‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post


‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post.

Read this book review by Michael Dirda and consider where the argument about original sin and the history of Christian doctrine errs.

Your observations are welcome. Feel free to share using the comments box below.

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Rev. Giles Fraser Catches Out Richard Dawkins in Dispute about Christianity in Britain


On Tuesday, BBC 4 hosted an occasionally heated exchange between Richard Dawkins and Rev. Giles Fraser. In their exchange, Fraser takes exception to the design of a survey conducted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He suggests that the survey, which purports to establish that Christianity is rare in Britain, shows no such thing. The Dawkins survey revealed that nearly two out of three who consider themselves Christians were unable to name the first book of the New Testament. (The correct answer is supposed to be the Gospel According to St. Matthew, but that depends on what you mean by “first”!) Fraser put the Dawkins test to work on Dawkins himself and asked if he could name the full title of The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Though he said he could, Dawkins stumbled when trying to quote the full title of his own secular Bible. Some British journalists are having laugh at Dawkins’s expense.

For audio of the interview (less than 7 minutes) click here. The story is reported at the Huff Post, with a transcript of the embarrassing bit, here.

Many, no doubt, will remark with glee on the embarrassing incident. But this isn’t quite fair, in my opinion. True, Dawkins should know the full title of Darwin’s seminal work. Dawkins is, after all, a former Oxford University professor who has published extensively in defense of Darwinian evolution. He is also the author of a 23-page Introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of The Origin of Species and the Voyage of the Beagle, published by Alfred A. Knopf. But it surely is a sad commentary on the state of literacy in Britain that so few who call themselves Christians can name the book that appears first in most copies of the New Testament.

There is a larger point that should not be missed. There was a time when knowing that sort of thing was widespread among believers and non-believers alike. But the fund of “common knowledge” has been compressed to the dimensions of a thimble so that now what counts as literacy is up for grabs. Christian or not, shouldn’t a literate person know enough about the world’s great literature to be able to declare with confidence the name of the first Gospel of the New Testament?

Archbishop Worries That Atheism is “Cool,” and This Makes Atheists Happy


Recent statements by Britain’s Archbishop, Rowan Williams, have provoked some interesting discussion. Williams has said, “Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool.” He’s thinking of books like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

For news coverage, see the article by Jonathan Wynne-Jones, published in The Telegraph September 19, 2011.

Today I read a post about the Archbishop’s statement at an atheist blog hosted by Martin Pribble

Dr Rowan Williams PC, DPhil, DD, FBA the 104th...

Image via Wikipedia

. I then left a comment in the comments stream, which otherwise appears to be uniformly atheistic in orientation.

Here’s my comment:

Hasty generalization is a blight on much thinking on all sides of most issues. (I hope that statement isn’t an example of hasty generalization!)

In this case, the good Archbishop surely over-generalizes if he claims that a recent bump in the popularity of atheism is due to its “cool” factor. The explanation is far more complex than that, and the weighing of evidence for and against the existence of God is surely a factor for many people.

On the other hand, I think that Martin is a bit hasty in his generalization about theistic responses to current atheism advocacy. To be sure, there are books that pass over evidence and argument in breezy fashion and simply attack the messenger. But Martin implies that this is true of all published responses to Dawkins. He can’t be serious. One might, as he suggests, do a simple Google search to turn up more sophisticated treatments, of Dawkins’ work, yes, but also of the atheistic or naturalistic position more generally. Some are published by prestigious presses that are careful to publish only the best serious and academic work on such topics: Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge, for example.

Also, I notice that ad hominem rhetoric is tossed about on both sides of this issue. In the comment stream for this post, for example, Rowan Williams is chided in uncharitable terms and William Lane Craig is said to be stupid.

I’m new to this website, so I don’t know about its general tenor or the tone of regular commentators. But if the byline is “Attempting to make sense,” then I urge Martin to admonish his readers to take greater care to marshal evidence in support of their claims rather than to make safe and provocative assertions and tender emotional arguments.

If this site seeks to engage readers in meaningful dialogue, I suspect it will attract more thoughtful responses, from a spectrum of positions, if it monitors the discussion and facilitates reasoned debate. A wise proverb says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” In other words, if sophistry prevails, find someone else to talk to.

Last I checked, my comment was “awaiting moderation.”

Update: My comment at Martin Pibble’s site has been approved, so it now appears there, as well. I should note that here at my own site comments “await moderation” until “approved.” I believe a process of screening to be good practice.

