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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. 

Richard Dawkins is Coming to New Zealand, and That’s Good News!

(From Canterbury Evangelism Network and Thinking Matters)

Who is Richard Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science populariser. He is the former University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science. He has written many books including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable and The God Delusion. He is a passionate rationalist who vigorously promotes science-based education, values and understanding. He is a staunch defender of atheism and a controversial critic of religious belief. He is well regarded by media and many academics as a top scientific thinker and a compelling public speaker.

Why is Richard Dawkins coming to New Zealand?

Dawkins is promoting his new book Science in the Soul in Auckland on May 10, 2018, and Christchurch on May 11, 2018. The book is a collection of 42 of his essays spanning three decades that proclaim the power and glory of science, the wonder of discovery, and the necessity of scientific thinking in diverse areas of society. He defends Darwinian evolution and natural selection, and the role of scientist as prophet. He responds to questions about whether science is itself a religion, the probability of alien life and the beauty and cruelty of life on Earth.

Why should the church be interested?

Dawkins has been identified as one of the New Atheists, a group that speaks critically against religion in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design and non-rational approaches to social policy. In The God Delusion, he argues that there is almost certainly no God and that religion is a delusion. He equates religious indoctrination of children with child abuse and offers the following description of God:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

How is this “Good News”?

Dawkins has brought the discussion of religious belief back into the public arena and we can be grateful for that. No longer simply a “private faith”, Christians are being asked to think carefully about what they believe and why they believe it in light of his strong attacks on Christianity. St. Peter encourages Christians to “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). The faith and witness of followers of Jesus Christ will grow and the Church will be strengthened when we seek answers and present them with humility and respect.

How should I think about the conflict of science vs. faith?

Is it always science or faith? Is it possible to be both? We enjoy many benefits that science has brought to our lives; modern medicine, electricity, automobiles and smartphones. We can find areas where we agree with Dawkins if we’re willing to listen carefully. We can learn to discern claims of verifiable facts from claims about the implications of those facts. Scientists, like all people, are just as susceptible to affirm or ignore evidence based on our view of the world. Remember that there are faithful, obedient Christians who believe in a young earth, an old earth and theistic evolution. Be gracious.

How can I engage my non-Christian friends and colleagues?

Pray to God with thankfulness. Dawkins’ visit is a gift that can open up conversations about Jesus. Listen carefully and genuinely seek to understand what others believe and why. Affirm areas of agreement with the Christian worldview. Resist a combative response, even if you feel defensive. If you don’t have solid answers to their questions, say so with humility. Offer to journey together to discover what is really true and whether it matters to our lives. Consider Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He quoted pagan philosophers and poets to build bridges that moved people towards Jesus. He ignored those who sneered at his faith and instead went with those who were genuinely interested in learning more. Get out there and do likewise. In addition, explore some of the articles on this website, you might find something that speaks to the subjects that either you or those you know struggle with.

How can I pray?

We urge you to pray for Richard Dawkins. This is an important opportunity. Instead of being prideful, defensive or argumentative, we can choose to bless him as one created in the image of God and to pray for his salvation and a destiny that he has yet to embrace. We would love to welcome him into God’s Kingdom here in New Zealand. We choose to pray for revelation of the living God. We choose to pray for dreams and visions of Christ to flow into his life. It has been prophesied that this city is a place where people will come and meet God and then take the good news back to the nations. It is in this spirit that we believe good things for Richard and want him to have the blessing of knowing Christ.

What a privilege to pray for a man God loves and wants to rescue and restore. God used Saul to become one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists. He can use Richard Dawkins the same way.

If you would like to share this information with your church, download the Richard Dawkins Brief in PDF, print copies to A4 and then cut them into A5 sized handouts.

Dawkins doesn’t show, Craig shreds his book in front of a packed hall

As he said he would, Richard Dawkins refused William Lane Craig’s invitation to debate him at the Sheldonian Theater in Oxford. So Craig went ahead and ripped his book apart without the distraction of having to respond to petulant ad hominem (entertaining as that would have been). The video is up; watch it below.

