Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Has Nicky Gumbel proved anything (Part 1... probably)

A while back an ex-colleague and friend of mine, an excellent and very clever chap, posted a link to a talk by happy-clappy Christian evangelist Nicky Gumbel to his Facebook profile. Mr. Gumbel, in case you don't already know, is vicar of the Holy Trinity Brompton church, and co-founder of the Alpha Course: the highly popular course in basic homophobic Christianity that seems to appeal so much to those in emotional crisis or lacking their own social group. A less charitable person than I might accuse them of deliberately preying (or perhaps praying) on the vulnerable, but I'm fairly sure it's not deliberate. Anyway, the text that my erstwhile work-chum chose to accompany the article was:
Christian or not... this is an excellent talk by an excellent preacher who breaks down Richard Dawkins arguments for disproving the existence of all religion (not just Christianity) - Do check it out... it's well worth the time.
Since he's generally an excellent chap (despite the ellipsis abuse ;p), and I like to be fair and at least listen to and consider both sides of an argument, I decided to follow his advice and give it a go. This talk is the first in a series of three talks entitled "Is God a delusion?" This one is called "Has science disproved God?" with the subsequent talks being "Does religion do more harm than good?" and "Is Faith Irrational?" In order that Mr. Gumbel's arguments are given a fair crack, that I not be accused of quoting out of context, and to enable me to respond to each point in turn, I've transcribed the talk in full. I don't think I'm infringing any intellectual property laws by reproducing it here, since it was given publicly and distributed freely, and I have correctly attributed it to its author. In any case you would think that he would want his words spread as widely as possible, so really I'm doing him favour ;). If you do want to listen to Nicky's dulcet tones, here's the talk on HTB's website, but be warned, it is nearly 50 minutes long and, while nowhere near as annoying as the slimy Alister McGrath (or Sméagol, as I like to call him), his soft obsequiousness does start to grate a bit after the eighth listen or so. Over to you Nicky:
On my last holiday I read a number of books by leading atheists. I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, who’s been described as the nearest thing to a professional atheist since Bertrand Russell. I also read books by A. C. Grayling who’s an atheist philosopher; by Cristopher Hitchens who’s an atheist journalist; by their equivalent in America, Sam Harris who wrote a books Letter to a Christian Nation and the End of Faith. All of them are atheists attacking faith.
Let me start by giving a similar background: I too have read Dawkins' and Harris' books, The Hitch's excellent, informed and insightful book "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything", and Grayling's pithy "Against All Gods". Unlike Nicky, I found little to disagree with in any of them.
NG:
Sam Harris says this “All religions are both false and dangerous”; Richard Dawkins: “I think of religion as a dangerous virus. Faith acts like a virus that attacks the young and infects generation after generation. For many people part of growing up is killing off the virus of faith with a good strong dose of rational thinking. But if an individual doesn’t succeed in shaking it off, his mind is stuck in a permanent state of infancy, and there’s a real danger that he’ll infect the next generation. Faith can be very, very dangerous and deliberately to implant it in the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Christian in the first place.” Sam Harris says this “The prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good, but the same could’ve been said about the efforts to abolish slavery at the end of the 18th century” That’s the aim: to eradicate faith. Although Richard Dawkins would still allow religion provided it was restricted to private acts between consenting adults. [audience laughter] Now of course in one sense there’s absolutely nothing new about this; the writers in Ecclesiastes said “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Christianity has been under attack for two-thousand years, but it’s survived and it’s still growing. The history of the attacks is summed up in the story of the graffiti artist: you know Nietzsche was the 19th century equivalent of Dawkins who said that “God is dead.” And a graffiti artist wrote “‘God is dead’ – Nietzsche”, underneath another graffiti artist wrote “‘Nietzsche is Dead’ – God” and a third graffiti artist wrote “If Nietzsche’s dead and God is dead then I’m not feeling too well myself.” [audience laughter] So there’s nothing new, but what’s different? And why does it matter? I think what’s different is that these atheists have a very clear purpose. In fact they’ve been described as “purpose driven” atheists. Richard Dawkins starts his book The God Delusion, one of the things it says early on is “If this book works as I intend, religious believers who open it, will be atheists when they put it down.” And there’s a new aggression and a vehemence; at least it’s new to us in the west because we’re not used to it. A couple of weeks ago I was in Budapest in Hungary and they have just come out of forty years of it. Forty year of communism, atheistic communism, where they tried to stop faith. They tried to stop people bringing their children up as Christians. They imprisoned people. A cardinal was imprisoned in Hungary for his faith and tortured for his faith. Perhaps not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins’ books are not so popular in Hungary. They’ve been there.
Not much to disagree with here, especially since it's mostly quotes from the so-called "New Atheists", except that he makes one invalid sideswipe at atheism. He's makes the oft-repeated mistake of implying that because totalitarian communism did bad things, and it was atheist, that it was atheism’s fault that bad things happened. This, the first of our logical fallacies, is of the “false cause” or “With this therefore because of this” variety. I'll leave this for now as it was only an offhand comment to which I'm guessing he'll return in "Does religion do more harm than good?", except to say that after admitting, albeit grudgingly and with a misquote, that Dawkins has no intention of banning religious practice, to draw this analogy is despicable and underhanded. I'll probably do a full article on the "What about Stalin/Hitler/Mao?" non-sequitur at some later date.
NG:
Of course also we see the potential impact of this because they’re so widely read. When they did a survey on MPs what they were reading, this was one of the most common books: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. And so has implications potentially, for our law, for our education, for ethics, for genetics, for human rights, the right to bring up our children as Christians, and that’s why we’re devoting this series because there are very important things at stake here.
FYI, I bet there's only one reason most MPs were reading TGD: because there was a successful campaign on pledgebank encouraging concerned citizens to send a copy to every one of them... the cheapskate bastards! ;D
NG:
Six positives to begin with, this is simply by way of introduction; six positives about these men and about their arguments:
First of all, these are clever people, they’re professors, they’re intellectuals, they’re skilful in their use of rhetoric, humour and ridicule.
Secondly, some of their attitudes, some of their attacks on religion, for example their attack on Islam, requires courage on the part of the authors.
Fourthly (sic), some of the attacks on Christianity are well-founded, and must be taken seriously so that the errors of the past are not repeated. For example, the church mistakenly opposed Galileo for his discovery that the planets revolve around the sun.
Fourth, Christian faith, can and should benefit from the criticisms of its attackers .
Fifth, they’ve actually put faith back on the agenda; people are talking, and that’s why again it’s so important for us to address these arguments. Peter says “Always be ready to give an answer, for the hope that’s in you.” And if these questions are raised at school, your university, or in your workplace or at a dinner party: he’s says “be ready”, know what the arguments are.
Sixth positive is: they’re right to say that truth matters. It’s a move away from relativism. There’s been a lot around of “it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long you’re sincere.” They’re saying it does matter, because what you believe has implications for your life. And they’re right, there is such a thing as truth. Roger Scruton, professor from oxford, writes in the Oxford Dictionary of Epistemology “If anyone tells you that there’s no such thing as truth, they’re asking you not to believe them, so don’t”
Again, not much to disagree with here, except that he should have stopped after “they’re right” really. But the point about truth being available to be had is also good.
NG:
Now they’re are huge issues, that’s why I’ve divided them into three talks “Has science disproved God?”, “Does religion do more harm than good?” and “Is faith Rational?” and even dividing it in this way we’re going to be skating over the issues, and today I’m going to be skating over the issue of science because there’s so much to cover. But the central argument, what Richard Dawkins describes as the central argument of his book is in the chapter which he calls “Why there almost certainly is no God.” And the argument basically is that science has disproved God, and therefore those people who believe in God are deluded. And he quotes from a dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word, which defines delusion as “A persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.” And he says that “the first part captures religious faith perfectly and for the second part I’m inclined to follow the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when he said ‘when one person suffers from a delusion it’s called insanity; when many people suffer from a delusion it’s called religion.’”
This is where it all starts to go wrong. Dawkins never once claims that science has disproved the existence of God, in fact he asserts that it is not possible to do so, Mr Gumbel is setting up a straw man which he will later attempt to knock down. The chapter entitled “Why there almost certainly is no God” is actually mostly a series of counter-arguments against common pseudo-scientific arguments for God (Hoyle's Hurricane in a scrapyard, irreducible complexity and, so called, "intelligent" design, the anthropic principle, the argument from personal incredulity etc.) rather then the other way around. He also says that historically, people have used the “science can’t explain x, so therefore there must be a God” argument many times, and then science often goes on to explain x. This hypothetical “God of the gaps” in our current understanding is getting smaller all the time. The likelihood of the existence of God tends-toward zero. He then proposes his own, less flawed, version of Hoyle's scrapyard analogy called the "Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit" which proposes that if life and its evolution are unlikely, then any being complex enough to be capable of creating it must be even more unlikely.
On top of this, even if science doesn’t know x at the moment, even if it never will, there is no reason to insert some hypothetical God into the equation. And if you do, why pick Yahweh? Why not Wotan, Apollo, Lugh, or Baal? Or any of the other myriad of mythical divinities man has concocted in the last few millennia? Why not the flying spaghetti monster? Because someone made them all up, that’s why; they were all invented by man, including Yahweh. The idea that the answer to the origins of the universe must be either current science or Yahweh, is an example of the
false dilemma. So if the chances of any God at all are tiny, and then within that the chances any specific God are even smaller, the odds for Yahweh aren’t looking good; Ladbrokes will be happy to take your cash at any price you name. What would you call someone who stakes their life on a 200 trillion to one shot? Deluded doesn’t begin to cover it. In another chapter, Dawkins explains that the evidence for God is about as good as the evidence for a Flying Spaghetti Monster, or an invisible pink unicorn or Bertrand Russel's hypothetical celestial teapot, which is none at all, and we can therefore ignore it on the same grounds as we ignore those obviously ludicrous claims. As "The Hitch" sums up most elegantly "What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."
NG:
So, what is the evidence; has science disproved God? Let’s look today at the evidence.
Yes let’s. Having established that the entire premise for the speech is false, let's go on to see what further points are to be made...
NG:
