The God Delusion – A Date with Destiny

“The fact that something is written down,” writes down Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, “is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like, ‘Who wrote it and when?  How did they know what to write?  Did they in their time really mean what we in our time understand them to be saying?  Were they unbiased observers or did they have an agenda that colored their writing?'”

When I learned how to have a Bible study, some of the fundamental questions I was taught to ask: Who wrote it?  When did they write it?  Who were they writing to?  What would this passage have meant to them at that time?  It would seem, then, that many Christians are well versed in asking such questions, although, admittedly, probably many are not.

Here’s a question: is Richard Dawkins an unbiased observer of science and history, or does he have an agenda that colors his writing?  If you’ve read his books or been following this blog at all, that answer is obvious.  But it also depends on what you mean by “colored”.  Everyone that bothers to write a book tends to have an inclination one way or another.   However, the question behind the question, Dawkins implies, is how much have those writings been stretched from truth in order to advance said agenda?  In the case of both the Bible and The God Delusion, we will continue to explore that question.

Dawkins asserts that historians have made “an overwhelming case” that the gospels are not reliable accounts of history.  Here are the first couple of the overwhelming facts he presents:

  • All the gospels were written long after Jesus’ death.
  • All the gospels were written after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.

So let’s begin:

How long is “long”?

According to Dawkins, the Gospels were written “long after” the death of Jesus, but he doesn’t say just how long, nor the implications of this.  I’ll tell you the implications.  The later the gospels were written, the more removed they would have been from the events themselves, and thus would have been more susceptible to exaggerations, errors, and even legends.  If they were written earlier, they could reasonably be considered more accurate, since the events occurred more recently.

When do scholars place the gospels?  It varies rather widely.  Many, however, put Mark written around 70 AD, with Matthew and Luke written in 80’s or 90’s (maybe early 2nd century), and John written after those two.  Let’s just assume this is true for a moment.  That puts Christ’s death around 33 AD, and Mark’s gospel less than 40 years afterward.  A long time by some standards, I suppose, but not really all that long historically, considering my grandfather fought in World War II and could remember events clearly and coherently in 2005, around 60 years later (the equivalent of the mid-90’s AD).

Reading through multiple sources, however, I can only really find one major reason for many scholars dating the gospels between that particular time-frame.  And that is this: they think that whoever wrote Mark lied.

You see, the order of the Gospels has been widely accepted and seems reasonable enough.  Matthew and Luke both seem to draw heavily from Mark, and John may draw from Luke.  But the major piece of evidence given for landing these on a particular date comes internally from Mark, and from one verse in Mark, in fact.

Mark 13:2 – ““Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”  Here, he is referring to the temple of Jerusalem, and is essentially predicting the destruction of that temple.

The destruction of Jerusalem actually happened not too long after Jesus’ death, in 70 AD.  But prophesy isn’t really something that can actually happen, you see.  So, that means Jesus really didn’t predict that the temple was going to be torn down, and thus Mark just made that part up…after (or at least shortly before) the temple actually was torn down.  There is other evidence that suggests that it couldn’t have been too long after, so we place it right around that time.

So the scholarly dating for the entire set of gospels seems to be based largely on the sentiment, “Nah, that couldn’t really have happened.”  That might be convincing for some, but requires coming at the dating from a needlessly skeptical predisposition, and is a pretty inadequate thought to hang everything else on.  Besides, arguing from a skeptical standpoint, couldn’t Jesus have actually predicted it and just have gotten lucky?  I mean, I can predict the fall of American republic, and unless America lasts forever, I’ll be proven right one of these days.  But thinking this way puts much of the scholarly dating back to square one, so we just gloss over it and say that Mark was written around 70 AD.

I should note one other reason that has cropped up for dating the gospels later, particularly Luke.  There are a few similarities between the Gospel of Luke and Antiquities of the Jews, written by historian Josephus in 93 AD, so, some historians assume, Luke must have used that as a source, and thus would have to be written later.

There are a few similarities (no direct quotes, just some similar facts and wording), but the two texts do differ on many other fronts.  The three options are: Luke drew from Josephus, Josephus drew from Luke, or they both drew from a third source.  The reason to pick the first seems to be primarily because it advances the secular agenda the most.  Historian Steve Mason had put forth this theory into writing, and it has gained some traction, but in the typical let’s-not-try-to-look-at-the-facts-too-much kind of way.  This article, by the Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry, provides a pretty good analysis of Mason’s arguments and shows just how many large leaps of assumption he has to make to get history into this box.  It also shows how option three, that they both drew from a third source, is the most likely, although that “third” source is probably a number of different sources, because many of the similarities were likely common knowledge in Jewish circles.

So if the evidence is rather slim (if existent at all) for dating the gospels in the fashion described, then is there other evidence that suggests an alternate dating?  Actually, there is more evidence that the gospels were dated earlier than that, mostly before 70 AD (except possibly John).