The Cynical Anti-Intellectualism of Dawkins

Daniel Came:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”center” text_align=”left”]”… it is quite obvious that Dawkins is opportunistically using these remarks as a smokescreen to hide the real reasons for his refusal to debate with Craig – which has a history that long predates Craig’s comments on the Canaanites.

As a sceptic, I tend to agree with Dawkins’s conclusion regarding the falsehood of theism, but the tactics deployed by him and the other New Atheists, it seems to me, are fundamentally ignoble and potentially harmful to public intellectual life. For there is something cynical, ominously patronising, and anti-intellectualist in their modus operandi, with its implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people’s beliefs about religion. The presumption is that their largely non-academic readership doesn’t care about, or is incapable of, thinking things through; that passion prevails over reason. On the contrary, people’s attitudes towards religious belief can and should be shaped by reason, not bile and invective. By ignoring this, the New Atheists seek to replace one form of irrationality with another.”[/pk_box]

James Barham:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”center” text_align=”left”]”Now, it is understandable that Dawkins should disdain to debate someone so far below his own celebrity star-power as Professor Craig. On the other hand, by that criterion, he really ought to limit himself to appearing with other bona fide media stars, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (not that they would find much to disagree about).

If, however, Dawkins’s principal concern were the truth, as opposed to protecting his celebrity status, then he ought to jump at the chance to debate Craig. If modern science really has put the question of the existence of God to rest once and for all, then what better forum to get this across to the public than Oxford’s venerable Sheldonian Theatre next Tuesday? It really is a pity, because for many of us interested in the question of the existence of God, such a match-up would have the quality of a real clash of the titans.”[/pk_box]

HT: Uncommon Descent

Richard Dawkins for Prime Minister

I hear the best politicians these days are the ones who can unashamedly equivocate on the meaning of “is”, or tell the filthiest lies with a straight face and a slick smile.

On the assumption that there’s a shortage of such people in the world, I think it’s imperative we begin the Dawkins for Prime Minister Campaign immediately.

I was tipped off by an editorial in The Guardian yesterday, where Dawkins gives the final word on why he refuses to debate William Lane Craig. It’s a masterful piece of political spin-doctoring. “Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of William Lane Craig,” he begins. “He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either. Perhaps he is a “theologian”.”

Now, just last night I was watching Stephen Fry’s Planet Word, where he talks about the masterful way Goebbels used language to make the industrial-scale elimination of the Jews seem a perfectly reasonable thing. In fairness, Dawkins is no Goebbels, but he would have made a good propagandist.

Notice how he deftly frames his entire piece with aspersions on Craig’s credentials. From the alleged ignorance among his philosopher friends of Craig’s name, to the scare quotes around “theologian”.

Of course, if Dawkins’s audience were savvy enough to check for themselves, as hopefully at least some of them are, a simple Google search would show what utter garbage this is. Here’s how Wikipedia, hardly a sympathetic source, introduces Craig:

…an American analytic philosopher, philosophical theologian, and Christian apologist. He is known for his work on the philosophy of time and the philosophy of religion, specifically the existence of God and the defense of Christian theism. He has made major contributions to the philosophy of religion and his defense of the Kalam cosmological argument is the most widely discussed argument for the existence of God in contemporary Western philosophy. He has authored or edited over 30 books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument (1979), Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology… [etc]

What should we conclude from the fact that Dawkins’s professors of philosophy haven’t even heard of Craig?

Either that these fellows are quacks, or—more likely—that even in an underpopulated field like philosophy the chances of knowing a fraction of the professionals in your discipline is pretty small. For example, I have a three-pronged profession: copywriting, marketing, and web design. Those combine into a fourth profession called conversion-rate optimization. Do you think I’ve heard of even one tenth of the most successful copywriters, marketers, web designers, and CRO experts? I seriously doubt it.