It’s a well established fact that for much of history Christianity and scientific study have been allies, not opponents. In fact the Christian world-view provided the right environment for modern science to emerge. Genesis 1 verse 1 “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, God saw all that he had made and it was very, very good.” It’s this belief that there is one God who, created the world, that lead scientists to expect a world that was ordered, and intelligible, rational, uniform. As C.S. Lewis put it “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a legislator.” And then belief in a transcendent God, a God who was the creator of this universe, and who had created a universe that was good, but not God. That’s what made scientific study worthwhile, and legitimate. You see if you believe that world is evil, or you believe in pantheism, in other words that God is in everything, then it’s very risky investigating and doing experiments. But if you believe in a transcendent God who created a world that is good but not God, then it’s worthwhile and legitimate. So interestingly as Lesslie Newbigin pointed out, in the great cultures of China, India, Egypt, in spite of the brilliant intellectual powers that they manifested, science in the modern sense didn’t emerge from there. As professor Polkinghorne puts it, the Christian doctrine of creation provided an essential matrix for the coming into being of the scientific enterprise. So this is a historical fact as Herbert Butterfield wrote “science is a child of Christian thought.” Interestingly when professor Alister McGrath put this point to Richard Dawkins, he seemed a little bit surprised by it but he said “That could of course be a historically valid point, but I don’t know enough about history to judge.” This week in another debate I noticed, that he said “it has to be admitted that of course science grew out of religious tradition.” And in fact it was religion that was the driving force for science, because if you believe that this universe is created by God then, by investigating the world in a scientific way, you are actually discovering more about God. You’re investigating God’s revelation if you like, in creation.
"It’s this belief that there is one God who, created the world, that lead scientists to expect a world that was ordered, and intelligible, rational, uniform. " Is it? Would it not more likely be that mankind has evolved to be a pattern seeking species? We seek uniformity because we have evolved in a largely uniform environment and it has helped our evolution to be able to notice that, for instance, when we throw a rock, it travels a distance, and strikes with a force, related to how hard and at what angle we threw it, and always eventually returns to the ground. We expect uniformity because we observe uniformity. It was where early man encountered infrequent and inexplicable events like floods, fires, droughts, earthquakes that he invented Gods, ancestors and spirits to explain them. This is the origin of the God of the gaps; "I cannot explain this, it does not fit with normally observed behaviour, therefore something supernatural must be involved." and we can see that it is here that the argument from personal incredulity also originates. Fortunately for mankind, we now know what causes all those natural disasters and have the germ "theory" of disease, and therefore have no more need of such superstitious claptrap. Despite this, various idiots continue to try and blame natural disasters on God: U.S. Televangelist "Reverend" Pat Robertson stated that the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina was God's wrath for promiscuity and homosexuality there, and he's not alone. Even the Church of England is not immune to this kind of lunacy: Anglican Bishop of Carlisle, "exorcism specialist" and top tip for the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Graham Dow says that the floods in Yorkshire last year were God's punishment for the UK's introduction of laws forbidding discrimination against gays. As Hitchens points out in a discussion far superior to this talk recently, if God was trying to punish homosexuality, his aim was a little off and somewhere a bit further south like London or Brighton might've given better results. Against this kind of nonsense, genuine science has had to fight tooth and nail for millennia.
When we come to the discussion of the origins of "modern" science, if indeed Dawkins did admit that it grew from religious tradition, he probably wasn't talking about Christianity. McGrath was seemingly unaware of, or unwilling to mention, the great flowering of science and mathematics, prior to the Christian one and now sadly over, during the
Golden Age of Islam. The Kitab al-Manazir (book of optics) written by ibn al-Haytham (AKA Alhacen. 956-1039 AD) is recognised as the earliest work describing experimental science, can you guess from the name where he's from? Alhacen has been variously described the father of optics and the pioneer of the modern scientific method and he pre-dates Francis Bacon and Descartes by six hundred years or so. While Islamic scholars where naming the stars, inventing algebra and algorithms, practising something akin to modern chemistry and physics, and pioneering the study of many other fields of science along with the study of ethics and sociology, notable leaders of the Christian world of the same period were experimenting with the art of writing their names and hitting each other with sticks. Doubtless Nicky would claim that since Islam and Christianity have a common root, this is really just the Christian God in another guise, but I think we could safely dismiss that as sophistry since it is clearly his intent to imply that it is Christianity alone that is responsible for scientific advancement.
Furthermore, whether or not modern science "grew out of religious tradition" or not, and I don't believe it did for a minute as it seems to me to be another type of the false cause fallacy, is largely irrelevant to the debate. Astronomy grew from astrology, chemistry from alchemy, but no clear-thinking person would claim that the truth and efficacy of those sciences in any way lends credence to their crackpot predecessors; they might have been a necessary pre-cursor, but that does not make them right or in some way "true". Reasoning of this type is a variation on the appeal to consequences fallacy, of which we will doubtless hear more later.
NG:
So, Copernicus laid the foundations of modern astronomy and scientific revolution by suggesting on mathematical grounds that the Earth travelled round the sun. He held office also in the Polish church, as cannon of the cathedral, and he described God as the best and most orderly workman of all. Galileo, the mathematician, physicist and astronomer, was the founder of modern mechanics and experimental physics; he argued that the earth was not the centre of the universe. And although it’s true he was persecuted by the church, but he was a devout catholic Christian, and he once said that “There are two big books, the book of nature, and the book of supernature – The Bible” Keppler, brilliant early astronomer and mathematician, was also a deeply sincere Lutheran, and he said he was “thinking Gods thoughts after him.” Robert Boyle, one of the forerunners of modern chemistry, wrote a book “The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation.” Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps that greatest scientist of all time: he wrote theological as well as scientific books, and he thought his theological as more important. Faraday, one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century, again the Christian faith was the single most important influence upon him. Professor Simpson, the Scottish obstetrician who discovered chloroform that made possible modern anaesthetics: he was once asked this question “what’s the most important discovery you’ve ever made?” He said “the most important discovery I ever made, was the day I discovered Jesus Christ.” Louis Pasteur, who revolutionised microbiology, he said “Science brings us nearer to God.” Gregor Mendel, Austrian botanist and plant experimenter, whose researches into heredity form the basis of modern genetics, was a priest; he was a monk; he was the abbot of a monastery; he did much of his research in the monastery. And this is a problem for Richard Dawkins, because Gregor Mendel is the man whose work is what he, in his own scientific field, builds on. And he doesn’t really like the idea very much therefore that he was a sincere Christian. So he writes “Father Gregor Mendel, founding genius of genetics itself” “Mendel of course was an Augustinian monk, but that was the 19th century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way to pursue his science. To him it was the equivalent of a research grant.” So he only went into the monastery to er, y’know, that, he’s saying it’s a kind of way to do free research. John Cornwall says in response “I was unaware that men took the drastic step of entering monasteries in order to enjoy free scientific research funding, not such a bad idea though: one square meal a day, albeit frugal; a cell on your own; an endless leisure to pursue those long-term research programmes unencumbered by fleshly distractions. But what far sightedness: father Mendel came to study plant biology late in his religious life, after spending seven years studying philosophy and theology and a career as a teacher in general subjects.”
Here we start a list of scientists with religious belief, and there are many; Dawkins even cites many of them in The God Delusion, so he's clearly not trying to cover up this fact. The problem here is that no number of scientists professing belief will make that belief true. Newton "perhaps the greatest scientist of all time" was indeed a believer, although more deist than theist; he was also an alchemist who wrote several books that, were they to be released today, would be put in occult section of the bookshop along with Nostradamus' predictions and other crackpot theories. Scientific genius apparently offers no guarantees that one will not fall for fallacious ideas and pseudo-science. The fallacy committed here, by implying that these luminaries believed in God so it must be true, is an example of the appeal to authority. Additionally, for much of history, to profess atheism or even express doubts about God's existence would be punished by a swift and messy death, so it's no wonder that nearly everyone was Christian, and made damned sure that they brought their children up Christian and told them to never question it. This cycle of indoctrination has proven hard to break. In a world where everyone is either religious or dead, even the scientists will be religious. Dawkins covers and refutes the "Argument from admired religious scientists" in his chapter "Arguments for God's Existence" which I thoroughly recommend any reader taken in by this talk reads for themselves, along with the rest of the book obviously.
Cornwall's mocking tone in relation to Dawkins’ observations on Gregor Mendel is also unjustified. Mendel worked as a gardener and bee-keeper, perhaps where his interest in biology was piqued, then enrolled in the Philosophical Institute at the University of Olomouc; after three years he was advised by his physics teacher to join an order of Augustinian Monks who were the sponsors of the college. The Abbey of St Thomas sent him to the University of Vienna to study zoology, botany, chemistry, and physics. On completion of his studies he returned to the abbey to teach Physics and, having been inspired by his university lecturers to study variation in plants, undertook his biological research in the gardens as St Thomas. Does this sound like someone who came to science through religion, or someone whose membership of a religious order enabled him to practice the science he was already interested in?
NG:
So was it just in the past that scientists believed? What about today? Well Dawkins concedes that forty percent of US working scientists are religious believers. They did a survey in 1916; researchers asked biologists, physicists and mathematicians whether they believed in a God who actively communicated with humankind and to whom we may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. Around forty percent answered in the affirmative. Nearly a hundred years later they did another survey, and found that the results were almost identical.
This is an outrageous lie of omission. Dawkins does indeed concede that forty percent of US working scientists are religious (or at least were in 1998 when the survey was done). What Mr. Gumbel fails to mention here is that more than ninety percent of the US population are religious when taken as a whole, and that among those scientists eminent and respected enough have been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences the figure is seven percent. Would you like to see a graph of those figures? Of course you would; everybody loves graphs and there have been a lot of words:

Similar surveys in the UK have shown similar trends, i.e. religiosity correlates negatively with scientific knowledge and education. Now it is important to remember, lest we commit a logical fallacy ourselves, that correlation does not imply causation; however it is likely that, one either causes the other, or a third as yet unknown factor, or combination of factors, causes both effects. So we are left with a choice: either religion makes you ignorant of science, science makes you unwilling to believe in religion or there is something else (let's call it X) that correlates negatively with faith but positively with scientific knowledge or vice versa. Interestingly, several surveys have also shown that IQ and education correlate negatively with religiosity, but positively with scientific knowledge. This shouldn't of course to lead us to the conclusion that all religious people are stupid or ignorant, or that any given backward or ill-educated person must be religious, just that they're more likely to be.
NG:
Of course, there are many leading scientists today who are believers. Now Richard Dawkins tries to dismiss them; he takes the British Scientists for example, some of the leading ones, and er, he is very witty and mocking, but he says “Three names crop up with the likeable familiarity of senior partners in a firm of Dickensian lawyers: Peacock, Stannard and Polkinghorne.” You can’t dismiss great scientists simply because their names sound Dickensian. I mean take for example Professor Sir John Polkinghorne KBE FRS, brilliant scientist, Cambridge professor of mathematical physics. He became the Dean and Chaplain of Trinity Hall, Queens College Cambridge and he’s written many outstanding books on the relationship between faith, in particular the Christian faith, and science. Take an example, I mean there are thousands of scientists in the United States who are Christians. Take one example, Francis Collins, he’s head of the Human Genome Project. He leads a team of two thousand scientists, and together they determined the three billion letters of the human genome; it’s our own DNA instruction book. If we were to read out those letters it would take thirty-one years to read it out aloud; all that information is in each of the hundred-trillion cells in your body. Each genome contains enough information to fill a library of about five thousand books. If all the chromosomes in a body were laid out end to end it would stretch a hundred billion miles. Our brains alone have a billion nerve cells. This scientist, Francis Collins, an evolutionary biologist who headed up this project, he speaks of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and the spiritual world views. The principles of faith are complementary with the principles of science. I heard him speak at the national prayer breakfast in the united states and this great scientist, having come to the end of his talk, said this “to conclude this homily I propose to do something risky: to ask you to join me in singing a song.” He said “Some may find it ironic that last year’s speaker, the rock star Bono, spoke about justice and economics, but passed up the chance to sing. Now this year’s speaker, a scientist who might be considered a bit of a nerd, proposes to sing with a guitar.” And he got up there and he sang this song, that went like this “God of wisdom, we acknowledge that our science and our art, and the breadth or our knowledge, only partial truth impart. Far beyond our calculation, lies a depth we cannot sound, where your purpose for creation and the pulse of life are found. As two currents in a river fight each other’s undertow, ‘til converging they deliver one coherent steady flow. Blend, oh God, our faith and learning, ‘til they carve a steady course; ‘til they ioin as one, returning praise and thanks to you, their source.” So, can faith and science live side by side? The evidence is, they can.
Again Nicky twists words, Dawkins does not attempt to dismiss these scientists because of their names; he brings these names up as an example of "genuine specimens of good scientists who are sincerely religious in the full, traditional sense", and then moves on, adding the little quip, to express his bafflement at their belief in such doctrines as the resurrection, the virgin birth etc.
To conclude this point, after a bit more of the argument from admired religious scientists, Mr. Gumbel chooses to assert that science and faith can live side by side. Well clearly they can, but it is increasingly obvious that they are uneasy bedfellows.
NG:
Second point: is there a profound contradiction between science and religious belief? Again Richard Dawkins think there is, he says “I’m a scientist, and I believe there is a profound contradiction between science and religious belief.” I think it ought to be noticed in passing that there are many disagreements and contradictions within science itself. In fact there are more within science itself than there are between science and religion. Conflict between rival views in science is quite common. But there are two main alleged conflicts between science and religion: the first is in the area of miracles, miracles defined there you’ll see in the notes. I mean miracles can be used loosely, you know, sort of “I prayed for a parking space and I found one; it was a miracle!” that is really talking about providence if anything. But here the term is used in the sense of a non-repeatable counter-instance of an otherwise demonstrable law of nature. And Dawkins follows the philosopher Hume in regarding a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature, and consequently he rejected miracles as being impossible. But this is a circular argument, if the laws of nature are defined as completely uniform, then the supernatural is ruled out from the start, and it’s therefore impossible to believe in miracles, however strong the evidence. So, in 1937 Max Planck a distinguished German physicist said this “Faith in miracles must yield ground step by step before the steady advance of the forces of science. Its total defeat is indubitably a mere matter of time.” What Planck was implying was this: that science now explains what was once thought to be miraculous, which suggest that those who believed in miracles in the past, did so because they didn’t sufficiently understand the laws of nature. This is not the case, I mean in Jesus’ day, everybody knew as well as we do for example that it wasn’t natural for a virgin to give birth to a child. They knew as well as we do that it wasn’t natural for someone who has been dead for three days to rise from the dead. If they’d had no knowledge of the laws of nature, then they would not have recognised the miracle in any shape or form. C.S. Lewis out it like this “Belief in miracles, far from depending on ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known.” So the real issue is this: is there a God? If there is then miracles become a real possibility, if God is God then he created matter, reason, time, space and all the scientific laws and therefore he’s at liberty to interfere. If there’s no God, then miracles are a problem, but philosophy and science alone won’t answer the crucial question. Scientific laws are not like the laws of pure mathematics that cannot be broken, rather scientific laws are descriptive.
Let's start with the woolly stuff here before we hit the clincher. The non-belief in miracles does not arise because of a prior belief in naturalism, it arises because there is not one single reliable account of a miracle having ever actually occurred. The Catholic church is exceptionally proficient as accepting the flimsiest of evidence as a miracle. Take the case of Padre Pio who was regularly buying carbolic acid, which could cause exactly the symptoms of stigmata he "miraculously" manifested, or the case of Monika Besra upon which the beatification Mother Theresa was based, where it turns out that the "miraculous" disappearance of her tumour was the result of two years of standard medical treatment rather than the laying on of some magic medallion. The credulous will see miracles where actually only the unlikely or temporarily unexplained exists, and they justify it by saying things like "I have faith that it was a miracle" which really means "I can't explain how that happens, so God must have done it" or sometimes "I prefer to imagine that God did it than accept the perfectly rational explanation available". Here we see our old friend the argument from personal incredulity come to visit again this time bringing his regular companion wishful thinking. Materialists and rationalists don't disbelieve in miracles because of some a priori assumption that they can't exist, but because there has never been one demonstrated for which there is not some alternative, more plausible, explanation available, forcing them to use Occam's razor to slice away the miraculous one. As Hume puts it "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish". The argument presented here is a variation on the "Atheism is a faith based position too." argument which, I'm afraid, is just a pathetic Tu Quoque. The position of naturalism arises from observation of the absence of miracles, and not vice versa.
NG:
I mean this is a real issue in Dawkins’ book The Dog er… God Delusion because he doesn’t believe miracles are possible, he never discusses the evidence for the resurrection, and of course the resurrection is the linchpin of Christianity; it’s the main rational ground on which Christians believe, and yet he never even looks at it, and considers the arguments for it.
Leaving that slip of the tongue in is a cheap shot I know, and one for which I apologise, but I have edited out all the other erms, stammers and slips; this one made me chuckle so I left it in. Did you hear the one about the dyslexic atheist? He didn't believe in dogs. Aaaanyway...
Evidence for the resurrection? Evidence for the resurrection? I'd like to see this. Mr Gumbel here offers us a throwaway line about there being evidence for the resurrection and then gives us nothing to back it up. There is, and let's be clear on this, not one single piece of evidence that Jesus even existed that rises above the level of third-hand hearsay, let alone for any of the supposed elements of his life and death described in the Bible, miraculous or otherwise. We have plenty of records from the Roman occupation of Judea, and yet there is not one single mention of a religious leader called Jesus who claimed to be king of the Jews or was crucified, despite many mentions of other such purported "messiahs" roaming the land causing trouble for the Roman occupiers. The New Testament is a cobbling together of allegorical writings by people who never met Jesus, heavily influenced by the myths of Osiris, Mithras, Dionysus etc. all written at least 40 years after Jesus' supposed crucifixion. Given that we cannot even be certain of the existence of a man called Jesus who had followers and claimed to be king of the Jews, what evidence can there be that he died and rose again? In fact, even if we had been living in Jerusalem at the time, and twelve religious fanatics claimed to have seen a man who had been crucified walking around alive and well we would have no reason to believe them or proclaim it a miracle unless we were truly gullible. Occam's razor yet again would force us to take the position that they were either lying or deluded, or that the man in question was never actually dead at all.
While we're on the topic of the crucifixion and resurrection: what is the big deal with the crucifixion anyway? We constantly hear phrases like "Jesus died for our sins." and "God sacrificed his only son that we might be saved." The only problem with this (well OK, not the only problem) is that a sacrifice of three days is no sacrifice at all, and a death of only three days is not death as we would understand it. The proposition that this is significant hardship to eternal beings of ultimate power is ludicrous. Both God and Jesus knew, or would have done if any of this nonsense were true, that Jesus would only be "dead" for three days. What is three days next to eternity in paradise? In fact it wasn't even three days since he apparently died in the afternoon on the Friday and was seen alive Sunday morning; that's forty-eight hours tops! (can't claim credit for this gag; check out Mr. Deity and the Really Big Favor) So in actual fact all Jesus had to endure was some flagellation, then torture on a stake for a few hours, be functionally comatose for half the weekend, then be alright again and ascend to heaven for ever more. Ask yourself sincerely, would you not take this option yourself whatever the torture might be? How much of a sacrifice was it really? There are plenty of people in the world today who suffer more than that, and often for better reasons, and no one is trying to use them as the crux (if you'll pardon the pun) of a religion. God didn't "sacrifice" his son at all, he was just parted from him for a infinitesimally brief period of time.