  • Acts, a highly historical book, stops dead short at Paul being imprisoned in Rome.  It does not mention persecution by Nero (AD 64), the death of James (AD 62), the death of Paul (AD 64), the death of Peter (AD 65), or the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (AD 70), all very relevant to the history given.  This would suggest that Acts was written in the early 60’s AD.  Luke wrote Acts, and also the Gospel of Luke.  In Acts, the writer refers to his own gospel, so that would put Luke prior to this.
  • Matthew, likewise, mentions the prediction of the destruction of the temple, but does not suggest that it had occurred at the time of writing, which is uncharacteristic of him, considering his other mentions of prophecy come with a very clear declaration that those prophecies had been fulfilled.
  • Early church fathers in the early part of the second century say they were written either by the disciples or by someone in direct contact with disciples or other eyewitnesses.  In particular, Mark was said to have been writing from the direct accounts of Peter, who died in AD 65.  The authorship often gets questioned by secular scholars, but that will have to be a subject for a later article.  For now, though, this article by Tektonics is a good read on that subject.
  • We can affirm an oral tradition, and these early church fathers say that what was passed down is in line with what the gospels teach.  In particular, Irenæus was a student of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of St. John and other eyewitnesses.  Irenæus wrote: “I can recall the very place where Polycarp used to sit and teach, his manner of speech, his mode of life, his appearance, the style of his address to the people, his frequent references to St. John and to others who had seen our Lord;
    how he used to repeat from memory their discourses, which he had heard from them concerning our Lord, his miracles and mode of teaching, and how, being instructed himself by those who were eye-witnesses of the word, there was in all that he said a strict agreement with the Scriptures.”  Polycarp’s own letter to the Philippians in AD 120 quotes the gospels about 60 times.  This doesn’t necessarily put the writing of the gospels themselves prior to AD 70, but it at least puts them in line with the teachings of the eyewitnesses and those directly connected with them.
  • A fragment found dating from AD 68 or before appears to be quoting from the Gospel of Mark (although, with only a handful of characters, it’s far from conclusive).

There are other reasons out there, but those were some of the stronger points.  But really, regardless of which of those theories you hold to, the timeframe between Christ’s death and the writing was not all that lengthy.  An article in puts it well when it says, “That the Gospels were written decades later than the events does not devalue them as historical accounts; indeed, for ancient history, the Gospels were written surprisingly quickly. The only accounts we have of some events in Jewish history are in Josephus, written far longer after they occurred.”

So some secularists have decided to up the ante on the debate, and put all of the gospels and Acts even later, into the late second century.  The reasons behind this theory are highly speculative, quite imaginative in some cases, and ultimately pretty illogical, if not a good bit bull-headed, and put a conspiracy theory slant on the whole matter.  Most scholars, Christian or not, don’t take it all that seriously, but it still seems to grow in popularity nonetheless, like any good bit of wishful thinking.

An interesting classic text on the subject that calls serious evidence against this later theory is Constantin von Tischendorf’s pamphlet published in 1866, “When Were Our Gospels Written“.  Some great arguments, largely from the standpoint of looking at the testimonies of the early church fathers and others in the 2nd century, but also addressing some of the various manuscripts and fragments that had been discovered at the time of writing.  It’s written for a religious audience, so a non-religious reader may find some of his passionate discourse a bit off-putting, but much of his logic is solid nonetheless.

I’ll also comment briefly on his second point, that all were written after the epistles of Paul, which mention none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.  I’m not sure what all the current dating is for the various epistles of Paul, but it seems that it’s possible the gospels were written after Paul, but also possible that at least one of them was not.  However, I’m not sure what this does for Mr. Dawkins.

Regarding the facts that Paul does not present, none of the epistles were biographies of Jesus’ life, they were largely dealing either with specific theological issues, or were addressing specific instructions to members of the early church.  However, they do, in fact, mention certain facts of Jesus’ life.  He died, he was buried, he was resurrected, he appeared to many witnesses, and he is one in whom we put our trust.  These were the most crucial facts to the Christian faith.  Besides, would he need to restate the events and/or words of Jesus if they early church already had them being circulated, either in written or oral form?

Ultimately, the dating of the original gospels is only so important to a secularist, because they usually attack the gospel reliability on another front…

Next time.

The God Delusion – The Legend of Jesus

In The God Delusion, Dawkins makes the attempt to discredit the validity of the Bible.  This was the most interesting section so far, because this is probably the biggest reason that I myself believe in God.  Dawkins makes a whole lot of statements really quickly in this section.  In fact, it seems blinding at first.  With so much evidence against it, maybe the Scriptures aren’t so trustworthy after all!

So let’s take a look, shall we?

Lord, Liar, Lunatic

A famous argument popularized by C.S. Lewis is that, since Jesus claimed to be divine, he must either be truthful (Lord), deceptive (Liar), or delusional (Lunatic).  So he cannot be accepted as simply a great moral teacher, because he is either a madman, a con artist, or in fact divine.

Dawkins puts forth two more options. First, he states that there is no good evidence that Jesus made any such claims.  This option has been dubbed by other historians, in keeping with the alliteration, as “Legend”.  It states that Jesus never made those claims, and any reports that he did were falsified by his later followers in order to gain popularity.

The second option is quite a laugh.  He says that Jesus could have been “honestly mistaken”.  So, for those keeping score, people who believe there is a God are delusional, and people who think they ARE God are “honestly mistaken”.  We have a word for people who are honestly mistaken about such fundamentally outlandish things, but I forget what it is.  Oh, right.  Lunatic.

So let’s look closer at the first option, that Jesus didn’t claim he was divine.

