Posts Tagged ‘new atheists’

New atheists’ remarkably candid denial of free will

December 22, 2015

On their Reasonable Faith podcast for the past several weeks, William Lane Craig and Kevin Harris have been discussing a recent dialogue between “new atheists” Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris. In this fifth installment, Craig and Kevin Harris tackle the new atheists’ discussion of free will—specifically their denial of free will. Free will is an illusion, they say, and moral responsibility doesn’t exist.

Not only do Coyne and Sam Harris deny free will, they express frustration with fellow “free thinkers” (there’s an oxymoron!) who try to salvage free will through “compatibilism.” From what I know of compatibilism, I actually agree with Coyne that it’s a “semantic game.”

To understand why they and many other atheists deny something which is obviously true to all human beings—that we have minds capable of making choices—let’s consider the following: From a materialistic perspective, what we experience as our “mind” is merely the projection of unthinking, unguided physical processes of cause-and-effect, which take place within the brain. At every moment the brain is “creating” the mind—including the inescapable sense that we are free agents making choices. The created thing (the mind) can’t, in turn, “create” its creator. That would be like asking a movie actor to act independently of the film that is projecting his image on a theater screen.

If a mind had the power to exert such an influence back onto the brain—and thereby control one’s thoughts and actions—then we would be conceding that there is at least one purely non-physical substance in the universe. And if you concede that, you may as well concede that there’s a God, too!

Regardless, if you listen to this Reasonable Faith podcast, you’ll notice how Coyne and Harris repeatedly contradict their assertion that free will is an illusion. They say that while no criminal is morally responsible for his actions, we can still have prisons and punishments for criminals because these things influence and deter bad behavior.

Fine, but whether we have prisons and punishments or not isn’t up to us: it’s up to unthinking, unguided processes over which “I,” along with Coyne and Harris, have no control. The very idea, “We should have prisons and punishments for criminals,” for example, isn’t something I’ve chosen to believe; it’s merely happened to me, along with all my other beliefs, thoughts, and choices.

Near the end of the podcast, we hear Coyne and Harris talk about understanding the reasons that they have certain desires (“I want a steak.”) and not others. Harris says that he can’t ultimately say why he wants a steak. Coyne disagrees: he says we can analyze the stimuli that have influenced our desire for a steak—for example, I saw a commercial for a steak, and that produced the desire within me. Harris then seems to agree.

But if they’re right about our ability to “analyze,” then they’re wrong about free will: because whether or not we perform such analysis isn’t something we do; it’s something that’s done to us.

As Craig says, “There does seem to be that so-called transcendental ego that is never fully objectified, that stands above the train of experiences and surveys them and judges them.”

Of course!

And in my view this is a serious problem with atheistic materialism. The atheist says, “We can account for all of reality without resorting to anything beyond the physical” (which is itself metaphysical claim but never mind that for now). But the atheist obviously can’t. Because he can’t account for something that, as I suggested earlier, literally every person of sound mind who’s ever lived experiences: that we have a mind that stands over and above our bodies, which directs it to some extent.

“Oh, you sweet little simpletons, people don’t rise from the dead!”

April 7, 2015
Richard Dawkins explains why Jesus' resurrection couldn't have happened.

Richard Dawkins explains why Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t have happened.

Lutheran Pastor Hans Fiene has blessed us with another Lutheran Satire video. This one relates to the circularity that often emerges in atheists’ arguments against miracles, particularly the miracle at the center of our Christian faith: The resurrection couldn’t have happened because we know miracles don’t happen. We know miracles don’t happen because we have no evidence of miracles happening. But doesn’t the resurrection itself offer evidence of at least one miracle happening?

My boys—13 and 10—thought this was funny.

 

David Berlinski on evolution and the pretensions of scientific atheism

December 21, 2013

devils_delusionYesterday, I read The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. It’s a polemical, savagely funny response to the new atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al., whose unlikely author is himself an agnostic and secular Jew. Why did he, of all people, write a book mostly for Christians like me? Because he noticed that no one else had written it! One’s soul can only withstand so much indignation, after all.

