New Atheism’s age old question

New Atheism’s age old question

Professor Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) proved to be a key driver in the emergence of the New Atheist Movement. New Atheism takes an aggressive stance against all faiths, arguing that rational thinking and science render religion at best unnecessary and at worst fraudulent. The movement has sparked healthy debates between New Atheists and Christians. On the one side Richard Dawkins, and others including “anti-theist” the late Christopher Hitchens, and on the other side, Christian speakers such as William Lane Craig and Oxford Professor John Lennox.

Across these debates in the Universities and City Halls of America, Europe and Australia one question that recurs is the question of Science and Faith – often posed as Science Versus Faith. And perhaps the …

Great question: How did it all begin?

The question of how everything began is one which scientists address – we have all come across the Big Bang concept. However, how does a Big Bang result in an ordered universe? After a big bang you don’t expect order, you expect chaos. If you took an explosive and inserted it into rocks or a building to make a “big bang”, you don’t get order, you get a mess.

Simplistic analogies aside, the idea that we live in a highly ordered universe and not chaos is important. An ordered universe is evidence of purpose, intelligence and therefore of an intelligent designer. Enter the so-called “Fine Tuning Argument”. This states that there are many aspects of our universe, many “physical constants” which are extremely finely-tuned to enable life and the universe as we experience it. For example the precise distance of the earth from the sun, the tilt of the earth’s axis, the precise percentage of oxygen in water. If any of these varied by even a fraction, we would freeze/burn, there would be no seasons, or all sea-life would be impossible. You could go on, eg if gravity was reduced by only a tiny fraction, molecules could not form, if it were greater, nothing could physically move.

Fine Tuning

This surprising precision of constants in nature comprises the Fine Tuning Argument and points to a Designer. In fact some authors say that if the ratio of gravitational force to electromagnetic force was changed by a miniscule amount (1 part in 10 to power 40) stellar matter would not form, stars and planets could not evolve and the universe itself would be unsustainable. That is incredibly fine tuning.

However Christian speaker John Lennox states that the “how” question is not the fundamental question. He says the starting question is not a “how question” but a “why question”: ie …

Even better question: Why is there anything at all?

Why should there be anything compared to nothing?

Lennox argues that the very fact that there is a Universe points to a purposeful creator and this is no way contradicts science. He has an effective analogy for demonstrating that science and faith do not conflict but answer different questions. He points to a Ford car engine. The engine, can be explained scientifically using laws of internal combustion and mechanics. That’s all we need right? But there is a second equally complete explanation for the same engine, and that is … the man, Henry Ford. Henry Ford conceived of the engine, was its prime mover, and was responsible for its design. Lennox’s point is that neither explanation is contradictory. Explanations can be made in different dimensions. There is more than one type of truth. How and Why are different questions.

shutterstock_152972348

New Atheists attempt to force us to choose between science and God, but that is a false separation.. The point is that science and faith answer different questions. Science is crucial for answering certain questions, for one type of truth. But those with faith understand that there are truths that lie outside our conceptual framework (what I can know or define). As well as scientific truth, there is experiential truth, moral truth, there is truth as metaphor, truths that in fact are simply not amenable to scientific investigation. Speaker J John once humorously attempted to explain a kiss scientifically, ie….”the lips of two people approaching and engaging in contact, for finite periods of time, and involving exchange of micro bacteria”. Well that is completely true and yet it is not at all the truth. It can only partly describe the enactment of a kiss. And of course it cannot start to answer the question …. why kiss? Clearly there are many types of truth and they go beyond the scientific.

shutterstock_57532234

There is no squabble between science and faith

On his website Saints and Sceptics David Glass points to the complementary nature of science and faith. He says “Science presents us with some of the most persuasive reasons FOR a belief in God……. It would be much more probable if there were a God, that constants would be finely-tuned, and life would exist”. Of course many great scientists also had great faith – Kepler who calculated the laws of planetary motion said he was merely: “following in God’s thoughts after him”, while Isaac Newton on discovering the force of gravity stated “what a wonderful God to do it that way!” John Lennox adds: “… The more science reveals to me, the more I worship the God who chose to do it that way!

In the end, new atheists criticise what they call “blind faith”: the belief in a designer-God, but they are happy to believe in blind atheism: sightless, purposeless energy. Well that is a great step of faith indeed!

