Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dawkins: cowardice or ignorance

In today's Daily Telegraph Tim Stanley castigates Richard Dawkins for refusing to debate with William Lane Craig over the existance of God. Dawkins has a post at Oxford which obliges him to defend Science against "religion", but he has chickened out of facing William Lane Craig.

Dawkins has been doing a little internet trolling. He has dug up an online debate in which William Lane Craig apparently defends the massacre of a city of heathen Canaanites ordered by God in Deuteronomy 20:13-15. “Listen to Craig,” Dawkins writes, as if imagining Craig were a demon sitting on his shoulder. “He begins by arguing that the Canaanites were debauched and sinful and therefore deserved to be slaughtered. He then notices the plight of the Canaanite children [and concludes] … ‘We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.’” Dawkins writes that he is so disgusted with Craig's thesis that he cannot possibly agree to meet him in person. “Do not plead that I have taken these revolting words out of context," he adds. "What context could possibly justify them?”
Actually, the context is called “Christian apologetics”, and it’s been around for centuries. It's the attempt by scholars to present a rational basis for belief in God. Part of that process is running difficult bits of the Bible past the tests of reason and ethics. To return to the entire post that Dawkins quotes from (because, contrary to what he wrote, context does matter to a serious thinker), Craig begins thus: “These stories offend our moral sensibilities. Ironically, however, our moral sensibilities in the West have been largely, and for many people unconsciously, shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us the intrinsic value of human beings, the importance of dealing justly rather than capriciously, and the necessity of the punishment’s fitting the crime. The Bible itself inculcates the values which these stories seem to violate.”

Ergo, Craig’s purpose in writing this piece is to unravel the paradox of a moral Bible that also includes lashings of apparently random violence. Craig stresses that these passages of the Bible are difficult for us to read because we are not of the age in which they are written – they are just as alien to us as Beowulf or the Iliad. That’s because Christian society has been shaped by the rules of life outlined in the New Testament, not in the section of The Bible in which this massacre occurs. Far from using this passage to celebrate the slaughter of heathen, Craig is making the point that the revelation of God’s justice has changed over time. The horrors of the Old Testament have been rendered unnecessary by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. That’s why the idiots who protest the funerals of gay soldiers or blow up abortion clinics aren’t just cruel, they’re bad theologians.

We are left with two possible conclusions from Richard Dawkin’s flimsy sick note. The first is that he doesn’t understand Christian apologetics, which is why he unintentionally misrepresents Craig’s piece. The most frustrating thing about the New Atheism is that it rarely debates theology on theology's own terms. It approaches metaphor and mysticism as if they were statements of fact to be tested in the laboratory. Worse still, it takes the crudest equations of faith (total submission to an angry sky god) and assumes that they apply to all its believers at all times equally. That most Christians living in the 21st century don’t know who the Canaanites were and only go to church because it brings them an intangible inner peace, totally escapes these atheist pedants.

The second explanation is that Dawkins is a coward. He likes to pick fights either with dunces (like the deliciously silly and obviously gay Ted Haggard) or with incredibly nice old Christians with no fire in their belly (like Rowan Williams). Dawkins has gotten away with his illiterate, angry schtick for so many years because his opponents have been so woolly. This is a damning indictment not only of him, but of the clerical establishment of Great Britain. But this time, he understood that he was up against a pro. In America, evangelicals have to compete in a vibrant, competitive marketplace of different denominations. That breeds the very guile and theatricality that are so sorely lacking among the Anglican clergy. In Craig, Dawkins met his match. Like Jonah, he was confronted by the truth and he ran away.


Burke said...

If one wants to debate the existence of God, he must first decide what God is. If God is the creator of "everything," then his existence is impossible because he would have to be a non-existent cause as he is part of that "everything."

If one decides that God just was and created everything else, he needs to adduce sufficient evidence. Otherwise, he is just another mystic.

The fact is that religion is based on faith. It's belief for the sake of belief, like the bumper sticker we used to see over here so much that stated: "God said it, I believe it, and that's all there is to it."