The book clarified my thinking on several ideas I’ve blogged about in the past, including Dawkins’s argument against God, necessary versus contingent things, the mulitverse (or “Landscape”), the universe’s apparent fine-tuning, and attempts by Stephen Hawking and others to explain it away using quantum cosmology. Of the latter he writes the following (which gives you a sense of his writing style):

The details may be found in Hawking’s best-selling A Brief History of Time, a book that was widely considered fascinating by those who did not read it, and incomprehensible by those who did. Their work will seem remarkably familiar to readers who grasp the principle behind pyramid schemes or magical acts in which women disappear into a box only to emerge as tigers shortly thereafter.[1]

After describing the work Hawking did to explain the origin of our universe, Berlinski says that the universe that Hawking found is, unsurprisingly, just the universe Hawking assumed he would find. “If what Hawking described is not quite a circle in thought, it does appear to suggest an oblate spheroid. ¶ The result is guaranteed—one hunnerd percent, as used-car salesmen say.[2]

Berlinski continually highlights the same problem with these guys that I’ve highlighted a few times on this blog. Even if what they say is true (which he doesn’t believe for a moment), they haven’t answered the question, “Why something and not nothing.”

That’s all well and good… What I wasn’t prepared for in this book was his frontal assault on something that I never talk about on this blog: evolution.

In part, I don’t talk about it because I don’t understand it. No one I know understands it. I mean, we may remember some things from our tenth-grade biology textbook, but nothing that would pass muster these days. When the average person says he believes in evolution, all he’s really saying is that he takes on faith that really smart people haven’t misled them on the subject. And none of us wants to appear to be stupid.

Or sometimes when people say they believe in evolution, they’re saying something about a God they no longer believe in, or a church whose doctrines they’ve long since abandoned.

Even before reading this book, I’ve wondered why it’s necessary to talk about “believing in” evolution in the first place? Either it happens or it doesn’t, like any other phenomenon in the realm of science. Why use religious language to describe one’s assent to its “doctrines.”

Berlinski has an idea: because the theory makes little sense, and it’s supported by little evidence.

If the facts are what they are, the past is what it is—profoundly enigmatic. The fossil record may be used to justify virtually any position, and often is. There are long eras in which nothing happens. The fire alarms of change then go off in the night. A detailed and continuous record of transition between species is missing, those neat sedimentary layers, as Gould noted time and again, never revealing precisely the phenomena that Darwin proposed to explain. It is hardly a matter on which paleontologists have been reticent. At the very beginning of his treatise Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, Robert Carroll observes quite correctly that “most of the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic account” of evolution. A “strictly gradualistic” account is precisely what Darwin’s theory demands: It is the heart and soul of the theory.

By the same token, there are no laboratory demonstrations of speciation either, millions of fruit flies coming and going while never once suggesting that they were destined to appear as anything other than fruit flies… If species have an essential nature that beyond limits cannot change, then random variations and natural selection cannot change them. We must look elsewhere for an account that does justice to their nature or to the facts.[3]

Berlinski also argues that computer simulations of Darwinian evolution fail “when they are honest and succeed when they are not.” When the results of one such simulation came in, a reporter for the New York Times wrote, “with solemn incomprehension, ‘the creatures mutated but showed only modest increases in complexity.’ Which is to say, they showed nothing of interest at all. This is natural selection at work but it is hardly work that has worked to intended effect… What these computer experiments do reveal is a principle far more penetrating than any that Darwin ever offered: ¶ There is a sucker born every minute.”[4]

In a recent paper published by an evolutionary biologist named Joel Kingsolver, the author said, “Important issues about selection remain unresolved.” “Of those important issues,” Berlinski writes, “I would mention prominently the question whether natural selection exists at all.”

Finally, I had a laugh at this:

Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid.[5]

1. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 98.

2. Ibid., 106.

3. Ibid., 188-9.

4. Ibid., 190.

5. Ibid., 191.

Hart on the difference between God and fairies at the bottom of the garden

July 2, 2013

I don’t expect that this David Bentley Hart essay will be of interest to anyone who hasn’t paid attention to new atheist arguments against God’s existence. But I have, and if you have, too, you’ll know what Hart is talking about when he describes the following:

And yet any speaker at one of those atheist revivalist meetings need only trot out either of two reliable witticisms—”I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden” or “Everyone today is a disbeliever in Thor or Zeus, but we simply believe in one god less”—to elicit warmly rippling palpitations of self- congratulatory laughter from the congregation. Admittedly, one ought not judge a movement by its jokes, but neither should one be overly patient with those who delight in their own ignorance of elementary conceptual categories. I suppose, though, that the charitable course is to state the obvious as clearly as possible.

