Monday, June 23, 2008

Dawkins is right! His god does not exist

Richard Dawkins does not believe this god exists:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 51)
“Come to think of it, I don’t believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don’t know anybody who does.” (Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Deslusion?, page 75)
Sometimes I feel like I'm standing in the middle of a battlefield, taking hits from opposing armies on either side. Because of my non-literal interpretations of Genesis, my Christian friends aim their artillery at my “liberal” view of Scripture. They worry that I have abandoned the true faith. Meanwhile, many of my skeptic friends, with whom I interact in cyberspace lob bombs at an easy target, the Christian God, as they perceive him. And their perception often matches that of Richard Dawkins.

My response to Dawkins is much like that of Alister McGrath: thankfully, such a god as Dawkins imagines does not exist! But can such a god be found in the pages of the Old Testament? Well, that is a little more difficult to deny.

First, to my atheist friends, I must make this point clear. Christians do not worship two god’s, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. We worship one God, who declares about himself that he is unchanging. How we harmonize the Old Testament divine descriptions with those in the New Testament involves the science of hermeneutics. I summarized some of my own hermeneutic principles in a
post on Progressive Revelation. In today’s post, I wish to elaborate on that earlier one.

The Bible reads like an unfolding revelation of God. Like a Polaroid picture (children, ask your parents what that is), the image of God becomes clearer and clearer with the passage of time. The more focused and accurate image of God does not fully emerge until Jesus reveals the Father, and the New Testament witness to his coming is compete. Click on the following video for a brief overview of my views on Progressive Revelation:

       video    

This overview details how faith relates to revelation, and how growing faith relates to growing revelation, and understanding. It also highlights, chronologically, four Biblical authors: Moses, David, Isaiah, and John. The God I have come to know as my Lord is more clearly understood and described by John than by Isaiah. But Isaiah provides a more focused picture than does David. And David gives a more accurate rendering of the Father than does Moses. And Moses gave us a clearer, far more accurate rendering of God than did the competing theologies from the pagan cultures of his day. Each new revelation builds upon prior revelation. The ultimate “Word” or “exegesis” of God is to be found in Jesus himself (John 1:1-18).

God reveals himself to man, not in categorical declarations, not in systematic dissertations, but in relationship. As an ancient people, the descendants of Abraham, began to pursue relationship with the one true and living God, he responded. He then began, through a growing relationship, to dismantle the false theological concepts of their neighboring cultures, and to replace those corrupted images with a more correct one, that of a monotheistic, providential, creator God. Did Moses get it all the details right? No. But God knew that faith would grow upon the earth, and with it, a deepening relationship with his children, and more profound appreciation of his character, leading to a clearer understanding of himself.

The Bible represents God as one who desires to reveal himself to man. It is a longing of his heart. But the Bible is clear about this: he reveals himself primarily within the context of relationship (see 2 Chronicles 16:9, Psalm 25:14, Proverbs 3:32, John 14:21).

Paul teaches us that all Scripture is inspired, and it is all useful. (2 Timothy 3:16). For me, this means that God inspired his people to keep a developing journal of relationship (even though in its early stages the picture was not always perfect). Thus, he inspired Moses to record what he was learning, and each subsequent author to do likewise. And the result is the Bible, a growing, living journal of God relating to man, opening his heart to man, and revealing himself to man. In stages. In steps, even if at times those steps were halting and imperfect.

I am thankful for Moses. By his faithful obedience, he brought man significant new understandings about God. When compared to the other Ancient Near Eastern god-concepts, his was clearly on the right track, a track that ultimately leads us to Jesus.

Yes, Moses portrays a God who is on occasion angry, rash, and seemingly capricious, given to warfare. If the language of Dawkins in the above quote is a bit over-the-top, it is not entirely inaccurate. But if Dawkins would keep reading, he would see the Polaroid image develop before his very eyes. And he would find that the God of the Apostle John (the last of the Biblical authors) bears no resemblance to his caricature. But John would have never seen this wonderful loving Father without the help of Moses, David, Isaiah, and all the other faith-filled pursuers of God to whom the Father revealed himself progressively.

