Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In the Beginning

Hiya, friends and strangers! Welcome to my new little corner of the interweb.

Recently my attention has been drawn to the debates surrounding Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the other "fundamental atheists" that have been stirring up trouble in the media, on Youtube, and in blogs like this. I find that oft-quoted insult troubling due to the difference between the methods and outlook of the atheists versus religious fundamentalists, but I also have reservations about the means being used by some of the "bad cop" atheists, as The Rational Response Squad have dubbed themselves. I'll write more on the matter in the days to come, but I wanted to begin with some...

Personal Background
I came to regard myself as an atheist only recently. At the age of fifteen or sixteen, I began to have doubts about Christianity. Until that point (and for some years after) I had been highly active in my church: singing in choirs, acting in pangents, witnessing to my friends. My doubts began when I started questioning the basic ethical and logical basis of Christianity. Did pre-Columbian people get to go to heaven? Why did God have to sacrifice anyone to save the rest of us? Why plant the tree of knowledge in the first place? My doubts were amplified when writing from the Jesus Seminar landed in my hands (from the book collection of my fairly conservative father, no less). The discovery was shattering. Not simply in the Seminar's findings, but the facts that had long been known to theologists but undiscussed in Sunday School about the origin and circumstances surrounding the New Testament. As I fell deeper into the world of Mithras and the mystery cults, it became clear to me that whether or not Jesus existed, I couldn't accept the Gospel story as fact. When I took a world religion course, it became clear to me that the origin of Christianity was on as shakey ground as all the religions I had dismissed out of hand.

Throughout the period, I prayed. I never made my doubts as open as I describe them here, but I asked questions and continued to stay involved. The summer before I turned 18, I left Sunday school feeling angry one day, and knew I could never go back. I can count the number of times I've stepped into a church since then on one hand.

The nail in the coffin came afterwards and turned me into an angry agnostic for a few years. After the shock of telling my parents that first Sunday, I felt nothing. I felt no doubt about my decision. Something in me must have expected a showdown, that the holy spirit would intervene and bring me back, but nothing happened. Not even my parents cared enough to save me. Not my Christian friends, not my church. I didn't suddenly become immoral, and I didn't even lose some of my doubts about evolution, abortion, etc until college. I felt as if I had been taken in with a scam and left with a dozen boxes of worthless knives and no way of getting my money returned.

Years Later
Last year I attended a lecture by Eugenie Scott on the slight of hand involved in the "Teach the Controversy" tactic. A long time fan of culture jamming, I had been following the Flying Spaghetti Monster with glee. Scott's lecture spoke to the educator in me (still present despite a failed student teaching endevour), and I started to follow the serious issues that prompted the FSM response.

Last fall, I stumbled onto The Root of All Evil on YouTube and several lectures by Dawkins. I had called myself an agnostic until then, but the teapot scenario won me over. I am open to evidence on any deity's existance, but from the evidence that I've seen, I don't feel the theistic question warrants even ambivalence. This is incredibly dismissive, I admit, but like many vocal atheists, I am used to speaking within the realm of science. I have noticed that theists and agnostics are reacting strongly to the recent invasion of loud atheists, and this will inform my position on what atheists shouldbe doing.

In my next post I'll explain that position on the trouble with atheism, which the savvy will liken to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Scott Atran's recent remarks.


Beast Rabban said...

Okay, I hope you don't mind my taking the time to comment on this earlier blog entry of yours.

Firstly, thank you for your candour over your own personal loss of faith. You were obviously a bright lad with honest doubts who didn't get the answers you sought or needed.

However, I really don't believe that Dawkins or militant atheism offers any answers either. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the simplist is despite the rhetoric, Dawkins himself is not an honest doubter. There is something profoundly disingenous about someone who wishes to get theists to doubt their faith daily, yet despite claims to the contrary has shown absolutely no sign of subjecting his own ideology to scrutiny and doubt.

