti-religious screeds published in the guise of popular science or philosophy books – and as you point out in his bio, appeasing his horde of Twitter disciples with cameo turns on the Simpsons. He is a busy gent. He’s too busy to debate serious opponents, and he’s been far too busy to publish original academic work in a peer reviewed science journal since 1980. You know this. Because your own biography of the world’s leading thinker has almost nothing to say about his capacity as a thinker.

When Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene 37 years ago, he can’t have anticipated its current popularity as a word to describe internet fads. But this is only one of the ways in which he thrives as an intellectual in the internet age. He is also prolific on Twitter, with more than half a million followers—and his success in this poll attests to his popularity online. He uses this platform to attack his old foe, religion, and to promote science and rationalism. Uncompromising as his message may be, he’s not averse to poking fun at himself: in March he made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, lending his voice to a demon version of himself.

How deliciously ironic that in trying to feed an internet culture predicated on the popularity of memes, and the sharability of lists, that you’ve given top billing to this English gentleman and then damned him with faint praise. Is this the biography of a leading intellectual? I’ve bolded the bits that refer to his contributions as a “thinker” rather than as a rabid attack dog operating in an area in which he has only the credibility afforded him by his tribe of minions.

37 years ago he had a good idea. And now he’s a crotchety old man with a megaphone. Here are ten “public intellectuals” with more Twitter followers than Dawkins who you might like to consider for next year’s list. I’ve put stars next to the ones who have been on the Simpsons.

  1. Justin Bieber (approx 39.1 million)*
  2. Lady Gaga (approx 37.3 million)*
  3. Katy Perry (approx 36.5 million)*
  4. Rihanna (approx 29.6 million)
  5. Taylor Swift (approx 27.8 million)
  6. Britney Spears (approx 26.9 million)*
  7. Shakira (approx 20.6 million)
  8. Justin Timberlake (approx 20.2 million)* (in N Sync)
  9. J-Lo (approx 18.2 million)
  10. Kim Kardashian (approx 17.8 million)

I hope this helps. I look forward to reading a more rigorously and well thought out (ie not dumb) approach to identifying “world thinkers” in the future. Unless your link bait strategy was to be very clever and ironic and I’ve missed the joke.



DoubtingDawkins.com: Best thing to come out of Global Atheist convention

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.

Easter, Q&A, Dawkins, and Jesus

Did you hear the one about the Cardinal and the Evolutionary biologist? Or at least watch Australia’s highest ranking Catholic, George Pell, take on Richard Dawkins on the ABC’s flagship “new media” panel program Q&A, on Monday night in an Easter extravaganza?

You can watch it in full here…

It was a train wreck. Talking too much about where Pell went wrong wouldn’t be conducive to keeping my promise not to debate atheists online, at least atheists I don’t know personally. But Pell was awful. In my humble opinion. The only saving grace of the night was that Dawkins wasn’t much better, and my conversations with non-Christian friends afterwards, both on Facebook and in the real world, confirm that his brand of intolerant fundamentalism is every bit as on the nose as Christianity.

Despite giving up visiting atheist blogs and forums to engage in what I would like to call “winsome trolling” – where you keep a conversation going, but as pleasantly as possible, as “tolerant” as possible, as genuinely inquisitive as possible, and as focused on Jesus as possible – I have some experience arguing with people who adhere closely to Mr Dawkins views, with a more than liberal smattering of those advocated by the late Mr Hitchens, and messers Dennett and Harris. By my calculation I’ve spend hundreds of hours engaged in such debates, either at the keyboard, posting here, speaking to others in person, or ruminating about the conversation I’m currently engaged in while I go about my daily business. I’m a fairly experienced amateur. But I’m an amateur no less. Pell. Arguably. Is a professional. At least that’s why he was presented to us on Monday night. And yet. Almost immediately. He became tangled in several follies of, well, any form of argument/debate, let alone an argument or debate that is televised to a national audience.

In some moments he was sneering, in others pompous, in others snide, in others confused, in others doddery, in others he danced around a question without going near providing an answer, and every five minutes he trotted out a reference to Hitler. In short he was neither convincing or winsome. His theology was jelly-nailed-to-mast stuff. One minute he said he hoped hell existed because Hitler’s evil required it, on the other hand he said he hoped nobody was there, then he said that atheists would end up in heaven if they did good – thus defeating himself. Why would one sign up for a life of self denial if the outcome is unchanged. Pell said himself (and I agree) that an atheist can do good. What he didn’t say was that any “good” act is the result of humanity being created in the image of God, and that none of it has any merit so far as our relationship with God is concerned (the former is consistent with a Catholic understanding of human nature, the latter is pretty much the root cause of the Reformation and non-Catholic Christianity).

