Stephen Fry and the disease of Life

Stephen Fry is almost an honorary member of our family. It’s rather unlikely that he knows of his esteemed position, but he’s been an integral part of parenthood & childhood (via Harry Potter audio books) and, more lately a source of fun and education on QI, and in the rediscovery of classics like A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder. [Hugh Laurie is another honorary member].

Stephen Fry’s given us all much fun and joy, for which I am hugely grateful. We ain’t going to throw him out of the family just yet. You are welcome to dinner anytime Stephen!

Stephen FryIn his most recent interview yesterday he says he is glad that what he said has got people talking. And how.

I’ve had a browse of (an admittedly tiny) selection of Christian responses. Tiny because, as Stephen Fry says, this life is short and we’ve got to make the best of the time we’ve got 😉 – and that probably doesn’t include hours reading people trading insults in the comments section of the Guardian (of more below).

One of the most gracious and moving was by someone called Chris Stead. His story of faith, hope and love in the midst of watching powerlessly the daily traumatic suffering of his daughter, gives the lie to superficial stereotypes of Christians blindly and unreflectively following a ‘stupid and capricious God’. Christians can and do rejoice at the utter goodness of God even in the midst of great suffering. Facing suffering with dignity and hope and strength is woven into the fabric of Christian faith. It is Christianity which has inspired countless millions to give their lives caring for others  – and to continue to fight injustice and to alleviate suffering often at great personal cost.

One of the most unpersuasive was by Canon Giles Fraser in the Guardian. He got an awful bashing in the comments section from atheists and others quite rightly rather vexed that his ‘defence’ of God led to the conclusion that

For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives.

I’m sorry but this is liberal twaddle at its worst. ‘God’ is exempt from the charge of being responsible for evil and suffering because … he doesn’t exist outside our imaginations. Well, that’s things solved then. God is ‘love’ in the abstract. To be honest I’m at a loss how someone who holds such a view can continue to work as a paid cleric in the Church of England. Would not the local humanist association be more fitting?

In a very good piece, Krish Kandiah, the newly appointed President of London School of Theology, highlights the parallels between Fry’s moral outrage and how C S Lewis moved from atheism to Christian belief. He also says this

At the heart of the Fry’s argument is the idea that the world that exists is as God intended it to be. He assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.

Closer to home, Aberdonian exile Kevin Hargaden at Creideamh, points out the irony in Stephen Fry’s moral outrage – from whence comes the morality? He also rightly argues we need to move beyond philosophical speculation to specifics of the Christian God incarnate in Jesus Christ. And when we do this we see that

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering … no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight. The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden.

I find myself saying “Yes … But” to both Krish and Kevin.

Yes Krish’s first three sentences are I think indisputably accurate description. But it’s the last line that isn’t fully convincing. The atheist sceptic will reply, “OK, even if I accept that man is directly responsible for the vast amount of suffering that goes on in the world, God is still ultimately responsible. He created the world in the first place and made this world of natural disasters, suffering and injustice possible.” In other words, while the Fall introduces death and sin and all the horrors that follow, including a twisting of creation itself, presumably God could have chosen not to create.

Yes, Kevin puts it so well: it is often in suffering that goodness and love and grace are poured out in profound ways. God is no deist; he is a God of utter love and compassion; he is on the side of the poor and oppressed; he has even entered our world of suffering and embraced death in Christ. The heart of God is revealed in the tears of Jesus at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus’ grave-side indignation is at the way death ruptures the way things should be. His raising of Lazarus foreshadows the resurrection to come when death will be done away with. But a focus on God’s response to evil and suffering, however loving and self-sacrificial, still does not answer the objection that an omnipotent God made this post-Fall world possible.

Put it another way. Forget for a moment Fry’s examples of eye-burrowing worms (which might not  actually exist apparently) or bone-cancer in children. These are emotive and awful diseases, but ultimately a distraction in the argument. The much bigger ‘complaint’ Stephen Fry really has is the ‘disease’ of Life itself.

