Bemused (amused?) by Richard Dawkins’ logic

Hopefully readers might know that I’m not the kind of person to assume I know everything, and I do not welcome the insults and unconstructive commentary that often takes place online in response to hot topics like this – just an advance notice.

But I cannot help but be bemused as to how Dawkins and some of his faithful followers might explain this one:

Unless I’m GREATLY mistaken (and I have seen a lot of Dawkins videos and debated one of his followers extensively on facebook and read many other debates), the central thrust of his argument against theism or deism, or at least against Christianity, is that there is ‘no evidence’ for the things that we believe, hence we have ‘faith’ – this weak, pathetic thing called faith (for which, by the way, millions of Christians have died for especially in hard-hit nations with oppressive governments such as China so we would thank Dawkins and his fellows for their sensitivity and awareness in addressing this subject). Anything for which there IS evidence comes under the category of science, and no longer requires faith, because it has been quantifiably proven. In other words, faith is based on absence of evidence, and science upon anything which is evident – in particular by testing in a laboratory or observable in nature.

First of all this is a completely misleading definition of faith coming from one who would himself say he doesn’t have faith, and he should ask those who have some. Look to books on our shelves such as ‘Evidence That Demands a Verdict‘ by Josh McDowell and many others in the realm of apologetics (Who moved the stone? by Frank Morrison would be another) to discover that any notion that we don’t think we have any evidence for our faith to be quelled. It must also be mentioned that to label all ‘evidence’ under science is laughable, evidence for things comes in historical, literary, and even art forms. Evidence for belief in God or gods is ubiquitous throughout history and culture, so the recent ascendancy of this kind of new atheism really is an aberration in social and cultural history (not that that disqualifies it of course) and the assertion that there is no God challenges centuries of belief in all cultures and would also have to assert that there has never been any quantifiable basis for a belief in god(s) in any society – and I’m not quite sure they’ve done that much research. Their proclamation as decided atheists by all accounts seems to be based on what they make of 20th/21st century western Christianity, which as I have made clear is I think a much-misguided, prejudiced and myopic assessment. Their assertions ought to be applied to and tested against belief throughout history and culture for their confidence as atheists to really stand.

But mainly I thought it might be pertinent to point out that theories like the Big Bang and the more general atheistic idea have at their centre some ‘beliefs’ which are fundamentally statements of faith without supportable evidence. The notion that something came from nothing, it must be said, is not in the slightest bit observable in nature, nor is it examinable in the laboratory, or anywhere that something ‘appears’ out of thin air – perhaps indeed with some sort of chemically-fused bang. In our experience, with the evidence of nature and the world around us, something always comes from something else. It’s primary-school stuff this. Birds and bees and all that. It’s the old argument (much-despised by atheists) that if you find a watch with many complicated components all working in perfect harmony to tell the correct time, you assume it has been designed. This argument might have been challenged by atheists on different levels, but I wonder if it isn’t simply because it’s a way of saying that we have evidence for something. A world and a universe which seems to have been created, according to all other evidence that we have available to us.

Ah, well, Darwin triumphs over that. Apparently. Except that, as most people forget, he said he was to be known as a deist – ie, someone who believes in a ‘god’, though without taking the step of defining who that god might be (a theist). Too bad. Neither does evolution magically show us that something came from nothing. Much of its data still speaks of incredibly intricate design, evidence upon which to base faith.

I personally think that Dawkins’ logic in this one is flawed and anybody who considers it ought sometime to come to this conclusion. However the persistence and pervasiveness of this thinking I think reveals what it attempts to conceal – an underlying antagonism against religion, the religious, and so on. How else could Dawkins thoughtfully rail against billions on the planet who genuinely and unswervingly hold a faith in God (or gods), many of them in peril for their beliefs? The kind of faith he talks about, isn’t held by anyone I know except perhaps himself over the origins of the universe.

One last moot point which really should have another blog of similar nature written on it. In one video I watched Alistair McGrath put it to Dawkins that much of modern science has its roots in Christianity. This is true – the very notion that the universe is understandable comes with a presumption rooted in design and harmony rather than apparently orderly chaos. But more than this McGrath rightly mentioned that many of modern science’s thinkers (I am bad with names but I can name Newton) as well as some of its more recent pioneers, have been faith-filled Christians – again, bad with names, can someone help me out with the guy who I think is a prof at Oxford who has also become an ordained priest? John someone? I can also mention (because I heard him speak recently) Ard Louis, another Oxfordite.