I wasn’t expecting to agree with much of what Pell said theologically – but I was hoping that as a guy wearing our colours, and claiming to own Christ, he’d at the very least be loving and winsome, and treat his opponent with respect. Instead, he spend time strawmanning Dawkins, engaging in logical fallacies, playing the man not the argument, misunderstanding the science he was claiming to promote, and generally not talking about Jesus – except after he’d confused everybody by talking about ancient Greek metaphysics (particularly Platonism), while trying to explain what goes on with the wafers when Catholics take communion (transubstantiation).

At one point, when Tony Jones asked him where he’d draw a line on what is “myth” and what is “truth” in the Bible, or rather historical truth, citing the example of God writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, Pell flat out denied that the Bible says God wrote the commandments down.

Here’s a little bit from the transcript:

“TONY JONES: So are you talking about a kind of Garden of Eden scenario with an actual Adam and Eve?

GEORGE PELL: Well, Adam and Eve are terms – what do they mean: life and earth. It’s like every man. That’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science but it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and the universe. Secondly, that the key to the whole of universe, the really significant thing, are humans and, thirdly, it is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and suffering in the world.

TONY JONES: But it isn’t a literal truth. You shouldn’t see it in any way as being an historical or literal truth?

GEORGE PELL: It’s certainly not a scientific truth and it’s a religious story told for religious purposes.

TONY JONES: Just quickly, because the Old Testament in particular is full of these kind of stories, I mean is there a point where you distinguish between metaphor and reality? For example, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments inscribed directly by God on a mountain?

GEORGE PELL: I’m not sure that the Old Testament says that God inscribed the Ten Commandments but leaving that aside it’s difficult to know how exactly that worked but Moses was a great man. There was a great encounter with the divine. Actually, with Moses we get the key that enables us to come together with the Greeks with reason because Moses said who will I tell the Egyptians and he tell that my name is “I am who I am”.”

Perhaps he’s not familiar with chapters 31-34 of Exodus…

Exodus 31:18 When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God…

32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.”

The other thing he kept doing, that really irked me, was presenting the Catholic theological position as the “Christian” position, rather than the position of his own tradition.

MATTHEW THOMPSON: I am an atheist. What do you think will happen when I die and how do you know?

TONY JONES: George Pell, we’ll start with you? You ought to be an authority on this, I imagine?

GEORGE PELL: Well, I know from the Christian point of view, God loves everybody but every genuine motion towards the truth is a motion towards God and when an atheist dies, like everybody else, they will be judged on the extent to which they have moved towards goodness and truth and beauty but in the Christian view, God loves everyone except those who turn his back turn their back on him through evil acts.

Sadly that is not the “Christian” point of view, but a disputed point where Catholics and Protestants disagree.

It was. In short. A train wreck.

Here are some of my favourite tweets from/in response to the night that pretty much sum up what I’m thinking…

Jesus got 8 mentions in the program, by name, he was obliquely referred to in a couple of Pell’s quotes. One was from a questioner, one was from Tony Jones, three were from Dawkins.

Here’s the best description of the gospel from the night.

“…the fundamental idea of New Testament Christianity, which is that Jesus is the son of God who is redeeming humanity from original sin, the idea that we are born in sin and the only way we can be redeemed from sin is through the death of Jesus…”

And it’s from Richard Dawkins. Who is dismissing it. Dawkins is clearer on the gospel he’s rejecting than Pell is on the gospel he’s promoting.

Two mentions were in a segment where Pell suggested that the Jews were culturally inferior to the other civilisations of their time.

“TONY JONES: I’m sorry, can I just interrupt? Are you including Jesus in that, who was obviously Jewish and was of that community?


TONY JONES: So intellectually not up to it?

GEORGE PELL: Well, that’s a nice try, Tony. The people, in terms of sophistication, the psalms are remarkable in terms of their buildings and that sort of thing. They don’t compare with the great powers. But Jesus came not as a philosopher to the elite. He came to the poor and the battlers and for some reason he choose a very difficult but actually they are now an intellectually elite because over the centuries they have been pushed out of every other form of work. They’re a – I mean Jesus, I think, is the greatest the son of God but, leaving that aside, the greatest man that ever live so I’ve got a great admiration for the Jews but we don’t need to exaggerate their contribution in their early days.”

