Dawkins and theology

One of the biggest whines I hear from theists about The God Delusion is that Richard Dawkins just doesn’t know enough about all that wonderful theology. Why, if only he knew more! Maybe then he would totally be a Christian.

But I’m wondering. What would that knowledge actually change? Aside from making Dawkins a great Jeopardy! player, it’s obvious the whiny little Christians really don’t have an answer. After all, just think about it. Has anyone even bothered to give a single example where having a deep theological background would have changed a single bit of The God Delusion?

The truth is, theology is nothing more than literary criticism with a narrow focus. What’s more – and here’s the kicker – Christian theology assumes God. Why in the hell would Dawkins ever defer to theologians? Using theology to prove God is classic question begging and has no place in a serious debate about the existence of God. I hardly believe anyone who says any different is even really interested in these sort of discussions.

It bears repeating

Agnostic? Then you shouldn’t have children.

An Indiana judge has issued a ruling stripping a father of joint custody of his three children. One of the reasons cited by the judge was the lack of religion of the father.

[Judge] Pancol’s order says [Craig] Scarberry “did not participate in the same religious training that the (mother) exercised and that (Scarberry) was agnostic.” Scarberry has until Dec. 1 to appeal the ruling, which has reduced his custody to visitation with his children four hours per week and on alternating weekends.

Watch this short news report.

Of course, there’s certainly more to the story, but all that’s out there right now is that Scarberry’s lack of Christianity is a contributing factor in why he is not allowed to retain joint custody of his children. There is no evidence of neglect or abuse, nor any accusations of any sort of thing.

The main issue for the ruling (and then affirming) judge is this:

The order severing joint custody was issued by Pancol on Nov. 1 and affirmed by Newman on Nov. 8. It said that when Scarberry had been a Christian, “the parties were able to communicate relatively effectively.”

So why give benefit to the mother? Both parents were given joint custody; that communication is difficult due to religious differences does not mean the Christian therefore wins the legal battle. There is no reason to presume the Christian is better – in any way – than the agnostic. Besides, the ruling is blatantly unconstitutional.

A secondary issue in all this is the right of the father to have a fair hearing in these cases. In the past, the father was considered the bread winner and there were financial and practical reasons for granting more rights to the mother. Except we aren’t living in a dysfunctional episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show anymore. For that reason, Scarberry has this planned:

A Navy veteran and health-care worker, Scarberry has obtained a permit for a demonstration in support of fathers’ rights for Dec. 16 at the Madison County Courthouse.

Scarberry, of course, will also be addressing his (non)religious liberty, or lack thereof. His case is a good one and his fight is for all the right reasons. I’m just worried about all the inherent and undeserved respect religion is getting in all this.

“I wasn’t interfering in their right to be brought up in a Christian environment,” [Scarberry] said, noting that the children still attend Christian school and church services as they have done in the four years that he has had joint custody.

It’s bad enough that both the ruling and affirming judges are letting their personal and cultural biases seep into the court room, but Scarberry doesn’t need to do it too. Or maybe he does. After all, the man is fighting for his children; what it takes, it takes. But ideally, he should not need to let undue respect squeeze its way in: children don’t have a “right” to be brought up in a particular religious environment. That sort of right goes to the parent. There is no such thing as a Christian (or Muslim or Jewish or…) child, much less one that wants to exercise its right to be brought up in a particular religion. Saying otherwise is like saying there are Democratic and Republican children. There aren’t. And to compound the whole mess, Scarberry cites the attendance of a Christian school and church services by his children. Again, the man is fighting for the children, so he has no higher concern, but the indoctrination of his children should not be looked upon as a good thing.

Maybe if the judges just read the first and final chapter of The God Delusion, they would get it.

The greater enemy

From The God Delusion:

“[The nature of the conflict] is not just about evolution versus creationism. To scientists like Dawkins and Wilson, the real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition. Creationism is just a symptom of what they see as the greater enemy: religion. While religion can exist without creationism, creationism cannot exist without religion.” ~Jerry Coyne

For the sake of language

He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this.

~Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

It was a good lunch

Watson retorted: ‘Well I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, “Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.” But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.’ We did have a good lunch, too.

~The God Delusion

I actually had a very good lunch today with a friend and her adorable one year old. I didn’t exactly have it in mind that we’re just products of evolution while I ate, but I did have in mind that there’s a lot to be had in life that keeps it from being bleak. This was one of those many moments. (I even managed to find a sandwich I liked from Panera Bread.)

