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The Gospel According to Dawkins

The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area. 

Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.

Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science

The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.

As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).

Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.

The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously. 

One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought. 

I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.

Why not pick it up on kindle now?  And if you have comments after reading, feel free to get in touch with me to discuss them. 

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The New Atheists’ Questionable Knowledge of History

John Dickson examines some of the historical claims about the gospels and the life of Jesus made by the New Atheists.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Dickson is the director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University. You can check out more of CPX’s videos on their vimeo channel or on their website.

New Atheist Scientists: “Lane Craig is a fool, you can get an ought from an is, up is down, arguments be damned”

New Atheist pitbull PZ Myers recently described William Lane Craig as a “dogmatic fool”, in reference to Craig’s debate with Sam Harris on the foundations of morality.

I can’t help feeling like that’s setting the bar unreasonably high. If Craig is only a dogmatic fool, Harris must be a bigoted half-wit by comparison, and Myers himself an unreasoning idiot. Even I don’t think Myers is an idiot.

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Book Review: Who Made God?

Posted on behalf of Michael Drake.

Who Made God? is a witty, stimulating and very readable explanation of the discoveries of modern science, exhibiting the marvels of God’s creation and exposing the inconsistency of attempts to explain the universe in terms of atheism and evolution.

More than making important and obtuse concepts of modern science delightfully comprehensible in memorable imagery of daily life, Edgar Andrews silences on its own terms the challenge of atheistic scepticism and points readers to the truth and sufficiency of the Bible and faith in Christ as a framework – the only adequate framework – in which to think.

Here is a readable and informative response by an internationally respected scientist to claims that atheistic science can explain everything.  Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London, Andrews outlines with clarity and humour significant scientific constructs that describe how our universe functions.  As he does that, he shows their usefulness and consistency with observable data, while exposing their inconsistencies and inadequacies in explaining the totality of everything.  In particular Andrews renders in stark clarity the failure of the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, et al) to explain the order and origins of the material and immaterial universe.

Against that he sets out what he calls the “hypothesis of God”.  One of new-atheism’s fallacies of debating the existence of God is its failure to define its terms.  Andrews shows that when the Bible’s definition of God as creator and sustainer of the universe is used, the observable data fits, and does so with a consistency and comprehensiveness that evolutionary atheism can never sustain.

Andrews’ last chapter highlights the inevitable and necessary conclusion to the data examined: God must exist, and does exist as the unmade maker and sustainer of everything.   But more than this, the moral argument for God exposes our inescapable need of God and his redemption in Christ.  So he closes with a personal affirmation of the grace he has found in the Saviour, and commendation of the Gospel of John as the next thing readers should turn to.

That last chapter aside, the first six chapters may be the most important contemporary writing anyone can be encouraged to read.  Neither those nor the latter chapters are always easy reading.  From the start Andrews warns that some of the science is challenging.  He encourages readers to persevere: it may be necessary to read some sections two or three times, but that is worth the effort.  Yet it is not so much how those first chapters induct readers into the theories of modern science, but how they introduce readers to a methodology of thinking about anything.  These chapters, taken on their own, are an accessible and engaging introduction to biblical epistemology.

The book is well printed, well presented and well bound: it can be given to others without apology and will keep its shape and appearance through many readings.  Each chapter is introduced with a short summary and vocabulary that, much like a road-map, helps navigate through the detail that might otherwise distract or discourage.  The summaries would make great starters for family, class or group discussion.  Who Made God? is possibly the most useful introduction to modern science a non-scientist could read, and because of the inter-disciplinary breadth of theory and experimental science canvassed, any well informed scientist will also likely profit from reading it.

My only criticism is that in making a passing comment to his reconciling the “big bang theory” with what he asserts is the Genesis 1 record of “genuine history” in an “epic poem”[1] with “clearly historical” intent (p106), Andrews unnecessarily introduces potential for doubt about Genesis.  He explains briefly that he considers Genesis 1:1 as describing the creation of the heavens and the earth in an unspecified period of time, with the following verses providing the subsequent geo-centric creative work of God.  This brief comment may cause more confusion than need be: it might have been better to have left it out or to have given it more explanation.  In both Who Made God? and his earlier From Nothing to Nature he stresses commitment to the historicity and accuracy of Genesis 1.  In From Nothing to Nature he commits to creation in six days each having a morning and an evening, while at the same time expressing belief in the very long periods of time the “big bang” presupposes.[2] Confused?  Unfortunately, that is where this brief discussion can leave the reader; yet in the context of so much excellence this should not discourage the reading of Who Made God?

