Does Dawkins understand atheism?
Having read and re-read the God delusion I now think the biggest surprise in the book is not that Richard Dawkins has problems understanding Christianity (you might expect me to say that) but that he doesn’t seem to understand atheism either!
In a chapter entitled ‘The God Hypothesis’ Dawkins sets out what he calls a ‘spectrum of probabilities’ on the question of God’s existence. Each individual holds a position somewhere on the scale of 1 to 7.
1) Represents the Strong Theist whom he describes as ‘100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’
2) Very high probability but short of 100 percent. De facto theist. ‘I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.’
There are a range of middle-ground positions and then at the other end of the spectrum are
6) Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.
7) Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God. With the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’
But here is Dawkins controversial and crucial conclusion;
‘I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated.’
Why would he say that? Because Dawkins wants to represent atheism as a moderate view based on evidence. Theists may be crazy and arrogant enough to believe with certainty but ‘Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist.’
Dawkins wants to limit the definition of atheism to all intents and purposes to position 6 an altogether more reasonable position. We might call it a kind of moderate or liberal atheism.
How Dawkins misrepresents atheism
It’s as you look a little bit more into atheism that you begin realise that Dawkin’s is not exactly being far to atheism. For in reducing atheism to 6) Dawkins is skewing the definition(s) of atheism and he manages to obscure (even dare I say cover up) the debate between atheists over centuries.
Better books on atheism, to which I shall come in due course, set out the range of views and positions held by atheists that Dawkins prefers to ignore. The simple fact of the matter is that many atheists would and do argue for position 7 on his scale.
Michael Martins and Atheism properly understood
The best introduction to atheism written by an atheist philosopher in print today, is Michael Martins’ Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Martins is a philosopher of the first order and emeritus professor at Boston University. He is a distinguished author and edited The Cambridge Companion to Atheism published by Cambridge University Press. He gained his PhD from Harvard University.
Martins points out that the central debate amongst atheists is between those who hold position 6 on Dawkins scale and those who Continue reading »
A few years ago two scientific experiments were launched. The first is aimed at discovering how and when life began the other is concerned with discovering how and when life ends.
The Hadron Collider costs billions and has been built to recreate the first few fractions of a second after the big bang and the universe began. The second has a much more limited budget but I think could yield more extraordinary results it’s called the AWARE study and it explores what happens after life ends. What happens to us after we die?
How then does it work? The idea is to speak to those who have had near death experiences and test their claims. Studies show that somewhere between 10 and 20% of those who reach the point of death through a cardiac arrest but are then revived back to life actually have memories beyond their moment of death.
In particular the study will investigate the claims of people who during cardiac arrest and resuscitation attempts have described how they actually were mentally conscious and in fact actually witnessed their own resuscitation attempts as they floated in an out of body experience from a vantage point outside of their own bodies, as if they were looking down on themselves from a bird’s eye view.
People describe sometimes in great detail, everything that was happening around them whilst they were technically dead. They could describe things they should not have been able to know and couldn’t really have made up. They might be able to say which doctor was attempting to resuscitate them male, female, young, old, black or white, or recall a unique detail such as how a doctor tripped over the edge of the bed and knocked something to the ground. The sort of details that require an explanation and seemingly defy rational scientific answers.
So in the AWARE study scientists will place pictures on the ceilings in Hospital A&E bays that are only visible by looking down from the ceiling and no other way. Patients of course won’t know any of this and the images will be regularly changed.
Those patients successfully revived will then be interviewed and asked to describe what they saw. If any of them are able to describe the images accurately then scientists will have to tear up the rule books. The shame is that it will be another two years before studies are completed.
What do these two different studies tell us about ourselves?
I guess quite simply that as human beings we are curious about much more than our day to day lives. We are keen to discover and investigate. At one level we want a cure for cancer, we want cheaper petrol, we want our team to win the league but we have bigger questions about our origins and our destiny; who we are? Where we come from? Where we are going?
Inevitably in the midst of such philosophical discussions sooner or later God is drawn in to the conversations. Is he real, can we know anything about him, does scientific discovery make his existence more or less likely?
I like reading stories of people’s lives and recently I have been reading a book by Anthony Flew – you may not have heard of him he was a British Philosopher who died last year and early in his career he wrote a paper entitled ‘Theology and falsification’. It might sound a bit technical (perhaps even a bit dull) but it is actually ‘the most frequently-quoted philosophical publication of the second half of the 20th century’.
