30 August 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 4 (part 1)

If there's any measure of success, influence, and cultural importance of Richard Dawkins' bestseller The God Delusion, it probably lies in the huge wave of backlash it has provoked from believers. Personally, A Brief History of Time did far more to persuade me to reject theism than any polemic, but Dawkins' book (which I read when I was already an atheist) has certainly cut deep into the religious community.

That's evidenced in True Reason, where now two of the four chapters I've read are postured as responses to TGD. Previously, I read William Lane Craig's response and found it to be a quote-mining, dishonest smear. At this point, I'm quite frustrated with the book. I'll say it every time: I don't expect to be re-converted to Christianity, but I at least want to hear some ideas I had not considered – perhaps something that provokes me to critically re-examine some of my key beliefs. Instead, I've found that this book, like most apologist works I've read, simply quote-mines to trigger righteous indignation from its target audience of people who are already Christians, and gets the atheist arguments completely wrong. I really want this book to be more. Much more. Knocking down straw men does not impress me.

The fourth chapter is written by Chuck Edwards, and is another response to The God Delusion. This is a long chapter, so I'm going to have to break it into two parts.

Chapter 4: Richard Dawkins: Long on Rhetoric, Short on Reason
Edwards opens thusly:
“If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” 2 With this challenge, Richard Dawkins lays down the gauntlet in his best-selling book The God Delusion, declaring that only an atheist can claim the intellectual high ground of logic, science, and reason, and that those who believe in God are not only irrational, but delusional.
This does not instill me with confidence about what is to come. Yes, it is irrational, even delusional, to believe in God. But the part that is often missed is that smart people can and do get some things wrong. I often cite Isaac Newton: he discovered the laws of motion, the law of universal gravitation, the laws of optics, and invented differential calculus – all before the age of 30. Then he spent the rest of his long life as an alchemist. It's true: one of the smartest humans who ever lived spent most of his life devoted to a pseudoscience.

Nobody thinks that believers like Francis Collins, William Lane Craig, or Francisco Ayala are dense. We non-believers think they are smart people who, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, are guilty of a sort of intellectual compartmentalization.

This might seem like a minor distinction to harp on early in the chapter, but I think it's pivotal. I've received countless comments from believers who feel that atheists seem them as dense, dumb, irrational, or delusional. That is not the case. We think you are being irrational and delusional about this particular issue. You may still be a very smart, very reasonable person overall.

Edwards now lays out his aims for the chapter:
The purpose of this chapter is to respond to a few issues that are most relevant to the question of whether belief in God is reasonable and whether atheists have the upper hand when it comes to rational thought regarding religion in general and Christianity in particular. The focus will be on further issues Dawkins brings up in The God Delusion, beyond those that William Lane Craig addressed in the previous chapter.
Sweet! This is good, since one of my criticisms of Craig's response was that he made it sound like Dawkins ignored lots of popular apologetic arguments, which is not the case. Edwards begins by responding to Dawkins' famous quote about the God of the Old Testament: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Edwards responds:
First, by attacking God in this way, Dawkins uses a tactic suspiciously similar to a fallacy called “poisoning the well.” It’s a rhetorical ploy often used in place of reasoned argument, with the intent to bias the reader emotionally against the opposing position. Dawkins uses practically every negative descriptor known to modern man in his portrayal of God. This produces a strong gut reaction: who would want anything to do with a God like that?
Something that's often lost in criticisms of The God Delusion is that Dawkins makes it clear that he's tackling the concept of God as generally defined in Western Monotheism. And obviously, the Old Testament is a big part of that. But while this opener may be "suspiciously similar" to poisoning the well, it's not. One could rightly claim that Edwards isn't saying that Dawkins is committing that fallacy, but he's clearly leading readers to believe Dawkins is doing something like that.

But the Dawkins' description is accurate. It's not "name-calling"; it's true! Of course, Edwards disagrees.
Contrary to Dawkins’ claims, Jewish and Christian theologians throughout the centuries have never described God the way he imagines.
Lol! Really? I'm shocked that believers have never described their god the way an atheist did!
In addition, he ignores the most basic understanding of the passages of the Bible from which he draws his outlandish claims. He demonstrates his misreading of the Bible, for example, in Chapter 7 of The God Delusion. Dawkins recalls a story from Judges 19-21 of a man who allowed his concubine to be raped and murdered, then cut her to pieces and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel as a rallying cry to battle. Dawkins writes, “Let’s charitably put it down again to the ubiquitous weirdness of the Bible.” 8 One critic of Dawkins countered, “Why not put it down to the ubiquitous weirdness of people? One might as well blame Darwin for finches dying in the Galapagos. Dawkins seems under the strange assumption that the author approves of [this episode].” 9
And here we get to the meat of Edwards' response. Notice, conspicuously, that Edwards didn't actually respond directly to Dawkins' argument. He's just saying that Dawkins is taking scriptures out of context. Well, that old canard has been beaten to death, most brilliantly satarized here:

 So by pulling this isolated episode out [Judges 19-21] of its historical and literary context, Dawkins demonstrates that he has not done his homework and, in fact, has no idea what he is talking about. Dawkins may feel satisfied making snide remarks, but when they are so lacking in substance as this, they mean nothing.
Edwards goes on a bit, but never really responds to Dawkins. He asserts that the story from Judges is a lesson in how "people left to their own devices will often go wrong" (since, y'know, religious people don't, or anything). And that's it. Dawkins gives plenty of examples of barbarism straight from the mouth of God, but Edwards is done on this topic and moves on to apologetics:
In Chapter 3, Dawkins turns to classic arguments for the existence of God developed by the medieval Christian philosophers Anselm (late 11th century) and Thomas Aquinas (13th century). For example, Aquinas’ cosmological argument relies on the principle of cause and effect to establish the existence of a necessary Being (God) who is the cause of the physical universe. But Dawkins dismisses this argument by claiming it makes an “entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress.”
 I think a better criticism of the cosmological arguments is to point out that they commit categorical fallacies, but Dawkins is still correct. If we can suggest that the universe needed a cause, why couldn't we suggest God needed a cause? The answer that theologians give is to define God in such a way that the rules of logic need not apply to his existence. He's eternal, yet exists timelessly. He's unchanging and disembodied, but somehow interacts with physical reality and can make decisions. He's omniscient, but has free will.

Edwards then quotes Alvin Planting deriding Dawkins as a philosophical amateur. He quotes Michael Ruse, an atheist, making the same charge. So, other people think Dawkins is wrong. That is not a rebuttal. Edwards then criticizes Dawkins for failing to address the "Kalam cosmological argument", which Edwards insists is the strongest version of the cosmological argument.
Defenders of this form of the argument offer two philosophical reasons for the first premise, and both philosophical and scientific reasons for the second. On that basis, since the form of the argument is valid, the concluding third statement is true.
For what it's worth, I've addressed the Kalam myself in-depth many times, and summed it all up here:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument: The Complete Rebuttal

I should note that all cosmological arguments are fallacious for the same reason: categorical fallacies (the fact that causality applies to matter and energy within the universe does not imply that causality must apply to the universe). So it really doesn't matter which version of the cosmological argument Dawkins is responding to; they're all wrong.
Instead of dealing with the serious points that Christian philosophers bring to the discussion, as others have, Dawkins simply asks, “Where did God come from?” With this, Dawkins shows he is totally unfamiliar with the wealth of literature on the subject and the strongest arguments currently employed. If he had done his homework, he would have realized his question misses the point entirely. The first point of the kalam cosmological argument is that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. God, by definition, never began to exist. God is the “Uncaused Cause.” So the question “Where did God come from?” is irrelevant!
Edwards just proved Dawkins' point; he simply escapes the regress by defining God in such a way that the same rules of logic don't apply. God can exist infinitely in the past or independently of time, but the universe can't. But this is another categorical fallacy. Objects within the universe must exist with respect to time, because time is a property of the universe; but the universe itself need not exist with respect to time – the very idea is nonsensical (what does it exist in relation to?). 

Edwards then repeats William Lane Craig's canard about a past-eternal universe being impossible:
Since that’s impossible, it follows that the physical space-time universe could not have existed since eternity past. Second, scientific evidence for the “Big Bang” and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics indicates that space-time-matter had a beginning. 17
This is true... of the observable universe. But if there's one thing that cosmology teaches us, it's that there's much, much more to reality than the observable universe. It's a false dichotomy; Stephen Hawking (over which William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith debated) posits space-time that is finite, but without a boundary or edge – like the surface of the Earth. Craig's cosmology is analogous to a flat Earth: it must go on forever or stop at a boundary. It's a false dilemma, as the laws of physics allow for that third possibility, which we may more fully understand and dis/confirm with the advent of a quantum theory of gravity.

Edwards, though, seems quite satisfied with himself and concludes,
Dawkins brings up several other arguments that have been used to argue for God’s existence, and in each case dismisses them by arguing from a weak form of the proof. Over and over again, he builds straw men to knock down. So much for Dawkins’ “incisive logic.”
He doesn't share what Dawkins' blunders are, so I guess we're supposed to take his word for it.


In part 2, I'll discuss Edwards' critiques of biology, probability, and religion as a form of abuse.

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