Monday, February 26, 2007

Dawkins - Look Ma! No God!

Chapter four of The God Delusion gets to Dawkins' main point - why there almost certainly is no God.

Once again, he is all over the place in this chapter, throwing his logic in as many directions as possible, presumably hoping that some stick. I can only assume he is impressed by the force of his reasoning; I am not. Perhaps I will have a chance to comment specifically on some of these individual issues, but his primary argument (which does not consume the bulk of the chapter) is that if there is a creator-God, then he is most certainly exceedingly complex, as he must be able to devise and implement the amazingly complex universe that exists. However, any such being does not solve the problem of the existence of the universe, it simply pushes the question back one layer. That is, when believers invoke God as an explanation for the complexity of the universe Dawkins says we haven't explained anything.

Put more simply, Dawkins is arguing that you cannot bail on answering the question, "If God created everything, who created God?" Traditionally, believers have argued that God, being eternal, simply has no beginning. Dawkins doesn't buy it. The crux of his argument is that, while the universe is extremely improbable; it does you no good to solve it by assuming something even more improbable. And Dawkins finds the notion that there is a god extremely unlikely. It is to this issue that he devotes the bulk of the chapter.

But why is this so? Is God improbable just because Richard Dawkins finds Him so? The bulk of Dawkins' argument is that smart people don't believe in God. Really. He cites studies showing that there are only a small fraction of believers in Mensa; that there is an inverse relationship between IQ and religious faith; that the higher the scientific honor, the less likely the scientist is to believe in God. I am fairly certain that I could dismantle each of these studies if given the raw data - for example, the Mensa study. For those who don't know, Mensa is a society that has as its primary membership criterion an IQ above the genius level. Why might believers be less well-represented in Mensa than in the rest of American society? Could it be that believers of high IQ have better things to do than join Mensa? Could it be that the church provides a more comfortable community? Could it be that believers are just less likely to find meaning in measures of intelligence. I suspect that the relationship between IQ and faith is less dramatic than this study would indicate.

As an alternative to God; Dawkins resorts to two rather insubstantial arguments. First, he says (without elaboration) at least a dozen times in this chapter that natural selection explains everything. It is so consistently stated, it becomes almost a creed. But I have no more confidence in the truth of the proposition that natural selection can create highly unlikely structures than he has in the proposition that God did it. And Dawkins' assertions to the contrary, natural selection doesn't explain anything.

His second alternative to God is what is known as the anthropic principle. Put simply, the anthropic principle says that, no matter how unlikely it is that life should show up in the universe, it must have happened because we are here. Or, more basically, "I know it may be hard to believe, but this all just happened. We know this is true, because if it weren't, we wouldn't be here to know it". No mechanism is needed to explain how it happened; so you are free to pick the mechanism you want. Dawkins picks natural selection. I don't.

I do not have time to list his other points. Hopefully I will be able to address them in successive posts. But the breadth of Dawkins' misstatement of theistic positions is breathtaking. He has decided that there is no God, and that those who disagree are idiots. Interestingly, He himself quotes the verse which tells us that fool has said in his heart there is no God. He would just contend it is the other way. His arguments are not compelling.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Slavery and Virginia

So, Virginia has passed a resolution officially apologizing for slavery. I find it ironic on this day - when a movie about a man who devoted his life to pushing the legislature of the British Empire to make significant changes is playing around the country - that a group of legislators makes a meaningless symbolic act in an effort to demonstrate their leadership and compassion.

It takes no guts today to pass such a resolution in the United States; it takes brains and courage to do something that would actually have a positive effect on the oppressed in our nation today. Pity there are no men or women of vision and courage in the legislatures of our country today. I am certain that this resolution (and the similar one being considered in Missouri) will have a profoundly positive impact on the lives of those inner-city children being raised in fatherless homes, and one the lives of the thousands of young black men who turn to gangs and crime because they believe that there is no other option for them.

Well done.

Amazing Grace Movie

I went and saw the movie Amazing Grace this afternoon with my kids (as we walked up to the box office, my pastor and his family were there as well, so we all saw it together. But I digress.) Wilberforce has always been one of my heroes, not just because of his work to abolish the slave trade; but because he understood, as the movie makes so clear, that it is possible to serve God and change the world at the same time.