Clever Edit of Mexico Debate a Challenge to Richard Dawkins


Apparently, Birdie.com has edited the YouTube video made of the debate in Mexico from November 2010, in which I, Bill Craig, and David Wolpe debated Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Matt Ridley. The aim of this 6 minute feature is to show the mistakes that Richard Dawkins made in understanding and assessing our case in that debate.

If you wish to see this clip, click here.

Shermer, Ridley, and Dawkins vs. Craig, Wolpe, and Geivett: Retrospective on the Debate


I’ve finally returned home after two weeks of travel and speaking, which included a debate in Puebla Mexico. I posted details about the event here prior to leaving for Mexico. There you’ll find links to English and Spanish versions of YouTube recordings of the debate.

I’ve had the chance to read some reactions posted in the blogosphere about this debate. I now want to list some specific points and observations of my own, partly to add clarity and partly to set the record straight about some things I’ve seen written.

I hope you’ll watch the debate and leave your objective evaluation in the comments box of this post.

  1. Usually, a debate question features one side taking the affirmative and the other side taking the negative. Here, the question for debate was “Does the universe have a purpose?” It was obvious from the correspondence I received from the debate organizers that I was to team with two individuals who agreed in taking the affirmative, and that the other three would take the negative—that is, they would deny that the universe has a purpose.
  2. The three of us on the affirmative side—William Lane Craig, David Wolpe, and Doug Geivett—all believe that whether the universe has a purpose depends on whether or not God exists. So we could argue that the universe does have a purpose if God exists, even if time did not allow for detailed arguments that God in fact exists. It would be up to the others—Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins—to argue that the universe does not have a purpose. Presumably, they would have to include arguments that God does not exist, since that would be crucial to their claim that the universe does not have a purpose. Or, they might argue that even if God exists, the universe does not have a purpose.
  3. The moderator introduced us as “theists” and “atheists,” and framed the debate as a debate between theists, who affirm the existence of God, and atheists, who deny the existence of God. Thus, two questions were conflated from the beginning: (1) “Does the universe have a purpose?” and (2) “Does God exist?” The question for any participant, then, was whether to focus on question (1) or question (2).
  4. Each of the six of us was allotted exactly six minutes for initial arguments. We were timed and stopped at six minutes. Strict enforcement of time limits is characteristic of debates, but not always understood by observers. I’ve noticed that some who’ve commented on the debate at various blogs have remarked that the moderator should not have interrupted debaters when they were about to make an important point. (The debate was part of a larger conference program.)
  5. Rebuttals were limited to three minutes each. Following rebuttals, Michio Kaku was permitted time for a few comments on the debate through that point. His remarks were followed by 90-second closing statements.
  6. The decision about which side would go first was determined by a coin toss. The atheist side won the coin toss and Matt Ridley went first. Each team was permitted to sequence its presenters in the order they preferred. Our side followed the order Craig-Wolpe-Geivett for all three components of the debate. We made our decision based on the tasks we each had agreed to perform during the debate. In my judgment, this sequence proved to be effective.
  7. How did the opposing teams work together as teams? It should be obvious that our team of theists worked very closely together. Our individual presentations complemented each other neatly and intentionally. We provided a united front in our presentation of evidence and response to objections. We worked together across the board. To illustrate, in his rebuttal, Bill Craig used a brief that I had prepared in response to the problem of evil, should it come up. Collectively, we argued for two main contentions: (1) If God exists, then the universe has a purpose, and (2) If God does not exist, then the universe does not have a purpose.
  8. Close observers will understand that our two main contentions directly addressed the published topic of the debate: “Does the universe have a purpose?” Further, they speak to the question of God’s existence in a direct manner. Third, as conditional statements, they do not require for their support any argument that God does, in fact, exist. Fourth, we repeated these two contentions for two primary reasons. First, to remind the audience of our claims, as debaters on both sides took turns speaking. This is a matter of effective communication. Second, to remind the atheist team that this was our position and that it was this that they must address in their response to us. This is a matter of holding the other side accountable to the actual arguments we mustered during the debate. I’ve seen some in the blogosphere complain that I repeated our two fundamental claims in my opening statement. But this was after David Wolpe’s opening statement, which did not repeat the claims, and three opening statements by the atheists. Nearly half an hour had passed since the two claims had been explicitly stated.
  9. In his opening statement, Bill Craig explained why the universe would have purpose if God exists, thus supporting our first contention. He then acknowledged that whether the universe actually does have purpose, supposing our two contentions are true, depends on the existence of God. So he used the balance of his six minutes to list several arguments for the existence of God, which all have been developed in detail in his books. In effect, he placed them on the table for the atheist side to refute.
