Posts Tagged ‘New Atheism’

Against Theology

20/12/2013

This draft has been sitting in My Documents folder for quite a while.  Since I have recently been chided for my lack of serious “scholarship” (note the scare quotes) while debating on David Robertson’s blog on the question of whether Stalin was influenced by Darwin and evolution and my reply involved delving into this draft and copying any pasting the links and quotes, I thought that now would be as good a time as any to complete and publish the draft.

Some of most entertaining articles I have ever read have been those debunking theology.  There’s something so pompous and self-important about all theologians I have encountered.  When I first started reading the reactions to Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion, one of the more stinging comments was that he has not engaged in any serious Christian or Jewish theology.  No discussion of the finer details of the Trinity.  No dissection of the Transubstantiation.  As US evolutionary biologist, H Allen Orr, put it in his lengthy review:

[T]he result is that The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents.  You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?)…  Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.  Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science populariser.

Richard, what were you thinking committing such a gapping hole in your research?

Nevertheless, Dawkins has hit back at this criticism both before and after the publication of his book.   Dawkins’ response to Oxford University’s Christian theologian Alister McGrath’s criticisms that he has a poor grasp of theology in his 2004 book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning of Life:

Yes, I have, of course, met this point before.  It sounds superficially fair.  But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about.  The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject.  It is empty.  Vacuous.  Devoid of coherence or content.  I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer.  How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?

The only part of theology that could possibly demand my attention is the part that purports to demonstrate that God does exist.  This part of theology I have, indeed, studied with considerable attention.  And found it utterly wanting.

Spot on.  Ninety-nine percent of all theology simply assumes that God exists; the content of the Bible is literally or metaphorically “true” and proceeds from there.  For an atheist to start arguing against the Trinity and assert that God is not one in three, but one in five would be to accept God’s existence implicitly and therefore contradict their core position!  Learned theological treatises among Christian theologians (and those of any other religion for that matter) have no more scientific or intellectual content than the discussion of Norse-like gods between Conan and his companion, Subotai, in Conan The Barbarian at the beginning of this post.  The cue to Basil Poledouris’ (wonderful) score is even called “Theology”!

Science blogger Jason Rosenhouse’s reply to Orr’s review, “Orr On Dawkins”, elaborates further:

Dawkins provides no serious discussion of Jewish or Christian theology?  Of course not, because such theology is mostly irrelevant to how religion is actually practiced.  Theology is an academic pursuit, and like many such pursuits it concerns itself primarily with esoterica far removed from people’s actual lives. Much Christian theology in particular tends to take the form of viewing the Bible as a complex cipher, one that requires years of training to understand properly.

And since Orr is criticizing Dawkins’ superficiality, it is a bit rich for him to reduce Augustine’s views to the slogan that he rejected biblical literalism.  Augustine did take the view that the Bible should be interpreted in as literal a way as possible, and in some of his writing he even endorsed a young-Earth position.  He was willing to countenance a somewhat allegorical interpretation of Genesis, but that was only because he felt the Bible should not be read in a way that contradicts what clear scientific evidence is telling us.  A worthy sentiment, certainly, but not one that finds much theological justification.

At any rate, Dawkins is perfectly aware that many serious Christians do not accept Biblical literalism.  So what?  Dawkins’ book is primarily about the reasonableness of believing in a creator God, and on the social impact of widespread religious belief.  The minutiae of different schools of Christian thought just isn’t the concern of this book.

The rest of this post will provide further resources and pithy sound bites giving this pseudo-intellectual non-subject that is needless contributing to the destruction of the rainforests and the worsening of climate change the respect it deserves.

Thomas Jefferson (quoted in The God Delusion [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, p. 55]):

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity.  It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ:

Anyone with theologian blood in his veins will approach things with a warped and deceitful attitude.  This gives rise to a pathos that calls itself faith: turning a blind eye to yourself for once and for all, so you do not have to stomach the sight of incurable mendacity.  This universally faulty optic is made into a morality, a virtue, a holiness, seeing-wrong is given a good conscience, – other types of optic are not allowed to have value any more now that this one has been sanctified with names like “God”, “redemption”, and “eternity”.  I have unearthed the theologian instinct everywhere: it is the most widespread and genuinely subterranean form of deceit on earth.  Anything a theologian thinks is true must be false: this is practically a criterion of truth.

Sam Harris defines the God of the religious community at large:

We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be.  Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…

If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…

The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person.  It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate.  Lucky us!

He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.  He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality.  And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity.  And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith.  And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.

And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts.  You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.

So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

Harris damns all theological discourse in Letter To A Christian Nation: A Challenge To Faith [London: Transworld Publishers, 2007, pp. 65 – 66]:

Consider the recent deliberations of the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of limbo.  Thirty top theologians from around the world recently met at the Vatican to discuss the question of what happens to babies who die without having undergone the sacred rite of baptism.  Since the Middles Ages, Catholics have believed that such babies go to a state of limbo, where they enjoy what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “natural happiness” forever.  This was in contrast to the opinion of St. Augustine, who believed that these unlucky infant souls would spend an eternity in hell.

Though limbo had no real foundation in scripture, and was never official Church doctrine, it has been a major part of the Catholic tradition for centuries.  In 1905, Pope Pius X appeared to fully endorse it: “Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.”

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this?  Just imagine what these deliberations must be like.  Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptized children after death?  How can any educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time?  When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child molesters, the whole enterprise begins to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

To finish with Sam Harris, here’s his summary of religious scientist Francis Collins’ true beliefs:

1.  Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

2.  He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

3.  Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

4.  Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

5.  In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”

Richard Dawkins, “Let’s Hope It’s A Lasting Vogue”:

Athorism is enjoying a certain vogue right now.  Can there be a productive conversation between Valhallans and athorists?  Naïve literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor’s mighty hammer.  But the spiritual essence of hammeriness remains a thunderingly enlightened revelation, and hammerological faith retains its special place in the eschatology of neo-Valhallism, while enjoying a productive conversation with the scientific theory of thunder in its non-overlapping magisterium.  Militant athorists are their own worst enemy.  Ignorant of the finer points of thoreology, they really should desist from their strident and intolerant strawmandering, and treat Thor-faith with the uniquely protected respect it has always received in the past.  In any case, they are doomed to failure.  People need Thor, and nothing will ever remove him from the culture.  What are you going to put in his place?

Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?  When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious?  I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them.  I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.  If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming.  If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?  Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work!  The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything.  What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

P Z Myer’s, “The Courtier’s Reply”:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship.  He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat.  We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all.  He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D T Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed – how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry – but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.  His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

Paula Kirby, “Fleabytes”, (Special Topic: The Bible):

We are all familiar with PZ Myers’ inspired “Courtier’s Reply” to allegations of inadequate understanding of the Bible and theology, but there’s another angle to this issue, too, it seems to me, and that is that Dawkins and other atheists are deliberately refusing to take the Bible at anything more than face value.  At first glance this may seem deliberately obtuse but actually it is all part of stripping away the special treatment that has been accorded to faith in our societies.  We are just no longer prepared to read “Show him no pity.  Do not spare him or shield him.  You must certainly put him to death.  Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.  Stone him to death because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13: 8-10, NIV) and pretend it means “God is love, God is good, God is moral.”

Likewise, when Dawkins argues that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive (thus provoking shrieks of indignation and scorn from Robertson in this letter), he is simply refusing to engage in the sort of wordplay and casuistry that allow theologians to twist and turn and claim “Ah yes, well, that’s not really what omnipotence means in this context.”  How many theologians have been kept gainlessly employed, how many trees have been felled, to produce and disseminate such sophistry?  And why should a book that requires such reams of debate, disagreement and interpretation before it can be held to make any sense be considered to be the Word of God, for goodness’ sake?

As a result, you don’t need your words to be interpreted, translated, or otherwise made comprehensible by even one go-between, let alone whole university faculties of them.  You are God, for God’s sake – you are perfect and omniscient and omnipotent.  You have the ability to create a book that will light up the world with its goodness and truth and unmistakably divine insight.  A book that will speak directly to any human being in whatever age they live.  A book that speaks incontrovertibly to the heart and mind of any being that opens it – and here’s the thing: EVEN IF THEIR THEOLOGY IS SHOCKINGLY BAD.

If it is necessary to read the Bible in a certain way, through a certain kind of lens, with a willingness to allow words to mean what they do not mean, and not to mean what they do mean; if it can only be made to be not offensive, not repellent, not meaningless after years of in-depth theological study, then your benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing God cannot have viewed it as a particularly important way of getting his message across.  In which case, it’s hard to see why “evidence” based on it should be taken very seriously.

To conclude with my own contribution to this issue;reviewing Peter S Williams’ reply to Dawkins & Co., A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism:

Avoiding the real issues

Williams’ contribution is fatally flawed along with the other “flea” books by self-proclaimed “scholars”, because it only addresses barely a quarter of the arguments of the Four Horsemen, namely whether or not God exists, without saying a word in defence of the effects of organised religion on the world.

Unfortunately, religion is not just about the sophisticated ponderings of scholars in ivory towers debating the finer points of the Trinity.  It has an effect on every single one of us, whether we like it or not.

I could concede every single word of Alvin Plantinga and say that there are good reasons to believe in God and Christianity and Christians are perfectly justified in doing so.  Hell, I could even go the whole nine yards and say that I actually do believe in God!  That I think that the virgin birth and the resurrection are as true as Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hitler carrying out the Holocaust and Armstrong landing on the moon!

That still does not in any sense allow Christians to force their beliefs on others.  I cannot deny the existence of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jung Il, but at least I am not forced to obey them.  Even if the Christian doctrine was true, even if the evidence for it was much better, what right would that give Christians to force their beliefs on others?  Exactly the same right as liberals, conservatives and fascists: none whatsoever.

Although the theologians are called to defend religion at the debater’s lectern, ironically, they are not the people with whom I have my main quarrel.  If the theologians ran religion, it would be a far more benign entity and one that perhaps I could live with happily.  It’s not so much belief in ancient myths and fairy tales that angers me; it is the severely negative consequences that these unfounded beliefs have on the world.

If someone wants to believe in the Bible and live according to the teaching of Christianity I can’t stop that.  If they want to encourage other people to share in these beliefs, then I suppose I can’t stop that either.   What I do resent is the effects such unfounded beliefs have and their utter lack of negotiability.  If stopping the effects of religion means cutting it off at the roots and spoiling believers’ blissful ignorance and indulgence in ancient fairytales, then so be it.

Like all theology and religious philosophising, Williams’ new book is all theory and precious little practice.  Accordingly, there is nothing about the foul rantings of Falwell and Robertson, the teaching of junk-science in schools classrooms, the destruction of the Twin Towers, the abuse of children by hell-fire preaching clergymen and the discouraging of condom use by the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan African where c. 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS each year.

The simple fact is that Williams’ subtle brand of nuanced religion has very little impact on the way that religion is actually practised.  Alistair McGrath got his feathers all ruffled in response to Dawkins and bleated on (at probably more speaking engagements than he was invited to in his career preceding publication of The God Delusion) about the importance of challenging those who take an overly literalist approach to the scriptures.

Yet when, in July 2007, the Bishop of Carlisle informed us all that the floods in Northern Yorkshire were divine retribution for laws permitting homosexual marriage did McGrath say a word in public to admonish the Right Reverend Graham Dow for his unsophisticated take on matters?  Like hell he did!

That is all.

Peter Hitchens: ‘The Rage Against God’

17/05/2010

manicstreetpreacher is simply appalled.

