Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Monday, March 1, 2010

New Paper Critiquing Dawkins' New Atheism Published in 'Think'

My paper 'The Emperor's Incoherent new Clothes - Pointing the Finger at Dawkins' Atheism' has just been published in the latest edition of Think (Number 24, Volume 9, Spring 2010).

Think is a Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, edited by Stephen Law and published by Cambridge University Press.

I argue that Richard Dawkins' 'new atheism' proffers self-contradictory ideas about moral value, knowledge and responsibility.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

God is Great, God is Good: Interview with Chad Meister

Bethel College Philosopher Chad Meister and Biola University Philosopher William Lane Craig recently published a co-edited a response to the New Atheism. Below is our interview with Meister about their new contribution: God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible (IVP, 2009).

How did this book come about? 

Bill Craig and I thought it was time for leading scholars in their fields to offer responses to the central challenges of the New Atheists (primarily Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett) and to provide some of the latest research on matters related to theism and Christian faith.

How does this book uniquely demonstrate how belief in God is both reasonable and responsible?  

One of the objections to religious faith raised by the New Atheists and other critics of religion is that one must be both unreasonable and irresponsible to hold religious beliefs.  This is often a criticism rooted in a reaction to fideism—a reliance on nonrational or irrational faith.  In this book we attempt to demonstrate that faith need not be blind, unreasonable or irresponsible.  Belief in God and Christ can be grounded on reason and solid evidence.  Indeed, not only can one be warranted in holding Christian faith, but it may be much more intellectually honest and epistemically responsible —when taking into consideration the latest work in science, history, and philosophy—to be a believer than not.

Why is there sometimes a tendency in philosophy of religion literature to emphasize the “believing in God is reasonable” aspect and not so much the “believing in God is responsible” aspect?  

Historically in debates about God’s existence and religious belief, the issues centered around evidences and arguments for and against them (e.g., design arguments, cosmological arguments, historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, etc.).  In recent times, the New Atheists in particular have emphasized the point that religious adherents are not only basing their faith on specious evidence, but that doing so is irresponsible for an educated person in the twenty-first century.  So religious people are not only unjustified in their religious beliefs, they are also morally culpable for their religious tomfooleries.  For these critics of faith, religious beliefs are not only false, they are downright dangerous and therefore must be denounced and ultimately annihilated from the planet.  In this book, we present sixteen essays (fourteen chapters, a postscript, and an appendix) which attempt to demonstrate that believing in God is both reasonable and responsible.

Let’s talk about the contributors. You’ve got a broad range of talent from philosophers to evangelism and apologetics experts. How does this range of contributors strengthen the book’s overall presentation?

The stakeholders in these issues are extensive and include students, scholars, pastors, teachers, and scientists, among others.  In our book we have included a broad range of contributors, from theologians and Bible scholars to philosophers and experts in science.  While a single-authored work may have had a smoother flow, we chose this format in order to provide the best responses and insights available to criticisms of theism and Christian faith today.

In part one, how do the contributions by William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and Paul Moser offer explanations for knowing that God exists, especially in light of the claims of atheism?  

First, there are a number of robust arguments and evidences for God’s existence, and William Lane Craig argues that Dawkins’s criticisms of the cosmological, moral, teleological, and ontological arguments are not deadly to them, nor are they even injurious.  To the contrary, in their contemporary forms these arguments (most especially the teleological argument) provide forceful reasons for believing in God.  J. P. Moreland argues that, on the Christian worldview, God possesses five aspects (consciousness, libertarian free will, rationality, a unified self, and intrinsic value), none of which fits naturally in a scientific naturalist ontology.  Paul Moser then argues that a morally robust understanding of theism is more impervious to criticism than many believe. 

In part two, how do the contributions by John Polkinghorne, Michael Behe, and Michael Murray respond to criticisms of God’s creative design of the universe?  

John Polkinghorne argues that theism offers a “vertical” story of the universe—one in which the laws of nature point beyond them to a deeper level of intelligibility.  Michael Behe presents the case that three pillars of Darwinian evolution—random mutation, natural selection, and common descent—are insufficient to explain the overwhelming appearance of design in life, notably in the elegant molecular machinery of the cell.  Michael Murray then offers a compelling argument such that even if human beings have a natural disposition toward belief in God, this in no way makes that belief disreputable.    

In part three, how do the contributions by you, Alister McGrath, Paul Copan, and Jerry Walls provide challenges to arguments against God’s goodness?  

I first note that the logical problem of evil has been decisively rebutted in recent years—a point often overlooked by critics of belief in an omnibenevolent God—and then focus my energies on atheistic accounts of morality.  I argue that two main attempts are found wanting.  Alister McGrath contends that New Atheist endeavors to demonstrate that religion is intrinsically evil are unsuccessful; in fact, such a belief is merely an article of faith held by its adherents, supported by a very selective use of evidence and a manipulation of history.  In the next essay Paul Copan tackles the thorny issue of whether God and Old Testament laws are evil, and he makes the case that atheistic moral outrage to God’s character and laws lacks the metaphysical resources for making such charges; the God of the Old Testament is clearly not the moral monster some atheists maintain.  In the final essay of this part, Jerry Walls focuses on the issue of a good God creating hell.  He argues that it is precisely because God is a God of love that some may end up in hell.