It was a paper that debunked God. You could say he was ‘doing a Dawkins’. Flew wrote a sophisticated ‘God delusion’ and it remains a contemporary classic. But just seven years ago he announced that he as wrong and has publically retracted his atheism and declared himself a believer in God.
This is what he writes in his book: There is a God – how the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.
I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence….why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.
Flew died last year a believer in God and it was looking to modern science that he found overwhelming reason to believe in a god. As a philosopher it was simply no longer credible to believe that this universe of law and order, of complexity and apparent design could have originated from nothing.
And to his fellow sceptics Flew puts the following question:
What should have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for us a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?
It is a good question and it is essentially our question this evening if evidence of God would you need to at least consider the existence of God.
Albert Einstein contrary to popular opinion was not an atheist and in fact he expressly denied that fact on more than one occasion.
We [human beings] are in a position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being towards God.
Einstein is far from the dogmatic atheist that people like Richard Dawkins claim him to be…but he is what you might call a dogmatic agnostic….what that means is that Einstein says we don’t know much about God and we can’t. Agnosticism is actually simply another word for ignorance. The one thing that we know is that we don’t know.
We might suspect a creator, yet we don’t know and we can’t know who he is.
The stats for our country reveal that too. 60 % of the UK population believe in a personal god but most of us would not be willing to put a name to that god.
I think that’s true of most of my friends – they believe in some kind of God but they also are fairly sure that they have no good reason to believe in anything more than a distant deity.
Here’s the point – reason alone can only get you so far -perhaps the vague notion of a god.
And here then is the conclusion that many of us reach; if God is there, a God who wants to know us, why doesn’t he make himself more obvious?
Well the Christian claim is that he has made it more obvious than by what we can work out through reason. We are not limited to reason but God has given us revelation.
And the staggering claim of Christianity is that God has spoken to us not in visions or dreams not in messages in the stars but in human form, personally, in his son Jesus and what a difference that makes.
A lot of people if they believe in God at all think he communicates in some deliberately vague way almost designed to confuse us. We think the way God communicates is a bit like the way we play Pictionary. Take away words and see just how difficult and confusing communication is!
Well it might be funny on Christmas day to live without words but it’s not so funny communicating through Pictionary in an operating theatre.
The great claim of the Christian faith is that God has spoken to us face to face and mouth to mouth through his Son. Jesus said to his disciples; anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. The apostle John wrote in John 1:18, ‘No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.’
Jesus perfectly reveals God. To have seen Jesus is to have seen God!
We don’t need Hadron colliders or even near-death experiences to know if anyone is out there. God has not left us in the dark and God does not play Pictionary. We are no longer looking up and guessing because, in Christ, God has broken into our world.
I posted a few weeks ago an interview featuring the man Richard Dawkins has refused to debate: William Lane Craig. Thanks to Tony Watkins for pointing me in the direction of this youtube post that shows Craig in action against the other self-publicist Christopher Hitchens. Dr. Craig graciously but masterfully exposes the holes in Christopher Hitchens logic as well as his views. I can’t see Dawkins wanting to put himself through that same experience anytime soon.
And for any seeking the statement where Dawkins gives his reasons for refusing to debate Craig you can see it here.
Piers Morgan has taken over from Larry King on CNN and in his first week conducted an hour long interview with Ricky Gervais just a day or two after he ruffled feathers hosting the Golden Globe Awards show.
The interview is well worth watching not least for Ricky’s take on God. As Ricky brought the 68th Golden Globes Award show to an end he said “Thank you to God for making me an atheist,” something Piers was keen to follow up in his interview.
I guess we’ve all heard comments like this when we’ve talked about matters of faith over a pint. I thought I might make a few observations on some of Ricky’s arguments for atheism to help us to meet such comments as we come across them in our conversations.
So let’s look at three statements that Ricky makes in the interview:
1. ’Unlike religious people I look at all religions equally’
Because it’s a throw away line in an interview it’s not altogether apparent what Ricky meant by this but what seems clear is that as far as he is concerned atheism is tolerant where religion is not and one assumes by virtue of that fact a better worldview to hold.
