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Archive for the ‘atheism’ Category

I’m 9 days late to this, but last Friday Derren Brown’s “Fear and Faith” aired – watch here.

It was 10 minutes of fascinating viewing padded out by some seriously underwhelming logic by way of explanation.

The show centres on the challenge Brown sets himself to elicit “a religious experience”  from an atheist.  To be fair the emotional “conversion”, when it came, was indeed dramatic.  In a candlelit church, Derren spoke to atheist Natalie and through various NLP-type techniques evoked feelings of father-hunger, a sense of awe at the mystery of the world, regrets over her past, that kind of thing.  Having anchored those feelings and established some triggers, Derren left and – BOOM – the “conversion” was dramatic.  There were tears and exclamations of both sorrow and joy, almost simultaneously.  Alone with the candles and the stained-glass images, “I’m sorry”s came flooding out along with “I love you”s.  It was a salutary warning of how prone we are to emotional manipulation.  This woman was an avowed atheist and her discussion with Derren contained no “God-talk” whatsover.  He simply spoke about feelings of love, awe and regret in a “religious” setting and his techniques produced a “conversion” the envy of many an evangelist.

So lesson number one – beware Christian evangelists using manipulative methods!

But then lesson number two has got to be: Beware atheist evangelists too.  Because Derren’s preaching was seriously misleading.  Throughout the programme he put two and two together and made 600.  First came the trivially true assertions: “religious experience can be explained by psychology”.  In the same vein he asks “Can our experience of religion be explained by psychology alone?” And he expects the answer yes.

Well of course the answer is yes!  Of course “our experience of religion” can be explained by psychology!  Even psychology alone.  My experience of falling in love with my wife could be explained in entirely psychological terms.  And if Derren did it, I’d be all ears.  I’m sure there’d be insights – certain needs from my childhood met in ‘some sort of spouse figure’, yes, yes.  All useful, all true.  And, I suppose, such psychology might – at another level of explanation – be put down to biology, and biology reduced to chemistry and chemistry explained by physics… or something.  I’d be genuinely interested in all such analyses.  But…

A) the further we “progress” into those materialistic explanations, the less satisfying they are as an account of what is, irreducibly, a personal experience.

And, crucially….

B) the claim that, because there might be a perfectly satisfying psychological explanation, my wife doesn’t exist needs unmasking as the rank idiocy that it is.

Yet Brown’s whole show is set up on precisely this absurd foundation.  Derren says he’s out to prove that “religious belief comes from us, not from the existence of the divine”.  Which is exactly parallel to saying my love for my wife comes from me and not from the existence of Emma.  Well of course it comes from me – my religious and my marital experiences come from me. But what’s that got to do with the truth or otherwise of the object of those feelings??

David Bentley Hart nails this in Atheist Delusions as he turns his withering wit upon Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”. Dennett, a philosopher and one of the four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse, similarly attempts to describe religion as an entirely natural phenomenon. Against this Hart writes

Not only does [Dennett’s project] pose no challenge to faith, it is in fact perfectly compatible with what most developed faiths already teach regarding religion. Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that…

…It does not logically follow that simply because religion is natural it cannot become a vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented towards ultimate reality (as, according to Christian tradition, all natural things are)…

As for Dennett’s amazing discovery that the “natural desire for God” is in fact a desire for God that is natural, it amounts to a revolution not of thought, only of syntax.  (David Bentley-Hart, Atheist Delusions, p7-8)

How else would you measure a religious experience anyway, if not via natural methods?  What else could provoke such an experience, if not natural phenomena?  The God who meets us in a Jewish carpenter, a library of ancient texts, men and women of faith, water, wheat and wine… His encounters with us do not happen in the 7th dimension.  He meets us where we are.  (That’s the meaning of Christmas by the way).  But since He meets us where we are then He meets us in naturally measurable and naturally explicable ways.  Neither Dennett nor Derren will have any objections from Christians at that point.

Where we might raise an eyebrow is during the galactic leaps of faith they employ to tell their naturalistic story.  Derren speaks of pareidolia whereby the human brain naturally sees personal significance in randomness – seeing “a man in the moon” when really there are only craters and shadows.  This is, according to Derren, “probably the biggest contributor to religious belief” in our evolutionary story.

Notice the irony though.  Derren is trying to tell you a story – the naturalistic evolution of all things, including belief.  His story is all about going from randomness to personality.  And now, here we are, persons at the end of a random process, telling other persons not to read personal significance into randomness.  Eh?