For some years now, Craig has been increasingly importunate in his efforts to cajole, harass or defame me into a debate with him. I have consistently refused, in the spirit, if not the letter, of a famous retort by the then president of the Royal Society: “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine”.

What Dawkins means to say is that ever since Craig destroyed the sophomoric arguments in the The God Delusion he has wanted to advance the discussion with Dawkins, and hopefully reveal to all his slavering fanboys how little substance there is to his position. Craig doesn’t want people believing lies—more than can be said for Dawkins, given the rank disingenuousness of his editorial.

Dawkins of course has consistently balked at debating Craig, presumably because he doesn’t want it to be publicly revealed that his arguments haven’t the slightest ability to stand up to rigorous analysis. It wouldn’t look good on his CV.

Craig’s latest stalking foray has taken the form of a string of increasingly hectoring challenges to confront him in Oxford this October. I took pleasure in refusing again, which threw him and his followers into a frenzy of blogging, tweeting and YouTubed accusations of cowardice.

One of the greatest “refutations” you can employ is simply to state the facts with a sarcastic slant that implies only an imbecile would accept them. But the accusations of cowardice are perfectly accurate. Dawkins is a coward in the same way he is a bully. He enjoys notoriety and taking shots at Christianity in a medium where he’s got all the control. He can feel like a big man publishing best-selling books aimed at people with even less schooling in critical thinking than he has. But like any bully, if you confront him and threaten him with a bloody nose, he’s quick to disappear.

Dawkins reminds me of Draco Malfoy after Hermione socked him in the kisser in The Prisoner of Azkaban. “Not a word to anyone, understood? I’m gonna get that jumped-up mudblood, mark my words!” he rants to his friends as they beat a sniveling retreat. Yeah right Malfoy.

I turn down hundreds of more worthy invitations every year, I have publicly engaged an archbishop of York, two archbishops of Canterbury, many bishops and the chief rabbi, and I’m looking forward to my imminent, doubtless civilised encounter with the present archbishop of Canterbury.

Strange—aren’t these people “theologians” with scare quotes? So why are they more worthy than Craig? Could it be because they’ve got less credentials than him? Because they haven’t already published work that obliterates Dawkins’s arguments against God? I guess it’s probably something like that.

After some more accusations of self-promotion, which ring about as hollow as a pot beating on a black kettle, Dawkins turns to Craig’s “dark side”.

You might say that such a call to genocide could never have come from a good and loving God. Any decent bishop, priest, vicar or rabbi would agree. But listen to Craig. He begins by arguing that the Canaanites were debauched and sinful and therefore deserved to be slaughtered.

He then quotes Craig’s defense of God’s actions toward the Canaanite children, concluding: “Do not plead that I have taken these revolting words out of context. What context could possibly justify them?”

Well, not to state the obvious, but an evolutionary context justifies them pretty well. Surely Dawkins can’t have forgotten writing about how “a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make[s] nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not.” Surely he can’t have forgotten that “any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment.”

If a truly scientific view of the world makes nonsense of blame and responsibility, then certainly there’s no sense in which genocide, or the defense of genocide, is unjustified. There’s no moral dimension to it whatsoever. So why is Dawkins borrowing moral norms he inherited from Christianity to judge Craig, instead of taking the rational approach and admitting there’s no reason whatsoever to condemn genocide, given what he believes?

Well, I suppose it’s because that wouldn’t make for a very good smear campaign.

Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn’t, and I won’t.

This seems oddly forced coming from the man who looks forward to the day when religion is only tolerated behind bars at zoos. But then, it’s all a giant smokescreen anyway; a diversionary tactic. Dawkins needs to use sleight of hand to direct his audience’s attention toward Craig’s character assassination, so they won’t notice how Craig has already assassinated Dawkins’s arguments—and would do so again given half a chance.

Dawkins is clearly cut out to be a master politician. Let’s get him out of the intellectual sphere and put him where he belongs. Dawkins for Prime Minister!