The movie was wonderful in every way. It started slow, as they attempt to establish the story. But soon I was engrossed in the telling of a story that I already knew. There have been a significant number of movies in the last couple of years that attempt to tell a story with which I was already familiar; and I have been disappointed in nearly all of them. The Lord of the Rings movies were the lone exception until today. The movie gave me an appreciation for the time Wilberforce devoted to his cause, and for the frustrations of his slow progress. The depth of the anguish suffered by John Newton (composer of the hymn Amazing Grace) is brought into stark reality in the movie. The acting is wonderful, the cinematography beautiful, and the storytelling magnificent. No matter what you believe about Christianity, I recommend this movie as the telling of the story of a true hero of the modern western world.

If you have children, know that there is a scene of animal cruelty at the beginning of the movie, and several tellings of the true fate of slaves that might be unnerving for smaller children. There are also a handful of profanities, all mild, except for 2 uses of the N word. Both are in context; but after all these years of avoiding the term in my own life, it was rather shocking to hear. Just caught me off guard, that is all.

The best line of the movie, for me as a believer, comes from the mouth of John Newton, when he says "This I know. I am a great sinner; and Christ is a great saviour." The line is historical, the truth is timeless.

Go see the movie. Now.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Dawkins - The God Hypothesis

Chapter 2 of Dawkins' book is devoted to the question of the reasonableness of what he calls The God Hypothesis (a phrase taken from LaPlace). The question he asks is simply this:
It is reasonable to assume that there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us? (page 31)
He proceeds in the chapter to address a myriad of subjects, almost none of which is germane to his question. In fact, by the end of the chapter, he has made absolutely no progress in answering the question. Rather, he has regaled us with stories of atheist-phobic hicks, theologians who express offensive opinions and ill-advised studies of the efficacy of prayer. He has told us that Jefferson was an atheist who simply didn't know that it was a permissible opinion. He has mocked theists simply because they are theists, choosing only the most superficial arguments as the targets of his derision.

Finally, he concludes his narrative with an attempt to argue that because Stephen J. Gould wants the province of Science and Theology to be non-overlapping, then theists must accept this restriction. He does this in spite of the fact that the greatest theological thinkers have never made such an argument. He observes that some say that Science addresses the how of the universe and Theology the why. This seems to be an artificial distinction - useful at times, but hardly a general rule. Rather, I would state that Science and Theology can both offer their explanations for what we see around us - and may the best explanation win. Interestingly, Dawkins would undoubtedly accept such an offer; but he is already convinced that Theology has nothing to bring to that table, so there would be no competition. Unfortunately (for him and the book), he never gets around to actually making the case in this chapter.

What he does do is to state, over and over again, that Theology is of no value. He quotes all of his patron saints (Darwin, Jefferson, Einstein, Sagan, et. al.) over and over, as though the only thinkers in this age were men who questioned the existence of the God of Abraham. It is as if his argument is, "God must be a silly idea, because Jefferson (or Sagan, or whoever) says so". The chapter comes down to a "my experts can out-think your experts". And while he does quote a number of "theistic thinkers," he noticeably manages to avoid quoting anyone who thinks deeply about these issues (Ravi Zacharias, C. S. Lewis, and William Dembski come to mind). It then comes as no surprise that he sees no value in the thinking of theologians - those he mentions say nothing of value to me either.

I do not think that Dawkins' book begins well for him. To begin by setting up straw men and resorting to ad hominem attacks on one's opponents is to begin with nothing. A friend sent me a link to a review of the book by a thinking theist. I am going to avoid reading it until I have finished the book myself, but the introduction to the review notes that Dawkins spends much of his time making arguments that would make a first-year theology student wince; not because they are so devastating, but because they are so superficial. After chapter 3, it feels that way to me.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Richard Dawkins, part 1

I picked up Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion yesterday and began reading it. Dawkins is probably the best-known modern atheist, and this book is an evangelistic text for the cause of atheism. I bought it, not looking for a new belief system, but because I wanted to see what he had to say. It is my intention to comment on the book in my blog over the next couple of weeks as I read it.

I am certain that I will differ on much of what he says. However, in the first chapter he writes something with which I not only agree; but which has significantly helped me to understand where he is coming from. He writes:
The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned. [A] clergyman presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a claimed 'fairyologist' on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings. (page 16)
This is a point which deserves consideration. If religious belief is no more significant than belief in fairies, then it is deserving of no more respect. Since he devotes the bulk of his book to demonstrating that religious belief systems are of little or no merit, I will set aside the assertion for now.