Anyway, to my surprise and distress, Dawkins brushed aside these correct points with a statement that he merely “wasn’t aware of the Christians who have been in science”! A man of his stature and boast! And so much of what he does is rail against Christianity, yet he has not looked into the significant contribution made by Christian scientists to his field. Either that, or he is aware, and is ignoring it. Surely not??

So in conclusive summary, a lot of people faithfully follow Dawkins, vitriolicly declaring that they have defeated the idea of god, proclaiming themselves decided atheists, when much of their thinking is based on the kind of logic that they themselves seek to destroy, ie., they have faith that something, at some point, came from NOTHING – an assertion for which they can show no quantifiable evidence.

Readers may be interested in this – a powerpoint by Ard Louis (mentioned above) who knows far more names and relevant info (being a scientist – in fact a theoretical physicist to be precise) than I. Obviously it is a powerpoint to accompany a talk so it will only half make sense. It might help the reader to glean some facts or other general thoughts though.

*Disclaimer: I am aware that to be up to speed on these things and the position of the current debate it would help if I had read Stephen Hawking’s latest book, apologies that I have not.*

*Request: comments are to be polite and helpful. Insulting ones will be deleted, and I will exercise my discretion in that.*

4 thoughts on “Bemused (amused?) by Richard Dawkins’ logic

  1. Hey Ben.
    You’ve done a lot of thinking on the matter which is great. I was born an Atheist but began believing in God through my own observations, research and personal debunking. In my opinion, all roads lead to God. There is no way around it. The main thing in life is to use your heart and follow your passion. Use your talents to help others. If we all did this then we would be honoring God by honoring our true nature which is God. I respect your thoughtful approach on the subject. You are well on your way.

    Damn good Geetar you’ve got too by the way. I play a bit myself…

    Take care,
    Dave from Canada.

  2. Ben,
    I’ve been iffing and butting whether to comment regarding this post and decided eventually (and rather evidently) that I would; my thinking being that when one decides to release something to the public domain via the blogosphere and then promote it via social media one should expect a reader response and a challenge of views. And so, I write.

    I am agnostic. Whilst i would suggest the logic you use here is a little flawed (I certainly don’t see how Paley’s Watchmaker analogy can be anything more than a blatant fallacy of composition [Hume] and indeed I would suggest there are far stronger arguments for a creator than this!) I will accept that there COULD be a creator as just as one can’t ‘prove’ there is one, we also can’t adequately ‘disprove’. That positions the fence directly bellow me.

    Yes, a hunt for empirical evidence can be such a bore; I’d much rather jump off a tall building myself to discover what would happen but I’m assured by those that know best that it’s probably not a good idea, however hard I believe I can fly. The point that the burden of proof lies with those making the claim is, as ever, valid but I would like to suggest that (as you start your post by pointing out) neither of us know enough to actually argue this out to a learned outcome. Plus, I’d probably get distracted by something shiny half way through.

    I will continue with the assumption, for now, that there is a creator of some kind. However, I would like to pose that there is not a chance in hell (please excuse that rather awkward, unnecessary pun) that He is benevolent, loving and certainly anything worthy of anyone’s worship.

    If we assume that the beauty of the setting sun over the horizon, the rolling hills, expansive plains, deep dark forests and the tiniest of all creatures that fill them, are created by a God, then we must also assume that Cancer, Earthquakes and the appendix were his handiwork. Why, not to put too fine a point on it, would anyone think this is a good idea? Only the same God as one who would ‘create’ a feeling of attraction by one man to another and then be rather negative about homosexual interaction in the rule book. Not only does creationism challenge our free will, thus slapping a generous portion of ‘mute’ right across this whole discussion, but it also jeopardizes our understanding of the universe around us by relying of faith. I am reminded (like a huge flashing neon sign) of the Hitchens’ quote “Created sick. Commanded to be well”.

    Your point regarding the history of various Gods and belief alone surely brings to attention something that one should take into account on the initial level of self-questioning on any belief system. Namely, why did they have these beliefs? The fact is we are hard-wired to believe in these kind of things [Dean Hamer]. This is just the way we work. That makes your use of language regarding Dawkins very apt, because he does have ‘followers’ and he has a habit of using them a such; rather than as a group of people keen to break out of an inbuilt way of experiencing the world he does little but to offer them an alternative pseudo-deity. However, the fact remains that while the assertions which Dawkins brings to the floor are, however overly negative toward religion, they are providing the tools to be able to form a more enlightened world view.