While he says that life is to be celebrated, shared, enjoyed and lived to the full (Amen), it is a simple fact that the very possibility of life as we know it means the inevitability of death. For life is terminal, one way or another. We are fairly fragile carbon-based life forms which, sooner or later, start to malfunction and then die. And most of the time death involves suffering. Getting old, as my 90 year old father says, is ‘not for wimps’. So Fry is really blaming God for designing a world in which death and suffering were possible.

The irony in this whole discussion is that both Stephen Fry and Christians desire and want a world without suffering, pain or death – and both feel the desperate ‘wrongness’ of this broken world. Stephen Fry blames God for allowing this world to exist. Christians believe that this broken world was not God’s original design. Death and suffering are alien intruders who will one day be evicted.

It seems to me then, that there are two big background questions lurking behind this discussion:

Why creation at all?

Where does evil (that led to the Fall) come from?

And it is here I think Christians need to be upfront and say there aren’t easy answers. For, as far as I can tell, Scripture does not ask those sort of philosophical questions (the book of Job gets nearest).

As to why creation itself, we can suggest answers such as the creative glory of God, the wonder of the cross, the necessity of human free will, the context for faith, love and hope to flourish, the mysterious purposes of God that are [unsurprisingly beyond our knowledge since he is God and we are not] – but that’s as far as we can go.

And when it comes to the origin of evil, the Bible simply does not tell us how it came to be. It does say that Satan rebels and becomes the enemy of God, the ‘prince of this world’ and the author of evil. But this is not quite the same thing as saying how evil entered a good creation.

We can, however, insist on the certainty of three things that shape our thinking about God and suffering.

1. God is absolutely and utterly Good. As Kevin and Chris Stead highlight, this goodness is revealed in his response to suffering. It is revealed in his ultimate end game which is blessing. It is supremely seen in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2. God is God: omnipotent creator of all and Lord of history. He is not to be explained away in order to excuse him from the responsibility of being God (Giles Fraser)

3. Evil exists and is opposed to God. Despite what Stephen Fry asserts, God is not the author of sin, suffering, disease, injustice, and death. God stands against these things deeply and passionately than any human can imagine. He overcomes them at infinite personal cost. It is at the cross where God’s absolute goodness, omnipotence meet head on with the forces of evil and defeat them utterly (Col. 2:15). That decisive victory is what gives hope of a world without bone cancer or holocausts or even death itself.

So while Stephen Fry sees ‘God’ as ultimate bad news, Christians will insist that the gospel of God is the ultimate good news: good news about who God is, what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Apostasy (1)

Secularity is a growing trend in Ireland and much of the Western world. A very different story elsewhere in the Global South but that’s another story.

In Ireland we are in ‘new territory’ of (some) religious people struggling to get used to living in a culture where religion is seen as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. And where (some) secular/atheists are getting over-excited about banning any talk of faith and belief from the public square (as if that was even possible).

I’m reading Phil Zuckerman, Faith No More: why people reject religion (OUP, 2012) and will do a series of posts as I go.

Zuckerman is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College in the US and going by what I’ve read so far this looks like a series of interview based research into why people leave their religious beliefs behind, written in broad sympathy for those who do so. Well, American people that is – the book is based on interviews with 87 ‘rejectors’ or people Zuckerman rightly calls ‘apostates’ – those who have rejected formerly held religious beliefs.

He has interviewed people of all ages, from all over the USA, and from diverse religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Apostasy, he says, is the real story behind increasing American secularity. Like in Ireland, there is a steady growth in those who identify as having ‘no religion’. He quotes one study that said ‘only’ 53% of Americans born after 1981 believe in God.

In the introduction he offers a typology of apostasy:

Early (linked with the maturing process) versus late apostasy (as an adult, later in life):

Shallow (weakening of faith, still ‘something there) versus deep apostasy (convinced atheism)

Mild apostasy (not very religious in the first place) versus transformative apostasy (radical rejection of deeply held religious belief). It is the latter which obviously tend to be the most dramatic.