Pell finally got on message at the last gasp, in his best answer of the night, answering the last question which essentially suggested a modified Pascal’s Wager, where people should become Christians because life is better for Christians, particularly health wise. Pell thought that was a bad idea.

GEORGE PELL: So am I. It’s a question of truth. Christians don’t present God as, like Santa Claus, something that a myth that’s useful for children and believing in God and being a Christian cuts both ways. More people were killed for their Christian belief in the last century than any other century, probably than all the other centuries combined. They died on principle to be faithful to Jesus so we might get some benefits. You know we mightn’t get ulcers, we might live a bit longer, that might have much more to do with our heredity but we follow Christ because we believe it’s the truth. I think it does bring a peace of mind. It does help us but sometimes it gets us into my life would be much simpler and much easier if I didn’t have to go to bat for a number of Christian principles.

The one thing the transcript doesn’t capture is tone. Pell was snarling. Sarcastic. Snide. He didn’t miss an opportunity to take a cheap shot. Dawkins wasn’t any better. But the tone of this discussion was what really disappointed me. I am overjoyed that we live in a country where the national broadcaster hosts discussions like this, without any fear of repercussions or persecution from the government, or any fear of censorship. But surely Christian spokespeople should be using these opportunities to talk about Jesus, not get cheap laughs and applause from a crowd for mocking their opponents.

So that was Q&A’s Easter special. It made me angry. Why couldn’t someone like Peter Jensen have been invited onto the panel instead. He’s so much more winsome, and able to stay on message about what Christianity is really about (hint – Jesus). Check out the raw footage from this interview he did with SBS.

That’s heaps better than the turkeys who used their Easter media opportunities to slam the banks (though they may deserve it), and even those who try to turn the attention onto the upper middle class (which was social justice champion Father Bob Macguire’s approach). I was pretty thrilled that the ministers asked to comment on the meaning of Good Friday in the Townsville Bulletin all talked about Jesus (with varying degrees of clarity and plain english).

Atheists who love the Bible

Both Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins have written recently about their love of the KJV. The new-atheist glitterati are doing their bit to pry the Bible out of the hands of “the religious” and into the hands of English teachers.

There’s a great article on The Punch by the Bible Society’s Roy Williams responding to this trend of atheists damning the Bible with faint praise. It’s well worth a read. The comments aren’t. They’ve become a playground for the type of person who thinks writing lengthy rant comments to reinforce one’s own views is a good use of one’s time. While I love comments here. And discussions (online and in person) there’s something about the complete lack of respect that anti-theists show to any “woo believers” on the internet that just makes me angry and pushes me from my position of centre hugging moderate towards religious extremist. If I read many more of these threads I’ll be voting Family First and donating to the Australian Christian Lobby in the hope of making atheism illegal.

From the article:

“Dawkins is quite candid on this score. He admits that he cannot abide translations of the Bible other than the KJV, whether they are closer to the meaning of the original ancient texts or not. He wants the KJV taught in schools “not as history, not as science and not (oh please not) as morality. But as literature.”

There are serious problems with this argument.

For a start, the 47 men who “wrote” the KJV would have scoffed at any suggestion that their primary task was to produce fine literature. Appointed and supervised by the Bishop of London (later Archbishop of Canterbury), Richard Bancroft, they were chosen on the basis of two criteria.

First, their pre-eminence as biblical scholars – in particular, their detailed knowledge of at least one of the three ancient languages in which the books of the Bible were originally written (Hebrew and Aramaic in the case of the Old Testament; Greek in the case of the New Testament).”

An astronomical problem with Dawkin’s thinking

Richard Dawkins is not an idiot. But sooner or later the blinkers through which he tries to ram his view of the world are going to become obvious to everybody. That process started a little with this guest post on the ever popular BoingBoing.

Dawkins gets on his soapbox, or behind his pulpit, hoping to preach to a sea of sympathetic listeners. It is the internet, afterall. The playground for the New Atheists.

His target, in this post, was an astronomer named Martin Gaskell. Gaskell recently missed out on an academic position that he was more than qualified for. Essentially because he’s a Christian, who, while not holding a young earth creationist position himself – is sympathetic to those who do.

