Friday, November 07, 2008

Debates with Dawkins

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the third of UHI's lecture series with John Lennox of Oxford University (the first two lectures were delivered by Richard Dawkins on atheism and Andrew McGowan on the place of theology in a modern university). Lennox presented a response to Dawkins that was penetrating, thoughtful, and provocative - it was also cordial with no venemous remarks. He rejected Dawkins' dichotomy of "God" or "fairy tales" and exposed some of Dawkins' poor research (i.e. Dawkins cites a professor of German literature in the USA who believed that Jesus did not exist and thus ignored his more learned colleagues at Oxford like Geza Vermes). Lennox points out that Christians and Atheists have both headed the Human Genome project so being a good scientist and a person of faith are not incompatible. Central to the thesis of Lennox is that the universe is rationally intelligible though he does not go from there down an intelligent design route, but he is right to ask why this universe is intelligible to us? He thinks the real debate then is about worldviews not empirical science. He asks, which worldview can account for the raitonal intelligibility of the universe? While the religious answer is no doubt an element of faith, Lennox pointed out that the atheist also accepts certain things on faith or without evidence such as the existence of a multiverse so as to account for the anthropic principle (i.e the universe seems wired to produce life since life exists). I gave up apologetics for biblical studies a long time ago, but this was probably the most brilliant lecture that I've attended all year.

On a personal note, I had the pleasure of having dinner with John Lennox and found him to be one of the most engaging, mission minded, and jovial Christian personalities that I've ever met. His language skills are amazing too as he is fluent in English, German, French, Russian and was able to converse with our Hungarian waiter at the restaurant in Hungarian! He has been lecturing in parts of Eastern Europe and Russia since 1975 as well. In a nutshell, do go and see him lecture or debate if you ge the chance.

I should also point out that Justin Brierly of Premier Christian Radio inteviewed Dawkins after his debate with Lennox on his program Unbelievable. This part of the interview was interesting:

JB: When you make a value judgement don't you immediately step yourself outside of this evolutionary process and say that the reason this is good is that it's good. And you don't have any way to stand on that statement.

RD: My value judgement itself could come from my evolutionary past.

JB: So therefore it's just as random in a sense as any product of evolution.

RD: You could say that, it doesn't in any case, nothing about it makes it more probable that there is anything supernatural.

JB: Ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we've evolved five fingers rather than six.

RD: You could say that, yeah.

This brings me back to Lennox's genuine fear of Dawkins' atheism, that it is not simply leading us to a secular society with tolerance and libertarian ethics without religion, but it is leading us to Nietzsche's madman where might makes right in the absence of God, where weakness and vulnerability are eradicated in the name of progress. It is an amorality that leads to churches being buldozed, freedom of speech and religion being destroyed, and reaches back to the insidious gulags of the Soviet Union. As Lennox said: "The atheist bus is taking us into a pitiless world where our sense of justice is an allusion" and "insignificance leads to indifference". Think ye on such things!


James Crossley said...

Mike, I don't think that the point on atheism and Soviet Union is fair. I don't care less about sticking up for atheism but avoiding God has also brought about some important moral advances (as has belief in God). The Soviet model was driven more by a form of authoritarian Marxism and modern totalitarianism. Ok, they happened to be atheist but the problem was following a hard model (actually a very theological model in many ways: interpret what the great work said and then apply). This sort of brutal outcome of a hard Marxism was predicted (quite spectacularly) by the anarchist Bakunin.

One thing also worries me about the implication that we *need* God. It sort of implies that the people like Lennox would be truly evil if God were not believed to exist! I mean, come on, in reality, do non-believers really act indifferently to human beings?! The anarchist tradition alone (I mentioned Bakunin so that's a good example for now) would strongly suggest otherwise. What about the Green movement? Whatever they are like in Oz in the UK and elsewhere they are dedicated to saving the planet and have plenty of non-believers.

This may (or may not actually) come as a shock to you but I think the stark opposition between believer and non-believer on moral issues is being overplayed far too much. I'm not a fan of either 'side' saying one is almost necessarily morally bankrupt. Basic facts suggest otherwise.

Anyway, back to decent booze, not that stuff you drink!

Michael F. Bird said...


1. I'm not advocating that all atheists are immoral lunatics (where did I say that?). There are a great many atheist philanthropists. In my own country former prime minister Malcolm Fraser is a good example. But I think atheism promotes a philosophical framework in which morality as we now know it does not make sense. Was this not the despair of Nietzsche? The death of God meant the death of all meaning and value? Where does/will that take us?

2. The Soviet Union model is fair game because it's Europe and fairly recent. This is the best example we have in living memory of what happens when atheism becomes official policy. It was not that they just happened to be atheists, it was a political framework in which atheism was intrinsic to it. Dawkins told Lennox that he could not imagine atheists buldozing churches. Lennox told that quote to some academics in Poland and they laughed out aloud. They could show Dawkins where the churches used to be.

3. I don't know about the UK and Europe but in Oz the Greens are the scariest party in the country and want to close down all the Christian schools and (I suspect) feed Christians like me to the lions at Toronga zoo (hyperbole of course dear Jim)!

4. Enjoy your cheap English ale, I'll take my Aussie Shiraz any day. Have good wegend mate!

James Crossley said...

Ah, I'm not saying at all that you advocate anything in particular about atheists as all lunatics, just critquing some of the possiblities of the hard nihilism. The point I'm making is waht happens in practice: virtually no one follows the logical consequence of hard nihilism, not least because socieites wouldn't function. As for the Soviet U, all I was saying was that atheism was not the driving force - and neither was a hard nihilism - but rather an exceptionally dogmatic Marxism (not entirely unrelated to atheism be sure). I absolutely agree, fair game but fair game for it's crazy dogmatism, applying pseudo-science to everything.

As it happens, I was being nice for once and trying to suggest that the atheistic/believer divide in terms of morality is just not helpful (for either side).

Doesn't that prove I'm nice?

Michael F. Bird said...


Proven beyond all reasonable doubt mate!

I'm talkiing about frameworks in which morality develops and is sustained, not the nature of individual persons.

Steven Carr said...

i.e. Dawkins cites a professor of German literature in the USA who believed that Jesus did not exist and thus ignored his more learned colleagues at Oxford like Geza Vermes.

I see.

Lennox thinks he can refute a point by saying it comes from person A, rather than person B.

And I always thought you refuted allegedly poor research by saying why the arguments were wrong, and not by saying what degrees the person had who made that argument.

Steven Carr said...

There is a debate on Dawkis interview at Premier Christian Radio

Moral values based on a human beings conception of God are totally arbitrary.

Peope have sacrificed virgins to their god.

Which is moral, of course, as they were glorifying their god.

All Christians can say is that they have created a different god, with a different morality.

Christians cannot criticise religions as immoral which sacrifice virgins, or demand we take a knife to baby boys and girls and chop off a bit of their body.