Friday, April 18, 2008

The Straw God, Understanding the New Atheism, Part I

This is a new essay of mine published at TrueU on the attacks of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al, against the existence of God. Part II will be on the atheists' attack on the Bible specifically.

I am opening this post to comments, but have a new policy. Uncivil posts--those containing personal attacks, condescension, and other assorted vitriol--will be immediately deleted. I have deleted posts in the past, but will be more proactive and watchful this time.


The Scottish Reslers said...

Thank you for posting this response to the "New Atheism." It is nice to revisit some of the verifiable aspects of my faith in the face of a world that does not want to believe (or to be held accountable for their actions) in God. As always, you are skilled in making the complex tangible and I am continually blessed by your hard work and with the exercising of your gifts.

I found the book by Dawkins an expression of a person who is very angry at God and therefore cannot come to grips with the pain and suffering in the world. I too am troubled by it, but I am rather comforted by God because He is willing and able to meet me in my pain and suffering and help me to bear it until Jesus comes again in glory.

sorceror said...

Actually, the "Big Bang" doesn't posit that "everything came into being out of nothing". We haven't pushed our understanding back further than a few femtoseconds after the Big Bang, and even there our understanding is still tentative. We simply don't know what the conditions were before that. That doesn't mean we won't ever know, of course. Until then, confident pronouncements seem, to me anyway, a bit premature.

Also, the "fine tuning" argument has a few issues. For one, it's not clear that the conditions of the universe could be different, that the critical values the argument depends upon are actually independent or variable - if not, then they are not improbable. We only have one data point, one universe, to extrapolate from after all. As Einstein himself put it, "Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?"

Dawkins and Harris are much more assailable on their claims that religion has been an unrelieved disaster. A more balanced treatment can be found in David Sloan Wilson's "Evolution For Everyone", which makes a pretty good case for the historical usefulness of religion.

Jarick said...

Really enjoyed this article. It really does articulate my beliefs about the improbability of order and design without a knowledgeable Creator.

Robert said...

Hi Douglas, the following are my comments to your article.

You wrote, "Behind much of the atheism of today is a false view of God and religion. It's a straw man fallacy, which occurs when someone presents a weak or inaccurate view of a position and then cuts it down."

It must be readily admitted that there really is no standard view of God, even within Christianity. It would help your argument immensely if you actually cited their view of God and how it differs from the mainstream view.

"First, the new atheists view all religion as equally anti-intellectual and evidentially-challenged."

To the extent that a religion relies on faith, which is the opposite of reason, as the basis for its beliefs, then yes, it is anti-intellectual. Many Christians have historically taken pride in this anti-intellectualism and denounced rationality (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:19). For example, Martin Luther wrote,
"Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom… Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism… She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets."

I'm not sure they believe that all religion is "equally evidentially-challenged." Again, a quote from these "new atheists" would be welcome. It would not do for your argument to say they employ strawmen, when you might be guilty of the same yourself.

You claim that Christianity stands apart from other religions on the basis of its solid historicity. Notably, you exclude discussion of the Old Testament, upon which much of the New Testament depends. As for the positive claims, I think you overstate the case.

"The New Testament was written a short time after the events it describes and by eyewitness or those who consulted eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4; John 21:24)."

I'm sure you'll find some (conservative Christian scholars) who support this view, but within the mainstream of Biblical scholarship, it is firmly rejected.

"Crucial events described in the New Testament are corroborated by extra-biblical historians and by archaeology."

Crucial events such as...? Extra-biblical historians who are...?

What about the historians and archaeology which does NOT corroborate the New Testament? No contemporary historian of Jesus mentions him or any of miraculous events which purportedly happened.

"The original manuscripts of the New Testament have been reliably transmitted over time."

Since we don't have the original manuscripts, I'm not sure how anyone can sincerely make this claim.

"But these criticisms have no force against Christianity, given its stubborn historicity and its affirmation of the universe as created good by God and redeemed by God Himself through the Incarnation."

The source of this affirmation comes from a Biblical book which only a diehard few see as literally accurate. Are you among them?

