Tuesday, May 08, 2007

4: Who is this Dawkins Person Anyway?


If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.





....given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labours of men...
Waiting for Godot



Dawkins defines God as 'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.' This is an admirably narrow definition.
If we accept it, we can't call Thor a god because he neither designed nor created the universe. Even if we extend the definition to include 'one or more superhuman, supernatural intelligences' the Norse gods don't really fit the bill. No-one ever said that Thor designed the thunder or even that he deliberately created it. It also stops us from using the word 'God' in a metaphorical sense. Whatever Einstein was thinking about when he imagined God playing dice, it wasn't a supernatural designer.
It is just about possible to come up with beings who fit Dawkins' definition, but who are not gods in any religious sense. A little man in a bowler hat who flies around space on a magic carpet, assembling planets out of flat-packs and making play-dough creatures to inhabit them would not be called God by most theists.
Dawkins himself doesn't quite manage to stick to his definition. He says that the 'problem of evil' is easily solved by postulating a second, bad god: but so far as I know no-one has ever said that Satan designed and created anything. He complains about the tendency of Catholics to drift towards polytheism: but no Pope has ever said that the Virgin Mary designed the universe.
Nevertheless, I think we should accept Dawkins' definition as far as we can. We can then state the substance of his argument in a few lines:
THE ARGUMENT FROM LACK OF DESIGN
Let us define 'God' as 'the designer of the universe'.
The universe was not designed, but emerged through a process of natural selection.
If the universe was not designed, it had no designer.
Therefore 'God' does not exist.
Or, with a difference of emphasis:
THE ARGUMENT FROM PROBABILITY
Let us define 'God' as 'the designer of the universe.'
It is very improbable that anything very complex should exist.
'Designers' are more complex than the things they design.
The universe is very complex.
Therefore, the universe is very improbable.
The designer of the universe must be even more complex than the universe.
Therefore the designer of the universe must be even more improbable than the universe.
To say that something is 'very improbable' is the same as saying that it almost certainly doesn't exist.
Therefore 'God' almost certainly doesn't exist.
Both arguments boil down to:
THE ARGUMENT FROM EVOLUTION
If evolution occurred, 'God' does not exist.
In fact, evolution occurred.
Therefore, 'God' does not exist.
As everyone apart from Dawkins' sees, this is precisely the same argument used by the Creationists.
THE ARGUMENT FROM GOD
If evolution occurred, 'God' does not exist.
In fact, God exists.
Therefore, evolution did not occur.
The Creationists need Dawkins and Dawkins needs the Creationists: both sides mutually reinforce the faulty premises of the other's argument. They are locked in a fatal embrace and with any luck they will soon drag each other into a metaphysical Riechenbach Falls.
The chapters where Dawkins deals with this proof are much less embarrassing than the chapters about religion. He has great fun taking apart people who say that because it is incredibly unlikely that something as complicated as a human being should spontaneously assemble itself, someone must have designed it. Since this is precisely what evolutionists think didn't happen Dawkins isn't terribly impressed by Creationists on this score. He is also quite good at explaining what believers in Intelligent Design mean by 'irreducible complexity' and why they shouldn't.
It must be said that evolution by natural selection is assumed rather than explained throughout the book. I don't think that if an open-minded creationist (if you could imagine such a beast) read this book, he would learn enough to be persuaded. And even in the scientific sections, I often felt that Dawkins had not properly understood the positions he was demolishing. He spends a lot of time with a silly creationist tract that looks at giant redwoods and jellyfish and asks if they can really be the products of blind chance. (Rather charmingly, Dawkins doesn't seem to realise that the Watchtower Tract Society is synonymous with Jehovah's Witnesses.) Is the author of the tract really talking about mathematical odds? Is he really saying that the chance of a lot of molecules suddenly arranging themselves into a giant redwood is less than a billion trillion billion to one and therefore someone must have constructed the tree? I think that their real concern is with the blindness of the forces which scientists say caused the tree to exist. I think that when they look at the tree, they experience certain aesthetic and spiritual emotions and they think that those emotions are appropriate and meaningful and have something to do with the tree. I think that they think that if the tree is only the product of indifferent and impersonal forces then those emotional responses become meaningless. I think that they think that in a purely Darwinian universe, they won't even be allowed to say 'that's a pretty tree' any more. If that is what they think, then a clear explanation of how those blind, indifferent forces work is simply a non sequitur.
That said, if you accept the theory of evolution by natural selection – as everyone sensible does -- Dawkins' proof is entirely valid. I know, of course, that an annoying rump of Creationists are making a lot of noise on both sides of the Atlantic. But I think that the majority of mainstream Jews, Christians, Muslims and very probably Mormons would agree with Dawkins. 'God'–defined as 'a being who deliberately designed and created everything in the universe including us' does not exist.
I have four books of popular apologetics on my shelf. None of them makes the slightest attempt to use the Argument From Design to promote the belief in God.
  • John Young (The Case Against Christ) specifically rules out design as proof of the existence of God, suggesting that instead we look at 'personal experience and history,' by which he means evangelical Jesus-changed-my-life type testimony.
  • Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict) talks about the Bible, the figure of Jesus and poached eggs.
  • C.S Lewis (Mere Christianity) puts forward a rather involved version of the argument from morality. (In Miracles he uses a very involved argument from consciousness, but let's not go there.)
  • Roger T Forster (Saturday Night...Monday Morning) does appear at one point to be drifting into Aquinas' 'first cause' argument. 'If the universe has not always existed, then it must have had a beginning...So if there was a beginning, there must have been a beginner in some form or other.' But it turns out that all Forster wants to do is distinguish between 'naturalism' and 'supernaturalism'. Either 'the universe' is all that exists or else 'something else – call it GOD for the moment' exists as well. This matters to Forster because, if 'something else -- call it GOD for the moment' exists, then it is possible to ask teleological questions about The Universe. He doesn't think that 'call-it-GOD-for-the-moment' is necessary to explain how the Universe got into the state we found it in. He thinks that call-it-GOD-for-the-moment caused The Universe but he doesn't necessarily think that it 'deliberately designed everything in it including us.'
