Some theists are not far from the Republic of Heaven, it seems. Even now, I have hopes that they may turn to rationality.
First, there’s Terry Eagleton, who said in an interview in New Humanist that “If Dawkins has emancipated people, freed them from the religious closet as it were, then all credit to him. Loath as I might be to compare Dawkins to Jesus Christ, in this he resembles the heroic figure in the New Testament who comes to sweep away all the fetishism and sickness and cynicism of the neurotic religionists.”
Secondly, Richard Morgan (a Christian re-convert who was formerly a regular over at Dawkins’s site) has suggested that New Atheism may all be part of God’s plan. I have encouraged Richard to return to Dawkins in this thread. I said:
I wonder just how many de-converts who return to Christianity were ever really atheists at all. I mean, they may have looked like atheists, but were they proper atheists, like I myself am? How could they have been? Remember, posting on the Dawkins site doesn’t make you an atheist any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.
It is clear to me that these people never really had a personal relationship with Dawkins (by which I mean they read his books and sort of felt they must be true: obviously one should not be atheologically naive enough to expect any sort of clear two-way communication in a personal relationship. I did once email him, and I have every confidence he read it, plus I once got a comment on my blog and an email from Jerry Coyne, which is practically as good, surely?)
Speaking of atheological naivete, these people’s ignorance of atheism is shocking: they formerly believed in a caricatured Dawkins who advocated biological determinism and “scientism”; and they departed from orthodoxy in their concentration on Dawkins to the exclusion of the other Three Persons of the Horsemen. Doubtless some of this reflects the parlous state of teaching in atheist communities other than the ones I’m in, but I think these people have some responsibility to educate themselves. Had they even read more sophisticated atheological works? Are they familiar with Dennett on belief, Hume on miracles and on design, or Loftus on “the outsider test”? Surely not.
Richard, even now it is not too late for you. Just screw up your face and try harder, dammit.
If you’ve been moved by what you’ve heard here, there’ll be someone waiting in the comments section at the end to engage in rational debate with you. Thanks.
Stuff I found on the web, probably on andrewducker‘s del.icio.us feed or something.
Psychology Today on ex-Christian ex-ministers and on magical thinking
Psychology Today has a couple of interesting articles, one on ministers who lose their faith, and another on magical thinking. Quoteable quote:
“We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever,” says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. “You’re trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You’re trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That’s hard work.” In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, “growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world.”
That sounds sort of familiar. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ex-fundamentalist, but I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure to keep baling.
The stuff about moral contagion in the magical thinking article reminded me of Haggai 2:10-14, where it’s clear that cleanness (in the Bible’s sense of moral and ceremonial acceptability, rather then lack of dirt) is less contagious than uncleanness. There’s possibly a link here to the tendency of some religions to sharply divide the world into non-believers and believers, and to be careful about how much you expose yourself to the non-believing world (q.v. the unequally yoked teaching you get in the more extreme variants of a lot of religions).
Old interview with Philip Pullman
Third Way interviewed Pullman years ago. It’s the origin of one of his statements on whether he’s an agnostic or an atheist, which I rather like:<lj-cut text=”The quote”>
Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.
The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.
But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.
So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.
This isn’t really a surprising statement, but, like Ruth Gledhill’s discovery that Richard Dawkins is a liberal Anglican, some people seem surprised that atheists aren’t ruling out things which some people would regard as gods. The point is that there’s no decent evidence that anyone has met one. Deism is a respectable position, I think (although I’m not sure why you’d bother with it), but religions which claim God has spoken to them are implausible because of God’s inability to keep his story straight.
The walls have Google
The thing about blogging is that you never know who’s reading. Someone called Voyou makes a post ending with an aside which is critical of A.C. Grayling’s response to Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion. Grayling turns up in the comments to argue with them.
(I keep turning up more conversations about the Eagleton review: see my bookmarks for the best of them).
“Compact of hypocrisy and secret vice”
Yellow wonders whether or not he should sign the UCCF doctrinal basis in this post and the followup. Signs point to “not”. Si Hollett reminds me of myself in my foolish youth.