Lastly, in part four, how do the contributions by Charles Taliaferro, Scot McKnight, Gary Habermas and Mark Mittelberg contribute to the treatment of Christianity’s unique theological claims?  

Charles Taliaferro makes the claim that given certain frameworks, including one’s view of nature, history, and values, divine revelation doesn’t stand a chance.  He challenges these frameworks and offers some positive reasons for recognizing divine revelation.  Scot McKnight then examines the questions of why many of Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t recognize him as the Messiah, what their expectations were, and how they did in fact see him.  Focusing on ten observations they made, he concludes that their expectations of the Messiah were transformed by the Messiah who came.  In the next essay, Gary Habermas argues that two epistles widely recognized as being written by Paul, I Corinthians and Galatians, demonstrate that the resurrection proclamation was quite early and linked to eyewitnesses of the event.  Lastly, Mark Mittelberg closes the book’s chapters by focusing on the question of why faith in Jesus matters.  He points out that Jesus came so we could have life and have it to the full and concludes with these eternally significant words: “The God who is great and the God who is good is ready and waiting for you to come home to him.”

God is Great, God is Good brings together contributors in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, apologetics and evangelism, and the sciences. What are some other topics or areas of study where you’d like to see such collaboration?

I am currently working on several projects in which I’m attempting to bring together philosophers, sociologists, and scholars in religious studies from across the spectrum of world religions in order to address and dialogue about many of the major issues confronting us today.  These include topics such as global ethics, theodicy, violence, secularization, diversity and public education, and the environment.  As globalization increases and religious pluralism becomes more a part of Western culture, I believe such dialectic will become increasingly significant and profitable.  I’m also working on a collaborative project with Oxford University Press in which theistic and atheistic philosophers and other scholars engage in dialogue about central matters of theism and Christian faith, such as the coherence of theism, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Atonement, and the Incarnation.  An amiable exchange of ideas can be quite rewarding, and my hope is that these various venues of discourse will elevate the dialogue among those who disagree about fundamental matters of faith.

How would you like to see this book used among its readers? Give us a vision for its use.

Our hope is that the book will be read by both adherents and critics of faith.  It is written in an irenic tone—this is no polemical screed—and is the kind of work a Christian, say, could give to an atheist friend or skeptic without concern about its being unnecessarily offensive or blatantly aggressive.  It’s also a work that can be a real faith-booster for believers as it is filled to the brim with cutting-edge theistic arguments, evidences, and rebuttals to critics of God and Christianity.

Chad Meister is a Professor of Philosophy at Bethel College, Indiana. He is also one of our book review editors for Philosophia Christi. You can learn more about Chad by going to his website: www.chadmeister.com.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Reasonable God: Interview with Gregory Ganssle

Yale University Philosopher, Greg Ganssle, recently came out with his book, A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism (Baylor, 2009). We interviewed him about his book and the contribution of the book's thesis for theism-atheism discussions.

How did this book come about for you? 

When the new atheist books came out, I knew that many Christians would respond. Some of the early responses, on the web and those Harris discusses in his Letter to a Christian Nation, seemed to be as shrill as the strongest rhetoric in the New Atheists’ work themselves. I recognized that this is not the sort of response we need. I had both a philosophical concern and a pastoral concern. Philosophically, we want to take arguments seriously, reconstruct them in their strongest and most clear form, and then provide a response. Pastorally, we (Christian philosophers) must show how to engage with people and ideas we think are mistaken. It is, in some sense, part of our role to help shape the way believers engage in public discourse. Both of these concerns led me to take on the project.

What’s so “new” about the “New Atheists”?

Obviously atheism is not new. What is new about these writers is a combination of the following: first, their arguments are not merely against the truth of theism. They are also about the undesirability of being a theist. Second, they write with a strong rhetorical and polemical style. Third, they are not entering the academic discussion of the issues. This combination is new. Now it is not perfectly new. We can think of Bertrand Russell as an example of an academic philosopher who discusses religion in this non-academic and polemical way. But for the most part there is a new strategy or approach here.

Your book has been understandably praised as having a “nonconfrontational style” (Peter van Inwagen) and even a “sensible, evenhanded assessment of the strengths and weaknesses” (Dean Zimmerman). Did you intend such a tone, style, and approach? If so, why?

This tone was very important to me. First of all, as a Christian I know that my higher priority is to be charitable. In an intellectual dispute this requires that we take a careful, reasoned approach, and that we look for places where those we are engaging are getting issues right. We need to treat those we are challenging as our friends. I think there is no other way for a faithful follower of Christ to proceed. Second, as I mentioned before, there is a pastoral responsibility to show both how to engage these kinds of ideas and to show that we do not have to panic at challenges to our faith. Third, it is simply what it means to be a human being.