I had to be persuaded to read Who Made God? I found neither the title nor the prospect of reading another pedantic, ill-informed point-scoring and petty discussion of the creation-evolution debate at all enticing.  I could not have been more mistaken.  Before I had finished the first chapter I found myself enjoying a book that informed, stimulated and challenged, and in which neither the science nor the theology is superficial or dull.  I have been passing out copies to friends and colleagues, commending to them what I believe will prove to be a lasting work in popular science, biblical theology, and devotional Christianity.

Feminist writer Fay Weldon describes it as “thoughtful, readable, witty, [and] wise.”  David Kim of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York says Andrews writes a “nuanced and compelling argument that maintains the integrity of both science and theology.”  Those comments are true but understated.  This is a great book.

Michael Drake is the principal of Carey College in Panmure and a pastor at Tamaki Reformed Baptist Church. He has been involved in advocacy for Christian schools throughout New Zealand and in raising issues about race, education, and Christianity before Parliament. He is also an Associate Chaplain at the Manukau Institute of Technology. Recently, Michael participated at our Thinking Matters Forum at Auckland University.


Notes

[1] But Genesis 1 is Hebrew narrative and bears none of the marks of Hebrew poetry (cf Robert Alter The Art of Biblical Poetry Basic Books 1985 p117).

[2] In From Nothing to Nature Andrews unequivocally asserts that “Genesis is a history book” and that “the Bible is true and can be trusted in all matters.” (p105f)   He reads Genesis 1:1 as describing a “first” day of creation (which “lasted much longer than the other six days of creation, because, unlike them, this day was not measured as the time between morning and evening).  In that first day God made the heavens and the earth before beginning the subsequent six days of creative work with regard to the already created earth.  For example, having made the moon and sun in the first day one, “He could still have put them in the sky on day four.” (p109) As to those days having morning and evening, and therefore being clearly days, he argues that possible natural explanations could include such things as the earth rotating at a much slower speed than at present.   Andrews acknowledges that this special pleading enables him to integrate the “big bang” with a literal (sort of) interpretation of Genesis.  He is however quick to point out that it is valid to interpret the Genesis days as 24 hour periods, albeit such an interpretation cannot accommodate the “big bang”.  In Who Made God? Andrews insists on a rigorous consistency in extrapolating scientific theory from observable data; a similar rigour in examining the literature of the biblical text would suggest that a) accommodation of the “big bang” to the Genesis text is neither necessary nor sufficient, and b) the inducement to such an accommodation arises not internally from the text but from external sources unrelated to the text.  In any case, the literary form of Genesis makes the most natural interpretation of verse 1 an introduction that is developed and explained in the following verses, meaning that the entire creation process took place within the six days Andrews agrees are truly days.   (cf Edward J Young Studies in Genesis One Baker, Grand Rapids 1973)

Hitchens & Wilson Debate

Apologetics in Action: Aesthetics and the Existence of God – Atheism vs. Christianity

It has happened! MP3 here. Right-click, save-as…

This debate interests me especially as I hope to see a presuppositinal approach in action. That is not because I am explicitly presuppositional in my apologetics, but because I am intrigued by this methodology.

'Reasons We Believe' by Nathan Busenitz

50 lines of evidence that confirm the Christian faith

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“Nathan Busenitz shows how God’s Word convincingly defends its own truth claims and then demonstrates how those claims are also confirmed by extra-biblical sources. Thoroughly biblical and meticulously researched, yet readily accessible and straightforward, Reasons We Believe belongs on every Christian bookshelf, whether you are looking to be equipped for evangelism or simply encouraged in the faith.”
John MacArthur (from the foreword)

“We live in a day when the new atheism tells us that ‘religion poisons everything’ and that ‘God is not good’ and when authors prostitute their scholarship to become rich on sensationalist books about so-called ‘lost Christianities’ and ‘lost Scriptures’. In the midst of this stench, Nate Busenitz’s sane and sound treatment of Christian evidences comes as a breath of fresh air.”
William Varner, Professor of Biblical Studies, The Master’s College

“That the Christian faith clearly stands head and shoulders above all other religions of all time is laid out by the author in a compelling fashion. Explanations from the reasons given will prove to be richly nourishing for the heart and mind of the believer, yet will also serve to challenge forthrightly the unbeliever.”
Trevor Craigen, Professor of Theology, The Master’s Seminary