The Rev Steve Midgley, who I remember from my days at The Square Church, has been featured on the Dawkins site. The sermon he gave on Professor Dawkins’s views is about a year old now, but I suppose that a posting on the Dawkins blog might generate some more interest in it. You can find MP3s of it on his church’s site (the church is the Cambridge “plant” from St Andrew the Great which I think nlj21 attends).
Rev Midgley comes across as a thoughtful and careful preacher, eager to ensure he has presented Dawkins’s views fairly.
Midgley speaks about Professor Alister McGrath’s responses to Dawkins. I’ve not read McGrath’s books, but I’ve heard his discussion with Dawkins at the Oxford Literary Festival, and also seen him and Dawkins talking at length in out-takes from Root of All Evil?, Dawkins’s Channel 4 opinion piece from last year. I didn’t find McGrath particularly impressive in either case, mostly because of his irksome habit of telling Dawkins he’d made an interesting point and then answering something other than Dawkins’s question (now I think of it, in Yes, Prime Minister, I think that’s one of Jim Hacker’s tips to Sir Humphrey for dealing with the press). For someone who’s been associated with the infamously evangelical Wycliffe Hall theological college, McGrath seems oddly evasive on some fundamental, if unpalatable, bits of evangelical doctrine, like the Virgin Birth, penal substitutionary atonement, and the sovereignty of God even in natural disasters. I’d be interested to hear what any of you who’ve read McGrath’s books thought of them.
Midgley quotes Terry Eagleton’s LRB article to illustrate that reviewers have criticised Dawkins’s lack of theological knowledge. I think I’d be more receptive to those sort of arguments if someone could point to a rebuttal of Dawkins based on that theology. Eagleton’s attempt founders on its own contradictory assertions about what God is, as Sean Carrol points out. I doubt Midgely is willing to sign up for Eagleton’s theology, which sounds suspiciously liberal to this ex-evangelical. It’s illuminating to ask how Midgley would demonstrate that his theology was more correct than Eagleton’s, though, of which more later.
Midgley talks about Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument. He makes the valid point that ordinary Christians generally aren’t concerned with the Argument from Design. Similarly, he says that forcing us to chose between evolution and God is a false choice, since God may use evolution. I think this mistakes what Dawkins’s argument is. If the universe does not require a designer (as Midgley seems to concede), life itself and the universe are not evidence for the existence of God. If there are no other good arguments for God’s existence (the one from Design isn’t the only one Dawkins talks about, although it’s the centerpiece of the book), it’s reasonable to suppose that God’s not there (or he doesn’t want to be found).
Midgley goes on to point out that scientific theories change, quoting McGrath again, and asserts that Dawkins has a faith as much as a Christian does. Dawkins’s own response to McGrath points out the inconsistency here: Dawkins, along with any good scientist, is willing to admit the scientific theories are provisional. Midgley, to get his old job at St Andrew the Great and to speak to CICCU, presumably assented to some extremely specific doctrines (never mind the Nicene Creed, if you want to test for “soundness”, try the CICCU Doctrinal Basis). These doctrines aren’t subject to testing, peer review or later revision. How are we supposed to know that Midgley is right and Eagleton’s Marxist Christianity is wrong? I think we’d just have to have faith 🙂
Finally, I wish he could pronounce Dawkins’s name correctly. That sort of mistake lays you open to parody.
It seems the right way to respond to Dawkins if you’re a believer is to claim that he’s not actually talking about the God you believe in, but rather the God that only people who don’t have theology degrees or Americans might believe in, laughable simpletons that they are. I’m thinking of Giles Fraser in the Church Times and Terry Eagleton in the LRB.
As I mentioned previously, gjm11 has responded to the Giles Fraser review, so I thought I’d write about the Terry Eagleton review. Both of these are postings to uk.religion.christian, a surprisingly sane Usenet newsgroup (surprising because most other Usenet groups with “Christian” in the title are full of nutters), which you can look at most easily via Google.
I’ve not seen any reviews by evangelicals yet. It’ll be interesting to see what they say, as they can’t really pull off the “not my God” argument.