 

Useful Links

MP3 Debate: Science the Universe and the God Question – John Lennox V Lawrence Krauss, from Unbelievable,Premier Christian Radio

Videos – Science and Christian Belief – David Glass from Saints and Sceptics website

Video – Is God Relevant? – John Lennox from John Lennox blog / website

  • Paul Grundey

    Hello Chris, very nice website.

  • Paul

    In any debate, you need to provide some clear definitions.
    What exactly is atheism? new or old?

    Atheism is not a belief system, although many of faith appear to think that it is.

    A pitch black room can be illuminated with a pocket torch,
    but there does not exist an “anti-torch” that can project a beam of
    darkness into a brightly lit room. Darkness is the absence of light, not
    the presence of darkness.

    Atheists don’t “believe” there are no gods. It is simply that they don’t find
    the evidence for them credible, and therefore the default state must be
    disbelief. An absence of the light of evidence.

    The comedian Tim Minchin was asked by a Christian, “Surely you don’t go through
    life only believing in things for which you have evidence?”. “Erm! Yes?” was his
    reply.

    If you don’t see the humour in that quiet response, you are failing to “get”
    what atheism is.
    Ironically, every believer must be an atheist about all bar one, of the roughly
    10,000 gods that have been worshiped throughout documented history.

    Now that I have defined atheism, can you define God(s) ?

    Should that I assume that when you think that there is evidence that God made
    the universe, that you are referring to Odin, father of Thor?
    How would I, an atheist, decide that the evidence you present for the existence
    of a creator establishes a link to any particular faith.

    There is rather a long period of time from the creation of the universe,
    around 13.6 billion years ago, to the arrival, on one small geographical region
    of one of eight planets orbiting one of 200 billion (+/- 100 billion) stars,
    in one galaxy of an estimated 200 billion (+/- 100 billion) galaxies in
    the Universe, of His emissary to man. By the way, some physicists are providing
    mathematical models for multiple universes, and suggesting ways to detect them.

    That’s a staggering amount of other places that the holy texts tend to overlook,
    as they proclaim their special insights in to how the mind of such a creator
    has given us rules from topics as far ranging as, how to cut our facial hair
    to what bodily orifices are acceptable for what activity.

    Let’s assume that the article was not intended to provide any arguments for
    a particular version of a god and look at the arguments for a designer.

    The eye of the beholder imparts significance.

    If I shuffle a pack of cards and deal four to you. The odds on you receiving
    any four cards are identical. If, on turning over the cards you see four aces,
    it is you that imparts meaning, and perhaps a sense of fate upon them.
    Those cards are no more probable, or meaningful to the universe as any others.

    This is an important concept to grasp and is often forgotten by those who
    look upon an apparent complexity and impart a view that it can only be a design or a plan. Sometimes, given enough shuffles and enough time, the statistically
    improbable can just happen.
    (Google Derren Brown and the “ten heads in a row” coin flip)

    Complexity of life.
    Unless you are a fundamental creationist, then the theory of evolution (where
    theory has a rigourously defined meaning to scientists) can explain how
    the simplest, single celled lifeform can evolve into the complex, and self
    aware beings that are capable of contemplating their own existence.

    Evolution does not explain the origin of that first spark of life.
    If you accept the science behind evolution, then you must accept that it is
    a perfect example of how once in motion, complexity can elegantly arise from
    simplicity.

    Science has not (yet) explained the origin of life, so God did it.

    If you put forth this argument, then you are postponing the time when
    you may have to admit that science has closed another gap in which God can hide.

    There are many researchers doing research on how organic long chain molecules
    can preserve information and self replicate. At what point do you declare a
    self replicating “thing” alive. The universe has been around a long time,
    giving it plenty of time to shuffle molecules.

    The current count on exo-planets is around 1800 with more being detected every
    year. We are building more sensitive instruments than can detect more
    information about these planets and are getting tantalizingly close to detecting
    the composition of their atmospheres.
    Why does that matter?
    If we detect oxygen in a distant atmosphere, then it’s very interesting
    as oxygen does not tend to linger without reacting with another element.
    If oxygen is being freed and is in abundance, then it’s most likely the
    result of a biological process… life elsewhere.
    That would indicate that there may not be anything special about this planet
    after all – the universe shuffles a lot of cards!