I have not read Peter Hitchens’ addition to the host of “flea” responses to the New Atheism, The Rage Against God, but I heard him on the Saturday, 15 May 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? discussing the book with atheist scientific broadcaster and writer, Adam Rutherford.

Without giving a blow-by-blow account, what started off as a reasonable and balanced discussion on the pros and cons Christian versus secular morality swiftly descended into a demagogic point-scoring exercise by Hitchens on the questions of abortion and sex education.  I was most offended by Hitchens’ cheap emotional ploy of stating that abortion was murder and abortion clinics were comparable to the Nazi death camps.

Perhaps Hitchens should take a look at this picture…

…watch Sam Harris’ take on stem cell research from his lecture at Beyond Belief 2006

…read my blog and listen to the debate on Unbelievable? with former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris on abortion aired a few months ago…

Abortion is a difficult issue and I struggle with it greatly.  Evan Harris did very well to convey the moral minefield of the topic and is a superb spokesman for humanists and secularists everywhere.  Abortion is hardly a wonderful thing that we need to be encouraging more of, but it is alas the least worst option.   Rather like democracy as a form of government, as Winston Churchill once said.

(…)

Paul Hill, a Christian minister who murdered an abortion clinic doctor in the USA, was far more evil than the doctor he killed could ever reasonably be considered.  Hill’s victim terminated foetuses at the request of their mothers.  Foetuses that could not feel pain like we can, who had no memories, no emotions, no wife, no children, no friends, no relatives to mourn them.  I admit that it is an awful choice to make, but I do so without hesitation.

…to realise how crudely simplistic his reasoning really is.  Such moral absolutist hysteria advances the quest for truth not one iota.

I am pro-choice because I believe that fertilised embryos do not feel pain, experience emotions or accrue memories like a living human being after birth until an advanced stage of gestation, if at all.  I’m not holding anything against foetuses as the Nazis regarded Jews as sub-human as Peter Hitchens argues, but THEY ARE NOT HUMAN BEINGS!

However, I would change my stance if convincing evidence were produced that contradicted  my impression of the sensory and emotional content of foetuses.  I wonder what evidence or argument would change Peter Hitchens’ stance on abortion and convince him that it was ethical?  I suspect none whatsoever; he has ruled it out a priori on religious grounds and no evidence or reasoning would change his mind.  I suppose that’s why they call it blind faith.

Debates are always subjective affairs and very often both sides claim victory.  But it was no small wonder that Peter Hitchens attempted to dissuade listeners from watching his debate against older, wiser and funnier brother, Christopher Hitchens, at The Hauenstein Center in April 2008 on the Iraq War and religion, because quite simply he was pulverised by his heretical elder sibling.  It was an embarrassment, frankly.  I don’t even support the Iraq War and I thought Hitch Snr made a better argument.  And as for Petee’s arguments in favour of God?  Let’s just say I won’t be spending my hard earned cash on his new book if this performance is anything to go by.

To conclude this post, I present the video of the full event.  Sit back and enjoy the slaughter.

Craig –v- Hitchens: Fourth Thoughts – Sleepless in Biola

06/04/2010

The third and final part (Part I / Part II) of manicstreetpreacher’s reassessment of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against William Lane Craig will examine the “emotional blackmail factor” that pervades Dr Craig’s case for the Almighty.

When Craig is not appealing to flawed logic, he appeals to common sense and inner feelings to guilt trip his audiences into accepting his arguments as this last post will demonstrate.

Argument from objective morality

After name-dropping atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse who contend that morality is just a by-product of evolution and universal norms such as the wrongness of rape and torturing children have no deeper meaning than assisting our survival, Craig argued that human morality is objective and therefore must come from God with nothing more than “the problem is that objective moral values do exist and deep down we all know it” to back it up.  As he phrases it:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore God exists.

Both of Craig’s premises are flawed, so his conclusion is invalid.  Firstly, objective morals could well exist without God.  They could be hardwired into our genes as an evolutionary survival mechanism.  So clearly, Craig’s first premise is incorrect.

However, objective moral values de facto do not exist.  Not everyone has the same moral standards.  Our perception of what is right and wrong have changed over the centuries with Richard Dawkins has termed “the shifting moral Zeitgeist”.  Indeed, practices in other parts of the World today which are considered the height of piety seem barbaric to Westerners.  You only have to look inside the books of our religions and see what these pronouncements mandate to see that this is the case.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the moral argument for God is just rank wishful thinking, (how this differs from all other arguments from God, I am not entirely certain).  Perhaps it would be wonderful if there was a list of rules set in stone somewhere in the metaphysical universe, but I simply don’t see any evidence for it.  We just have to feel our around, sometimes getting it right, sometimes making mistakes, always striving for a state of moral perfection regardless of whether that will ever be achieved in reality.

I really wish that Hitchens had raised Craig’s appalling views on the morality of the God of the Old Testament.  I had been very suspicious of Craig declaring the atrocities of the Israelites’ slaughter of the Canaanites to be off-limits in debates, since it was a question of biblical inerrancy, not whether God existed.  I found my answer in an appalling radio interview and then with an article on Craig’s website which I commented on a few months after the Biola debate in which Craig argued that since God sets down moral values, he can arbitrarily overrule them with the result being that murder, torture and ethical cleansing are suddenly all fine and dandy.  Therefore, the Israelites were acting entirely in accordance with the will of God in exterminating the Canaanites and the Bible’s inerrancy is unaffected.

I won’t repeat my piece here; I suggest that it is read in full, but it is a stunning indictment of the theological mind which totally undermines Craig’s argument from objective morality, since he knows that murder, torture and genocide are wrong independent of God’s commands.  It is also a graphic illustration of Plato’s “Euthyphro Dilemma”: if God tells you to torture a baby, it becomes morally right and indeed obligatory to torture a baby.

Resurrection of Jesus

A key component in Craig’s argument for the resurrection of Jesus is that his followers would not have believed in a dying and rising Jewish messiah, much less have died for that belief.  For his second rebuttal after cross-examination, a clearly weary Hitchens invoked Tertullian’s maxim credo quia absurdum: “I believe it because it is absurd”.  He recounted his research on Mother Teresa and the circumstances surrounding her thoroughly discredited post-death miracle that will see her canonised by the Vatican and will in fact contribute to the misery and suffering of millions in the Third World by promoting shamanism and devaluing modern medicine.

A fair point, but I have seen Hitchens do much better on the historical Jesus.  Check out these two clips from his debate against D’Souza at Freedom Fest 2008 in Las Vegas.

On the historical Jesus and the criterion of embarrassment:

On the virgin birth and potency of the story:

Craig is basing his argument on discredited sources that are self-contradictory, written decades after the events that they purport to describe, copied and re-copied over centuries by fallible scribes with their own theological axes to grind.  And as we shall see in the next section, this is not even the reason why he believes in the resurrection at all.

Argument from personal experience

In his opening speech, Hitchens quoted from two editions of Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, where Craig argues that a person knows that Christianity is true because the “Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit” assures him that it is true.  Whereas reason and evidence can be used to support this proposition they cannot be used to overthrow it.  A person has enough assurances from God with regard to his existence and the consequences that will be metered out for rejecting belief in God are entirely on the shoulders of the non-believer.

Although Craig’s response to this in his first rebuttal was somewhat convoluted, I cannot see how he refuted Hitchens’ interpretation, or even amended it significantly.  According to Craig, all belief in God entails is a warm fuzzy feeling inside that there has to be something more than this veil of tears and all arguments and evidence in support are wholly ancillary.  Atheist theologian Robert Price summed up Craig’s stance perfectly in their 1999 debate on the resurrection:

Dr Craig then freely admits that his conviction arises from purely subjective factors.  To me it sounds no different in principle from the teenage Mormon door-knocker: he tells you that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient Americans because he has a warm swelling feeling inside when he asks God if it’s true.

Craig said that Hitchens had to show that he is delusional; otherwise his belief in God through personal experience is still valid.  Again, this is a prime example of Craig placing the burden of proof on his opponent.  Without access to Craig’s medical records (I’ll avoid making the cheap shot that they would make for interesting reading!), this is an impossible task.

Nevertheless, people have all sorts of personal experiences that seem real to them: out of body, alien abduction, near death.  Without any corroborating evidence, the sceptic is perfectly justified in writing them off as deluded, not matter how sincere they are.  Indeed, virtually all of these experiences can be reproduced on subjects in the lab under control conditions.

So what sort of evidence would corroborate personal religious experience?  As Victor Stenger points out in God, The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism, perhaps if someone returned from such an experience with some new knowledge in their heads that they could not have otherwise obtained except through the agency of an all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural being.  If Craig really does have a hotline to the Big Guy in the Sky, then I don’t know why he hasn’t found a better way to spend his evenings than arguing with miserable heretics like Hitchens who are all fire-bound anyway.

Perhaps personal experience of God is something I will address in a future post, but for now I’ll direct Craig to Sam Harris’ take on the argument from meaning and purpose with his “Diamond The Size of a Refrigerator Buried in Your Back Yard” Gambit for him to realise what a risible non sequitur his reasoning is.

The last “Hussar!”

The debate moderator, Hugh Hewitt, posed the final question of the evening to Hitchens and asked why there was such a high public demand for debates on the God question at present.  Hitchens’ reply was that he is part of a small group of people who want to take a stand against theocratic bullying from Islamist regimes in the Middle East who are soon to obtain nuclear weaponry, terror attacks against civilian non-combatants by Al-Qaeda, fanatical Jewish settlers stealing land from Palestinians to bring on the Messiah and fundamentalist American Christians who want junk taught in school science classes.   For the first time that evening, Craig had to wait politely as the audience’s applause died down before he could retort.

Hitchens may well have wanted to debate the wrong topic that night.  The New Atheism may well be a form of “village atheism”; hostile to the social effects of religion rather than appreciative of the subtle nuances of theological “scholarship”.  But I’ll conclude these posts with a thought from my original piece after first watching the debate that I definitely stand by:

I could accept every one of Craig’s five arguments; you still have all your work ahead of you convincing me that the Pope, the holder of the keys of St Peter, Christ’s vicar on Earth is objectively moral to go to Africa and say, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”.  This is a sinister and immoral aspect to religion that interests me more than the mere existence of God and the truthfulness of the scriptures; one which Hitchens tackles head on, but Craig wilfully evades.

Craig may have won the battle.  But the outcome of the war might not be so rosy for him.

Craig –v- Hitchens: Third Thoughts – Deconstructing William

05/04/2010

manicstreetpreacher’s second out of three posts (Part I / Part III) reassessing Christopher Hitchens’ debate against William Lane Craig discusses the “Rubik’s Cube factor” of Craig’s continually evolving God in the face of objections to design.

As always, Craig started off the debate by presenting his bog-standard five “arguments” that make it seem rational that God exists: origins of the universe, fine-tuning of the universe, existence of objective moral values, resurrection of Jesus Christ and personal experience of God.  In CraigWorld these are so amazingly irrefutable that he has used them in just about every debate for the past 15 years, despite their obvious weaknesses and being corrected ad infinitum by opponents and critics.

However, Craig will still say he has won the debate unless and until his arguments have been “torn down” and “a new set of arguments” put in their place.  Has it ever occurred to Craig that his “arguments” are not worth expending the effort?  After all, you can make a plausible case that the Earth is flat or that the Holocaust never happened if you limit the debate to a narrow set of facts and arguments.

Consider the case of Thomas Aikenhead, a teenage medical student who was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy in Edinburgh, 1697 for scorning the Holy Trinity as “a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense” and “not worthy of man’s refutation”.  Can’t Craig learn anything from this?

