Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Religiously Biased Thoughts on The God Delusion #4

Today I return to Richard Dawkins’ best selling book The God Delusion to offer more of my reactions to what he wrote. Chapter 3 of The God Delusion is Dawkins’ dissection of the “positive arguments” for God’s existence. The good professor pulls out 8 different “proofs” and then explains why each one is silly and should be ignored.

It is tempting to get caught up with trying to argue with Dawkins on this point. As Vox Day in The Irrational Atheist points out, “They are tempting honey-traps in which the Dawkins critic is all too easily caught; because Dawkins is convinced that God almost certainly does not exist, attempting to engage him in a reasonable discussion of theological proofs is like trying to mathematically prove the speed of the Earth’s rotation to someone who does not believe in numbers, and furthermore, is utterly convinced that the Earth is a disc mounted on the back of a very large turtle” (p. 138). The same can be said for any Dawkins Groupies that troll the internet looking for a good debate; you are not going to prove God to them.

Instead of proving that these arguments have validity, and I am not convinced that all of them do, I want to focus on how Dawkins is intellectually dishonest in his presentation of these arguments. He either uses arguments that Christians no longer use or he frames them in a way that misrepresent what Christians really believe.

The first argument that Dawkins mentions is the list of five proofs given by Thomas Aquinas. One of the interesting things that Dawkins does here is that he restates the five proofs in his own words rather than directly quoting what Aquinas wrote. So the reader miss the entire impact of Aquinas’ argument, and this is especially significant when it comes to proof 5, the argument from purposeful design, which Dawkins observes is the only one still in use today (p. 103, paperback edition). The reason I think this is significant is because what Aquinas writes in the fifth proof is the basis of the very science Dawkins loves so much. It is because Christians believed that there is a purpose behind creation and that there are natural laws that govern how things work, that caused them to explore the the mechanisms of the world.

One other thing I would mention about the five proofs is that Thomas Aquinas didn’t regard them as proofs in the way that we understand proofs. Alister McGrath wrote, “Although these cannot be regarded as ‘proofs’ in the strict sense of the word, Aquinas regards them as demonstrating the consistency of Christian theology with the known world” (p. 17, The Christian Theology Reader). When we look at the universe through the lens of faith we discover that there is validity, even today, in what Aquinas wrote.

What I find interesting about Anselm’s Ontological Argument (the second argument Dawkins brings up), which formulated in 1079, is that it has never been a serious argument for God’s existence. A German monk by the name of Gaunilo argued against the argument by the end of the eleventh century. While Anselm’s argument is an interesting side note in theology, it hasn’t been used as a real argument for God’s existence, and yet it is the one he spends the most time on. One has to wonder, “If this is such an ‘infantile argument’ why spend six and half pages on it?” Could it be that Dawkins is bothered by it more than the others (which would explain why he spends an equal amount of time on the argument from admired religious scientists)?

The third argument is the argument from beauty. While I think this is a weak argument, it does get a person to wonder, “Why am I so moved by….( a sunset, a love song, the mountains, a good book, a beautiful woman, a brilliant painting)?”

The argument form personal “experience” is the fourth argument that Dawkins mentions. One of the things I find interesting about this argument, which is an observation that Vox Day made as well, is that while Dawkins is the one who put scare quotes around the word experience, The God Delusion is primarily about his personal experience. He references his personal experience more often in the book to make a point than he does empirical evidence. So he is in favor of personal experience when it serves his cause.

Though I realize that isn’t what he means by personal “experience.” What Dawkins refers to here are people who claim to have had a supernatural encounter that led them to believe, such as a vision. While I believe that God gives people dreams and visions, it isn’t what many of us mean when we say that we believe in God because of experience. While I can say that I have had a couple of supernatural encounters in my life they are not part of the personal experience that has led me to have faith in God. My personal experience mainly consists of my observation of faithful people, how living out Jesus’ teaching has made a difference in my life, and the way the Bible has shaped my understanding of the world. It is easy to explain away a person’s experience when it is only understood as the supernatural, but it is harder to explain away when it is what we live everyday of our lives.

The fifth argument is the argument from Scripture. First, it needs to be pointed out that people aren’t convinced of God’s existence because we say, “It is in the Bible.” Scripture is not proof that God exists, though the truth that it contains does lead people to faith.

What Dawkins did with this argument is that he takes the pronouncement of one set of scholars who have said that the Bible is unreliable and leaves it at that. This is what he writes, “Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world” (p. 118). First, he states that “scholarly theologians” have made the case, and so he implies that anyone who makes a different case is not scholarly. That is disingenuous, because there are very scholarly theologians who would kindly explain to Dawkins why he is mistaken about the reliability of the Bible. Second, he tells us that it is “an overwhelming case,” and so he implies that the other side doesn’t have any evidence worth considering. Given the large amount of manuscript evidence and some solid archeological evidence I think there are some good reasons why we should consider the other side of the argument.

The previously mentioned argument from admired religious scientists compromise the sixth argument. This is another weak argument, but one of the things Dawkins tries to do here is to say the famous religious scientists of the past would have been atheists if they were alive today. It was their culture rather than their study of science that gave them Christian faith. An interesting argument, but also unprovable.

The often referred to Pascal’s Wager is the seventh argument. This is an argument that is misunderstood by both Christians who use it and atheists who mock it. The Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft has an essay on Pascal’s Wager in his book Fundamentals of the Faith that is well worth the read (the essay and the book).

The last argument is the Bayesian Arguments which is based on Bayes Theorem. Dawkins says that it is the oddest case he has seen to prove God’s existence, and since I had never heard of it before it isn’t worth talking about. Though one of Dawkins criticisms of Stephen Unwin, who put forth the argument in a book entitled The Probability of God, is that Unwin used numbers based on his personal judgments to put into the mathematical formula. I bring this up because we discover Dawkins doing the very same thing in the next chapter, but that discussion will have to wait until next time.

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