    Similarly the variations on the “Big Bang” theory of the origins of the universe
    show that once started, in the chaos of the initial outpouring of energy, order
    will arise in small but increasing pockets.
    This is not to say the universe is ordered. It continues to be be chaotic, as
    stars explode, galaxies collide, and black holes rip matter apart.
    We exist in a fleeting moment in time, where we are not in the midst of galactic
    catastrophe for now. We don’t know what card the universe could play next.

    Even as I type, a not so distant star could be exploding and sending a gamma
    ray burst our way that will shred every living cell on the planet.
    We are in the eye of the storm.

    Today physicists such as Lawrence Krauss are attempting to put mathematical
    certainty on the theories that we did come from “nothing”.
    The difference between a physicist and theologist may well be how they define
    words such as “nothing” and “infinity”. In physics, these words are defined
    and used in mathematical formulae. I’d like to ask a theologian for their
    definition of nothing.

    If I take a glass jar and pump out every atom, what is left? nothing?
    What if I then shine a torch through the glass? Is there still nothing inside?
    Is the light that passes through, something?

    Define your concept of nothing, and perhaps we can illustrate how something
    can spontaneously come from nothing without the aid of a creator.

    There are quantum theories that postulate than particles can and do appear
    from “nothing”. Google Quantum Foam.

    There was a thought experiment with two parallel plates in a vacuum.
    The theory predicted that particles spontaneously will appear from nothing
    and hit the plates. If the plates are close together to start with, then more
    “waves/particles” appear on the outer sides of the plates, than between them.
    This creates a pressure and pushes the plates towards each other.
    Thirty years after it was first predicted, this effect was observed
    qualitatively. It was measured accurately in 1997.

    Science does not have all the answers, but there are scientists working hard
    to find them. It is disingenuous to all those researchers to say that because
    they cannot yet give you an answer, or explain it to you in such a way you
    can understand, that your personal religious beliefs based on anecdote have
    the same weight as scientific evidence and therefore should be accorded a
    special level of respect in society.

    (Creation) Myths must remain myth until they accumulate the weight of evidence
    in their favour that you expect from any scientific theory.

    • Hey Paul
      First thanks very much for your well thought out, articulate, and detailed comments. Not easy to do this via a blog but you make some great points. I will try to respond to what I see are the main points you raise. Of course I know that as an atheist, you won’t agree  but let me give it a go anyway. In each case, I will quote the summary of your point, and respond.

      “Atheism is not a belief system”
      Surely by “belief system” we mean “what you believe”? Atheists do believe things: eg they believe that the universe and life have arisen through natural causes, or “naturalism”. That is a belief……

      “The default state must be dis-belief”
      Why? If there were really no evidence for a creator I would agree – ie let’s believe in natural causes.
      But there is plenty of evidence. I see the stunning creation of a world that persists despite the mass of probabilities stacked against it. The fact that I can even see at all, that I can conceive at all of what is beautiful, amazing and, yes, deigned, provides a mass of evidence. Creation itself is evidence. I agree with your example of Tim Minchin – I too only believe things for which there is evidence, but I don’t limit the type of evidence.

      “Can you define God?”
      Using what terms of reference? Our human conceptual framework is limited. Eg we conceive of things that lie within time, within space; we conceive of things that are within our ability to imagine. So if something, or someone, is beyond my human framework, my terms of words and logic, then no that something or someone is absolutely not definable in these limited terms. Having said that, I think what God does is definable, and what he has done is definable. As a Christian In believe that ultimately God took the unprecedented step of defining himself by “taking on flesh” in the man Jesus.

      “Multiple universes”
      The multiple universes theory gets quoted by atheists against the argument of Fine Tuning. That always surprises me since atheists claim what they say is based on hard evidence. The Fine Tuning argument is based on plenty of hard evidence. However there is no evidence at all for multiple universes.

      Your statements on “100 billion stars, 100 billion galaxies ….”
      I think that’s amazing – but to clarify my view – I am not claiming that planet earth has to be the only planet with life.

