Sunday, 23 October 2011

Dawkins and the philosopher

William Lane Craig, the self-publicising American theologian best known over here for allegedly being snubbed by Richard Dawkins, is currently walking about Britain like a roaring lion, seeking atheists to devour. He even turned up in my home town last week, lecturing on the inadequacy of Stephen Hawking's godless cosmology. I wasn't there, partly because I didn't particularly want to give him my money and partly because I was listening to Marcus du Sautoy instead. Dawkins set out his reasons for having nothing to do with Craig in the Guardian last week. "I took pleasure in refusing," he writes, describing Craig's attempts to share a platform with him as "the epitome of bullying presumption".

This is an extremely silly and entirely synthetic row, of course. Public debates about the existence of God are in any case rarely serious intellectual events. They don't change anyone's mind; and people with open minds rarely come to them. At most they provide an opportunity for the already committed to cheer their supporters and declare afterwards that their man won. Craig is notoriously successful in such prize fights. He's an effective debater and, just as importantly, always brings his claque with him. But no-one should confuse winning a debate with proving the existence or otherwise of God. Still less should anyone imagine that such occasions matter.

Daniel Came is an Oxford philosopher who, for some reason, is bothered by Dawkin's refusal to debate Craig. Although an atheist, Came was unimpressed with The God Delusion, his main criticism being that it is light on philosophy. Which it is, rather, Dawkins not being a philosopher. Came also considers that the "New Atheists" don't do the unbelieving cause any good with their belligerent attitude. Their tactics are "fundamentally ignoble and potentially harmful to public intellectual life" he declares. He also objects to the "implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people's beliefs about religion"; in attacking belief they are seeking "to replace one form of irrationality with another".

Given that there isn't much in the way of serious argumentation in the New Atheists' dialectical arsenal, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Dawkins and Grayling aren't exactly queuing up to enter a public forum with an intellectually rigorous theist like Craig to have their views dissected and the inadequacy of their arguments exposed.

Get her!

It's precisely the belligerence of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens that has given atheism such a high public profile, of course. Yes, their arguments aren't particularly sophisticated, but I doubt more than a handful of people (most of them philosophers) have ever been persuaded of the existence or otherwise of God on the basis of rational argument alone. Belief is an area in which reason is usually the slave of the passions. One believes, or doesn't believe; and then one looks around for supporting arguments. A believer who loses their faith will suddenly find the arguments for religion that used to seem so convincing have lost their force. An atheist who discovers God will likewise suddenly spot the flaws in the arguments they used to employ with such conviction, or else maintain that such arguments miss the point.

Came's anger at Dawkins is especially puzzling since, as an atheist, he should presumably be pleased that Dawkins isn't accepting the bait and thus having his inadequate arguments embarrassingly and publicly exposed. There may even be something in his implicit claim that Craig is more effectively opposed by a philosopher who can take him on his own chosen ground. Certainly, the humanist philosopher Stephen Law seems to have caused Craig more trouble than usual when they debated in Westminster last Monday. But, oh dear, what is Came so het up about? And why hasn't he volunteered to take Dawkins place in the Oxford debate? It can't be, surely, that William Lane Craig is scared of him?

Came is particularly unimpressed that Dawkins should bring up the matter of Craig's views on genocide. (Basically, it's OK if God ordains it; in fact, it's morally obligatory if God ordains it.) I've dealt with these troubling matters before and won't be going there again. But see what Dr Came has to say about it:

I am disinclined to defend the God of the Old Testament's infanticide policy. But as a matter of logic, Craig is probably right: if an infinite good is made possible by a finite evil, then it might reasonably be said that that evil has been offset. ...

But whatever you make of Craig's view on this issue, it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists. Hence it is quite obvious that Dawkins is opportunistically using these remarks as a smokescreen to hide the real reasons for his refusal to debate with Craig – which has a history that long predates Craig's comments on the Canaanites.

I agree, it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists that He might be a genocidal maniac. It's highly relevant, though, to the question of whether the type of God Craig (like most believers) claims to believe in exists: that is, an all-loving, infinitely good God.

In the debate last week, Stephen Law managed to unsettle his opponent by trying out a new argument for the non-existence of God - the argument from an evil God. If I understand it correctly (and I may not) Law contends that all the arguments for God's goodness can be made for an evil God. In such a scenario, the Problem of Evil becomes the Problem of Good: for does not the presence of good in the universe undermine the evidence for an evil deity?

Yes, evil god wants us to suffer, do evil and despair. To that end, he introduces various goods into the world.

Why would an evil god pepper his creation with some beauty, which we enjoy? Why, because he requires a contrast. In order to fully appreciate the drab dreariness of day-to-day life, we need to BE reminded now and them of how much better things might have been.

Why would an evil god give us children to love? Because it’s only if we truly, unconditionally love someone that we can made to suffer as deeply as we do when evil god kills them slowly before our eyes.

In short, someone might conclude, this is not, as many Christians suppose, a vale of soul-making. It’s a vale of soul destruction – engineered by an evil god intent on crushing and breaking our spirits so that we bow out in agony and despair. As so very many of us do.

The interesting thing about this line of argument is that it convinces neither believers nor atheists that God exists, and is evil. Believers will continue to believe in a good God; atheists will continue to use the problem of evil to argue against the existence of any God. Yet I have the sense that some version of the evil God hypothesis is precisely what lies behind a lot of atheism - and, most especially, the "strident", activist style of atheism associated with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I'm reminded, for example, of Kingsley Amis's response when someone asked him if he believed in God. "No," he replied. "But it's more that I hate Him."*

Came's entirely wrong, though, in his claim that Craig's theological defence of divinely-sanctioned genocide is not a good reason for Dawkins to refuse to debate him. It's an excellent reason. It exposes Craig as both an amoral sophist and a bad historian, someone whose polished and apparently sophisticated philosophy masks a cold, narrow and essentially fundamentalist theology. Why on earth should Richard Dawkins, or any other self-respecting atheist, waste their time and energy on someone like that?

*It was Yevtushenko. Thanks to Leopold below.