For starters, the Bible pretty clearly states that he did.  Here’s a good article explaining where and how Jesus made such claims.  It’s not exhaustive, but a good overview.

In general, statements like “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” are statements not easily shoved aside.  To say that Jesus did not claim to be divine is to say that the Bible is very inaccurate.  This, of course, is something Dawkins also does, but we’ll look at that later.

What about extra-biblical evidence regarding Jesus?  There is plenty of historical evidence that Jesus was a real person, and that he was crucified.  Roman historian Tacitus wrote that “Christus, from whom the name [Christian] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment…”  To what mischievous superstition is he referring?  Romans had lots of gods.  They also tolerated Jews and their religious practices.  So what did Jesus say that could be considered “superstition”?

Flauvius Josephus was a court historian for Roman Emperor Vespasian.  He writes, “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die.”  Strange.  Good conduct, yet crucified.  So, what kind of “mischievous superstition” would cause his virtue to be overlooked for a death sentence?

Perhaps it was his followers that were being sensational about everything, and were putting words in his mouth.  Maybe THEY claimed he was divine, even though he himself did not.  Let’s assume this is true for a moment.  If they made such claims while he was alive, why wouldn’t he have corrected them?  Not correcting them would put him in the same boat as making the claims himself, which means he would belong in the “Liar” category.  If he happened to not know about it, which would be highly unlikely given his presence, he would have learned about it once he was brought on trial, and surely would have corrected the matter at that point, since it would lead to his death.  Commanding as much influence as he had, would he not have had the tact to quell any suspicions about his intent?

Maybe he was executed for some other strictly political reason that just happened to be lost to history, and no claims of his divinity were made until after his death.  This would seem to contradict the “mischievous superstition” claim by Tacitus, but still, let’s just assume.  This would mean that all kinds of legends would have had to crop up in the next 30-40 years (when most of the New Testament was written), and in fact, within the next 10 years, when Christians were persecuted.  Claims of his divinity would have appeared either by exaggerated rumors, or by devious deception, or some combination.  Either way, enough people followed Jesus and heard his words for this to be a rather uphill battle, as there would still be people alive that witnessed much of these things, and surely would have attempted to challenge it.

Even if not, even if somehow superstition and conspiracy were so rampant that people began believing these things were true, then what do you think would have happened when persecution of Christians occurred?  Wouldn’t it have died right there? There was much persecution just within the first 10 years, which would have almost definitely killed the idea if it was something contrived just for popularity sake.  And it also should have been enough to shut everyone up if it was just a silly old legend.  But still people made claims about Christ as the son of God, and persecution continued all the way through the 4th century.  And when I say “persecution”, I don’t mean being called names.  I mean being stoned, crucified, torn apart by lions.  Often, they were offered pardon if they would simply deny Christ, but they wouldn’t.  That’s a lot of people willingly dying horrible deaths over some myth.

Seems pretty clear to me that Christ himself made claims to being the Son of God.  So you can say what you want about whether Christ was actually divine, but to chalk it up to a tall tale in the face of such evidence is about as reckless as it comes.

Much more to come on the claims against the validity of the Bible.

The God Delusion – In My Experience…

Next up for ridicule is the argument from personal experience.  This argument basically says that people have had personal religious experiences, either regarding the senses, (e.g. seeing a vision or hearing voices) or something more psychological and intangible (having a revelation or other altered state of mind), and these experiences point to a transcendent reality, and call evidence against a materialistic worldview.

Dawkins points out that these experiences are convincing to those that have had them and much less so to those that haven’t.  This is true, which is why any such experiences are rarely used in apologetics.  Even from a Christian point of view, many such experiences are suspect and should rarely be used to make any kind of major decisions unless it falls in line with the teachings of the Bible and can be confirmed by others.  Because yes, all kinds of things go on in our minds psychologically,

Regardless, his argument is weak.  He gives quite a bit of science about how the brain constructs models from the input it is given, and shows how these models may not always be accurate.  Interesting stuff, but his examples hardly address the kinds of things people claim to have experienced.  Looking at the hollow side of a mask can make it look like it’s rotating one direction when it’s actually rotating the other way?  Hearing a trumpet sounds like it’s playing one note, but it’s actually playing multiple frequencies in harmony?  I guess this accounts for all the people that believe in God because they saw him moving around one time, out of the corner of their eye, in the dark.

Sure, there are many gullible people who see all kinds of things and believe that it has a supernatural origin.  Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, for example.  Or the example Dawkins used of the devil’s face in the smoke from the Twin Towers.  But this does not account for all of the cases of personal experience people have had.  I think at some point Dawkins realized that, and moved on to a bigger fish…

The Miracle of Fatima

In this event on the 13th of October, 1917, in Fatima, Portugal, thousands of people are gathered in a field awaiting a miracle.  Three children, who were rather prone to seeing visions and making claims of Mary talking to them, predicted that Mary would show herself to the people on October 13th.  The press got a hold of this story, and it became quite the popular event.  As people waited expectantly, suddenly the sun came out from behind the clouds and was seen to dance, spin, change colors, and grow larger.  Believers attributed the phenomenon to the Virgin Mary.