Update: James Anderson and Oxford historian Tim Stanley have also weighed in with their comments. Anderson is typically incisive, concluding that “In the end, all Dawkins has really told us is that he won’t debate Craig because he finds Craig’s views personally offensive. It’s not that Craig’s views are unethical… It’s just that Dawkins…is disgusted — and that’s all there is to it. Even if that were the real reason for his refusal to debate Craig, it would hardly be a compelling one.”

Another Atheist Refuses to Debate William Lane Craig

Polly Toynbee, president of the British Humanist Association, has pulled out of her scheduled London debate with Craig. Three prominent members of the BHA, the President and two Vice-Presidents, have now refused or withdrawn from publicly contesting the claims of theism with the Christian philosopher. Read the Reasonable Faith press release here.

Grayling’s Failing Memory

One of Britain’s foremost philosophical atheists, A C Grayling, vice-president of the British Humanist Association, is denying that he has ever debated William Lane Craig. In a letter dated 18th May 2011, he states: “. . . By the way, Craig claims to have debated me before – that is not correct, unless a brief and rather pointless exchange of emails counts as such.”

This is a surprising denial, since he did in fact participate in a debate with Craig at the Oxford Union in 2005. The topic was “Belief in God makes sense in light of Tsunamis” (you can listen to the exchange at bethinking.org or apologetics315).

It’s not surprising that he blocked out the entire event. Grayling got walloped. And he’s still rehearsing the same old tired arguments.

The embarrassing truth about Richard Dawkins

So, when we hear the shrill voice of Dr Richard Dawkins bleating about Professor Craig’s ‘relentless drive for self-promotion’, and rejecting the debasement of his eminent CV by debating with the distinguished Christian apologist, we should remember this: Richard Dawkins never contributed much to science; his Oxford chair was bought for him by a rich admirer; and the scientific ideas upon which he built his reputation are increasingly discredited. Those beguiled by his diatribes are listening neither to the voice of reason nor science.

Click here to read the full article.

Dawkins, Determinism, and Truth

Philosopher Paul Copan describes his recent experience at a lecture given by Richard Dawkins at Nova Southeastern University:

There I was—the first one in line during the Q&A. I asked Dawkins how he could claim that the naturalist [is] rationally superior to the theist since, according to his book River Out of Eden, all of us are dancing to the music of our DNA. Our beliefs are the product of non-rational, deterministic physical forces beyond our control—whether we’re theists or naturalists. In fact, if the naturalist is right, it’s only by accident—not because he’s more intellectually virtuous than the theist. That is, the naturalist has accidental true belief (which is not knowledge) rather than warranted true belief (which is knowledge).

Dawkins gave the odd reply that it’s kind of like Republicans and Democrats—with each group thinking they’re right and the other group wrong. But on what grounds could either side think they are more rational than the other? Dawkins then added that he supposed that whatever view “works” the correct one to hold. But here’s the problem: what “works” is logically distinct from “true” or “matching up with reality”—since we may hold to a lot of false beliefs that help us survive and reproduce, even if they are false. Indeed, naturalistic evolution is interested in survival and reproduction—the “four F’s” (fighting, feeding, fleeing, and reproducing). Truth, the naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland argues, is secondary to these pursuits According to another such naturalist, the late Richard Rorty, truth is “utterly unDarwinian.”

To top off his answer to me (without addressing how to ground rationality), Dawkins dismissively quipped that science flies rockets to the moon while religion flies planes into buildings.

Read the rest of the post and see what Professor Copan made of Dawkins’ response.

