Tag Archives: richard dawkins

Probably No Dawkins?

The most dramatic plenary at the recent 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics hosted by the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, was delivered by William Lane Craig, a noted — some might say, notorious — apologist who had just returned from a 10-day tour debating prominent atheists in the U.K. Craig is an avuncular philosopher in his sixties somewhat like the Eugene Levy character in “A Mighty Wind.” Well-prepped and seemingly impervious to insult, Craig was described once by Sam Harris as “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.”

Craig’s hope on his tour was to debate — see this coming? — Richard Dawkins. After Dawkins declined, Craig found a benefactor to underwrite thirty buses that drove around Oxford proclaiming: “THERE’S PROBABLY NO DAWKINS” (a parody of the British Humanist Association’s own bus campaign: “THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE”).

Craig’s bus stunt so enflamed Dawkins that he shot an editorial to the Guardian accusing Craig of being “an apologist for genocide.” Granted, the “genocide” he refers to was in ancient Canaan and may never have happened, but Craig spent over an hour at the conference teasing out Dawkins’ implicit question, one summarized by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Bart Ehrman in the subtitle to his book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.

“When I ponder the depth and extent of all the evil and suffering in the world,” said Craig, “I find it pretty hard to believe in God.”

But that doesn’t stop him. Craig’s main line of defense (the one Dawkins decried) is that life is a “blip drowned out by eternity,” what Paul called a “momentary affliction,” and “those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.”

This is an uncomfortable argument, to say the least. But it is the logical equivalent to Pascal’s Wager, which holds that it’s safer to have faith than not because the pay-off if you’re right is infinite and if you’re wrong is finite. Infinity is a very, very big number. Craig is merely being explicit about the Christian belief that salvation is eternal while life clearly is not. In mathematical terms, our lives don’t even count.

As I said, it’s an uncomfortable argument. Why seek to remedy any injustice in such a context of eternity? Why get out of bed? A lot of the seeming social inertia we find in Paul — who told married people to stay married, slaves to stay slaves, people to keep the status quo — comes from such a mindset: the end is coming soon, so why bother?

This attitude may well be a prescription for contentment, but it’s disappointing as a life philosophy.

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But You Just Don’t Understand!

Let me give you two quotes separated by 1700 years and tell me if you see the problem:

  1. “Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available?” – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
  2. “[Stoics] ascribed to the bodily senses that expertness in disputation which they so ardently love, called by them dialectic, asserting that from the senses the mind conceives the ideas of those things which they explicate by definition. … I often wonder, with respect to this, how they can say that ‘none are beautiful but the wise’; for by what bodily sense have they perceived that beauty, by what eyes of the flesh have they seen wisdom’s comeliness of form?” — Augustine, City of God (VIII:7)

See it? It’s there, brothers.

Dawkins has decided that God is a “scientific hypothesis” that should be tested using evidence of the senses. Augustine says the Stoics, who had a similar approach, are guilty of hypocrisy. By what sense, he says, do you perceive Wisdom?

So here’s the problem: Since the beginning — Augustine is about as beginning as it gets, at least for Christianity — people who should know have denied God is a “scientific hypothesis.” They spent 2,000 years and billions of words describing what else It is. Dawkins appears. He says, actually, theologians don’t know God at all. He knows God: God is a physical entity.

Seems to me there’s a massive disrespectin’ going on both sides of the Atheist-Believer DMZ. At the edges, people can not believe what they’re hearing from the Bozos on the other side. This disturbs me. Why?

Yesterday, doing some spadework for yet another mind-blowing post on religious epistemology, I stumbled across a lab-tested (So there, Dawkins!) phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect that explains a lot.

Here’s the thing. People tend to believe a lot of propositions based on very little evidence, or distorted evidence. For example, I believe that other people exist even when I can’t see them. I don’t really have any evidence they exist — not right now. I believe I’m a pretty important guy, in my own little world; when I take a day off at work, colleagues struggle, and some perhaps break down and cry. There is no evidence for this. Etc.

Turns out, we have a lot of irrational views about ourselves. The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes a very interesting phenomenon that I can sum up like this:

  • People who are unskilled at a task tend to vastly overestimate their competence, and their lack of knowledge actually makes them unable to see their own deficiency
  • People who are skilled at a task tend to overestimate the competence of others — which causes them to underrate their own abilities

The Effect gets its name from Justin Dunning and David Kruger of Cornell, who put it forward in 1999 based on studies of undergraduates: “Participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability.” Me gots good gramma!

There is definitely some of this going on in the current Religion Wars. Dawkins can ridicule Aquinas — a genius by any definition — like he’s some geriatric reptile because he hasn’t spent what philosopher Martin Versfeld (my namesake!) claimed were the requisite 10 years preparing to read him. Yet still he can tell all those brilliant theologians what God really is.