But take a closer look and I’m not too sure how a position that says ‘all religion is wrong’ is more tolerant than the position put forward by Christians. It seems to me that both the atheist and the Christian are making exactly the same claim to exclusive truth. Christianity says there is only one truth and that is found in Christ. Atheism says tehre is only one truth and that is found in rejecting all religion as wrong. Is one position more tolerent than the other? I don’t see how.
2. ‘Christians haven’t got a monopoly on good’
I’m not aware of Christians ever claiming that they did! The crucial point I would wish to make to Ricky over our pint is not that its only Christians who can choose to be good but it is Christianity and not atheism that makes a compelling case for why we must be good.
The difference I’d seek to highlight is that the Christian has a reason – more than that an obligation – to be good because of the demands of God. The atheist may choose to be good but can equally well choose to be bad. In fact good and bad are just arbitrary labels – badges of convenience – without any reference point to ground them.
The atheist philosopher Kai Nielson once said:
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that really rational beings unhoodwinked by myth or ideology need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason does not decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me. Pure practical reason even with a good knowledge of the facts will not take you to morality.
So I think I would seek to persuade Ricky that atheism frees people to be as bad as they wish. Whereas Christianity has a monopoly over reasons to be good rather than being bad.
3) ‘Of course I believe in love…of course I believe in the beauty of nature’
Ricky is pretty put out by the thought that Christians claim that only they can love and once again I’d be seeking to help him understand that, as with the argument for goodness, Christians are not suggesting that only they can love or live a moral life.
The big issue though is who decides what love is and is there any rational foundation for love if we beleive that the universe is ultimately a dark and loveless place.
Richad Dawkins acknowleges;
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt other people are going to get lucky and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice. The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless existence. DNA neither knows nor cares DNA just is and we dance to its music.
But more than anything else the purpose of apologetics is not winning arguments but seeking to win hearts and minds for Christ. More than anything I’d want to help Ricky to see that his very concern for goodness, beauty, love (and no doubt truth?) are pointers away from atheism (which explains them all away) and pointers to the God who is good and beautiful, love and truth.
You would think – and the man in the pub almost certainly thinks – that the further in time we are away from the life and times of Jesus the less we can know about him with any degree of certainty. If true that would be reason enough not to give Christianity a second look. But the facts work in exactly the opposite direction. The more time that has elapsed the more evidence we discover, for example, that the gospels that record the life and death and resurrection of Jesus are the gospels of antiquity and are a reliable record with regards the events that took place. And yet over that same time there remains an unbroken silence with regards any other 1st century documents that work the other way.
The Christian in the 21st century has more good reasons to believe that his faith is true than believers at any other time since the death of the apostles.
Here’s a great presentation of some of the arguments from Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of the Ehrman project.
William Lane Craig is one of the worlds leading defenders of the Christian faith. Author of 16 scholarly books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument, Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide and The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.
Craig holds two doctorates (one from Birmingham University!) and is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He is a member of a number of societies including the American Philosophical Association.
Bill Craig has debated a number of leading American atheists but Dawkins won’t debate him! It was a surprise to both of them when they found themselves on opposite sides of a debate between three theists and three atheists on the question of ‘Does the universe have a purpose‘ in Mexico in November of 2010.
In conversation with Justin Brierley on Premier Radio Prof. Craig gives his take on Dawkins and the debate.
If you want to watch the whole thing you can below. For Lane Craig’s own website click here.
The BBC comedy Little Britain may not have been your cup of tea but most of us have some idea of who Daffyd Thomas is. He lives in the Welsh mining village of Llanddewi Brefi and the comedy kicks in when poor deluded Daffyd thinks he’s ‘the only gay in the village’. In fact half the village is homosexual but Daffyd can’t or won’t see it. Unable to cope with the fact that everyone (including his parents) are quite OK with his sexuality and that even his best friend, Myfanwy, the local bar-maid is a lesbian, Daffyd stays the centre of attention as he persists in playing the ‘victim’, a misunderstand and isolated gay man in a straight world.
What makes it funny is the lengths that Daffyd has to go to in refusing to recognize the gay community around him. The fact that it is a gay man revelling in his status as ‘victim’ makes it particularly powerful. But the sketches also challenge the assumptions and thought-processes behind all those, gay or straight, who wish to ignore the sizable gay community in their own town or city in a desire to keep homosexuality on the margin of society.
