Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dawkins v Appleyard

In this week's New Scientist, Bryan Appleyard reviews Alister McGrath's book 'The Dawkins Delusion' (3 March 2007, p47). McGrath is a professor of 'historical theology' at Oxford, and his book is a response to Richard Dawkins's atheistic best-seller, 'The God Delusion'.

Appleyard's review raises a number of points worth considering. Firstly, he raises the charge that Dawkins is ignorant of theology. Dawkins's attack, however, is essentially upon religion and religious belief, not theology. The majority of people who hold religious beliefs are ignorant of theology, so an attack upon religion and religious belief can be made, quite legitimately, without engaging in theological debate.

Appleyard then asserts that "the idea that science necessarily entails an assault on religion has long been rejected by theologians and scientists." Certainly, there are numerous people, particularly in the US, who seek to partition science and religion into separate consistent domains. There are two primary reasons for this:

(i) Such is the power of religion in the US, that many atheistic scientists and politicians decide, as an act of strategic pragmatism, that a partition of science and religion is the only realistic policy that will enable them to perform their work unhindered.

(ii) Many people in the US are religiously indoctrinated from an early age, hence many American scientists are Christian, and find the need, within their own minds, to reconcile their religious and scientific beliefs.

Make no mistake, though, science and religion are not consistent. In particular, science cannot be consistent with Christianity because of the numerous, quite specific, historical claims it makes, in tandem with the proposed occurrence of various 'miracles' such as the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension of Jesus and Mary, not to mention the Garden of Eden and the Fall. All of these historical claims are inconsistent with the laws of physics, or refutable with empirical evidence.

Nevertheless, Appleyard attempts to find a variety of reasons to justify religious belief. He cites Swinburne's question, 'why is the world explicable at all?', and asserts that "As the Catholic church in particular makes clear, any investigation of the material world is, to evoke Stephen Hawking's famous pay-off to A Brief History of Time, an investigation of 'the mind of God'."

This is what theologians call the notion of God's 'immanence' in the world. It is also sometimes called the Pantheistic notion of God. The idea is that God is present throughout the natural world. Dawkins, however, does address this point:

"A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation...He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them)...Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, of for the lawfulness that governs its workings...

"Einstein was using 'God' in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen Hawking...The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light-years away from the interventionistic, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language." (
The God Delusion, p18-19).

The explicability and intelligibility of the world isn't a mystery, merely a consequence of evolution by natural selection producing animals with brains capable of representing the world around them; an obvious survival trait.

Appleyard also turns to anthropic principle arguments, which show that the parameters of physics are very finely-tuned to values which permit the existence of life: "as Dawkins acknowledges and physicists have shown, the existence of conscious, rational beings is a wildly improbable outcome". Appleyard argues that "to insist that we are simply the products of the workings of, ultimately, physical laws is to avoid the question of the nature and origin of those laws."

This, of course, is quite true, but still doesn't provide a reason for believing in the existence of a supernatural creator. And, in terms of the anthropic principle, the multiverse-hypothesis explains the fine-tuning of the parameter values without the need to invoke a supernatural deity. This hypothesis proposes that there is a large collection of universes, realising all possible laws and parameter values, but only in those universes which permit the existence of life, is it possible for intelligent life to observe those self-same laws and parameters.

In the final paragraph, Appleyard points out that "Any view that religion is the source of all evil and atheism is the origin of none is plainly absurd when confronted with the largely atheist bloodletting of the 20th century." This is to ignore the point which Dawkins makes frequently, that people often kill because of their religious beliefs (e.g. Islamic suicide-bombers, who believe they are killing infidels under divine sanction, and that they will be rewarded for this with a luxurious afterlife), whilst atheists who kill, kill for reasons other than their atheism. Moreover, as Dawkins states in the preface to his book "In January 2006 I presented a two-part television documentary... called Root of All Evil? From the start, I didn't like the title. Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything."

11 comments:

Bryan Appleyard said...

Gordon, thanks for this long and thoughtful post. I would quibble on the following points:
1)To be ignorant of theology is to be ignorant of what religious people believe - it is, therefore, a relevant shortcoming.
2)Your second point is outdated, theologically speaking.
3)Swinburne's point is not about immanence, it is about the explicable or otherwise nature of the world.
4)The idea that killing for a religious belief is fundamentally different from an atheist killing "for other reasons" is psychologically implausible and, for me, incoherent as stated here.
Again, thanks for the notice

Gordon McCabe said...