John Lennox coming to New Zealand (Updated)

Next month, John Lennox will be visiting New Zealand for a speaking tour. Here are the public events that have been confirmed:

Read more

Does the Universe Have a Purpose? A Review of the Panel Debate with Craig and Dawkins

On November 13, the Festival Internacional de Mentes Brillantes (“International Festival of Great Minds”) in Mexico hosted a panel debate between several atheists and theists to discuss the question “Does the universe have a purpose? Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins defended the atheist perspective while Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig, and R. Douglas Geivett fronted for the theistic worldview. The debate was notable for several reasons – for one, it was held, of all places, in a boxing ring, but more importantly, it represented the first occasion that William Lane Craig and Richard Dawkins have publicly crossed swords (in the past, Dawkins has refused to debate Craig).

The video of the panel has been uploaded onto YouTube, which you can watch below.

For those interested, here are my own thoughts on the opening arguments of the debate. I have dealt only with the opening arguments of the debates speakers because going into any more depth would, I think be inconsiderate.

Matt Ridley was the first to speak. He hashed out two key points:

1. Darwin had shown us that what looked like “design” could be achieved through a bottom up process without resorting to postulating a designer.

2. The problem of evil. Unlike more philosophically sophisticated forms of the so called “problem of evil” Ridley drew on Voltaire’s novel “Candide” where he criticized Leibniz’ claim that this was the best of all worlds.

Bill Craig was the next to speak. He completely side stepped the issue of biological design (as Dawkins later noted but failed to address himself) and presented his standard arguments i.e. the origin and fine tuning of the universe as well as a thoroughly abbreviated form of the moral argument. In an argument rarely used by theistic philosophers, Craig responded to Ridley’s “problem” of evil by arguing that the presence of evil actually furnishes evidence FOR rather than against the existence of God. He stated “I maintain that evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, I can think of no more reasonable definition of evil that captures our shared intuitions. But, if we agree that there is evil in the world, and that evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, then we have to agree that there is a way things ought to be. But if there is a way things ought to be, then there must be some transcendent design plan or purpose that determines how things ought to be. And so, there must be some transcendent designer, a Creator in fact, whose will is the basis for how things ought to be, and hence evil is actually evidence that God does exist“. Now the latter half of Craig’s comments, i.e. the inference that if evil exists then God exists was not strictly necessary to the debate. After all, the debate was not about whether or not God exists (as it happened to turn out) but whether or not there is a purpose in the universe. Strictly speaking it was going beyond the burden of proof required by the moot of the debate to explain how that purpose is instantiated (achieved), it could (for all we know) be instantiated by abstract objects locked in Plato’s heaven. On that count, there needn’t have been any dispute between the theists and the atheists (unless the term “atheist” is implausibly restricted to “naturalists”). For the purposes of the debate, Craig could simply have pointed out that if his definition of evil is correct, then there is a way in which things ought to be and that would have been sufficient to show that some objective purpose existed. He didn’t need to explain out how that “ought” came to be instantiated. As it happened though, Craig’s argument here became relevant because Ridley had stated that evil was a problem for theism and as we discovered with the debate between Matt Flannagan and Ray Bradley, letting irrelevant comments go is sometimes not the best tactic if winning the audience is your goal (note that that’s not a dig against you Matt, but the fickle nature of audiences and their tendency to believe that things are relevant when they’re not).