      “Card Shuffling” Analogy
      This is very interesting. It’s a great analogy. I think the point you are making is that if I take 4 cards from the pack they have to be SOMETHING, and 4 aces in a row is no less probable than any other outcome (I did look up the Derren Brown reference).
      However I think this very argument is pitched in different ways and is certainly pitched against the atheist position. Professor of Philosophy Richard Swinburne came up with this argument (Google Swinburne’s Card Shuffling Machine) His rational conclusion is that the fact that you get a specific incredibly improbable outcome does not make the outcome any less improbable. Or in other words, the fact that we can devise a theory for something incredibly unlikely – almost impossible, does not alter the fact that it is incredibly unlikely – almost impossible.

      “Complexity can elegantly arise from simplicity”
      Yes that’s a fair point. I would only contend that you still need all your many ducks in a row for this process even to start and then also to continue (back to Fine Tuning I’m afraid!).

      “God of the gaps”
      I paraphrase John Lennox: He says you don’t believe in a God who we insert into our gaps in scientific knowledge in order to fill the gap, but neither do I. So atheists and Christians can definitely agree there is no “God of the gaps”.
      God answers fundamentally different questions about life and our universe. “Why questions” which no one would try and answer with science.

      Definitions of “nothing”
      Saying that particles can appear from nothing is intriguing and the Quantum Foam theory you reference is certainly interesting to me. However Christian belief doesn’t depend on “nothing” or our ability to define nothing. Instead it is based on the evidence of creation, of history, of personal experience, And this evidence points back to a God who is un-creatable.

      “Being disingenuous to science”
      It’s certainly not my intention to do that. Like you I come from a science and technology background and like you I have great confidence in scientific truths. I think our difference perhaps is that I also have confidence in other truths, be they historical truths, moral truths, experiential truths, and truths of God’s character as revealed in these truths.
      cg

      • Paul

        “Atheism is not a belief system”
        That’s where I was drawing the “light in the room” analogy. A-theism is disbelief in any deity. It’s not an assertion, such as, I have a tiger in in my sitting room. It is, I do not believe you have a tiger, a lion or an elephant, until you offer some credible evidence to support your assertion.
        That’s my basis of disbelief being the default state.
        We should not begin with believing everything (deities, bigfoot, aliens) until they are proven false. It’s the other way around, false until proven true.

        The next step in examining the truth of an assertion is examining the
        quality of the evidence put forward. This is tricky, because what
        constitutes evidence can be subject to interpretation.
        Is everyone equal in their expertise to examine evidence and draw the correct conclusions?

        “Creation itself is evidence”
        Isn’t this the same as:
        God made everything. Everything is here, therefore God exists.
        God gave us the Bible. The Bible says God exists, therefore God exists.
        or even
        Matter will spontaneously appear from nothing. Everything is here, therefore…

        Circular logic ?
        The latter one comes with a lot of maths behind it.
        There is a danger in not putting limits on the type of evidence.
        There are physicists trying to understand the nature of matter using both predictive mathematical models and observation (CERN – LHC).

        I think maths is the ultimate hard evidence that supercedes narrative stories and anecdotes.
        Einstein published his Relativity papers at the turn of the century. If his math was correct, we should observe certain counter-intutive effects, such as time slowing down with speed. It wasn’t until the mid century that we had sufficient capability to carry out an experiment to confirm this prediction.
        (Two sync’d atomic clocks, one on the ground and one in a jet. Not only did they go out of sync, they did so by the amount predicted by the theory.)

        Today, theoretical physicists are giving mathematical models in support of the multiverse. They have predicted what we might expect if true, and there is a search using the WMAP data to see if we can find such patterns. (WMAP measures the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Imagine you are inside a balloon and can only see as far as the inside surface, but not beyond. How could you tell if other balloons were pressing against your balloon? You might see a deformation where another balloon touches yours.
        Perhaps a flattening of the surface, a circular deformation.
        You can’t see the other balloons but you could infer their presence.
        Now, substitute universes for balloons.)

        You may say our human capabilities to understand things are limited. Does that put a limit on maths too? Does it prevent us from building tools to enhance our natural limits?
        We can build computers to assemble mathematical models and make predictions.
        We can build telescopes and microscopes to see beyond our natural sight and make observations to verify the models.

        When I hear comments along the lines of science can’t provide the answers to , that bugs me. Perhaps those questions are pointless to ask in the first place.