And he tells the ‘transformative apostasy’ of Nathan – a former student of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who left friends, family and God behind. This was a period of personal dislocation which he came through to this point:

Here I am now, I can be whatever I want, I can reinvent myself, I can do whatever I want, I can create my own moral system, and I don’t think I ever looked back. I got to the point where I really embraced the freedom, I never looked back. So this period of frustration, of loss, of regret, of how am I going to make it … was superseded by the tremendous, almost worship of freedom … I worship freedom now instead of God. (9-10)

 Comments, as ever, welcome


The back jacket has a wonderfully arrogant and wrong claim by atheist Sam Harris that says

“Everyone knows, deep down, that there is a conflict between reason and faith” and  this book explores  “the myriad ways in which thoughtful people come to their senses.”

Either he’s just trying to be deliberately annoying (which is silly) or he actually believes what he says (which is scary). Can we please talk about secularism / faith without replaying the stupid polarity of  smart non-believers versus stupid believers? A shame publishers like OUP chose to go with such polemical nonsense to publicise what is supposed to be an academic piece of research.

Atheism and the goodness of God 12: why believe in Jesus?

The last chapter I’m going to look at in this series on the Atheism and the Goodness of God, is Mark Mittelberg’s ‘Why Faith in Jesus Matters’ which forms chapter 14 of God is Good, God is Great: why believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible.

This chapter reads like an evangelistic sermon, exhorting a response from the reader.

He begins with the often overlooked point that everybody – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, agnostic and atheist – has faith in something, even if it faith in ourselves or faith that it doesn’t matter what we believe and how we live.

The Christian believes that it really matters that we have faith in Jesus.

His main two points revolve around two questions:

1. But why trust in Jesus?

For faith to be worth having it needs to be true and good and so ‘faithworthy’. Faith in Jesus depends on his identity being worthy of faith. So Mittelberg gives an apologia for the ‘greatness and goodness of Jesus.

Power: Jesus demonstrated his miracle working power over nature and over death itself.

Knowledge: he knows people’s thoughts before they speak.

Eternity: Jesus claims to be equal with God and never corrects people’s impressions that they are blaspheming

Love and Grace; Jesus consistently shows risky, barrier-breaking love and grace to those who are marginalised, ostracised and alienated.

2. Why is faith in Jesus important?

Mittelberg’s basic point is a very familiar one – that we are deeply flawed, we don’t have all the answers, we ‘deserve punishment for our sins and failings’ and that God, in infinite love, has made a way for us through Jesus.

And to talk hold of this hope, we need to step out in faith, to respond, to believe and receive (Jn 1:12) and so have the life that is available for us in Jesus (Jn 10:10).

While this is a very familiar way of presenting the good news, I thought this was a disappointing chapter. The reasons to believe in Jesus did not go beyond general proof texts. He says for example that Jesus repeatedly goes around saying he was the Son of God, ‘meaning he uniquely shared in the Father’s divine nature.’ This is not accurate. The meaning of the term can’t be reduced to equalling deity as Mittelberg suggests.

In general the discussion, contrary to much of the book, is written with no engagement with objections and arguments from an agnostic or atheist perspective. It all reads very ‘in house’.

This all raises questions: how best is the good news communicated to a sceptical post-Christendom culture? How do you try to ‘get over’ the ‘over-familiarity’ that many in Ireland have towards Christianity so the good news can be ‘heard’ afresh?

Atheism and the Goodness of God 11: Is God evil?

The next to last post on God is Great, God is Good is Paul Copan’s ‘Are the Old Testament Laws Evil?’.

This chapter would have been better called ‘Is Yahweh evil?’ for this is the nub of the question.

Dawkins calls God an ‘evil monster’ who is jealous, bloodthirsty, commands ethnic cleansing and is generally an appalling role model, never mind a good and great God.

And of course there is nothing like Christopher Hitchens for a bit of bombast and bludgeoning prose. For him the Old Testament was put together by ‘crude uncultured human animals’.

