Am I really wrong about Dawkins? A response to Sara Passmore

DawkinsWarning: This is long – probably a longer response than the original piece really deserves. But sometimes we Christians have to push back with some careful, strong and detailed thought – lest we be accused of being illogical, stupid, fearful, or unable to stand our ground in the marketplace of ideas.

On Wednesday, Stuff (and several of New Zealand’s major daily newspapers) published an opinion piece that I wrote about Richard Dawkins and his visit to New Zealand. They gave it the headline: “Why Richard Dawkins is wrong about Christianity” – which is a pretty fair summary of what I claimed. Yesterday, Stuff published a response to my article by Sara Passmore, President of the Humanist Society of New Zealand. It was headlined: “Geoff Robson is wrong about Richard Dawkins, the man and his work”.

Given the nature of Sara’s critique, and given that this exchange of ideas has provoked significant discussion around the nation, I think a response to Sara’s piece is in order.

For the record: Before I wrote this piece, I contacted Sara and asked if she’d like to be part of some kind of constructive dialogue where we explored her claims about me. She was kind enough to respond quickly to my message, but declined to engage any further (which is entirely her right and very much understandable – she cited her personal busyness, as well as concerns that readers / listeners would simply remain ‘entrenched’ in their current positions). I found Sara’s personal correspondence to be extremely polite and gracious, and as far as I can see we had a friendly exchange with absolutely no animosity. I like to think a long-distance friendship might even be possible. In fact, she kindly raised the possibility of an exchange later in the year where we explore areas of common ground, rather than our differences.

However, her public article requires clarification and correction at several points.

Here are Sara’s claims, followed by my response (I’ve re-ordered them):

Robson doesn’t understand the scientific method.

The scientific method is the best way we have to understand the universe. Evidence is an important part of this.

For people with supernatural beliefs, coming up with convincing evidence is pretty hard. Robson states that his faith is based on evidence. I’m guessing, from his failure to provide proof for his claims that Robson also doesn’t understand what evidence is either.

Where to start with this one? First, Sara seems to assume that, because I didn’t provide evidence in my article, I don’t have any evidence. That’s a bizarre and illogical assumption.

Surely Sara understands how it works when one writes for the secular press. I was invited to write 800-900 words on Richard Dawkins’ visit to New Zealand, not 800-900 words (or 5,000 words, or 50,000 words) on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection or the historical reliability of the Bible [note to Stuff news director: I’m ready when you are]. You write to your brief or you don’t get published.

Nine hundred words disappear quickly when you’re trying to cover lots of ground. I only had space to hint at the fact that there is evidence for Christianity, trusting that interested and thoughtful people might go searching for that evidence (and, wonderfully, some readers have reached out to me to ask about that evidence). But somehow, Sara manages to conclude that, because I don’t provide evidence within this specific 900-word article, I don’t understand ‘the scientific method’ or ‘what evidence is’. Does that make sense to you? Me neither.

I’m no scientist, but I think I have a decent working understanding of the scientific method. It’s about the collection of empirical and measurable data (aka ‘evidence’), observation, experimentation, analysis, the development of hypotheses and the drawing of appropriate conclusions (of course a scientist would improve that definition significantly). I love science, and am incredibly grateful for it.

But Sara seems to be confused about what kind of evidence I’m describing. I’m not claiming that the evidence for Christianity is scientific evidence, or that Christianity’s claims can be tested using the ‘scientific method’. I’ll be crystal clear: there is no scientific evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

But I am claiming that there is good, logical, historical evidence for Christianity. Indeed, I wrote in my article: “Christianity is built on the historical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ.” I fear that Sara’s the one who displays a misunderstanding of the nature of ‘evidence’. I wonder: does a singular focus on ‘scientific evidence’ (which, again, is a good and wonderful thing) exclude the legitimacy of ‘historical evidence’? Put simply: there are lots of ways to know things.

Sara states: “The scientific method is the best way to understand the universe.” Let’s assume that I concede that point. Here’s my question for Sara: Did you arrive at that conclusion solely through the ‘scientific method’? Or did other categories of thought play a part?

Sara also states: “For people with supernatural beliefs, coming up with convincing evidence is pretty hard.” I agree. These are big questions with no easy answers. But there’s a world of difference between “pretty hard” and ‘impossible’. We may have to think long and hard, using our brains, to understand the evidence and to see why it’s convincing, but that doesn’t make it impossible.[i]

Christians praise God that he’s revealed himself to us in a way that doesn’t require us to switch off our brains and have ‘blind faith’. Instead, the historical evidence for Jesus is a key part of how we reach our well-reasoned conclusions about God. (In case you’re wondering, I’ll attempt to provide an outline of the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and the reliability of the Bible in a post next week – I can’t do everything in one post!)

 

Robson doesn’t seem to have read any of Dawkins’ books.

Instead he relies on quotes taken out of context. And by doing this he misses how beautiful the writing is and how accessible the concepts are.