Oh, and that's right, if it happened at all,
it was almost certainly a pole or stake, not a cross; the original Greek (yes, that's right, Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew) of the New Testament says stake (gk. stauros) or stake/gallows/tree- /firewood/table (gk. xylon) all the way through and never mentions a cross. That said, none of the NT writers ever actually saw it so we can't take their word, but if you're going to trust the Bible as a historical account you should probably pay attention to what it actually says. I guess staurofixion of xylofixion didn't have the same ring as crucifixion or, as I like to call it, the crucifiction. So anyway, after that aside, back to the issue of Dawkins alleged lack of the study of evidence for the resurrection. I suspect that any such evidence one might produce when pressed would be "faith based evidence" rather than evidence based as the scientific community would understand it. Here we see an accusation that Dawkins has insufficiently studied his theology, a common canard about which we will hear more shortly.
NG:
Second area of alleged conflict is the whole area of evolution, and the biblical account of creation. There are different interpretations of genesis held by sincere Christians; some Christians believe in a literal, six-day creation. Other Christians interpret Genesis I differently, they point out that the Hebrew word for day has many different meanings, even within scripture; since the sun did not appear until day four, the writer probably didn’t mean 24 hour days. The word can mean a long period of time; therefore it’s not in conflict with the prevailing scientific view of the vast age of universe. Nor is it in conflict with a gradual evolution, which God not only started the processes, but worked within it to produce a system which culminated in human life. They point out that the order of Genesis I, written by people with no scientific knowledge, is in some way similar to that accepted by evolutionary theories; in other words: plants, then animals, and then humans as the climax.
This passage is a sophistic apology for the test of Genesis which, largely, isn't too offensive, but what is missing is a condemnation of the people who subscribe to that literal interpretation (AKA Creationism) and its idiot cousin the so-called Intelligent Design. Those people are dangerous loonies, and Nicky is afraid to say so because it might limit the sales market for his Alpha product which has already been criticised by this lunatic fringe for daring to suggest, as he does here, that the science of evolution is perhaps not incompatible with the teachings of Genesis and the world was maybe not created in 144 hours. And, of course, I use the term "fringe" with a certain trepidation since, according to a recent Gallup poll, fully forty-five percent of Americans believe that the human race was created whole, in its present form, some time in the last 10,000 years. Interestingly, more than half of these morons don't regard themselves as biblical literalists! Taking the US population as 300 million, this gives us 135 million people who think that mankind came into existence, fully formed from clay, in a time frame that is almost certainly later than the domestication of the dog. As Dawkins recently pointed out, the magnitude of this error "is equivalent to believing that the distance from New York to San Francisco is 7.8 yards." If one imagines that the US is alone in this madness that would leave us with 6% of Christians worldwide that believe this claptrap, but unfortunately we know that there are backward and highly-populated places like South America, sub-saharan Africa and Australia that are also bastions of biblical literalism, so the real figure is likely much higher. Even here in the UK our taxpayers money is being used to teach children this creationist nonsense in the form of "Faith Schools", although fortunately the number doing this is low. This pernicious poppycock must be fought tooth and nail, and the refusal of moderate religionists to condemn it is not helping.
We are then told that some Christians point out that the order of events depicted in the Bible kinda, sorta matches evolution. Genesis I doesn't even get the order the Earth, sun, moon and stars came into existence right let alone the animals. Here's the order things are created in the bible (King James and New English) :
Day 1:
Heaven and Earth.
Day and Night.
Day 2:
The Firmament or Vault (which he calls heaven, but probably means sky, since we already have a heaven), which apparently has water both above and below it!
Day 3:
The land and, as a by-product, the seas.
Grass, Plants with seeds, Fruit trees.
Day 4:
Sun, moon and stars. All of which are set in the firmament
Day 5:
Whales (or perhaps sea-monsters).
Every other living thing in the sea.
Birds (this includes bats as we find out later when God starts telling us what we can and can't eat).
Day 6:
Cattle, reptiles, other beasts of the earth.
Man (and woman).
Day 7:
The nice cup of tea and a sit down (Oh alright, I made that bit up).
So, we have photosynthetic plants before there is a sun, oh but that's probably OK because there was at least light from some other, unmentioned, source. We also have whales before other mammals. Except that we know that whales evolved from a land mammal, which God had apparently not yet created. Also, we have birds before any land animals, when we know that they evolved from land-dwelling reptiles. Oh and then in Genesis II he creates man, Adam, again after the seventh day. It should be obvious from this alone that this book is not divinely inspired; it's just the work of primitive man trying to explain how the world is and has no more validity than the stories of Odin fashioning Midgard (AKA The Earth) from the decaying remains of the hermaphrodite giant Ymir, or Atum fellating himself and the world being created when he spat out his jizz (God's don't swallow apparently). Anyone trying to tell us that the account in Genesis is approximately right is just talking out of their arse.
Nicky tells us that Genesis is not "in conflict with a gradual evolution, which God not only started the processes, but worked within it to produce a system which culminated in human life." This sounds suspiciously like he’s proposing that chemistry is not all that is needed to arrive at the first replicating molecules, that evolution by natural selection is not all that is necessary to arrive at the human race from those molecules and that humanity is the end of the process. This argument is a mainstay of the intelligent design (or ID) movement. ID is just creationism in science's clothing, and it's not even a very convincing disguise; its proponents (or IDiots, as we like to call them) argue that there are certain structures in bodies of various animals that cannot be explained by Darwin's theory, as only part of one would be useless and therefore not selected for; they call this irreducible complexity. Unfortunately for them, every example they have chosen, from the wing to the eye to the bacterial flagellum, has been shown to be wrong. ID is really just another example of the argument from personal incredulity: "I cannot comprehend how only part of this structure could be useful to a creature, therefore God must've done it." Just think a little harder guys, and your God of the gaps will vanish again. As was shown at the Dover trial, ID is just creationism cynically repackaged in an attempt to get God back into science classes. To be honest, I'm not sure whether Mr. Gumbel is one of these ID nutballs or not. Either way, statements like this play into their hands when what should be happening is outright condemnation of their ridiculous pseudo-science. This is one of the points that Sam Harris makes admirably in his book, that so-called "moderate" Christians (i.e. those who ignore all the nasty or inconvenient bits of the bible) are providing cover for these loonies that is enabling them to flourish by refusing to criticise them themselves, and making it harder for us to do so.
NG:
Others say “look, Genesis I, this is not intended to be a scientific account; it is a theological account” It’s a poetic form, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true; all interpretation starts with saying “What is this literary genre.” For example the parables of Jesus, they’re not historically true, but that doesn’t mean to say they’re not true. Poetic language can be true without being literally true. When the psalmist wrote “The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved” he is using a poetic image. But Galileo’s opponents took it literally and argued that the earth was stationary, and that the theories of the earth orbiting the sun must therefore be wrong. And these Christians feel that in the same way the early chapters of Genesis should not be taken literally, that there is strong evidence for evolutionary theory, and this is now accepted by the vast majority of scientists who argue that the evidence is inconsistent with a literal interpretation of Genesis. And those who take this view argue that what matters is that there’s a God who created and sustains the laws of physics and nature, which evolved over time, culminating in human life. It’s clear that whichever that one takes, that there’s no necessary conflict between science and scripture. In the light of the certainty and different opinions of genuine Christians, personally I think it’s wise not to be too dogmatic about this issue; certainly if you’re like me, and neither a scientist nor a theologian. The main point of Genesis I is not to answer the questions “How?” and “When?”, those are scientific questions; but to answer the questions “Why?” and “Who?”, those are the theological questions. The bible is not primarily a scientific book it’s a theological one. It offers a personal explanation more than a scientific one. The scientific explanation does not prove or disprove the personal one, rather it is complementary.
Here Nicky, who is apparently not a theologian despite holding an honours degree in theology from Wycliffe Hall - Oxford and making his living interpreting the Bible, tells us that "poetic language can be true without being literally true". What does that mean? Are we just dealing with a problem of equivocation? Is this some other kind of truth I wasn't previously aware of? I wasn't sure, my knowledge of poetry and philosophy being nowhere near up to my knowledge of logic and science. So I read up on "truth" and its various incarnations, and it's hard to see to which of the categories or theories of truth the good reverend is referring. There are two types of truth that it may conform to: Pragmatic Truth and Religious Truth, but there are problems with each. As a side note there is apparently also something called Mythological Truth, but I suggest that this is just religious truth that has fallen out of fashion, and the distinction is not one worth making.
Religious truth is defined as a body of doctrine that the faithful of a particular religion are required to believe as fact without evidence. This is where the Churches create the conflict with science: when science discovers something that is in conflict with its doctrine, the church must admit that it was wrong, or suppress the new knowledge and punish the heretic. It is the essence of religious truth that the followers believe it to be scientific truth. I don't think this is what Nicky is referring to here as it is clearly his intent so say that Genesis I is not a scientific truth, although actually he does a bit of an Alister McGrath on this point and doesn't tell us what he thinks himself at all, but tells us what "some Christians" think. This reticence just appears to be cowardice and disingenuousness to me. Anyway...
The pragmatic theory of truth is a stance that accepts something as true if it can be shown to be useful. We have already met the appeal to consequences, so this should not in any way lead us to think that pragmatic truth is the same as scientific truth, and Nicky says as much himself. What he is saying however is that there is a poetic meaning in these stories that, like Aesop's fables, can teach us something while not actually being historically or factually accurate. It is particularly hard to see Genesis I falling into this category, since there can be little use from an inaccurate rendering of the creation of the earth, except perhaps in an attempt to install in us an awe of the power of God. When we come to Genesis II however, as we will shortly, we may find the pragmatic theory to be relevant, but not in a positive way.
