Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dawkins night review (Part II)

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.


Anonymous said...

In his book Dawkins argues that it is possible to be moral without God. To support his claim he refers to Bentham and Kant and nothing after. He certainly isn't a philosopher - or he's one who's stuck in the 17th Century. (I did some coursework last semester in philosophy of biology and it's true - he's not much good at that either).

As to the relevance of the picture... I got nothing. Church windows... No stained glass... Church stained glass usually has Christian images and symbols... empty, slightly opaque glass instead. A picture of the windows of Dawkins' proposed 'church of atheism' perhaps? - some moral fogginess and not much else.


Andrew said...

Okay, I shall take upon myself the mantle of offering the first comment. The image shows three arched windows. The photograph was taken from an angle below the windows and from an interior position. Three thin metal bars trace a horizontal line across the window recesses. The sun is shown shining from the outside through the glass.

Possible connections with the post include:

1) The arched shape of the three windows references the arched window of Playschool fame and is therefore an oblique dig at the maturity of Dawkins' own reasoning.

2) The author uses the term 'suasive' which is etymologically descended from the Old Norse 'swalse' which translates roughly as 'a threefold opening'.

3) There are three windows. The author mentions God many times. God is three persons in one. Ergo, there a numerical connection.

4) This is the second part of the 'Dawkins night review'. The author mentions that there is "more to come" suggesting that he will write a third installment, which will shed further light on the subject under examination ... as the windows in the image are doing.

5) The windows each have 'panes' of glass installed in them. When I see people reading Dawkins' book on public transport, I feel 'pain'.

6) Greg Clarke's background is in literature and he spoke about rhetorical strategies. A common rhetorical strategy is the 'rule of three' (which I have somewhat unwisely ignored in this comment).

7) The blog entry is titled 'More heat than light?' The photographic image is taken from the cool interior of a brick church (possibly St Andrew's Summer Hill) and is evidently a situation in which one would feel 'More light than heat'.

8) The author names six 'recognised voices of the church'. The author lives in flat 316. Three windows, six voices, three persons in the trinity, Dawkins is but one man. Coincidence or not? I think not!

9) The words 'Dr Greg Clarke' contain 12 letters. He spoke about Dawkins having 4 main arguments. 12 divided by 4 is 3!

Any other suggestions?

Andrew said...

Dang ... while writing I was beaten to the punch!

Anonymous said...

Sorry Andrew, I pinched your mantle.


Anonymous said...

Sorry Andrew, I nicked your mantle.


Anthony Douglas said...

See, this is working brilliantly (pun intended). Everyone (all two so far) are talking about the windows, because that's what the photo is designed to attract attention to.

But it's not the windows that matter, it's the structure. They are just gaps in the important bit.

Much like Dawkins draws the reader's attention to the oddball and irrelevant, and ignores the solid structure that is Christian thought. He even amps up the contrast for us by caricaturing Christianity, as this pic also does.

Andrew said...

Anthony, as an architectural theorist I think that your analogy is structurally unsound. Just as I wouldn't call windows 'gaps in the important bit' (unless perhaps I enjoyed living in an air raid shelter) I wouldn't pass off the 'oddball' as 'irrelevant' either, although I would agree that the image is potentially too selective in that it reveals but one part of a presumably very useful larger whole ...

Then again, with both buildings and argument we are often drawn too much towards the visible and formal facets while ignoring the details of configuration ... (I think I just lost myself there too ...)

byron smith said...

First, the consolation prizes. Two points to JRS and four to Anthony for your efforts.

Obviously, Andrew wins this one hands down. I'll give twelve points for #1 (the winner) and then another 2 for each of your further suggestions (there would have been more bonus points if you'd got the church - All Souls, Leichhardt of course), for a total of 28 points. I also really liked #9.

Anthony Douglas said...

This still looks live on 'Pics and Points' but appears closed here...

byron smith said...

Thanks - I've tried hard to keep that post up to date, but I do miss things sometimes. Fixed.