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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Billy Graham of Atheism

Thanks to Steve Jones for this link to an article in "The American Scientist" in which Michael Ruse reviews Richard Dawkins' A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. (Houghton Mifflin, 2003.)

Through a Glass, Darkly

Some excerpts:

Dawkins... has the moral purity-some would say the moral rigidity-of the evangelical Christian or the committed feminist...

At one level, [Dawkins's new book] ... is not much of a book. It is a collection of what one might charitably call literary ephemera: not real articles, or chapters, but bits and pieces-reviews, introductions to the books of others, eulogies, items in the popular press, and so forth. The pieces were written that way and read that way. They are good for the moment, but hardly worth laying down for the future. How often has one had a wonderful, local wine in a little restaurant in Spain or Italy, and on bringing a bottle home been amazed at how thin and sour it tastes when served up proudly to one's friends? It is much this way with the contents of A Devil's Chaplain.

On another level, however, Dawkins's collection is really interesting and does raise absolutely crucial issues. In recent years, his attention has swung from writing about science for a popular audience to waging an all-out attack on Christianity. In the name of Darwinism, he has become the scourge of the religious, the atheist's answer to Billy Graham. At every opportunity, he preaches the hard truth-there is no God, religion is superstition, and Darwin proves just this. Essentially, what ties this volume together is the crusade of nonbelief, for just about every piece carries this same message.

...I worry about the political consequences of Dawkins's message. If Darwinism is a major contributor to nonbelief, then should Darwinism be taught in publicly funded U.S. schools? The Creationists say not. They argue that if the separation of Church and State keeps belief out of the schools, then it should likewise keep nonbelief out of the schools. There are issues to be grappled with here, and Dawkins does nothing to address them. Does Darwinism as such lead to nonbelief? It is true that Darwinism conflicts with the Book of Genesis taken literally, but at least since the time of Saint Augustine (400 A.D.) Christians have been interpreting the seven days of creation metaphorically.

I would like to see Dawkins take Christianity as seriously as he undoubtedly expects Christianity to take Darwinism. I would also like to see him spell out fully the arguments as to the incompatibility of science (Darwinism especially) and religion (Christianity especially). So long as his understanding of Christianity remains at the sophomoric level, Dawkins does not deserve full attention. It is all very well to sneer at Catholic beliefs about the Virgin Mary, but what reply does Dawkins have to the many theologians (like Jonathan Edwards) who have devoted huge amounts of effort to distinguishing between false beliefs and true ones? What reply does Dawkins have to the contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who argues that the belief that there are other minds and that others are not just unthinking robots requires a leap of faith akin to the Christian belief in the Deity? Edwards and Plantinga may be wrong, but Dawkins owes them some reply before he gives his cocky negative conclusions. Moreover, once he has proved the incompatibility of science and religion, I would like him to address the classroom issue. Would he keep evolution out of U.S. schools, and if not, what argument would he use? In one of these pieces, he complains that British A-level examination requirements necessitate coverage of so much other material that they exclude the proper teaching of evolution. What about the U.S. Constitution?

Finally, I don't want to sound paranoid or insecure, but I do wish that he and other science writers would cease assuming that philosophical issues can be solved by talking in a brisk, confident voice. I have no more liking
of cultural studies than Dawkins, and I loved his talk of "the low-grade intellectual poodling of pseudo-philosophical poseurs." But this rhetoric is no substitute for hard analysis. Postmodernists claim that science, no less than religion and literature and philosophy, is infiltrated with culture. How does Dawkins respond to this charge, given the undoubted significance in science of metaphors that are based on the culture of the day? One would have thought that the author of The Selfish Gene would be sensitive to questions like these.

...I agree fully with Dawkins when he writes that Modern physics teaches us that there is more to truth than meets the eye; or than meets the all too limited human mind, evolved as it was to cope with medium-sized objects moving at medium speeds through medium distances in Africa.

But how then does Dawkins respond to the obvious retort of the religious, who have always stressed mystery? Some of the fundamental problems of philosophy are no closer to being solved today than they were at the time of the Greeks: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is this something not something else? What is mind, and are we unique? Perhaps one agrees that traditional religions-Christianity specifically-do not offer the full answers. But what is to stop a nonbeliever like myself from saying that the Christians are asking important questions and that they are right to have a little humility before the unknown? As Saint Paul said: "Now we see through a glass, darkly." That apparently includes Richard Dawkins.

[Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He is the author most recently of Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose?]

Steve notes:
Ruse raises an interesting point (that I am surprised that USA creationist/IDists have not launched their own Constitutional challenge about) that "If Darwinism is a major contributor to nonbelief, then should Darwinism be taught in publicly funded U.S. schools? ... if the separation of Church and State keeps belief out of the schools, then it should likewise keep nonbelief out of the schools"...

Surprisingly, Ruse defends Christianity against Dawkins' shallow 'village atheism'", which is really just what Dawkins himself calls "the Argument from Personal Incredulity":

"... in a recent book called The Probability of God by the Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore ... He makes heavy use of what may be called the Argument from Personal Incredulity. ... The Argument from Personal Incredulity is an extremely weak argument, as Darwin himself noted. In some cases it is based upon simple ignorance. ... The Bishop quotes, with approval, G. Bennett on spider webs: `It is impossible for one who has watched the work for many hours to have any doubt that neither the present spiders of this species nor their ancestors were ever the architects of the web or that it could conceivably have been produced step by step through random variation; it would be as absurd to suppose that the intricate and exact proportions of the Parthenon were produced by piling together bits of marble.' It is not impossible at all. That is exactly what I firmly believe, and I have some experience of spiders and their webs." (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," [1986], Penguin: London, 1991, reprint, pp.37-39)

Note Dawkins' version of the opposite of "the Argument from Personal Incredulity", namely the Argument from Personal *Credulity*': "It is not impossible at all. That is exactly what I firmly believe ..."!

...Ruse highlights what should be (and maybe privately is) a *huge* worry for atheists (especially the virulently anti-Christian ones like Dawkins) in that the world is actually turning out to be just like the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 3:11: "He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end".

What if God has deliberately set the world up so that atheists like Dawkins are not *forced* to believe in Him? The Bible makes it plain in a number of places that "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." (1Pet 5:5 & Jas 4:6 = Pr 3:34). Pascal long ago observed that this is how it looks that God has made the world in relation to man's level of understanding:

"There is sufficient clearness to enlighten the elect, and sufficient obscurity to humble them. There is sufficient obscurity to blind the reprobate, and sufficient clearness to condemn them and make them inexcusable." (Blaise Pascal "Pensees," 578, 1660)

Stephen E. Jones

11:49:00 am