Why resort to “arguments” at all?

Atheists hardly ever raise the argument from hiddenness in a debate, but let’s face it: there is no empirical data whatsoever in support of the existence of God.  The fact that debates have to be held on this question at all has to say a great deal.  If God does exist, why does he choose to remain hidden?  Wouldn’t it just be great if we could see God creating new planets and species in front of eyes rather than just having to makes “inferences to the best explanation”?

Anselm’s Ontological Argument declares by fiat that existence is both a necessary and great-making property and therefore a maximally great being by its very definition must exist in reality.  Fine.  I could engage in the same smart-Alec sophistry by declaring that evidence, proof and certainty beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of all living creatures in the universe are great making properties and therefore by definition such a being does not exist.

Before turning to Craig’s “arguments”, I have previously posted a series of highly amusing and irreverent YouTube videos refuting Craig’s arguments.  Victor Stenger, American atheist physicist, presented plausible rational alternatives to Craig’s supernatural “God of the Gaps” reasoning during their 2003 debate the University of Hawaii.

Cosmological argument

Craig is being flagrantly dishonest by continuing to assert that the universe began to exist with the Big Bang singularity.  Although not on this occasion, Craig has quoted Stephen Hawking as writing, “Almost everyone now believes that the universe and time itself had a beginning at Big Bang.”   However, Hawking and his partner in physics, Roger Penrose, have recanted an earlier thesis when they said that the universe began with the Big Bang singularity.  But hacks like Craig and conservative Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza mine extracts from Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Nature of Space and Time to make it appear that Hawking still believes that the universe began with the Big Bang singularity.

Hawking acknowledges in Brief History, “So in the end our [Hawking and Penrose] work became generally accepted and nowadays nearly everyone assumes that the universe started with a Big Bang singularity.”  However, the very next sentence Hawking writes, “It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe – as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account (p. 50).”

In his latest book, The New Atheism,Victor Stenger clarifies:

D’Souza has glanced at A Brief History of Time, mining quotations that seem to confirm his preconceived ideas.  He quotes Hawking as saying, “There must have been a Big Bang singularity.”   D’Souza has lifted it out of context and given it precisely the opposite meaning of what Hawking intended…  Hawking was referring to the calculation he published with Penrose in 1970, and D’Souza cut off the quotation.  This act of editorship makes it look like Hawking is confirming that the Big Bang actually happened when in fact the full quote reveals just the opposite.

Craig’s assertion “out of nothing, nothing comes” is sheer folk wisdom.  We see apparently uncaused events all the time in radioactive decay.   Firstly, Craig ought to have looked at the smoke detectors in the Biola gym and considered when a particular Americium atom decays inside it, what caused one to decay rather than some other one.  The answer is nothing that we know. Secondly, even in a vacuum, virtual particles come into existence all the time and are measurable.  Appealing to “common sense” reasoning when it is at odds with modern physics contradicts is not intellectually honest.

“Is atheism true?”

Craig responds to Hitchens’ speech by saying that he has no positive arguments to show that “atheism is true”.  This is a misrepresentation of the atheist position and part of Craig’s debating trick to shift the burden of proof onto his opponent when he is the one advancing the positive claim.  Atheism is a term devised by the religious to label people who do not share their views.  It is the opinion that theism is untrue since there are no good reasons to believe that God exists.  There is no evidence for God and saying “God did it” in order to explain away the existence of the natural world is no explanation at all.  Craig is asking the impossible by demanding arguments or evidence that God does not exist.

Having loaded the burden of proof onto his opponent’s shoulders, Craig excused himself from having to provide anything like the extraordinary evidence that his extraordinary claims warrant.  He said that he was arguing for the “best explanation of the data”.  But even if the debate were only about inference to the best explanation, Craig has still not provided anything like the level of proof required to discharge his claims.

Craig closed his first rebuttal by saying that all the evidence has been on his side.  He certainly presented reasons to believe, but that does not mean that they were any better than those for Russell’s teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Subsequently, Craig showed that providing evidence against God is pointless, since far from “Christians being able to follow the evidence wherever it leads”, believers can move the characteristics of their God around like a Rubik’s Cube so that God confirms with the empirical data post hoc.  Craig’s responses to Hitchens’ objections to arguments from design proved this in spades.

Teleological argument

In his first rebuttal, Craig quotes Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga and portrays Hitchens’ belief in the scientific truth of evolution by natural selection as a faith-based commitment: atheists are ideologically committed to evolution since as an alternative to God it is the only game in town.  This is a gross misrepresentation.  Believing in evolution is not a faith claim at all, but accepting a coherent scientific hypothesis supported by masses of evidence and one that has survived sustained assaults by creationists.  Even if evolution had not been discovered, or indeed was untrue, this would still not provide one shred of evidence either for design or a designer.

After Hitchens in his opening speech rather beautifully recounted how he had the mitochondria trail of his African Homo sapiens ancestry traced with a DNA swab from his cheek by the National Geographic Genographic Project, Craig employed a ridiculous sound bite about the sheer “improbability” of evolution by natural selection.  This next clip is from a different event, but it is virtually identical to what he said at Biola.

There are two objections to a priori improbability of which Craig has no doubt been informed repeatedly.  Firstly, Craig’s obsession with low probability is irrelevant since improbable events happen every day.  If you crunch the numbers in relation to your own existence (i.e. the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg multiplied by the probability that your parents met, repeating the calculation back until the beginning of time), invariably you will get a fantastically low probability.

Secondly, what is the probability of the supernatural alternative?  What’s the probability that the universe is the product of a divine design?  What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated?  It could be even lower.  And what empirical data do we have to make the calculation at all?  I have never heard an apologist answer these questions and Craig disappointed me yet again at Biola.

Then Craig moved onto Hitchens’ “98,000 Year Wait” Gambit claiming that God’s timing in bringing the Christian revelation to the largest number of people possible was perfect since only 2 percent of humans who have ever lived were born before the year 1AD.  The claim sounded highly dubious.  Sure enough, the report by the Population Reference Bureau to which Craig referred (download PDF) actually shows that at least 47 billion out of the estimated 106 billion people that have ever lived were born before 1AD. That’s about 43 percent, not 2 percent.  Craig may well have based his argument on this article by D’Souza:

I’m indebted to Erik Kreps of the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.  An adept numbers guy, Kreps notes that it is not the number of years but the levels of human population that are the issue here.  The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever been born is approximately 105 billion.  Of this number, about 2 percent were born before Christ came to earth.

“So in a sense,” Kreps notes, “God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  If He’d come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be?  But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world’s population, so even though 98 percent of humanity’s timeline had passed, only 2 percent of humanity had previously been born, so 98 percent of us have walked the earth since the Redemption.”

Kreps/ D’Souza/ Craig either misread the chart thinking the number of 1,137,789,769 at “Births Between Benchmarks” for 8000BC represented the people born before 1AD or just divided 106 billion by 47 billion and thought the 2.25 meant 2.25 percent.  I just wonder how Craig’s God will be reinvented in the light of this correction.

Argument from fine tuning

This idea that the universe is fine-tuned for human life is an utter distortion of physics by apologists who have leaped on part of a scientific concept as supposed evidence for their God.

One look at the universe shows that it is anything but congenial for our kind of life.  The Earth is the one speck of dust that we know is capable of supporting life in a vast abyss of virtual nothingness. Our observations of the nearest solar systems and planets do not bode well for the prospect of having intelligent carbon-based neighbours.  Is that a universe that is friendly towards life?

The planetary version of the Anthropic Fine Tuning Principle makes even less sense.  Theists are basically saying, “Look how hostile the solar system is life.  If it wasn’t for the gravity of Jupiter sucking up all the space debris, we’d have a cataclysm of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs every five minutes.  God must have placed Jupiter in the path of the asteroids when he was finally bothered to create beings who could worship him!”  What nonsense!

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle is like Darwinism.  It is an alternative to the design explanation, not a feature of it.  An all-powerful God would be capable of designing life to exist irrespective of the heat, cold, sunlight and asteroid conditions.  Indeed, he could design us to survive in a hard vacuum!

However, the inhabitants of CraigWorld see the vast emptiness of space and the sheer improbability of life and say, “Oh, it points to a designer God who created the universe with humans in mind!”  But theologians keep their children fed by constantly reinventing their God to conform to the empirical data.

Suppose we reverse the data and imagine a Star Trek-like universe where intelligent life is overwhelmingly probable and our extra-terrestrial neighbours visit us regularly (and not just long enough for a single frame blurry photo to be taken by someone driving a potato truck in Iowa).  The theologians would still say, “Oh, it points to a designer God who created the universe with humans in mind!”  The words, “cake”, “eat” and “have” spring to mind.

Hitchens argues that the failed galaxies and certain destruction of the Earth by the explosion of its own sun do not imply a benevolent designer.  Craig’s reply is that this does not disprove that they were designed, since manmade objects such as cars and houses are not built to last forever.  True, but this was never part of Hitchens’ argument.  However, you would be hard pressed to argue that this was all the result of an all-wise and all-loving designer who cared for his creations.

Finally, Craig says that this objection has no purchase on Christian theism, since for Christians; the end of life on Earth is the beginning of eternal life.   This is a ludicrous assertion that has no more substance than a child’s fairytale.  Craig offers no evidence for a soul separate from the physical body or the prospect of life after death, aside from ancient scriptures, which of course predicted the end would come 2,000 years ago (Matthew 16).

We are still waiting.  Perhaps it’s time to give up and move on, Doctor?  No, evidence is an occasional convenience in CraigWorld.  What matters is good ol’ fashioned faith, as my third and final post tomorrow will demonstrate to degree of probability beyond mere inference to the best explanation.

William Lane Craig –v- Christopher Hitchens: Second Thoughts

04/04/2010

With his 100th post 😮 manicstreetpreacher begins his reassessment of a notorious debate as he tries to figure out where his hero went wrong.

Craig was flawless and unstoppable.  Hitchens was rambling and incoherent, with the occasional rhetorical jab.  Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.

So went the verdict of the web’s most fawning atheist Craigophile, Lukeprog, over at Common Sense Atheism a year ago today in respect of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, at Biola University on the motion “Does God Exist?”.

Luke subsequently commented that his piece was linked all over the web.  Craig himself quoted it in his post-debate newsletter to his flock.  Lee Strobel quoted it in his foreword to Craig’s latest apologetic, On Guard.  I linked to it in my original comment piece back in June last year when the Biola DVD hit the torrents sites.  I’m certainly not giving Luke the satisfaction of linking to it again here.

I have mixed feeling about my original piece.  After the damning verdict against Hitchens on the blogs was clearly exaggerated, I wanted to stick up for the guy.  At the same time, my blood was very much up that he had let Craig get away with so much and smugly declare that his five pathetic “arguments” for God’s existence were unassailable and that his opponent had provided no evidence or argument that God did not exist, that it turned into an ad hominem rant against Craig.

I originally titled it “We should all feel very sorry for this man”, which irritatingly still appears when the post is automatically generated by WordPress as a “possibly related” post.  I even made some very unkind remarks about Craig’s spindly hands that since he is obviously close to punching his last ticket, he is dreaming of eternal life next to the Father’s right hand more than usual but will be sorely disappointed.  “What a great analysis,” I thought when I hit “Publish”.  Until one of the post’s first commenters pointed out that Craig suffers from a neuromuscular disorder that affects the appearance and movement of his hands.  Damn.  It has been my most reviewed and re-edited post.