To my Christian friends, who may be startled at my ready admission of theological inaccuracies in the Bible, I will respond with a positive statement of my belief in the Bible:

I believe that the Bible is a unique book, inspired from Genesis to Revelation. I believe it is the very book God wanted us to have. I hold to the authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice. I believe the Bible provides a solid and dependable foundation for Christian living. I read it. I study it. I love it. I teach it. I find that it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). I believe all the Scriptures are infallible. Infallibility, as I use the term, means that the Bible, in its totality, does not mislead on issues of faith and practice, though it may not be without error in all respects. In my years of reading and studying the Bible, this view is more consistent with the Scriptures themselves than what I consider a forced claim of inerrancy.

I believe that in the process of inspiration, God did not override any author’s memory or knowledge base. [Paul, writing the inspired book of 1 Corinthians, included a little misinformation, then corrected himself, then said he was uncertain because he could not remember (1:14-16); the variations in the reporting of events during the life of Jesus which are found in the Gospels are best understood as resulting from inexact recall of events]. It was not God’s intention to produce a supernaturally perfect book. Many have wondered why it is that the leader of the Christian faith, Jesus himself, never wrote a book. The answer is quite simple for me. If Jesus had a written a book, the church would have fallen into worship of that book. It would be venerated. It would be legalistically applied. God has chosen not to give us “the perfect book” because our faith is not about words on a page, but about a growing, dynamic relationship with the Lord of the Universe! However, the Bible does give a faithful and accurate account of this growing relationship with God from Abraham through John, the Apostle.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Check out this video ...

Over at Beyond the Firmament, Gordon Glover is currently posting a new video series on teaching science in Christian Schools. Although he plans further refinement before the final versions are ready, these videos are well worth viewing now. His latest, just posted this morning, deals with the difference between ultimate and proximate causes. Christians often fail to distinguish between the two, which can lead to confusion. If God uses natural processes to carry out his purposes (and he does), science can only address these natural processes, and can say nothing about the teleological (or ultimate purpose) aspects of the universe. The Bible, on the other hand, addresses the ultimate purposes of God without regard to the scientific details. This is excellent background for all who are interested in integrating faith with scientific reality. Check it out by clicking here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is Early Genesis Mythological?

Within the conservative evangelical wing of the church, there is a very powerful notion that when we abandon a literal view of Genesis 1-11, we abandon historical conservative Christianity. What explains this widely held tenet? And more importantly, is this notion correct?

Stephen Douglas, who authors the blog
Undeception, has recently posted this article which explores many of the reasons why a Bible believing, evangelical, Truth-seeking Christian (such as himself) may well come to the conclusion that these early chapters of Genesis were mythological. This view is based on excellent scholarship of the historical and cultural setting of the Ancient Near East. If Stephen's conclusion is correct, then: 
  • Moses would have understood the stories he wrote to be myths. 
  • The early Hebrews would have understood them to be myths. 
  • God, who inspired them, would have understood them to be myths (of course!). 
  • And the most orthodox, fundamentally correct view today would be that they are myths! 
Why is this so offensive to our 20th century conservative Christian sensibilities? Why will many of my readers recoil from the use of the word "myth" in the context of the Bible? Stephen suggests possible answers to these and other questions in his article which is well worth reading!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Book Review: The Dawkins Delusion?

Delusion: "an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder." By that definition, neither Dawkins nor the theism he despises are delusional, and perhaps both books render a disservice to the converstaion about God by the use of such hyperbolic titles. The McGraths merely resort to the same polemical style they are so critical of Dawkins for using. Other than this sometimes uncharitable tone, I found The Dawkins Delusion? to be well reasoned and worthy of reading by theists and atheists alike.