And with similar confidence, Sam Harris says that if the OT is true we should still be stoning people for heresy, adultery, homosexuality and so on.

Copan calls this a crass hermeneutic and says we need to understand the OT moral framework through the lens of what John Goldingay calls the five stages of Israel’s history:

  1. wandering clan
  2. theocratic nation
  3. monarchy
  4. afflicted remnant
  5. post-exilic community of promise

The OT world of patriarchy, slavery, polygamy, and war is alien to us [although not to other parts of the world today] The OT God starts with people where they are and demonstrates a progressive ethic , built on the monumental foundations of Gen 1-3 and mankind made in the image of God.

Copan takes the example of slavery. The OT contains significant modifications to the common practices of slavery in the ANE. It has:

–  Unprecedented human and legal rights for slaves – treated as persons and protected

– Condemnation of kidnapping a person to sell as a slave

– Hebrew debt slaves  – to be released in the 7th year

– Release of injured slaves

– Owners accountable for how they treat slaves

The big point here is Israel’s moderation and enlightened stance compared to the ruthless comparable law codes like Hammurabi which has brutal punishments, an elitist hierarchy of sanctions, and slaves having no rights at all.

“The informed inhabitant of the Ancient Near East would have thought ‘Quick, get me to Israel’!

What of ‘Lex Talionis’ (an eye for an eye)? Copan argues this is actually a moderation of unreasonable punishment and is not taken literally. It acted as a prohibition against unjust and disproportionate judgement.

And the superficial critiques of the New Atheists and others often ignore the ‘warm moral overtones’ of the Mosaic law  – love for God, love for neighbour, care for the alien, justice for the oppressed, forgiveness of debts and so forth.

Basically, Copan sees the Mosaic law as an accommodation to a morally underdeveloped Ancient Near Eastern cultural mindset.

The problem with the New Atheist caricature is that it takes no account of how Christians actually read, interpret and apply the OT.

Atheism and the goodness of God 10: evolutionary explanations of religion

I’m taking a last couple of flying tours of selected bit of William Lane Craig and Chad Meister (eds) God is Good, Good is Great.

This one is on chapter 6 by Michael J Murray, ‘Evolutionary Explanations of Religion’.

The interesting thing here is how the same evidence can be interpreted in radically different ways.

Murray notes how recent scientific research, especially in the neurosciences, are suggesting that we are, if not  ‘hard wired’, at least predisposed to religious belief. Not surprising maybe given the vast amount of religious belief in the world.

One way of looking at this is Calvin’s ‘sense of the divine’ or Augustine’s ‘God-shaped hole’.

Another is that of Richard Dawkins and others who see such research as ‘explaining’ the origins of religious belief and therefore show it to be false, unjustified and unbelievable.

Murray outlines various forms of scientific accounts of religion. There are adaptionist theories that propose that religion has certain characteristics that give some sort of ‘fitness benefit’. Especially that religion helps sustain cooperation among groups of individuals in the face of threatening forces.

But groups need members to play the game and tow the line and not get a free pass on the those that do. So religion is an adaptation that ‘keeps us in line’ – with the threat for example of divine displeasure if we don’t keep the rules. The individual is subject to the interests of the larger group through religious belief.

Or a more popular account is the cognitive model whereby our minds are predisposed to believe that there are bigger forces or agents at work in the natural world. For example, ‘gods’ behind lightening or the movement of the sun.

There is also evidence that we are strongly predisposed to see ‘goal-directedness’ in the world around us – a sort of ‘intuitive theism’ that believes in a greater purposiveness to life.

So if science is suggesting we have a natural disposition towards religious belief, the real question is ‘What are the Implications?’

Some super-confidently see it as the death knell for religion … Dawkins says ‘the irrationality of religion is a byproduct of the built in irrationality mechanism in the brain’. Another says ‘God is an artifact of the brain.’ Another says ‘I’ve got God by the throat and I’m not going to stop until one of us is dead.’