So one year after the actual debate, I have taken a step back and watched the tape again with the benefit of having seen and heard a lot more lectures and debates by Craig.  The remainder of this post and my second and third posts will present what I now think.

Hitchens and Craig meet at the Christian Book Expo

Two weeks before their debate, Hitchens sat on a panel with four Christian authors: Craig, Douglas Wilson, Lee Strobel and Jim Denison at the 2009 Christian Book Expo held in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, 21 March 2010.  The debate moderated by Christianity Today writer Stan Guthrie, who in reality turned into a sixth discussion participant.

The full audio of the discussion can be downloaded here; the full tape video is uploaded to YouTube below.

Hitchens dominated the discussion and received most of the airtime and audience questions.  However, in his closing remarks, Craig baited him by saying that his arguments amounted to “I don’t like it”, as opposed to “I don’t believe it’s true” and condescendingly asked him to engage more with him and his cohorts’ wonderful arguments in their upcoming debate at Biola.  In an Apologia podcast immediately afterwards, Craig sounded incredibly pleased with himself, saying that Hitchens did not have the “intellectual capacity” to answer his arguments.  The clip with Craig and Hitchens interviewed can be listened to here.  Following the encounter, the blogs predicted a beat down for Hitchens at Craig’s hands, including former student of Craig and evangelical preacher turned atheist author and blogger, John W Loftus.

Letters from Biola

I’ll come right out and say that Hitchens lost the debate.  No two ways about it.  While he didn’t come off as badly as Lukeprog’s infamous sound bite implied, he simply didn’t prepare enough in advance to answer Craig’s arguments.  Hitchens is more concerned with the social effects of religion.  Craig wanted to argue over its truth and after all, that was the debate’s motion.  Craig boasts a great delivery at the lectern.  He compresses his points very well and splits his arguments up piecemeal.  Hitchens sears, flows and mixes it all up into one.  He also has a habit of making “throat-clearing” precursors before answering points.

Even so, I had severely underestimated Craig.  A very few others aside, I had only seen his debates against Bart Ehrman and Victor Stenger which were the two occasions when he had been convincingly beaten.  Having now seen and heard many more of his debates, I can see that Craig does not debate his opponents has such, but executes premeditated hit-jobs on them.  Craig makes a point of not debating anyone without a doctorate.  He made an exception with Hitchens, who has been a visiting professor at several universities, but as far as I know does not hold an actual PhD and during the debate, Craig referred to him as “Mister” rather than “Doctor” or “Professor”.   Was this an attempt on Craig’s part to discredit the leading debater of the Four Horsemen?  Very possibly.

Craig employed every single one of his dirty tricks at Biola: scientific distortion, quote-mining of authorities, dropping in as many points as possible, patronising and intimidating erudition, demagogically pandering to the audience… the lot.  It can take ten times as long to answer a question than to ask it.  Craig fires out arguments in quick succession and then chides his opponent for failing to answer all of this arguments and objections.  He also presented straw man versions of Hitchens’ own arguments, which took up a great deal of Hitchens’ time in his rebuttals, only for Craig of course go on and then say that Hitchens had not properly refuted his original arguments!

Craig also constantly appeals to authorities.  During the Hitchens debate he quoted external sources no fewer than 19 times!  However, he is extremely selective in the way that he uses quotes.  In their debates against Craig on the resurrection, Bart Ehrman and Bishop John Shelby Spong exposed Craig’s use of authorities on New Testament scholarship who in reality are deeply opposed.

Richard Dawkins was quite right to refuse publically a debate against Craig on the grounds that the man is simply a “professional debater” rather than a proper academic worth taking seriously.  Hitchens was too respectful and had clearly been taken in by the Craig hype, as his slightly nervous demeanour at the pre-debate press conference showed.

So with the dust well and truly settled, let’s take a look at Craig’s arguments now he is unable to hide behind his debating tricks.  My next post tomorrow will begin the deconstruction of Craig’s arguments and tactics piece by piece.

Victor Stenger debates William Lane Craig on the existence of God: Transcript of Stenger’s main speeches

20/12/2009

Another manicstreetpreacher post where the clue is in the title

American cosmologist Victor J Stenger, author of Has Science Found God? and God, the Failed Hypothesis debated the motion “Is there a God?” against Christian apologist William Lane Craig at the University of Hawaii in 2003.  You can read my analysis of the debate on another post.

The YouTube video (which goes to audio-only for the cross-examination, closing statements and audience Q&A) starts here:

The whole debate is available to download as an MP3 audio.

I found a transcript of Stenger’s three main speeches, to which I have updated and revised for inaccuracies.  No need to post Craig’s transcript.  He doesn’t say anything you haven’t heard a million times before or since!

Opening Statement: 20 minutes

There Is No God

Well, aloha.  It’s certainly wonderful to be back in Hawaii where Phyllis and I spent so many happy years.  Our children were both born in Hawaii, both graduated here from the University of Hawaii, and it’s certainly great to be back.  In fact, it’s almost exactly forty years to the day that we first landed in Hawaii and this is the first time we’ve actually visited Hawaii in all that time.  And so we’re here as tourists and now I can understand why so many people keep coming back to visit Hawaii.

I would like to express thanks to Keli’i and the other organizers and the sponsors of this debate for inviting me.  It’s certainly an honor to share the platform with William Lane Craig.  I’ve read that he is one of the world’s foremost Christian apologists and he’s given ample evidence of that today.

In his opening remarks, Dr Craig has appealed to your common sense.  You know what common sense is.   Common sense is the human faculty which tells us that the Earth is flat.   On the other hand, objective observation tells us that the Earth is round.

In tonight’s debate, I will argue that objective observation as well as reason and logic lead to the conclusion that a God with the traditional attributes of the Christian God does not exist beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I will give four arguments to support my position.

1. Attributes are self-contradictory

The attributes of the Christian God are self-contradictory.  They are like a square circle.

2. Attributes incompatible with what is known

The attributes of the Christian God are inconsistent with what we know about the world.

3. Naturalism is a better explanation than supernaturalism

Supernatural explanations for events in the universe are unnecessary.  Natural explanations are simpler, are based on objective observations, and are fully consistent with all we know about the world.

4. God’s actions should be observable but are not

The attributes of the Christian God imply actions that should be objectively observable.  But they are not.  God has not been detected.

Attributes of God

Let me list a set of attributes that are traditionally associated with the God of the monotheistic religions, but particularly Christianity:

  1. He is the creator of the universe.
  2. He is immaterial and transcendent.
  3. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good.
  4. He is perfect in every way.
  5. Furthermore, God is a person.  He loves humans and wishes us to know him.
  6. He is forgiving and merciful.
  7. He speaks to humans, revealing truths to us that we would not otherwise know.
  8. He answers our prayers, as he sees fit.
  9. He performs miracles, violating natural laws.

Incompatible attributes

Many philosophers have argued that the traditional attributes of God are logically incompatible. Here are just a few of these:

  1. Perfect –v- Creator.  If God is perfect, then he has no needs or wants.  This is incompatible with the notion that God created the universe for some divine purpose.  Divine purpose implies that God wants something he doesn’t already have, which makes him imperfect.
  2. Transcendent –v- Omnipresent.  How can a God beyond space and time be at the same time everywhere within space and time at the same time?
  3. Just –v- Merciful.  To be just means to treat a person exactly as they deserve. To be merciful means to treat a person better than they deserve. You can’t do both.
  4. Immaterial –v- Personal.  To be a person is to have a material body, to have a brain, to have a mouth that you speak with and so on.

So a God with these attributes and many of the other attributes traditionally assigned to him does not exist.

Existence of non-belief

The God of monotheism also has attributes that are inconsistent with what we know about the world.  For example, an all-powerful, all-knowing God who also has the attribute of wanting all humans to know and love him is inconsistent with the fact that there are non-believers in the world.

The Problem of Evil

Perhaps the most ancient and strongest of the arguments for God’s non-existence is the problem of evil.  An all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God is simply inconsistent with the fact of evil and gratuitous suffering in the world.

God’s reasons for evil and suffering

Theologians have, of course, grappled with the problem of evil for centuries, and they still do.  For example, a prominent contemporary theologian Richard Swinburne says of the problem of evil:

If the world was without any natural evil and suffering we wouldn’t have the opportunity… to show courage, patience and sympathy.

Certainly, pain has a role in warning us of illness or injury.

Is so much suffering necessary?

But does God really need so much suffering to achieve his ends?  Is there any good purpose behind so many children dying every day in the world of starvation and disease; perhaps one every few seconds?  How are they helped by the rest of us becoming more sympathetic?

Logically consistent gods

Dr Craig and many other theologians have spent their lives building models of God that are logically consistent and at the same time in broad agreement with the traditional teachings of Christianity.

This has mainly consisted in trimming God’s characteristics one by one until he is defined mostly in the negative: non-material, not in space or time, not seen or heard.  Apologists have reduced God to an almost undetectable background: something like what we physicists used to call “the aether”, until we found that the aether doesn’t exist either.

I have no doubt that a logically consistent picture of some kind of God can be devised and I never claimed to disprove the existence of every conceivable God, that’s why I’ve been very careful to focus on the God with the traditional attributes of Christianity and to certain extent the other monotheistic religions as well.  While it’s possible to create a logically consistent God, I seriously doubt that this God can be made consistent with Christianity.

Computer games

In any case, these theologians and their logical consistent Gods remind me of the creators of computer games.  Programmers invent whole new universes in which the characters have all kinds of superhuman powers and many of our familiar laws of physics are violated.  Yet the rules these games are logically consistent.  They wouldn’t run on a computer if they weren’t.  But the computer game universes have little connection to the universe we see around us.  They exist in what is called “virtual reality”.

God’s actions should be observable, but are not

Just because something is logically consistent, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it exists.  For the theologians’ logically consistent God to actually exist, he must have something to do with the observed universe; some attributes that can be objectively observed.  Otherwise God is as useless as the aether.

Naturalism is a better explanation than supernaturalism

Even if a God can be devised who is consistent with logic and with observations, natural explanations for phenomena are still better than supernatural ones.  They better explain the existence of non-believers.  They also better explain the existence of believers.  They explain the existence of evil and gratuitous suffering as the unfortunate results of evolution.  They better explain the origin and structure of the universe of life, and mind.  And these notions are based on objective observations and theories that are testable.

Supernaturalism offers no explanation at all except “God did it”.  And to say “God did it”, as Dr Craig does, passes on no more information than to say “Santa Claus did it” or “the Easter Bunny did it” – it could be any entity.

Most scientists do not believe

Only seven percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in the personal God worshipped by perhaps 80 – 90 percent of other Americans.  Most scientists don’t believe in God because they don’t see any objective evidence for him!  When they look at the world around them, they see no sign of God.  They don’t see God when they peer through their most powerful telescopes.  They don’t detect God with their most sophisticated microscopes and other instruments.  Furthermore, scientists find no need to introduce God or the supernatural in any form into any of their explanatory theories.

Here are a few of the famous scientists who have been outspoken in their non-belief: Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, Francis Crick; the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Steven Weinberg; perhaps the greatest living theoretical physicist, and the incomparable Carl Sagan.  Let me add that none of these scientists would not believe if they were present with sufficient evidence.

Objectively observable actions of God

A God with the attributes I have listed implies phenomena that should have been easily observable by now.  For example, let us consider three actions: revelation, prayers, and miracles.  Let’s begin with revelation.

Revelation

Most people believe in a God who has a substantial and detectable role in the universe and in human affairs.  One common characteristic attributed to this God is that he communicates with humans and provides them with verifiable new knowledge.