Was this a hard book to write, given the fact that most of the noticeable New Atheists do not tend to be philosophers (with the exception of Dan Dennett, of course)?

To be honest, the most difficult part was working through the texts and locating and articulating the arguments. Partly because this part of the process is exegetical, it is not as much fun as the actual writing. Of course, this part of the project will be part of many writing projects. It was here, though, that I almost quit. I almost quit because I wondered if another response was even needed. Many books were being published on the topic.

The writing itself went rather smoothly. I wrote the last chapter first (and it was published in Philosophia Christi as “Dawkins’ Best Argument: the Case against God in The God Delusion,” Vol 10. No. 1 (2008): 39-56.) I spent the summer of 2008 doing most of the rest of the writing. As far as tone is concerned, it was not a struggle. There is an advantage to working in a secular environment in that you are around very smart atheists all the time. This helps you internalize the sort of posture and virtues required of a believer in the world.

How does science (as a source of knowledge about reality) and its authority inform and form New Atheist claims about God’s non-existence? 

The new atheists tend to think that religious belief is incompatible with science. Dawkins is an exception in that he thinks that the God hypothesis is itself a scientific claim. What he means, I argue, is that it is a claim that has truth value and that if it is true, there ought to be the kind of evidence that is available to scientific methodologies. Since his arguments are largely philosophical, he does not think that scientific methodologies are the only ones that are appropriate for discerning the truth of the matter.

If the new atheists thought theology was a legitimate source of knowledge, they would not be atheists.

How and why does evidence, including its value, purpose, and significance, have an important role in atheist objections against theism?

Each of the new atheists might be different in this respect. The kinds of evidence they point to varies. For example, Dennett is much less concerned with the truth of atheism than with the idea that religion must be studied scientifically. By this he means that we must seek a Darwinian- type of explanation of religious belief and practice. He engages arguments for and against religious belief mostly in his early book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Dawkins does not, for example, press the problem of evil because he thinks that the claim that God is good is not essential to theism. Harris does press it. Hitchens and Dawkins argue that Darwinism provides strong evidence that God does not exist.

You show that New Atheists interact with the cosmological, ontological, and moral arguments for God’s existence. What are the strengths and weaknesses of their interaction?

One thing we can learn is how difficult our job of communication is. Many of the objections they raise to these arguments are based on misunderstandings of the arguments. These misunderstandings involve both what we may call the classical versions (in Aquinas, Paley, etc) and contemporary versions. I think those atheists who concentrate in philosophy of religion, such as William Rowe, Richard Gale and Graham Oppy, are much more nuanced because they work in these arguments. Paul Draper is another example of a charitable and careful critic of theism, though he has tended to call himself an agnostic and not an atheist.

On the moral argument, they engage two points very well. These are that we need to believe in God in order to act morally and that we need to believe in God in order to know what is right and wrong. They correctly challenge both of these notions. What they do not engage, is the very question at the center of most moral arguments. This is the issue that the reality of objective moral obligations is better explained by theism than by atheistic theories of morality.

Why do New Atheists consider the Design Argument for God’s existence to be the most important?

This was a puzzle to me. Dawkins mentions that it is the only one still in use. I think they recognize that the hunch is strong that features in the world require an explanation.

What are the strengths and weaknesses for how the New Atheists treat the Design Argument for God’s existences?

I tend to think they do a good job with the big picture of Paley’s argument. Darwinism does raise a significant challenge to this one. They are less successful with the fine-tuning argument. They are quick to embrace the many worlds conjecture, though they do not consider the challenges that raises. It is as if the mere possibility that the conjecture is true undermines the whole argument.

What are Darwinian stories of religion? How do they function?


I found this part interesting. Both Dawkins and Dennett articulate some suggestions about how this kind of explanation might work. Here, they are pretty careful to explain where they are being merely suggestive. They do not claim more for their suggestions than they ought. The other interesting part is that they do not draw any conclusions from their suggestions. They do not say, “Therefore, it is probable that God does not exist.” In fact, Dennett explicitly says the Darwinian analysis of religious belief and practice is perfectly compatible with theism.

I had to ask myself about the upshot of the Darwinian stories as articulated by these writers. I concluded that there is some reason to think, though I cannot be sure about this, that both Dawkins and Dennett might mean these stories to function as a sort of Nietzschean  genealogy. In other words, these stories function to dislodge the readers’ commitment to theism, not through an argument that theism is false. Rather, the commitment is dislodged due to the presence of a plausible alternative story.

Dawkins’ “fittingness argument” is, arguably, the strongest argument among the New Atheists. What is it? How can theists respond?