(Forster may, incidentally, be to blame for the following well-worn argument. Suppose you ask the question 'Why is that kettle boiling?' Someone might reply: 'Because energy is going into the water in the form of heat, causing the water to vaporise.' And they would be right. But someone else might equally well answer 'Because I want a cup of tea.' And they would be right, too. Forster's point is that you can answer the same question in two different ways, and the second answer ('I want a cup of tea') does not in any sense abolish or contradict the first. So there is no necessary conflict between Religion and Science. If you admit the existence of some reality other than the Universe, then it becomes possible to ask questions which have 'I-want-a-cup-of-tea' type answers -- but that doesn't abolish or invalidate the scientific questions. Christians sometimes use the Cup of Tea metaphor to demonstrate that 'Science asks how; religion asks why'. This is a very good phrase to use, not because it is true, nor because it is what Forster meant, but because it enrages Richard Dawkins.)
Given that vanishingly few people believe in Dawkins version of 'God', the great man has two options:
  • He could say 'I am simply uninterested in any other version of God. I have nothing to say about him, or even Him. John Humphrys can sit in a quiet room with the Archbishop of Canterbury for as long as he wishes; he will hear not one word of complaint from me. Those things whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should shut the hell up about.' This would have made the book very short.
  • He could make a serious attempt to find out what other Gods are on the market. He could find out what kinds of deity are invoked by people who fully accept everything that Dawkins has to say about Galapagos Tortoises but who nevertheless consider themselves to be Theists. This would have involved him in reading some books. Talking to some Christians. Trying to find out what non-creationist-Theists mean when they use the term 'God'. You know. Research.
Instead, he spends the book half-heartedly putting forward arguments which he doesn't understand, don't interest him and don't have any possible bearing on his case.
Here he is waffling on about the the Holy Trinity:
Arius of Alexander, in the the fourth century AD denied that Jesus was consubstantial (of the same substance or essence) with God. What could that possibly mean, you are probably asking. Substance? What substance? What exactly do you mean by essence? 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply.
Actually, it meant a great deal: a very great deal. You don't have to believe that God exists to see that a story in which God takes on human form is a very different story from one in which God creates a messenger and tells that messenger to take on human form. The Passion of the Christ is a different movie depending on whether you think the person being eviscerated is God or just some guy. Athanasius thought that it was God who hung on a cross for the world; Arius thought that it was a created being who was not God. This is not very little; this is very big. Granted, the Creeds put it in terms of Aristotelian theories about 'substance' and 'essence': but there isn't much sense in complaining that technical documents are written in technical language if you are not prepared to pick up a standard work and look up what the words mean.
But Dawkins is simply not interested in Christian ideas about God -- and why should he be? If it could be shown that the Nicene Creed made perfect sense, would that bring Dawkins one inch -- or indeed one iota -- closer to a belief in 'a supernatural and superhuman person who deliberately designed the universe and everything in it, including us?' Of course not. The Arian controversy is simplyirrelevant to the case which he is trying to make. So why bring it up in the first place?
A few pages later, he asks the following question about polytheism:
How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate God.
Again, this is easily answered. Aphrodite is a Greek God, Venus is a Roman one and the Romans took it for granted that all nations worshipped the same gods under different names. Caesar saw the Druids praying to the Sun and concluded that they were followers of Apollo. Thor and Wotan are both characters in a single cycle of stories. The Norse Gods are effectively a family of superheroes: the universe is very much a going concern when Wotan arrives on the scene. I don't think that there is ever any suggestion that one is a 'manifestation' of the other.
But the New College Professor of Public Understanding of Science has an even better answer.
Who cares? Life is too short to worry about the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many.
To which one is tempted to say: 'Well, you started it.'
He goes on:
Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect I shall say no more about it.
That pretty much sums up the book: gesturing towards subjects about which he has nothing whatsoever to say.
Would a clear and lucid account of how Hindu Polytheism differs from Norse and Roman systems make Dawkins more inclined to believe in a supernatural intelligence who designed and created everything in the universe, including us? Of course not. So why is the Professor wasting the class's time on it?
Then we get onto proofs of the existence of God. Dawkins rehearses the story of how Bertrand Russell (as an undergraduate) decided that our friend the Ontological Proof was logically sound. Dawkins says that even if the argument was logically sound, Russell had no right to conclude that God exists. He should have just assumed that the Proof was a logical trick, on the level of Zeno's paradox. We may not yet have the logical tools to debunk it, but 'it is too good to be true that grand truths about the cosmos should follow from a mere word game.' Even if it appears to be right, it's wrong. The universe just doesn't work like that.
So no logical proof – even a perfectly sound one -- could possibly establish the existence of God, even in principle. So why waste our time on the specific fallacies of Anselm's proof? Why mention it at all?
He goes on to talk about the 'The Argument from Religious Experience', which he takes to mean 'the argument that "God" must exist because people experience supernatural events which have no other possible explanation'. He goes through several examples of supposedly supernatural events which can be easily 'explained away' – as psychological phenomena, hallucinations or simply as mundane things which the eye of faith mistakes for God. He then admits that he can't explain how 70,000 pilgrims at Fatima can all have seen the sun crash into the earth in 1917. But:
It may seem improbable that 70,000 people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage... But any of these apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit...
So: when a supernatural event can be explained away, that's evidence for the non-existence of 'God'. But when a supernatural event can't be explained away, that's no evidence for the existence of 'God'. We should just assume that there is an explanation which haven't spotted yet. If God walked into Dawkins' study and tapped him on the shoulder, it wouldn't shake Dawkins faith. He'd just go and get his shoulder checked out.