        And here I come to the conclusion that we are not all born with the same abilities to reason, or see another point of view. I have read that children with autism find it very difficult to imagine another person’s viewpoint.
        This study was infering that they are much less likely to be religious adults because they don’t infer intelligent agency to the environment.
        Conversely, more religious people see design and agency around them, “God wanted this plane to crash for a reason.”

        We then accumulate evidence to bolster our world view.
        But intellectual honesty require you to question that evidence.
        I think the scientific method is the best tool for that.

        Let’s say I give you the benefit of the gap. Physics hasn’t definitively
        answered the Universe question…yet.

        So, there might have been a creator. You then have to follow up on that with a whole new set of questions.

        We are most familiar with the Christian mythology.
        I would infer that any other spiritual philosophy has the same problems.

        I was brought up in a very religious environment, but the stories I was told only created more questions than answers.
        “Is a new guardian angel made for every baby?
        “What does that angel do when you die?”
        “Are there enough angels to go around everyone in the world?”
        “Do they have lunch breaks? Get bored? Watch me on the toilet?”
        “If Jesus was alone in the desert when Satan tempted him, how come we know about it?”.

        As I learned more physics, other questions arose.
        “If you are invisible, how can you see anything? (the light would pass
        through your retinas)”
        “How would an angel interact with our matter? Either they are powerless to interfere or we could detect them, radiation (light, heat), gravitation (mass) and so on.”

        I think I was an atheist before I heard of the word. I just couldn’t
        make sense of these wierd assertions that other people would make. Why can’t they see the obvious problems that would follow on from their story?

        Let’s examine the fundamentals of the Christian narrative.
        It comes from a collection of texts. The problem is that few Christians
        really tackle the problems that come from the source material. There is like a wooly fog of vagueness over the stories that create a simplistic narrative, compared to the real strangeness in the black and white text.

        Let’s see what truths about God come out of the black and white.

        Some old testament classics:
        Exodus 4:24-26
        24 At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses[a] and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.[b] “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the Lord let him alone.

        What? Why was God going to kill Moses? and why would the skin of a kid’s **** change his mind?

        Genesis 32:22-31
        Jacob Wrestles With God
        I’ll not quote the actual verse, but Jacob fights God for a day, who
        incidentally cheats using his God-powers!

        Job – pretty much all of it.
        God has a bet with Satan, who ruins Job’s life and then when Job asks, why?
        God more or less goes off on rant that could be summed up as
        “I’m God, I can do what I like”

        Not to leave out his Son, who is usually a bit more sensible:
        Mark 11:12-25
        Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

        You knew it was out of season (God powers), and still you got mad! at a tree!!!

        I could go on to cherry pick from all over the texts, but really how does a believer not see that God of the OT was a psychotic baby killer, who bears little resemblance to Jesus of the NT.

        If you adhere to the belief that these texts are truth, then there are so many moral dilemas to navigate, never mind plain old contradictions.
        Inevitably, you have to cherry pick the bits you like and leave the bits
        you don’t. What does that do to the “evidence led conclusions” ?

        My point is that the OT God couldn’t be trusted to hold down a 9-5 job, let alone build the exquisitely beautiful universe.
        There is no continuity between a creator intelligence with the beings
        described in the collection of scribblings that form the Bible.

        • Paul

          Hot off the press:

          Spectacular cosmic discovery hailed http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26605974

          A tell tale marker predicted by the theory looks to have been detected.

        • Hi Paul
          Thanks again for a considered response – as detailed as the first one, and also for the personal details about your own journey. I have tried to collect your main points again and respond to them in groups.

          1. I see you are still saying that atheism is not a belief system
          You say atheism is “disbelief in any deity. It’s not an assertion”. Yet you still hold assertions eg that life and the universe has arisen from natural causes. I assume that is what you believe….? So you do have “beliefs” which you cannot “prove” according to your way of looking at proofs and evidence. …… so your Atheism is a belief system.

          2. I see you compare belief of the God of classical theism with belief in Bigfoot.
          How many adults do you know who have come to believe in Bigfoot? I can’t think of any but I do personally know of hundreds of intelligent, well-balanced adults from many walks of life who over a long process, sometimes over many years, have come to believe in God – me included.
          It’s not a sensible comparison.