Good for Hart: bringing his fierce intellect to bear on specific arguments, such as they are, that the New Atheists make. Hart’s problem so far is that he’s been too indignant to engage much of what New Atheists actually say. When he gets going, however, he writes helpful things like this:

Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, act and potency, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, pervades every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

To be an intellectually rigorous atheist—a philosophical naturalist—requires metaphysical commitments in every facet of life, Hart argues.

For the one reality that naturalism can never logically encompass is the very existence of nature (nature being, by definition, that which already exists); it is a philosophy, therefore, surrounded, permeated, and exceeded by a truth that is always already super naturam, and yet a philosophy that one cannot seriously entertain except by scrupulously refusing to recognize this.

It is the embrace of an infinite paradox: the universe understood as an “absolute contingency.” It may not amount to a metaphysics in the fullest sense, since strictly speaking it possesses no rational content—it is, after all, a belief that all things rest upon something like an original moment of magic—but it is certainly far more than the mere absence of faith.

An argument about morality in The Swedish Atheist

March 12, 2013

Probably my favorite argument for God’s existence—in the abstract, apart from considerations about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus—is the moral argument: We have these strong moral intuitions that atheism can’t account for. If atheism is true, we have no objective morality; our moral intuitions are merely aesthetic or utilitarian: Ultimately, I help this old lady across the street, rather than push her in front of a bus, because it pleases me to do so, or at least I’ll avoid getting into trouble, not because doing one or the other is objectively better. Since there’s no good, there’s no better or worse.

Not so fast, many atheists object. Hasn’t evolution encoded within us a sense of morality to ensure the survival of our species (or something)? In his new book on apologetics, which I discussed in yesterday’s post, Randal Rauser’s atheist opponent, Sheridan, makes this argument: We have evolved as a species to obey these ethical rules, which facilitate survival of the species. As long as we’re human beings—as opposed to hungry lions who may eat humans with no ethical problems—we are bound to live by this code of behavior. If that’s not strictly “objective,” isn’t it close enough?

It’s no surprise that Rauser doesn’t think so. But he also doesn’t think that Sheridan thinks so—not if he really thinks about it. Suppose a group of aliens from outer space came to our planet. These aliens obviously enjoy intelligence, reason, language, and culture. In many ways they are more highly evolved than we homo sapiens are. Like us, they are moral agents: they have evolved their own morality, which guides their behavior—only, their moral system allows them to torture, rape, and murder human beings with impunity.

Is it possible, based on Sheridan’s account of morality, that such space aliens could exist? Yes, Sheridan concedes. Is it morally O.K. for these aliens to torture, rape, and murder? Sheridan agrees that we human beings would have no basis for judging them.

What about your moral intuition? Rauser asked. Wouldn’t it be screaming that what these aliens are doing is wrong? “That’d hardly be the first time our intuitions have misled us,” Sheridan said. “But Sheridan,” Rauser said, “I don’t see any reason to think our moral intuitions are flawed about something so basic as the necessary evil of raping moral agents for pleasure.”[1]

Rauser then tries a different tack. He asks Sheridan to consider convergent evolution: two different species can have a strikingly similar trait or bodily form even though their common evolutionary ancestor didn’t possess this trait or form. He gives the example of the North American flying squirrel and the marsupial squirrel glider. Genetically, these mammals are very different, even though they look the same.

What if homo sapiens had similar humanoid cousins, who were physically indistinguishable from us? Suppose they walked and talked like us but had a very different evolutionary history? It’s possible that such a humanoid could exist. Suppose this humanoid species had evolved with a morality that permits them to torture, rape, and murder human beings with impunity. Would their actions be morally O.K.?

While Sheridan is less sure of himself, he complains that it doesn’t matter: Rauser’s example is pure science fiction. After more arguing, Rauser says,

“Sheridan, repeatedly intoning about ‘science fiction’ is a red herring. Not only are your views implausible as descriptions of morality, but they also wreak havoc with our sense of moral progress. Right now we humans strive—in word if not always in deed—to achieve certain ends like courage, justice, patience, and kindness. Your view entails that depending on the way our evolutionary trajectory progresses, there may come a point where we have to rethink and even abandon these virtues. More to the point, there may come a time when they are no longer virtues for us. Perhaps in the future it will become morally praiseworthy for a more fully evolved humanoid descendant of ours to rape and torture other creatures. Perhaps Ramirez [a serial killer who claimed that his morality was “beyond” that of ordinary human beings] is a glimpse into our own moral future when the most morally virtuous of us are those who can rape and kill without conscience. That’s possible in your view. But in my view, that fluid notion of moral progress is falsified by our very absolute moral intuitions. We know that certain actions and behaviors are always to be cultivated and others always to be avoided regardless of the future evolutionary direction of our species.”[2]

Of course, this doesn’t prove that there’s a God. Maybe our moral intuition lies to us constantly. Evolution only purports to explain what is, not what ought to be, regardless how deeply we feel this ought-ness in our bones. Wishing something were true doesn’t make it so, as atheists have told me a few times.