It’s always a good idea to be cautious before you make sweeping claims about someone else, because Sara is just plain wrong about this. I’ve read lots of Dawkins’ writing (and have always made a point of reading broadly across a range of authors, Christian and non-Christian). Specifically, I’ve read several essays from his new book (Science in the Soul), most of The God Delusion, and a wide selection of other essays or book excerpts. I’ve also listened to many hours of his public speaking and debates (and will be attending his public event in Christchurch tonight after buying tickets last year).

Her evidence (yep, I used that word deliberately) for me not having read any of Dawkins’ books is that, apparently, I’ve taken him out of context. Well, the easiest way to respond to that charge is for me to provide an extended quotation from his latest book. These are the first four paragraphs from ‘Is Science a Religion?’, an essay from Science in the Soul (location 3585-3597 in my electronic version of the book). Readers can then figure out for themselves whether I’ve taken him out of context when it comes to his understanding of ‘faith’:

It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, ‘mad cow’ disease and other infectious perils. I think a case can be made that one of the greatest of these – comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate – is faith.

Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principle vice of any religion. And who, looking at Northern Ireland or the Middle East, can be confident that the brain virus of faith is not exceedingly dangerous? One of the stories told to young Muslim suicide bombers is that martyrdom is the quickest way to heaven – and not just heaven but a special part of heaven where they will receive their special reward of seventy-two virgin brides. It occurs to me that our best hope may be to provide a kind of ‘spiritual arms control’: send in specially trained theologian commandos to de-escalate the going rate in virgins.

Given the dangers of faith – and considering the accomplishments of reason and observation in the activity called science – I find it ironic that, whenever I lecture publicly, there always seems to be someone who comes forward and says: “Of course, your science is just a religion like ours. Fundamentally, science just comes down to faith, doesn’t it?”

Well, science is not just religion and it doesn’t just come down to faith. Although it has many of religion’s virtues, it has none of its vices. Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of Doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists.”

To show that this isn’t a one-off pot-shot at ‘faith’ but rather is part of a sustained critique, here’s another extended quote from Dawkins:

If you ask people why they are convinced of the truth of their religion, they don’t appeal to heredity. Put like that it sounds too obviously stupid. Nor do they appeal to evidence. There isn’t any, and nowadays the better educated admit it. No, they appeal to faith. Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. The worst thing is that the rest of us are supposed to respect it: to treat it with kid gloves.

If a slaughterman doesn’t comply with the law in respect of cruelty to animals, he is rightly prosecuted and punished. But if he complains that his cruel practices are necessitated by religious faith, we back off apologetically and allow him to get on with it. Any other position that someone takes up can expect to be defended with reasoned argument. Faith is allowed not to justify itself by argument. Faith must be respected; and if you don’t respect it, you are accused of violating human rights.

Even those with no faith have been brainwashed into respecting the faith of others. When so-called Muslim community leaders go on the radio and advocate the killing of Salman Rushdie, they are clearly committing incitement to murder – a crime for which they would ordinarily be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned. But are they arrested? They are not, because our secular society “respects” their faith, and sympathises with the deep “hurt” and “insult” to it.

Well I don’t. I will respect your views if you can justify them. but if you justify your views only by saying you have faith in them, I shall not respect them.

Sara talked about the beauty and accessibility of Dawkins’ writing, which is very much in the eye of the beholder. So I feel no need to address that point. And there’s a lot of ground covered in both of those quotes, and I’m not here to interact with any of the wider points right now (though I will dismember Dawkins’ obvious and slovenly misreading of ‘Doubting Thomas’ in a future post). But there’s an objective reality here, and that’s what I’d like you to consider: Have I taken Dawkins out of context on the topic of ‘faith’? Or don’t his own words, taken in their own extended context, show very clearly that he understands ‘faith’ to be a belief that isn’t based on evidence? Once we conclude that he does indeed understand ‘faith’ that way, two things follow logically:

  • Dawkins is wrong about ‘faith’ – at least as it applies to biblical Christianity (as two forthcoming posts next week will attempt to show), and
  • Sara is wrong to accuse me of having taken Dawkins out of context.

Regardless, one thing is absolutely certain: she is wrong in her claim (made in the absence of evidence – indeed in direct contradiction to the evidence) that I haven’t read any of Dawkins’ writing.

 

Robson is wrong about the meaning of life

He claims more secular countries (what he calls “spiritually apathetic”) aren’t inclined to navel gaze about the deeper meaning of life.

For us atheists, there’s no one ‘true meaning of life’. There are many meanings of life and we consider all of them because they give our lives purpose. It’s sad Robson only has one possible answer when it comes to the meaning of life. There is so much in my life that gives it meaning.

This is where things start to get a little more muddy, but I still think there are important points to raise.

I think a generous and reasonable reading of what I said about ‘the meaning of life’ would have seen that I was speaking in generalities. Of course people who call themselves atheists are capable of thinking deeply about life’s meaning. One of my oldest and dearest friends is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, as is his lovely wife. And they live rich and happy lives where they spend plenty of time pondering their existence and the meaning of everything (and where I try to convert him and he tries – a bit less zealously – to convert me). And I’m very glad that Sara finds many things to give her life meaning (or ‘meanings’).