Here’s what Gaskell says in a pretty fantastic piece of writing on the overlap between astronomy and the Genesis creation account (and varying positions within the scientific fraternity).

“I have a lot of respect for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible, but I don’t believe it is the interpretation the Bible requires of itself, and it certainly clashes head-on with science. This viewpoint is something of an “American” view and has been much less common among Christians in Europe.”

Sounds moderate. Right? Some would say positively liberal (having just read Al Mohler’s Atheism Remixed I’d hazard a guess that that’s where Mohler would place him on the spectrum).

So Gaskell sued this college who didn’t give him the job, because the head of the interviewing panel was stupid enough to put the following in writing:

“If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin’s religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious…”

That’s a smoking gun. Here’s how Dawkins, in this ill-informed diatribe, approaches the Gaskell question:

Step 1. Make allusions to Gaskell’s position on Creation – tying him to the YEC position while admitting that he is not in that camp:

“My own position would be that if a young earth creationist (YEC, the barking mad kind who believe the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog) is “breathtakingly above the other candidates”, then the other candidates must be so bad that we should re-advertise and start afresh.

Martin Gaskell claims, however, that he is not a full-blooded YEC although he has “a lot of respect for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible”

Step 2. Compare people who hold a young earth position (which Gaskell does not) to eye doctors who believe babies are delivered by stork, and geologists who believe in a flat earth while promising to teach otherwise.

“Even if a doctor’s belief in the stork theory of reproduction is technically irrelevant to his competence as an eye surgeon, it tells you something about him. It is revealing. It is relevant in a general way to whether we would wish him to treat us or teach us. A patient could reasonably shrink from entrusting her eyes to a doctor whose beliefs (admittedly in the apparently unrelated field of obstetrics) are so cataclysmically disconnected from reality.”

Step 3. Suggest that people with religious beliefs are essentially unfit for any job in academia (though, to be fair, probably in the sciences).

“I don’t care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they affect his suitability for the job, and I am going to take them into account.” A law that encourages you to say, “If a candidate’s private beliefs are based on religion I shall ignore them, otherwise I shall take them into account”, is a bad law.”

See, there are a couple of problems here. It’s not uncommon for Dawkins to completely misrepresent Christian beliefs and essentially create strawman pictures of Christianity based on Fox News reports and televangelists. But the other problem is that Dawkins himself links to Gaskell’s own testimony about his own beliefs. A document that contains passages like this:

“Historico-Artistic Viewpoint” – emphasizes that we have to realize that the Genesis was addressed to people 3400 years ago in a form and in descriptive terms they would understand. Moses wouldn’t have got very far if God had quoted from a modern introductory astronomy text to him! (“Say, God, what’s a quark?”). A senior physicist, who had been chairman of a large physics department in the US (and who was, incidentally, not someone with a high view of the Bible), once said to me, “if we put what we now believe to be true about the origin of the universe into poetic language someone would have understood 3000 years ago, we would come up with something very much like Genesis 1 & 2”. The historico-artistic viewpoint would also emphasize that Genesis 1 is in the form of a poem. It has a very definite literary structure. Phrases and patterns of words repeat (e.g., phrases such as “Then God said…and it was so” or “…and God saw that it was good” or “and there were evening and morning…” But we must be careful to note that whether Genesis 1 is poetry or prose has nothing to do with whether it is an actual very literal description of what happened or whether it is allegorical or something. We must not make the distinction prose = fact; poetry = fiction. ”

And this:

“The “scientific” explanations offered by “creationists” are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations).
While discussing controversies and interpretations of Genesis I should mention something that has been much debated in recent years but is not an interpretation of Genesis: what is called “Intelligent Design”. This movement, which is often erroneously confused with young-earth creationism, is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence. This is really a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications), and there is no opinion on the interpretation of Genesis.”

Now, I’ve got no significant bones to pick with those who hold to a less than literal, or a literal, view of Genesis 1-2:3. I thought that was the worst part of Mohler’s book (Atheism Remixed) – which was actually a pretty good primer on the debate and used arguments from Alister McGrath and Alvin Plantinga (amongst others) to show just how shoddy Dawkins is with regards to his treatment of Christian belief and with regards to philosophy (ie he begs the question of scientific naturalism because he’s bought into evolutionary theory as a unifying theory of everything1). But Dawkins wants anybody who has any religious belief excluded from jobs on that basis. And the beauty of the post on BoingBoing is that its readers call him out. And they are, based on past experience reading the comment threads, a pretty agnostic bunch.