Dawkins uses this as an example to say that it is more probable that everyone hallucinated, or that everyone lied, or that the historical accounts are all mistaken, or that everyone saw a mirage, then it is to say that “the earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, without nobody outside Fatima noticing.”  No one, of course, said anything about the solar system being destroyed.  That was just Dawkins over-embellishing in order to make a point.  What he is basically saying is that he will believe just about anything before he believes in the supernatural, which he claims is because of probability (let me see the math behind that one), but really seems more evident of a personal stubbornness.

Everyone hallucinated?  Hardly.  Perhaps if everyone there was a gullible believer, you could attempt such an explanation.  But the crowd also consisted of many skeptics, there just to see the show.  I mean, there wasn’t much in the way of TV at the time.  One of the onlookers was a newspaper journalist whose previous coverage had been to poke fun at the whole proceedings.  His subsequent article affirmed that something indeed happened.  On top of this, many of the eyewitnesses were not even in the field, and hadn’t remembered or known anything about the predictions.  Those are some pretty major obstacles for mass hysteria to overcome.

Everyone lied?  Sure!  Because the incentive of men, women, families, children, businessmen, reporters, all keeping a lie for the rest of their lives was just so great.

History was wrong in recording the event?  As it so turned out, most of those people lived well past 1917.  This would basically have to be the same as the “everybody lied” option.

The mirage explanation is the only one there that actually makes a bit of sense.  There are a number of environmental effects that might cause the illusions, scientists have pointed out.  Just from my own head, imagine the way light reacts through a large soap bubble.  As the bubble dances, so does the light.  It can also act like a lens such that as it transforms, it appears that things are either moving toward or away from you.  It would also refract the light into rainbow colors.

Now, why this kind of rare event would happen on the exact day something was predicted is beyond me.  Maybe it was somehow a sign.  The ultimate track record of the girls makes me doubt that.  But regardless, there is an important point.  These people saw something.  Whatever it was, optical illusion or not, it was very real.  Dawkins is trying hard in this chapter to show the power of the mind in seeing things that aren’t there, but that power simply isn’t that great that it can delude that many people into seeing one thing.  And when you consider the vast amounts of miracles people have witnessed, the things they have experienced, the internal change they have undergone, that’s a heck of a lot of mere hallucination going on.

There are many events that happen all the time, all around the world, that don’t immediately have an explanation.  Answers to prayer.  People getting healed in very real, physical ways that unbelieving doctors can attest to.  People’s lives and relationships changing radically for the better.  Now, just because there isn’t an explanation for something doesn’t logically mean that it is supernatural in origin, even though it may strongly suggest it.  But even more ludicrous is the assertion that, because some things that were thought to be supernatural were shown to be natural occurrences, ALL events in all of time have some meaningless natural cause.  That is logical fallacy at its most obstinate.

The God Delusion – All That Glistens Is Not Gold

Lend Me Your Ears

The argument from beauty: I did not really intend to spend very long on this argument. As one of the 12 or so arguments that Dawkins counters in this chapter, he spent a relatively short amount of time on it, and my initial unfounded impression was that there was hardly an argument at all, but more of a vague feeling that surely beauty must come from God. I got this impression primarily from Mr. Dawkins. He doesn’t really address this argument so much as he uses it as a platform to make some anti-religious jabs. That sentence describes a fair portion of this book, actually. Nevertheless, the argument, as Dawkins understands it, is “How do you account for Shakespeare then?” He then says that “the argument will be so familiar, I needn’t document it further. But the logic is never spelled out.” The logic must not be spelled out, I assume. I should know better by now.

This is the Short and the Long of it

As seems to be the case for a number of the arguments I’ve researched, the first thing that comes up in a Google search is either a Wikipedia article or some atheist comments against it. In this case, my search of “argument from beauty” turned up a very brief Wikipedia article and a slightly longer article from RationalWiki, a website that devotes itself to refuting religion. To its credit, it at least makes more of an attempt to counter the argument from beauty than did Dawkins. It opposes it on these fronts: one, the appreciation of beauty is a “psychological phenomenon” that can be described using “evolutionary principles and neurological models.”. More on this later. Two, ugliness also exists, although I’m unsure how that actually refutes the argument at all, and might even help it a bit. Three, beauty is “entirely subjective,” which is interesting, considering the next statement is that we evolved to share much of the same appreciation of beauty, meaning that most of us have a similar subjective judgment towards a given thing. But again, more on this later. Fourth, mimicking both Dawkins’ observation as well as his prideful antagonism, “No one ever attempts to present the logic behind this argument, and if they did, they would more than likely be laughed out of the room.” Is that a taunt?

The fourth item down on this particular Google search turned up a well-written article written by a philosophy professor named Peter Williams.  He does a good job of expounding upon the argument, and breaks it down to four distinct arguments.  For the sake of summary, though, I will comment on them together.  I encourage you to take a look at the article, though.  It’s not a complete analysis, but looks at it through the lens of a few different philosophers, both Christian and otherwise.  Be warned, though: it’s a bit of a heavy read.  The article is here.

The argument is essentially this:

To Be, Or Not To Be

Beauty exists. In particular, there is beauty that produces a sense of awe that might come from, say, witnessing a meteor shower in a vast starry sky or studying the intricacies of a single human birth.  Anthony O’Hear, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham, says that “in experiencing beauty we feel ourselves to be in contact with a deeper reality than the everyday.”  This experience was poetically described in another article as “hearing an echo of a voice outside our world; experiencing homesickness for a home we haven’t yet known.” Regardless of whether or not others would agree with these specific descriptions, I believe that most people, at one time or another, have experienced an awe that comes from this type of beauty.