The only way you could take that move seriously would be to reduce everything personal down to randomness.  That sounds bleak, but Derren makes other such moves in just that direction. He happily gives accounts of morality and religion entirely based on the survival benefits they bestow in the grand evolutionary scheme.  But if he were consistent I suggest he should also add love, beauty and truth to that same heap.  And at that stage of course the whole endeavour collapses.

Which is very depressing.  And the show was indeed very depressing.  But for me it was saved by the last few minutes in which Derren interviewed Natalie.  He revealed that her conversion was all a psychological trick – the emotions were real, but God was not, yada yada.  Yet in my view her response, completely unscripted, torpedoed Derren’s whole enterprise. And I think he knew it.

When asked whether she now viewed her experience in the church differently, she said

It has added a kind of artificial element to it for me now…  But inducing an emotional reaction to something, if it’s through external influences, is always artificial in a way…  If I’m listening to an amazing piece of music, that’s an emotional stimulus that’s come from an artificial source…

Amen Natalie!  Preach it.  All emotions come from somewhere beyond us.  To explain the feeling doesn’t explain away everything to be said about the experience.  At this point Derren talked right across her and didn’t let her speak again.  He forcefully asserted…

The emotions are real, that’s the point. It’s just important to me that you don’t feel it has to be attached to something supernatural or superstitious. Because it wasn’t.  And it’s not even like it came from me, it certainly didn’t come from God, it came from you. They were perfectly real emotions, they are things you can carry with you for the rest of your life but you don’t have to attach them to a superstitious belief.

Carry the emotions Natalie – that’s Derren’s take home message.  Keep hold of the emotions.  Emotions that can be conjured up in 15 minutes by a TV showman.  Emotions based entirely on our ancient and selfish survival instincts.  Emotions which probably reduce down to randomness anyway.

And don’t ever ask yourself why you live in a universe in which father-hunger, awe and regret can trigger such feelings.  Boil it down to selfishness in the struggle for survival, that’ll satisfy. That and the emotions.  Induced for entertainment.  As a trick of the mind.  Take that away with you Natalie.  Cos that’s all this evangelist can offer.

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It’s apparently the death-knell for all theists: Parasites! Grotesque, painful, life-destroying Parasites!

Take this website for instance (from which the photo is taken). It proudly declares its content to signal “The Death of a Loving God.”

I was part of a debate on Thursday discussing “Is God worthy of worship?”  One of our opponents, crowd-sourcing his material from eager Twitter followers, spent his talk listing some of nature’s ugliest monstrosities.  Horrific diseases and deformities were rattled off in quick succession.  At points he played it for laughs, and he got them.

Which ought to make us think.  If this is really being raised as the “problem of evil” why are comfortable westerners, sipping red wine in an Oxford College, sniggering about such horrors?  Is this stuff really evil?  In which case let’s treat it seriously as a challenge to belief in a good God, recognizing that all of us face such wickedness.  Or is it not really evil?  Is it just a freak-show, an object of macabre fascination, or – God forbid – an exercise in apologetic points-scoring?  If it isn’t actually evil, perhaps the lesson we should learn is ‘Abandon all hope and adjust your expectations accordingly.’  Well, ok.  But a) drop the secret (or not so secret) glee regarding creation’s monstrosities, b) realise you’ve solved the problem of evil but only by losing the right to call it “evil” and c) brace yourself for a much harder intellectual problem: the problem of good (of which, more shortly).

In all this, the greatest mis-step in the parasites conversation is to ignore (often times wilfully) the doctrine of the fall.  To imagine for a moment that we can simply read God from creation is to engage in the kind of paganism roundly condemned in Scripture.  As Francis Spufford says in Unapologetic: 

To anyone inclined to think that nature is God, nature replies: Have a cup of pus, Mystic Boy.

The world is fallen.  It is corrupted, cursed, ‘knocked off its axis’, disconnected from its true Life-source.  To speak of parasites in the world does not put the merest dint in the Christian world-view.  It only supports it.

Think about parasites.  We’re dealing with creatures that are, well, parasitic!  In fact 5 minutes’ meditation on parasites will pretty much give you the Christian doctrine of creation and fall.

These things cause monstrous perversions, hellish corruptions, wicked deviations from what should be.  The disease and death they bring is not Right, it’s wrong.  This is not Light, it’s Darkness.  There is an original and ultimate life-giving source.  And there is a secondary distortion which takes life.