Alister McGrath, a fellow Oxford professor with Richard Dawkins, is joined by his wife, Johanna Collicut McGrath, in the writing of The Dawkins Delusion? (2007, InterVarsity Press), their answer to Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Alister McGrath, once an atheist himself, earned his doctorate in molecular biophysics. After become convinced of God, and converting to Christianity, McGrath went on to study theology. As a trained scientist, respected theologian, and Oxford fellow, McGrath is well-postioned to respond to Dawkins' bold claims.

It is the McGraths’ stated purpose not to refute every one of Dawkins’ contentions (hence the 97 page rebuttal of a 400+ page book). While they assert that all of Dawkins’ arguments are flawed “misrepresentations and overstatements” (page 13), they chose not to answer Dawkins on every point, but rather to respond selectively to a few of his points, namely these four:

1) Faith is not irrational nonsense, as Dawkins contends in many derisive statements. In this first chapter, the McGraths respond to Dawkins’ central arguments against the rationality of faith, his own rebuttals of the standard theistic arguments, and finally, his improbability argument. Here, the McGraths points out, correctly, that 1) complexity is not an argument for improbability and 2) improbability is not a valid argument for non-existence. The McGraths deftly turn Dawkins argument back upon himself (see page 28).

2) Science and faith are not incompatible, as Dawkins seems to think. Much of Dawkins’ book is devoted to discussions of evolution, with the underlying assumption that evolution makes God unnecessary and thus, passe. Stephen Jay Gould (America’s best known evolutionist who is also an atheist) disagrees, noting the great number of evolutionary biologist who believe in God. He puts it well in this excerpt from
The Rock of Ages cited by the McGraths (page 34): “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.” The McGraths proceed to expand upon Gould’s well-known “NOMA” (nonoverlapping magesteria, Gould’s view that science and religion explore two very distinct disciplines without any overlap) with their own view of POMA (partially overlapping magesteria, suggesting that the two disciplines can inform and compliment each other)(pages 40-41), a concept that this reviewer has found useful.

3) Dawkins’ description of the evolutionary roots of religion are suspect. The arguments Dawkins uses to build his case that religious impulses have biological roots are largely psychological in nature, and the McGraths point out that questions of the origin of religion are unsettled in the field of psychology, a field in which Dawkins is not trained and has limited expertise. In this section, the McGrath’s also offer a reasoned critique Dawkins’ reliance upon his own concept of
memes, those mysterious determinative units of self-propagating cultural traits which work, as Dawkins imagines them, in much the same way as genes.

4) Dawkins’ contention that religion is evil is simplistic, and his the evidence he uses is highly selective. And so the McGraths argues that an even stronger case can be made for the benefits of religion historically in the world.

Throughout the book, the McGraths view is that
The God Delusion lacks analytical rigor, and instead relies heavily upon rhetoric. As such, they identify Dawkins’ book as an atheistic-fundamentalist polemic. And so Dawkins overblown arguments are welcomed by religionists such as anit-evolutionary William Dembski (who believes that Dawkins’ pomposity is turning people against belief in evolution) and decried by fellow atheists such as pro-evolutionary Michael Ruse (who laments Dawkins ignorance of Christianity and his polarizing rhetoric)(pages 50-51).

While not exhaustive (by design), the McGrath’s have offered us a well-reasoned critique of the atheistic arguments of Dawkins, and left us with a cogent description of the inherent weaknesses in 
The God Delusion. I recommend it to my friends on both sides of this debate.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Personal Note: Check out these blog sites ...

Okay, I just couldn't pass up the cartoon. I hope I didn't offend anyone. But if I did, please, instead of getting mad, find out for yourself why the skeptic who drew this is so right on the money! 
(Did I just make matters worse?)