Dawkins argues that the world we encounter fits better with the atheistic world-view than it does with the theistic world-view. Here Dawkins does some good work. He does not exaggerate the strength of the argument and, as I argue in the book, it does have some force. Dawkins reflects on the claim that biological life emerged and developed over a long time through Darwinism. If atheism is true, then if there is biological life, it must develop over a long time through some kind of process that is naturalistic. This is exactly what we find. If theism is true, it might be that biological life emerges and develops in the same way, but there are many other possibilities. God could bring it all into existence in one moment, or seven literal days. The fact that what we find is exactly what is required within the atheist world-view raises the probability of atheism.

I argue that Dawkins is exactly right about how these probabilities work. The fact that what we find is exactly what is required within atheism does confirm atheism.

There are two ways for theists to respond. Here I am going off what I do in the book. Theists can challenge the claim (what Dawkins calls “the fact”) that biological life actually emerged and developed through Darwinian means (including, of course, a naturalistic story about the origin of life). This approach is the one taken by those working in Intelligent Design theory. I do not raise any of this in the book because it is entirely implausible to the new atheists. To them, ID is just like young-earth creationism. It seems hopeless. It would not be wise to build a response to an argument that requires premises that seem hopeless to the very people you want to persuade. My approach might be controversial among Christians but I think there is an important principle about persuasion and the mission of the apologist.

The other way to respond, is to begin closer to the things the new atheists already believe. This is the approach I take. I can grant that Dawkins’ argument raises the probability of atheism. It does so by concentrating on one feature in the world. That is the development of biological life. There are other features, however, that are also not too controversial that point in the other direction. The four features I discuss are the fact that the universe is stable and ordered by natural laws, the fact that there are conscious beings, the fact that there is significant free agency (libertarian freedom) in the world, and the fact that there are objective moral obligations. To be sure the last two are controversial, although each of the new atheists presupposes objective moral obligations when they press moral objections to the way religious people have acted through history. The option to deny objective moral obligations is not open to them. Libertarian freedom is more controversial, though many think it is a reality.

The structure of my response is important. I do not take these four features and argue to the existence of God on their basis. All I do is show that Dawkins’ claim that the world points more clearly in the atheistic direction is false. I do think there are good arguments for God’s existence based on these features, but I do not need to develop them, since my goal is to respond to his argument.

Where do you see the discussion going between theism (especially Christian theism) and the New Atheism?

This is a good question. What I hope is that Christians begin to learn to respond more often with charity to challenges to our belief in God. I do get disturbed when some of us take pot-shots. I also hope that the public discussion of religious issues will include some of our more thoughtful representatives. I believe that this trend can come about as we continue to do good work.

How would you like to see your book used?

I'd love to see this book used as a text in philosophy of religion and apologetics courses because of the tone I tried to set. I think it could be a model. I know at least two courses that are using it.

You can learn more about Greg Ganssle by going here. Greg is also a staff member with the Rivendell Institute.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens

On April 4th at Biola University, William Lane Craig debated Christopher Hitchens concerning the question, "Does God Exist?" The debate was moderated by columnist, law professor, and radio host Hugh Hewitt. Both Biola's student body and the graduate program in Christian apologetics co-sponsored the debate.

Below is a basic overview of the web coverage. A helpful, summary transcript can also be found here.

Some regional and local college papers covered the debate, including the Whittier Daily, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star, the Daily Titan (Cal State Fullerton), and Biola's Chimes.

Perhaps the best atheist response comes from the Common Sense Atheist blog.

And some of the best theistic blog coverage and analysis can be found from Doug Geivett (Biola philosopher), Melinda Penner (apologist), MaryJo Sharp (apologist), and the Evangelical Outpost (cultural commentary).

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Interview with Peter S. Williams: Sceptics's Guide to New Atheism

We interviewed Peter S. Williams, an EPS blogger and contributor to Philosophia Christi, about his just released book, A Sceptic's Guide to Atheism (Paternostre, 2009). A talk by Peter about his new book can be downloaded by clicking here.

What is unique about your book compared to other critical treatments on the “new atheists”?

The new atheism is characterised by the propositions that belief in God is false and evil. The new atheists believe that at the core of even the most outwardly benign theism is an immoral commitment to flouting one’s intellectual responsibilities. That means that the new atheism presupposes both an account of rationality and an account of morality. What’s unique about my book is that I examine those accounts and turn the results of this analysis against the new atheism. By systematically reviewing their major arguments, I show how the new atheism is grounded in incoherent accounts of knowledge and morality.

It’s not just that the new atheists are wrong to define ‘faith’ as ‘belief without evidence’ or ‘belief against the evidence’. It’s that their positive account of what it means to live up to one’s intellectual responsibilities is self-contradictory. I counter with an epistemology that isn’t self-contradictory, which frowns upon both ‘blind faith’ and belief despite overwhelming counter evidence, but which opens up the possibility of a faith in God that’s compatible with living up to one’s genuine intellectual responsibilities.