This is the Christian doctrine of creation and fall: an original good perverted into corruption and death.  Good is ultimate, Evil comes later to steal, kill and destroy. The Light is ultimate, the Darkness is a privation of the Light. First there is a straight line from which all crooked lines are corruptions.

But here’s the thing: to judge a line “crooked”, what exactly is “straight”?  And if you want to avoid the conclusion that there is an Original Straightness to things, you might say “Ok, these lines aren’t definitively crooked, it’s just that everything’s messy.” Well ok, fine, but at that point you’re not wrestling with the problem of evil any more.  You’re just saying “Things are messy.  Stuff happens.”

And then you have to face a much greater intellectual hurdle: the problem of good.  You see evil – as a secondary corruption of good – is not intellectually difficult to understand.  (It’s horrifically unpleasant and evokes understandably emotive reactions – but intellectually it’s origins are understandable).  On the other hand, Good – if it’s not original and ultimate – becomes extremely difficult to explain.  This is because Good and Evil are not symmetrically opposite to each other. They are like light and darkness – light can illuminate darkness, darkness cannot darken light.  Darkness is the absence or obscuring of Light in a way that is not true the other way around.

I’m speaking of light and darkness figuratively here, but they are powerful illustrations:  When the Christian is asked “Where does the darkness come from?”  They answer: “From a turning away from the light.”  When the atheist is asked “Where does the light come from?” the answer “From the darkness” seems absurdly improbable.  If light does exist then it needs to be there from the beginning.  But this is the Christian account of reality.

The atheists are right: parasites are powerful illustrations of the problem of evil.  But they’re also a perfect analogy for how evil works.  It works derivatively off of good.  But once you’ve said that, you’ve essentially told the Christian story of the world.  There’s something Good and Life-giving and something came along to spoil it.

From Creation and Fall, the Christian can explain both good and evil.  But if our “creation story” is effectively: “slime + struggle + selfishness” with no injection of an original Good, it’s quite a stretch to end up with “selves, sentience and symphonies.”

Parasites are horrible.  As they work their way through the eye-ball of an 8 year old boy we are appalled.  This is not simply painful, not simply ugly, not simply maladapted to life – it is wrong. 

But let’s also remember, parasites are parasites!  There can’t be parasites “all the way down“.  No, there is an ultimate and original Good by which to judge these things evil.  And the Christian can hate this evil with a holy and almighty antipathy for we are seeing the work of God’s enemy – an enemy Christ opposes with every drop of His own blood.  We do not shrug our shoulders or snigger or adapt ourselves to the inevitable.  We call evil evil and we fight it.

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So stimulating.  Read in full here.

Nietzsche claims, humanism won’t plug the gap [left by the “death of God”]. All humanism does is substitute one useless form of transcendence (Man) for another (God). The death of God therefore has to herald the death of Man as well. You can’t just swap one fetish for another. This is why the Übermensch signifies the kind of transformed humanity which would flow from genuinely accepting the death of God. It’s the reckless, exuberant, self-delighting existence of those who are able to celebrate a life without foundations – the cavalier insouciance of those spiritual aristocrats who have the courage to risk a life without guarantees. The Overman or Meta-Man is the one who can peer into the fathomless pit of the nothingness of God without being turned to stone.  He (never a she, for Nietzsche) is the ecstatic creature who sings and dances at the very thought that his existence is every bit as mortal, fragile, ungrounded, arbitrary and contingent as a modernist work of art.

The only problem is that all this sounds rather like Christianity, which isn’t quite what Nietzsche had in mind. For the New Testament, as for Also sprach Zarathustra, the only good God is a dead one. For Christianity as for Nietzsche, the death of God in the figure of a tortured political criminal known as Jesus means not replacing God with humanity, but the advent of a transfigured humanity. For Christianity too, God is an abyss of sheer nothingness, absolutely no kind of entity at all, a groundless ground; and to say that we are created is to say that our existence is absolutely non-essential, that we might perfectly well have never been. Such existence is pure gift, sheer gratuity and contingency, a radical end in itself, a supreme acte gratuite – self-founding, self-grounding and self-delighting. Just as God exists for absolutely no purpose beyond himself, so human beings are fashioned to live in this way too, to be at their best when they are as gloriously pointless as a work of art. A just social order is one which would allow men and women to be in this sense ends in themselves, not means to another’s power or profit. God, as Aquinas sees, is the power that allows us to be autonomous. Thinking that faith in God puts firm foundations beneath your feet, rather than shattering them, is the delusion of fundamentalists…