But clever as the big idea is that makes the sketch work new research suggests that perhaps the voice of the gay community, in our media in particular, is out of proportion to it’s size.
How many people are gay in the UK?
The most common statistic is still the 1 in 10 figure associated with the Kinsey Report. The study reported that 10% of American males surveyed were “more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55“.
More recently, during the debate over civil partnerships, the then government accepted a figure of somewhere between 6 and 7 percent.
However it now appears that such figures are hugely inflated. The most recent and comprehensive survey conducted by the Office of National Statistics demonstrates that in this country we have consistently overestimated the size of the homosexual population.
My preferred weekly magazine, in its Christmas special, ran only one article on the Christmas story and they asked an atheist to write it. It’s called ‘Confession of an atheist: I respect Christianity too much to believe in it.’
Why would the magazine, which is conservative culturally and politically, prefer the view of an atheist for a Christmas comment? Well I guess because it’s a different angle. And that, my friends, is the problem for Christians when it comes to Christianity and the media.
There exists an inevitable bias against Christianity in the media because the media is always looking for new angles and new opportunities to say new things.
Andrew Marr at a recent internal seminar at the BBC let the cat out of the bag.
The BBC is a publicly funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnicminorities and almost certainly of gay people than the population at large. It depends on the states approval at least for its funding mechanism and all this creates an innate liberal bias inside the BBC and I think if we pretend there isn’t an institutional liberal bias of that kind which is much more clearly expressed as a cultural bias than as a party political bias.
And it has always been so. Marr, in his presentation to the September seminar, actually quoted a parliamentary committee from 1936 which highlights how the old, old story will always be eclipsed by the new.
‘There’s an inevitable tendency in the general programmes of the Corporation to devote more time to the expression of new ideas and the advocacy of change in social and other spheres than the defence of orthodoxy and stability, since the reiteration of what exists and is familiar is not so interesting as the exposition of what might be.’
As Marr pointed out, ‘Any producer, any reporter worth their salt wants to go for newness, challenge, controversy – and the Continue reading »
The philosopher and atheist AC Grayling is writing a book entitled ‘The Good Book: A Secular History’. In it he joins Richard Dawkins and Christophet Hitchens, amongst a growing list, who insist that you don’t need to believe in God to be good. Every Christian would want to affirm that fact. Atheists can and often do choose to be ‘good’, whatever that may mean in an amoral universe of ‘blind pitiless indifference’ to quote Dawkins.
But, heres the rub, the thing they don’t want to tell you is that without a belief in God there is no reason to be bad either. In a quite brilliant article the intellectual dishonesty at work in those who will not admit that their creed allows men to be cruel is exposed by Peter Heck.
Here’s just one extract but it’s well worth reading the whole:
Two years ago, their motto was “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake!” Last year, they were more direct: “No god? No problem!” But this year, as they feebly attempt to detract from the celebration of Christ’s incarnation once again, perhaps it’s a fruitful exercise for our civilization to consider their overtures and weigh the merit of their message.
As far as I can tell, the mantra “No god? No problem!” has but one minor flaw: the entire record of human history. It is no coincidence that as German atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche boasted, “God is dead … we have killed him … must we not ourselves become gods[?]” (which, by the way, is the entire basis of humanism dating back to the Garden of Eden), he Continue reading »
Do you sometimes wonder whether our Bibles tell us the whole story about Jesus? Do you wonder whether other biographies of the life of Jesus have been censured by the church? Why should we trust the four gospels we have and what could we say to those who ask?
In 1945 a man called Mohammed Ali (not to be confused with the Boxer) discovered in the deserts of Egypt a storage jar containing thirteen leather-bound books that date from the 4th and 5th centuries AD. The books are written in Coptic (an ancient Egyptian language) and are probably translations of earlier Greek texts. We know, for example, that one of the books ‘The Gospel of Thomas’ is a translation because archaeologists have discovered earlier Greek fragments that probably date from between 130-250 AD. After years of research and translation the Nag Hammadi find was published in 1977
Why is this discovery so important?
The discovery matters, essentially, because they contain early Gospels that we don’t find in our own Bibles. The thirteen books include a total of 52 documents including books called ‘The Gospel of Philip’,‘ The Gospel of Thomas’ and ‘The Apocalypse of Peter’. Continue reading »
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