So, in Genesis II, God creates Adam to tend the garden of Eden, and tells him "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" then he makes Eve who is tempted by the serpent who says "Ye shall not surely die, for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil." So Eve eats from the tree and gives some to Adam who also eats and, crucially, they do not die, but realise they are naked and make themselves some aprons from fig leaves. We are constantly told that the serpent is the "deceiver" who beguiled Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, but he told not one word of a lie. God however said that eating from the tree would kill them and they did not die. And don't give me that rubbish about them having been immortal up to that point and their immortality being lost, because God also says "Behold, the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the lord God sent him forth from the garden of eden..."
So what are we to learn from this "poetic" form that is "true without being literally true"?
  1. God is a liar, but the serpent speaks only truth.
  2. Being naked is evil.
  3. Do what you are told, follow orders, remain ignorant, and everything will be OK.
  4. Independent knowledge of the difference between good and evil merits punishment.
What a crock of shit.
Moving on…
NG:
Even Stephen Hawking has admitted that science may solve problems of how the universe began, but it cannot answer the question “why does the universe even bother to exist?"
Let's look at the relevant passages from Hawking's A Brief History of Time in full:
SH:
The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?
A few paragraphs on:
SH:
However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started – it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
The snippet misquoted by the "good" reverend here is actually in a section illustrating a theory that the universe may not need a creator, because there was really no "beginning" since time did not exist before space did. Now this is a tricky concept, and one that I can't quite wrap my head around, but one thing Hawking definitely isn't trying to do is give credence to the God hypothesis by asking "What is the universe for?" Asking what the universe is for presupposes some kind of creator. It is a category error to assume that, because man made things have a purpose, that natural things must also have one. Look around the world and ask yourself what various items are for: "What is this computer for?", "What is this cup of tea for?", and “What is that car or that aeroplane for?" are all questions that make sense because those things had a creator; they were made by someone with an intent. Now try it for natural objects "What is that tree for?", "What is the sea for?", or mountains, elephants, ants, viruses and bacteria? While we may be able to make use of them, or see the need for them from our own limited perspective, they are not for anything, they simply are; they were not created with a purpose, they are the result of natural forces interacting; no intentional act, supernatural or otherwise, is required. If you twist this question of purpose around into a pantheistic implication that the universe itself has a will, and phrase the question "Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?" you are either, like Hawking, having a bit of a joke with your reader or you are, like Nicky, very very confused. While it is true that we don't really know what caused that initial beginning of our universe (or even if the word "beginning" actually has any meaning in this context) there is no reason to suppose some celestial intelligence that lives outside of space and time created it solely for the purpose of bringing us into being some 14 billion years later. This childlike solipsism is staggering. Even if we do take this unnecessarily deistic stance on first cause, there is still no reason to then extrapolate that to a bearded robed old man who can see and hear everything you do and think, takes a personal interest in your life, occasionally saves one little girl from hurricanes while slaughtering hundreds of others, rewards belief in him, and will punish you for all eternity for such heinous crimes as coveting thy neighbours ass or giving him one up it. Oh wait, there is one possible reason, and that is if you believe the words of some bronze-age desert nomads desperately trying to explain why their lives are so Goddamn hard, and that apparently it's because they are God's chosen people!
NG:
Let me use an illustration… Thank you my darling, very much indeed. This is a cake. Now supposing someone who had not seen what had just happened; supposing we had in this room, this cake and a whole load of scientists, mathematicians and nutritionists, and we showed them this cake, they could analyse it: the mathematicians could tell you how high it is, how much it weighs to hundreds of decimal points. The scientists could tell you what the ingredients are, exactly what it’s made out of, the proportions. The nutritionists will tell you whether it’s good for you. But, if you asked them this question first of all “Who made the cake?” Now I think you may’ve guessed that. But then this question “Why was the cake made?” the only person who can answer that question is Pippa, and if you want to find out, you’ll have to ask her. Dr John Lennox writes this “no amount of scientific analysis of the planet on which we stand will tell you why it was made, unless the creator chooses himself to speak” The fantastic thing is: he has spoken, and what he has spoken is called genesis. So there is therefore no necessary conflict between evolution, which attempts to describe the mechanism of creation, and genesis which describes the meaning of creation. So the Harvard University atheist, Stephen J Gould who, outside of Dawkins, is probably the most widely read public spokesperson for evolution of the past generation, he wrote this “Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature; we neither affirm nor deny it; we simply cannot comment on it as scientists.” Darwin himself was agnostic; the great American botanist Asa Gray was a devout Christian; Charles D. Walcot was an equally firm Christian. Either half of my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs, and equally compatible with atheism. So, Francis Collins says this “those who choose to be atheists must find some other basis for taking their position, evolution won’t do.” And he himself says this “I can’t identify a single conflict between what I know as a rigorous scientist, and what I know as a believer” and in that he would be in agreement with perhaps the greatest scientist of all time: Albert Einstein, who said “A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist.” So, can science live side by side? Yes. Is there a profound contradiction between science and religious belief? The evidence suggests, no.
More reiteration of the “What is the universe for?” question, and then we are told that Genesis answers this. Having actually read the first few books of Genesis several times now, I still can’t find anything that tells me the purpose of the universe. To assume from the “poetic” stories therein, which are apparently God’s word, that the universe was created for us would seem to me to be a massive and unjustified assumption. If this is the word of God, dictated to a prophet or otherwise, why would he not tell us exactly how he actually made the universe and the earth? You would think he could at least get things in the right order? If this is meant to tell us what the purpose of the universe, why would he not just come out and say it instead of couching it in cryptic allegory? If the fault lies with the scribe, why not pick someone to tell who could write it down accurately? If the problem here is that I’m insufficiently theologically trained so see the meaning, why didn’t God get it written more clearly so we didn’t need to spend years of study just to interpret the bloody thing? In fact this book appears almost exactly as if it was cobbled together from a load of old stories that primitive men and women told each other about how their world came in to being, and it has nothing at all useful to tell us about the actual creation of the universe, the earth or life upon it. Sometimes, if something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then I’m fetching the pancakes and hoisin sauce. As a moral guide or explanation of the whys and wherefores of the universe and our place in it, this book has no more value than Gilgamesh, the Mahābhārata, Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Kipling’s “Just So” stories; in fact it has no value at all other than as literature or archaeology that might help us with our understanding of less enlightened peoples, past and present.
There’s another classic out of context quote at the end of this section, this time from Einstein’s essay on Science and Religion. Shall we have a read of the original passage that contains it in full?
AE:
For example, a conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs. On the other hand, representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors.
Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
Though I have asserted above that in truth a legitimate conflict between religion and science cannot exist, I must nevertheless qualify this assertion once again on an essential point, with reference to the actual content of historical religions. This qualification has to do with the concept of God. During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created Gods in man's own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these Gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the Gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes.
Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea in itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history. That is, if this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?
What Einstein means when he says that there can be no legitimate conflict is that where religion tries to insist that it has truths about the nature of the universe that fly in the face of science, religion is always wrong. He is also saying that where science tries to decide upon moral values that it is stepping outside its remit, and he is right. I would expand on that to say that where religion tells us about morals, it is usually wrong too, and where it is right it is only by coincidence. Fortunately, we have humanism and philosophy to help us with these questions that neither religion nor science can answer adequately. Oh and I must point out that while science can’t tell what is right and what is wrong, it can and has told us how the mechanisms by which we make those decisions came into being; the process that created the basis of our moral sense is evolution by natural selection; yet again no supernatural entity, magic book, stone tablets, or apple of knowledge are required. In actual fact, while science can tell us the mechanism of our morals, it rarely pronounces moral edicts at all, so this flavour of “illegitimate” conflict is rarely experienced. Religion however is constantly trying to tell us “truths” that fly in the face of science, and when it does so it should be given short shrift. When idiots claim the earth is only 8,000 years old and men of science criticise them for their stupidity, what does Nicky do? He criticises the critics and not the idiots, probably because those idiots are potential customers.
NG:
Third Question: is science enough? Richard Dawkins thinks it is, but again, Albert Einstein said this “Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame.” So what he’s saying is: we need science; science in itself is good; we need scientists. “Religion without science is blind” but “science without religion is lame” and that’s what the bible is saying really, when the psalmist says “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” he’s saying: the creation is fantastic; we need scientists to explore God’s revelation in creation. But there’s something more, because he goes on to say “The law of the lord is perfect, reviving of the soul.” And we need both scientists to explore God’s revelation in creation, and theologians to explore God’s revelation in scripture. Because there are questions that science alone cannot answer. Science that is in the narrow definition of the word science, which is the one that Dawkins is using. Science actually, if you take the original meaning of the word “science” it comes from the Latin word that means “knowledge”. That’s why theology was regarded as the queen of sciences; it embraces all knowledge, including the natural sciences. Dawkins thinks that theology is not even a subject; it shouldn’t be taught in university; it’s nothing. But actually it’s the queen of sciences; it embraces all sciences, including the natural sciences on which he places so much emphasis.
Another Einstein quote from the passage I quoted earlier is misrepresented here: what he was saying when he said that “science without religion is lame” is that a scientist without a sense of wonder at or reverence for the universe, and a “faith” that the universe is rational and consistent, will be hampered by a lack of enthusiasm for his topic. Einstein often used the word “God” as a metaphor for the rules of the universe, and religion as a metaphor for the awe and majesty he perceived within it, which he called a “cosmic religious feeling”. If we want to know what Einstein really thought of Nicky’s version of religion we have to turn to a quote from a recently auctioned letter to the philosopher Eric Gutkind:
AE:
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.
and another from a letter written some months later to an anonymous correspondent:
AE:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
It seems that the lie to which Einstein refers here is still being repeated.
I Googled for the source of the quote “queen of science” and found a number of claims to such a title including: mathematics, philosophy, physics (the King surely?), history, astronomy etc. with earliest quote I could find being Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a Franciscan friar often known as the “Grandfather of Science”, who asserts that “Experimental science is the queen of sciences and the goal of all speculation” Theology is rather a latecomer and clear usurper in this race for scientific royalty. If indeed theology ever was the queen of science, she now wears the jester’s motley, and we hope for the day when she’ll stop waving that ridiculous pig’s bladder in our faces. I suspect that theology may have been referred to as the queen of science by someone who believed that biblical truth and scientific truth were one and the same thing, or that science is a subset of biblical teaching, but these days we know better. Theology is no more worthy of merit than the study of faeries, leprechauns and unicorns. I would refer the reader to PZ Myers’ excellent “Courtier’s Reply” for an example of how this kind of defence of theology against Dawkins’ criticism sounds to the unbeliever; in short, while the faithful indulge in lengthy discussions of the colour, texture, quality and cut of purely imaginary royal clothing, it is obvious to us that his Imperial Majesty is, in fact, in the altogether.
NG:
But the natural sciences can’t answer these questions. Here’s the first one:
How come there’s something rather than nothing? That was the question asked by the German philosopher and mathematician Godfrey Leibniz. Why is there something rather than nothing? The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said this “not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” As Alister McGrath put it “The one highly inescapable fact about the world is that we, as reflective human beings, are in fact, here.” Sire Peter Medewar, an Oxford immunologist who won the Nobel Prize for medicine, and again like Dawkins a self-confessed rationalist says this, that “there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance in science would empower it to answer … I have in mind such questions as How did everything begin? What are we all here for? What is the point in living?” and of course this debate it starts with a five year old child: who says “Who made God?” and this, in a more sophisticated way is basically the debate that Dawkins is involved in, stating “If you postulate God then who created God?” But the God that we believe in is not a created God, he is a self-existent God “I am who I am.” He’s transcendent. Now this is a very hard concept to get your mind around: an eternal God who has always been there. But equally it’s very hard to get your mind round what they’ve got to get the mind round: everything we see has come out of absolutely nothing. Which is easier? To believe that God created something out of nothing, or… well this is what I would suggest: I think it’s easier to believe that God created… God created something out of nothing, than to believe that nothing created something out of nothing. So Francis Collins says this “I cannot see how nature could have created itself, only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.” And he goes on to say this “The major inescapable flaw of Dawkins claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature then science can neither prove nor disprove his existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.”
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the ellipsis Nicky inserts into Medewar’s quote covers up, among other things “these are the questions children ask”. We also hear the argument that God is somehow “outside” nature: “transcendent”, “Self-existent”; this is clearly a case of special pleading and as such needs no further attention.
Anyway, to address the question of why there is something rather than nothing: who says that nothing is the natural state? Why do you think that nothing is more likely than something? Why should nothing be the “natural” state of affairs? With a bit more learning “nothing” might turn out to be inherently unstable and “something” almost inevitable. Again we see here the argument from personal incredulity from Francis Collins, which begins “I cannot see…” and from Nicky himself “I think it’s easier to believe…” It doesn’t matter what is “easier to believe”; sometimes things that are hard to believe are actually true; the laws of thermodynamics are hard to grasp but that doesn’t make them false. To put God into this, or any other, gap is a defeatist attitude; we will never find out the real answers, in fact never would have made any scientific advancement, if every time we “cannot see” how something could have happened we ascribe it to God and call off the search. Take off your biblical blindfold and join the rest of us in looking a little harder with the tools that science has given us.
NG:
Second question “How come the universe is so finely tuned?” this is the extraordinary thing about this universe: it is finely tuned. Stephen Hawking, the great scientist of this generation put it like this “if the density of the universe one second after the big bang had been greater by one part in a thousand billion, the universe would’ve recollapsed after ten years. On the other hand if the density of the universe had been less by the same amount, the universe would’ve been essentially empty, since it was about ten years old.” How was it that the initial density of the universe was chosen so carefully. Maybe there’s some reason why the universe should have precisely the critical density. And the chances of it being so finely tuned, Professor Polkinghorne says the chances of that is something like this “it’s the same as aiming at a target an inch wide the other side of the observable universe, twenty thousand million light years away, and hitting the mark” So how does Richard Dawkins, who recognizes this is a problem, deal with this. Well he says “it can’t be God, because I’ve ruled that out; what is the other possibility?” It can’t have just happened he concedes that. He said “Well maybe the reason it’s happened is that there’s been lots and lots of attempts at it. Now there could’ve been lots of attempts by the universe expanding and contracting, expanding and contracting until it got it exactly right, but he says that science has ruled out that possibility. The other possibility he says is that there are billions of universes out there, and it so happens that this one has got it exactly right. That’s the multiverse hypothesis, and that’s the one he goes for. But what is the evidence that there are billions of universes out there? This is something based on blind faith. Stephen Hawking says “The odds of a universe like ours emerging out of something like the big bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications…”
Dawkins does indeed offer the multiverse hypothesis as a possible explanation for the goldilocks enigma (Why is the universe “just right” for life?), and Nicky is right, there is no proof of it. It’s worth pointing out that the multiverse is not some construction of Dawkins as might be inferred from this passage, but one put forward by many physicists, and there are many flavours: some say that the many universes happened one after the other, others that they all exist at the same time but in different spaces, others that they are contained within each other. As Nicky points out, there is no proof of any of this… yet, but Dawkins is using it to illustrate that there are plenty of alternatives to the God hypothesis to answer the question.
There’s an interesting little quote here from Hawking. I’ve googled for it, and it turns up on the web pages of many a creationist fruitcake; one even claims it’s from “A Brief History of Time” (it’s not). It does appear in a few books about Hawking, mostly by creationist fruitcakes and IDiots, but in all cases the original reference is unavailable online. I would really like to see this quote in context; if anyone knows its source, please let me know. The only expansion I can find is an unreferenced quote from John Boslough’s “Stephen Hawking’s Universe”, in which it concludes the phrase with “I think there are clearly religious implications whenever you start to discuss the origins of the universe. There must be religious overtones. But I think most scientists prefer to shy away from the religious side of it...The odds against a universe that has produced life like ours are immense.” Given how disingenuous the religious apologists tend to be when quoting scientists, it wouldn’t surprise me if the next sentence out of Hawking’s virtual mouth, or perhaps the phrase hiding in the ellipsis, was an explanation of how such an apparent unlikelihood may have come about, and that all Hawking was saying about religion was that it was easy for the human mind to infer what probably isn’t there. But I won’t know for sure until I find the source.
Whatever Hawking’s intent was, it may be as some physicists are currently suggesting that the number of possible combinations for the universal constants is actually much less than one would imagine if they are free to be changed independently of each other; it is possible that the “six knobs” that appear to govern the physical laws are not independent. When we finally find the unholy-grail of physics, the grand unified theory, it may become obvious that these values were never free to vary in the first place. Dawkins explains all this in TGD, but Nicky chooses to ignore it, calling into question whether he actually read the book, or is not being fully honest with his audience. Again, it is tempting to call off the search for the real reason these values are in the goldilocks zone and declare “God did it!”, but this is not only deeply unsatisfying but also, as I described earlier, a line of reasoning that inhibits finding out that genuine answer. When we find God seated at the control panel with 6 knobs on, I’ll grant Nicky the point; until then we’ll keep looking thanks. If you want to truly expand your brain, try this article from the new scientist on how string-theory (admittedly still unproven, and some say unprovable) and something called “compactification” may start to explain how the universe came to be the way it is. It may not be right, but you’ll still learn more than you will from reading Genesis.
Whatever the actual answer, I’m willing to stake eternal damnation on the bet that God isn’t hiding in the dark of this particular gap in our understanding, just as he wasn’t hiding in any of the places science has already successfully illuminated.
NG:
Third question: how come science cannot meet our deepest needs? Science of course is wonderful and it’s hugely important and valuable. But if that’s all you have, you’re reducing life, it’s a reductionist view of life, to the material. And at the end you end with the conclusion that Dawkins ends with, that life is empty, and he quotes Bertrand Russell “I believe that when I die, I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive”
The suggestion that Dawkins comes to the conclusion that life is empty is just plain wrong. Again this calls into question whether Nicky actually read the book, or is just lying to his audience again. Let’s look at the passage of the book that contains the phrase “life is empty”; in reference to some previously stated idiotic reasoning for the existence of purgatory (if purgatory didn’t exist, then our prayers for the dying would just be wasted breath), Dawkins writes:
RD:
That remarkable non sequitur is mirrored, on a larger scale, in another common deployment of the Argument from Consolation. There must be a God, the argument goes, because, if there were not, life would be empty, pointless, futile, a desert of meaninglessness and insignificance. How can it be necessary to point out that the logic falls at the first fence? Maybe life is empty. Maybe our prayers for the dead really are pointless. To presume the opposite is to presume the truth of the very conclusion we seek to prove. The alleged syllogism is transparently circular. Life without your wife may very well be intolerable, barren and empty, but this unfortunately doesn't stop her being dead. There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. It is all of a piece with the infantilism of those who, the moment they twist their ankle, look around for someone to sue. Somebody else must be responsible for my well-being, and somebody else must be to blame if I am hurt. Is it a similar infantilism that really lies behind the 'need' for a God? Are we back to Binker again?