So Nietzsche and Christianity, those supposedly sworn antagonists, actually agree on an embarrassing amount. (Embarrassing for Nietzsche, anyway). Nietzsche believes that we can’t be free unless we can get out from under the patriarchal Nobodaddy (as William Blake calls him) known as God. But of course the New Testament believes just the same. Seeing God as judge, patriarch and accuser is what is meant in scripture by Satan – the Satanic image of God, the God who will beat the shit out of us. And since we’re all inveterate masochists, cravenly in thrall to the Law, or to what Freud knows as the death drive, this is exactly what we secretly hanker for. We’ll gladly tear ourselves apart as long as there’s enough gratification in it for us. This is the terrible, lethal nexus of law and desire – which is also, as it happens, the chief subjectmatter of psychoanalysis. Those who are eternally trapped in this closed circuit, in which law and desire feed endlessly, fruitlessly off one another, are traditionally said to be in hell. The figure of the tortured and executed Jesus is the overthrowing of the Satanic image of God, for God as friend, lover, victim, counsel for the defence, fellow accused and flayed flesh and blood. It replaces the Satanic God not with humanity at its most triumphant, as rationalist humanism does, but with humanity at its most torn and vulnerable.

And this is what Nietzsche can’t stomach. It’s here, not over the death of God, that he and the Gospel part company most decisively. Because weakness, suffering and mortality for him are simply part of a ghoulish, morbid religious conspiracy to bring low the noble, heroic and life-affirming. He forgets that Jesus never once counsels the sick to reconcile themselves to their afflictions. On the contrary, he seems to regard such suffering as evil, and is out to abolish it. Nietzsche forgets, too, that any power which is not rooted in a solidarity with human creatureliness and fragility, with the raw fact of our bodily finitude, will never prove durable or effective enough. That this is so is one of the lessons of tragedy, an art-form which fascinated Nietzsche himself for quite different reasons.

And so in the end Nietzsche is less revolutionary than the New Testament. Like some demented health-club proprietor, he can’t stop worshipping vigour, robustness and virility, or seeing failure as sickly and shameful. Like those Americans who hate a loser, he doesn’t see that what matters is failure, not success – that Jesus is a sick joke of a Saviour, that in every human sense his mission is an embarrassing, abysmal failure, that the notion of a crucified Messiah would have been a horrendous, unspeakable scandal and blasphemy to the pious Jews of his day. In the end, Nietzsche disowns the deepest insight of tragedy – that, as W.B. Yeats puts it, ‘nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent’.

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Beginnings

Charles Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859.  Up until then, said Richard Dawkins,  atheism was “logically tenable” but from Darwin onwards you could be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (The Blind Watchmaker).  Notice that philosophy might give you tenable arguments, but biology is the place for true intellectual fulfillment… according to this biologist anyway…

With the discovery of natural selection, biologists had a naturalistic explanation for the existence of brilliantly adapted (and therefore apparently designed) species, populating an intricate and flourishing bio-sphere.

Well, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the whole thing is explained according to this process (I mean it’s a bit like the old saying “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, but let’s go with the argument).  Let’s imagine it explains the whole variation and adaptation of life on the planet. What we have here is a mechanism explaining the origin of species.

Notice first that mechanism says nothing about agency – a point John Lennox makes well in places like here.

But notice, second, that we’re talking merely of the origin of species.  There are other origins questions to ask.  Like – the origin of the cosmos, the origin of life (natural selection assumes the existence of life) and the origin of consciousness.  These are not at all suited to explanations via natural selection and yet they pose even more fundamental questions for us.  So if an atheist claims to have origins questions sewn up, tell them they have, at best, a mechanism to explain one of the least interesting of the origins questions.

Before Beginnings

It’s not just beginnings that are fascinating.  What about before the beginnings?  What are we assuming pre-existed these origins questions?

As we’ve just noted, natural selection assumes the pre-existence of ‘life.’  But when it comes to the even bigger origins questions, what about the pre-existence of things like  laws of physics, logic and mathematics.  Every attempted naturalistic explanation for ‘beginnings’ assumes plenty about ‘before beginnings.’ Take, for example, Hawking’s book from 2 years ago which said:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,”

Besides the logical incoherence of the universe self-creating, we have here pre-existing ‘laws’.  We have an ordered, self-consistent reality calling the tune for all the cosmos.  Gravity is chief among the gods as he bosses around lesser deities like time, matter and energy, which in turn war to create the cosmos as we know it.

Now Christians also have beliefs about before the beginning.   We believe in the pre-existence of Persons, of love, of minds, of purpose.  And these Persons have brought forth laws, time, matter and energy.  It was not matter that made minds, but minds that made matter.