Cheers for that Bryan!

Just to emphasise, I agree that Swinburne's point is not about immanence, and I didn't mean to imply that it was.

On the first point: If you took a poll of those religious believers across the world who are not actually part of any clergy, how many of them would be able to define the difference between, say, the transcendence and immanence of God? Not many. Theology is an academic discipline, distinct from any of the Holy books.

On the final point, it seems psychologically obvious to me that the actions of most Islamic suicide bombers are dependent upon a belief in the existence of Allah, a belief in the existence of an afterlife, and a belief in the status of non-Muslims as infidels. In contrast, the actions of, say, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber are dependent upon, say, political rather than metaphysical beliefs.

Susan Balée said...

What photos! Battle of the Studmuffins....What hair, what eyes, what a divine chin cleft!

Theory, schmeary....Once you put the photos in there, it was all over for me.

Frank Wilson said...

Hi Gordon:
I posted my objections to your objections on my blog here.
My best,
F

Gordon McCabe said...

I reproduce Frank's comments below:

... Gordon McCabe takes him to task in Dawkins v Appleyard. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

There is no link to Bryan's review but I have no reason to think that Gordon's account is inaccurate. But I have read Dawkins's book - and reviewed it - and I find I must object to Gordon's objections.

"Dawkins's attack,"Gordon notes, "is essentially an attack upon religion and religious belief, not theology. The majority of people who hold religious beliefs are ignorant of theology, so an attack upon religion and religious belief can be made, quite legitimately, without engaging in theological debate."


Here's a definition of religion that I think we can all accept: "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."
Admittedly, theology is the systematic study of such beliefs. The majority of those who hold religious beliefs may be ignorant of the systematic study of those beliefs, but they are not necessarily ignorant of the beliefs themselves. Gordon makes an assumption about believers that is unsupported - and given the sales figures for books about religion - untenable. Those who have criticized Dawkins for not knowing theology aren't objecting to his unfamiliarity with the work of Karl Rahner or Paul Tillich. He doesn't even seem familiar with C.S. Lewis or Ronald Knox. In fact, he comes off as ignorant not only of theology, but of religion as well. He does not engage the beliefs in any serious way. At the very least, he could have taken the time to read Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy.

Gordon also says: "Religion is so powerful in the US, that many atheistic scientists and politicians decide, as an act of strategic pragmatism, that a partition of science and religion is the only realistic policy that will enable them to perform their work unhindered; (ii) Because so many people in the US are religiously indoctrinated from an early age, many scientists there are Christian, and need to find a way, within their own head, of reconciling their religious and scientific beliefs."
Well, I would like to know how Gordon knows (i). I have never known anyone in any field who was chary of telling me he was an atheist - most seem rather proud of it. Please show me some evidence that some scientist has had to keep his atheism to himself in order to work unhindered in this country. Carl Sagan and Stephen Gould did quite well quite publicly here and neither was a believer. As for (ii), Owen Gingerich, a lifelong Mennonite, seems to have always felt that his scientific work and his religious beliefs were in synch. And Francis Collins was raised in a freethinking family and was an atheist before becoming a Christian. There are also such people as Georges Lemaitre, Gregor Mendel and, more recently, Freeman Dyson and John Polkinghorne (who, I know, would disagree with Gordon's later assertion that Christianity's "historical claims are inconsistent with the laws of physics, or refutable with empirical evidence" - I heard Polkinghorne discuss this once at the Princeton Theological Center. Moreover, what Gordon is referring to - the Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception, and the Resurrection - are not asserted as being consistent with the laws of physics, but quite the opposite, as miracles.)
I'm glad for Gordon that "the explicability and intelligibility of the world doesn't seem to be a mystery to" him (though, if the world is indeed inexplicable, I wonder why). But that doesn't mean it couldn't seem a mystery, as it apparently does, to many others besides Gordon. Moreover, just because it doesn't seem to be a mystery to Gordon doesn't mean it isn't a mystery.
Finally, it is nice that Dawkins does not think that religion is the root of all evil. Now if he will just explain where he gets this bizarre notion of evil in the first place.

Gordon McCabe said...