And, again, Dawkins is quite right: if it were established beyond all doubt that every single vision of the Virgin Mary has been perfectly genuine this would leave the question of Dawkins' 'God' precisely where it was. The Virgin Mary may very well be a supernatural and even a superhuman person but the fact that she appears to pious children and heals cripples at Lourdes wouldn't prove that she or anyone else deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us. If we could convince Dawkins that Our Lady of Lourdes was quite real, he'd be quite free to say 'Gosh. So some people have a supernatural guardian. I never expected that. But it doesn't make me doubt the facts of evolution.'
How could it? For Dawkins the theory of evolution by natural selection has the status of a logical axiom. It is self-evidently, necessarily true. A logical proof, a well attested supernatural manifestation, a genuine miracle, a babel fish: these could no more make Dawkins doubt the existence of natural selection than the could make him believe that triangles have four sides.
Dawkins seems to be dimly aware that when people talk about 'God', they do not always mean 'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.' At the beginning of chapter 2 he attempts to get his retaliation in first:
This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, on that would otherwise – as sure as night follows day – turn up in a review: 'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God that I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.' That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed the distraction is worse than irrelevant. It's very silliness is designed to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.
This is pure bluster. If I say 'The search for extra-terrestrial civilisation is futile, because it's absurd to imagine grey aliens in flying saucers who abduct cattle and mutilate red-necks,' a SETTI enthusiast might say 'But that's not what we are looking for; we agree with you that those kinds of U.F.O stories are silly.' If I replied 'I knowed you'd say that because that's what peoples like you always says, but it do not matter, because the other kind of alien are just as silly so yah-boo-sucks' I wouldn't be advancing the discussion very far. Dawkins may, in fact, disbelieve in all gods; but the 'particular version' who deliberately designed and created the universe is the only particular version whose particular existence he makes the slightest particular effort to disprove.
Christians don't think that Dawkins thinks that they think that God really has a beard. 'Old man in the sky with a white beard' is a figure of speech – shorthand – which neatly encapsulates various errors which lazy atheists and naive theists sometimes make, for example:
1: They imagine that Christians think that God is a human being of some kind and therefore ask questions like 'What does he eat?' 'If he made the world, what did he stand on?' 'If he doesn't have a beard, how does he shave?' 'How did he evolve?' (Three guesses which of those questions troubles Prof. Dawkins?) Christians don't think that God is an old man. They don't even think he is a man. They probably don't even think he's made of atoms.
2: They confuse symbols with representations: they think that when Michelangelo painted God on the Pope's ceiling, he was making an informed guess about what someone would have see with their eyes if they bumped into God on the Roman metro – as opposed to using pictures to put across theological ideas.
3: They imagine that Christians think that God lives in some particular place in space and time. They may not think that we think that he lives in the sky, but I think that they think that we think that if you had a fast enough spaceship you could eventually track him down. Dawkins doesn't commit himself on the question of God's facial hair; but it is pretty clear that he thinks that God lives in the sky – or at any rate, in some place in the empirical universe.
One of Dawkins' groupies is at this moment -- as surely as night follows day -- composing a comment which runs like this. 'Of course Dawkins thinks that if there's a 'God' he lives in the empirical universe, because that's the only kind of universe which exists. "Not in the empirical universe" means the same as "Nowhere".'
To which I will respond 'That's the exact point we disagree about. Some people believe that the universe is the only thing that exists. Some people believe that there is something else apart from the universe. If you say 'the empirical universe is all that exists' you are pre-supposing your conclusions in your premises, or, to use the technical term, cheating.'
I think a lot of Dawkins' arguments do, in fact, contain this kind of 'cheating'. When he says that the 'argument from design' would create an infinite regress (if 'God' made the universe, then something even cleverer than 'God' must have made 'God', and something even cleverer than God-2 must have made God-2) I think that he is picturing God as a powerful, complex being, composed of atoms, that evolved or was created somewhere in space-and-time. A man in a bowler hat on a flying carpet: perhaps even an elderly one who forgot to recharge his electric shaver. At any rate, he quotes someone called Carlin who thinks that God is 'an invisible man living in the sky.' He strongly implies that he thinks that the story of the ascension of Jesus means that Christians think that Jesus came from the sky and went back there. He quotes an atheist blogger who describes God as a 'sky-fairy.' And he begins the book with an enormously revealing quote from Douglas Adams.
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
Dawkins thinks that Christians think that along with the rose bush, the nasturtium and the lawn-mower, there is one more object in the garden, namely, a fairy. So naturally, he searches the garden. When an extensive finger-tip search fails to turn up any little people with gossamer wings he concludes that there are no fairies and that any Christian who carries on saying that there are is being perverse.
But, but, but....Does Dawkins – did Adams? -- honestly not know that these simply aren't the kinds of fairies that Christians believe in? That even if you widened your search and eventually tracked down a little commune in Glastonbury where the fairies who designed the garden, planted the seeds and installed the fashionable water-feature were currently living you still wouldn't have found the kind of fairy we believe in? We don't believe that there are fairies in the garden. Or anywhere else. You'd be much better off saying that we think that the garden is in the fairies.
I suggested in my last sermon that if Oolon Coluphid had tracked down the 'God' who had left a message in five mile high letters of fire on the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains, he still wouldn't have found the person who actually created the The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy -- namely, Douglas Adams. Dorothy L Sayers pressed the idea that 'God is like an author' quite hard, and C.S Lewis practically broke it. It's also been used by Mr. Grant Morrison and Mr. David Sim. But seriously. You 'brights' will understand us Christians much better once you've grasped that when we talk about 'God', we are thinking of something much less like a fairy and much more like a Douglas.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