But I absolutely stand by the general truth of what I wrote. Every day, I rub shoulders with spiritually apathetic university students. People often ask me: “does your Christian group get much opposition on campus?” I always answer: “No, hardly anyone cares enough to oppose what we’re doing.” Sometimes, I wish we had more opposition; it would be a sign that more people took this stuff seriously. I’ve had so many conversations over the years where I meet a non-Christian and try to engage them in meaningful conversation, only to find that they just don’t care. They live their life without God, and even without feeling a need to consider what they believe about God. None of this matters to them. They’re numb to it all. And I’m convinced their lives will be poorer for it. Moreover, I work alongside Christian students who find the exact same thing among their non-Christian friends. They often wish that their friends cared enough to engage with them on these topics, but it’s just not the case.

Again, I’m generalizing. I love meeting students who do want to discuss the big issues of life – whether they’re atheist, agnostic, lapsed Christian, ex-Muslim, or whatever. They’re out there. But relatively speaking, they’re few and far between. And having lived most of my life in Australia – which is itself a spiritually dry place – I can testify that New Zealand is significantly further down that path. People just get inoculated against stopping and considering what they believe.

That’s why I said I’m “cautiously glad” that Dawkins is in town. He cares deeply about these issues – which is simply not the case for way too many Kiwis.

I’m not surprised to learn that the President of the Humanist Society thinks deeply about the big questions of life. And I know atheists are entirely capable of finding meaning (or “meanings” to life). So, at the end of all that, I have to conclude that perhaps Sara has missed my point. Either that, or she’s simply looking for things to argue about.

 

Robson says “the question of God” doesn’t matter much anymore

Atheists are always asked to prove God doesn’t exist. Usually by monotheists. This is a common logical fallacy. The burden of proof lies with the person making the claim, and if you don’t believe I invite you to disprove what I’m saying.

Atheists around the world are being killed and imprisoned for their beliefs. It’s a luxury for Robson to claim this question isn’t important to people. But he also doesn’t say why this question is important. I guess, for someone whose meaning of life, as well as career, is wrapped up in God existing, it’s a pretty important question.

I think Sara and I are talking about different things here. Again, I was lamenting the fact that too many people find it easy to ignore “the question of God” in 21st century New Zealand. Sara has gone from that to ruminating on where the burden of proof for God’s existence lies. I don’t see an immediate connection between the two ideas.

She points out that, tragically, “atheists around the world are being killed and imprisoned for their beliefs”.[ii] I join with her in lamenting and denouncing that as evil and awful, and I hope all Christians (actually, all people) would do the same. But I struggle to see how she logically connects all this with my comments. It’s pretty clear that I was describing (with sadness) the spiritual apathy of so many Kiwis. She responds by saying it’s a ‘luxury’ for me to even make this point, before citing evidence of what’s happening in thirteen other countries – all of which are culturally very different from New Zealand. I have no desire for New Zealand to start imprisoning any person because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Far from it. But, once again, I can’t see a connection between all this and the simple point I was making about spiritual apathy in New Zealand (not in Yemen, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the like).

And I’ll also slip in this point: shall we start comparing the number of atheists persecuted for their unbelief with the number of Christians persecuted for their belief (now, or at other moments in history)? It wouldn’t prove anything about God’s existence, but I think we all know what we’d find.

Sara rightly points out that I didn’t say why the question matters – which, again, comes down to the limitations of space. I’m sure Sara and I (and Dawkins) agree that this question matters, but I’m not sure why she felt the need to slip that in as a criticism.

As I conclude, I’ll also concede this point: Sara raises the question of whether or not I have a vested interest. She’s right: I absolutely do. If God’s existence were disproven, I would have to unravel a huge amount of my life (though, on behalf of my TSCF colleagues around the country, let me assure everyone that we smile to ourselves at any implication that we’re in it for the money!). Interestingly enough, in an early draft of my piece I mentioned that, if I discovered Jesus never rose, I’d “start filling out job applications” (i.e. I’d quit my job – in the same sentence where I said I’d quit going to church). I only cut that out to save space, but it’s true.

So I admit and agree that I have a vested interest that can potentially confuse me in the search for truth. And I pledge to keep working against that and keep pursuing the truth, whatever the cost. But can I ask: am I the only one with a vested interest? Does Sara have any skin in the game? Does Richard Dawkins? Do you?

Can you only get at the truth when you’re purely objective? And does such a person truly exist? Don’t human beings – lovers of freedom and autonomy that we are – all have a vested interest in the question of whether or not a sovereign God exists?

 


 

[i] I get that she might be using “pretty hard” as a rhetorical device to be synonymous with ‘impossible’. But if that’s the case, (a) she should be more precise with her language on important matters like this, and (b) she really should understand that it is definitely NOT impossible for people with supernatural beliefs to produce evidence in support of those beliefs.

[ii] Given her decision to place that word in scare quotes in her second paragraph, followed by a disparaging comment, I wonder whether she should have picked a word other than “beliefs”.

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