Then again, the new atheists put a lot of emphasis on arguments against belief in God, as opposed to arguments against the existence of God, and these arguments all have a moral dimension. For example, the argument that faith means being committed to ignoring one’s intellectual responsibilities presupposes that we have an objective moral responsibility to reason in a certain way. However, for the new atheists to invoke objective moral responsibilities is self-contradictory, since the naturalistic worldview of the new atheism excludes the reality of any objective moral values. For example, Dawkins says both that there are no normative facts, no good, no evil, and that faith is an evil that leads people to do evil things. These claims form an in consistent set.

Of all the different new atheist voices that are out there, who do you find to be the most compelling in their case against the existence of God?

Dawkins makes the most compelling case against the truth of belief in God; but that’s partly because, despite being such a poor logician, he is a good rhetoritician, and partly because the other new atheists are even worse on this issue! The God Delusion was the first new atheist book I read, and I thought at the time that it was a low point for atheistic apologetics. Dawkins clearly doesn’t even understand the theistic arguments he critiques, and his book is consequently full of embarrassing errors. When it comes to his ‘central’ argument against theism, it turns out to be an exercise begging the question. Dawkins’ engagement with natural theology is a litany of formal and informal logical fallacies; but he’s a zoologist and not a philosopher. I expected more from new atheists who are philosophers, and I was disappointed to discover that Dawkins is actually the high water mark for new atheist engagement with the question of God’s existence!

The new atheists spend very little time arguing against the existence of God, or trying to counter the arguments for God’s existence. Dawkins’ is the most sustained effort on offer. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is crucially predicated upon the non-existence of God, but he only spends eleven paragraphs (from pages 240-245) on this issue! Like his compatriots, Dennett skims over straw-man presentations of a small sub-set of theistic arguments which he dismisses using long discredited counter-arguments.

Anyone who didn’t know better and was inclined to trust what the new atheist’s say would come away from their books with the false impression that the cosmological argument depends upon the premise that ‘everything has a cause’ (thus leading to the question ‘Who made God?’), and that the moral argument claims that people can’t discern or behave in accordance with the good unless they believe in God (or in the Bible as the inspired word of God). As far as I’m concerned, that’s an academic scandal.

What are some of the sociological, cultural-historical or philosophical factors that have empowered the new atheism to emerge now compared to, say, fifty years ago?

I think the explanation is multi-factorial. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 clearly put the issue of religiously motivated violence smack in the centre of Western public consciousness; but I don’t think we can simply point the finger at the actions of a certain type of Muslim and say that the new atheism is a secular reaction to their actions. For one thing, Christians shouldn’t let themselves off the hook here. Many atheists have legitimate cause to feel themselves an oppressed minority. In 2006 researchers at the University of Minnesota identified atheists as America’s most distrusted minority, and the American Sociological Review reported that it is generally thought socially acceptable in America to say that you are intolerant of atheists. I think that the Church must ask itself if it is ‘speaking the truth’ to atheists ‘in love’, or in fear and hate? Perhaps we’ve had a hand in creating a stick with which to beat out own backs.

Another factor is the way in which the new atheism offers an apparently meaningful and purposeful existence to its converts. Materialism is the metaphysics of nihilism par excellence (cf. my book I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism) but the new atheism dresses itself up in fake robes of meaning and purpose, like the fairy-tale about the Emperor’s New Clothes. The fake meaning comes in the guise of moral outrage at the (generalised) behaviour of theists. The fake purpose comes in the form of an intellectual-cum-socio-political crusade against theistic belief and for a metaphysically naturalistic worldview. The ‘new atheism’ thus offers an apparently valuable meaning and purpose to people’s lives, a daring intellectual identity and a community of like-minded fellow-pilgrims. And the Emperor’s new tailor appeared to offer him the finest new robes…

Where do you think the discussion is going between new atheists and theists in the years to come?

I suspect that the new atheism has already had its cultural hay-day. It has now lost something of that ‘lure of the new’ to which our media-saturated culture is so in thralled, and it seems unlikely that Dawkins et al can sustain their movement’s momentum even if they manage to write a new set of books to keep their ideas in the public eye.

Nevertheless, significant numbers of people have been profoundly influenced by the new atheism. If there’s one thing to be said for the new atheism it is that antipathy towards Christianity is better than apathy; and the new atheism means Christians will meet more antipathy, albeit an intellectually under-resourced antipathy. Christians must ‘speak the truth in love’ to those influenced by the new atheism, engaging them with the real reasons for the hope that we have (rather than the straw-men boldly eviscerated by Dawkins et al), but also engaging with them on a personal level as friends whom Christ loves. If the new atheism can lead to more disagreements that are not disagreeable, then it may be a blessing in disguise!

Peter S. Williams is a philosophy and apologetics researcher, lecturer, and author with the UK based Damaris Trust.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Richard Dawkins' search for a grander truth

In a recent interview in the UK based Third Way magazine, Richard Dawkins affirmed:

'I'm damn sure there's more to the universe than we understand... there may be some things that we never understand. But I think I draw the line at saying because we don't understand it, therefore some kind of theistic interpretation is therefore more plausible. I suspect that the truth, when and if we discover it, will be far grander and more mysterious than anything that theists have ever imagined.' (Third Way, 'Said the atheist to the (ex) Bishop', September 2008, p. 10.)