3: Final and Clinching Proofs

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.










A little child may know
The father's name of love
'Tis written in the earth below
And on the sky above.

Around me when I look
His handiwork I see
This world is like a picture book
To teach his name to me.





If you want to read a really convincing proof that God does not exist, don't look in The God Delusion: look in The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy. Every good geek knows the passage by heart.
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
'But,' says Man, 'The Babel Fish is a dead give-away, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
Why is this so funny?
1: Douglas Adams is making a joke at the expense of other science fiction writers.
Space opera wouldn't be very exciting if the hero never understood a word the villain said. So sci-fi writers tend to just assume that anything which has travelled 40,000 light years from the Planet Zog is quite capable of asking the first human it encounters to take it to their leader. Most readers accept this convention without question. In the first episode of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy the Vogons talk to the human, Ford talks to Arthur and Arthur reads from The Guide—and no-one asks how they can possibly understand each other. Writers sometimes say that everything is being translated by The Lens, The Green Lantern Power Ring, The TARDIS, A Universal Translator or A Japanese Lady With a PhD In Linguistics—none of which are a great deal more believable than 'Everyone speaks English because base ten is an intrinsically superior system.' Adams' joke is to draw attention to the problem and make the inherent far-farfetchedness of a magic translating fish part of the story. He make the same joke a few pages later when he introduces the Infinite Improbability Drive. All writers of fiction have to come up with reasons why very unlikely things happen to their characters: otherwise, there wouldn't be any story in the first place. Adams solves the problem by drawing attention to it, forcing his characters to travel around with a magic box which causes improbable events to occur.
NOTE: Later in the series, Adams suggests that in an infinite universe, everything which it is possible to imagine must exist somewhere: even planets populated by matresses and biros. So the Babel Fish needn't have been designed; so God exists after all. Whew!
2: It's a joke about religious arguments.
The opening remark is a simple comic reversal. We expect the Guide to say that the Babel fish proves the existence of God. It can't have evolved; so it must have been designed; so there must have been a designer; so God must exist. This is the classic Argument From Design (which, as we will see the only argument Richard Dawkins is at all interested in.) Certainly, if such a fish were to be discovered in Real Life, then many thinkers would see it—or, as Adams subtly says, choose to see it—as proof that there is a God. So it gets a big laugh when when we hear Peter Jones telling us in his best Just a Minute voice that it actually proves the exact opposite.
But while we are laughing, I think that we recognise that people really do sometime argue about religion in this way. When something comes along which seems to put a serious dent in the case for Christianity—someone finds the bones of baby Jesus on board S.S Titanic, say, or digs up a papyrus of Mary Magdalene's wedding list—you can bet that some Christian will say 'There you go! That proves what we've been saying all along.' Adams has switched things round: something has turned up which quite obviously deals a fatal blow to atheism, and the atheists, without missing a best, say that it proves their case.
Dawkins makes a similar point about religion in The God Delusion. Christians often say that scientific critiques of their faith are irrelevant. There's no point in trying to prove or disprove the existence of the soul or the efficacy of prayer by conducting experiments because 'souls' and 'prayers' aren't the kinds of things you can experiment on. Dawkins says that, on the contrary, Christians make claims about the empirical world which are perfectly amenable to scientific investigation. I get the impression that he thinks that if you had been present at the revivification of Lazarus and had had your tricorder handy, you would have been able to observe some physical process occurring: energy coming out of Jesus, cellular regeneration of the corpse, that kind of thing. (That's my example, not his.) This is tantamount to saying 'The revivication of Lazarus was not a miracle.' But there are all sorts of other things which a scientist could perfectly well have offered an opinion on: was Lazarus really dead? was his corpse really decomposing? was the person who came out of the tomb the same person who went into it? Dawkins asks what would happen if someone found a strand of Jesus' hair and performed DNA analysis on it. Supposing the analysis proved, scientifically, that Jesus had no human father. Would Christians say 'Oh, but that's quite irrelevant to our belief in the Virgin Birth; science has nothing to say about religion.' Or would they move the pearly goalposts and say 'That proves it! Luke's Gospel is literally true after all!' This is one of the few occasions while reading the God Delusion when I said 'A hit! A palpable hit!'
(Speaking for myself, I might very well say that DNA is not relevant to my belief that Jesus is the Son of God. I might very well say 'This DNA proof actually rather damaging to Christianity because it might give people the impression that Jesus' birth, which I think of as a magical event with theological significance, was actually a curious scientific example of parthenogenesis.' This may have been what David Jenkins had in mind when he said that the Resurrection was not (n-o-t) a Conjuring Trick With Bones.)
3: It's a joke about the whole idea of using logic to prove or disprove the existence of God.
St. Anselm's logical proof that God exists is almost as famous as Oolon Colluphid's proof that he doesn't.
Let us define God as 'the greatest conceivable thing.'
The greatest conceivable thing must by definition possess every positive quality to the greatest possible degree.
'Existence' is a positive quality.
Therefore God must possess 'existence' to the greatest possible degree.
It is logically impossible that a thing which possesses the greatest conceivable degree of existence does not exist.
Therefore it is logically impossible that God does not exist
Therefore God necessarily exists.
People have been arguing about this proof for a thousand years, and unlike Dawkins I don't think I'm clever enough to sort it out this evening. However, one of the things which Anselm may have done is defined God as 'a being who exists'; and then claimed that since it's nonsense to say that a being who exists doesn't exist, God exists. But this only works if you accept the original definition. One response to Anselm is to say, 'Yes, you are right, God necessarily exists.' The other is to say 'Since God doesn't exist, I guess your definition must be incorrect.'
(Some philosphers might say 'Ah, but Anselm wasn't trying to prove that God necessarily exists, he was trying to prove that God's existence is necessary,' but let's ignore them.)
Oolon Colluphid has made the same kind of mistake. Some Christians say that the lack of evidence of God's existence doesn't bother them too much: they think that God is the kind of chap who would rather we believed without proof. Colluphid turns this into a definition 'Let us define God as "a being who created the universe and whose existence cannot be proved." ' If you find clear evidence that the universe was designed, then clearly 'A being who created the universe and whose existence cannot be proved' does not exist; therefore 'God', as defined by Colluphid, doesn't exist. The Theist will then say to: 'Yes, but you've specifically chosen a definition of God which fits in with your disproof'; to which Oolon will reply: 'Yes, and you are always choosing definitions of God specifically because they fit in with your proofs.' Which is presumably Adams' point.
While we're here, we may as well note that Colluphid's proof exemplifies two other common faults in religious arguments.
1: It's a complex definition. In order to exist 'God' has to be both the creator of the universe and a being whose existence can't be proved. This is a bit like saying 'My mother is a lobster who was married to my father. But we can prove empirically that my father was never married to a lobster. Therefore 'the lobster who was married to my father' does not exist. Therefore my mother does not exist. Therefore I do not exist.' Both sides play this trick surprisingly often. You define God as 'A being who created the world in six days and is the source of morality', and then say 'If you say that God didn't create the world in six days, then there is no source of morality, and since you can't deny that morality exists, the world must have been created in six days.' Or you define God as 'A being who created the world in six days and who gives Peter Kay comfort during his times of trouble' and then say 'Since I can prove that the world wasn't created in six days, Peter Kay must be mistaken about his supernatural comforter.'
2: Proof does not deny faith. Proof may deny belief if you define belief as 'holding an opinion without sufficient evidence.' God may say 'without faith I am nothing'; he certianly does not say 'without belief I am nothing.' Richard Dawkins also gets himself into a fearful mess over this one: his big problem with Pascal's Wager (1) is, amazingly, that he doesn't understand why it matters to God whether we believe in him or not.
When Christians talk about 'faith' they are not talking about 'holding the opinion that God exists': they mean something like 'trusting-and-following-God' or 'submitting to the will of God'. In evangelical circles, 'faith' is often synonymous with 'mystical gnosis': 'I believe in God', 'I have faith in God', and 'I know God' are used more or less interchangeably. If a real Babel Fish were discovered, everyone, even Richard Dawkins, would believe that God (defined as 'the person who made the Babel Fish') really existed. But not everyone would trust in that person or submit themselves to his will.
I am contractually required to quote the following anecdote at this point.
'Once upon a time, a stunt-man decided to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. A huge crowd gathered to watch him.

'Do you believe that I can walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd.

Sure enough, he walked from one side of the falls to the other and then back again.

'Do you believe that I could push a wheelbarrow across a tightrope over Niagara Falls?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowed. And sure enough, he did so.

'Do you believe that I could put a sack of potatoes in the wheelbarrow?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd. And sure enough he did so.

Hardly pausing for breath, he asked 'Do you believe that I could put a man in the wheelbarrow and push him across the tightrope safely?' '
Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd 'We have seen you do it yourself, we have seen you push the wheelbarrow, we have seen you put potatoes in the wheelbarrow: of course we believe that you could push a man across.'

'Very well,' said the stuntman. 'Who volunteers?'