And this is the response I posted on Frank's blog:

Thanks for dropping me a line Frank, and writing a response to my comments.

I'm surprised that you're trying to dispute the fact that the majority of religious believers are largely oblivious to the debates which take place in theology, an academic discipline. You seem to argue that the sales figures for books about religion is evidence of a widespread understanding of theology. Well, books on popular science also sell very well, but this doesn't mean that the majority of people understand quantum theory and relativity. Moreover, book sales are very small in comparison to the number of religious believers in the world. There are, for example, an estimated 2.1 billion Christians in the world, and 1.3 billion Muslims. Even 'The Da Vinci Code' has only sold 60 million copies worldwide!

Religion is that which is taught and practiced in schools, churches and mosques around the world, and that which is specified in holy books such as the Bible and the Koran. It is the claims contained in these holy books, and taught in schools, churches and mosques around the world, which are believed by the majority of religious believers around the world. This is quite distinct from theology, which is why it is quite legitimate for Dawkins to mount an attack upon religion without recourse to theology. This is also the reason why it is quite possible to render theology consistent with science, but impossible to render religion consistent with science. It is the specific historical claims made in the holy books of religion, and the claimed occurrence of various miracles, which renders science inconsistent with religion.

If science is indeed consistent with religion, then I wonder why creationists and adherents of 'intelligent design' in the US strive so hard to disprove evolutionary biology, and I wonder why they strive so hard to get creationism onto the biology curriculum in American schools. President Bush even declared that "the jury is still out on evolution." If, indeed, science is consistent with religion, then there would be no need for religious believers to fight the claims of science, and yet fight them they do. And then, whenever and wherever they fail to disprove science, they resort to claiming that they have 'faith' independently of reason or evidence, and that science is consistent with religious belief. It really is deeply dishonest.


You ask me, Frank, to "please show me some evidence that some scientist has had to keep his atheism to himself in order to work unhindered in this country." Well, I never claimed that scientists have to keep their atheism to themselves. I claimed that scientists have to argue for the partition of science and religion in order to do their work unhindered. And there is copious evidence that scientists in the US would not be able to work unhindered were it not for this policy. Consider the Scopes Trial. As the Wikipedia entry states, this was an

"American legal case that tested a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, of 'any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.' This is often interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. John Scopes, a high school teacher, was arrested for teaching evolution from a chapter in a textbook which showed ideas developed from those set out in Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species."

Imagine that, Frank, actually being arrested for teaching science! Sounds like something that would only happen in a place like Iran doesn't it?

These days, of course, it's rarely a question of personal intimidation, more a question of what goes into school curricula, and whether or not scientists receive funding for their work. Here's an article by David Baltimore, Professor of Biology at the California Institute of Technology, and a Nobel prize winner:

http://www.americanscientist.org/template/BookReviewTypeDetail/assetid/54417;jsessionid=aaa5LVF0

This is what Baltimore says:

"These are difficult times for rational people, particularly in the United States. Those of us who believe that scientific evidence should be the bedrock of policy formation, that logic should be the basis for argument and that uncertainty should beget tolerance are not honored in the political world. Rather, scientific evidence is ignored when it leads to politically unacceptable conclusions, logic is tossed aside when faith is involved, and tolerance for minority opinions is simply out of political fashion. Why should this be? For one thing, we seem to be becoming an increasingly religious country, and because religion supplants evidence and logic with faith—and faith can mean anything you want it to—politicians can get away with appealing to faith without having to justify themselves...

"Whether it be jihad, opposition to stem-cell research, or teaching of intelligent design, religion is the genesis of more of our news than at any time I can remember. Because of the central role of religious belief in U.S. political life, this is a good time for a hard look at its nature...

"I am glad Dawkins took the time to write The God Delusion at this moment in history. In the United States, there is an increasingly pervasive assumption that Christianity is our state religion. In fact, the tolerance of other religions that was so much a part of American politics, at least in the post-World War II era, is giving way to an increasing focus on Christianity as the only true belief. Atheism has never had a strong position in the United States, and it is hard to imagine a politician today publicly admitting to such views."


That's pretty damning stuff in a country which is supposed to be the leader of the free world Frank.