When you consider that every minute of our waking life we’re confronted in technicolour by the reality of persons, love, minds and purpose.  In fact, everything we hold dear consists of persons, love, minds and purpose.  What should we believe about ultimate reality – about before beginnings?  Gravity reigning as supreme being?  Or love?

We shouldn’t fear questions of beginnings.  And we should positively pursue questions about before beginnings.

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Chris Addison chats to Derren Brown on Radio 4’s Chain Reaction (UK listeners can get it for another few days).

From 19:30 Derren talks about his journey towards atheism.  But then at 25:36 he’s back on magic and showmanship.  What he says here is very revealing – not only about the stories we respond to, but the god he rejected:

Magic tends to be about people clicking their fingers and saying “Oh, this will happen” and then it happens.  Which is a God-like whim and is therefore not dramatically very interesting.  What’s more interesting dramatically is a Hero-story.  All drama that interests us is about somebody who’s struggling with something and then goes through some journey but at some cost to himself, and so on.  And that’s what we need more of in magic, people treating it as a Hero’s journey rather than as a whimsical God-like figure who could make anything happen.

Whimsical, struggle-less, finger-clicking Gods do not win our love.  Struggling, suffering, journeying Heroes do.  Very true.

But what if the true God is the Suffering Hero?

And on that subject, isn’t The Dark Knight Rises the most Christian film you’ve ever seen??  Astonishing!

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Here’s a video released today by the British Humanist Association:

Below is the transcript with some comments from me:

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An Introduction to Humanism

Rumy Hasan: It’s important to realise that one can live a fulfilling life without religion – where the focus is on human beings.

Many religions do in fact put the focus very firmly on human beings.  So how is “religion” being used by you and in this video?

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AC Grayling: Humanism of course is not a religion.  It’s something which bases itself on a common-sensical view of the world. It’s an open-eyed view.  It takes seriously the facts about human beings and their experiences and tries to do the best on that basis.

From the descriptions following, humanism sounds very much like a religion.  It doesn’t sound like Christianity, but, sheesh, get a load of the moralising below.

It’s a good and right concern to want to be open-eyed, truth-seekers.  But there are some underlying assumptions here.  There’s an assumption that we can un-blind ourselves from our ignorance (through clear thinking?), that we know where our blind spots lie and can get perspective (notice how Grayling claims the commonsensical high-ground – he and the humanist fraternity are the ones who see).  There’s also an assumption about what kind of truth lies out there.  If the truth consists purely in facts to be discovered within the world by empirical studies then go for your life.  But you’ve pre-judged what kind of truth you can discover by pre-judging what kind of truth you believe already exists.

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Polly Toynbee: A humanist sees the world as infinitely precious and quite extraordinary and almost miraculous.

Of course you do.  We are all worshippers who are awed by something.  If you aren’t awed by God, of course you’re awed by the world.

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Tim Minchin: I think humanism is important because having a non-superstitious world-view allows you to go about your own business, making ethical choices based on a general desire to do the most possible good.

Having gotten rid of God, the humanist can now get on with the important business of doing good.  Again, this is not Christianity (which rather swaps “our goodness” for God), but it is distinctly religious in flavour.

There’s an excellent comment on the video from a free-thinker, Ontologistics: “As Nietzsche showed, Humanism is part of the Christian legacy. The word “good” is bandied about in this video without explanation or sanction, because it cannot be sanctioned. A freethinker will in fact adopt a Nihilist view, as this does not require belief in some supernatural, metaphysical “good”.  I.e. Humanism exchanges “God” for “good”, both of which are delusions. In this sense, it comes close to being a religion.”

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Philip Pullman: I view the world as a place where I am extremely lucky to have been born and to have a consciousness because there are so many wonderful things to be conscious of.

Well you’re either absurdly lucky or there’s consciousness behind the cosmos.  A consciousness that arises from a mindless cosmos is quite a turn of luck indeed.

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Zoe Margolis: We can be decent human beings and love and care and support each other and not expect a fantasy to fulfil our hopes and our dreams when we can actually live them in this lifetime.

Well I suppose rich westerners, if they’re talented and lucky enough, can live a few, very limited dreams.  But this comment seems to be a plea for dreaming smaller.

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Isn’t it sad to think there is no after-life?

Andrew Copson:   Some people worry that a view of death as being the total and final end of life can be depressing.  They think it would be a more comforting thought that life went on.  But I think, and many other humanists think, that, rather than robbing life of its meaning, giving a finality to the story of your life actually imbues it with greater meaning.