However…

Years ago, I saw Christopher Hitchens in a debate in which he kept referring to Occam’s Razor: the simpler explanation is usually preferable to the more complex one. Therefore, why bother with God to explain our world if something as simple as non-theistic evolution will do just fine?

While I strongly disagree that evolution alone accounts for much—and Hitchens’s idea of God’s “complexity” is bad philosophical reasoning—I’m happy to invoke Occam’s Razor against the New Atheists when it comes to moral intuition. Why is this sense of right and wrong so incredibly strong and pervasive—at least among us non-psychopaths?

We Christians have a far simpler explanation than they do.

1. Randal Rauser, The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 181.

2. Ibid., 184.

The problem of free will (not related to Calvinism this time)

March 11, 2013

swedish_atheistI recently read a new book by Randal Rauser called The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. Its intention is to help believers think through and respond to major philosophical and scientific challenges to Christianity.

The book’s conceit is that it narrates one long, hypothetical conversation in a college-town coffee shop between a theologian (the author himself) and a scornful atheist student named Sheridan. One criticism of the book that I encountered online is that it’s hardly a fair fight: Sheridan, who uses the word “dude” and “sky daddy” a lot, knows his New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and, ahem, Bill Maher. Unlike the author, however, he isn’t well-acquainted with the heavyweights of philosophy. Why not set up a conversation between a theologian and a “real” philosopher?

Fair enough. But since the New Atheists have hogged the media spotlight over the past ten years, responding first to their objections seems practical. Sheridan represents their point of view nicely. The author certainly couldn’t have made Sheridan less sympathetic to Christianity.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the book, while the author gains some ground with Sheridan and at least gives him a reason to be less certain of his convictions, Sheridan remains unconverted. That seems realistic, too.

One idea I hadn’t considered before reading this book is the problem that free will poses, not to the Calvinist this time, but to the philosophical materialist: Why do we seem to possess a non-material substance called a mind, which transcends the three-pound lump of gray matter called the brain?

That’s easy, says Sheridan: the brain—the result of physical processes only—gives rise to the mind and consciousness. Philosophically, this idea is known as epiphenomenalism.

Rauser directs Sheridan to consider a professor, Dr. Ferry, who’s currently tapping on the glass of the pastry case, ordering a cinnamon bun. Why does he order this cinnamon bun and not a rhubarb muffin? There is no materialist account of this action, Rauser argues, that doesn’t compromise our belief in free will.

“Sheridan, you suggested that mental events—sensations, desires, intentions and the like—are mere byproducts of the firing of neurons like smoke rising from fire. If that’s the case then they have no role to play in the story of Dr. Ferry’s ordering a cinnamon bun. All of Dr. Ferry’s actions are determined and thus explained by the firing of neurons in his brain while his mind does nothing. But this doesn’t seem to match reality at all, does it? Surely Dr. Ferry’s intention to order a cinnamon bun is causally basic in the story of how one ends up on his plate. It’s because he wanted a cinnamon bun that a particular pattern of neurons fired, causing his finger to tap the glass. And it’s because he wanted to express this intention that more neurons fired, thereby causing him to vocalize the desire to have one to the barista.[1]

In other words, if Sheridan is right then there’s no “mind” superintending the ordering of this man’s cinnamon bun that isn’t itself the consequence of blind, physical processes of cause-and-effect. Desire and choice are illusions. By contrast, a theistic account of reality provides an alternative that better explains our experience.