"Atheists are (rightly) angry at this notion of a God who requires intellectual suicide for belief and worship. Yet their indignation fails to disprove God's existence."

As far as I know, it's not their "indignation" which they hold up as disproving God's existence. Please provide a quote, or withdraw the accusation.

Moreover, it doesn't appear to that disproving God's existence is their primary aim. Dawkins, I know, only suggests that God is highly unlikely. It is for the religious adherent to provide positive evidence of their particular deity.

“To deny that the universe had a cause means that it popped into existence. This is what philosopher Dallas Willard calls "big bang mysticism."

As interesting as a philosopher’s views are, what do the scientific experts say?

“Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, unified time and space as space-time, but time was still different from space, and was like a corridor, which either had a beginning and end, or went on for ever. However, when one combines General Relativity with Quantum Theory, Jim Hartle and I, realized that time can behave like another direction in space under extreme conditions. This means one can get rid of the problem of time having a beginning, in a similar way in which we got rid of the edge of the world. Suppose the beginning of the universe, was like the south pole of the Earth , with degrees of latitude, playing the role of time. The universe would start as a point at the South Pole. As one moves north, the circles of constant latitude, representing the size of the universe, would expand. To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe, would become a meaningless question, because there is nothing south of the South Pole.” –Stephen Hawking

Further, your own argument can be turned against itself. “To deny that [God] had a cause means that [he] popped into existence.” If God doesn’t need a cause, then why does the universe?

“If this is so, then it must be inferred that something outside the universe was the cause of the universe. The best candidate is a personal agent of unlimited power.”

But even granting your argument, why is a “personal agent of unlimited power” the best candidate? More particularly, why is that best candidate the Christian god? These glib leaps, I must admit, really rankle.

“Evidence is also mounting that the universe is designed to be inhabited by humans.”

Oh, goodness. Please calculate the size of the universe, compare it to the portion that humans occupy, and then try to make this claim with a straight face.

“Rees dismisses these fine-tuned aspects of the universe — and there are many others — as accidental, not designed. But in doing so, he confuses two very different things: (1) the factors that must be the case for us to exist and to observe the universe and (2) the explanation for the highly improbable configurations that allow us to exist to observe the universe.”

No, not really. Rees essentially employs the anthropic principle to dismiss the “fine-tuning argument.” It doesn’t attempt to explain the existence of the universe. For that, reference Hawking above.

“There is no evidence for other universes; they are merely postulated to banish God from this one. This is purely ad hoc.”

Poisoning the well.

Theories for the existence of other universes haven’t arisen in order to “banish God.” They arise from scientists in the fields of cosmology, physics, and astronomy.

Sam said...

Umm... the new atheists don't hate God. The old atheists didn't either. It sort of included in the "not believing he exists".

It gets worse. First of, Mormonism is based on historical claims. The claims just happens to be false.

Christianity happens to have similar problems. Well I don't doubt Jesus existed (there was a Robin Hood and a King Arthur) it is rather likely he doesn't resemble the Gospels. Nut that is irrelevant because the gospels were written long after Jesus, the disiples and eyewitnesses were dead- they are from the first and second centuries. It gets better. The gospels are contradictory, leave out important and obvious information that is in others... Also there happens to be more than four origionally. The church selected which Gospels to use...using their "spiritual experience".

Unlike moderms the Romans had no problem with dealing with the claims of miracles. Jesus was either a demi-god or a Charlatan with magical powers. Being able to do miracles doesn't prove you are the Son of God.

Hinduism isn't based on spiritual traditions, but the Vedas. It is their holy book. Oh, it happens to be about 3,500 years old. And it also declares that it is historical and true, like the bible.

Buddism is based on the teaching of Buddaha, an Indian Prince who lived in the second century BC. The religion itself is based on one man's spiritual experiences- similar to the way that Christianity or Islam is. I'm not sure about wheter the Buddaha also was able to perform miracles or not.

So atheism is false because
"given our sense of cause and effect"
... you are judging science on the basis of subjective opinion? Are you aware of Quantum Mechanics which eats cause and effect for breakfast? Or the fact that having God makes the problem worse? How did God come to exist? You answer is to declare God special. And why can't the universe and existance be special?