          3. You say “maths is the ultimate hard evidence”
          Clearly there is a gulf between in what we understand as evidence. You major very well on one single type of evidence – scientific / mathematical (if I may refer to that as one type), and that is great for comprehending scientific or mathematical truths. As I stated before, many truths fall outside this limited space. The experiential, ethical, and extremely personal truth of someone you have come to know simply falls outside of mathematical modelling.

          4. Your statements on multiverses (multiple universes) – analogy with balloons etc
          I am still surprised that you insist on scientific evidence for some things, but when it comes to evidence for multiple universes (for which there is patently no evidence at all by your own definition of evidence), you stretch your definition of “evidence” to start allowing other ideas of evidence such as a mathematical models.. So ….. if someone were to build a mathematical model for Bigofoot – would you believe in Bigfoot? This seems strange and inconsistent.

          5. You say “Questions which science cant prove the answer to … are pointless to ask in the first place”
          Well that would close down a heck of a lot of questions I our world – and not just faith questions.
          A personal example: I know very well that science can’t prove the answer as to why my wife still loves me when she knows what a complete goon I can be. Science can’t prove anything here (nor should it), but there is a truth of committed love here that is worth me asking the question as it evokes a reciprocal response in me. It’s a simple example of truth that begs a question but for which there is no mathematical model.

          6. Your questions on angels etc and following assertions
          I think you are asking some great questions! And no I don’t know the answer either. However although these questions are interesting they are not central to my faith. An uncreatable God exists outside of our simple human framework, modelling, and attempts to box-in. He has revealed himself in ways we can see and yet he has not given us the answer to every question. I accept that and that’s where faith comes in – faith is trusting and in practice it involves some risk.

          7. You say of the Bible: “If you adhere to the belief that these texts are truth, then there are so many moral dilemmas….”
          Well I certainly do say these texts are truth. These texts are from a library of books we collectively call the Bible and yes I believe it is truth. The problem here is that just as with “evidence” where you only admit one specific form of evidence, you are now doing the same with truth. There are many forms of truth in literature. I hope you see that. So for example, some of the books in the Bible library are historical relating to Kings who lived long ago. Is that truth? Yes it is one type of truth we call “history”. Other parts of the Bible are poetry – is that truth? Yes it is truth but clearly in a different way – eg it’s not literally true. Other parts of the Bible are letters written into a specific situation in a specific church and in some cases even to a specific individual. Is that truth? Yes but of yet another sort –are written for a specific situation which or may not occur today. Other books in the Bible library are apocalyptic literature, wisdom literature, proverbs or allegory. Yes, they are all truth but truth tales different forms.. To imagine there is only one type of truth in literature misses the point.

          8. Your statement: “Let’s examine the fundamentals of the Christian narrative” and your examples from the Bible and your statements saying the Bible contains “many moral dilemmas and contradictions”.
          First, I assume you know very well that none of the texts you quote are fundamentals of the Christian narrative. There is no Christian who, if you asked him to list key / fundamental texts, would choose any of the ones you have chosen. Rather these texts you have chosen are ones that Dawkins and New Atheists like to choose. Well that’s OK 
          The texts you quote are indeed difficult but here are a few brief pointers to understanding ancient texts we need to take on board. When reading texts from 3,500 years ago it’s important to understand what was behind that text (the culture and the writing tradition of the day), and what it meant to people of that day, BEFORE we can start to ask what it says to us in our day.
          So eg the Exodus account which seems to recount a bizarre incident:
          • The context and culture
          We need to understand that for the ancient nation of Israel the sign of the covenant (promise of God to them) was circumcision and that at this point Moses, in disobedience, had not carried out this task on his son. This situation of course would never arise today but this is an event thousands of years ago.
          • Progressive revelation
          Just as important is the fact that throughout the Bible we see that God only reveals as much of his nature and his law that people of the day can make sense of. Let me give an easier example. There are a lot of violent incidents recorded in the Old Testament (but not all literal of course). That was the culture of the day. So eg when God said to his people “an eye for an eye and a toot for a tooth”, that not an encouragement to poke out someone’s eye, it is a restriction on retribution practices. In the ancient near and middle east a whole town could be massacred for the crimes of one person. God restricts this with this “new teaching” and for them it was new and revolutionary even though it may look to us like a licence to go and do harm …Then, much later and wonderfully in the New Testament, Jesus enters and develops this concept much further by saying “you have heard that it was said love your friend, hate your enemy but now I tell you love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you”. God moved people on in the ancient world and Jesus moves them on again in the New Testament world.
          So in the circumcision case, in the New Testament Paul makes it clear that circumcision no longer has a role to play in how we are accepted by God ….
          • By taking the trouble to understand these contextual issues we can start to determine which Old Testament texts are Descriptive and which are Prescriptive. This account is clearly not prescriptive 
          So taking any text out of its setting – especially ancient texts – is a poor shot to take (but I think Dawkins knows that).