The thinking here seems to be that this natural disposition towards religious belief somehow ‘proves’ God is not really there at all, he is a fiction of our imagination. But, Murray says, this is simply mistaken. The science cannot legitimately be made to claim any such thing. This is another case of the New Atheism using science to make profoundly unscientific claims.

The Christian can simply say ‘What’s the problem? God made us that way’. Or as Calvin put it

‘there is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.’

Atheism and the goodness of God 09: what is truth?

I’ve been enjoying this book and have mostly posted on the earlier philosophical chapters engaging with the new atheism of Richard Dawkins et al.

I think a book like this is helpful and important because it deals head on with popular beliefs that assume faith in God is some sort of intellectual suicide. It also exposes how weak those beliefs are when examined closely.

One thing has struck me though – however interesting and persuasive the philosophical arguments for the existence of God have been so far [and that is up to you to decide], these sorts of arguments are pretty alien to the Bible.

The biblical authors don’t generally engage in abstract philosphical arguments that we have been describing, however useful they can be:-

A. if this is true

B. then this follows

C. if B is true, then God exists

Yes there is profound wisdom literature. Yes, Scripture grapples with deep issues of meaning, evil, goodness, purpose, ethics, our ultimate destiny and so on.

But not in philoshopical categories. Paul of course asks ‘where is the wise man [philosopher] and the scholar? – before the wisdom of God they are foolish. Human reason will never capture God in its embrace.

‘Truth’ it seems to me, in biblical terms is told in story form: a narrative about who God is, how creation came to be, who we are, why the world is as broken as it is, how God has responded by starting a new story – a story of a particular people, Israel. And this story climaxes in the coming of Israel’s saviour and Messiah, who is also the world’s saviour and Messiah. His story revolves around the cross and continues with the resurrection, ascension and arrival of the Spirit, who forms a reconstituted Israel – the church.  And this new community, empowered by the Spirit, is to live in the here and now as ‘people of the future’ – witnesses and followers of their living Lord and King, awaiting with hope his return and the final coming of his kingdom when all will be made new and all that opposes his utterly good purposes for his world is utterly vanquished.

Where is truth found? Truth is found in knowing and following the King and joining the unfolding story of the Triune God.

So where do you fit in with this story? Is thinking of truth in this way helpful to you?

Atheism and the goodness of God 8

In chapter 2 of God is Good, God is Great, J P Moreland reflects on ‘The Image of God and the Failure of Scientific Naturalism’

Scientific naturalism by definition seeks to explain all that there is in purely naturalistic terms. Yet severe problems face a purely scientific naturalism in accounting for ‘recalcitrant’ features of the ways we humans actually are.

His argument is that a Christian framework explains well essential features of humanity – such as conciousness, free will, rationality, a sense of unified self, intrinsic equal value and rights. These stubborn features accord with the Christian claim that mankind is made in the image of God. So,

1)      If Christianity is true, certain features should characterise human beings

2)      Those features do in fact characterise human beings

3)      Thus these features provide a degree of confirmation for Christianity – these features come from God and he made us to have them

The most important of  these feature is – that we are MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD  (Genesis 1:27).

Christians say that each person has intrinsic value – and have rights and dignity as a result. A Christian view of man has a natural place for:

i)                    Intrinsic value of each person

ii)                   The reality of objective moral obligations of how we treat each other

iii)                  High, equal value and rights for every human

None of these can be sustained by a scientific naturalism. Naturalism cannot account for any intrinsic value in human beings.

Christian morality is rich and deep and is founded on the character of God and of his action in the world. Even some atheist thinkers acknowledge that there is no real basis for human rights apart from Judeo-Christian morality and the image of God. Michael Ruse says that ‘morality is a biological adaptation’ (p 44). It is illusory. It is just an aid to survival and reproduction. This at least is honest.

The doctrine of the image of God underpins the belief that all humans are of equal worth. They may not be of equal merit (talents, skills, intelligence, abilities, character etc) but all have equal rights quite apart from merit.