  10. In his opening statement, David Wolpe developed the argument from fine-tuning for the existence of God, and hence of purpose for the universe. He then drew a close existential connection between this argument and the human quest for meaning and purpose.
  11. I my opening statement, then, I—Doug Geivett—recalled our two main contentions, then addressed the possibility that some on the other side would argue that the universe has purpose even if God does not exist. Following that, I developed an argument, not often heard in debates, that our very interest in the question of the debate is evidence that God does exist.
  12. So the trajectory of our three arguments on the theist side was itself purposeful and progressive. Together they represented an eighteen-minute opening argument for theism and purpose. If you put these together in the order in which they were presented, you’ll see that they made for a natural progression, with a build-up along the way toward a climax.
  13. It would be absurd, then, to expect any one of us to “carry the day” within the narrow scope of our individual presentations. For example, it’s ridiculous to scold Bill Craig for failing to develop theistic arguments more fully. Considered as a unified whole, our three opening statements complement and serve each other.
  14. Now what about the atheist side? This is my opinion and people are free to disagree, but I believe the atheists operated much more independently of each other, and even contradicted each other. In his opening statement, Matt Ridley argued against the idea that the universe has a purpose. Michael Shermer, on the other hand, argued for purpose, precisely as I predicted he would when Bill Craig and David Wolpe and I discussed strategy prior to the debate. This is why my opening statement includes a response to this type of claim with a special argument for the existence of God (see description above), and why my opening statement was third in the series. The atheists struggled to clarify the distinction between purpose in the universe and purpose on the level of human existence. Thus, they seemed sometimes to be arguing against purpose and sometimes to be arguing for purpose.
  15. While the atheists alluded to the argument from evil against theism, no one developed the argument in any detail. This was quite surprising and seemed to me a missed opportunity for their side. Of course, we were prepared for something more strenuous, and Bill Craig did address the argument, even more fully than it had been presented. Notice, too, that Craig’s response compounded the evidence we presented for the existence of God, since it embedded an argument from evil for theism. The atheists never had another word to say about this. Nor did the atheists answer my argument for theism. And in response the Wolpe’s fine-tuning argument, they simply mentioned the possibility of multiple universes and the like.
  16. Richard Dawkins is hero to many atheists today. So his participation and relation to the other two atheists deserves special notice. You’ll find that Dawkins made numerous assertions and almost no arguments. If you disagree, you should be able to reconstruct his arguments by identifying individual premises and specific conclusions. So far, those who have praised Dawkins’s performance in the debate, all of whom have been atheists themselves, have not attempted this reconstruction. I urge them to try. I will gladly address carefully reconstructed arguments in the comments section of this post. Dawkins called religious belief “pathetic” and accused Bill Craig of making an emotional argument. As I stated in my brief closing statement, it was Dawkins, more than anyone else, who made an “emotional argument.” First, he gave no arguments against the existence of God. Second, he offered no rebuttals of the arguments we presented, and third, he dismissed religious belief as pathetic without argument. If I’m wrong about any of this, I would be happy to see evidence of my error and respond to whatever arguments he did present.
  17. There has been considerable commentary about the “Craig vs. Dawkins debate” as a result of this event. Prior to this debate, Richard Dawkins had refused all invitations to debate Bill Craig. It’s for this reason that Bill was surprised to learn that Dawkins had agreed to participate in this debate. This, clearly, was the safest venue for Dawkins to appear in debate with Craig, since it was a three-on-three debate with unusually brief allocations of time for each speaker. But Dawkins was not debating Bill Craig only. He was in debate with three theists, in partnership with two fellow atheists. There was nothing the least bit threatening or intimidating about Dawkins on this occasion. I would happily debate him in a one-on-one situation. So if he prefers not to debate Bill Craig, for whatever reason, he’s welcome to debate with me.
  18. Some have criticized the moderator of the debate for the style of his facilitation. But people fail to consider the total context of the debate. This was but one of many events scheduled in a three-day conference. Also, the debate was aired at the end of the day following the much-watched boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito. Hence, the pugilism metaphor so emphasized during the debate. I happen to know that some who watched the boxing match on Mexican television stayed tuned to channel 7 and watched the debate. I’ve heard it estimated that around 2 million viewers have seen the debate as a result. Andreas Roemer seems to have good instincts about how to raise public awareness of an event worthy of more attention.

Again, I hope to hear from you with your reflections about the debate. Before leaving comments, you may want to review the comments policy for this blog here.