There is no mystery to the explicability of the world. In any world which permits evolution by natural selection, animals with brains capable of representing and explaining the world around them will eventually develop. The ability to understand and explain the world is a survival trait. Irrespective of the nature of a world, if that world permits evolution by natural selection, then animals capable of explaining that world will develop. In those worlds which don't permit evolution by natural selection, there are no animals with brains around to notice this fact. The explicability of the world is simply a selection effect.

Gordon McCabe said...

Frank's response is as follows:

Hi Gordon,
Thanks for getting in touch.
My main point was that Dawkins betrayed no understanding either of religion or of theology. One does not mount a serious argument against something by focusing on its least impressive manifestations. When religion counts among its adherents many of the world's sharpest cookies, it is their point of view one should seek to address. Moreover, I think you underestimate the number of believers who are actually informed about their faith. I may be an exception in having actually studied theology, but I meet plenty of people who know a good deal about the intellectual underpinnings of what they profess to believe. (That was my point about book sales. I could also mention publications like First Things - as intellectually hig-caliber as any I know of.)
I don't think the Scopes trial - which took place in one small town in one state more than 80 years ago is representative of the U.S. today. I also think it worth noting that (a) the members of the school board in Dover, Pa., who wanted to insert ID into the curriculum were all voted out of office before the trial concluded; that (b) the judge in the case was a Republican; and that (c) they lost the case. Hardly an example of obscurantism triumphant.
Just because some believers subscribe to ID, it does not follow that all or even a majority do. I don't. I think it is premissed on a simple-minded notion of God as some everlasting Edison puttering about in his celestial laboratory. I also think it suffers from an undistributed middle and is, at any rate, a category error. Actually, I think evolution is just the sort of simple ingenious process a God would come up with.
As for Baltimore, he is entitled to his opinion, but his saying something is so doesn't make it so (the aforementioned Dover case would seem to offer something a counterargument). I might also point out that at the moment the most likely Republican candidate for President in 2008 is Rudy Giuliani - divorced supporter of abortion rights and gay rights.
Finally, if a true understanding of science mandates a rejection of religion - as I infer you to suggest - then what is it with the likes of Polkinghorne, Collins, Gingerich, Dyson? Are they in bad faith, self-deluding fools, or just bad scientists?
Finally, I still want to know where someone like Dawkins, who describes the universe as "blind, pitiless," comes up with the idea of evil. Dostoyevsky was right. Without God anything - at least anything you can get away with - is permitted. If Dawkins is right, then what he thinks of as evil is just one of those things that happens. He may not like it, but de gustibus.

Gordon McCabe said...

And my response:

I think you're right, Frank, to ask Dawkins for an adequate definition of good and evil, but, equally, I don't think religion provides an adequate basis for morality either. As Dawkins says, quoting Michael Shermer:

"If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder', you reveal yourself as an immoral person, 'and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you'. If on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good." (The God Delusion, p227).

You mention that "the most likely Republican candidate for President in 2008 is Rudy Giuliani - divorced supporter of abortion rights and gay rights." However, to the best of my knowledge, Rudy Giuliani doesn't actually profess to being either atheist or gay. There was a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted over Feb. 9-11 of this year which asked the following question:

"Between now and the 2008 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates -- their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [see below], would you vote for that person?"

The list of candidate-types comprised: Catholic, Black, Jewish, A woman, Hispanic, Mormon, Married 3 times, 72 years of age, A homosexual, and an Atheist. In first place, 95% said yes to a Catholic. In last place, even less popular it seems that a gay candidate (55%), was the atheist, with only 45%. That's not really a favourable environment for public figures to declare their atheism is it?

How can some scientists claim to be both religious and scientific? Well, I suspect it depends upon the specific psychology of each individual, but the human mind is very good at compartmentalisation in this respect. Surveys consistently show, however, that even in the US, the strength of religious belief declines with the level of education. A survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences showed that 72% are outright atheists, 21% are agnostic and only 7% admit to belief in a personal God.(Nature, 394, p313, 23 July 1998).

Polls also consistently show theologically unsophisticated religious beliefs amongst the US public. In a Gallup poll in November 2004, US citizens were asked

"In your opinion, is Darwin's theory supported by evidence?"

Only 35% said that Darwin's theory was supported by the evidence, 35% said it was not supported, and 29% said they didn't know. They were then asked

"Which best describes your views of the origin of life?"