As for me, I like to ask Christians how they know their faith is superior to that of, say, the 9-11 hijackers. When they start giving rational answers, I ask what they need religion for if reason is their final authority.

Dawkins and others who take a scientific approach and "debate" religionists are making a mistake. Science is founded on reason, and religion IS the rejection of reason for some dogma.

Ultimately, all religious arguments become just attacks on reason-claims that since "we can't really know anything" by reason that their faith is as good as our eyes and other senses.

Then there are those like Dr. Hamblin who think their religious beliefs can be reconciled with reason . . .

Aquinas tried that approach about 800 years ago. It didn't work for him either.

Manu Manickvel said...

As the mysteries of creation that led to the existence of life on this planet - starting with the big-bang @14 billion yrs ago & the inception of our solar system and le Soleil 4.7 billion yrs ago - are gradually uncovered by science, one has to be quite 'duh' to keep insisting on believing that its really just a long string of co-incidences(too many to list here even in my limited ken)which is why many thinking scientists (there are in today's world many who do not have an open mind such as a true scientist has)are 'believers'...our science is still in it's infancy & who knows how much Man will end up learning? Meanwhile, i for one have decided it is futile to even try to open athiests' (and some so-called agnostics') eyes to the wonders of it all...

Manu Manickvel said...

Nowadays atheists seem to be doing a lot more 'proselytising' than anyone else!

Manu Manickvel said...

i read Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene' in 1984 or so & did not find as much credo as i found in Erich Von Daniken's writings (Chariots of the Gods, etc...he postulates God was an Alien from an older, superior intelligence from outer space).

Manu Manickvel said...

Oh what fools we mortals be!

BelfastChild said...

Quite a good response to this one, Terry.

I think Burke makes some interesting points, but (s)he misses the real point which is that Christianity is not trying to reconcile itself with reason. It is completely beyond reason.

What possible reason is there for an immortal, omnipotent God to come to this planet to die for me? The only answer is that He loves me despite everything. This is what the Bible is about. It is God's story of his love for me and you, and how he reconciles me and my sin with his justice and love. Amazing, isn't it? Far superior to the god of 9-11.

Perhaps the scientists and atheists and terrorists are trying to reconcile their beliefs with religion. That might be possible for some religions, but they can't reconcile themselves with Christ through reason.

Steven Carr said...

I believe Craig is now claiming that no children would have been killed if they had toddled away really quickly from the soldiers sent to kill them.

I bet a 2 year old can toddle real fast, if he knows Yahweh has sent soldiers to kill him if he does not flee.

Here is Craig , channeling Osama bin Laden, claiming that murder is morally obligatory if his god commands it, and it is not even murder then.


Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder.

The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.


Craig’s views are now being picked up by some Muslims.

“In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of the jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you may not’”


How does Craig’s claim that murder is morally obligatory if his god commands it differ from a jihadist claim that fighting is obligatory if his god commands it?

Terry Hamblin said...

Dangerous to get into retrospective morality. Where was the praise for Mrs Thatcher for rescuing those poor men from the coal mines?

BelfastChild said...

I think the real meanings of these "difficult" Old Testament texts are spiritual rather than historical. The underlying theme in the history of Israel was to separate themselves morally and spiritually from those around them. Most of Leviticus - that most tricky of books with some very obscure rules that seem pointless. But they are only pointless when taken literally - why demolish houses with a touch of mildew? The parable is that the mildew is a symbol of the evil or immorality that can so easily inculcate its way into our lives and our churches and which needs to be rooted out from both our private and shared lives.

God is holy and he commands his followers to be holy. But he is also love and he commands his followers to love. There is little room for either moral or spiritual complacency here, but there is no real Christianity without this love.

Terry Hamblin said...

The point about Saul failing to slay the Amlekite King Agag was one of obedience. Who knows, had Saul been obedient God might have found a way for the salvation of the Amalekites, just as he found a way of safety for Isaac and finds a way of salvation for you and me.