          The “Christian narrative” is about something else. It’s about a God bringing back a people who are far away, and he does this through the costly death of his son, Jesus Chris. It is part of a much bigger story that started centuries before Christ and is still going on today. Sometimes bits of the story from ancient times are hard to follow, but throughout the story God provides evidence of his hand in many different ways, God also puts a value on our faith – our trust. If we always knew all the deepest mysteries of the universe, faith has no value.

          Phew! Good discussion anyway! Thanks again Paul – although we are in different places, I appreciate your input.
          cg

  • Phil Winn

    Giles Fraser points out the problems that arise when science tries to replace religion in this Guardian article:
    http://google.com/newsstand/s/CBIwtODrnBo

    • Hey Phil – thanks for the reference. If the best that Jim Al-Khalili can do is say “it’s like asking what’s south of the south pole?” …… that’s actually a very easy question to answer (my opinion :-))

  • Joe

    Having the privilege of knowing both Paul and Chris, I read this thread with a lot of smiles. Points as I would expect well made by you both, positions equally met my expectations, 2+2 = unchanged.

    As I fall on the Faith side of the discussion with a love of “sums” I firmly believe they can co-exist, they do within me.

    That said I would suggest the experience of faith, or God moments, are not measurable by mathematical analysis or modelling. And as much as using mathematical or scientific analysis of the Christian Truth will provide for good discussion it will never bridge the chasm from science to an experience of God in Faith, Hope or Love…..but please don’t let that stop the debate its too much fun to read

  • Jane

    Interesting discussions here on the nature of truth – I recommend Leslie Newbigin’s ‘Proper Confidence’ to you both as an exploration of the impact of philosophy and culture on the way we view and discover what is truth. I think you’d find it useful for your discussion.

    • Thanks Jane – I’ll look out for Newbigin

    • Thanks Jane. The question of whether there is objective truth is of course key. I’ll look out for Newbigin.

  • Kiwi06

    The argument from intelligent design is essentially the first 3-4 chapters of CS Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’. I like to think of myself as a ‘rational Christian’, and I’ve never found intelligent design arguments particularly convincing. They require a lot of prior assumptions to be made, such as “if there is evidence of great design, then ipso facto there must be a designer at work”. Similarly the ‘why is there something” argument is unconvincing – one could equally ask “why not”? The evidence for a God is at its most powerful when it’s founded on experiential/empirical grounds, rather than rational/scientific ones. I always say to atheists “you’ll never find God if you do not open yourself to the possibility of experiencing Him at work in your life”. He is found through prayer, bible reading, worship and contemplation. Those are things atheists are not prepared to do.

    • Thanks for stepping in – great to have your opinion. I am interested that as a Christian you don’t fine the fine tuning argument compelling as I certainly do. On the “why is there something compared to nothing” discussion, I tend to go with the Kalam argument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kal%C4%81m_cosmological_argument).
      But I agree that in the end none of these arguments can be conclusive, and it does come down to the experiential. Thanks very much for commenting!

  • Philip G

    Paul, you crudely imply that Christians are in the habit of believing things without evidence, ironically, without providing any evidence for the assertion! There is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claims of Jesus Christ. Maybe you should allow science to take its natural place rather than building a pseudo-religion around it. I put it to you that I do not have a God of the gaps but you have a science of the gaps- anything that doesn’t stack up to your preconceived worldview (the impossibility of abiogenesis, for example) “science just isn’t advanced enough to explain yet”. The words pot, kettle and black come to mind.

    • Well that is a clear statement! I was wondering if Paul wanted to respond (maybe not). Thanks Phil for taking the time to comment on 7minutes!