Here are a couple of the comments.

“Oh, just come out and say it, you want to discriminate against a certain class of people even though there is no real objective logical reason to do so. You get an ick factor. Which is eminently stupid. Competence is by definition the ability to get the job done in a satisfactory or better than satisfactory manner. If the person is competent, but somehow throws you off personally because of cultural predilections, that’s frankly a problem and a weakness of your comfort level. Imagine a world where you could hire and fire based on that. I would certainly like to see what you’d have to say when someone refuses to hire an Atheist, because “it tells you something about him.””

And another…

” To not choose the right person for the job, when they have demonstrated in the past that they are fully capable and suitable for it, on the basis of the fact that you don’t like the way they think privately, is pure bigotry.

If he shows evidence that his beliefs are interfering with his work then by all means fire him, but thought is inherently private. Should you equally deny somebody a job in finance because they like to read Marxist literature? What about denying somebody a job as a bartender because they’re teetotal? Where do you draw the line when making that decision for other people?”

One that opens with a quote from Dawkins in the post:

“I suspect that most of my readers would discriminate against both these job candidates…”
If by “my readers” you mean the echo chamber at RichardDawkins.net that you’ve grown accustomed to, certainly.”

My favourite of the lot:

“I think what you are doing here, Richard, is similar to what you do when you criticize religious people in general: you pick prominent but basically ignorant religious people, demonstrate what idiots they are, and then say “well, these guys are prominent, so no doubt the best examples of their lot. Hence, any other example will be even more idiotic, and we therefore need not examine them.”

Here you say “look, we have a competent person who holds religious beliefs someone found objectionable” (for reasons unstated, at least by you). “Isn’t it basically okay that he was discriminated against on the basis of those beliefs, since all people who hold those beliefs are idiots or insane? … The fact is that you appear to know very little about religion (and certainly as a self-proclaimed “atheist” you are entitled to that state of ignorance, at least in regards to religions involving the worship of deities). So it’s hard to see how you’re qualified to even ask this question, because you’re not competent to discriminate accurately between religious people who are idiots or insane, and religious people who are neither.”

It seems that the jig is up. When the masses start picking up the critique of your interlocutors in the sphere of published debate, and they’re doing it in a forum that should cede you home ground advantage, your methods are in a bit of trouble.

1 On this note, I really don’t get how explaining the mechanics of something, explaining the question of how something works, does away with agency. It’s like finding a ball floating in the air towards a target and suggesting that because you understand everything about its motion it must not have been thrown. Or like listening to a piece of music and suggesting that understanding the underpinning musical theory, and the function of the instruments in an orchestra, does away with a composer. It’s philosophically untenable. Just dumb.

God v Gravity

Stephen Hawking must surely have had his voice computer hacked. First he claimed that aliens would be out to get us (should we meet them), now he’s suggesting that gravity disproves God. Or does away with the need for God.

Let me put this to any atheists reading this post plainly. Understanding how the world works does not rule out the presence of God. He may, in fact, be making the world work the way it works. Most Christians believe that. Only silly Christians subscribe to a “god of the gaps” theory. Most of us don’t. Nobody thinks that explaining “how” things work is the same as explaining “why” they work. That’s basically mixing up cause and effect.

Let me use an analogy, and then I’ll share an analogy from Professor John Lennox.

I like to think of this as analogous to listening to a piece of symphonic music. The more knowledgable one becomes about music the more they understand the different roles played by each instrument, and the different level of skill being applied by each musician. The more carefully one listens to the music the more they understand the way the notes fit together, and the more they appreciate the way the piece has been crafted. At no point do we, when listening to the music, decide that the music is simply a result of a bunch of musicians getting together and just playing whatever comes up. While this is possible, and talented musicians might often jam together and produce something of quality, the more we observe the complex relationships occuring within a symphony the more probable it becomes that it has been orchestrated by a composer.

We don’t work out the theory underpinning the music, or notice the talents of the musicians and suddenly assume that because we understand it we shouldn’t bother looking for a composer. So why are we so prepared to do this when we look at the planet? It doesn’t make any sense.

John Lennox says:

“But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.

What Hawking appears to have done is to confuse law with agency. His call on us to choose between God and physics is a bit like someone demanding that we choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain the jet engine.