And then you use the existance of people as proof God exists. Why would a God want to create a universe with people? Why would a God want to create a universe at all? He is all powerful, he has no needs- in fact it is pointless. Which is what we'd expect from a pointless natural process.

The differances between religions are one of doctrine, not basis. After all, they all fall under the category of religion because they require faith.

The Scottish Reslers said...

Thank you for the few from the Atheist (I am assuming here) for your thoughts and counter-point postings on this subject. Obviously the veracity of both the existence of God is crucial if not the most crucial truth in history. I am by no means as well read as each of you are (including Dr. Groothius) nor probably as informed an the aspects that each of you discuss. I also readily admit that blogs are limited by space (as far as one is willing to scroll down) and can not by very nature present sides (either pro-God or pro-non God) to the full extent. However I do have a few questions regarding your comments:

1. The assumption that only a "few" radical scholars who are not "mainstream" place the authorship of the Gospels of the Bible as 1st century witness (or for that matter the assumption that all the purported writers were dead and so were the eye-witnesses) is problematic to a point. Granted, there are great scholars within the various expert fields of both the NT as well as Historical scholars who disagree on the actual dating of the Gospels. It seems the comment is a bit self-serving since in order to be mainstream - according to the post - one has to deny first century authorship. I did not know that the dating of the NT letters was the litmus test for being mainstream or not. But to simply state ad hoc that the mainstream of scholarship is firmly one way or the other is arrogant. I will admit that I find the evidence given for a first century dating of the gospels accurate just as you are convinced of the gospels being or a later date and development.

2. The idea that faith is the opposite of reason is a bit ambitious and a bit pejorative. There are many Christians who have faith in a God based upon reason. Just because some in the past saw a disjoint between the two does not mean that one cannot base a set of beliefs off of reason. Your belief in a non God is just as much a belief based on reason as my belief that there is a God. It is just that we base different conclusions based upon the rational evidence provided. As per Paul in I Cor. 3:19, the context of such a verse is based upon comparing the wisdom of "this age" with the wisdom of God. Since Paul believed in God, human wisdom would appear to Him as foolishness. Even each of you would have to admit that hypothetically if a God did exist, it would have to be superior in wisdom and reason than man. For if it did not have a superior wisdom or reason, then it would not be God. Paul is simply making the case that God's wisdom is superior to that of man or "this age."

3. Another point that I want to challenge is that the gospel selection during the 4th century was due to "spiritual experience." Eusibius in his history (granted it is biased for a pro-Constantine agenda but all histories are biased -even today - based on the author's purpose in writing it) gives us a few criteria for the selection of the gospels: First, each gospel had to have a wide circulation as well as a strong heritage in being authentic. Second, they had to have similar ideas and concepts. Based only on these two criteria (and there are others), and you can tell that none of these are subjective reasons, the gospels of of Barnabas, Peter, and Thomas were disregarded as later developments as well as developed by different non-mainstream sects of a Christo-gnostic tendency. The internal evidence of the four Gospels are internally consistent given the nature of historical accounting at the time. For an example at the time period the author of John's gospel was well within the right to right a theological history rather than a chronological history. The trick is not to read today's modern rules of historical method back upon earlier historians in how they wrote their histories. it is a disservice to earlier historians and does not take into account the benefits of their work.

4. There is also the challenge of the idea of being "literally correct" in what the books of the Bible suggest. There are many ways in which to view and define a literal hermeneutic. In what ways are you defining literal hermeneutic? Obviously you deny the existence of God therefore much of what is recorded would seem to be erroneous. But more information here would be helpful for dialogue.

5. The claim that it is hard to believe in a faithful transmission of texts from one generation to another is another point. Here is a point that goes back to the idea of faith based on reason. Given the methods of transmission at the time, it would be more likely that the books of the NT that we have were faithfully transmitted through time. The training that scribes went through to become the recorders of their day required an intense level of concentration and faithfulness to what they were copying. The probability only increases that what we have are faithful to the originals the later we push the dating as you all tend to want to do based purely on a lesser amount of generations needed to generate the manuscripts that we do have.