The theistic religions have traditionally taught that God speaks to humanity.  Their scriptures are widely assumed to be the word of God and he’s believed to have revealed knowledge to religious leaders in the past that they would otherwise not have known.  Many believe that God still does this today, speaking even to the average person.

Revelation is verifiable

Surprisingly, these claims can be easily verified­ if they are true.  All we have to do is find some fact supposedly gained by divine revelation that was unknown at the time of the revelation, and then confirm this fact at a later time.

For example, suppose the Bible had predicted that men would walk on the moon in two thousand years.  Then we would have a rational basis to take seriously what else is written in the Bible.  Unfortunately, we do not.

No revelations

No revelation of previously unknown knowledge has ever been empirically validated.

The scriptures contain nothing that could not have been known to or imagined by the ancients who wrote them.  The Bible reads exactly as we would expect it to read, based on existing knowledge at the time it was composed.

Failed revelations

Furthermore, there are many examples of the failure to confirm of Biblical revelations.  Consider the failed prophecy of the Second Coming:

In Matthew 24: 30 Jesus says, “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.”  And a few verses later he says, “I will tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matthew 24: 34)

Well, we’re still waiting.  It was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago.  It’s time to give up and move on.

All in the head

Those who have claimed to talk to God have provided no knowledge that was not already in their heads.  Many people have claimed religious experiences in which they felt the presence of God, but they never return from those experiences with any exceptional knowledge that could easily verify their claim.  What I’m saying is that there is a way that God can be detected, and this is one of them and has not been.

Furthermore, religious experiences can be induced in the brain by drugs, electromagnetic pulses, and oxygen deprivation.  For example, when pilots undergoing high-G training in a centrifuge, they will often experience a kind of tunneling of their vision, narrowing of their vision with the “light at the end of the tunnel” that is characteristic of the near-death experience that is supposed to happen with the religious significance.

Does God choose to hide?

You might say that God has chosen to hide himself from us.  He certainly has – if he exists has – hidden himself from us.

However, Saint Paul makes it very clear that even though God is invisible, his nature and diet have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.  In other words, God may be invisible, but his actions are visible.

[Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

– Romans 1: 20]

In other words, God may be invisible but his actions are visible.  Theists might respond that God’s actions are obvious to those who wish to see them.  Well, I would love to see them, but they are not obvious to me, or to the millions of other non-believers in the world.

Prayers and miracles

Another commonly believed attribute of God is that he listens to entreaties from humans to change the natural course of events.  He can be expected to grant a sufficient number of these requests so that the results should be observable.  Otherwise, what’s the point in praying?

Many people will testify that they’ve had prayers answered.  But personal testimony is insufficient since it doesn’t rule out other more mundane, simpler, natural explanations.  For example, if someone is ill and then recovers after praying, it could be that the prayers had nothing to do with it.  After all, the body, sometimes with medical help, does a pretty good job of healing itself.  In fact, it works every time except once – the last time.

If prayer had value in healing we’d have doctors prescribing Prayer Aspirin. “Say three ‘Our Fathers’ and four ‘Hail Marys’ and call me in the morning.”

Convincing evidence for a God who answers prayers can, in principle, be scientifically demonstrated – it’s not impossible – with high probability if he really exists.  Well-designed experiments on intercessory prayer should turn up solid, statistically significant results on the success of prayer in healing.

In fact, some studies claiming positive effects of prayer have been published in refereed medical journals to great media hoopla.  However, you can’t rely on media reports but need to look at the actual published papers.  Applying the same criteria that are used in conventional science when testing extraordinary claims, you’ll find that none of the reported effects is significant.  Furthermore, most of these experiments are severely flawed and none of the claimed positive effects have ever been successfully replicated.

Mayo Clinic Study (2001)

Perhaps the best study was done by the Mayo Clinic a few years ago.  They studied some 800 patients over a period of half a year.  The patients – they were coronary patients – were divided up into two groups, some prayed for, some not prayed for, and the results were no significant effect that would suggest that prayer had any good whatsoever.

[The results of 26 weeks of intercessory prayer, a widely practiced complementary therapy, were studied in 799 patients randomized to an intercessory prayer group or to a control group after discharge from a coronary care unit. As delivered in this study, intercessory prayer had no significant effect on specifically defined medical outcomes, regardless of risk status.]

Summary

So let me summarise:

  1. The traditional attributes of God are self-contradictory, so such a God cannot exist.
  2. The traditional attributes of God are incompatible with objective facts about the world. So such a God cannot exist.
  3. Natural explanations are superior to supernatural explanations.  No basis exists for anything supernatural.
  4. The traditional attributes of God imply actions that should be objectively observed, but they’re not.

It’s possible to hypothesize a God whose attributes are logically compatible with each other, but it does not follow that such a God exists unless he has objectively observable consequences.  And as I said no consequences have been observed.

So if God exists, where is he?

First Rebuttal: 12 minutes

I’m going to respond now mainly to Dr Craig’s opening remarks.  However, I will add some further comments on what he has just said.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  He probably wasn’t the first one to say that.  Dr Craig has made the extraordinary claim that certain empirical facts require supernatural explanations.

In order to refute that, all I need to do is provide plausible natural explanations for these phenomena.  I need not prove these.  If he wants to argue that God is required to exist in order to explain the observed universe, Dr Craig must disprove all possible, natural explanations for these phenomena.

Let’s start with his cosmological argument.

Cosmological Argument

Dr Craig argues that:

  1. Whatever begins must have a cause
  2. The universe had a beginning
  3. Therefore the universe must have had a cause

Not everything that begins has a Cause

However, we know from physics that not everything that begins has a cause.  Physical bodies begin to exist all the time without cause.  Let’s consider radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus, the alpha particle or beta particle or gamma particle that are emitted in a radioactive decay, those particles coming into being, come into existence, begin to exist spontaneously, without a cause.  The beginning of the Big Bang the universe was like a subatomic particle, so these ideas could apply.  Again, I can’t prove it but I don’t have to prove it.  Here is one example that refutes Dr Craig’s claim that everything that begins must have a cause.

Is the Big Bang is evidence that the universe had a beginning?

But even if everything that begins has a cause, this does not necessary apply to the universe if the universe did not have a beginning.

Dr Craig argues that the Big Bang is evidence that the universe had a beginning.  However, the universe need not have begun with the Big Bang.  And I’m not just talking about this one particular speculation from my book.  There are many prominent physicists and cosmologists who publish papers in reputable scientific journals proposing various scenarios by which the Big Bang appeared naturally out of a pre-existing universe that need not itself have had a beginning.  One such recent example is the Cyclic Universe.

Does an infinite universe have a beginning?

Dr Craig also claims that the universe had to begin because if it were infinitely old, it would take an infinite time to reach the present.

However, if the universe is infinitely old, then it had no beginning – not a beginning infinitely long ago.  Furthermore, the universe can be finite – and I actually believe that the universe is finite – it can be finite and still not have a beginning.

Universe can be finite and still not have a beginning

Einstein defined time as what you read on a clock.  It’s a number, the number of ticks of the clock.  We count time forward time: one, two, three, four, five ticks.  We never reach infinitive time.  We can also count time backward and never reach minus infinity.  The notion that the universe had either a beginning or will have an end are theological notions, not scientific ones.

Is the universe fine-tuned for life?

Now, what about this fine-tuning argument?  Again, it’s an argument that’s based on the low probability of our kind of life.  And that not only means carbon-based life but also life with the existing physical laws as we know them.  Even if the probability of a particular form of life was highly improbable to have occurred by natural process, some kind of life could still be highly probable.  Probably not silicon – I agree that silicon is a poor candidate – but that’s with our existing laws of physics.

Another form of life might still evolve in a universe with different physical laws or different physical constants.  We simply don’t have the knowledge to rule that out.  To say that there’s only possible form of life and only one possible set of laws of physics and only one possible set of constants is extremely narrow thinking and not at all required by anything that we know about science.

Argument from improbability

In this argument and other arguments about the design in the universe, Dr Craig claims that the universe and life are too improbable to be solely natural.

The improbable happens

However, this is a fallacious argument.  To use probability to decide between two alternatives requires a comparison of the probabilities of each alternative.  Dr Craig claims that these natural probabilities are exceedingly low.  But he hasn’t told us anything about what the supernatural probabilities are and yet it’s a comparison of these two that must be made.

What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated?  What’s the probability that there’s an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing but undetectable­ super-being behind all of this?  Complex things are common.  We see natural events every moment.  We’ve never seen a supernatural event.

Furthermore, low probability events happen every day.  What’s the probability that my distinguished opponent exists?  You have to calculate the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg, then multiply that by the probability that his parents met, and then repeat that calculation for his grandparents and all his ancestors going back to the beginning of life on Earth.

Even if you stop the calculation with Adam and Eve, you are going to get a fantastically small number.

To use words that Dr Craig has used before, “Improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers.”

Well, Dr Craig has a mind-reeling, incomprehensibly low probability – a priori probability – for existing.  Yet here he is before us today.

Modern versions of the argument from design – both the fine-tuning argument and the intelligent design argument – share this fatal flaw.  They are based on the idea that natural causes can be ruled out by some arbitrary notion of low probability.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Dr Craig also asks why is there “something” rather than “nothing”, why does the universe exist rather than “nothing”?

Well, why should “nothing” be a more natural state than “something”?  Why would you expect “nothing” rather than “something”?  In fact, how could “nothing” even exist?  If it existed, wouldn’t it be “something”?

And finally, why is there God rather than “nothing”?  Dr Craig doesn’t answer those questions.

Genesis confirmed?

Dr Craig claims the Big Bang confirms the Biblical view of creation.

Genesis falsified

But what does Genesis actually say?  It says that Earth was created before the sun, moon and stars.  This is at odds with modern cosmology which says that the Earth did not form until seven billion years after the Big Bang.

There are many other disagreements.  Genesis implies that the universe is only about 6,000 years old.  Here’s a picture of a quasar.  The light from this quasar left 12 billion years ago.  Billions and billions of years before the Earth was even formed.

Every one of the thousand or so religions in the world has a creation myth.  Most of them probably resemble modern cosmology as well or better than Genesis.  Here we are in Polynesia and some of the Polynesian myths are more closely resembling to the modern cosmology than Genesis.

Objective morality

Dr Craig calls upon our common sense – our inner feelings – to attest that morality is objective and so must come from God.

Subjective morality

Not everyone shares the same morals.  So, there is no evidence for objective morality.  But, even if morality were objective, its source could be natural: an evolutionary process that aids in human survival and is built into our genes.  I don’t see how Dr Craig has disproved that possibility.

Is the Gospel historical?

Dr Craig claims the Gospel stories describe actual historical events, such as the empty tomb.

The Empty Tomb

There is no evidence for this outside the Bible.  The story of the empty tomb is second and third hand, written years after the event from the oral testimony of supposed eyewitnesses.  Paul did not even know about it, yet Paul regarded the resurrection as very important, yet he didn’t know anything about the empty tomb.  Furthermore, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

But even if the story of the empty tomb is accurate, you could have a simple, natural explanation.  Dr Craig seems to think most scholars don’t believe, but I don’t see how they can know that.

If you went to the Napoleon’s tomb in Paris one morning, and found that his remains were not in their usual place of honour, would you conclude Napoleon had risen bodily into heaven?  Hardly.  You would figure that somebody took the body!  Dr Craig cannot prove that Jesus’ body could not have been removed by somebody.  So that remains a more plausible, natural explanation and a supernatural explanation is not required by the data.