Michael Shermer (the editor of Skeptic Magazine) was the next to speak. He basically started with a series of appalling straw men. He stated “once you believe that the universe somehow has a designed purpose for us and us alone, that I can have anything I want, alls I have to do is wish for it, ask for it, that it will appear, the Mercedes in my driveway, the healing of my aunts cancer, for miracles to appear upon my wish, that’s just pure nonsense“. Well sure! It’s nonsense! But whoever said that miracles occur upon my wish? Whoever said that I can have whatever I want? So far as I know, Christian monotheism says no such thing! In-fact, Christian monotheism predicts that most times, in-fact 99% of the time, I won’t get what I want. The miracles and healings that do occur are by God’s wish alone, they are part of HIS providential plan, not our whim. Hence on that front Shermer’s arguments tackle straw men. But even if we grant that Christian monotheism does predict that we can have anything we want, Shermer’s arguments in this respect would still fail on two counts: 1) it would be irrelevant to the debate. The moot of the debate is “does the universe have a purpose?”, but Shermer confuses this for the question “how is that purpose instantiated?” Suppose we were to claim that some vague deity that does not interfere in the universe was its designer. In such a possible world, the universe would still have a purpose! So on that count, Shermer’s argument is logically invalid. The implied conclusion “the universe has no purpose” would not follow. What’s worse for Shermer is that it isn’t self evident that without God there would be no purpose. Suppose we were atheistic Platonists. Atheistic Platonism holds that the order and purpose in the Universe is instantiated by abstract objects, locked in Plato’s heaven, imposing themselves on uncreated matter. In such a possible world we might still say that the universe had a purpose! So again, Shermer’s argument is logically invalid. Now I don’t hold to atheistic Platonism, in-fact I hold that purpose without God is metaphysically (that is de re) impossible. But all we need to grant is the mere logical possibility of atheistic Platonism and we’ve still won the debate. Sadly, this was not a point raised by any of the theists, they instead stuck to their modus tollens argument that if God does not exist then there is no objective purpose to the universe. This in my view was a strategic error on the theists behalf since it placed a far heavier burden of proof on them than was required of them by the wording of the moot.

Ignoring this and Craig’s points on the issue, Shermer’s next complaint re-hashed the problem of evil, complaining that if God exists then God could create new limbs for the victims of land mines in the Iraq war. Again, this argument is not strictly relevant to the debate since the moot isn’t “Does God exist?”, but “Is there a purpose to the Universe”. We might grant that Shermer’s point here does mitigate God’s existence (although ultimately it’s a complete non sequitur) but still hold that there’s purpose in the universe. After all, if Craig’s definition of evil is correct (which I think it is), and evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, then the presence of evil (in this case the suffering of limbless soldiers) would actually show that there is objective purpose in the universe! But I think more fatally is that this suffers from the sort of fallacious reasoning that I find many popularisers of atheism use with almost uniform regularity. They make some statement like “well why doesn’t God just do x? And then claim that if God did x then they’d believe in Him. For example, in the 1998 debate between Eddie Tabash and William Lane Craig, Tabash asked Craig why Jesus didn’t come to earth to die for our sins in the modern era when we have the benefits of modern technology. In Shermer’s case it was to ask why it is that God doesn’t re-grow the limbs of soldiers that have lost those appendages in battle. The problem is that these sort of arguments suffer from something very much like the anachronistic fallacy. I have begun calling such fallacies the “angelic fallacy” wherein one is so presumptuous as to suppose that he knows how a perfectly good God with omnipotence and foreknowledge would act. One decidedly memorable instance of this was when an atheist got up and asked “why wasn’t Jesus a woman?!?!?!” and then proceeded to determine that Jesus wasn’t the Christ by virtue of the fact that he was a man rather than a woman! There was no engagement with the evidence presented, merely an emotionalist appeal to how the Church is responsible for so much of history’s chauvinism all because Jesus was a man! I hope you are sufficiently intelligent to see the abject failure of relevance in such “arguments”. Nonetheless, supposing that this weren’t so abjectly fallacious in the sense defined, it would still be a failure of relevance insofar as it betrays the faulty assumption that God merely wants us to believe in Him. Note the claim “if God did x then I’d believe in him”, well sure! You may believe in Him, but how do you know that if God did x that it would bring you into a saving, loving relationship with Him? Given the scriptural data on the issue, it’s immediately clear that God’s purpose is not so much to have us believe in Him, but to be in a saving relationship with Him.

Shermer’s last complaint was to bash the theists (Craig, Wolpe and Geivett) and complain that they immorally discriminate against homosexuality. Now this argument is just flagrantly fallacious, it has nothing to do with the moot of the debate and instead attacks something of the character of the theists. This kind of fallacy is more technically known as a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy. But furthermore, it betrays the assumption that there is a purpose to the universe (the moot of the debate). As I’ve repeatedly stated, if evil is a departure from the way things ought to be and (in this case) to discriminate against homosexuality is evil, then it would follow that a) there is an objective purpose to the universe and b) that the wrongness of discriminating against homosexuals is part of that purpose.

