Monthly Archives: May 2011
Note: The first paragraph has been edited, since, as Dan found out, my use of ‘old atheist’ and ‘new atheist’ is confusing. I used them in an apparently historical sense, and that’s not what I had in mind, so I have tried to clarify this, so that I do not mislead anyone else.
I tend to be a tinkerer, and I can’t forbear adding the following ”prolegomena” to this post, just to clarify further. Here is Michael Ruse talking to John Dickson, co-founder and director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, Australia:
This short video (only 1 minute and 3 seconds) should clarify what I mean by “old atheist,” for Ruse is an atheist in this sense. (Notice, by the way, how Ruse elides the question whether Christianity “works for me.”) The truth seems to me to be that the theological argument can no longer be taken, given the advance of science, as reasonable in the same sense as it was once thought to be, even by those who disagreed with it. This would be a good research project, and perhaps even a book for some enterprising “new atheist.” Ruse thinks that Dawkins should take seriously what believers believe, but it is not altogether clear why he should. Nosing around for a few minutes on the Biologos site will give any thoughtful, reasonable person cause to question whether religion can engage us rationally, as it might once have claimed to do. “New atheists” are those who, because science has soundly discredited religious belief, and the reasons given for holding it, can simply no longer accept arguments for religious belief as rational. The cultural reasons for this are explored in some detail by the Cambridge theologian (or atheologian) Don Cupitt, who in a series of books argues that classical Christianity can no longer be accepted as in any reasonable sense — as we now understand truth — true. And now I hand you over to the post as originally published with the re-edited first paragraph:
I’m trying to get a handle on what Michael Ruse now thinks about the relationship between science and religion. In his recent book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, he makes his case for the compatibility of religion and science, a position he has defended zealously against the new atheists, who, of course, disagree. The “old atheists” take it for granted that we are playing on a level playing field, and that both religion and science, though of course they think that religion was wrong, are rational approaches to reality. The old atheists do not, on principle, impugn the rationality of theology, but that is just what the new atheists are doing, and this is the point at which Ruse, an “old atheist” in my sense, while professing himself to be an atheist, parts company with the new atheists, whom he considers as intellectually disastrous as the tea partiers.
I was just sitting in my study, listening to William Lane Craig debate with Lawrence Krauss, and being placed by Krauss so far out of his league, that, despite having three legs (you have to listen to Krauss’s first speech), he didn’t have a leg to stand on. (We’ll come back to this debate, because both Craig and Krauss have commented on it, and it is a good example of Craig’s duplicity in debate, and of his really limited repertoire of argument as well. “Tell me the old, old story” comes immediately to mind.) At the end of one episode I noticed that Jerry Coyne had put up another of his studies of the Chicago skyline – I keep my email on another screen, so see the mail as it comes in — and, looking out the window saw my little apple tree — all of six years old — in glorious blossom, so I thought I’d share these pictures of apple blossoms with you. Hey, if Jerry can do it, so can I!
In today’s Guardian “Comment is Free Belief” there is an article by David Bryant, a retired Anglican vicar. It’s title is “Heavyweight ethics are no way to help the newly bereaved face up to their grief,” and it is summarised with the words: “The only way I could help a girl whose boyfriend had just killed himself was to listen.” And as I read the article I began to feel that I had passed through the looking-glass. It should have been an article about sorrow and comfort, but it is really an article about being right and wrong.
Bryant was on a train for a five-hour journey. A young woman (he calls her a girl) came up to him — he was wearing a ‘dog-collar’ — and asked if she could speak with him.
It had all the hallmarks of the ‘chat up the vicar’ joke and I was tired. But no. Three hours earlier her boyfriend, a long-term depressive, had intentionally taken a large dose of tablets and she discovered him dead in their flat. He could no longer face the pain of his existence and she was travelling to her parents for comfort.
Here’s where we begin our passage through the mirror. Speaking in terms of ’a long-term depressive’ is callous and thoughtless, without compassion. Perhaps the young man suffered from clinical depression or some other form of chronic depression. But then we move further, and left is almost changed to right, up to down. Clergy dressed in clerical garb are often approached by people who want to talk. Why should he have thought it a ”chat-up line,” in a vicar joke, and why would he tell us? If you advertise yourself by your dress as someone who supposedly deals with people’s highs and lows you can scarcely duck out just because you’re tired. Nor should you complain if people take you at your clothes.
Those of you who read the first installment of my response to H. Allen Orr’s New York Review of Books review of The God Delusion will have noticed that I simply ignored the last two sections of the review, Sections 4 and 5. Perhaps a good way to start with an assessment of these sections is to quote Orr’s astonishingly dismissive last sentence:
But if such discussions are to be worthwhile, they will have to take place at a far higher level of sophistication than Richard Dawkins seems either willing or able to muster.
Ouch! Orr is talking about discussions between religion and science, and his completely unnuanced judgement is that Dawkins has nothing to offer. This man takes no prisoners! Indeed, throughout the review there is a barely contained contempt for the author of The God Delusion. Dawkins is not only wrong. He is shallow, repetitive, Victorian, middlebrow, unable to sustain argument and not very good at it, has nothing new to offer, his project is probably not even meaningful, he lacks metaphysical imagination (whatever that is), has avoided religious thought “(he cannot … tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians)”, and, just to add the crowning touch, he’s wrong on practically every major point that he addresses. It’s a remarkable piece of intellectual demolition — or, at least, attempted demolition.
Police who investigated the death of a young rugby player at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland have called for clearer guidelines for doctors after revealing that his GP had known of his wish to kill himself six months before he died.