Or, put it this way: Either we are taken seriously as a creature of eternal significance in the eyes of One who gives everything meaning, or we are a rational animal soon to expire and become compost.

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Richard Dawkins:  If there’s something frightening about death, it’s the idea of eternity. Something about everything just going on forever and ever and ever. That’s a frightening thought.  And it’s just as frightening if you’re there as if you’re not.

If there’s something frightening about death.”?  If?  There’s a disturbing lack of reality to this approach to death.

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Rumy Hasan: It just means that we have this life and we make the most of it.  If anything that’s a positive.  So we don’t say “Ah well, you know if we muck it up in this life, we have an afterlife.”  The onus is on us to lead better lives in this life.

Spoken like a true religionist.

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How can humanists live ethical lives without religion?

Philip Pullman: The morality question is another one where people think, “Well we’ve got to have religion or we’ll all be immoral.”  That’s a very shallow and hasty way of thinking it seems to me.  There are all sorts of guides to morality.

No doubt!  Some good and some bad wouldn’t you say?  And who’s to arbitrate?  Really, who?

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A.C. Grayling: People often think that you can’t have morals unless there is a god to enforce them somehow.  Look at classical antiquity, nearly 1000 years before Christianity became the official outlook of Europe, you have people who base their morality on reason.

Sure.  They base morality on an approach to reason.  But I doubt that Grayling adopts, wholesale, their morality or their account of reason.

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Philip Pullman: There are enormous tracts, ranges, mountain ranges of meaning that our available to us without our needing to go to the Bible for them.

…and the Bible encourages us to explore them

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Tim Minchin: I guess humanism is the beginning of a life of trying to live well and be good. And the thought that, you know, some mistranslated off-translated doctrine to tell you that that’s a good way to live is not just surprising but slightly abhorrent to me.  If you can have something that’s slightly abhorrent…

Again, Minchin reveals his deeply religious outlook – “trying to live well and be good.”  If any Christians are flirting with atheism because you can’t stand the moralism of your church – take a long hard look at humanism.  The only escape from moralism is the gospel!

And it’s not so much that Christians need a divine command to know what’s good.  That’s not our position.  Far more we say, “‘good’ depends on an understanding of reality shot through with the glory of Christ.”  “Good” corresponds to “God” in a profoundly personal way.  The good life is love of God and love of neighbour and it goes with the grain of a whole universe charged with His beauty.  Nothing abhorrent here.

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Rumy Hasan: The humanist views the world in a rational manner.  It’s wondrous, it’s astonishing, awe inspiring, yes at times fearsome.  But a humanist says “well let’s try and understand the world”

Yes, let’s try and understand the world.  And in a rational manner.  But rationalism will shrink your view, not expand it.

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Why might a humanist hold science in particularly high regard?

Andrew Copson: If you believe that we live in a universe which is a natural phenomenon which behaves according to certain discoverable natural laws and norms then of course the only way of finding out true facts about reality is through the scientific endeavour.

Wow.

First notice the premise: “If you believe…”  This is an inescapable fact of all enquiries – we’re all involved in faith seeking understanding.  But it’s nice to see Copson admitting it.

Second, these “discoverable natural laws and norms” – do they ever make you think?  Especially since they correspond to that consciousness we all love?  You seem to take these as a given.  Shouldn’t you be more curious about the ways of this world, wondering at “laws and norms” as part of this “natural phenomenon”?

Thirdly – and most outrageously – “the only way of finding out true facts”?  The only way??  For a start, this sentence has not been the outcome of the scientific method – it’s the result of certain beliefs.  So what the heck??  This amounts to something like: True facts are entirely the domain of the scientific endeavour (except for these self-justifying assertions that prop it up, in which case bad philosophy will do the trick nicely).

Fourthly, we see here a humanist side-lining the humanities.  Humanism de-humanizes.

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A.C. Grayling: Humanists hold science in very high regard because science is the careful open-minded approach to trying to understand the world and human beings in it.  It’s a method of critical enquiry which is always ready to change its mind when better facts come along.

Good.  And in its own limited way it works well.  But science is set up as a naturalistic endeavour to study naturalistic phenomena.  Let’s discover all the facts we can in this way.  But let’s never think we’ve discovered the totality of reality via these methods (there’s also things like goodness, truth, beauty, love).  And if you want to pronounce on God, you’ll have to study Him via a method suited to His own self-revelation – i.e. you’ll have to listen to His Word.  If you won’t do that, I question how ready to change your mind you really are.