Personal experience of God

On personal experience, Dr Craig says that a personal experience should tell us that God exists.  However, that’s subjective and not everyone shares that experience.

No Evidence for God

So plausible natural explanations exist for all phenomena in the universe and God is not required to explain the universe and so Dr Craig has not proved that God exists.

Closing Remarks: 10 minutes

Dr Craig believes in the God of the Gaps.  That’s the God who is used as a substitute explanation for something that we don’t understand, until the time comes along that we do.  Dr Craig cannot see how the universe came about naturally, so it must have come about supernaturally.  He cannot see how the universe became orderly by natural processes, so order must have come about by supernatural processes.  He cannot see how objective morality can come from humanity, so it must have come from God.  He cannot see how Jesus’ tomb could have been empty, so he must have risen from the dead.  And finally Dr Craig cannot see how his inner experience of God could be a simple physical brain process, so it must be a true experience of God.

In each of these cases we can give a plausible, natural explanation that violates no known principles of science and requires no divine action.  Dr Craig does not succeed in proving that these natural explanations are wrong; he tries to argue that they are implausible but in fact everything I’ve talked about is consistent with all the knowledge we have in science and is in perfect agreement with existing experimental and theoretical facts.  So I don’t think Dr Craig succeeds in proving that God exists.

But even if the goal of the debate were not proof, but simply arguing to the best explanation, Dr Craig fails: secular humanism or materialism is a better explanation than theism or supernaturalism.  It’s simpler, more consistent with empirical observations. In fact, Dr Craig offers no explanations at all.  It’s not an explanation for the order the universe to say, “God did it”.  How did God do it?  Where did God come from?  All you do when you say that “God did it” is you push the explanation back one level; it doesn’t explain a thing.

I’ve argued that a God with the attributes assumed by traditional theism can be proved not to exist if those attributes of course exist.  You can play with the attributes.  You can redefine God so that he doesn’t have all these attributes.  For example, an all good God might not be all perfect or all powerful let’s say and then is not responsible for evil, doesn’t have control over evil.  In fact, that was a line that was taken by Rabbi Kushner in his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People that God can’t help it – that bad things just happen.  However, if you assume that God has the power to prevent evil then the fact that he doesn’t and evil still exists is clearly an inconsistency – a logically impossibility.

A God who reveals knowledge about the universe that was not previously known could have been objectively verified.  A God with such properties clearly does not exist.  The God who answers prayers and performs miracles that can be objectively verified does not exist.  I readily admit that I can’t disprove every conceivable God.  But there’s no basis for believing in a God who does not produce objectively verifiable attributes.

I’m sure that I’ve not convinced many of the believers in the audience; I certainly haven’t convinced Dr Craig.  You’ll testify as Dr Craig does that you can feel the presence of God in your hearts.  Now I’m sure you do.  I understand that conviction.  I was raised in a devout Catholic family and heard this conviction expressed by almost everybody around me.  But as I grew up, I found that I could not share this faith.  Despite the importance of religion to my family and friends, I could not believe in God because I saw no evidence that he existed.  No one told me about humanism or atheism – I read no humanist or atheist books – I just found that the arguments and evidence that everybody continued to cite to me were unconvincing.  Not knowing how all this came about doesn’t mean that it came from God, it just means that we don’t know how all this came about.  And sincere personal testimonies of deeply held faith were not the sort of objective evidence that we have come to rely on in modern life.  Indeed, I saw so many conflicting religious points of view all based on primitive, superstitious ideas that I knew that they couldn’t all be right.  I decided most likely they were all wrong.

Most scientists share my view.  Are we being too sceptical?  Are we being dogmatically unwilling to entertain the possibility of a personal creator God?  I don’t think so.  There are many examples in the history of science that demonstrate its willingness accept ideas that challenge conventional wisdom.  But the data must require it.  In the early twentieth century the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics revolutionised some our most basic concepts about the nature of reality.  I think most scientists would be thrilled if evidence were founded for previously undetected materials and forces.  Think of all the funding opportunities that would open up.  I would come out of retirement.  But even if that were to happen, I doubt that the world that was then being uncovered would bear any resemblance to the fantasies from the childhood of humanity that constitute traditional religious belief.

People like what they see when they look in the mirror illuminated by the light of faith.  It reflects an image of themselves as fallen angels who sit on this planet with divine purpose to rehabilitate themselves so they may rejoin their fellow angels in paradise.  Unfortunately, the universe exposed to the light of science does not reveal a special place for humanity in the cosmos or any prospect for life after death.  I would not honest if I tried to sugar coat those facts just because they conflict so dramatically with common yearnings.

Saint Paul said, “When I was a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child.  But when I became a man, I put away childish things, for now we see through a glass darkly.”  Humanity has moved beyond childhood.  We no longer need to depend on imaginary friends for company or a mythical sky father to provide for our needs.  We can take care of ourselves.  We can find ways to live our lives that are consistent with the universe revealed to us by science.

Finally, an all good, all powerful, all knowing God – if one existed – he would have the power to comfort a child dying an excruciating death from leukaemia.  He chooses not to do so.  Is there a person in this room who would not ease that child’s suffering given the power?  I would do it.  Jesus Christ could appear before me and tell me not to do it because it has some ultimate purpose, I WOULD STILL DO IT!  Even if I faced eternal damnation I would do it…

Victor Stenger debates William Lane Craig on the existence of God

20/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher analyses an occasion where for once William Lane Craig gets a proper pasting.

I have referred to this debate countless times on my own blog and comments on other blogs that I thought it was high time I supplied all the links together with all my comments in one post.

Victor J Stenger, American cosmologist, atheist and author of Has Science Found God? The Latest Result for the Search for Purpose in the Universe and God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist debates Christian apologist William Lane Craig at the University of Hawaii in 2003 on the motion “Is there a God?”

The YouTube video (which goes to audio-only for the cross-examination, closing statements and audience Q&A) starts here:

The whole debate is available to download as an MP3 audio.

Analysis

Opinions among the commenters at Debunking Christianity and on YouTube are divided, but personally, I think for once Craig received an absolute flogging!  Stenger may not be a great showman, but what he lacks in flare, he more than adequately makes up for in authority and clarity.

William Lane Craig ought to be easy to beat in a debate since he uses exactly the same arguments every time, but frustratingly he is not.  This is due in part to many of his opponents failing to research his arguments and tactics properly, but also because Craig has a range of dirty tricks up his sleeve.  One of such dirty trick is to shift the burden of proof onto his opponent when he is the one making the positive claims.

However, Stenger skilfully refutes every single one of Craig’s lame “arguments” and presents positive reasons for non-belief over and above mere the absence of evidence for God.  Craig fails to respond to three quarters of Stenger’s opening address: the failures of revelation, the ineffectiveness of prayer, the existence of non-believers, and the absence of special knowledge in the Bible.  Stenger even trashes him in areas that one would think would not his forte, such biblical scholarship.

In his first rebuttal Craig actually agrees with Stenger that naturalistic explanations are preferable to supernatural explanations, but then argues that when naturalism falls short, we have no alternative but to resort to a supernatural explanation.

So basically Craig’s cosmology boils down to, “The zeros after the decimal point are too many, it’s all too complex and improbable for my tiny mind…  I’VE GOT IT!!!  It must have been The Thing That Made The Things For Which There Is No Known Maker!”

Stenger runs so many rings around Craig that this is the only debate where I have not heard Craig finish his closing statement by preaching to the audience how JC changed his life forever and that they should try reading the New Testament as well.

Make sure you listen to the tape all the way through to the Q & A after closing statements because Stenger even manages to steamroller Craig on his biblical scholarship thus: “Dr Craig continually talks about ‘majorities of scholars’.  I don’t know where he takes these polls.  Does he take them at Bob Jones University?!”  Genius!

Highlights

I’ve published the transcript of Stenger’s three main speeches on another post, but listen carefully at the following points on the audio where Stenger produces some real gems:

32 minutes Stenger demonstrates philosophically that the mere existence of the universe is evidence against God!
38 minutes Stenger points out that saying “God did it” is about as useful as saying “Santa Claus did it”.
39 minutes Stenger sticks two fingers up to NOMA by informing us that the world’s greatest scientists do not see God with their telescopes, microscopes and other powerful instruments.
42 minutes Stenger points out that we’ve waited too long for JC’s Second Coming and it just ain’t gonna happen.
46 minutes Stenger cites the failed double-blind prayer experiments and imagines an alternative universe where doctors prescribe “prayer aspirin”.
68 minutes Stenger rubbishes Craig’s argument from improbability by asking what is the probability of God and then showing that every person’s very existence is stupendously improbable without requiring any supernatural aid.
70 minutes Stenger asks why we would automatically expect “nothing” rather than “something” if God does not exist and why there is God rather than nothing.
71 minutes Stenger puts paid the notion that modern cosmology confirms Genesis (!).
102 minutes Stenger exposes Craig’s “arguments” as nothing more than gap theology.
108 minutes Stenger would come out of retirement at the prospect of the all the funding opportunities that scientists would be presented with if evidence of a personal creator God were discovered.
110 minutes Stenger movingly shows up Craig’s rancid theodicy for what it is by saying that he would gladly accept eternal punishment if he could stop the suffering of a child dying in agony of leukaemia if he had the power.  So why won’t God?
114 minutes Stenger floors Craig on his argument from “the universal opinion of modern scholarship”.
122 minutes Stenger wonders how the hell Craig can possibly know what he has just said!
143 minutes Stenger quotes the Good Book to show that God admits that he is the cause of evil (Isaiah 45: 7).  Further along Craig appeals to “context” and “translation” to show that the passage should not be taken literally.  The King James Version is not the inerrant edition of the Bible, I take it?  Biblical scholarship FAIL!
152 minutes Stenger tells Craig that most of the evil and suffering in the world most certainly does not come from humans.  And child torture and the Holocaust are wrong.  With or without God.

Finally!  One of Craig’s opponents who actually did his homework, which alas Christopher Hitchens did not.  Why, I do not know.  Hitchens bangs on about how great Stenger’s God, The Failed Hypothesis is and even wrote the foreword for the paperback edition.  He ought to have re-read it in preparation for meeting Craig, since Stenger demolishes Craig’s arguments within its pages!

Stenger and the New Atheism

Stenger has recently published a booked called The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason where he summarises the arguments of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens and his own in the God debate as well as the often underhanded attempts by religious apologists to refute them, such as misrepresenting what they actually say and quote-mining prominent atheist scientists to give the impression that they support theism.

I haven’t read Stenger’s new book for myself, but I’d recommend this recent lecture where he comments that he refuted Craig’s cosmological argument during their live debate on the basis that Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time recanted his and Roger Penrose’s earlier thesis and now state that the universe did not begin with a singularity known as the “Big Bang”.  According to Stenger, Craig is clearly “lying” to his scientifically ignorant audiences by continuing to use the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

William Lane Craig and evolution

In years gone by Craig has been non-committal about his belief in the truth of Darwinian evolution.  In his 2007 debate in London against British embryologist Lewis Wolpert, author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, Craig stated that he neither believed nor disbelieved in evolution, but reserved his opinion on the grounds that the evolution of Homo sapiens may have been so “improbable” that there simply isn’t enough time for the process to be completed before the sun burnt out.

As Wolpert pointed out at the time, this is complete nonsense.  However, in the last year or so Craig has hardened his scepticism towards evolution and has turned around its plausibility as only he knows how.  During his debate against Christopher Hitchens at Biola University in April, Craig cited John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle stating that there were ten stages in human evolution each of which were so “improbable” (!) that the amount of time required to complete the process would be so great that our sun would have ceased to become a main sequence star and exploded into a red giant.