Hauser continues:

“This means we have at least one example of a non-physical substance—a mind or soul—that interacts with the physical world. And if souls can exist and interact with the world, then why not think that God could be another non-physical substance that interacts with the world?”[2]

1. Randal Rauser, The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 102-3.

2. Ibid., 103.

A good reason to believe in God

January 16, 2013

For a few months now, Scot McKnight has allowed a philosophy professor named Jeff Cook, a Christian, to guest-post on his Jesus Creed blog. Cook’s first series of posts was the Top Ten best reasons not to believe in God. The second series, which finished up today, is the Top Ten best reasons to believe in God. As interested as I am in apologetics, I found most of these reasons to be persuasive (why wouldn’t I, right?), if a bit mind-numbing. Not being a philosopher myself, all those P’s and C’s make my eyes glaze over. I prefer my arguments to be more narrative, if you know what I mean.

Still, even I thought the argument for today’s reason—love and freedom—which ranks #1 on his Top Ten reasons to believe in God, was straightforward and easy to follow. You might think that “love and freedom” are two reasons, but his point is that love is only possible if we are also free. (This should be uncontroversial, except to the most hardened Calvinist!)

Anyway, I’ll excerpt the argument and then add a few words to his.

P1  If materialism is true, love is a chemical reaction in your skull.
P2  Love is not simply a chemical reaction in your skull.
C1  Materialism is false.

Very few of us are able to look at our beloved, at our child, at our comrades and actually believe that our connection to them is *exclusively* chemical activity. Certainly some of it may be. But I would suggest many of us experience something more.

P3  If materialism is true, all our thoughts and actions are determined by the unthinking, non-rational movement of chemicals in our skulls.
P4  If P3, then if materialism is true we have no freedom of thought and action.
P5  We experience freedom of thought and action (we are in fact free of total coercion in both our thinking—what we believe—and our behavior—what we do).
C2  Materialism is false.

We think the human beings around us ought to do certain things (“avoid abusing children” for example) and believe certain things (“other human beings are valuable”). But if materialism is true our beliefs and actions are all determined by the unthinking matter in our skull over which “we” have no control.

He goes on to argue not only against materialism but for God. See the post.

In my view, this is a strong argument. Human freedom is a major problem for the philosophical materialist. Why? Because they live their lives as if freedom and love (and justice and any number of other things) have real meaning. In fact, we all do. We want badly for love and freedom to be real.

As far as I know, we can offer a strictly scientific or materialistic account for why we have the (illusory) experience of love and freedom, but this account is unsatisfying to those of us who aren’t complete nihilists.

And I know the counterargument: So what? We can want love, freedom, justice, beauty, God—and anything else—to be real and objectively meaningful, but our desire, no matter how strong, doesn’t make it so.

And of course that’s true.

But I used to hear the late Christopher Hitchens (and probably Richard Dawkins) talk a lot about “Occam’s razor”—the idea that the simplest explanation is best. So why resort to the “God” hypothesis if the atheistic hypothesis works just fine: Darwinian processes explain everything, so why bother with God?

I disagree that Darwinian processes “explain” everything, for a number of reasons. One thing it doesn’t explain, as Jeff Cook’s post pinpoints, is this desire. Throw the Christian God back in and suddenly that makes sense, too.

Why something and not nothing?

May 15, 2012

“Why something and not nothing?” is one of the most interesting questions that science can’t answer, by definition, despite New Atheists’ confidence that somehow it can—metaphysics be damned. In a review of one recent “scientific” attempt to answer it, Edward Feser writes:

The bulk of the book is devoted to exploring how the energy present in otherwise empty space, together with the laws of physics, might have given rise to the universe as it exists today. This is at first treated as if it were highly relevant to the question of how the universe might have come from nothing—until Krauss acknowledges toward the end of the book that energy, space, and the laws of physics don’t really count as “nothing” after all. Then it is proposed that the laws of physics alone might do the trick—though these too, as he implicitly allows, don’t really count as “nothing” either….

But as E. A. Burtt noted over half a century ago in his classic book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, the thinker who claims to eschew philosophy in favor of science is constantly tempted “to make a metaphysics out of his method,” trying to define reality as what his preferred techniques can measure rather than letting reality dictate what techniques are appropriate for studying it. He is like the drunk who thinks his car keys must be under the lamppost because that is the only place there is light to look for them—and who refuses to listen to those who have already found them elsewhere.

Of course atheists are moral people, but that isn’t the point

April 11, 2012

To say the least, we human beings have a powerful intuition about good and evil, right and wrong. We Christians argue that the only way that “the good” has any meaning is if it’s rooted in a transcendent reality, namely God. This is a powerful argument for God’s existence.

It doesn’t prove anything, of course. We could as a species be cursed with a powerful sense of morality, which, although remarkably similar from one person to another, is, like all products of evolution, merely an accident. Morality is therefore arbitrary and subjective.