The classical Sceptics believed that the universe was fundamentally unknowable, and attempted to demonstrate this by arguing both for and against particular dogmas. The arguments Carneades and the others devised against theism, which Dawkins and the other atheists have used throughout history, were a part of this attempt to demonstrate the universe's great unintelligibility. Yet Dawkins is thoroughly dogmatic. He states evolution is a fact, and that the probability of God existing is 'vanishingly small'. If a central tenet of Scepticism is that belief should be replaced by light acceptance, and that a benefit of this is ataxia - freedom from care or worry, then Dawkins himself is most obvious proof that this is not the case.

Then there's the slight matter of the invective he employs against believers. 'Faith-heads' is just one such charming epithet he employs in The God Delusion. Now, while that kind of abuse is going to amuse some of the angry atheists who support him, in the same way that people enjoy watching fights in pub carparks, it is not going to win converts, nor convince anyone of his humanist goodwill.

I also find it mendacious the way he has presented atheism as representative of evolution and true science. He's welcome to his views, but I do know a number of theistic evolutionists, and some theologians, like Peter Ward, will point to evolution as demonstrating the existing of God and God's operation in the world, rather than the absence. For an example of this approach, try Ward's book, Pascal's Fire, and check out the paper on the 19th century Methodist minister and evolutionary scientist, Dallinger, 'Theological Insights from Darwin' on the web-page of the American Scientific Affiliation. Dawkins fails to distinguish between his own philosophical Naturalism and science, and in my view does considerable damage to science as a result.

Now we come to the metaphor of the orbiting teapot. That ain't unique to Dawkins - he took it from Bertrand Russell, and it was a pretty poor metaphor even then. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is just a variation on a theme, as is Carl Sagan's invisible dragon in his garage.

The problem for this metaphor is, God is not just an addition to the universe, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Sagan's dragon or Russell's teapot, but the essential ground of being, the essential reason 'why there is something, rather than nothing', in the words of Aristotle, and you cannot compare God to any monsters, dragons or teapots.

Beast Rabban said...

Another major criticism which can be levelled at Dawkins is his complete inability to deal with the immense evil which has been done by people with pretty much his own worldview. For example, in a televised debate over here, his opponent raised the obvious point that the Holocaust was committed by convinced antichristians who based their ideology on evolution. Dawkins response is that their science was wrong, so they were therefore religious.

This is dodging the issue. Science, as has been stated, works by the careful testing of theories and rejection of those that don't work. Now this means that scientific truth can only be tentative, partial and subject to revision. This is what has given science paradoxically great power to develop. Yet it means that very many of the theories people of science have held over the centuries have been wrong. Does that mean that they were somehow being religious because of this? For example, the pre-19th century scientist or natural philosopher who believed that bad air - malaria - carried disease wasn't religious because of this theory. It provided him or her with a satisfying explanation for the spread of disease, wrong though it may be. Theism is not simply bad science.

Dawkins seems to have picked up this daft idea as the legacy of Sir James Fraser, who believed that magic, which he considered to be the origin of religion, to be 'primitive science'. I don't know any scholar of religion or science who would make such a statement now.

The other point that needs to be made, and which was made in the pages of the British satirical magazine Private Eye and New Scientist is by stating that the Nazis must have been religious in their actions, because their science was bad, raises the awkward question of whether Dawkins believes that if their science had been good, the murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and those deemed mentally and physically unfit would have been morally justified. Now clearly Dawkins is anti-racist and certainly not a Nazi, yet he has not faced the reality that men of science have done unspeakable horror in the name of the same values and science he so vigorously promotes.

Beast Rabban said...

I would also point out that some of the most respected promoters of Humanism have badly misrepresented history in their efforts to persuade others of their points of view. One of the classic cases is in the book and TV series Cosmos by the late Carl Sagan.

Sagan made much in the series of the murder of the pagan female philosopher, Hypatia, in Alexandria, by a Christian mob. He saw this very much as an example of Graeco-Roman science under attack from an anti-intellectual Christianity. His ultimate source for this view was Bertrand Russell, who as we've seen supplied Dawkins with his orbiting teapot metaphor.