Atheism has no satisfactory answer to the question WHY treat all as equal if we are not of equal merit? Why not re-visit  eugenics and ‘breed out’ the less desirable? Why not let the ‘better’ gene pool survive and flourish? Why spend resources and money helping those with little merit survive?

Naturalism must say that there is nothing special about homo sapiens as a species – we are just one of many. If this is the case, morality cannot be derived from biology. Morals do not ‘just’ pop into existence out of nothing.

Moreland refers to atheist James Rachels who says;

“The doctrine of human dignity says that humans merit a level of moral concern wholly different from that accorded to mere animals; for this to be true, there would have to be some big, morally significant difference between them … But that is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question … This being so, a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defence of human dignity is most unlikely.”  (p 47)

Now that’s calling a spade a spade.

Atheism and the goodness of God 7

This is a post going off on a tangent …  part B of the last post on the teleological argument (or argument from design).

There I mentioned Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and his discussion of the sheer remarkable unliklihood (to put it mildly) of life existing on earth. Here’s his take on it – written from a determindly non-theist position – indeed the more the discussion goes on the more surprising it is he makes no reference of any sort to God – even to dismiss him as a fanciful creation of our imagnination.

He distils the ‘two dozen’ or so ‘fortunate breaks’ that allow life to exist on earth down to four. I’m no expert, but I suspect he limits these factors too much in relation to local conditions on earth – see the previous post for factors like the gravitational constant, right balance of matter / anti-matter etc

1. Excellent Location:- We are ‘almost to an uncanny degree’ the right distance from the sun. 1% further or 5% closer and earth would have been uninhabitable for complex life (the range is a bit higher for microrganisms).

2. Right kind of planet:- the ‘lively interior’ of our planet played a crucial role in forming an atmosphere and formed the magnetic field that shields us from cosmic radiation. Our molten core also creates plate tectonics without which our globe would be totally smooth and everything would be underwater. The earth has carbon, without which no life would probably be possible. Byrson says that the earth seems ‘miraculously accommodationg’ that it is not surprising that we marvel that it is so perfecty suited to our existence.

He does suggest that this amazing ‘fit’ might be because ‘we evolved to suit its conditions.’  And he further suggests these astonishing factors enabling our life may seem splendid to us ‘because they are what we were born to count on. No-one can altogether say’. Frankly I have no idea what that means.

3. The moon:– our moon is just the right size to exert a steady gravitational pull on the earth to help it spin at the right speed, angle and stability for life to exist.

4. Timing:- Bryson says our existence in the universe is ‘a wonder’. For us to exist, he says, we need to be ‘at the right end of a very long chain of outcomes’ and ‘we are very lucky’ to find ourselves here.

Such facts point to an ‘anthropic principle’ – whether you want to accept it or not. They also add weight to the coherence of the idea that a creator God designed the universe this way so life could exist.

Atheism and the goodness of God 6

Argument from Design [Teleological Argument]:

We’ve been discussing chapter 1 of God is Good God is Great where William Lane Craig discusses various arguments for the existence of God and Richard Dawkins’s response to them. We looked earlier at the moral, cosmological and ontological arguments. Another is the argument from design, or the teleological argument.

Here, Lane suggests that Dawkins is at his weakest {while ironically Dawkins seems to think himself at his strongest}.

The issue isn’t so much the god-of-the-gaps argument of the Intelligent Design movement [ID] that there are some things that are so irreducibly complex (like the eye) that they must have had a designer. Rather, the nub of the teleological argument is whether there is evidence for ‘design’ in the remarkable ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe that allows intelligent life to exist at all. Fine-tuning refers to the discoveries by scientists over the last 50 years or so of the matrix of incredibly complex and inter-related factors that ALL have to fit perfectly together in order to allow life to exist on earth.

For example, while Newton’s law of gravity would still work if the gravitational constant G had a different value, our world would not. A little bit stronger and everything would collapse, a little bit weaker and everything would drift apart.