I Like This Place and Willingly Could Waste My Time In It

This appreciation of beauty doesn’t lie solely in the sphere of Shakespeare and other artists.  It lies at the heart of every good scientist as well, driven by the sense of wonder and curiosity at the nature of our world and the appreciation and excitement at the way it all fits together.  Mathematicians marvel at the complexities and mysteries of numbers.  Astronomers are glued to the skies as they study black holes and nebula.  So not only does an appreciation of beauty let us simply enjoy something, it produces other feelings and desires as well, the desire to know it, to be a part of it as something beyond ourselves.  Dawkins wonders if the argument from beauty is tied somehow to the argument from design.  I believe that, at the heart of it, this is accurate.

Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?

These desires that beauty can conjure up cannot be in turn satisfied by beauty itself.  Take, for instance, atheist Bertrand Russell’s admission:  “The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain – a curious wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains.”  St. Augustine explained it further: “I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”  C.S. Lewis also brings his own analysis to the sense of wonder and yearning: “If a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come at last to the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given. . . in our present mode of. . . experience.”

So, while none of this is a “proof” of God, it offers up a problem that a belief in God explains.  The explanation is, as Evelyn Underhill put it:  “When we are awed by the intolerable majesty of the Himalaya, when we look . . . at the lonely hostile beauty of the Eismeer – only water at a low temperature after all – . . .we are merely receiving through symbols adapted to our size, intimations of the Absolute Beauty. . . .Looking at an object which is `beautiful’ or `sacred’. . . we are – if we receive a genuine aesthetic or religious impression – passing through and beyond this object, to the experience of an Absolute revealed in things.”  This might be a bit poetically overstated, but it represents the general conclusion of the argument: that beauty reflects the nature of God, and the desire to truly experience it is actually an innate desire to know Him; thus, it can’t be satisfied by the representation, but only the source.

The Devil Can Cite Scripture For His Purpose

It is also important, I think, that Christians didn’t suddenly consider beauty and then decide to figure out how to alter their religion to fit it.  It has always been an integral part of the Judeo-Christian belief, in accordance to the Bible:

Genesis 1:31 – “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”

Psalm 19:1 – “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Psalm 8:3-4 – “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”

Nehemiah 9:6 – “You are the only Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, with all the stars. You made the earth and everything on it, the seas and everything in them; you give life to everything.”

So, fair enough, the existence of beauty at least generally fits the Biblical idea.  But does it not also support evolution equally, if not more?

He Does it with a Better Grace, But I Do it More Natural

Well, let’s consider the arguments put up by Dawkins and RationalWiki.  Dawkins only really offers one argument: “Obviously Beethoven’s quartets are sublime.  So are Shakespeare’s sonnets.  They are sublime if God is there, and they are sublime if He isn’t.  They do not prove the existence of God.  They prove the existence of Beethoven and Shakespeare.”  This is an unfortunately oversimplified treatment of the argument, but given some of his other statements, it seems that he doesn’t really have an understanding of the argument at all beyond a few silly challenges some overzealous and under-prepared religious folk presented to him.  There was never any serious attempt to prove that Shakespeare couldn’t exist without God.  That proof would have to take a much different approach than looking at his sonnets.  The idea is to submit the nature of beauty in general as evidence for God.  Any resemblance to artists living or dead is merely coincidental.

Moving on then to RationalWiki:

A Rose By Any Other Name

First, the argument that beauty can be described with “evolutionary principles and neurological models.”  I’m always surprised at the frequency that this argument gets thrown around.  Where does an appreciation of beauty come from? Chemical processes in the brain. Where does love come from? Processes in the brain that are chemically based. Where does joy or happiness come from? Did I mention chemicals, processes, and brains?

This argument is usually treated like some kind of snidely intelligent response that should trump any further thought on the matter. But that response is about as satisfactory as “Where did this computer program come from? Zeroes and ones.”

The question is really about why such a process would have developed. It is my understanding that, although evolutionists do believe in a good deal of randomness, they believe that biological traits are primarily developed for a specific evolutionary function, which means it serves a purpose of some kind, usually survival.

So the question becomes, “what evolutionary function does x provide,” where x is whatever mental process you’re analyzing at that point, love, joy, etc. The only 100% true answer to any of these questions, of course, is “I don’t know,” but recognizing their possible function strengthens the evolutionary argument.  In the case of beauty, the most explanation I’ve seen is that 1) beauty is used as mating attraction, 2) can be used to tell what is good for food, 3) and can also be used to communicate ideas within a species, as a tribe may use rhythm and melodies to convey important meaning.  The first and third things, though, are self-referential.  The species is or creates the object of beauty, and also develops the appreciation of it.  The second thing seems very poor as an explanation.  That a species had to learn to tell what was good for eating meant that it developed an innate appreciation for beauty that happened to correspond to the way berries looked?  I suppose distant galaxies do give me the munchies.  None of the explanations offered come remotely close to justifying that profound sense of awe that true natural beauty can provoke.