And vice versa. What do the 25% of Americans who say they “don’t believe in Evolution” really know about it? There is a lot going for that theory, people. More than you know.

On the Wings of Eagleton

Terry Eagleton is a British Marxist literary critic, which makes him a lot of fun at book parties. Oh, wait, that’s me. But he’s a good speaker – bearded, not posh, erudite and passionate about the right to revolution. He delivered a series of lectures at Yale in 2009, published as “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.”

Now it’s a sad, sad day in New Haven when it takes a Marxist to make a plea on behalf of religion. Marx had no time for God – literally. He barely noticed It. But he was clear that religion itself is a misguided use of energy in pursuit of a lie. Eagleton’s thesis is opposite: that faith is reasonable, even rational, and at any rate a whole lot more interesting than most non-religious people think.

Eagleton’s targets are the New Atheists, in particular Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whom he calls “Ditchkins.” He thinks – quite rightly IMHO – they’ve misunderstood the nature of the enemy. They’ve over-rationalized faith to the point of caricature, making it seem like a kind of willful commitment to a set of facts that are obviously absurd.

The problem, he says, is a lack of respect. These New Atheists are dissin’ religion. Which makes sense:

“It is, in fact, entirely logical that those who see religion as nothing but false consciousness should so often  get it wrong, since what profit is to be reaped from the meticulous study of a belief system you hold to be as pernicious as it is foolish?”

Personal aside: Six years ago I would have agreed with Ditchkins. My interest in religion came from intellectual curiosity, and an impulse I didn’t understand. So I started listening to lectures on the subway and while walking my beloved Bernese mountain dog – academic talks put out by The Teaching Company on the history of the early church, and the making of the New Testament canon, the culture of Palestine in the first century, the Reformation and Luther and Existentialism and Islam.

Easily, as I’ve said, two hours a day of religious education. And I read at night, the entire Hebrew Bible, centuries-old classics I’d never heard of that are among the best-selling books in the Western library – Thomas a Kempis’ “Imitation of Christ,” which Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple read before bed; and Teresa of Avila’s mind-blowing “Life” and a library of original translations put out by the Paulist Press whose introductions alone were a cheap at twice the price.

So doing the napkin math, let’s say 2 hours a day of this stuff for five years, rounded down for vacations and whatnot, and we’re at 3,000 hours of exposure to religious ideas, history and analysis. And guess what? I still don’t know ANYTHING. I can’t articulate what it is I believe. I can’t meditate or pray properly. I don’t know Ancient Greek (the language of the New Testament), or Hebrew. I can’t list all the Deutero-Pauline epistles or the twelve prophets. It still seems absurd to me that God would come to earth in human form, be fully God and fully human. How?!

Yet I’m not unique. Open-mindedness to mystery is messy and uncomfortable. Read memoirs of the spiritual track stars like Teresa and John of the Cross if you want to see anxiety: they were tormented by doubt and second-guessing. They used their minds avidly. If people like Teresa struggled, what does that mean for the rest of us?

It’s just this kind of hard labor driven by an inchoate yearning that Eagleton would recognize as faith.

The Usual Suspects

Francis de Sales

"You writers need a miracle!"

Today is the feast day of St Francis de Sales, patron of journalists and writers, who said “whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love.” So it is with love that we turn to the so-called New Atheists who have done so much to force thoughtful believers to define just what it is, exactly, they believe, and why.

I’m afraid to read them. These men – and they’re all men – are sizzling wicked smart and a couple of them can even write words. Our faith is weak and the Four Amigos are strong. But if “God is Truth,” as Augustine claimed, then It has nothing to fear from any man, woman or idea. If these New Atheists are telling us the Truth, then any real God would want us to know. Right?

So let’s line them up, the usual suspects, in order of perceived coolness:

  1. Sam Harris – neuroscientist, philosopher, youngest of the four. Kicked off the current Bad-God craze in 2004 with his book “The End of Faith,” essentially a howl against fundamentalist Christians and Islamists in the wake of 9/11. He wrote a groovy rant recently about how rich people should be less impressed with themselves, which reminded me (though not, of course, Harris) of Paul’s rant against the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive?!
  2. Christopher Hitchens – British journalist, ex-Marxist, friend of Graydon Carter, now battling cancer. More of a freelance provocateur and debater-for-hire, he’s easily the best writer in the group, probably because that’s his actual profession. His “God Is Not Great” is a lot of fun (I hear). Known as “Hitch.”
  3. Richard Dawkins – biologist, expert in evolution, author of “The God Delusion.” Not quite a Hitch-level wit, at least down there on the page, he’s most righteously offended by fundamentalists’ stupid Darwin-bashing.
  4. Daniel Dennett – cognitive scientist, expert in intentional systems, author of “Breaking the Spell.”Rumor has it he’s a bit of a snooze prosaically. Sees no need for intelligent design (Aquinas’ “Fifth Way”) since he knows systems can organize themselves.