The next to speak was the Rabbi David Wolpe. Now I confess that before this debate, I’d never heard of Wolpe and to be honest I wasn’t entirely impressed with him. He struck as ultimately more bombast than solid reasoning (unlike Craig and Geivett). Nevertheless, he did make two interesting points: The first was that experiment is not the only way of knowing things and second with respect to the problem of evil. With respect to the first, I must concede that he is right, unfortunately he only asserted it rather than giving any examples of knowledge we have that doesn’t come through experimentation. With respect to the second point, he argued that the theist is not committed to Leibniz’ claim that this was the best of all possible worlds. He didn’t really offer a great deal of argument on this point, but for the sake of charity we might bring in a point I made earlier which is that both Judaism and Christianity both predict that this is not the best of all possible worlds, after all, the best kind of world would have been one where Adam and Eve never ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now there are bigger issues at play here, and it may turn out that this point folds on closer scrutiny, but it nonetheless was an interesting point.

The last on the atheist side to speak was the infamous Richard Dawkins. Dawkins began by saying “it seems perfectly natural when presented with an object to say “whats it for?”, it starts in childhood. The psychologist Deborah Kellerman has investigated this very interestingly with children, offering them a question like “why do you think these rocks are pointy?”, is it because of some geological explanation or cause? or is it so that animals can scratch on them when they get itchy?” and below a certain age…I think it’s about 6…most children answer with the teleological answer…children then (mostly) grow out of that purposive way of looking at the world, not apparently everybody”. Aside from the implicit ad hominem attack at the end of Dawkins argument here, there are some much deeper problems associated with this claim. The problem is, is that it’s far too broad to be of any use to Dawkins! Dawkins rejects teleological reasoning in natural theology as “immature” and as such rejects such reasoning a priori. But if we a priori reject teleological reasoning in natural theology, then on what grounds can we accept teleological reasoning for the supposition that a book is written by an intentional, purposive human mind? That is to say, if we are to reject the teleological argument for Gods existence because such reasoning is (as Dawkins seems to suggest) “immature”, then on what grounds can we accept the obvious appearances of design in Dawkins’ own book “The God Delusion”? It may turn out a posteriori that there are perfectly good naturalistic explanations for the apparent design in the physical universe, but, contra Dawkins, teleological reasoning cannot be ruled out a priori.