That is a confusion of category. The laws of physics can explain how the jet engine works, but someone had to build the thing, put in the fuel and start it up. The jet could not have been created without the laws of physics on their own – but the task of development and creation needed the genius of Whittle as its agent.

Similarly, the laws of physics could never have actually built the universe. Some agency must have been involved.”

Now, many atheists will acknowledge that cause and effect are different, and still accept Richard Dawkins (I can’t believe how many people get Dawkins and Hawking confused as an aside) “blind watchmaker” argument – the notion that apparent complexity would develop over time inevitably and thus an agent is not necessary. That’s a slightly different kettle of fish, and in the end it comes down to a question of probability and how willing one is to apply Occam’s razor.

But if one of the biggest brains in the cosmos (Hawkings, not Dawkins) can fall foul of such obvious category error then that to me is a little troubling.

The Dawkins Delusion

I went along to see Richard Dawkins in Brisbane tonight. The results were unsurprising. I agreed with most of what he had to say – everything except his starting assumptions and conclusions.

He started by telling us all that our lives are incredibly improbable. That we should never take them for granted, that we should never take our existence for granted, and that we should marvel at our very unlikelihood. Then, he suggested, as his latest book indicates – evolution is the greatest and only show on earth.

Our improbable beginnings began with an improbable meeting of improbable matter that expanded improbably in a way that created stars and then life and then us. Somehow it makes more sense to believe a void created complexity than to believe a God did. But we can’t believe that a void created a God (especially the God of the Bible) who would eventually create a world… Once you start speculating about origins all the options seem possible to me.

It is, of course, improbable that anything like a God could possibly have been involved in the process – because for Dawkins as soon as you can describe the process the notion of an author is redundant. He ridiculed the God of the gaps (which is ridicule worthy) and a bunch of other strawmen. Then he closed with a question and answer session.

He was funny, engaging and most concilliatory. He just isn’t really engaging with any Christian belief that includes the ability to synchronise Christian belief with scientific truths, and he doesn’t seem to think that the Christian lay person is capable of anything but a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of particular passages. He did, in question time, suggest that the enlightened “bishops and archbishops” of the Christian world believe that God may have had some role to play in the start of everything but has then stepped back. Curiously missing the point of the incarnation.

He had a swing at anyone who believes anything on the basis of faith, authority, or feeling (there was one other factor – I forget) – and suggested that evidence is where it’s at. Which is fine. But he doesn’t really have anything to say to those of us who are believers because we think the evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus is compelling. Like a modern day Don Quixote he spends most of his time tilting at windmills to the cheers of an equally delusional crowd. Until he starts actually engaging with the facts his efforts to discredit his opponents are risible.

I think in the process of answering questions from the floor (particularly one about whether our close relationship to the ape world had any moral implications) he may have suggested it was morally ok to breed with the entities that link us biologically to the apes – the only problem is that they’re extinct.

In question time a couple of people asked about the evolutionary future of humanity – I still want to know how feasible my shirt is – will we one day turn into shape shifting alien robots? Or self healing immortal mutants with retractable claws? I sure hope so.

Imagine no no religion

I read this other article on the new new atheism. A suggestion that female atheists should take the lead for atheists in order to push a more moderate and tolerant atheism.

Here’s a quote…

I heard two very different arguments at this event. The first was the old line of the New Atheists: Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.

And here’s a bit of demographic analysis…

“Females predominate in the overwhelming majority of religious groups in the United States, so it makes sense that males would predominate here. But XY types also dominated the rostrum, which saw a parade of white men joining John Lennon in imagining no religion.”

Perhaps this means atheism is actually bad for the survival of the species – who will all these atheists breed with? Atheism is clearly a genetic weakness. No wonder they want to propagate their ideas with evangelistic fervour. Actually, PZ Myers, the guy who killed my blog, has a post about some “science” that suggests that atheism is an undesirable genetic mutation. Cop that atheists.

“However, there must be a deeper psychological reason than short-termist hedonism why so many intelligent people have chosen the maladaptive trait of Atheism. I have recently published a theory trying to explain the phenomenon of ‘Clever Sillies’. Clever Sillies are people whose professional and expert attainments may be at the highest level, while their psychological and social beliefs and behaviours are just silly – I was thinking in particular of the prevalent lunacies of Political Correctness among the ruling elites. In essence, I argue that the root of the problem is that high intelligence often brings with it a tendency to overuse intelligence – even when ‘instinct’ is a better guide to reality.”