The trouble is, Russell and Sagan's view of the matter is in stark variance to events at the time. The Neoplatonism Hypatia espoused and taught wasn't an early form of science. It was, as philosophers have described it, 'the mind's road to God', a philosophical religion. However, that wasn't the reason Hypatia was murdered. Many of her pupils were Christians, and two became Christian bishops. Moreover, Hypatia herself was not a devout pagan, and did not object to the closure of pagan temple or their reconsecration as Christian churches. Her murder was the result of rather murky political intrigue in Alexandria, rather than a martyrdom for science or Roman paganism. Yet this did not stop Russell, and Sagan after him, misrepresenting it as such.

B H said...

Human beings make mistakes, including human beings that say similar things to what you or I may say. I wouldn't think to use the Crusade argument against modern Christians and still hope to win the argument. And frankly, I'm not interested in whether the Nazis were reigious or not. No human mistake of the past can save or refute any position.

I have serious disagreements with Dawkins's public teaching method. But I will say a few things in his defense:

I don't see any evidence that Dawkins's hasn't subjected his beliefs and leanings to doubt. In the debates I've seen, he either has an answer to all incoming questions or can fairly dismiss tangents as irrelevant.

A large number of the people debating with him lately seem to not actually be listening to what he says. I've heard theists make statements he agrees with ("science does not provide morality") and continue to throw the same argument at him even after he's voiced his agreement multiple times. Other times they state their own belief ("there must have been a first cause and that first cause must be called a god") and fail to answer his follow-up questions. In all of the public appearances I've seen, Dawkins has not been arguing that he is correct beyond a shadow of a doubt, but that probability appears to be on his side. A few reviewers have trouble with his definitions (whether god is simple or complex), but I expect answers are forthcoming from Dawkins, if I haven't just missed them.

The possible exception to this is evolution, as you mentioned, but there again the wording and assumptions are important: where he most often states that the current evidence all points to evolution as a fact. In modern biology, evolution has no competiting empirically driven explanation. The debate in mainstream biology is over the mechanisms of evolution, not whether evolution happens. More than once, I have heard him state that as soon as serious evidence against evolution was accumulated, he'd change his mind.

Finally, s for the comment that I didn't get the answers I needed: I strongly resent the tone. I have heard very few arguments from Christians that were not said to me before I left the church. And as noted, I left the church before I became an atheist. I still have yet to read about a single god that I find morally acceptable. The idea of a savior I find particularly offensive. I've often stated that even if Christinity could be proven to be 100% correct, I would still refuse to participate on moral grounds to stand united with everyone else who didn't make the cut for heaven. I can't imagine singing praises to a god who will punish good people simply for disbelieving in his son. (If that's not what he means by the scripture, then he should have done a much better job revealing it. I don't blame the audience when someone doesn't understand my writing.)

Beast Rabban said...

Thanks for the lengthy reply, BH. I'm sorry if I offended you with part of my post. This was unintentional. I misunderstood what you said about finding the answers you were given to your questions at church unsatisfying. I'll answer this objection later in the post.

Firstly, you raise the points about people being mistaken. Absolutely true, but people still have a responsibility to get their facts right when presenting their case, and all the more so if they're respected figures in the public eye. Sagan was a highly respected astronomer. Cosmos may well have been subtitled 'A Personal View', but it was still presenting a view of the history of science as if it were objective fact. Indeed, some of the statements Sagan made at the time were known to be wrong, and there were objections at the time to some of his mistakes. So at the very least he was guilty of a sloppiness which ill-behoves someone of his stature.

Beast Rabban said...

Now on to Dawkins. Yes, I know how he presents himself. I have seen him reading from his book, Unweaving the Rainbow at the Cheltenham Festival of Science here in Britain. He is a very good speaker, and gifted writer.
He is also extremely selective about who he debates.

You mention several times Dawkins' documentary 'The Root of all Evil'. Now the people Dawkins debated in that generally speaking weren't the most intellectually advanced. Dawkins has stated very definitely that he sees no need to engage with the sophisticated arguments for the existence of God, as it's all bunkum anyway. So, he chooses middlebrow targets and strawmen. There is also the very considerable question of bias. Dawkins was given directional control over 'The Root of all Evil', something which was not granted to his theist adversaries. There is thus a real question of bias in his programmes. Dawkins has complained that he could find no-one of any real intellectual calibre to debate him. Quite frankly, I don't blame people for pulling out. Would you wish to debate him, knowing that he has editorial control and with a bit of selective editing can make you look bad?