Fair Is Foul, And Foul Is Fair

The second RationalWiki argument, that ugliness also exists, is still well in line with the Biblical understanding.  Beauty in the universe points to God and His qualities, while ugly things, like death, sickness, etc. represent things that appeared as a result of a fallen world.  Obviously, it can’t quite all be that clear-cut.  There are some things that are ugly that also seem perfectly natural and even beautiful in a different way.  There are also beautiful things that can bring destruction, like fire.  But in general, beauty applies to the majesty of the created things, and ugliness applies to things that bring harm to that creation.

There is Nothing Either Good Or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So

The third argument was that beauty is “entirely subjective”.  It sort of depends on what this implies.  The emotion alone that comes with the appreciation of beauty may be subjective, in a sense.  But when you say, “That sunset is sublime,” you are not merely saying, “that sunset gives me feelings that I associate with beauty.”  You are saying that the sunset contains particular qualities that merit your comment.  And just because there are people that don’t agree doesn’t force beauty into the land of the subjective and arbitrary.  You say that strawberries are red, but a color-blind person would not perceive its redness.  This doesn’t make red subjective.

As Good Luck Would Have It

I’m not sure I would have thought this way at first, but I happened to read The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis over the last few days, and he shows, rather convincingly I feel, how statements of value (beauty, virtue, honor) are being taught to to be entirely subjective when this is actually an error.  He shows the natural conclusion to what such a belief will bring about.  I don’t think I could do his full argument justice by trying to summarize it here, so I would encourage anyone interested to pick it up.

Nothing Will Come Of Nothing

The fourth argument by RationalWiki, and Dawkins’ main point, is that the logic for the argument is never attempted.  I hope that I have shown this to be false.  It is not widely argued, perhaps, but good arguments are there.

Does this prove God?  No.  I believe that most Christians do not feel they have “proved” God with any of the arguments presented.  Some have thought that way, perhaps.  But most arguments, such as this one, are offered up as evidence that seem to suggest a God, when no alternative answer offers the same level of support.

The God Delusion – The Armchair of Ultimate Truth

Saint Anselm of Canterbury was a monk, philosopher, and Archbishop of Canterbury during 11th and early 12th-century England.  He is famous for his “proofs” of religious doctrines, especially his argument for God’s existence, known as the ontological argument.

In his usual display of humility, Richard Dawkins describes this argument as “infantile”, and highlights a number of counter-arguments, most of them originating from other critics down the line of the argument’s controversial history.

The original argument is as follows:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

Although one ought to tread lightly when judging an argument that has gained such a high level of respect among philosophers, even among many of those who disagree with it, I am more inclined to agree with the arguments against it than those in favor.

In particular, the objection that most immediately stood out in my mind was that of Thomas Aquinas, who critiqued it on the grounds that the argument would only seem to be meaningful if one could comprehend the essence of God completely, which no one can.  To me, this seems a reasonable objection, because our conceptions of God, at least in the sense he describes, are all based on things we have observed in reality.  When we attempt to think of a “maximally great being”, we thing of a being that has certain characteristics in a greater quantity than any we have yet seen.  Even those characteristics are slippery when imagined, such as the idea of being “good” or “holy”.

We do not, however, truly think of a “maximally great being”.  An example of this is the mathematical concept of infinity.  Think of infinity and what that is.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, to fully conceptualize infinity.  When I think of it, I just imagine it being very very far down the number line, then a little farther, then a little farther.  But I will never really be able to wrap my head around it, because it is not only a very large “number”, but it is the full and maximum essence of “large”, in that sense.  Likewise, we will never be fully able to comprehend something that is the full and maximum essence of “greatness”.

Therefore, we cannot, in fact, “conceive” of something “than which no greater can be conceived”.  Because what we think of, though it may be very far down that “number line” of the scale of greatness, is not at the highest end of it, because there is no end.  Thus, there will be much more that could be conceived as greater.

I believe I read an argument that said it was unnecessary for it to be conceived in any real sense, but simply imagined as a concept that could exist.  This seems slippery at best to me, because then your only conception is simply based on a basic understanding of a series of words that are phrased together, and that does not seem like the kind of conception that can necessarily bring something into existence.

Dawkins’ primary objection to the argument is also that of David Hume, who said that “there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori.”  A priori means based on basic reasoning alone without any kind of actual real-world data, also known as “armchair reasoning”.  Myself, I’m not sure that nothing can be proven that way, as long as each assertion made can be seen to be logically sound in all cases, but I do not feel that the ontological argument necessarily stands up under that scrutiny.

There are many other arguments in favor and against it, with varying degrees of strength.  Many philosophers following Anselm took the basic argument and adapted it for improvement, but it largely remained similar.  None of the arguments against it, my own included, feel like nails in the coffin to the argument.  It could be logically sound, but our current understanding of the workings of reality might be inadequate to prove it in any necessary sense.  I am inclined to agree with a statement made by the atheist Bertrand Russell in regard to the ontological argument: “It is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”

I can count on no hands the number of people I know to whom the ontological argument provided a strong reason for their belief in God.  It is primarily one of those lofty philosophical arguments that are fascinating as a head-scratching quandary, but not something you would be inclined to hang your hat on.

Fortunately for anyone who might be following this blog, and are beginning to get bogged down in the complex logic of the current arguments, as I myself am, the arguments for God’s existence that Dawkins counters later in this chapter bring the discussion out of the clouds of philosophy and into the science and history of the real world.