The following report, in today’s Telegraph, is a clear illustration of why the current English prosecution guidelines respecting assisted dying/suicide are entirely inadequate and misdirected. Instead of clarifying, as they were required by the courts to do, the new guidelines instead further confuse the issue. Why should the police be involved before the event? Prosecution only applies to acts committed, not to acts about to be committed or in the process of commission. If the police are to be involved before an assisted suicide, wherever it takes place, then the law should be changed, assisted dying should be legalised, and a rationale should be given for involving the police at this stage of the process. I do not think a good reason can be given for involving the police before someone has chosen and has been assisted to die. Whatever provisions are required, involvement of as blunt an instrument as the police during preparation for assisted dying would be entirely out-of-place. It is a situation of the greatest intimacy and delicacy. The picture painted by Tim Ross in this article shows that the situation is now entirely confused. This is surely not what Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, had in mind. Tim Ross’s article follows:
Detectives who worked on the case of Daniel James, who died aged 23 three years ago after a training accident left him paralysed, said his GP saw him several times in the months before he died.
The doctor also witnessed a formal declaration of Daniel’s intentions two weeks before he travelled to the centre in Zurich.
But police were only alerted on the day that Daniel flew to Switzerland with his parents, which was too late to attempt to convince him to change his plans, because the doctor wanted to preserve patient confidentiality.
Read more ….
One of the most astonishing phenomena of the last few months was the Judgement Day predicted by Harold Camping for 21st May 2011, which would begin with earthquakes at 6 pm in one part of the world, and would continue with a rolling sequence of earthquakes, following the sun, throughout the day, finally engulfing the whole earth. What is astonishing is not that some deluded fool should have made this prediction. Doomsday predictions are a dime a dozen along the fringes of fundamentalist Christian faith worldwide. What is astonishing is that it should have been so widely publicised and so widely believed, even to the point of selling one’s possessions to await the foredoomed end of life on earth, and translation to a better and more holy place where the faithful would be rewarded. Contemplating with some glee the suffering of those left behind was part of a package deal of end of times rewards for the faithful. But how did so many believe it in the first place?
If this doesn’t show how deeply deluded religion is, then it is hard to know what would. And yet, without any doubt, people who occupy central positions amongst the majority Christian population of the United States think of Harold Camping as a deluded fool, and those who heeded his eschatological warnings as victims of a hoax. And this, despite the fact that it was Jesus himself who started this particular ball rolling. The only difference, we are to understand, between Harold Camping and his deluded followers, and “reasonable” Christians, is that the latter heed the words of Jesus, that neither he nor anyone else knows beforehand the day of his coming. He will come, we are told, like a thief in the night, and no one knows the hour of his coming, so we should always be ready when he comes. Of course, most believers pay no attention to these apocalyptic sayings of the risen man they address as Lord. Yet the apostle Paul never forgot that the day was soon to arrive, and, though believers had already started to die before the expected Day of the Lord had come, and he had to set the minds and hearts of the faithful at rest because of this, Paul still expected the coming of the Lord to occur during his lifetime.
After spending a day or two doing some necessary gardening, and forcing unused muscles to do unaccustomed things so that they are now barely able to move without considerable, if not excruciating, pain, while all along reading various takes on Dawkins’ arguments and position in The God Delusion, in particular, John Haught’s God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, I am coming to the conclusion that much of the “criticial” argumentation is pure assertion, gussied up to look like profound theological reflection. Haught, for example, spends page after page taking the new atheists to task, but he scarcely ever quotes from them. He merely makes assertions, and we are to take these, doubtless, as actually representing things that the new atheists have said.
Not only that, of course, but Haught takes for granted about the Bible, opinions as to the Bible’s central message which are not based on the Bible at all, but on quite recent biblical exegesis and study. The liberation theologians, for example, think of the Bible as a manifesto of political liberation, and the prophets are placed in a central role as liberationists. Yet if you read the prophets with some critical attention you will find, as Hector Avalos points out in his remarkable deconstruction of biblical studies, The End of Biblical Studies (Promtheus Books,, 2007), that the prophets can be read most naturally as imperialists, and strongly opposed to ethnic and religious pluralism. Indeed, if, as Tom Thompson suggests, the Hebrew Bible is the ideology of imperial colonialists sent by the Persian Empire to settle and exert control over Transjordan and the Palestinian litoral, the prophetic message can be shown to be consistent with this mission. By giving substance and cultic purity to a collection of Canaanite myths, the Bible could then function as an instrument of cultural control over the indigenous inhabitants who were strictly excluded from the fellowship of the “returnees” who came to claim their patrimony — even if the history was made up of whole cloth and the severe and exclusive religion was but a selection from and an implied criticism of the status and beliefs of the aboriginal inhabitants (see the quote from Isaiah below).
This will be just a brief note on part of the Stephen Law’s presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of The God Delusion, which, since it is related to remarks made by Peter Williams considered earlier, is worth while inserting here. First the six and a half-minute clip where he discusses Alvin Plantinga’s response to the central argument of The God Delusion.
I disagree with Law’s assessment of Plantinga as a very very good philosopher. But, having said that, notice that this is a bit like Williams’ argument about artifacts and artisans and then following up with necessary or impossible gods. How convincing is it? Stephen Law calls this the heavyweight argument, having already disposed of Swinburne and Craig. But how compelling is it? It may be true that explanations come to an end, but what Law does not seem to see is that if the argument is valid, it is an explanation for life on earth. In other words, Plantinga is presenting us with Intelligent Design theory. Does Law want to follow him along this particular train of argument?