This friend, otherwise known as Gorgeous Green Mama, lives near a road that was used in the 70’s and 80’s as a way to an unofficial dump for residents of the city. What can be degraded has degraded, but what’s there to stay is obviously still there. Included in that is a lot of glass that would be a shame to let go to waste. As such, GGM, has turned an ugly negative into some beautiful and excellent art. Specifically, she has taken to making jewelry out of pieces of glass (among other things). Exactly what she was going to make for me was a bit of a surprise, but I couldn’t be happier. I got mine today, and I actually rather like it quite a bit.

As I’ve done in the past, I like to throw out a little free advertising for things I like. And since Gorgeous Green Mama has her own Etsy store, I recommend everyone give it a looksie-loo. The stuff isn’t expensive, it’s pretty good quality, and, really, who doesn’t want to support a young family with a wonderful one year old? So if you don’t hate daddies and mommies and babies, go buy a necklace. Or six.

The reasonableness of absolute uncertainty

One of the complaints raised over a recent post came from my presumption that the phrase “There’s probably no God” is one way to describe atheistic thought. I’ve expanded on that idea in the past, so I didn’t feel it necessary to discuss it in my recent post (plus it was besides the point I happened to be making). But more than that, the notion seems so simple.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins actually spends more time than should be necessary on the point of how to define atheism. He creates a 7 point scale where a “1” is an absolute believer, someone with no doubt in the existence of God, and a “7” is the polar opposite, an absolutely certain atheist. In the middle are varying levels of belief or disbelief. Dawkins places himself as a “6”, describing himself as nearly certain there are no gods, but allowing for the possibility, however slim it may be. This is how a huge swath of atheists also describe themselves. (It’s at the root of some of the messages being put out on the bus campaigns, in fact.)

The complaint to this is the belief that atheism means absolute certainty. What requires this? The word means “without theism”. That does not imply certainty of what is true, but rather a degree of certainty of what is not true. In modern connotations, the term includes a rejection of deism and usually anything supernatural. But how does this rise to become certainty?

Many people, for whatever reason, insist that any lack of certainty thus equals agnosticism. There are two issues with this. First, no, it doesn’t. Atheism, again, does not require certainty. Second, the only way one can arrive at this conclusion is to use the modern connotations of atheism. The problem comes when the connotations of agnosticism are then ignored, ever so conveniently. That is, the fact that atheism is usually taken to mean a complete rejection of all things supernatural is employed, but then the fact that agnosticism is usually taken to mean a 50/50 uncertainty is ignored. This is why Dawkins needed his scale. Few people are right in the middle (“4”). Most of us lean one way or the other. In fact, I hope a majority of people do not categorize themselves as “1”, pretending as if they’re absolutely certain of their God’s existence. We should all have doubt; the lack of it is a mark of fundamentalism.

In essence, the argument that atheism is absolute certainty is a blatantly dishonest one. If the term means absolute certainty, then it cannot be ignored that agnosticism usually means a perfect middle ground. It is bad form to ground an argument in cherry-picked connotations; in this case, demanding a self-proclaimed atheist call himself “agnostic” due to a lack of 100% certainty is weak because the common notion of a 50/50 split for agnostics is being ignored – clearly the self-proclaimed atheist is not 50/50 on the existence of gods. This would be like demanding that anyone who says unicorns are possible must also believe the mythical beasts have a 50/50 shot of existing. Of course unicorns are possible – and everyone should acknowledge that fact – but they are exceedingly unlikely. And more importantly, there is not a shred of evidence for their existence. This does not make anyone agnostic towards unicorns except in the strictest, most semantic, most useless sense.

The Argument From Scripture

This is part of a section from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It can be found in chapter 3, “Arguments For God’s Existence”, under the section titled “The Argument From Scripture”. I have retyped this myself, so any typos are probably mine (except for “fulfil” – that’s apparently how the British spell it). The only part where I interject is with the asterisk.

There are still some people who are persuaded by scriptural evidence to believe in God. A common argument, attributed among others to C.S. Lewis (who should have known better), states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane or a liar: ‘Mad, Bad or God’. Or, with artless alliteration, ‘Lunatic, Liar or Lord’. The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal. But even if that evidence were good, the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistake. Plenty of people are. In any case, as I said, there is no good historical evidence that he ever thought he was divine.

The fact that something is written down is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like: ‘Who wrote it, and when?’ ‘How did they know what to write?’ ‘Did they, in their time, really mean what we, in our time, understand them to be saying?’ ‘Were they unbiased observers, or did they have an agenda that coloured their writing?’ Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life. All were then copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese Whispers generations’ (see Chapter 5*) by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.

A good example of the colouring by religious agendas is the whole heart-warming legend of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, followed by Herod’s massacre of the innocents. When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus’ death, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5: 2) had led Jews to expect that the long-awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the light of this prophecy, John’s gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: ‘Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?’

Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem after all. Buy they get him there by different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus, on their return from Egypt where they fled from King Herod and the massacre of the innocents. Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem at the crucial moment, in order to fulfil the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go ‘to his own city’. Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ and therefore he had to go to ‘the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’. That must have seemed like a good solution. Except that historically it is complete nonsense, as A. N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorized Version (among others) have pointed out. David, if he existed, lived nearly a thousand years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier? It is as though I were required to specific, say, Ashby-de-la-Zouch as my home town on a census form, if it happened that I could trace my ancestry back to the Seigneur de Dakeyne, who came over with William the Conqueror and settled there.

Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole – but it happened too late: in AD 6, long after Herod’s death. Lane Fox concludes that ‘Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent’, but he sympathizes with Luke’s plight and his desire to fulful the prophecy of Micah.

*This was referenced earlier in the book. Chinese Whispers is what the British call Telephone, the game where one person whispers something to someone, then that person whispers to the next, and so on. At the end of the line, the last person repeats what he heard. Usually, what he heard was much different from what was originally said.

The sad state of science

At least it’s sad among the public. There’s a new survey in Britain that confirms this.

In the survey, 51 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement that “evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages”

A further 40 per cent disagreed, while the rest said they did not know.

The suggestion that a designer’s input is needed reflects the “intelligent design” theory, promoted by American creationists as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

Asked whether it was true that “God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years”, 32 per cent agreed, 60 per cent disagreed and eight per cent did not know.

A third of people in Britain believe the world began sometime around the agricultural revolution. That’s inanity. These people do not believe with any reason, but with stupid, stubborn, ill-formed faith. The worst part is that some of the same numbers are reflected in the teacher population.

Interestingly, this article takes on the subject a little more directly. Rather than simply remain topical and report on the survey plus a few recent events, it ventures into some of the points in the creationism-evolution debate.

Paul Woolley, the director of Theos said: “Darwin is being used by certain atheists today to promote their cause.

“The result is that, given the false choice of evolution or God, people are rejecting evolution.”

There is a tad bit of truth in what Woolley is saying, but not in his primary message. The choice is clear: either the world needs a designer or it does not. The answer is that it does not. Of course, that does not mean God does not exist. He very well may. That, unfortunately for theists, does mean God is a superfluous idea, whether he be a personal god or simply a deity.

Where Woolley gets it right is that people do perceive this choice and thus reject evolution. These people are known as “dumb”.

Prof Dawkins expressed dismay at the findings of the ComRes survey, of 2,060 adults, which he claimed were confirmation that much of the population is “pig-ignorant” about science.

“Obviously life, which was Darwin’s own subject, is not the result of chance,” he said.

“Any fool can see that. Natural selection is the very antithesis of chance.

“The error is to think that God is the only alternative to chance, and Darwin surely didn’t think that because he himself discovered the most important non-theistic alternative to chance, namely natural selection.”

Methinks the journalist is rather familiar with the issue and knew what questions to ask Dawkins. I almost want to say he simply quoted Dawkins from some writings not directly related to this article, but that would be irresponsible of me. At any rate, it sounds like we have some attempt at a tad bit of science education going on here. Natural selection is not chance. We don’t need to know that for the purposes of the article, but it is good to know, none-the-less.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, accused Dawkins of evolving into a “very simple kind of thinker”.

He said: “His argument for atheism goes like this: either God is the explanation for the wide diversity of biological life, or evolution is. We know that evolution is true. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

“I’m an evangelical Christian, but I have no difficulties in believing that evolution is the best scientific account we have for the diversity of life on our planet.”

That’s a honker of a strawman. Dawkins argument is closer to this: God is necessarily complex. Complex things do not come about by chance. Either God came about by chance or he is the product of natural principles. If the answer is chance, then we’re just proposing the question we sought to answer. That is, we want to know how all this complexity (the Universe and all it entails) came to be. It cannot be random chance. By postulating God, we’re postulating something more complex. If the Universe cannot be chance, God cannot be chance. If the answer is natural principles, then he isn’t much of a God, is he?

Of course, there is another option: God is beyond Nature and thus neither chance nor the product of anything. At this point we’ve ventured into la-la land. This is blind guessing with no basis, no evidence. It may be true, but we have no reason to be postulating it, much less any reason to think it remotely reasonable. If God is beyond Nature, not only can we not study him, we cannot experience anything related to him. If we can experience him, then he is within Nature and thus we are able to study him. Of course, there is nothing in Nature which shows a link to some exo-Universe being, so let’s move on and discuss things that make sense.