    • Paul

      I didn’t think I was being crude 🙂
      If you are saying my statement is a false assertion, the implication is that you are a Christian because you have evidence?

      Here is my challenge to believers in Gods and angels, what nature of evidence can you offer that a Bigfoot believer cannot for their truth?

      Personal experience is offered by both. I’d say the Bigfootists can go better than the theists by offering material evidence as well as witness testimony.
      Unfortunately none of it meets my standards for what I would consider proof.

      Paul,

      a-theist, a-ghostist, a-Bigfootist, a-aliens-visiting-earth (in no particular order)

      • Paul

        I forgot to address your other points.
        You are absolutely correct that we have a Science of the Gaps.
        I doubt you will find a single scientist who will claim a lack of gaps in their field. If it was not the case, then we could stop wasting money on R&D and solve the world’s problems in the morning.

        Conversely, it seems to be religions and high priests who claim to have a direct line to the truth and know God’s wishes on sexuality and morality.

        I wish I was so secure in knowing what’s right and wrong that I wouldn’t have to wrestle with my conscience about things like abortion, euthanasia, and whether gay people should be accorded equality.

        • Philip G

          I’ve just stumbled upon this again. I’m absolutely fascinated Paul that you believe in the concept of right and wrong, Very unscientific. No evidence for it that would meet my standard of what I would consider proof and, as someone with more than a passing interest in mathematics, I can assure you it’s a high standard. Perhaps you could intellectually honest and add amoral to your list?

          • Philip G

            *could be

  • Simon

    To me, faith means “hope in the future”. This is another kind of truth which science can’t tell us much about.

    • Hi Simon, and thanks for commenting. I agree there are many types of truth – truth as metaphor, truth as poetry, truth in experience etc – besides the “scientific proof”.

      • Simon

        I’m not really talking about “faith as truth” – rather, “faith as hope”. I agree with your statement though.

  • Marek

    Does evil exist?

    The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did
    God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, “Yes, he
    did!”

    “God created everything? The professor asked.

    “Yes sir”, the student replied.

    The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created
    evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works
    define who we are then God is evil”. The student became quiet before
    such an answer. The professor was quite pleased with himself and boasted
    to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith
    was a myth.

    Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?”

    “Of course”, replied the professor.

    The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”

    “What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never
    been cold?” The students snickered at the young man’s question.

    The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to
    the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of
    heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or
    transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or
    transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the
    total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of
    reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this
    word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”

    The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?”

    The professor responded, “Of course it does.”

    The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not
    exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can
    study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton’s prism to break
    white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each
    color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into
    a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a
    certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this
    correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when
    there is no light present.”

    Finally the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?”

    Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already
    said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s
    inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence
    everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but
    evil.”

    To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it
    does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is
    just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the
    absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or
    love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what
    happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s
    like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that
    comes when there is no light.”

    The professor sat down.

    The young man’s name — Albert Einstein.
    Read more at http://www.snopes.com/religion/einstein.asp#5F73b5QiQvhd8wGw.99

    • What a great point Marek! So would you take this further and say eg … Hell does not exist or maybe even that atheism does not exist because it is merely the absence of something?

      • Marek

        yes, according to catholic catechism, Hell is lack of God, – “the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2O.HTM.

        The real Hell is knowing that not only is God absent, but that he is absent because one’s own actions have excluded him

        • Interesting – and informative. I will come back to this on a future blog I am preparing on the nature of Hell. Thanks again Marek

    • Paul

      It’s interesting you chose a myth to make your point.
      Did you read the snopes article?

  • Debbie Styles

    It’s five to eight at night all my children are in dream land and I popped on here for a quick look to see if you had anything on science v god, the big bang theory.
    I enjoy reading the articles but its the comments and discussion that I really find fascinating and my quick look has turned in to not such a quick look, although I’ve enjoyed my read I have to admit my head is a little achy.

    • That’s excellent (apart from the achy head that is) – yes this post seemed to strike a chord. I’m thinking of writing the follow up post “…. too little faith to be an atheist”. Thanks very much for commenting Debbie!

  • Pingback: The odds are against atheism - 7 Minutes()

  • Pingback: Do you have enough faith to be an atheist? - 7 Minutes()