Dawkins’ second point was to re-hash the Darwinian argument against theism. That the greatest achievement of modern science was to show that the impulse we have to see purpose in anything doesn’t work. Now hold on a second! Earlier Bill Craig made the point that an argument for the existence of God can be made from the origin and fine tuning of the universe. Now as far as I know (which isn’t very much), Darwin dealt with biological organisms. But cosmology and biological organisms are clearly not the same thing. A Darwinian attack on Cosmological arguments against the existence of God would simply be a category mistake! As Dinesh D’Souza stated in his debated with John Loftus, arguments from cosmological evidence are completely immune to Darwinian attack. Thankfully, Dawkins seemed to recognize this and argued that the theists have been “forced back” into explaining things like the origin of the cosmos and the apparent fine tuning of the universe. He said, that theists like to say “well science can’t explain things like the big bang therefore God did it“. There are two points to be made: 1. in actual fact we have not been “forced back”, theologians and theistic philosophers have for eons been making arguments from cosmology, take for example the Islamic, Medieval philosopher and mystic “Al Ghazali” or perhaps the Jewish philosopher Moses Nachmanides. Theologians and philosophers have by no means been “forced back” into anything. Dawkins claim that we used to stay away from astronomy in our teleological arguments (as Paley suggested) is simply false. 2. His argument here is simply a straw man. Theologians and theistic philosophers that use the cosmological argument (because there are those that don’t (e.g. Peter van Inwagen) don’t merely conclude that “Goddunit” just because we can’t explain the big bang. Actually, they draw on the causal principle i.e. that everything which begins to exist has a cause and conclude that because modern cosmology predicts that the universe began to exist that it must therefore have a cause. They then try to show that the best possible explanation of that cause is a prime mover with the ability to act such as to bring into existence a temporal effect. This is hardly the God of the gaps hypothesis that Dawkins wants to make the cosmological argument out to be. Still unimpressed by this, Dawkins reverts to his age old saying “well scientists are working on it!” and even better, that “one day physics will answer those questions”. Well sure! one day physics might answer those question and one day that might answer turn out to be God! who’s to say that the answer can’t be God? alternatively, one day physics might show us that there is a good naturalistic explanation of the universe. If there is, that’s fine, but at least on the present evidence it seems that there isn’t. On the present evidence (which points to the beginning of the universe in a massive flash of light) our best explanation is that a transcendent, timeless, changeless, immaterial person exists that brought our universe into existence. Now, that explanation may change as the evidence changes, but it’s a fantastic bit of warped logic (which fundamentally destroys the precepts of the scientific method) to conclude that the present hypothesis is false merely because the evidence may one day change. After all, the evidence for evolution may possibly one change one day, but does that possibility mean we should reject evolution? I highly doubt that Dawkins would accept such reasoning from Creationists! Still unimpressed by this, Dawkins ends his speech with the question “even if science can’t explain these things, what on earth makes you think that religion can?” Well again, this is strictly irrelevant to the moot of the debate since the debate only concerns whether or not there is a purpose to the universe. Nevertheless, the theist might respond as I did earlier, which is that anything capable of bringing a temporal effect, in this case the universe, into existence is necessarily (de re) an entity capable of free action.

The last to speak was Douglas Geivett who re-emphasized Craig’s earlier point that if God does not exist then personal meaning is merely what we make of it artificially. Given atheism, any belief that life has purpose rests upon an arbitrary existential choice at best. After this point, he attempted to develop something that sounds much like the argument from consciousness which, I confess, is not something I understand. The basic gist of his argument though, was that naturalism cannot take seriously the experience of human freedom and volition, nor can it make sense of any perception of intention or purpose.

With 3,000 attending the debate and 2 million people viewing it on Mexican television, it is really encouraging to have such a large audience exposed to this important question. It was unfortunate that the debaters had to break their speeches down into 6 minute sound bites, as such a format doesn’t lend itself to a substantive and meaningful debate. Nonetheless, it was fascinating exchange and, in my uneducated opinion, the atheists got thrashed.

God, the Cosmos, and Necessary Existence

Dawkins has complained that if theists are allowed to posit the necessary existence of God, then he ought to be allowed to posit necessary existence of the cosmos. There are two problems with this. First, theists do not begin with some arbitrary concept, x and then add on necessary existence. Their reasoning, rather, is that necessary existence is part of the existence of God. If someone were to report, “Oh, God existed at noon today and then perished at 2:00 PM,” we would normally think the person is joking. The concept of God simply is the concept of a being that cannot be vulnerable to nonexistence. Second, there does not appear to be anything in the cosmos or about the cosmos that involves necessary existence. The fact that science must observe the world in order to explain it is evidence that world could have been different. The concept of the cosmos is contingent; various scientific theories explaining the way that the world works may have conditional necessity (a quark must have a certain electric charge, given the prevailing laws of physics), but nothing in or about the cosmos is essentially necessarily existent, nor are the laws of physics themselves necessary. There are current laws of the conservation of energy, but none of them provides any reason to think that energy itself necessarily exists. The mere endurance of some force or event over time, even if it is without beginning, does not itself constitute necessary existence.

Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty “The Coherence of Theism” in Contending with Christianity’s Critics (B&H Academic 2009), page 188.