As for him having an argument for everything - no. There's a very good debate on the web between Dawkins and the Irish religious journal Quinn, in which Dawkins got his bottom well and truly kicked all the way round the philosophical park.

I also have to say that he eludes and provides glib answers to questions. When I saw him in Cheltenham, one young lady in the audience told him that one of her friends was an astronomer, and that she had said that the more she looks out into the universe as an astronomer, the more she gets a feeling of God.

To this Dawkins supplied his standard answer that 'God' was merely the name scientists gave to describe the complex interconnection of physical law. It's neat, but untrue. It's true that some scientists use 'God' this way, following Spinoza and Einstein, but not all do. As I pointed out, in a 1996 poll 40 per cent of scientists said they had religious convictions. Dawkins was speaking in 1997. When he made that statement, Dawkins was either unaware of that poll - a fact I find hard to believe - or he was being economical with the truth. I leave it to you decide which.

As for being open-minded, someone in the audience asked him what he'd do if he found out God existed. He replied simply, 'It couldn't happen.' Someone asked H.G. Mencken the same thing 70 years earlier. Mencken said if he got to heaven and found out that God, the saints and the angels existed, he'd take his hat off to them and say, 'Gentlemen, I was mistaken'. Mencken was another atheist, but from this it seems he was far more open-minded than Dawkins, no matter what Dawkins professes to believe or doubt.

Beast Rabban said...

Now, regarding my comments about you not receiving the answers you required at church, I'm sorry if I appeared patronising. However, it has been my experience that many of those who leave the church have left because of the simplistic answers they have been given by their clergy and teachers. With no indication to the contrary - you did not mention in your original post that you received the same answers after you left - I assumed this was your experience too. Obviously, I was wrong. And yes, I was aware that you stopped attending church before you became an atheist.

However, your comments about the insufficiency of some of the answers given to you by Christians still deserve comment. You mention specifically that even if the evidence for Christianity was 100 per cent convincing, you still wouldn't worship God because it is wrong for such a God to send people to Hell for not believing in His Son. This ain't a new argument by any means. John Stuart Mill said it in the 19th century, though he did not deny the existence of God, nor the possibility of life after death.

Firstly, Christian theologians since Irenaeus have pointed out that God does not send people to Hell for disbelieving in His Son. They themselves choose Hell by rejecting God's invitation to salvation through accepting the presence of His Son.

Now the problem of Hell is one that has caused theologians and philosophers problems down the centuries, not just in Christianity, but also in Islam. How can a loving God cause eternal suffering? In some forms of Judaism, the answer is simple: He doesn't. Judaism does have Hell, but it is not for eternity. The wicked are sent there only for so long as their earthly sins deserve, before they are plucked from the burning to be with God, Abraham and Moses in paradise. The third century AD Christian theologian, and other members of the Greek Orthodox Christian tradition have a similar view. Punishment in hell is not eternal, but limited and all will eventually rejoin our Lord in glory.

In contemporary Roman Catholic theology, someone who makes an honest inquiry into the existence of God, and after honestly inquiring decides that God does not exist either, will not go to Hell.

Beast Rabban said...

As for blaming God for not making the message clearer, you might wish to read the Bible on this. As Peter Vardy points out in his book on theodicy, The Puzzle of Evil, the Bible makes clear that there are forces at work in the universe opposed to the Lord and obscuring His revelation. Read John's Gospel where it clearly states that God's light was hidden by the darkness, so that the world did not know it.

These forces may be part of God's plan, they are given existence by God, like the rest of creation, and they are on a leash, but nevertheless they are - not yet - fully under the Lord's control. Thus evil exists in the world, and the terrible moral freedom given to humanity.

B H said...

I'm not going to read the Bible for proof that the Bible's right. p says p is true is a tautology.

Firstly, Christian theologians since Irenaeus have pointed out that God does not send people to Hell for disbelieving in His Son. They themselves choose Hell by rejecting God's invitation to salvation through accepting the presence of His Son.

That's the argument I find, quite literally, sickening. It reminds me of the blame-the-victim approach to rape. I don't know how I'm supposed to find that comforting.