If the amount of balance between matter and anti-matter in the universe was to be altered by a fraction, the life permitting balance of the universe would be destroyed.

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything has a great discussion of the sheer unbelievable, incredible unlikeliness of life being able to exist on earth.This post will get too long if I get into now, I’ll come back to it another day.

You don’t have to be a Christian or a theist to acknowledge that the universe has incredible fine-tuning. Astronomers talk of the Anthropic Principle (Gk anthropos – man). A better name would be something like the zōe principle (Gk – life). But whatever the name, the universe seems set up for life to exist.

So, back to the teleological argument which goes like this:

1)      The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance or design

2)      It is not due to physical necessity or chance

The idea that fine-tuning is due to physical necessity, Craig argues, is ‘extraordinarily implausible’ given the way the constants and quantities necessary for fine-tuning seem independent of the laws of nature.

So does chance lie behind fine-tuning? If it is not due to physical necessity, a non-theist will have to argue for chance and this is what Dawkins does. The problem is, Craig contends, that the odds are ‘so incomprehensively great they cannot be reasonably faced’. So at this point Dawkins resorts to postulating infinite number of randomly ordered universes – and ours is one chance example of where life can exist. Apart from the massive speculation here, such a view, even if true, would not ‘solve’ the problem. The infinitesimal chance of life existing in this universe would remain the same. In an extended discussion Craig is devastating on Dawkins’ logic here.

This leads to the third alternative:

3)      Therefore, it is due to design

Dawkins’ objection to design forms the ‘central argument’ of The God Delusion. He contends that although fine-tuning is not explained, such ‘relatively weak’ hypotheses that exist are ‘self-evidently better that the self-defeating …. hypothesis of an intelligent designer.’

His supposedly crushing question here is that if God is the designer – who designed God? But Craig points out that to say that the best explanation needs an explanation is not grounds to deny the explanation! Elementary philosophy says this. Otherwise nothing can ever be explained and there would be an infinite regress of explanations which would destroy our basis for knowing anything.

Dawkins also suggests that the ‘designer’ would ‘have to be’ just as complex as the thing to be explained (the universe).  Dawkins’s reasoning here has been roundly rebutted by top philosophers but this criticism seems to have little effect on his remarkably self-satisfied attitude that he has the killer arguments.

A final aside here: I watched a video recording of a lecture Dawkins gave at UC Berkeley 8 March 2008 to a large audience. During the talk he shows pictures of about 20 books responding to The God Delusion. The powerpoint then dissolved them in a puff of dust. Dawkins explained the imagery: all these authors were like ‘fleas’ feeding off his writings, the puff of dust was flea powder. In other words, his critics are parasites feeding off the superior host and should be dismissively eradicated as insignificant pests. The hubris of this illustration is truly astounding.

Atheism and the goodness of God 5

Ontological Argument

We’ve been discussing chapter 1 of God is Good God is Great where William Lane Craig discusses various arguments for the existence of God and Richard Dawkins’s response to them. This time we are looking at the ontological argument, made in this case by philosopher Alvin Plantiga and described by Craig.

This imagines a possible world where:

1) ‘It is possible that a maximally great being exists’ and then logically follows up the implications of this premise. ‘Maximal greatness’ means that if God is God, he will be all knowing, all powerful, perfectly good and such like. If this is possible then it follows that:

2) If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world

3) If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world

4) if a maximally great being exists in every possible world then it exists in the actual world

5) If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

6) Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

Craig notes that, philosophically speaking, premises 2-5 are fairly uncontroversial. ‘Most philosophers would agree that if God’s existence is even possible, then he must exist.’ The real question is there any coherence to thinking premise 1 is true.

Craig argues that it would need to be shown that premise 1 is incoherent for it to be rejected – like the idea of a round square. But, despite Dawkins devoting several pages of invective and ridicule against the ontological argument in The God Delusion, premise 1 is not incoherent. There are reasonable grounds for thinking that it is possible a maximally great being exists. Humans have intuitively believed this for millennia.