The guy who wrote the paper being quoted by PZ has suggested that atheism is a delusion. In that post he spells out why atheism is maladaptive…

The word ‘maladaptive’ has a strict biological sense, and also a more diffuse social meaning. In strict biological terms a maladaptive trait or behaviour is one that reduces relative reproductive success. Basically, something is maladaptive if it reduced the number of viable offspring. By this strict definition Atheism is a highly maladaptive trait, since Atheistic beliefs are associated with choosing to have reduced numbers of children: less than the 2.1 children minimum needed to replace the parents and cover premature deaths.

Back to the point about “peaceful tolerance”… oddly enough, Dawkins (who has previously described faith as the equivalent of a harmful virus) trotted out a similar line in a letter to young atheists I read on the Friendly Atheist today.

Of course we must leave people in peace to practise religion if they so choose. But the rest of us must be left in peace to live our lives without it. The religious want more and more influence over government policy and, if they succeed, our society will be the poorer: less tolerant, less equal, less just, less educated, less rational.

It seems there’s a bit of a philosophical battle raging amongst the atheists – perhaps they’ll start their own denominations.

Here’s another quote, from another Friendly Atheist post, it comes from a media release one atheist organisation wrote to describe a campaign conducted by another atheist organisation.

Last year, the Wisconsin organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), displayed a sign in the capitol rotunda which read, “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” Seattle Atheists shares [many] opinions with the FFRF regarding the separation of church and state, and about the harm [that] can be done in the cause of religious belief. However, we feel that the message was needlessly provocative and inappropriate for the context of the capitol rotunda.

Pushing for tolerance is all well and good. The problem is pushing for tolerance where the two sides of the issue are binarily opposed. Atheists can harangue Christians for not being prepared to consider the other side of the debate all they like. But until both sides are able to operate holding confidence in personal beliefs in tension with the possibility that the other guys might be right we’re not going to get any closer to this peaceful coexistence.

I’m more and more convinced that’s the key. I’m pretty certain God is there, but I should afford atheists the right to live as though he’s not, and that should cut both ways. Atheists should be prepared to acknowledge that the other guys might be right – despite their interpretation of the evidence.

But so long as leading public atheists trot out talking tips like the one below it’s unlikely that we’ll see that sort of admission.

“To say that God or the spiritual realm exist outside our ordinary plane of existence, and can’t be understood by reason or evidence, makes no sense. If God or the spiritual realm exist and have an effect on this world, we should be able to observe that effect. If they don’t have any effect on this world, their existence is a moot point. “

You know what Christians call the ability to observe the effects God has on the world – we call it science.

Dawkins in Brisbane

I’m going to this (in March next year. You should come too. Tickets are $15-$18. I’m sitting in the balcony.

Here’s the blurb…

“Britain’s greatest science writer, Richard Dawkins, comprehensively rebuts the creationists by pulling together the incontrovertible evidence for evolution.”

One can only wonder what all the other science writers in the United Kingdom think of such a bold claim. It doesn’t even say “arguably” the greatest science writer.

The problem with Dawkins

An atheist scientist takes up the case from Eagleton, criticising Dawkins for his approach to the discussion with Christians.

The trouble with Richard Dawkins from CPX on Vimeo.

On Hitchens

Four interesting little articles or events surrounding Christopher Hitchens have piqued my interest in the last few weeks. For the uninitiated, Hitchens one of the more prominent voices of the New Atheist movement.

Hitchens, in a recent column on Slate, described himself essentially as the modern day champion of atheism – in the same sense that medieval kings had champions who would throw down the gauntlet to knights from near and far…

Ever since I invited any champion of faith to debate with me in the spring of 2007, I have been very impressed by the willingness of the other side to take me, and my allies, up on the offer.

Hitchens is making his big screen debut shortly. A series of debates he held with American pastor Douglas Wilson is being turned into a feature film called Collision.

Some of his preconceptions about Christians have been challenged in the process – and they’re the issues I find most offensive about the manner in which atheists conduct themselves in debates.

On one hand they say “don’t generalise us, we’re all different” and on the other they throw all Christians into the same boat as the Westboro Baptists or (medieval) Crusaders.

Hitchens made this comment on his interactions with Christians in debates:

“I have discovered that the so-called Christian right is much less monolithic, and very much more polite and hospitable, than I would once have thought, or than most liberals believe.”

Who’d have thought that some Christians might actually act like Christ.

Then he ends up committing what I think is the other great error in the discourse – the inability to split the Bible up into literary sub-genres.

Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just “metaphors.” He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he “allows” it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners.

Some stories in the Bible are clearly metaphors – like the parables. Others are not. The fact that some Christians can’t tell the difference doesn’t mean that every piece of the Bible needs to be taken at literal face value, and it doesn’t make anyone who sees a place for metaphor or symbolism a liberal.

Hitchens was in Sydney recently speaking at the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” – his presence earned him a gig on the ABC’s Q&A. You can watch his exchange here. I only hope that Christians presenting their belief in an absolute truth can avoid the smugness the he occasionally exhibits. I know we often don’t.

While he was in Sydney Michael Jensen had an opinion piece published in the SMH that thanked Hitchens for getting people talking about God…

He points to certain passages in Hitchens’ work that fail to grasp any form of nuance in Christian thinking and buy into other people’s subjective hatchet jobs…

“Please repeat your completely erroneous claim that, in the Old Testament, God never shows or speaks of compassion or mercy; or that one about how the gospel writers can’t agree on anything. Or drop once more that clanger about how the Christian doctrine of the resurrection means that Christ never died.

Say again, in front of an audience, your historically laughable tale of how the Maccabees of the 2nd century BC were responsible for both Christianity and Islam. Say that the missing document called “Q” influenced all four gospel writers (p. 112) – when everyone who knows anything about it knows that this is just plain false.

Give full vent to your magnificent spleen. Remind us of the lack of marsupials in the book of Genesis and watch us squirm with embarrassment. Display once more that you read the Bible with no more sophistication than a snake-handler. Dismiss with an elegant wave of your hand the whole exercise of New Testament scholarship, especially the authors you haven’t read.

State again, with the conviction of someone who knows he is right, why it is that you can’t stand people who know they are right (p. 242).”

This was followed by a piece in the SMH this week by a Jewish scholar – who again points out the problems with the way Hitchens handles both the Jewish and Christian Bibles (particularly the OT).

Hitchens cites the Binding of Isaac and “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” injunction as brutish and stupid. Yet, scholars have interpreted the binding as ending child sacrifice and the injunction as a caution against excessive vengeance. Hitchens says that the God of Moses never refers to compassion and human friendship, overlooking “love your neighbour as yourself”.

For his part, Dawkins is clearly out of his depth when it comes to Jewish teachings and ethics. He claims, for instance, that “love thy neighbour” meant only “love another Jew”. He apparently is not aware that in the same chapter, Jews are commanded to love the stranger that lives in their land as they would themselves. When Jesus, himself a Jew, was asked “Who is my neighbour” he did not refer to other Jews, but to a Samaritan, considered at that time as heretical and unclean.

Which prompted this response from an atheist physicist also on the SMH website. The reason I post this is that in one paragraph he raises two of the points that Dave wrote about in post two of his “Reasons I’m not an Atheist” series.

The human brain has evolved over millions of years to be well adapted for dealing with and surviving the challenges thrown up by the kinds of environments in which human beings live. It has been suggested that the same adaptations that have contributed to humanity’s success as a species have also, as a side effect, predisposed us towards accepting certain kinds of mystical and religious beliefs. Our brains may well be “hard-wired’ for religion. Add some cultural nurture to our evolved nature and we have the beginnings of an explanation for why so many people follow some form of religion. When it comes to choosing one particular religion over another, it seems to be largely a matter of indoctrination; the best predictor of a person’s religious beliefs is the beliefs held by his or her parents.

Meanwhile, my conversation with the “friendly” atheists on the post I linked to yesterday is still going.

Colbert v Dawkins

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
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Michael Moore

Google has all the answers

The Friendly Atheist thought it was pretty funny that Google says mean things about some Christian leaders when you type their names and “is” using Google’s predictive search thing.

I ran the test. I came up with some interesting results.

Here they are.

Google gets this one right…

Smells like mean spirit

An atheist blogger has suggested a new product line… Richard Dawkins cologne. Its odour is no doubt offensive to Christians everywhere.

On foolishness

I’m working on my next sermon. For the night services at Willows on the 28th of June. Here’s the passage I’m preaching on – it’s in the context of a series on evangelism in the mornings… an imaginary Freddo Frog to the person who first guesses what direction I’m going in with this passage…

1 Corinthians 1
“17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Christ the Wisdom and Power of God
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[c]
20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”[d]

1 Corinthians 2
1 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[e] 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”