A whole 45% agreed that 'God created man in present form', 38% agreed that 'Man developed with God guiding', and only 13% agreed that 'Man developed with no help from God'.

In a CBS poll conducted in November 2004, 37% said creationism should be taught instead of evolution. In a Harris poll of the American public conducted in December 2005, 73% said that they believe in miracles, 68% said they believe in the existence of angels, 66% in the resurrection of Christ, 61% said they believe in the devil, and 59% said they believe in the existence of hell!

All this hardly bespeaks of a theologically sophisticated populace, au fait with the consistency between evolution and religious belief. You argue, Frank, that "One does not mount a serious argument against something by focusing on its least impressive manifestations." However, I think the problem here with religion is that its least impressive manifestations are very much its dominant manifestations.

Gordon McCabe said...

Frank's response:

Hi Gordon,
I don't think the Dawkins quote moves us forward a peg.
"If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder', you reveal yourself as an immoral person, 'and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you'. If on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good."
It still remains to be explained on what basis we can regard the former as "immoral" and the latter as "good."
Asking people whether they think Darwin's theory is supported by the evidence is presumably a test of their scientific knowledge, not their religious beliefs. Likewise, I can subscribe to Darwin and still agree with those polled who thought God had something to do with it.
I don't know how much the reservations about electing a gay president have to do with religious convictions or attitudes about homosexuality. I wonder if an openly gay person could be elected Prime Minister of Great Britain. But in both cases - gayness and atheism - I think the only poll that counts is the one on election day. More than one factor enters in to whom one votes for in an election.
A minority (disturbingly large, I admit) think creationism should be taught (though I'd want to know how that was defined - creationism and ID are not exactly the same, and sometimes anyone who believes in a creator is tagged with the label), but the rest are simply saying - about miracles, angels, etc., that they are believers. You can hardly expect people of faith to not believe in the tenets of their faith. C.S. Lewis believed in angels, the devil, and miracles. He was also an Oxford don, so presumably no ignoramus.
"The human mind is very good at compartmentalisation in this respect." So I guess scientists of faith are somehow fooling themselves.
"The strength of religious belief declines with the level of education." Level of schooling might be a better term. I was asked by our managing editor to write a piece about The Da Vinci Code after she went to a dinner party at which the guests - all Ph.Ds - were extolling the virtues and the historicity of Dan Brown's book. Well schooled, perhaps. But educated? I think not. Education, truly understood, is formative - of character as well as thought. The people at the dinner were no doubt highly trained.

Gordon McCabe said...

Rus Bowden interjected:

Gordon & Frank, this is terrific.

Thank you both for engaging in this discussion. I hesitate to interject anything, but want to point out an error in Gordon's use of statistics and polls. I will only point out one spot so as to make the point without derailing the conversation, specifically here:

How can some scientists claim to be both religious and scientific? Well, I suspect it depends upon the specific psychology of each individual, but the human mind is very good at compartmentalisation in this respect. Surveys consistently show, however, that even in the US, the strength of religious belief declines with the level of education. A survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences showed that 72% are outright atheists, 21% are agnostic and only 7% admit to belief in a personal God.

This is a misuse, in this sense: what if what we found, was that skin pigment was lighter for the most educated individuals. That statement might read like so:

How can some scientists claim to be both dark-skinned and scientific? Well, I suspect it depends upon the specific psychology of each individual, but the human mind is very good at compartmentalisation in this respect. Surveys consistently show, however, that even in the US, the darkness of skin pigment declines with the level of education. A survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences showed that 72% are outright Caucasian, 21% are Mediterranean or Arab and only 7% admit to being Negro.

Yours,
Rus

Gordon McCabe said...

I commented:

You're quite right, Rus, in the sense that correlation doesn't entail causation. However, whenever you find a strong correlation, if you're going to claim that the two correlates do not participate in a directly causative relationship, then you need to find something like a common cause to explain their correlation. For example, in the case of the correlation between skin colour and level of education, there is a correlation between skin colour and socio-economic class and a correlation between socio-economic class and education level. To find the underlying cause of the correlation between skin colour and socio-economic class, you'd need to go back in history, and look at the introduction of non-caucasians into the US as slave labour, perhaps.

An excellent and enjoyable debate. Thankyou Frank.