But independent of the accuracy of his contention, I cannot argue with the logic. And it helps me to understand better why so many people regard religious belief with disdain. You see, I not only hold to a particular belief system, but do so with all the intelligence I can muster. Because of this, I can hold open the possibility that religious belief is rational, even if I disagree with the particular belief. But Dawkins, and others who hold to a philosophical atheism, regard those same belief systems as wholly irrational, or in Dawkins' words, delusional. Thus, they need be given no consideration at all.

I disagree, but now I understand.

One more thing, Dawkins' logical applies across religious systems: if what I as a Christian believe is true, then all other religious systems are no better than fairyology. This calls the entire multi-cultural / religious freedom premise into question.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


One of the reasons why Science can't claim access to absolute truth is that deduction (drawing a conclusion from previously known facts) is very susceptible to what is called the expectational bias. That is, we look only at the evidence that supports the conclusion we expect to reach, ignoring the counter-examples. The most common example of this is the tendency of humans to only see the events that confirm their expectations. If I think that all Phoenix drivers are idiots when it rains (and they are), I will only tend to notice to poor drivers on a rainy day, effectively ignoring all the evidence (good drivers) that contradicts my perspective.

I got to thinking; expectational bias is probably why God placed such a severe penalty on prophets who predicted wrongly in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18:22 prescribes death for a prophet whose prediction does not come true). Prophets in those days commanded a lot of attention and influence. Lower the threshold for that sort of power, and it is easily abused. So God chooses to draw attention to the counter-examples, raising the bar for the status of prophet, and protecting His people from abuse.

And there is, in my experience, a lot of abuse in churches when people are allowed to speak in the name of God. I am increasingly skeptical of anyone who would believe that they have heard from God on anyone's behalf but their own. Too often I see these people waltz in, pronounce their dictum from Sinai, and waltz out leaving tsunami-like damage in their wake (to mix at least 2 and possibly 3 metaphors). When confronted with their errors, they respond with disclaimers; but when correct, it simply bolsters their belief in their gift. I wonder if we would be so quick to speak in the name of God if He enforced the death-penalty in modern Charismatic churches.

I don't know how many readers I still have after my month off, but if there are any of you out there, I would challenge you to find for me even a single Scriptural basis for members of the church speaking from God into another person's life (what is sometimes called personal prophecy). I do not know of one, which makes me even more skeptical of the validity of this practice. If you know of one, I would be interested to hear.

Hmmmm. This could have been a part of my heresies series.

Heresies, part 3 (the Gospel)

Let me first acknowledge that a series with over 3 months between part 2 and part 3 does not actually count as a series. Nonetheless...

I find myself, as of late, questioning much of what I have thought about the gospel. Not the core stuff, not the truth that Jesus, as both God and man, came to earth to re-open relationship between God and man. Not that part. The other stuff. In particular the notion that we must present the event of Jesus' life, death and resurrection solely in terms of sin and forgiveness. This notion is so prevalent in evangelical circles (in which I have travelled my entire adult life) that it is seen as a cheapening of the gospel to address the felt needs of those in our culture. This is particularly true if that means the we don't get around to "You are a sinner destined for hell" before a person responds to the message.

The problem with this approach is the education required. You see, there is good evidence that modern American culture does not come with a built-in perception of sin. So before we can give someone the good news that Jesus died for their sins, we have to convince them of the bad news that they are sinners. I'm afraid that too often we have lost them before we ever had a chance to really touch them.

But what our culture is looking for is a sense of purpose, a sense of community, and a chance to meet God. These we have in the church as well. In fact, Paul spends much of his writings talking to people about building community and about living a life of purpose. I find myself wondering if we wouldn't be more effective in touching people's lives if we spoke to them about those things and let the Holy Spirit handle the awareness of sin part. Personally, I doubt that a person could enter a growing relationship with the God of the universe as related in the Scriptures without eventually coming to terms with the fact of their own sinfulness.