Friends, this story is true. I know, for I was that tightrope.
4: But in any case, Oolon Colluphid is looking for the wrong God.
Adams' whole riff turns on meta-joke. We know, by the very fact that we listening to it, that Oolon Colluphid's argument is completely false. The existence of something like the Babel Fish—a ludicrous plot device that even Russell T Davies would be ashamed of—does absolutely prove that Colluphid's universe was created by an Intelligent Designer. Namely, Douglas Adams.
'God' is quite a significant presence in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy—a minor character who is often mentioned but who never appears—like Eccentrica Gallumbits, and, indeed, like Oolon Colluphid. He leaves messages to his creation in five mile high letters of fire and Deep Thought may (or may not) know his telephone number. But even if Oolon phoned him up, he still would not be in touch with the creator of the universe. Oolun Colluphid wasn't created by that 'God' but by a very witty writer. And nothing Colluphid says can possibly make him disappear.

NOTE

(1) Pascal's Wager -- When you make a bet, you take into account the size of the stake, the size of the prize, and you chance of winning: you might be prepared to make a very small wager for a very small chance of winning a very large prize (e.g the National Lottery) or a very large bet for a very good chance of winning quite a small prize (e.g putting £1000 on the favourite at 7:2 on.) If God exists, the reward for submitting to his will is infinite—going to heaven for ever and ever. If God doesn't exist and you mistakenly submit to his will then the very worst that can happen is that you waste your whole life—which is still a finite quantity. So however unlikely the existence of God is, faith is still a good bet: because it's a good bet to make a finite wager (your whole life) on a very small chance of infinite reward (heaven.)


Friday, April 27, 2007

Saw an interesting film yesterday. It involved a man with an American accent who kept pretending he was Jesus. All the other people also had American accents, but they also pretended he was Jesus even though he kept getting the lines wrong, even the most famous ones. There's quite a good bit at the end where the director pretends that Jesus wasn't crucified after all but lives a long life, gets married and has babies but that bit seemed to have been ripped off from The Da Vinci Code. It also steals me and Jeffery Archer's idea about Judas being a goody. But at the end he (the director, I mean) chickens out and goes back to the real story. He (the American man whose pretending to be Jesus, I mean) keeps rolling his eyes and looking mad, like C.S Lewis said, and I kept thinking 'So when is he going to turn into the Green Goblin?'

If it comes on telly it's probably worth a look.

Make a well-known phrase out of the following words:

Davies plots T can't Russell do.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007



2: Some More of Dawkins' Greatest Mistakes

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.





I mock thee not, though I by thee am mock├Ęd;
Thou call'st me madman, but I call thee blockhead.

William Blake



Dawkins devotes several pages of his Chapter 1 to the 2005 Prophet Mohammed Danish Cartoons Controversy.
You remember the story: an editor in Denmark decided that since Islam doesn't allow anyone to publish pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, pictures of the Prophet Mohammed were obviously the exact thing that it was his duty to publish. Some Muslims decided that since the the pictures were obviously a childish attempt to provoke a violent over-reaction, the best thing for them to do would be to violently over-react. In Nigeria people were actually killed over the issue: but British Muslims limited themselves to using violent language. But the language was very violent indeed.
Quoth the great man:
Demonstrators were photographed in Britain bearing banners saying 'Slay those who insult Islam', 'Europe will pay: Demolition is on the way' and, apparently without irony 'Behead those who say that Islam is a violent religion.'
And 'The Fantastic Four Are On the Way' bizarrely enough.
This affair didn't show Islam at its best; and, if we are inclined to regard 'religion' as an homogeneous thing, it reflected pretty badly on 'religion' in general. Not that the anti-God department came out of it smelling of roses. It isn't particularly 'bright' to march through Golders Green wearing a Nazi uniform and then pretend to be surprised when people throw stones at you. But that doesn't excuse the stone-throwers.
Here is a picture of the London demonstration:



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Dawkins thinks the affair is an example of 'society's overweening respect' for religion. He quotes lots of examples of people who were incredibly rude about Islam during the controversy – Germain Greer saying that Muslims like pandemonium for the sake of pandemonium; an Independent journalist poking fun at people who claim to 'love a seventh century preacher more than their own family' and of course the actual publication of the pictures themselves. He could also have mentioned that the Sun, the Daily Mail and the fascist Daily Express could not be described as taking a consistently pro-Islamic line. Dawkins' 'overweening respect' appears to have been confined to a handful of leading articles in what he calls 'decent liberal newspapers' (i.e The Guardian and the Independent) which said that while it was naughty of the Muslims to hold up rude placards, it was also naughty of the Danes to print rude pictures in the first place. If he seriously thinks that the Guardian is overweeningly respectful to religion then he evidently didn't read their coverage of the election of Pope Benedict -- or come to that the article about the September 11th attacks written by one Richard Dawkins.
(Everyone, I guess, sees their position as the neutral one and everyone else's position as biassed. I wonder why 177 minutes of the Today programme is completely secular; you feel horribly excluded by three minutes of 'Thought for Today'. I see a sinister anti-religious bias when David Attenborough goes through a whole series without ever once saying 'On the other hand maybe God made it all'; you feel that 30 minutes of hymn singing on Sunday evening amounts to theocratic oppression.)
Dawkins also somehow forgets to mention that, far from treating the Muslim demonstrators with overweening respect, 'society' had at least one of them arrested, tried and sent to prison for the crime of 'soliciting murder'. It may even be that the masked protester at the centre-front of the picture is Abdul Muhid himself:

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Certainly, this poster was the one most frequently quoted in the press to show how blood-thirsty these dark-skinned Johnnies are, which I don't think amounts to overweening respect. I must say, I doubt whether placards of this kind should be treated as incitement to murder, any more than headlines in the fascist Daily Express which say 'String Em Up!' should be regarded as soliciting lynchings. I think that both the fascist Express and Masked Demo Man are saying 'At the next election we should vote for a party that will, first, introduce legislation to withdraw from the European Union and repeal the Human Rights Acts; secondly, introduce legislation to restore Capital Punishment in England and Wales; third, having done that, I think that the courts should issue a warrant and the police should arrest certain criminals, and that they should be given a fair trial, and, if found guilty, subject to an appeal to the House of Lords, the Home Secretary and the Queen, executed.' The only difference is whether your preferred method of spine-severing is a rope or a sword, and whether your bogey-man of choice is a blasphemer or a paedophile.
This picture was, I thought, surprisingly similar to the apparently un-ironic one seen by Richard Dawkins:

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Which in turn bore more than a passing resemblance to various cartoons which have appeared in Private Eye:

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I need to be careful here. One of Dawkins' rhetorical devices is to take some remark made by a Christian, re-phrase it as if it were a syllogism, give it a title, sneer, and walk off. For example:
ARGUMENT FROM INCOMPLETE DEVASTATION:
A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew.
But one child survived.
Therefore, God exists.