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Polly Toynbee: It is a method of communication from one generation to another building on layers of knowledge and layers of knowledge on a really solid foundation.

What solid foundation is that?  Or should I say Whose solid foundation is that?  The firm ground on which the scientific endeavour stands relies on the intelligibility of nature.  The self-consistency of these laws and norms.  Their consistency throughout creation.  Their correspondence with our own minds.  Humanists are glad for these  foundations, but humanism doesn’t give them to us.

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Richard Dawkins: Science is not only the way to go if you want to discover the truth about something, science is also wonderful, science actually exposes how wonderful the universe is and what a wonderful privilege it is that every one of us has the opportunity to understand the universe in which we live: where we came from, why we exist and where we’re going.  It’s just a wonderful, thrilling experience to immerse yourself in modern science. It’s a poetic experience.  Science is the poetry of reality

We begin with self-refuting nonsense about science being the way to discover truth (science didn’t tell him this!).  We end with the flourish: “science is the poetry of reality.”  Garbage.  Science is the appreciation of a poetry that’s already there.  That’s a hugely important distinction.  Because in the space of one sentence Dawkins has claimed science as the arbiter of truth and beauty.  Stunning!

But let’s get some perspective.  There’s truth that’s out there to be discovered.  There’s beauty that’s out there to be appreciated.  And science has role in uncovering it.  But the biggest question remains – and it remains beyond the scope of scientific endeavour – what on earth is truth and beauty doing out there?

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What is the humanist view on human nature?

Andrew Copson: One of the natural consequences of humanism, of the idea that the human race is one species, of the idea that every individual member of that species is a bearer of the dignity that humanity gives us, is a general spirit of inclusiveness and that’s always characterised humanist thinking.

So the human race is one species (among 15 000 other species of mammals).  And apparently this confers a certain unspecified dignity on us.  In fact, humanity itself confers on each one of us this undefined dignity….  How does that work then?  This seems to amount to the claim that we are humans and not puffins.  And every human is a human and not a puffin.  And this is our basis for equality and inclusivism.  To be honest, I can think of firmer foundations.

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Zoe Margolis: Unlike many religions which are unfortunately about repressing sexuality and having very anti-female and homophobic perspectives, humanism offers an alternative which is actually inclusive.

Without the gospel, all inclusivism works according to a certain ethic.  Some are in, some are out.  You’re not preaching a new inclusivism, you’re just preaching a new ethic.  Jesus came to bring true inclusivism – we’re invited to His table as sinners (outsiders!) and, through an acknowledgement that we’re all law-breakers, we’re brought into true community.

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A.C. Grayling: Humanists begin to think about the good and flourishing life on the basis of their best understanding of how things are for human beings. But that does not mean that it’s got a particular line, a particular doctrine, that everyone has to fall in with.  In fact it demands of people that they think for themselves.

I dunno A.C., some of your friends here seem to be pushing some quite particular lines.  And let’s face it, you all have a very firm line on the nature of humanity, the kind of truth you are seeking and the way you discover and verify it.

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Polly Toynbee: We have power in our hands to make our life and our society and our world better. We don’t stand to ask, there’s nobody else, no good getting on knees begging for someone else to do something, it’s just up to us.

 Yep.  Sounds like religion to me.  And a religion for the strong, the rich and the brave.

But if you’re not up to the BHA’s religious regime, I’ve got good news for you.  There’s a way to be a true humanist.  At Christmas we sing the line “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.”  Eternally our God has pledged Himself to man.  Forevermore our Lord has become Man – the truly inclusive Man – the man for all humanity.   And He’s for you.

Some just focus on humanity, some just focus on God-myths and after-lifes – in both cases you’ll lose a true vision for humanity.  But in the God-Man you’ll find true humanity.  He will liberate you from the self-justifying burden of being good and He’ll send you out into the world to rejoice in the truth and beauty that reflects His character.  There is a poetry to this world, and He’s the Poet.

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Have you ever heard this kind of claim from an atheist:

Unlike you theists, I am open to change.  All you need to do is show me the evidence and I’ll confess on the spot that I was wrong.  If you can prove God I will switch sides.  You theists on the other hand obstinately cling on to the God hypothesis no matter what the evidence.  You call this irrationality “faith.”

How to respond?

Do we say “No I’m very open to change, I just think the evidence is better on our side”?