The God Delusion – Five Proofs Against Five Proofs

Many arguments have been made throughout history that allegedly point to the existence of God.  In the third chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins takes apart many of these arguments one by one in an attempt to expose their fallacies.  In this post, I will look at his arguments against those arguments, and I will either make arguments for or against his arguments that are against those arguments.  Follow?

The Arguments of Thomas Aquinas

First he walks through the “Five Proofs” of Thomas Aquinas.  It is worth noting that, according to scholars who have studied Aquinas, these 5 proofs are less about proving the existence of the Biblical God and more about explaining the understanding of God through 5 necessary, but by no means exhaustive, attributes.

To explain further, I will point to Dawkins’ mistake in this regard.  Aquinas’ first three proofs are countered together because of their similarities:

  1. The Argument of the Unmoved Mover: Some things are moved.  Everything that is moving is moved by a mover.  An infinite regress of movers is impossible.  Therefore, there is an unmoved mover from whom all motion proceeds.  This mover is what we call God.
  2. The Argument of the First Cause:  Some things are caused.  Everything that is caused is caused by something else.  An infinite regress of causation is impossible.  Therefore, there must be an uncaused cause of all that is caused.  This causer is what we call God.
  3. The Argument from Contingency:  Many things in the universe may either exist or not exist. Such things are called contingent beings.  It is impossible for everything in the universe to be contingent, for then there would be a time when nothing existed, and so nothing would exist now, since there would be nothing to bring anything into existence, which is clearly false.  Therefore, there must be a necessary being whose existence is not contingent on any other being or beings.  This being is whom we call God.

Each of these arguments points to the necessity of a singular source for every known physical thing in the universe.  Dawkins argues that it is errant to then infer that such an existence would necessarily be the personal God of the Bible.  This is true, but no such connection was made.  The point, from what I understand, was to logically explain the need for a certain role, namely that of an original source, and to say that when Christians speak of God, they are speaking of a being that would fill that role.

Interestingly, he does not argue against the need for such a role in the universe, but questions why it can’t be the Big Bang or some other “physical concept as of yet unknown”, and also ponders why God should be “immune” from the regress of causality, or why he should not also need someone to have brought him into existence.  Of course, this last statement is a bit silly.  Maybe he wants a super-God that created our God?  And an ultra-God that created that one?

Initially, one can see the problem with the Big Bang explanation.  If the universe were gathered into a singularity (a mathematical point), then either there is active energy inherent in that point, which is hard to imagine since all motion would seemingly be halted, or the point is essentially dormant, loaded only with potential energy.  If it is active, then you still arrive at the same problem described above: what initialized THAT energy?  If it is merely potential, than you still have to explain its sudden explosion of kinetic energy, and the only way to do that is to call on some agent outside of the understood physical realm of the universe to cause such energy.  So it would seem the Big Bang does not actually satisfy the question at hand.  As for some other “physical” cause, similar issues arise, but sure, why not?  Any theories?

4.  The Argument from Degree: Varying perfections of varying degrees may be found throughout the universe.  These degrees assume the existence of an ultimate standard of perfection.  Therefore, perfection must have a pinnacle.  This pinnacle is whom we call God.

He snidely comments on this argument by exclaiming that people vary in degree of smelliness, therefore there is a maximum smelly being, and we shall call him God.  That’s about as far as he chose to go in this deftly intellectual counter.

I will admit, though, that this argument does seem tenuous, at least as an initial impression.  This logic was formed with some influence from the teachings of Aristotle, who spoke of fire as the thing of maximum heat to which everything else got its heat.  Even that postulation holds up more in principle than in practice, since fire varies by all kinds of degrees.  It is hard to imagine, therefore, that this kind of vague logic should necessarily be an accurate assumption, regardless of the actual existence of the end result of such logic, namely God.

5.  The Argument of Design: All natural bodies in the world act towards ends.  These objects are in themselves unintelligent.  Acting towards an end is characteristic of intelligence.  Therefore, there exists an intelligent being that guides all natural bodies towards their ends.  This being is whom we call God.

He doesn’t spend much time on this one, since, as is becoming custom, he says he will discuss it more in later chapters.  His current reasoning seems entirely circular, though.  He says that indeed things look designed.  Even a young Darwin felt that way.  But a “mature” Darwin “blew it out of the water” when he came up with evolution.  In the theory of evolution, things aren’t designed even though they look designed.  This reasoning is not really reasoning.  He is essentially saying, things look designed, but there is no God, so they aren’t designed, so therefore the argument of design is false.  Said another way, there is no God because the argument of design is false because things weren’t designed because there is no God.  He did not say this directly, but having listened to it several times, I cannot glean any other stream of logic from his argument.  The only way this logic would work is if the theory of evolution can be proved not only as factual, but also as self-governed AND self-created.

The logic is this: even if evolution is true and if it is self-maintaining, or able to persist without any outside influence, then nature itself contains a massive level of simulated intelligence, the kind that can sort and change and select and build things more complex than the original parts it was given.  Where would this self-intelligence come from if not from a preexisting intelligence?  To claim evolution as the sole propeller of the universe means that you also need to assert that such an ability to self-sort was also self-created.  And even then, where does the ability to self-create come from?