The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it. And we can make it very wonderful indeed. If science gives consolation of a non-material kind, it merges into my final topic, inspiration.
Dawkins hasn’t come to the conclusion that life is empty at all; he is telling us that this is part of a fallacious argument that believers often use in favour of their faith.
“Binker”, by the way, is Christopher Robin’s imaginary friend from A. A. Mile’s poem of the same name.
It is also instructive to read the whole of the quote from Bertrand Russell, as it appears in the God Delusion:
BR:
I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.
In the following section, on how he takes his inspiration from the beauty and elegance of the natural world, Dawkins quotes Emily Dickinson: “That it will never come again, is what makes life so sweet.”
The suggestion that Dawkins believes life to be empty is nothing more than a despicable slur, and an irrelevant ad hominem.
The bullshit starts to flow thick and fast here, so let’s press on:
NG:
But you can’t reduce life to the natural sciences, this reductionist approach to life. Just take music: John Polkinghorne says “The poverty of an objectivist account is made only too clear when we consider the mystery of music. From a scientific point of view it’s nothing but vibrations in air impinging on the eardrums and stimulating neural currents in the brain”. But science is not the only way of knowing about music.
Unfortunately, Polkinghorn is both right and wrong here. Music is “nothing but” the movement of molecules in the air, that bang on our ear drums, that are interpreted by our brains into sounds and voices. It’s the “nothing but” that I have a problem with; all of our experience in the world comes from a variety of sensory devices providing input to the brain, and the brain interpreting them. Here’s a diagram indicating the parts of the brain that respond to music from a recent New Scientist article:
It is, as Pascal Boyer points out in his work “Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and ancestors”, that our brains have evolved a number of structures that provide us with survival benefits. Chief among these with respect to music, are the areas involved with communication and emotion; we enjoy communication because it aids our survival, and it seems that music hyper-stimulates these areas.
PB:
What you get from musical sounds are ‘super-vowels’ (the pure frequencies as opposed to the mixed ones that define ordinary vowels) and pure ‘consonants’ (produced by rhythmic instruments and the attack of most instruments). These properties make music an intensified form of sound-experience, from which the cortex receives purified and therefore intense doses of what usually activates it. So music is not really a direct product of our dispositions but a cultural product that is particularly successful because it activates some of our capacities in a particularly intense way.
As can be seen in the diagram above, there is hardly an area of the brain left untouched by our experience of music, particularly familiar music with lyrical content that resonates with us; it is hardly surprising that we are sometimes tempted to interpret this in a quasi-mystical way. However, yet again, no element of anything outside nature is required to explain anything.
NG:
John Humphries has written a very interesting book; It’s called “In God We Doubt” and he subtitles it “Confessions of a Failed Atheist” but he doesn’t like the sort of atheism of Dawkins; he says “…biologists like Richard Dawkins know a thousand times more than most of us will ever know about how our bodies work and how we’ve evolved… But there is that other mysterious attribute about which so many scientists are curiously incurious: there’s our soul…” A psalmist says “Reviving the soul” our spirit, our conscience, whatever else you want to call it; we’re more than the sum of our genes, selfish or otherwise.
In order to adequately discuss this, it’s instructive to look at a bit more of the passage from Humphries’ book, to see what’s hiding behind the ellipses that the listening audience can’t hear:
JH:
The fact is, atheists have the best arguments, what they don’t have – as far as I’m concerned – is much of a grasp on whatever it is that makes human beings what we are.
Self-evidently biologists like Richard Dawkins know a thousand times more than most of us will ever know about how our bodies work and how we’ve evolved. It has been a long journey from the primordial swamp to Bach and Beethoven. At various points along the way we have acquired legs and high-functioning brains (not always evident, I grant you, in the case of some reality-television contestants) and the ability to create and destroy possessed by no other living creature. But there is that other mysterious attribute about which so many scientists are curiously incurious: there’s our soul, our spirit, our conscience or whatever else you want to call it.
We are more than the sum of our genes - selfish or otherwise – but you might not think so if read only the works and listened only to the words of atheist evolutionists. They have little to say about our ‘fundamental awareness of the difference between good and evil’
It seems that despite Humphries’ knowledge of Dawkins, and the number of books by biologists he claims to have a little later in the chapter, he seems to have omitted reading the chapter “Nice Guys Finish First” in The Selfish Gene, and “The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?” in The God Delusion. Either that or he just didn’t understand them, which I can’t believe for a moment. What Humphries is choosing to call the soul, spirit or conscience, the ‘fundamental awareness of the difference between good and evil’, has evolved just like everything else about us. There is very little doubt about this. We have it because attributes like mutual support, sharing of food, not killing or maiming each other, our anger at, and the punishment of transgressors, caring for the young and old, all have survival value to our genes. If you think they don’t, I thoroughly recommend reading the above chapters, and perhaps even Michael Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil”. Once again, there is no need for some supernatural entity that we might call a soul to enable our morality, and we certainly don’t have it because it was given to us on stone tablets, and we certainly don’t only have knowledge of good and evil because two of our ancient ancestors ate it in a magic fruit!
Why can’t science answer our deepest needs? Why should it have to? We are built by our genes to need and want certain things that once gave us survival value. Evolving the kind of brain needed to do the reasoning and social bonding required for survival in a harsh world has also, as a by-product, enabled significant understanding of the way the universe worked that, while it had no direct survival value to our ancestors, may help us survive as a species into the future. It could of course enable our imminent destruction too, but in the current climate it is likely to be the religious with their finger on the button.
NG:
We sense a spiritual element in that nobility, in the miracle of unselfish love and sacrifice, something beyond our conscious understanding. We should not, we must not be browbeaten by arrogant atheists and meekly accept their deluded label. He quotes an Anglican vicar actually: Giles Fraser who says “To marry and make the love commitment is the nearest thing to faith I know, because it’s done with the same degree of risk.” Couldn’t a Dawkins-type figure make a case for love being a fiction, a function of human need, a function of selfish genes? There’s something deeply mistaken about thinking love is simply reducible to the chemistry of the brain. Scientifically, a kiss is no more than the coming together of two sets of lips, involving the mutual exchange of carbon dioxide and microbes. [laughter] but no-one would ever have kissed if that was all there was to it. There’s more to a kiss than that, and there’s more to love than that; that doesn’t do justice to a kiss let alone to love, let alone to this whole spiritual world that is out there.
This passage is particularly woolly thinking and it pains me to read it. Love is a function of our selfish genes, but that doesn’t make it a fiction, any more than hunger, lust, intelligence or pain sensations are imaginary. Love, between male and female at least, is an evolutionary function that enables procreation and the nurture of successful offspring, but that does not make it any less wonderful. The description of a kiss really is short-sighted and, as he points out himself, it’s certainly not the whole story; it omits the chemicals that flood the brain and body that cause all kinds of reactions, reactions that have evolved in us because they help us to form the bond that is required for the successful raising of offspring. Research shows, that we (women in particular) are capable of assaying potential mates, almost at the genetic level, from pheromones emitted by a potential partner. What better way to isolate the pheromones of one individual that to get up close to them, gee-up their nervous system a bit, and rub noses? Evolution will clearly favour those with a tendency to do this. Here’s some science about kissing, in case you’re interested. Whatever they’re “for”, just because the evolution of our neurochemistry explains the feelings we experience during a kiss, doesn’t stop us feeling them, or make them any less valid; this is one of many instances where knowing how the trick is done doesn’t spoil our enjoyment of it one jot. OK, maybe he just played this bit for laughs, but it’s indicative of a whole mindset that sees something as somehow less worthy if science can explain it. It is a truly impoverished world-view that maintains that something must be “outside” nature in order for us to marvel at it or take joy in it. Especially since nature is all there is; one would just be setting oneself up for disappointment.
NG:
I was not brought up as a Christian; I was an atheist. I believed, not in quite such a sophisticated way, I believed basically what Richard Dawkins believes; I believed that this whole world was determined by our environment, by our genes; I thought there was no such thing as unselfish love. I was not brought up as a Christian; I came to faith late in life; I looked at the evidence for Jesus and I came to put my faith in him, but I came to faith late in life. Dawkins says that the only reason why anyone’s a Christian is because they’re brought up that way; it’s like belief in Santa Claus; it’s something that you may be taught as a child but as you grow up, you grow out of it. But how many people came to believe in Santa Claus as an adult,[laughter] having not believed it before? It doesn’t work like that. And, when I came to believe in Jesus, on the evidence, to put my faith in him, I experienced that there is so much more to life than I thought before. It didn’t close my thinking.
This short passage covers a lot of ground. Firstly, it absolutely does not follow from atheism or evolutionary biology that there is no such thing as unselfish love. If Nicky used to believe this then that was his failing, not atheism’s. The term “selfish” in the phrase “selfish genes” is metaphor for the way the genes seem to behave, not a description of how they makes animals (or humans) behave. “Selfish” genes seem to seek to maximise the number of copies of themselves in the world; I say seem to because what is actually happening has nothing to do with the genes having an intent at all, but the concept of “selfishness” is a useful conceit that helps us visualise what is really going on. Simplistically put, genes that are good at causing their host organism to produce offspring that are good at reproducing flourish at the expense of others. It is the very “selfishness” of our genes that has caused us to evolve such traits as compassion, empathy and yes, unselfish love. Dawkins emphatically does not believe that there is no such thing as unselfish love, though many people have misinterpreted the title of the book that way, seemingly without actually bothering to read it. I’d like to reproduce the whole of the new introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, but that would probably infringe copyright and would take too much typing, so I’ll try to capture it’s essence with a few snippets:
RD:
Many critics, especially vociferous ones learned in philosophy as I have discovered, prefer to read a book by title only. No doubt this works well enough for The Tale of Benjamin Bunny or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I can readily see that 'The Selfish Gene' on its own, without the large footnote of the book itself, might give an inadequate impression of its contents.