So it's not that I am looking for another way to God, maybe just another way to Jesus...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


A very good friend of mine loaned me the DVD set for a TV series from the turn of the millennium. I am not going to tell you what the show was, in part because I do not want to spoil it for you should you ever watch it. And you should, because even though there is a good deal of sexual innuendo (and sometimes more than innuendo), it was an incredibly well-written show, and the characters were the kind you really want to pull for. Of course, this isn't much of an endorsement, since I'm not going to tell you what show it was.

When my friend loaned me the DVDs, he and his wife both told me that I would love the show but hate how it ended. It only ran for 2 years, and ended rather abruptly. I misunderstood what they were saying, and thought that the show ended on a very down note. So as I watched the show, I found that I had trouble enjoying the struggles through which the cast worked, assuming that it was all going to end very badly, and I was enduring a modern-day Greek tragedy.

But I was wrong. The show ends very positively, with the cast overcoming their struggles and building for future success. I loved this cast enough that I was tearful as I watched the ending. Tearful and stunned, because I expected tragedy. I found myself thinking, "I would have enjoyed that a lot more if I had known it was going to turn out OK."

Not the lesson I expected from a cancelled comedy. A good lesson, just unexpected. But the Bible says very clearly that our lives, as we walk in the relationship with God that Jesus' sacrifice has availed us of, turn out OK. No matter what the current struggles, this life is not a tragedy. He has promised in Romans 8, verses 28, 31, and 38, that He will bring triumph out of tragedy; that the looming disasters will not destroy us; and that the ending will make us cry with joy.

I would like to have that perspective during those times of my life when nothing seems to be going well. Perhaps, if I could grasp the truth of God's sovereignty over all, I would be able to enjoy, not just endure, every moment of my life, whether it appears to be destined for disaster or delight.

Monday, February 12, 2007

It's not fair! Emperor penguins get all the photos!

A friend sent me a link to this article on the disparity between the amount of attention that cute endangered species get as compared with ugly ones. My first reaction was "Duh!" but I thought I owed the writer, who is after all a professional journalist and paid for insightful, information-rich writing, to read the article and avail myself of their expertise.

Past research has shown that lack of human interest in an animal group can result in decreased funding for its protection.

Really?! That surprises me. Let me see if I understand: we human have all the money, but it took research to figure out that we only spend it on things we are interested in. Isn't that sort of the definition of interest? We spend money where we are interested. What's next? Research to determine that we only hang out with people we like? That we only engage in activities that we believe we will derive some benefit from?

Seriously, though, I find it very telling that our intellectuals no longer recognize that our interests must dominate our behavior. This is a central part of our freedom. I suspect that the same conservationists bemoaning the fact that we use our freedom to do whatever we want are the ones who argue that there is little or no significant difference between humans and other living species.

If that is so, let the ugly species get their own money.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Christian Art

Robin Parrish, who edits infuze magazine, has spent his last couple of editor's columns bemoaning the lack of quality art from the church. I feel his pain; I have found myself going to the recent flurry of movies produced by Christians with a great desire to see high quality. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed. Many of the films were above average, but in general they have not been superb.

I was thinking about this while reading the AFA Journal this morning. The AFA has for years been laboriously documenting the overwhelmingly negative attitude of Hollywood and TV towards anything Christian. This month, they have an article reviewing five movies either out, or just about out, that all have a decidedly Christian feel: Rocky Balboa, Amazing Grace, The Last Sin Eater, Thr3e, and The Goal. I haven't seen Rocky Balboa, I have seen Thr3e, and the other three are not out yet.

It is difficult to express how frustrating it was to read these reviews. For the most part, they focused on the negatives of the movies: the (relatively small) number of profanities, the lack of a complete telling of the gospel, and other elements. I find myself wanting to scream at someone, "Could you possibly just rejoice at the fact that there are 5 movies out that present Christian faith in a positive light!!!!" Sure, Rocky Balboa doesn't have a call to holiness in it, and the movie depicts faith in the context of making it through the hard times in life. But why is that bad? This is a major film from a major studio that presents faith as central to its main character's life. And this isn't just any character, Rocky is an American icon; as close to a cultural hero as we come in this country.

Just once, I would like to see these so-called defenders of American and Christian cultural sensitivity recognize that not everyone shares the purity of their vision. We live in a culture that is awash in vulgarity and profanity; and I for one appreciate the attempt to make a movie that shows that faith works in that world, not just the one inside the four walls of a modern evangelical church.