A few brief observations:

1) Dawkins almost sounds here like a proponent of the theological 'way of negation' which holds (rightly or wrongly) that we can only say what God is not, and not what God is.

2) While everyone seems agreed that there is indeed a bad, 'God of the gaps' form of theistic argument (at least when it is an 'argument from ignorance'), arguments in natural theology needn't be, and generally aren't, formulated along such fallacious lines.

3) The main question this quote raises in my mind is whether Dawkins hasn't come accross St. Anselm's definition of God as 'the greatest conceivable being' or 'that than which a greater cannot be thought'. Of course, since Dawkins critiques the ontological argument in The God Delusion he must have come accross Anselm's definition. How, then, can he think that any as-yet-to-be-discovered truth could possibly be greater than the greatest possible being? I can only surmise that Dawkins' (literally) doesn't understand what he is talking about on this issue.

4) Is Dawkins contradicting the values-subjectivism he elsewhere explicitly embraces by talking about the possibility of discovering 'grander' truths? If not, then how can a merely subjective 'grander' truth be any greater than God, especially when God is defined as the objectively 'maximally great being'? Dawkins is either contradicting himself or undercutting himself here.

5) Perhaps if Dawkins came to understand the meaning of the phrase 'greatest possible being' he wouldn't think of theistic belief as a 'medieval' place-holder for something grander. And if he thought more deeply about God so-defined than he does in The God Delusion (where he basically passes the ball to Hume and Kant) then he might look more kindly upon St. Anselm' ontological meditations upon that theme...

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Plantinga and Groothuis on Evolution, Naturalism and Atheism

Alvin Plantinga argues in the latest issue of Books & Culture that "naturalism and evolution are in conflict with each other."

Also in that same issue, Doug Groothuis reviews various books concerning atheism, the state of the debate between atheists and theists, and he alludes to the Philosophia Christi interview of former atheist Antony Flew.

Previously in Books & Culture, Plantinga published "The Dawkins Confusion" and Groothuis published "Defenders of the Faith" and "Jesus the Philosopher."

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Antony Flew's trenchant response to Richard Dawkins & 'The God Delusion'

In 'Flew Speaks Out: Professor Flew Reviews The God Delusion' Professor Antony Flew responds in trenchant terms to what he calls 'that monster footnote [concerning Flew on page 82] to what I am inclined to describe as that monster book' The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006).

According to this new article by the 85 year old ex-atheist, published July 19th 2008 by UCCF's excellent apologetics website www.bethinking.org, Richard Dawkins is 'a secularist bigot'.

The fault of Dawkins as an academic, says Flew: 'was his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine which he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form.'

Flew's 2004 announcement that at the age of 81, after a noted professional lifetime of atheism, he had come to believe in the existence of God, really set the cat among the pigeons. Ad hominem accusations of hedging his bets with respect to an afterlife that Flew (under the influence of Gilbert Ryle) still doesn't believe even theoretically possible were bandied about by ill-informed detractors such as British humanist's Roy Hattersley and Richard Dawkins. Indeed, at a recent conference on the resurrection in London, Flew stated (before a mainly Christian audience) from a platform shared with Professor Gary R. Habermas and Bishop N.T. Wright, that he didn't believe in any kind of life after death, including resurrection. Hardly the words of a man who is either hedging his bets or easily swayed by Christian friends! As Flew writes in There Is a God (Harper One, 2007): 'I do not think of myself as surviving death. For the record, then, I want to lay to rest all those rumors that have me placing Pascalian bets.' (p. 2.)

Indeed, Richard Dawkins slings several criticisms in Flew's direction within a large footnotes on page 82 of The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006), none of which deal with the substance of Flew's Deism, or the philosophical arguments that persuade him thereof. Instead, Dawkins says that in his 'old age' Flew, whom he depreciates as not being a 'great philosopher' like Bertrand Russell, has adopted belief in 'some sort of deity'. Dawkins also attacks Flew for what he calls 'his ignominious decision to accept, in 2006, the "Philip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth', for which he notes 'The awarding university is BIOLA, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. One can't help wondering whether Flew realizes that he is being used.'

Having responded in several venues to the erroneous suggestions that his change of mind is a 'Pascalian Wager' in the face of death, and that his book There Is a God was basically written by rather than with help from Roy Abraham Varghese, Flew now responds directly to Dawkins. (By the way, I personally read the hand-typed article sent by Flew to a mutual contact at UCCF for publication, so I hope we can leave conspiracy theories where they belong.) Flew is clearly deeply upset with Dawkins, on both an academic and a personal level, and he doesn't mince words, accusing him of an 'insincerity of academic purpose.' Dawkins 'is not interested in the truth as such,' laments Flew, 'but is primarily concerned to discredit an ideological opponent by any available means.'

