Saturday, 22 October 2011

Stop moaning, keep praying

Richard Dawkins has carved out quite a career for himself as flag waver in chief for the New Atheists. His utterances have ‘cool’ comedians genuflecting and Christians fuming in indignation. Sometimes Dawkins’ refusal to speak is more infuriating than his ranting. That seems to be true of his latest sortie into the battle. Or should I say his decision to decline entering the battle.

dawkinsThe theist William Lane Craig has invited Dawkins to a debate and Dawkins has declined. Fair enough, no one is required to participate in a debate about their views, even if others might suspect it is because Dawkins fears the weakness of his arguments being exposed. Dawkins has explained his decision in The Guardian. The first reason he gives is that he had never heard of Craig and neither had any of his philosopher chums so why should he give Craig publicity by granting him a debate:
Don't feel embarrassed if you've never heard of William Lane Craig. He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either. Perhaps he is a "theologian". For some years now, Craig has been increasingly importunate in his efforts to cajole, harass or defame me into a debate with him. I have consistently refused, in the spirit, if not the letter, of a famous retort by the then president of the Royal Society: "That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine"
Dawkins then went on to explain that he would not debate Craig because of Craig’s explanation of the text of Deuteronomy 20. Dawkins’ argues that Craig is guilty of defending genocide and that makes him an unworthy opponent:
Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn't, and I won't. Even if I were not engaged to be in London on the day in question, I would be proud to leave that chair in Oxford eloquently empty.
And if any of my colleagues find themselves browbeaten or inveigled into a debate with this deplorable apologist for genocide, my advice to them would be to stand up, read aloud Craig's words as quoted above, then walk out and leave him talking not just to an empty chair but, one would hope, to a rapidly emptying hall as well.
dcameA response to Dawkins has been offered by the philosopher Daniel Came. Again writing in The Guardian Came suggests:
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…
Came goes on to say that though he is disinclined to defend Craig’s argument about Deuteronomy 20 the issue is a red herring:
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.
As a sceptic, I tend to agree with Dawkins's conclusion regarding the falsehood of theism, but the tactics deployed by him and the other New Atheists, it seems to me, are fundamentally ignoble and potentially harmful to public intellectual life. For there is something cynical, ominously patronising, and anti-intellectualist in their modus operandi, with its implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people's beliefs about religion. The presumption is that their largely non-academic readership doesn't care about, or is incapable of, thinking things through; that passion prevails over reason. On the contrary, people's attitudes towards religious belief can and should be shaped by reason, not bile and invective. By ignoring this, the New Atheists seek to replace one form of irrationality with another.
The interesting point here is that Came is arguing from a philosophical, not theistic, position and he is clear that he is not a theist. Came despairs at the arrogance and lack of intellectual rigour at the heart of the New Atheist enterprise and longs for a different tone to the debate:
The New Atheism is certainly a far cry from the model of civilised interlocution between "old atheist" Bertrand Russell and Father Copleston that took place and was broadcast on BBC Radio in 1948. The New Atheists could learn a lot from the likes of Russell, whose altogether more powerful approach was at once respectful and a model of philosophical precision.
Now here is what I think of the matter. It is about time we Christians stopped moaning about Dawkins and his pals. They have every right to spout about their particular brand of atheism and they have every right to decline defending it when confronted with anything bordering on a rigorous intellectual examination. I think we should spend more time praying for these people and less time complaining when they don’t do what we want. I suspect that would wind them up far more and, who knows, they may find their hearts strangely warmed by the Good News of Jesus Christ. As it is I can’t help feeling there is something of the hound of heaven about Dawkins’ increasingly vehement attacks on everything to do with God.


Nick said...

Hmmm. Whilst I agree Dawkins has every right to propagate his atheism... he has absolutely NO right whatsoever to denigrate others for holding views to the contrary. This is something I have always maintained... and I hold it true for myself and other Christians too... in fact for pretty much everyone.

The issue I have with "New Atheism" is it's blatantly false and delusional claim to some kind of objectivity. The philosophy of not believing in God is a subjective one based on the observation, understanding and interpretation of the world from an individual perspective.

Every one of us colours the world based on our own interpretation... and nobody is exempt from this. Maturity consists in tolerating people holding contrary views even when we disagree with them on a passionate level... and that is something the National Secular Society refuses to do in its very mandate.

But you are absolutely correct in your analysis that we should be praying for these people.

Gill said...

"About time we Christians stopped moaning about Dawkins..." Goodness me yes.

Can we stop calling them New Atheists too please? I find it very irritating. It makes a diverse bunch of people sound like more of a movement than they really are, and I feel it entrenches some sort of imaginary battle lines. It does nothing for sensible debate and discussion.

David Ould said...

I'm with Nick, but I think we need to do both. Point out clearly the nature of their (lack of decent) argument and invective AND pray for them.

Gill, I don't call them the New Atheists. They're the pop-atheists.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for the comments. Just to be clear, I am not saying we shouldn't challenge the arguments of Dawkins & co. we should. My point is we should stop complaining when they duck out of debates etc. which simply highlights the paucity of their case. The way that others behave should not dictate how we respond. I am suggesting the most effective response is not trading insults but prayer.

Gill said...

Well, pop-atheists is an improvement if you're going for a "Who can patronise the others the most?" approach. ;-)

Having said that, pop is what Dawkins does - it's what his Professorship for Public Understanding of Science was all about, surely? And it's led him to write some very fine pop science books.

I don't think the accusation of ducking out of debates is fair, either. To be fair to Dawkins, he's been debating for years with people, most of whom he perceives to be at best intellectually inferior (probably with some reason, given some of the YECs I've met) and at worst mildly deranged. Some of them are actively hostile to him. That has to take it's toll, even on a brain that size. ;-) He's under no obligation to do the performing monkey thing for us.

Perhaps we should all step back from urging our "figureheads" into shouty arenas and have our own low level discussions with our atheist chums when they want to have them.

I have an ongoing chat with my atheist and pagan friends about the (as they see it) malign influence of religion in supposedly secular schools. I'm sure that having a gentle and productive discussion about it is harder than it would have been, say, 10 years ago, and I'm just as sure that part of that is down to public debates raising the temperature and digging in the battle lines.

As sure as I can be without any evidence, of course.