A few observations. These are not disaffected religious who’ve turned on their faith, as far as I know. They’re true atheists, indifferent to religion if it hadn’t begun to seem so powerful. Two are brain scientists; one an evolutionist. From different angles, they have expert knowledge that makes them bristle at the two big science-claims of fundamentalists: (1) intelligent design, and (2) creationism – that is, God as organizer and God as starter.

Our strengths are our weaknesses. Their strength in countering religious-science claims is obvious. Their weakness is, as scientists, they don’t seem to know much about religion. But we shall see.

* Francis de Sales wrote a spiritual classic called “Introduction to the Devout Life” that’s an attempt to adapt a kind of Catholic mystical practice for people who are not monks, i.e., the rest of us. It’s filled with practical advice on how to meditate and handle daily problems. Four paws up!

Merry Xmas, Pagan Mistranslators!

At yesterday’s Advent mass in Catholic churches across the planet, the first reading was from Isaiah, who is speaking to King Ahaz:

“The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isa 7:10-14)

Lady Gaga

"I hate Santa!"

Ahaz is afraid a Syria-Israel alliance will defeat his country, Judah, in battle, and Isaiah makes this prophecy to reassure him. In this period, Jews had two kingdoms – Israel and Judah – and Israel eventually capsizes to the Babylonians.

A few minutes later, the priest read the famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew describing how Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Joseph was going to divorce her “quietly,” because they had not bonked, and he made the logical assumption. The passage ends (cue echolocator):

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel ….'” (Matt 1:18-24)

Scripture don’t get no clearer, sistas: Isaiah prophecies in 780 BCE … Jesus’ birth fulfills 780 years later. However, let’s mention here a well-known mistranslation issue much beloved by Atheists, who certainly have a point. (Richard Dawkins mentions it in The Selfish Gene.)

Here’s the ish: All the New Testament writers spoke and wrote in Greek and referred to the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (or LXX). The Septuagint uses the word “parthenos,” which means “virgin.” Whew. Trouble is, in the original Hebrew, the word used is “almah,” which means simply “young woman.” Not necessarily virgin, just young.

So we have centuries of tortuous Christian doctrine about how Jesus can have been physically born from a woman (Mary) who was nonetheless genitally intact, when all the original prophecy requires is that she be youthful. In a Vanity Fair piece last year, Christopher Hitchens claimed no Catholic really believes in the virgin birth, and he may be on to something.

It gets worse. “Name him Emmanuel?” Huh? Matthew translates the word “Emmanuel” as: “God is with us.” The “God” part of this translation is the particle “El,” at the end. In the 1930s, an excavation at Ugarit in Syria uncovered a library of stone tablets written in Akkadian. They showed these pagan Canaanite enemies of the Jews worshipped a God called … “El.”

We Catholics are in a world of hurt: Mary may not be a virgin, Jesus is named for a pagan God … what’s next, pop stars biting the heads off Santa dolls?!

* If you want to know more about “El” – and a lot of other things – I recommend James Kugel’s fascinating How to Read the Bible, p422-424. I’m half-way through and it is rocking my kasbah.

Let’s Begin

I am scared to start, so let’s begin.

We’ll begin with a question and go on to the end.

The Question: “Is there a God?” I won’t say “Does God exist?” because I can already see us arguing over that word “exist” – What does it mean? Sounds suspiciously anthropomorphic to me. Some of you in the back would assume that “to exist” means detectable by our own tawdry, disappointing senses, or something, and I’m not at all convinced that’s where we’re going. Where are we going? Who knows? Is this story to be nothing but questions? And is that the point?

So: the Question.

Now on to the end:

Today we have the so-called New Atheists, who are definitely atheists – that is, they believe that whatever we think we are talking about when we talk about “God” is, to use Richard Dawkins’ word, a “Delusion.” But are they so “New”?

Of course not.

There’s atheism in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 14:1: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Aristotle mentioned a God, but it didn’t intervene in human life and didn’t much care. Practically speaking, it might as well not be there. Buddhists are supposed to be atheists.

Outright, full-throated skeptics have been screaming out loud since the Enlightenment, and everybody knows Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche absolutely killed, slaughtered, pummeled and eviscerated someone they called God so badly – so utterly convincingly – that anyone who puts down Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and heads off to church must feel like a total asshole.

And yet.