On receiving the Philip E. Johnson award, Flew notes that: 'Dawkins obviously assumes (but refrains from actually saying) that [being a specifically Christian institution] is incompatible with producing first class academic work in every department...' Moreover, as to the suggestion that he was 'used' by Biola, Flew clearly doesn't think the accusation worth dignifying: 'If the way I was welcomed by the students and members of faculty whom I met in my short stay at Biola amounted to being used then I can only express my regret that at the age of 85 I cannot reasonably hope for another visit to this institution.'


Recommended Reading

Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese, There Is a God (Harper One, 2007)

Antony Flew, 'Flew Speaks Out: Professor Flew Reviews The God Delusion'

Gary R. Habermas & Antony Flew, 'My Prilgrimage from Atheism to Theism'

Gary R. Habermas, 'Antony Flew's Deism Revisited'

Roy Abraham Varghese, 'Letter to the Editor, Magazine, New York Times'

Benjamin Wiker, 'Exclusive Flew Interview'

Peter S. Williams, 'A Change of Mind for Antony Flew'

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

God is Not Dead Yet

Christianity Today has published an essay by William Lane Craig, titled, "God is Not Dead Yet."

The essay is the cover article of the July issue.

Also this month, Crossway Books has released the third edition of Craig's Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (www.reasonablefaithtools.com).

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Interview with Paul Copan: Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?

We interviewed Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, about his forthcoming article in our Summer 2008 issue of Philosophia Christi (10:1). Paul is also the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics Palm Beach Atlantic University (West Palm Beach, FL)

His Philosophia Christi article is titled, "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics."

Who are the "new atheists" and what makes them new?

The new atheists include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens - the "Four Horsemen," they've been called. Perhaps because of the fading Judeo-Christian cultural consensus or worldview in our culture, they have been emboldened to take on a new stridency and, in some cases, even anger and hostility. God is "not great" (Hitchens) and a "monster" (Dawkins). (Dan Dennett strikes me as more even-handed. I've met him and have enjoyed cordial conversation with him, and we've contributed to a forthcoming book with Fortress Press, which I mention later.)

One feature many critics acknowledge about the new atheists is that their case against God tends to be fairly flimsy and not very tightly argued at all. In his book I Don't Believe in Atheists (New York: Free Press, 2008), Chris Hedges writes of Harris's book The End of Faith: "His facile attack on a form of religious belief we all hate, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist" (2). Though Hedges shares the new atheists' disgust - as do I! - with "the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists" (3), he believes that their confidence in reason and science is profoundly misplaced and their optimism about human nature and utopian visions is equally misguided.

Hedges says that we should carefully distinguish between religious values or certain religious figures and religious institutions: "Religion, real religion, involved fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, cultivating empathy and defying the powerful" (5-6). I think that if Christians took "real religion" (or, as James 1 says, "true religion") seriously, many of the points made by the new atheists would be greatly weakened.

Why should thoughtful religious persons pay attention to what the new atheists are claiming?

These new atheists are getting quite a bit of attention with their claims that God and science conflict or that Christianity (or "religion") is bad for people. They are rhetorically effective and happen to be churning out best-sellers, influencing the minds of many. Yes, the new atheists have plenty of critics. For instance, atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse writes that Dawkins's argumentation in the God Delusion "makes me embarrassed to be an atheist." Many critics of the new atheists see them as strident. But this hasn't prevented a lot of people from taking the new atheists very seriously.

How should theists listen to these claims?

I think that theist and atheist alike should listen fairly and even-handedly to them. The reader should sort out legitimate arguments from the anger, the rhetoric, the anecdotal and ad hominem argumentation, the exaggerated claims (such as the God-science conflict), the red herrings and caricatures (e.g., all Christians are young-earth creationists), and so forth.

Christians of course, need to be well-grounded in their faith, being able to graciously respond to some very legitimate questions the new atheists raise. (Indeed, many Christians themselves have grappled with questions that about the Old Testament's harshness and, in places, inferior moral standards that are permitted because of human hard-heartedness). Christians must also be clear-minded and discriminating about what in Scripture is normative and what is not, about what is enduring and what is temporary, of what springs from human sin and what is rooted in the character of God.

Christians also should carefully guard what is articulated in the Declaration of Independence - that all humans "have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." We are experiencing a crisis in the West as to what our moral foundations are. If God does not exist who has made human beings and thus nature's mindless, valueless processes have produced us as merely advanced animals, then such a crisis of moral foundations will only deepen.

What appears to be the main claim(s) of the new atheists when it concerns Old Testament ethics?

The main claims of the new atheists are these: (1) They see the "Old Testament God" as mean-spirited, cruel, capricious (e.g., God's command to Abraham to kill his son, God's permitting slavery or commanding the killing of the Canaanites). (2) They consider moral standards and practices in the Old Testament to be repugnant and strange (e.g., Lot's daughters having sex with their drunken father out of a desire to have children). (3) These new atheists make the faulty inference that to be thoroughly biblical means embracing the death penalty for adulterers or idolaters and, further that the Mosaic Law is the presumed enduring moral and legal standard for all nations. (4) The new atheists point out that we can know moral standards without needing to appeal to Scripture.