So I should probably point out that I am NOT (n-o-t) attempting to make either:
THE ARGUMENT FROM OVER-RELIANCE ON GOOGLE:
Dawkins was taken in by an obvious internet hoax.
Therefore God exists.
or
THE ARGUMENT FROM OBVIOUS BIAS:
Dawkins preaches scientific scepticism.
In fact he is prepared to believe any old rubbish if it supports his pre-conceived case.
Therefore God exists.
That Dawkins referred to an obviously Photoshopped picture as if it was the real Sylvester does NOT (n-o-t) affect his argument one way of the other. None of the following are central to Dawkins' case:
THE ARGUMENT FROM IRONY:
Some Muslims do not have a sense of irony.
Therefore, God does not exist.
THE ARGUMENT FROM JURISPRUDENCE:
Some people take different views from me about capital punishment.
Therefore God does not exist.
THE ARGUMENT FROM FEELINGS RUNNING HIGH:
People get very, very angry when you run down things which are precious to them.
The Prophet Mohammed is precious to Muslims.
When someone ran him down, they got very, very, angry.
Therefore God does not exist.
In fact, I don't think he was presenting any kind of argument at all.

That's just the problem.
Okay, it was a small slip. All of us have failed to check our references at some time or other; although not all of us have lucrative book contracts and the Richard and Judy Author of the Year Award. But on practically every page, Dawkins presents things which he seems to remember reading somewhere or other and hasn't bothered to check; or asserts that 'Christians believe such-and-such' in terms which reveal that he simply doesn't understand, and hasn't taken any trouble to research, what Christians actually do believe. There might (seriously) be a case for producing a page-by-page errata.
In the meantime, here are a handful of examples to illustrate the the way in which he conducts himself.
On page 57, Dawkins is allegedly talking about Stephen Jay Gould's theory that, er, science and religion talk about different things. This is an idea that makes Dawkins very cross indeed. Wandering off the point, he asks:
How many literalists have read enough of the Bible to know that the death penalty is proscribed for adultery, for gathering sticks on the Sabbath and for cheeking your parents?
Cheeking your parents? Dawkins is thinking of Exodus 21:17. I have three translations of the Bible in front of me, and they render the verse as follows:
And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death (Authorized Version)
Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death. (New International Version)
Whoever curses his father or his mother is to be put to death. (Good News Bible)
The word 'curse' -- the wish that evil might come upon someone -- is not synonymous with 'cheek' which merely means 'impudence' or 'discourtesy'. I've checked every translation I can find, and not one suggests 'cheek' as a possible translation. (A few prefer 'revile' or 'dishonour'.) Dawkins, or whatever internet source he is using, has replaced the stronger Biblical word with the weaker modern one. It's a small point, but it suggests that he's not really trying.
The answer to his question is 'most of them'.
In another section, Dawkins argues that, because of all the smiting, the Bible is not a good guide for morality; and that, even when it seems to be saying something nice, it is often really saying something horrible.
Before leaving the Bible I need to call attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its ethical teaching. Christians seldom realise that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. 'Love thy neighbour' didn't mean what we now thing it means. It meant only 'love another Jew'....Hartung {an anthropologist} clearly shows that 'Thou shalt not kill' was never intended to mean what we now think it means. It meant, very specifically, 'thou shalt not kill Jews'. And all those commandments that make reference to 'thy neighbour' are equally exclusive. 'Neighbour' means 'fellow Jew.'
Now, let's switch on our brains for a few minutes.
Let's accept for the sake of argument that 'Thy Neighbour' means 'Thy Fellow Israelite' and therefore 'Love thy Neighbour as Thyself' isn't an injunction to teach the world to sing in perfect harmonee. Would it not occur to any fair minded person to ask: 'If the Old Testament says I should love my fellow-Jew, how does it say I should treat foreigners?' If so, the fair minded person would look in the Torah, and discover:
Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exodus 22:21)
Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exodus 23:9)
But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Leviticus 19 v 34)
Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)
So: Dawkins should have said that the Bible teaches that you should love a fellow-Jew as much as you love yourself but on the other hand that you should treat strangers and foreigners as if they were Jews and love them as much as you love yourself.

Glad we got that one sorted out.
Dawkins goes to the Talmud (the Jewish commentary on the Scriptures) to support his 'Jews-only' theory. This is a good idea: no-one apart from fundamentalists and Dave Sim thinks that you can interpret the Bible in isolation. Of course you should ask 'What does it say?' and 'What did the people who wrote it mean it to say?' but you also have to ask 'How do the people who believe in it interpret it? How has it been used?' Dawkins correctly points out that the Tracate Sanhedrin states that if you kill a fellow-Jew when you were aiming at a foreigner you are not liable to the death penalty:
The following are innocent: one who intended to kill a beast but killed a man; or a foreigner but killed an Israelite....'
Okay. But that same document also provide a commentary on the law which Dawkins said allowed the death penalty for 'cheeky' children. It says:
He who curses his father or mother is not guilty until he curse them by the Name; if he curse them under a pseudonym Rabbi Meir would hold him guilty, but the majority innocent.
I think 'Under a pseudonym' means 'Not using the actual name of God'; most of the Rabbis think that someone who said 'Daddy, I curse you in the name of the Almighty,' was not in danger of being stoned, but someone who said 'Daddy, I curse you in the name of YHWH' was. (Is there a talmudic scholar in the house?) At any rate when the Jewish commentaries make the Bible nastier than it seems on the surface ('It says "Thou shalt not kill", but we think it's okay to kill goyim') Dawkins thinks we should pay attention to the commentaries; but when the Rabbis soften the letter of the law ('It says "all those who curse their father and mother should be executed", but we think this only means "curse them in the name of YHWH" ') Dawkins wants us to stick with -- and indeed exaggerate – the original text.