The atheist, in other words, feels in his bones as strongly as any believer that rape is wrong, and will take action to prevent it as often as any believer. But in the cool light of reason, he must tell himself that his feelings are unjustified and meaningless.

Fortunately, even the most strident atheist fails to live down to his principles.

Alister McGrath, in his book Mere Apologetics, gets it exactly right when he writes:

At a popular level, atheist apologists react with anger to such problems of their ideas, suggesting that it amounts to suggesting that they are immoral. It doesn’t. It’s not denying that atheists have moral values. It’s asking how these values are justified… Atheist philosopher Iris Murdoch argued that a transcendent notion of goodness was essential if defensible human notions of “right” and “justice” were to be maintained. If she’s right, our longing for justice is itself a deep clue to the meaning of things.[1]

1. Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 108.

One more word on Dawkins-Williams

March 7, 2012

I finally listened to the entire conversation between Dawkins and Williams. I was struck again by how polite and collegial it was. Both men, along with the moderator, philosopher Anthony Kenny, sought to actually understand one another. Each was more often nodding his head at the other, as opposed to shaking it in disagreement. This debate was refreshingly out of step with its time—and, I must add, contrary to the tone and spirit of Dawkins’s usual public persona and his words in The God Delusion.

As I said earlier, there were few sparks and little heat in the conversation, at least until the last 20 minutes, when Kenny turned the discussion to the origin of the universe. One question from the audience wondered if it would have been better for the biblical writers to remain silent on the question of how humanity began, and did these authors essentially “get it wrong”?

Here’s Williams’s response.

I can’t imagine that the biblical writers were faced with a set of options including telling the truth that the universe is billions of years old and saying, “Oh, that’s too difficult.” The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were nonetheless not inspired to do twenty-first century physics. They were inspired to pass onto their readers what God wanted them to know—forgive the naked theology here but I might as well come clean. [Laughter all around.] And that means reading the first book of the Bible. What I look for is the basic information: the universe depends upon God and God’s freedom, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and from the first measurable moment humanity has made a rather conspicuous mess of that role. That’s where the Bible begins, and that’s what I need to know, so to speak. And I don’t think that it makes very much sense to talk about the writers of scripture “getting it wrong” in the sense that there was lots of information available, and they happened to get on the wrong bits of it.

Following these words, Dawkins said,

I’m baffled by the way sophisticated theologians, who know perfectly well that Adam and Eve never existed, still carry on talking about it as though it had some profound wisdom to impart to us in an allegorical sense—that I presume is what you mean?

Williams pointed out that reading Genesis in an allegorical way—rather than as a strictly historical or scientific account—is not a twenty-first century invention; the church has always read it allegorically (regardless what they thought of it as literal history). In other words, no one is “reinterpreting” Genesis for the modern era; this is the way theologians have always read it. It was always valued far beyond its historical value. To this, Dawkins said,

But I don’t understand why you really bother, because when you think back to who wrote Genesis, they were not… there was no reason to think that they possessed any particular wisdom or knowledge. Why would you want to waste your time reinterpreting Genesis to make sense of it in the twenty-first century? Why not just stick to twenty-first century science?

Williams said, “If I want to answer twenty-first century scientific questions, then I stick to twenty-first century science. If I want to understand my moral and spiritual position in the universe, then I reserve the right go back to Genesis.” Dawkins asked again, before the moderator cut him off and moved on, “How does it help” to place any value on the biblical account?

Unless Dawkins were being disingenuous, he misunderstood Williams’s point: science can answer scientific questions perfectly well, but there are other, even more interesting questions that the Bible answers. Science, by definition, is unequipped to answer those questions. If the God of Christianity were true, however, then the Bible, not science, would be a fitting place to look for answers.

What stubborn sort of scientism fails to get this? Or fails to imagine these other questions to begin with? Or acts as if they’re irrelevant or uninteresting? Maybe Dawkins is a good writer based on his pre-God Delusion work (I wouldn’t know), but he’s no poet. Believe or disbelieve in God all you want. But don’t imagine that the deepest longings of human beings are easily satisfied by saying, “It’s all a cosmic accident. What’s the big deal?”

Is this anything other than a spectacular failure of imagination—not to mention human empathy—on Dawkins’s part? I’m giving him more credit than his plain words deserve, but I can’t believe that Dawkins is that shallow. Is he?