As for some of the other comments on Quantum physics as well as a description of other religions I am not well informed. However, I thought it would be beneficial to challenge a few points that I felt a bit weak in the arguments as posted. I look forward to reading any responses as well as a continued dialogue.

Again thank you for your input for it is cherished and helpful for the intellectual process. Any time we are required to think it is a good thing!

Susan said...

Faith is not the "opposite" of reason but rather, it is the reasonable response to truth.

Sam said...

1) Okay, first we assume Jesus lived. It may be a little debatable, but there was probably a person that the Gospels were based on. The current date for his birth is 4 BC and that would make his death at 29 AD. Given that the Gospels were written in the first and Second Centuries (which is widely accepted- see the Modernist heresy, it is actually sort of funny. )
The problem is that life expectancy was rather low back then. All of Jesus's discpiles would have been dead by the time the gospels were writtn. So there would be some "telephone" effects due to oral recording. And lo and behold the later the gospel was written the more miraculous is Jesus's power. In fact, some where so miraculous that the Council of Nicea kept out of canon.

2 Faith means believing something without regard to the vidence. Reason is a process using logic. They aren't opposite- merely incompatible. Also, you can't have superior reason. All people can use reason equally, just like all people can use science equally. There isn't a "superior" form of reason. Sorry.

3) Strong Circulation manes people liked them. Similar to others means is also subjective. Why? Because people had to determine what the main ideas and concepts each Gospel stated are. Note that neither of these reasons is related to the veracity of the Gospels- the council didn't, for example, check the Roman records for the province of Palestine to determine accuracy.

4 I have no idea about what you are talking about here. However, there is a reason that people don't trust eyewitness sources. For example, the first battle in human history that we can reconstruct ended with both sides declaring a decisive victory.

5 Actually, you are partially right. Given that they not only transcibed the texts, but multiple monestaries did so similtaniously would help keep down error. Unfortunately that leaves two problems. 1) Before they were first written down and 2) the fact that the meanings of the words shifted.

Susan, here is a defination of faith- "to believe without regard to evidence". In short faith is a strongly held and "sacred" opinion.

Doug Groothuis said...


I cannot respond to everything now, but your defintion of faith is a classic example of the "fallacy of the persuasive definition." You define something as defective and then reject it. (In this, it is akin to the straw man fallacy.) The meaning of faith in the Christian tradition is far deeper than what you arbitrarily define.

Biblically, means entrusing oneself to God on the basis of biblical teaching, which is both true and reasonable. See Isaiah 1:18; 1 Peter 3:15; Matthew 22:37-39. Christianity is a knowledge tradition; it offers justified, true beliefs about God, oneself, salvation, history, ethics, and so on. Jesus presented arguments in debate for his claims. See my book, On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003) on that. Paul also argued with the Greeks and others in Acts (Acts 17:16-34). See my essay at called, "Learning from an Apostle."

Yes, you can find fideists in the history of the church, but there views are out of step with Scripture. On this whole matter, see JP Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind (NavPress, 1997).

Clayton said...

I'm a tad bit confused. You can consistently say that:
(i) All religions are irrational
(ii) Some religions are more irrational than others.

You seem to pin on the new atheists the view that all religions are irrational to the same degree. That's an uncharitable reading for the reasons you mention. However irrational Christianity may be, there's always the ancient Greeks.

To be fair, you offer arguments for Christianity that are supposed to show that (i) is false, but that's a separate issue from whether the new atheists assert the hopeless claim that all religions are equally irrational. I think it would be fair to say this is a strawman of their view.

skepticseeker said...

Are you sure you don't believe in God? While I appreciate your attempts to respect faith beliefs, would you not agree that most of the time, in most cases, opinions formed on faith are immediately dismissible? I am definitely in the camp that says to religion: you've had your chance, now move out of the way!

Doug Groothuis said...

It seems to me from reading the new atheists that they assert that all religions are equally irrational. It is not illogical to say that all religions are irrational, but not all are equally irrational. I don't remember any of the new atheists saying this, though.

My claim is that Christianity is rational, not irrational. So, even if the new atheists claim only that all religions are irrational (but not equally so), my arguments for God are meant to refute that view.