In Craig’s world, if evolution did occur it would quite literally be a miracle and therefore evidence for God’s existence.  This next clip is from another event, but it is virtually identical to what Craig said in his debate against Hitchens:

Since then, Craig has become what he claims a tentative advocate of Intelligent Design “Theory” and debated theistic evolutionary scientist Francisco Ayala at Indiana University on 5 November 2009.  Contrary to the fawning opinions of certain Craigophilies, Ayala did reasonably well against Craig.  I’m not going to review that debate as well but Ayala is a lecturer, not a debater.  And besides, Craig did his job for him by using fallacious reasoning by arguing that end products of unguided genetic mutations are too improbable and therefore an invisible, undetectable, unknowable designer is a rational alternative.

Stenger actually corrected this flawed argument in their debate six years ago.  From Stenger’s first rebuttal:

Argument from improbability

In this argument and other arguments about the design in the universe, Dr Craig claims that the universe and life are too improbable to be solely natural.

The improbable happens

However, this is a fallacious argument.  To use probability to decide between two alternatives requires a comparison of the probabilities of each alternative.  Dr Craig claims that these natural probabilities are exceeding low.  But he hasn’t told us anything about what the supernatural probabilities are and yet it’s a comparison of these two that must be made.

What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated?  What’s the probability that there’s an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing but undetectable­ super-being behind all of this?  Complex things are common.  We see natural events every moment.  We’ve never seen a supernatural event.

Furthermore, low probability events happen every day.  What’s the probability that my distinguished opponent exists?  You have to calculate the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg, then multiply that by the probability that his parents met, and then repeat that calculation for his grandparents and all his ancestors going back to the beginning of life on Earth.

Even if you stop the calculation with Adam and Eve, you are going to get a fantastically small number.

To use words that Dr Craig has used before, “Improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers.”

Well, Dr Craig has a mind-reeling, incomprehensibly low probability – a priori probability – for existing.  Yet here he is before us today.

Modern versions of the argument from design – both the fine-tuning argument and the intelligent design argument – share this fatal flaw.  They are based on the idea that natural causes can be ruled out by some arbitrary notion of low probability.

My point is that Craig has been told that his arguments from fine-tuning and improbability are fallacious on many occasions.  Outright dishonesty – in effect, “telling lies for God” – is the only inference to the best explanation we can draw in respect of his pronouncements.

Dawkins and Grayling Defend Atheism: Afterthoughts

03/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher relaxes with a cigar and a glass of brandy following a dashed fine battle of rhetoric between the godly and the infidels.

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

– Lord Bowen

When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you.  I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.

– Johann Hari, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?”

On Sunday, 30 November 2009, I attended a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared at Wellington College, Berkshire entitled “Atheism is the new fundamentalism”.

Speaking for the motion were former bishop of Oxford Richard Harries and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, Charles Moore.

Speaking against the motion were prominent professor of philosopher from Birkbeck College, University of London, author and public commentator A C Grayling and evolutionary biologist, former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and “Britain’s Most Prominent Atheist”, Richard Dawkins.

The moderator of the debate was Dr Antony Seldon, master of Wellington College, who deserves an MSP blog profile to himself!

The event was streamed live over the Internet by the organisers and questions were taken over email and Twitter from viewers at the other end of the fibre optics.  Within 24 hours, the full recording was posted on the Intelligence Squared website.

The YouTube playlist begins here:

You can download an MP3 audio of the debate here.

The pre-debate/ live-streaming page for the debate on RichardDawkins.net is here.

The post-debate page on RichardDawkins.net is here.

The motion was defeated in both audience and online polls before and after the event.  The results were as follows:

Initial audience vote

For: 333
Against: 675
Undecided: 389

Final online vote

For: 37
Against: 889
Undecided: 12

Final audience vote

For: 363
Against: 1,070
Undecided: 85

Since the debate was made available on the Internet so soon after the event, I will not give a blow-by-blow account, but will let the viewers judge for themselves and provide my thoughts from the frontline.

As I predicted before the event, this one was far more evenly matched than Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry’s massacre of the Catholic Church in London at the end of October.  Against my predictions, however, was that the tone of the debate was far more hand-to-throat than the tea-and-cucumber-sandwiches-garden-party that I had envisaged.  There was genuine anger between the parties, which surprised me because Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries have shared a platform on a number of occasions and have been united in the fight against the teaching of creationism in science school classes.

Harries especially appeared to have taken matters awfully personally that his friend and colleague, Dawkins, had been so forceful in his condemnation of religion.  Charles Moore, I have say, even as a lifelong reader of The Daily Telegraph, let his side down badly.  His opening speech was packed with ad hominems Richard Dawkins, accusing him of treating the debate on religion like a game of Cluedo: “It was Reverend Green, with the Bible, in the nursery”, and even called him “Kommandant Dawkins” at one point.  Grayling drew a pretty large cheer later on in the evening for hauling Moore up on his below-the-belt tactics.

A commenter on RichardDawkins.net summed Moore up rather well:

After that loathsome Charles Moore used his entire time on a ranting, batshit crazy personal attack against Richard, calling him “Commandant Dawkins” and comparing him to Josef Mengele, I was at first astonished that Richard didn’t bother to respond to any of that garbage, but proceeded to issue a focused attack on the debate proposition which effectively ended the discussion; his points were unanswerable and Harries and Moore didn’t even bother to try.  But then I realized that this is one of the reasons I admire Richard so much: he is perfectly capable of becoming enraged if someone lies about the theory of evolution, but the fact that an asshole slanders him at length is of no interest to him.  Is there anybody around, atheist or otherwise, more passionate about fighting for the truth?

It was Dawkins and Grayling were the stars of the debate and were on tip-top form.  Dawkins was cool and rational.  Grayling – who I saw speak live for the first time on the night – said the least on the panel in terms of words, but spoke volumes more than any of them.  I was very impressed.  The cartoon to which he referred in his opening speech is below:

Grayling continually hammered home the point that it is simply not possible for an atheist to be fundamentalist about their non-belief.  You either believe or you do not.  The word “atheist” is an invention by believers to label those who do not share their views.  Except we do not have words like “afairyist” or “non-stamp collector”.  Grayling was understated and good humoured and drew a big “aaaaaaaah!” from the crowd when he said that the most religious experience he has had was meeting his wife.  He  also also a bitching impression of an old Irish woman greeting a leprechaun.

One member of the audience asked Dawkins why he refused to debate American Christian apologist William Lane Craig, as surely he was avoiding religion’s “best case” in so doing.  Dawkins pithily dismissed Craig (without repeating his name) by saying that he debated with bishops, scientists and theologians who had a valid contribution to make and not just someone “whose only claim to fame is being a professional debater; I’m busy”.

There has been an Internet campaign to get Dawkins and Craig on the same platform and apologists have accused Dawkins of cowardice in refusing the invitation.  Craig himself said that Peter May, Chair of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the UK contacted Dawkins shortly after The God Delusion went on sale to invite him to debate as part of Craig’s upcoming “Reasonable Faith” tour in the UK in 2007, but Dawkins replied saying that “he had never heard of him” and “it wouldn’t look very good on my CV”.

I’m glad that Dawkins took the opportunity to put this matter to rest.  I will certainly credit Craig with being an expert debater, but that is all he is.  His five “arguments” have been refuted ad nauseum yet he still keeps on using them.  American physicist and author of God, The Failed Hypothesis, Victor Stenger commented during a recent lecture (YouTube Part One) that he refuted Craig’s cosmological argument during their debate in at the University of Hawaii back in 2003 (video / audio) on the basis that Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time recanted his and Roger Penrose’s earlier thesis and now state that the universe did not begin in a singularity known as the “Big Bang”.  According to Stenger, Craig is clearly “lying” to his scientifically ignorant audiences by continuing to use the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Craig’s strongest weapon is to drop in several points of misinformation and scientific hokum during his time at the microphone and then ridicule and belittle (even by the standards of Christopher Hitchens!) his opponents and say that they have not answered his points.  Pathetic.   I’m sure Craig would mop the floor with Dawkins in a live debate, but it would be the result of multiple punches below the belt.  Besides, Dawkins soundly refutes all five of Craig’s “arguments” in The God Delusion.

The same arguments keep coming up as well.  Dawkins and Grayling had to refute the old “Hitler and Stalin were atheists…” canard for the umpteenth time.  While Dawkins’ line that their atheism was as incidental to their evil acts as their moustaches goes so far, I am still frustrated that he has never really tackled the issue of Stalin’s brutal oppression of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Grayling made up for this minor deficiency by arguing that the 20th century totalitarians were strikingly similar to the three monotheisms in that they set up a monolithic ideology with a leader that could not be questioned under pain of horrific punishment.  It is unsurprising that despite Stalin being an atheist in respect of Yahweh, Christ and Zeus, was still educated to become a priest in a Georgian seminary.  This would have immeasurably influenced his politics and his methods.

And I have to say that Dr Seldon was one of the best moderators I have ever seen!  He was an absolute hoot and very nearly upstaged the speakers with sparklingly wit and camp demeanour which reminded me of John Hurt’s performance in The Naked Civil Servant!

My question to Moore and Harries about their subtle, scholarly, nuanced brand of religion –v- creationist ignorance of the kind I witnessed Ken Ham, head of Answers In Genesis, preach at Liverpool University in March 2008 is at the beginning of part seven.  I’m the baldy headed toff in the cream shirt:

I was reasonably satisfied with their answers in that they did not attempt to evade the question, although of course I wasn’t convinced by them.  Harries played that theist’s trick of saying that the New Atheists are ignoring the evidence.  WELL WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD AND ALL THAT’S HOLY IS THIS EVIDENCE?!?!?!?!?!

Earlier on the in the Q & A, Harries drew jeers and whistles (including from myself) when he objected to Dawkins and Grayling comparing the probability of the existence of God to the existence of leprechauns.  If Harries thinks we are being shrill and strident in rejecting the Judeo-Christian God as a fairytale, he really ought to consider for a moment whether there is any more evidence to support his faith than belief in Zeus or Amon-Ra!

And I just love the way that both men consider that young-earth creationist beliefs are mad without giving a moment’s thought to the plausibility of a virgin conceiving, a corpse walking and a man defying all the laws of gravity and natural prohibitions with regard to flight without the aid of technology by descending from the sky trailing clouds of glory, surrounded by angels to commence his two thousand year overdue judgment of humanity (both living and dead) for its wrongdoings, before casting most of them into a pit of fire and taking a select few to live happily ever after in his “kingdom”.

Where is the evidence in support of that?

In conclusion – how dare you call us fundamentalists!

This was a truly electric debate.  It was great to be in the audience.  The video really doesn’t do it justice.  While not quite as much fun as the cheap thrill of witnessing Hitch and Fry steamroller the Vatican, the more balanced spread of audience support and the stronger showing by the theist side of the house made for a tense experience.  I had genuine doubts about whether the motion would be defeated in the audience vote.

And all credit to Dawkins and Grayling.  They were polite yet forceful.  They were passionate without being angry.  There were no theatrical performances or cheap personal attacks.  They focused on their opponents’ arguments and demolished them thoroughly.  Moore and Harries were firmly on the back foot and as one questioner towards the end pointed out, they were getting defensive because their side is losing the argument.

More like this Intelligence Squared, please.  And get Antony Seldon to moderate all your debates!

manicstreetpreacher relaxes with a cigar and a glass of brandy following a dashed fine battle of rhetoric between the godly and the infidels.

Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling Debate Atheist Fundamentalism Against the Sweet Mediocrity of Our Native Church

22/11/2009

manicstreetpreacher wets the appetite for his next live debate on religion.

UPDATE 03/12/2009: My afterthought piece of the debate, with video and audio links is here.

Having just about recovered from the other-worldly experience of witnessing Hitchens and Fry exact retribution on a biblical scale against the Catholic Church in London at the end of last month, I am geared up to attend my next live debate.

This time, two of Britain’s finest atheist writers, zoologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and philosopher A C Grayling of Birkbeck College, University of London go head-to-head against former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator Charles Moore to debate the topic “Is Atheism the New Fundamentalism?” The moderator is Dr Antony Seldon, Master of Wellington College.

The debate is being held at on Sunday, 29 November 2009.   The doors open 6pm and the debate starts at 7pm.

Once again, Intelligence Squared is hosting the debate.

The venue is Wellington College, Berkshire:

Wellington College
Duke’s Ride
Crowthorne
Berkshire
RG45 7PU

Tel: 01344 444 000
Fax: 01344 444 002

Email: info@wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Web: www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk
Event page: http://www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/page.aspx?id=8686

Previous form

Richard Dawkins needs no introduction!  However, this is a rare public debate for him.  Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that he rarely takes part in formal debates because he is not a confrontational person and feels that the adversary format is ill-suited to discover the truth.  Dawkins also refuses to debate creationists because if one of them shared a platform with a prominent evolutionary biologist, it would give the lay pubic the impression that there was a serious issue worth debating!  For the creationists, winning or losing the debate is irrelevant: the victory is that the debate has gone ahead at all.  Dawkins has no desire to provide them with the oxygen of publicity.

However, there are still plenty of debates Dawkins has participated in that are worth investigating.

Dawkins and Grayling teamed up with the Hitch to debate against – as Dawkins later put it – three “rather half-hearted religious apologists (‘Of course I don’t believe in a God with a long white beard, but…’)” on whether “We would all be better off without religion”, the audio of which can be accessed here, or on YouTube:

You can read a review of the event by a pleasantly-surprised believing journalist, Ruth Gledhill, The Times’ religious affairs correspondent here.

Incidentally, Charles Moore, who is standing up for God on this occasion, wrote of that debate:

Although I voted against the motion both times, I think the shift of votes was justified, on the basis of the speeches.  All six spoke well, but the opponents of religion were more eloquent, more passionate, more – odd though it sounds to say it – believing.

The last big debate Dawkins took part in was on 21 October 2008 at the Oxford University Museum of natural history against Oxford University mathematician and Christian John Lennox.  The audio of the debate can be accessed at RichardDawkins.net here.

Dawkins and Lennox also had a closed-door conversation on religion and science earlier in the year with only a tape recorder present, the audio for which can be accessed here.  As American biologist and blogwit, P Z Myers concluded:

Dawkins just probes with a few pointed questions, and Lennox, a theologian, babbles on and on and on, asserting the most amazing things.  All those miracles in the bible?  They literally happened – he doesn’t hide behind metaphor and poetry.  Water into wine, resurrections, walking on water… it all actually happened, exactly as written, and further, he claims that all of these accounts represent historically valid evidence.  This is the sophisticated theology we godless atheists are always skipping over, I guess.

Dawkins’ debate with then head of the Human Genome Project and evangelical Christian for the pages of Time magazine in 2006 is worth a read:

DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine.  What I can’t understand is why you invoke improbability and yet you will not admit that you’re shooting yourself in the foot by postulating something just as improbable, magicking into existence the word God.

COLLINS: My God is not improbable to me.  He has no need of a creation story for himself or to be fine-tuned by something else. God is the answer to all of those “How must it have come to be” questions.

DAWKINS: I think that’s the mother and father of all cop-outs.  It’s an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from.  Now Dr Collins says, “Well, God did it. And God needs no explanation because God is outside all this.”  Well, what an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain. Scientists don’t do that.  Scientists say, “We’re working on it. We’re struggling to understand.”

Dawkins and Richard Harries had a very civilised discussion for Dawkins’ 2006 Channel 4 documentary, Root of All Evil? (Part 1 / Part 2).  The full uncut interview can be viewed below:

They also debated Darwin and Christianity at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Darwin Day 2009:

And let’s not forget that Dawkins and Harries both signed an open letter to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to protest against the head of new-fangled city academy Emmanuel College, Gateshead, after the head of the science department (!), Stephen Layfield delivered a lecture proposing that young earth creationism and flood geology be taught in science classes:

Dear Prime Minister

We write as a group of scientists and Bishops to express our concern about the teaching of science in the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.  Evolution is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines.  It can be refined, confirmed and even radically altered by attention to evidence.  It is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a ‘faith position’ in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose.

The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college.  There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools.  We believe that the curricula in such schools, as well as that of Emmanuel City Technical College, need to be strictly monitored in order that the respective disciplines of science and religious studies are properly respected.

Yours sincerely

The Right Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
Sir David Attenborough, FRS
The Right Reverend Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans
Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society
Professor John Enderby, FRS, Physical Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford
The Right Reverend Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham
Sir Neil Chalmers, Director, Natural History Museum
The Right Reverend Thomas Butler, Bishop of Southwark
Sir Martin Rees, FRS, Astronomer Royal
The Right Reverend Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth
Professor Patrick Bateson, FRS, Biological Secretary, Royal Society
The Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth
Sir Richard Southwood, FRS, Past Biological Secretary, Royal Society
Sir Francis Graham-Smith, FRS, Past Physical Secretary, Royal Society
Professor Richard Dawkins, FRS

Aside from that, Dawkins had a public discussion at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in 2007 with Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath following the publication of The God Delusion and McGrath’s reply (if that’s the right word for it), The Dawkins Delusion? (McGrath’s effort is terrible, even by the low standards of the “fleas”.  Paula Kirby does the book justice in her “Fleabytes” review of four Christian responses to The God Delusion.)

However, the real treat is Dawkins’ full uncut interview with McGrath for Root of All Evil?

None of the footage was used in the final version of the programme.  McGrath claimed it was because he had landed several blows on Dawkins and made him “appear uncomfortable”.  My theory is that the producers were concerned for the well-being of viewers who might be operating heavy machinery while watching it.  McGrath is horrendously boring and babbles incomprehensibly.  One blogger at RD.net summed up his style thus:

A fly on the wall in the McGrath household:

MRS McGRATH: What would you like for dinner, dear?

MR McGRATH: Well, if I can just come back on that actually, I think you’ve raised a very interesting point, pivotal to the way this discussion should continue.  This is certainly something that needs to be engaged with and explored further.  It seems to me that there are areas we can push into here that can challenge us and I welcome that.  When I was an atheist, these on-going philosophical subjects were subject to different interpretations and perspectives so, suffice to say, the Christian faith has fortified me and others to take all of these very very very interesting points into account and offer an explanation such as this: Egg and chips will be fine, love.

MRS McGRATH: I’m leaving you.

Nevertheless, try and stay awake because Dawkins uses his wonderful brand of pithy sarcasm, to which McGrath is seemingly oblivious.  And the knock-out punch comes at 45 minutes when Dawkins nails him whether God intervened to save one child in a tsunami that claimed the lives of thousands.  As one blogger commenting on the interview’s entry on RD.net put it:

For 45 minutes it’s a gentle game of ping pong and then when it comes to the issue god and suffering McGrath’s arms get tired and Dawkins switches to a tennis racket.  At 50 minutes McGrath is undone.

Magic!

A C Grayling is a slightly less-known quantity to me.  I have read a few of his books and seen some of his debates and lectures and can recommend the following to whet your appetites.

Against All Gods is Grayling’s contribution to the New Atheism.  It is brief – more of a pamphlet than a book – but there are some real gems in it.  Of particular interest to the topic at hand is Grayling’s rubbishing the concept of “atheist fundamentalism” by asking what a non-fundamentalist atheist is: someone who sort of doesn’t, but not quite not believes in God?!  Grayling also predicts that far from seeing a resurgence of religion, we are actually witnessing its death-throes; a violent convulsion before it’s gone for good.

Grayling is a champion of the enlightenment and wrote Towards the Light in celebration of rationalism’s conquest over dogma.  Be sure to read his hilarious exchanges with wedge-driving ID hack from the ironically-named Discovery Institute, Steve Fuller over Grayling’s damning review of Fuller’s Dissent Over DescentGrayling’s reply to Fuller’s indignant response to his review contained this all-time classic which I have quoted myself on at least one occasion:

Steve Fuller complains, as do all authors whose books are panned, that I did not read his book properly (or at all).  Alas, I did.

Grayling’s appearance at Beyond Belief 2008 on Human Flourishing and Eudaimonics is also worth watching:

Although it has nothing to do with religion, Grayling’s discussion with Christopher Hitchens on the moral implication of the Allies’ devastating bombing campaign against civilians of the Axis powers during World War II at the Goethe-Institut, Washington in 2006 following the publication of Grayling’s Among The Dead Cities is a real treat.   It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.

Predictions for this one

Unlike the rhetorical slaughter by Hitchens and Fry of the Vatican, which I predicted in advance of the actual event, I feel that this one will be too close to call.  Probably both sides will come away claiming victory.  Dawkins and Grayling are far more cordial and polite in comparison to Hitchens’ bull-in-a-china-shop/ take-no-prisoners approach at the lectern.

However, I hope that the two heretics will push the point that atheists are offended by what they read in the holy books of the world’s religions and how this is put into practice all too literally by millions of believers the world over, whether it be  indoctrinating their children into thinking that their non-Catholic/Protestant/Muslim/Jewish [delete as applicable] friends will suffer an eternity in hellfire, to ploughing millions dollars every year into spreading creationism – money that would be far better spent on potentially life-saving scientific research – or flying aeroplanes into skyscrapers.

I know what these books say because I’ve read them.  Why should we respect the utterly ridiculous claim that they could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity?  Why shouldn’t we get angry when such ideas are granted special privilege in public discourse?

The idea that we must automatically “respect” other people’s ideas is complete nonsense.  It is a special favour granted only to religious faith.  In every other area of conversation we most certainly do not respect people’s views and opinions.  If one member of the panel wanted to promulgate their honest, sincere, faith-based claim that the Holocaust never happened, that National Socialism was the only proper form of government, or even something less sinister such as Elvis was still alive, is that a view that the audience would “respect”?  Of course not!

In every other conversational topic we demand good reasons.  We demand evidence.  Reason and evidence really are contagious.  If you give good reasons, people will accept your claims as they accept the colour of your hair.  Religious faith is a reason not to give reasons.  It is a conversation stopper.  Even if the New Atheists are completely wrong about the existence of God and the negative effects of religion upon society, they have at the very least helped moved religious faith into the same sphere.

Perhaps into ten years time whenever someone opens their mouth or puts pen to paper in criticism of religion, this will be accepted as if they had criticised a political ideology as opposed the hysterical responses of the present day where theists and atheists alike rush to publish books and articles denouncing the “shrillness” and “stridency” of those brave few who dare speak out.

At the very least, I hope I get the chance to thank Dawkins for his very kind comment that I was “most certainly not boring” during my appearance on Premier’s Christian Radio’s religious sceptics’ debate show Unbelievable? with author of The Dawkins Letters (another “flea” response to The God Delusion), Pastor David Robertson and former-atheist-converted-to-Christianity, Richard Morgan.

It’s on YouTube in 11 parts or you can watch it on FORA.tv and C-Span.