    One more small point regarding your mention of China: I’d just like to suggest, in a rather timid fashion, that the number of Christians suffering oppression is unlikely to compare to the numbers which have suffered because of certain mono-theistic faith…

    To round off, and putting to one side any attempt to argue pro-or-anti creationism; I find it difficult to understand how one can dismiss empiricism so vehemently, without creating a somewhat circular conundrum. If “I think therefore I am”, that is to say, I can see a universe here, therefore it must have a creator, is tautological without first being empirical, and to ignore thousands of years of empirical experience by labeling something ‘faith’ to me is the philosophical equivalent of sticking ones head in the sand. If there IS a creator, there should be no reason it can’t be proven and it is just as much a Christian’s responsibility to search for empirical answers to these questions as it is an atheist’s right to challenge them.

  3. Good reply Tom. Sorry it took a while to respond. Lots in there. Time to respond…crunching… will have to find time soon! One thing to mention is that while some monotheistic faiths including some streams of Christianity hold that these bad things (cancer etc) probably came from God, others (including myself) take what is called a ‘warfare worldview’ (don’t have time to explain ins and outs for now) acknowledging our obvious free will and understanding those thing which aren’t good as coming from a source other-than God which came from a rebeliious created being (you may know which one) and sees choice as a God-given gift therefore also making love possible rather than robotic, divinely-impulsed ‘desire’ for God which might come more out of the ‘sovereigntist’ camp for whom everything is from God, good or bad. Basically I agree with you on some thing, but what you’re challenging is only some streams of belief in what God is like, not whether there is a God, when you address the issue of benevolence vs. suffering etc.

    And, the number of persecuted Christians throughout the centuries is in the millions, in fact I think that’s the number of martyred Christians (killed for their faith), and there were more in the 20th century than all other centuries put together. Gotta be something worth dying for! And I happily disassociate myself with militaristic forms of Christianity including especially and most obviously, the infamous crusades. As do many Christians these days.

  4. I’m afraid that I think there are a few weak points in your post.

    Before I say anything else though, I must first make it clear that I do not share Dawkin’s pointlessly antagonistic attitude towards all Christianity and all religion (although when he attacks ‘religion’ he seems to have in mind fairly specific forms of Christianity anyway). I’ve read and enjoyed Dawkin’s early books defending evolution from creationist critique and thought they were good but I have little respect for his attempts to attack religion (he makes a better scientist than he does a philosopher).

    However, your comments about ‘faith’ seem misleading to me.

    Some of this seems to be a misunderstanding of certain scientific theories and their role in scientific views of the universe.

    Evolution is the more widely understood theory of the two you mentioned and it does a wonderful job at showing how unguided processes can take a single celled organism and transform that organism into the sort of varied, complicated and adapted life that we see today. What it doesn’t do, as you point out, is explain how ‘something comes from nothing’; it doesn’t explain that first lifeform. Of course, it doesn’t try to (the appropriate term for that ‘abiogenesis’, not evolution).

    In a similar way to a creationist critiquing evolution by pointing out that it doesn’t explain something it was never intended to explain, I can’t help but feel you make a similar error with The Big Bang.

    We do have empirical evidence pointing to a Big Bang phenomenon; that being (in laymen’s terms) a point in time when all matter (and space… and apparently time) was crammed into one singularity that then exploded. As incredible such a theory sounds, it is not one based on faith but empirical evidence.

    The existence of this event opens many, many questions, and physicists are well aware of them. However, trying to critique belief in the Big Bang by pointing at unanswered questions feels rather like critiquing evolution because abiogenesis theories haven’t kept pace. Both Evolution and the Big Bang are proven theories, regardless of whether other areas lack theories that have been as solidly proven.

    Meanwhile, the atheist is free to respond to questions such as ‘how is abiogensis possible?’ or ‘What happened ‘before’ the Big Bang?’ (the latter question may be nonsense from what I understand of current opinion in physics) with ‘I don’t know’. There’s no need for them to make any leaps of faith.

    Meanwhile, not making a leap of faith for one theory doesn’t mean that their unwillingness to adopt a different theory (such as divine creation) into dispute; in fact, it ought to illustrate the atheist mindset to divine creation nicely.

    It clearly would be a ‘leap of faith’ to believe a theory before evidence has been presented to prove it; if someone presented me with an account of what happened to cause the big bang and they couldn’t provide evidence, I’d be right to say ‘I’m sorry but I’m not going to believe your explanation until you present evidence’. The exact same can be true of divine creation.

    That much, I think, Dawkins would agree with. You can reject a theory without needing to feel the void. What we should not do is start grabbing randomly at theories without solid proof just to feel a gap in our knowledge.

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