…we should not be surprised to find individual organisms behaving altruistically 'for the good of the genes', for example by feeding and protecting kin who are likely to share copies of the same genes. Such kin altruism is only one way in which gene selfishness can translate itself into individual altruism. This book explains how it works, together with reciprocation, Darwinian theory's other main generator of altruism.
One of the dominant messages of The Selfish Gene (reinforced by the title essay of A Devil's Chaplain) is that we should not derive our values from Darwinism, unless it is with a negative sign. Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. The fact that we can do so is made obvious by our use of contraceptives. The same principle can and should work on a wider scale.
Then we move onto the “I used to be an atheist, hmm what about that?” argument that is also used by McGrath as if it gives them some kind of credibility to have deliberately distanced themselves from rationality, rather than had irrationality thrust upon them. He states that Dawkins claims that the only reason anyone is a Christian is due to childhood indoctrination, which is clearly not the case. Take a look at the passage from TGD paying special attention to the words I have highlighted in bold:
RD:
If you feel trapped in the religion of your upbringing, it would be worth asking yourself how this came about. The answer is usually some form of childhood indoctrination. If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.
Dawkins is simply stating the fact that the vast majority of religious people have the same religion as their parents. True there are conversions to many faiths in adulthood, but that doesn’t lend credence to the validity of those faiths. I’m sure there are a number of people who think that they came to Buddhism, Zoroastrianism or Wicca late in life based on what they think constitutes evidence, and Nicky’s statements about his conversion should not be taken as a pointer toward the truth of Christianity any more than these people are evidence for the truth of their faiths. As to this “evidence” that caused him to believe: I’d like to see some; he’s very good at talking about evidence without actually providing any. Nicky’s bio on Wikipedia says:
Nicky Gumbel was converted to Christianity during his first year studying law at Trinity College, Cambridge through reading the New Testament. He said, "I was enthralled. It was as if I had found what I had been looking for all my life".
I’m guessing that the evidence of which he speaks is what the religious call “faith based”, that he read the NT and it resonated within him, he somehow felt the truth of it, it seemed that this book had in some fashion encapsulated something he had known to be true all along, but had not yet been able to articulate. Our emotional state when reading a book cannot be considered evidence, and let’s not forget that this particular book itself is at best third-hand hearsay. If the existence of the NT and his experience of reading it are all the evidence he has, then this doesn’t amount to much I’m afraid. I’ve read plenty of books that stir me, where the words on the page seem to sing in my blood, and cry out with meaning; most of those books (though not all) were fiction too, and cunningly crafted to do just that. Nicky, although not brought up a Christian, was brought up in a broadly Christian society, so it’s hardly surprising that the stories seem to mean something to him, he’s been immersed in them his whole life, without really noticing it. I’m willing to bet that had he been brought up by secular parents in Riyadh instead of London, that he would’ve had a similar quasi-mystical experience upon reading the Koran. There’s a lesson here for us atheists, we absolutely must teach our children about religion, to think critically, and how to recognise it when our brain plays tricks on us.
As a man with a law degree from one of the UK’s most prestigious universities, Nicky really ought to have a better grasp of what constitutes good evidence. Would he present a case for the prosecution based solely on a strong feeling he got from reading an accuser’s testimony given him by a third party? “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that this man is guilty upon the evidence that I personally had a significant emotional experience, an overwhelming sense of wellbeing and rightness with the world, which convinced me of the verisimilitude of the victim’s testimony whilst reading said victim’s statement. A statement which was given to me by a man I met only yesterday, but whom I nevertheless strongly believe to be trustworthy. Although like myself, the man presenting said document has never met said victim, he did have an air of authority and dependability, some nice clothes, an expensive car and wore a lot of gold. The prosecution rests!” If this is what he considers a sound argument, it’s no wonder he chose to take the cloth rather than pursue his legal career; unlike a courtroom, in a pulpit one is surrounded by people who earnestly want to believe you. Perhaps it is his legal training that leads him to these standpoints; emotional arguments may sway a jury to convict even if they fly in the face of the evidence, and many lawyers cynically exploit this fact as Nicky does here. I chose prosecution for my example rather than defence, because in a court the onus is on the prosecution to prove guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”; this is because the default position is innocence, much as the absence of anything supernatural should be the default position until someone manages to show that it does exist beyond reasonable doubt. Rationalism, naturalism and atheism are innocent until proven guilty, and the prosecution’s case is thin at best.
Last part coming up:
NG:
In fact it made me much more interested in the world, because this world, I suddenly saw that this world was created by God, and I was in a relationship with God, and that made me much more fascinated about the world; it made me value this world so much more; it made me value every human being much more because every human being is an individual created by God. It gave me a new love for other people, a new desire to do something about the needs of the world around us. And, there’s nothing greater than to know Jesus Christ who is the truth, and is the one through whom this whole creation came into being; and reading these books made me so thankful to know that relationship with Jesus Christ, to have found a meaning, a purpose to life. And also to see the urgency of getting this message out to our society because, yes our society needs Jesus, well it needs Jesus, it needs scientists. Much more than that, it needs Jesus; it needs the message that only the church can give it: the message of Jesus Christ, who is the way and the truth and the life.
May we pray:
Lord we want to thank you today for scientists and science, but even more we want to thank you for Jesus, the one through whom this whole creation came into being; the one who is the way, the truth and the life. And thank you that we can have this amazing privilege of being in a relationship, a love relationship with Jesus Christ, and taking that message to a world that so desperately needs it. In Jesus’ name, amen.
It’s hard to pick out the bits worth commenting on from this stream of drivel, but there are some bits worth mentioning. I’ll summarise with some bullet points:
  • Nicky is almost certainly not in a relationship with God, he just (probably) thinks he is. He’s like God’s stalker; he has made up an imaginary relationship that the object of his affection never instigated and is unaware of. Lucky for him that God, on account of his almost certain non-existence, won’t file for a restraining order.
  • If he needs to believe there’s a God in order to be interested in the world, that’s a pretty poor state of affairs. Plus it obviously hasn’t made him that interested or he would’ve learned more science.
  • If he believes that each human being is valuable, and that there’s a need to do something about the needs of the people in the world only because God made them individually, then that’s an even poorer state of affairs because a) it’s wrong and b) this means he did not feel this back when he was an atheist. Plus, his version of doing something about the needs of the people of the world seems to consist of teaching them this nonsense for cash rather than doing something actually beneficial.
  • What he needs to believe to get him through the day has no bearing on whether those things are actually true or not.
  • Jesus is not the embodiment of truth. Neither is he “the way” or “the life”; what does that even mean?
  • Jesus is “the one through whom this whole creation came into being”? Where does it say that in the bible? If he was born at all, it was a long time after the creation of the universe. Oh wait, I forgot God, Jesus and The Holy Spirit (whatever that is) are one and the same being. So Jesus is his own dad. Honestly? This sort of nonsense is almost enough to make you side with the loonies who try to claim that the Bible’s very implausibility is evidence for its truth, on the grounds that you just can’t make this shit up. Except, of course, that someone did (The council of Nicea 325 AD).
  • Society needs Jesus about as much as it needs any other iron-age myths obstructing its reasoned debates about what will actually benefit mankind.
So, having listened to Nicky and noted that significant proportions of his speech are either mistaken, deliberately misleading, or just outright lies and littered with logical fallacies, where does this leave us? Has science disproved God? Well no it hasn’t, and let’s not forget that Dawkins never claimed that it has, but what it has done is eliminated almost all of the reasons for believing in him. We simply do not need God to explain our universe anymore. The few great unanswered questions do not point to God, they point to something we do not yet know. The idea that a handful of desert-dwelling nomads a few thousand years ago were granted that explanation is frankly ludicrous, and made even more so when you examine the nature of the explanation they claim they were given.
It’s pretty clear that history has been one long saga of the erosion of religion by science. To illustrate this, try a little thought experiment recommended by Sam Harris in a discussion with an eminent Rabbi. Try to think of one single question where science once thought it had the answer and now the best answer we have is a religious one. Go on really try before you read on. Tricky isn’t it? Now think of a question where religion once thought it had the answer and now the best answer we have is a scientific one? Sunrise? Heliocentricity? The origin of species? Rainbows? Morality? And another? More? It’s easy; you could go on all day.
To reiterate, science has not disproved god, it has simply made him unnecessary to explain the world around us, and the universe in which it sits. So with apologies to my friend and erstwhile colleague, this was not “an excellent talk by an excellent preacher”, but a pile of drivel, by a man making a very lucrative career out of teaching people falsehoods.
So what’s next? O yeah: “Does religion do more harm than good?” The jury is out, but a guilty verdict is expected; we’ll just have to wait and see.

4 comments:

Edmund Standing said...

Jesus is “the one through whom this whole creation came into being”? Where does it say that in the bible?'

*Cough* That would be...

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being'.

- John 1:1-3

as well as John 1:10 - 'the world came into being through him'.

Otherwise, good stuff. I read NG's 'Questions of Life' book which is some of the most childish, inane, and worst of all vapidly 'cheery' excuses for a book I've ever read. I wanted to shout at him, "But..." all the way through. I annotated it for a critique, with pen on every page, but haven't been able to face returning to it.

I have just written a 9,000 word critical analysis of the Gospel of Matthew and submitted it to Butterflies and Wheels, though, so hopefully that will see the light of day.

You may be interested in my article there on the 'New Atheists'.

Anyway, best wishes.

Timmeh! said...

I've already read your article, albeit a little while ago, and very interesting I found it too.

Oh and thanks for the correction. My knowledge of scripture isn't as good as I'd like it to be. I'm going to leave that bit in though, I like the rant that follows it (which is still valid) too much to take it out. :)

goooooood girl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Timmeh! said...

FYI, the comment I deleted just said "Well well well" and appeared to be from a porn queen trying to up her link count. Just in case anyone thought I was censoring theists.