He is not arguing even-handedly.
Stay with me: I'm only just getting warmed up.
Dawkins thinks that Christian writings, as well as Jewish ones, say that you should only be nice to members of your own group and indeed, that 'Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews.' But surely everyone knows what Jesus said when someone asked for his opinion on this very subject? A Torah-expert cited 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself' and asked what he understood by the term 'neighbour'. Jesus, as usual, turned the question back on the lawyer:
Jesus answering said: 'A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
'And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
'And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
'But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, 'Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.'
'Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?'
And he said, 'He that shewed mercy on him.'
Then said Jesus unto him, 'Go, and do thou likewise.'
These are surely the most famous words ever spoken by Jesus, which is to say, the most famous words ever spoken. It's odd that Dawkins isn't familiar with them. I don't see that they leave much room for doubt.
'Define the term 'neighbour'?'
'Well, if you were in trouble and two religious Jews refused to help you but an infidel foreigner did, who would be your neighbour?'
'The foreigner, obviously.'
'Right. Off you go and do the same.'
So much for Jesus' pro-semitic in group mentality.
It gets worse.
Hartung draws attention to the two verses in Revelation where the number of those sealed (which some sects, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, interpret to mean 'saved') is limited to 144,000. Hatung's point is that they all had to be Jews; 12,000 from each tribe.
Dawkins makes all the usual jokes about the book of Revelation: no, it's not an LSD trip, it's a complicated collection of allusions to the Old Testament. He wants us to think that the bit about 144,000 'sealed' means that John thought that only Jews went to heaven. This is such a massive fib that it is worth quoting the relevant Biblical passage in full.
And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea saying, 'Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.'
And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
Of the tribe of Judah were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Asher were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Nephthalim were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb!' And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, 'Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.'
And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, 'What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?'
And I said unto him, 'Sir, thou knowest.'
And he said to me, 'These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. hey shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.'
Revelation is a notoriously ambiguous book, but this is surely one of its more straightforward passages. John sees two groups of people in heaven; a small group consisting of descendents of Joseph and his brothers; a large group consisting of people from ever country under the sun. The smaller group are explicitly the Jews; the larger, inclusive, group fairly obviously represent Christians. (Jesus is 'the Lamb of God'; to 'wash your robes in the blood of the lamb' means 'to be cleaned from sin because of the death of Jesus.') Doubtless there are different ways of interpreting this: 'There will be both Christians and Jews in heaven'; 'Jewish converts should be regarded as Top Christians'; 'If you perfectly fulfilled the Law, then you will go to heaven; the rest of us need to be forgiven'. Jehovah's Witnesses do indeed have their own, esoteric reading of the passage. They think the small crowd represents an elite of Witnesses who chose to take Holy Communion and therefore have a shot at being in the Heavenly Government; the big crowd represents the ordinary J.W who didn't knock on enough doors and will therefore have to content himself with living-forever-in-a-paradise-on-earth. But even this allegorical reading depends on their being two groups: the 'sealed' and everybody else. Dawkins has quoted verses 4-8 but ignored verses 9-17 in order to make it look as if St John thought only Jews went to heaven.
By the way, I don't know where he gets 'two verses' from: I make it five.
Granted, Dawkins is following Hartung in all this, but once again he has conspicuously failed to check, or even bother to think about, the facts and has therefore made statements which are obviously, self-evidently, non-controversially untrue.

Which makes this reader, at any rate, very doubtful about the rest of the book. If he quotes such misleading evidence when he is discussing things I know a little bit about, how far can I trust Dawkins when he is talking about specialist subjects of which I am entirely ignorant? Indeed, how confident can I be about the whole concept of scientific objectivity? Can I be sure that Dawkins' confident assertions about evolution by natural selection are not based on an equally biassed approach to the evidence?



Other examples of Dawkins' technique

Sense of proportion
"Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic Priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up catholic in the first place."

"The status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago."
Tasteful Comparisons
"Another prominent luminary of what we might call the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists...."
"Our eyes see the world through a narrow slit in the electromagnetic spectrum... Quite how narrow is hard to appreciate and a challenge to convey. Imagine a gigantic black burka..."
Subtle analysis of complex problems
"Yes, yes of course the troubles in Northern Ireland are political....except that–and this is important and widely overlooked–and this is important and widely overlooked–without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge."







Friday, April 20, 2007

1: Where Dawkins Went Wrong

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.





Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy



I was sent a copy of Richard Dawkins amusing book, The God Delusion, by an anonymous donor (Steve Watson), so I feel I should at least try to review it.
This isn't easy. I got as far as page 36 before chucking it across the room in disgust. I was in the Boston Tea Party on Park Street. I warned the other customers to get out of my line of fire first.
It was a trivial thing. Dawkins was talking about Polytheism–the belief that there is more than one god. He admits that he won't have much to say about it.
Most of my readers will have been reared in one or another of the three 'great' monotheistic religions (four if you count Mormonism)...
What?
I mean, seriously, what?
Where did that remark come from?
Mormonism, as anyone can easily find out, is one of a number of Christian sects which came into being in the USA in the nineteenth century. It differs from mainstream Christianity on certain technical points which Dawkins would at least pretend not to understand. So why write 'four if you count Mormonism'? Why not 'five if you count Mormonism and Christian Science'. Or 'ten if you include Mormonism, Christian Science, Christedelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Reformed Judaism, Shi'ite Islam, Strict Baptists, Celtic Orthodox, Unitarians and Quakers?' Does Dawkins think that the Mormons' adoptionist Christology is so far removed from the mainstream as to constitute a separate faith (while the Jehovah's Witnesses arianism is not?) Or is he playing a numbers game–saying that the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints is so numerous as to count as a religion in its own right, distinct from 'Christianity'. (But then, why not 'Four if you include Catholicism'?)
We never find out. Like Melchizidec. it comes from nowhere and it goes nowhere. It popped into Dawkins head and he wrote it down. It makes me doubt whether our author is fully in command of his brief.
Four if you include Mormons. Honestly, you might just as well say 'Britain consists of three countries: England, Scotland and Wales–or four if you include Tooting Bec.'
A trivial point, as I say. But once I had retrieved the book–the people on the next table were quite polite, considering–I found that nearly all the non-scientific sections were driven by the same kind of non-sequitur.
Look at the bit called 'Religious Education as a Part of Literary Culture.' Dawkins concedes that we should teach children about the Bible because of its literary importance. (As we'll see, he's deeply conflicted about the whole concept of religious art.) He demonstrates the importance of the Bible by listing 200 well-known phrases that originate in the Authorized Version. He adds:
Doubtless the equivalent is true of French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and other great European literatures. And, for speakers of Arabic and Indian languages, knowledge of Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita is presumably just as essential for full appreciation of their literary heritage. Finally, to round off the list, you can't appreciate Wagner (whose music, as has been wittily said, is better than it sounds) without knowing your way around the Norse Gods. Let me not labour the point...'
Again, what? Where does the Wagner remark come from?
The analogy doesn't stand up for one minute. The problem with being ignorant of the Bible is that it is assumed in our culture: it leaps out at you without warning in places where you aren't expecting it. In Shakespeare's Othello Iago says 'My lord, you know I love you'. If you know John's gospel this remark strikes you as ironic, even blasphemous: if you don't, it doesn't. The Ring doesn't assume the Prose Edda in any remotely comparable way. You might as well say 'You can't appreciate Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat without knowing your way around Genesis.'
What really interests me is the parenthesis. Where has the little snipe at Wagner's music come from? It isn't relevant and anyway, if you can google for a list of 200 Bible quotes you can google and find out that the remark wasn't made by 'someone witty' but by Mark Twain. But Dawkins can never resist the irrelevant sneer, the put-down, the look-how-clever-we-are remark. He puts in a completely irrelevant reference to post-structuralism purely so he can write it off as 'haute francophonyism'. Ho-ho. The Bible has made him think of the Koran; which has made him think of the Gita, which has reminded that in his chapter on Polytheism he compared the Hindu Gods with the Norse Gods, which has made him think of Wagner, which has called to mind the Mark Twain quote and he has bunged it all down. He's not even pretending to present a sequential train of thought.
Or look at Chapter III, 'The Argument From Scripture'. People have certainly tried to use the Bible to try and prove the existence of God; so of course Dawkins should try to demonstrate why he thinks those kinds of proofs don't work. Instead, he quotes the bloody trilemma from C.S Lewis and Josh McDowell (1). He rejects this argument, not—astonishingly–because it is logically invalid, but because he thinks that Jesus never actually claimed to be the Son of God. This triggers a two-page digression about inconsistencies in Matthew and Luke's accounts of the Nativity story (and also in the the vital matter of Jesus' genealogy) which suddenly veers off at 90 degrees to talk about the formation of the canon, climaxing with this jaw-droppingly childish remark:
The four Gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, our of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Phillip, Bathelomew and Mary Magdelen.
Think before you write, Professor Dawkins; think before you write. If the choice had been arbitrary then is it at all likely that all the Pauline,Trinitarian works would have been included in the canon and all the Gnostic and Ebionite works left out? Are you seriously saying that any council or church or community ever believed that late works like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas had equal status with Matthew or John? Are you aware that not one of the six works you cite is a Gospel in the sense of being a narrative account of the life, death, supposed resurrection and teaching of Jesus? (The 'gospel' of 'Mary', for example, is a brief dialogue in which 'Mary' reveals that 'Jesus' gave her secret gnostic teachings.) That word, 'arbitrary': I do not think it means what you think it means.
The reference to the Thomas 'gospel' triggers off a rather breathless footnote in which Dawkins tells us that A.N Wilson thinks that the Aramaic word naggar may not actually mean 'carpenter' but 'wise man' and by the way when the Bible says 'a virgin shall conceive ' the word virgin might really mean 'young woman' and did you know that when the Koran refers to '72 virgins' it might really mean '72 raisins' so aren't Christians silly?
(Not that it makes any difference, but the 'gospel' of 'Thomas' is a piece of pious fan-fiction imagining the childhood of Jesus. It says specifically 'Now Joseph was a builder and wrought ploughs and yokes for oxen.' How can you possibly say that Thomas had just as much right to have been one of the four Gospels as Matthew or Luke and at the same time say that we only think of Joseph as a carpenter because of a mistranslation?)
Dawkins goes on to explain how the four Gospels came to be written:
Much of what the four canonical gospels share is derived from a common source, either Mark's gospel or a lost work of which Mark is the earliest extant descendent.
I think you'd probably have to look quite hard to find a commentator who believes that John had a Marcan source. (I also like the idea that Mark may be derived from Mark, but that's probably just a proof reading error.) If you are going to make the whole difficult and controversial question about the origins of the Gospels–all those Qs and Jesus Traditions and Proto-Marks–part of your argument, I think you should probably spend more than 27 words on it.
Pausing briefly to wonder if Jesus even existed and deciding he probably did, Dawkins offers this school-boyish conclusion:
The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the Gospels is that the Gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.
The only difference?
1: Dan Brown's book is a thriller intended to entertain people. The Gospels are religious texts intended to win converts or to edify and instruct people who had already been converted.
2: The Gospellers were writing about events which they thought had happened, say, 50 years in the past. They were presumably working from earlier documents and those earlier documents may have had even earlier oral sources. Dan Brown is weaving a fictional work around 2,000 year old texts which carry a huge weight of commentary and cultural baggage.
3: The evangelists are telling a story; or perhaps commenting on and interpreting a story by re-telling it. Dan Brown is creating a meta-fiction about the origins of those ancient stories.
Aren't these differences?
And that's 'the argument from Scripture' dealt with: few random and not very well informed comments on why Dawkins can't be doing with the New Testament. We've heard very little about where the Lewis / McDowell argument breaks down and nothing at all about any of the other ways in which some Christians claim that the Bible proves that there is a God.
This you call 'argument'?
It is very, very hard to know where to begin in reviewing or responding to the book. It doesn't contain anything which I can recognise as a point of view or train of thought: it just fires off a random series of nasty remarks about Christianity and anything else which happens to come into the authors line of fire. I felt that I had spent the afternoon sipping latte in the company of one of those terribly sophisticated sixth-formers who is planning to leave home while he still knows everything. 'Then there's Wagner, but chaps like us know he's awful; and of course, there's modern French philosophy, but chaps like us know that's rubbish; then there's Descartes, but chaps like us are much too clever to read him.' Or perhaps, with a very, very clever but mildly autistic child, who spouts out an endless stream of non-linear free association. 'There's a big red truck. We had baked beans for tea. That makes me think of Hindus. Catholics are silly, aren't they? That makes me think of Vikings. We don't like Wagner, do we? Or Muslims. Or Jews. Or Post-Structuralists.'
However:






Note
(1) The Trilemma: 'Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. If Jesus was not the Son of God, then either he was lying, or else he was insane. Everything we know about Jesus makes it impossible to think that he was either mad or a liar; therefore, he must have been telling the truth.'

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sunday, April 08, 2007

It was Friday; it was Friday and my Jesus was dead on the tree. But that was Friday, and Sunday's comin'!....

It was Friday and Mary was cryin' her eys out. The disciples were runnin' in every direction, like sheep without a shepherd. But that was Friday, and Sunday's comin'!...

The cynics were lookin' at the world and sayin' 'As things have been so shall they be. You can't change anything.' But those cynics didn't know that it was only Friday. Sunday's comin'! ...

It was Friday, and on Friday Pilate thought he had washed his hands of a lot of trouble. The Pharisees were struttin' around, laughin' and pokin; each other in the ribs. they thought they were back in charge of things, but they didn't know that it only Friday! Sunday's comin'!

Tony Campolo