That might sound tempting.  After all it has the air of intellectual credibility about it (if, ironically, you don’t think about it too long).  And it’s the least we could do seeing as the atheist has been so even-handed with “the evidence.”  Besides, what hope is there for genuine dialogue if we’re not open to change?

Well let’s slow down a second.  What kind of openness is being claimed by the atheist?

Doesn’t their claim amount to:

I, the neutral observer, will accept  the God hypothesis if and only if naturalistic evidence meets my criteria.  And of course such acceptance will be eternally tentative, since opposing evidence may arise to dis-prove the God hypothesis.

Let me ask some questions about those bolded phrases…

Are you really a neutral observer?  Is the scientific community, religious community or indeed the human race collectively a neutral observer?  How could you ever know?  What tests could you perform to figure out whether, when it comes to God, humanity suppresses the truth?

If you are assessing ‘the God hypothesis’, are your investigations being carried out in a way proper to the object of your study.  I.e. is God really a ‘hypothesis’ to be tested?  And if you think he is, the question must be asked, Which god are you talking about?  Because it doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible.  If, on the other hand, God is a Self-Revealing Speaker, doesn’t “scientific investigation” look very different?  i.e. Wouldn’t a proper correspondence to this Object of enquiry entail listening to His Word?

Who gets to decide what is “evidence”?  Does the Bible count?  Does it count on its own terms, or only when filtered through other tests?  What about encountering Christ spiritually through Scripture or worship?  Wouldn’t that be quite a  “knock-down” proof – for some even literally!  Is this evidence allowed at the bar?

Even if you are a neutral observer, even if God is a hypothesis that could be tested and even if the evidence you demand is the right kind of evidence – will you really ‘become a believer’ on the basis of this evidence?  Surely, to be consistent with your methods, you will merely line up with the God-hypothesis-camp until a better hypothesis comes along?  This is nothing like what Christians mean by “faith in God.”

Therefore in what sense are you open to change?  Admittedly, you are open to reshaping certain of your views – and that is a very laudable thing. Few ever do it, so such openness is indeed commendable.  But the openness of which you speak is set within a tightly de-limited, pre-established epistemological system (i.e. system of gaining knowledge).

And if that’s your definition of “open” then the Christian is at least as open.  If you show me convincing evidence about a pre-millennial return of Christ (to choose an intra-mural Christian dispute of secondary importance) then I hope I’m open enough to change.  I hope I am.  Obviously, people are biased, obstinate, self-justifying fools by nature (the Bible told us that long before science did), so it might be an uphill battle, but allow me to declare my willingness to change.

So there you are.  I’m open.

Of course, at this stage, the atheist says: “That’s not openness to change!  That’s just redecorating the exact same house.”  To which I say, “Pretty much!  But then, a tentative assent to the God-hypothesis is also just re-decoration.  The foundations and structure of your beliefs would remain exactly the same.”

You might rate yourself as a De-Facto Theist on Richard Dawkins’ scale, but it’s your commitments to a naturalistic method of knowledge that are really God for you.

To inflexibly hold pre-commitments about yourself, your object of enquiry, your method of enquiry and your criteria of judgement is to be “open” in only a very limited sense.   But here’s the thing… pre-commitments about Me and God and the World and how I know things are absolutely inescapable!  I can’t even begin to think without at least a shadow of an opinion on these things.

Which means none of us are very open.  There is no neutral space between the Christian position and the naturalistic position.  There is only conversion – i.e. a radical re-ordering of my view of self and God and the world.

Does this shut down all conversation?  Absolutely not!  This is the beginning of genuine conversation.  Now that we know where we all stand (and both Christians and atheists are regularly deluded about this), real interaction can happen.  How?  I say “Come on over to my house.  Let me show you around.  For a time, come in on my foundations, my vision of God and self and how to know things.  Experience the world from within these commitments.  See if life doesn’t make more sense.  See if you don’t confess that Jesus really is the deepest Truth”  And, by the same token, you can say to me “Come over to my house.  Allow me to show you the Magic of Reality as I see it.  Experience the world from within these commitments.”

There’s great hope for fruitful engagement (though this is a real statement of faith, I acknowledge!).  I believe that there is plenty to be said on the other side of an acknowledgement of our radical differences.  But let’s be honest enough to state our differences.  It’s not a case of simply assessing mutually agreed-upon evidence with the obvious tools for the job.  It’s about show-casing different visions of reality.

This doesn’t mean we cast stones at each other’s “houses” or dig into our entrenched positions.  Instead it’s a call to hospitality.  Let’s love our neighbours.

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