I want to draw your attention to some interesting post series on the sites of a couple of my friends. If you believe, as I do, that good science is vital for the health and witness of the church, then you will want to check out these two sites. If you do not believe that good science matters much, then you especially need to check out these sites!
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Over at Beyond the Firmament, Gordon Glover has been posting a series targeting the teaching of good science in Christian schools. Anyone who has surveyed the textbooks used in Christian schools will know that students are, for the most part, simply not learning good science. But Gordon’s essays are of general interest, and I recommend them to all my readers. Among the posts in this series:
  • (#1) The unfortunate and unnecessary conflict between conservative theology and current science;
  • (#4) The definition of “folk science”;
  • (#6) The “Antipodes”, the what?? ... if you ever thought that incorrect thinking in the realm of science has limited consequences for the church and its mission, you must read this one;
  • (#7)“Aristotle’s Cosmos”, the 16th Century brouhaha over geocentrism (#8 is a follow-up);
  • (#9) Modern day Geocentrism, ... you mean people still actually believe that??
  • (#10) Young Earth Astronomy, is that an oxymoron?; and
  • (#11) Flood Geology, an excellent overview demonstrating that Flood Geology was untenable 200 years ago, and it still is today.
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Steve Martin, at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution, has for the last few weeks been hosting an interesting series entitled, “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics”. The essays are written by a number of evangelical Christian scientists who teach at the university level. These professors share insights, as well as some of the personal struggles, that arise out of their experiences in the academic world as evangelicals who teach evolution.
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As for me, the pace of my postings has slowed, of late. Keeping up the pace, on top of family life and operating a business, is difficult. But please stay with me! I will very soon post a review of The Dawkins Delusion? the McGraths' answer to The God Delusion. And I do intend to return to my main post series. I wish to offer some concepts of how the big bang, entropy, evolution, and randomness are not only adaptable to Biblical Christianity, but serve to inform our faith, adding new dimensions to our understandings of theology, as well as renewed impetus to "be about the Father's business." Stay tuned!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Book Review: The God Delusion

Note: This review of The God Delusion will be followed in a few days with a review of The Dawkins Delusion? by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. Alister McGrath, an atheist-turned-believer who is, with Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, is joined by his wife in authoring this succinct answer to Dawkins. Just as Dawkins should be required reading for serious believers, the McGraths’ pithy response should be required reading for serious atheists.
Let it be said: Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006) is a very good writer, and the kind of person with whom one can readily imagine an enjoyable and simulating evening over a glass or two of red—enjoyable that is, so long as he refrained from his predictable outbursts of rambunctious polemic. And this highlights the two sides of Richard Dawkins: at once engaging, personable, rational, pleasant, entertaining; and alternatively unreasonable, angry, boisterous, given to ill-conceived diatribes. If he is preaching to his own choir, these diatribes will likely elicit hearty “amens!” If believers are his target audience, his arguments would go farther if he would restrain his clamorous tone.

Most of the theistic readers of this blog will find, as I do, that
Dawkins’ arguments are often wide of the mark with respect to our brand of theism and Christian Faith. Some of his arguments are undisguised straw man. Many others are waged against a fundamentalism into which most readers of this blog do not fit. In fact many believers will find themselves nodding in agreement. For example, when Dawkins declares "As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect,” I heartily agree! However in Chapter 8 (Dawkins’ defense of his own hostility toward people of faith) he devotes the final section to answering why he deplores even the more moderate, rational wing of Christian faith. Here he develops his "moderates validate fundamentalists" argument. “The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion,” Dawkins contends, “though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” What?? And how does this not apply equally to “moderate” atheism? While Dawkins dismisses the notion that Stalin and Hitler operated out of their atheistic world-view (his arguments are less than convincing), why are extreme acts of atheists not validated by more moderate atheists? I have often thought that Hemingway followed atheism to it’s logical extension: existential despair and suicide. While most atheists I’ve met do not take their atheism to that extreme, could it not be argued that moderate atheism paves the way to such actions. (I’m not forwarding this argument here. Theists also commit suicide. And Hitler’s atheism is arguable. I’m only suggesting that Dawkins' argument against moderate expressions of faith is unfair, and can be turned back upon his own brand of moderate atheism.) It is apparently Dawkins view that, without the more moderate voices of religion, the more extreme versions would fade away. He never explains the logic behind this supposed linkage.