A Tangent

In usual form, Dawkins takes a complete tangent in the middle of these arguments to address another.  He says that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible, as per logic put forth by a number of logicians: “If God is omniscient, he already knows how he is going to intervene in the world using his omnipotence.  But if he already knows, then he can’t change his mind about it, thus he is not omnipotent.”

This is the kind of “logic” that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear come out of the mouth of one of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland characters, as it is almost absurd.  Using this kind of logic, I don’t even need omniscience to “prove” God isn’t omnipotent.

Consider: If God were omnipotent, he could do something against his nature.  But if he were to do something against his nature, then it would be in his nature to do something against his nature, and thus not against his nature at all.  Therefore God is not omnipotent.

Isn’t logic fun?  However, this bizarre interpretation of “omnipotent” that seems, in both cases, to rely more on clever, self-referential linguistics than anything else, is simply inadequate in actual application.  The point is hardly about figuring out if God can do anything that we as man can conjure up into a halfway coherent phrase, and more about what God can do and create in this reality.

Next Post

In the next post, we’ll look at more arguments for God’s existence, and Dawkins’ reaction to them.

The God Delusion – Just a Guess, But I Think Dawkins Likes Science

I wish to sum up Chapter 2, largely because it is long and filled with lots of rambling, but also because it seems to be setting up for the rest of the chapters as opposed to saying a whole lot of its own accord.

  • He tells a story about an atheist wishing to perform a peaceful protest during a faith healing, and getting bullied by religious policemen.  This is just used for emotional purposes, I believe, and to set up an assertion that atheists are persecuted in America.
  • He talks about India being secular, but not opposed to religion, because it honors all faiths equally.  I’m not sure the point of this.
  • A great deal is then spent on agnosticism.  He differentiates between two types of agnosticism: temporary and permanent.  Temporary agnosticism is the knowledge that there is an answer one way or another, but not enough evidence currently exists or has been studied to make a decision one way or another.  Permanent agnosticism is the position for those who claim that a question is simply forever unanswerable, and so there is no point in bothering with it.  He opposes the permanent agnostic position towards the God hypothesis, because he believes it is a question that can one day be answered, or at minimum can be largely understood through the practice of scientific probability.  In a large part, I would agree with him here.  God either exists or does not.  The implications of one or the other are so drastic that agnosticism does not seem to be a proper position.  Not that an opinion should be formed simply to choose a side, but that there are evidences one way or the other, and that evidence should be carefully reviewed.
  • He says that the religious should be held under the burden of proof, where he then compares the God hypothesis to Bertrand Russell’s tongue-in-cheek example of a china teapot orbiting the sun between earth and mars.  There is no way to prove that there ISN’T a teapot out there, but the burden of proof is definitely on the side of those who claim that there is.  Other fun comparisons are to the tooth fairy, Mother Goose, a rhombus-shaped Earth that floats through space in the claws of two lobsters, an invisible, inaudible unicorn, and, of course, the flying spaghetti monster.  The problems with using all of these silly examples as a logical comparison to the concept of God are pretty numerous.  As opposed to any of these examples, the God hypothesis is not one arbitrarily generated from a creative imagination, it IS one that explains an enormous amount of the universe, scientific, cultural, personal, historical, and philosophical, and in a way that continually fits with the larger picture as revealed in a book that was not written by one person, but by many, and has spanned centuries without losing any serious battles on the front of credibility.  True or not, clearly this religious claim demands more serious attention than that of a flying spaghetti monster, and it should not fall under an equal “burden of proof” as those claims, although I do agree that “it isn’t disprovable” isn’t a terribly good argument in favor, although it is a fairly decent one when taken with the copious amounts of other evidence.
  • In the next section, Dawkins deals with the hypothesis that science can not answer ultimate questions like the existence of God, or certain questions of a moral or existential nature.  He says that they indeed can.   In a sense, I understand his point, and it is at least partially fair.  If God were to inhabit the same reality we do, and in particular if he is a God that intervenes in our lives, then He would be affecting things in a very real sense, and thus His interventions could be studied scientifically.  I would say this would fit with the myriads of stories of disappearing cancer.  The cancer is actually gone.  The doctors know it’s gone, and they don’t know why.  Although these occurrences don’t necessarily prove God’s existence, they at least are very real and scientific matters that could be used as evidence.  What I think is important, however, is that science, at least in its current state, has some serious limitations that would keep it from studying, proving, or disproving God Himself.  The veracity of the Bible, sure, the existence of miracles, yes, but there would be no way to study directly the existence of a God that created time, space and matter using tools that study only time, space, and matter.
  • Dawkins discusses an experiment in which they tested prayer by getting a bunch of people together to pray a very specific prayer towards a number of sick people to test the results.  The experiment was silly.  Even Dawkins agrees that the experiment was silly, which makes me unsure as to why he took the time to discuss it.
  • In a bizarre and tangential last section, he talks of extraterrestrial life and conjectures that there is a good chance that there IS extraterrestrial life based on probability.  I think the idea is that he will later apply similar probability practices with the God hypothesis, but I’m unsure.  I already sense a number of glaring problems with trying to use probability theory in application to the question of God’s existence; however, I will refrain from that discussion until he actually goes into it.

In Chapter 3, he will counter the reasons he has heard as to why one should believe in God.  I’m hoping things will pick up considerably.