More heat than light?
This is the second part of a review of a Dawkin's discussion forum at church last week. Part I is here.
Dr Greg Clarke continued his discussion of Dawkins with a brief bio highlighting Dawkins' sense of wonder at nature from an early age and his "normal" (nominal) Anglicanism. He now holds a chair at Oxford designed specifically for him - the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, which he uses to promote Dawinism and atheism (seeing the two as synonymous).
We then turned to considering his highly publicised recent material: The God Delusion and The Root of All Evil?* This material is not aiming at a dispassionate investigation of the issue, but is a polemic aiming for converts to an atheist 'church'. This needn't be a problem, but in these cases it has resulted in material more vigorous than rigorous.
Dawkins was uncomfortable with the sensationalism of the latter title, suggested by the BBC, and argued that at least it ought to end with a question mark.
Dr Clarke (who has a background in literature) noted the rhetorical strategies upon which Dawkins' suasive attempts rely. There is an agressive disdain for theology, without deep engagement with the recognised voices of the church through the centuries; you'll find no discussion of Augustine or Aquinas, Barth or Basil, Calvin or Chrysostom. He refuses to acknowledge probabilistic arguments, assumes you agree and employs emotionally charged terms: belief is a 'virus'. His overall approach relies more on the emotional connection gained through anecdote than argument or fact.
Yet where arguments do appear, they come in four kinds: philosophical, sociological, Darwinian and ethical.
1) Despite his influential work against teleological arguments in The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins makes little use of philosophical arguments in his recent works. Most prominent is his Boeing 707 argument, which runs roughly thus: the universe is very complex and is therefore unlikely to be here simply by chance (as though a wind might blow through a junkyard and assemble a Boeing 707). Yet God, as the alleged designer of this complex world, must be even more complex than his design, and so is even less likely to exist. While somewhat cute, and nicely taking a common teleological argument as its starting point, it fails appreciate a basic point commonly held by thoughtful Christians. Namely, the belief that God as creator is not simply one more being amongst many beings (even the greatest being amongst beings), but is a different (though perhaps analogous) kind of thing to his creation.
2) His most prominent sociological argument is that mature societies become more atheistic. Dr Clarke noted that while there is some evidence that prosperous societies are more atheistic, this reveals more about us (and our beliefs) than about God. It is important to both the Christian and the sociologist to investigate the function of religious belief (or the lack of it) in the life of the individual/community.
3) Dr Clarke noted that the technical details of Dawkins' Darwinian arguments were not his [Greg's] area of expertise, but that philosophy (especially philosophy of science) is not Dawkins' area of expertise. Darwinism as an explanation for the origin of the species is one thing, but it is something else when applied beyond this sphere to become an encyclopaedic worldview that attempts to answer all questions. Such explanations, though not necessarily ruled out a priori, are not in the realm of hard science. In particular, Dawkins' arguments about belief transmission through the notion of 'memes' is highly speculative.
4) Dawkins' ethical arguments for atheism are by far his most interesting and strongest. Dawkins finds belief in God disgusting and morally corrupting. He offers his own version of the ten commandments, a set of universal moral principles readily acceptable by all reasonable people. Dr Clarke found this claim particularly naïve. Not only does it ignore philosophical debate problematising any easy reference to universal rationality as a basis for morality,* it also fails to offer any advice on what to do with the ubiquitous problem of moral failure. Even if we can get everyone to recognise universal ethical rules, what shall the church of atheism do when a member sins? (More to come)
*I thought more could have been said about Dawkins' Enlightenment assumptions regarding Reason, particularly his thoroughgoing opposition of faith to reason.
After the heroic efforts in the comments on the previous Dawkins post, I offer the same competition on this picture: twelve points for the best explanation of the relevance of this picture to this post.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
More heat than light?