Why would the new atheists be interested in "Old Testament ethics" and the "Old Testament God"?

If the character of "the God of the Bible" can be rightly questioned, then one has all the more reason for rooting the standard of objective goodness in something natural rather than supernatural. Attacking Old Testament ethics appears to be the best way of making quick work of dismissing God altogether.

What sort of reasons and evidences are presented by the new atheists when they offer support for their main claim(s)?

The new atheists appeal to science, history, and reason/philosophy to make their case for a decent world without God. They seem unaware of how the Christian faith helped give birth to modern science and early on shaped the philosophical assumptions that scientists - theistic or atheistic - utilize today. The new atheists downplay the remarkable cultural/moral influence the Christian faith has played in the West, and they overplay horrors committed in the name of Christ while underplaying the destructive role of atheistic ideologies in the twentieth century. Finally, the new atheists are remarkably out of touch with, say, sophisticated theistic arguments for God's existence. Their arguments against God tend to be very superficial (bordering on village atheist argumentation that is often ad hominem or hasty generalization) and often naively tout science as the arbiter of truth, following in the barren footsteps of their positivistic forebears.

Your Philosophia Christi article claims to offer a "nuanced response to the new atheists." Please briefly explain your response and why you take it to be significant to this discussion.

The new atheists are skillful rhetoricians. They commonly use one-liners, distorted descriptions, and emotional zingers to make their points. They generally do not give an accurate, well-rounded picture of Old Testament ethical questions, but they score a lot of rhetorical points with many readers. I'm trying to respond to this strategy with more nuanced description and reasoning to put such criticisms in proper perspective. While I am not here responding in kind rhetorically, I want to give adequate, well-researched material that others can utilize in response to the new atheists' witty, but weak, argumentation on Old Testament ethics. I hope to write a fuller treatment on Old Testament ethics that is more popularly accessible.

In the "Final Thoughts" section of your article, you offer three final claims against the new atheists. Please summarize them and say how they compliment your "nuanced response."

First, the new atheists reject the very theistic foundations that have made modern science possible, that have shaped the direction of the West's moral progress, and that stand as the basis of human rights and dignity. Theism affirms humans have value because they have been made in the image of God. A supremely valuable being - not valueless, mindless processes - has endowed us earthly creatures with dignity and value. To get rid of God is to get rid of the kinds of values that these new atheists would like to affirm.

Second, the new atheists assume that theocracy or a nation ruled directly by God is the ideal when in actual fact a theocracy is simply one of several developments in Israel's history. Indeed, the Old Testament itself looks beyond ethnic Israel as the true people of God to an interethnic, international body of believers who are the true Israel in Christ.

Third, as I noted earlier, the new atheists assume that the Old Testament proclaims and enduring moral standard for all nations for all time. However, we can rightly agree with Daniel Dennett, who thanks "heaven" that the numbers of those who believe this are dwindling!

So we can side with the new atheists on these last two points but without jettisoning God's moral authority over humankind.

Can you recommend any other Christian responses or resources about the new atheists?

One can gain a lot from looking at Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion?; John Haught, God and the New Atheism; John Lennox, God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?; David Marshall, The Truth Behind the New Atheism; Francis Collins, The Language of God (to some degree); Dinesh D'Souza has debated new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett (available at Youtube). See also Alister McGrath's interaction with Daniel Dennett in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart (Fortress Press, forthcoming) - a book to which I have contributed on the topic of "Naturalism, Theism, and the Foundations of Morality"; and, as previously mentioned, Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists (though responding to the new atheists from a distinct vantage point).

If Christians are to effectively respond to new atheist challenges, can you offer recommendations and encouragement in this area?

I have tried to take seriously these sorts of challenges. My popular-level books True for You, But Not for Me, That's Just Your Interpretation, How Do You Know You're Not Wrong? and When God Goes to Starbucks have attempted to address many Old Testament ethical topics (and lots more!) in user-friendly, accessible ways. I'm working on another book that tackles Old Testament ethical issues specifically, again at a popular level.

In general, I would say that Christians need to be well-informed about their faith and its robust intellectual strength as well as common challenges to their faith. This will require turning off the TV and doing research and deeper thinking. We must also help equip the next generation of Christians to be more thoughtful about their faith rather than presuming upon the fading Judeo-Christian heritage that many Christians in our culture seem to cling to. Although the church throughout the world is growing dramatically, the church in North America is facing great challenges from within and without.

Along these lines, Christians need to see that much of the criticism directed toward the church stems from deeper problems such as hypocrisy, judgmentalism, anti-intellectualism, and a host of other concerns. I would recommend David Kinnaman's helpful corrective, the book unChristian (Baker) - an excellent wake-up call to the church.

More of Paul Copan can be found at his website: www.paulcopan.com. He blogs at Parchment & Pen and recently posted "The Moral Indignation of Richard Dawkins."

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