Dawkins' “central” atheistic argument is found in chapter 4. After dismantling (to his satisfaction) many of the standard theistic arguments in chapter 3, Dawkins attempts to demonstrate “Why There Is Almost Certainly No God”. This argument from probability betrays his simplistic concept of the Christian view of God. For those unfamiliar with Dawkins’ core atheistic contention, Dawkins’ argument runs something like this: Believers, appealing to the extreme improbability of this universe developing as it has, the fact that it is hospitable to life at all, indeed the extreme improbability of life itself, contend that our universe demands the existence of an intelligent Cause. But, Dawkins counters that postulating a God only extends the problem of improbability, and pushes it back in time. That is, any God appealed to to account for the complexity of our universe must himself be yet more complex. And his existence thus becomes more difficult to explain than the material universe we observe. Thus, in Dawkins’ view, the notion of God is “very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability.” Dawkins is either unaware of, or fails to understand the Judeo-Christians concept of God as the eternal “self-existent” One. No believer I know has struggled with the question, “Whence God?” Nor will Dawkins’ expostulations raise such a question for believers. The God of believers is far beyond Dawkins’ notion of demanding explanation. It is indeed reasonable that we seek logical explanations for causation in our material world. To suggest the same logic must apply to God does not follow. Christians understand that God exists outside of our physical dimensions. As such, he cannot be restrained to our time bound concepts of causation. Dawkins’ shallow reasoning reminds me of a favorite passage from David Bentley Hart:
“... since strict materialism is among the most incoherent of superstitions ... it is incapable of imagining any conception of God more sophisticated than its own.” (The Doors of the Sea, page 14)
In fairness, Hart goes on to depict unbelief in more generous terms, but Dawkins leaves one wondering if his concept of God is as small as it seems.

There is an interesting confluence in Richard
Dawkins, and one that should be telling for believers. He is considered by many to be both the world’s foremost evolutionary biologist, and the world’s foremost atheist. Is this indicative that evolution and atheism are intrinsically linked, as many of my believing and unbelieving friends insist? Or is it rather indicative of how believers have 1) failed to embrace evolutionary science (which has now moved beyond reasonable doubt), and 2) failed therefore to develop a reasonable theology around evolution. This website exists in part because I am convinced of the later, and hope to explore the promising theological implications of evolution. As Christian thinkers join in this process, I believe one effect will be to remove the stinger from Dawkins’ atheist arguments. For example, Dawkins devotes much of The God Delusion to evolutionary explanations for the development of religious impulses, morality, altruism, etc. Apparently, he views these explanations as the death knell of theism. As a theist who has thought long on the concept of “Evolutionary Creationism”, I found little in these explanations to disagree with. Furthermore, I did not see how his arguments inherently favored atheism over theism. Certainly they undo many worn-out theistic arguments. And they effectively rebut many traditional Christian assumptions. But those arguments and assumptions were incorrect, and should be scuttled. If the Creator has (as I believe) used evolution to bring humankind into a state of God-consciousness (which by Dawkins’ admission is ubiquitous in all cultures, and favored by the great majority of people), why should it surprise us that evolution would be his tool of choice?

Reading
The God Delusion was, frankly, less challenging to my faith than I anticipated. His best arguments are leveled against religious fundamentalism; here I share many of his views. But when he turns his guns upon my faith, his extreme hostility tends to invalidate his arguments. When a person becomes consumed with antipathy, reasoned argument can give way to irrational tirades. Dawkins’ atheistic zeal seems to have negated any trace of respect he might have shown toward those with a different persuasion. And when we cease to respect our adversary, a consequence is that our arguments are inevitably weakened.
There was some discussion of my review over at Amazon.com, where it is also posted. Some of the comments were posted by David Marshall (author of The Truth Behind the New Atheism), who last year posted a review of his own. His comments prompted me to read his review. For those interested in further discussion of Dawkins' book, I recommend Marshall's review which can be read here.