Other places where the debate is being discussed:

“Does the Universe Have a Purpose?”—A Debate in Mexico, November 13, 2010


November 13, 2010, Doug participated in a three-on-three debate on the question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” Location: Puebla, Mexico Venue: BUAP Benemerita Universidad Autónoma De Puebla Address: Vía Atlixcáyotl No. 2499, San Andrés Cholula. C.P. 72810. Puebla This debate was part of the third annual Festival Internacional de Mentes Brillantes (English: International Festival of Great Minds). The general theme of the conference was: “The Origins of the Future—A Life Experience: Rebirth.” Debate participants: Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig, and R. Douglas Geivett, with comments by Michio Kaku. Date: Saturday, November 13, 2010 Time: 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. For program details, go here and here. The conference began November 11 and concluded November 13. Other conference speakers included: Malcolm Gladwell, Sheena Iyengar, Elizabeth Pisani, Nancy Lee Etcoff, David M. Buss, Steven Pinker, Nancy Segal, Jared Diamond, and others. If you plan to attend the conference, Doug welcomes the opportunity to meet you and to hear from you in the comments box of this post. Post-debate update: A couple of changes were made to the debate format. Richard Dawkins took the place of Michio Kaku on the atheist side, and Michio Kaku was given the opportunity to speak from the position of declaring the question of God’s existence “undecidable.” The entire debate can now be seen and heard on YouTube here (in English) and here (in Spanish). It’s estimated that some 3,000 people attended the debate. At the end of the day, the debate was broadcast on Mexican national television, with an estimated two million viewers. Doug looks forward to hearing from anyone who was at the debate or has seen it on television or YouTube. Please leave your comments in the comments box for this post! Post-Debate Reflections: I’ve recorded a number of my own reflections about the debate here. Other Posts about this Debate:

What Does It Take to Hear a Who, and What’s It to Do with Me and You?


horton-hears-a-who_1“A humorous exaggerated imitation of an author, literary work, style, etc.,” is how The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word “parody.” If you spend an afternoon reading a book like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, then set off to the theater with your family to see the new film Horton Hears a Who, you may be surprised to find yourself drawing parallels between the movie and the book.

Horton is the naïve, indiscriminate, credulous elephant. He gets it in his head that a speck that has come to rest on a clover is home to a civilization of “humans” who are invisible because they are too small to be seen. Kangaroo, on the other hand, is sensible and stern. She recognizes early on the danger posed to the community by Horton’s fantastic notions. She confronts Horton about his silliness and warns him to cease and desist. But Horton, being an elephant, is too “faithful” to abandon his convictions. And in due course, what began as a harmless idiosyncrasy evolves into a mission that imbues Horton’s life with fresh meaning and purpose.

Kangaroo is beside herself with concern, especially for the children, who—horrors—have begun to use their imaginations. Her motto is, “If you can’t see it, taste it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist.” Horton’s claim—that “the speck” is inhabited by humans who call themselves “Whos”—fails this test.

Or should I say, it almost fails this test? Horton, after all, hears intelligent noises coming from the speck. Eventually he even engages in meaningful conversation with the diminutive mayor of Whoville. So Horton, at least, has empirical evidence for his belief. And that seems to be all that Kangaroo requires.

But that isn’t all that Kangaroo requires. She also stipulates that it’s impossible for there to be anything so small and human. So she is a radical empiricist with an a priori prejudice against the existence of things she can’t see. And her a priori commitment diminishes her ability to hear what Horton can hear. Of course, Horton is equipped with ears that are especially sensitive to very slight auditory data. Since he is unique in this respect, no one really believes him. This despite the fact that he has no special motive to mislead a community of individuals he obviously cares about.

Horton isn’t a complete doofus. He can’t get Kangaroo to listen for what she isn’t willing to hear. So he challenges her prejudice with a thought experiment. “What if our own world is just a speck from the point of view of some greater being?” he asks. Kangaroo is unable to entertain this possibility. She is as absurdly sure of herself as she believes Horton to be.

A major difference between Horton and Kangaroo is that Kangaroo is a demagogue, and most members of her community are lemmings. They may not follow her logic, but they do follow her lead. She adopts the posture of an infallible authority figure and whips up alarm among those who are no more able to think for themselves than Horton is supposed to be.

The mayor of Whoville suffers a similar fate. He’s called a “boob” by a leading member of the town council. This is a painful slap in the face. The mayor’s influence is fanciful. And his explanation for what is happening in Whoville is believed to be delusional. Like Horton, he risks ridicule for what he believes to be true. But that’s not all there is to it.

The mayor fears for his community, which does not recognize the danger that threatens Whoville. Initially, he does not seek to convince the citizens of Whoville. He knows they will not believe that an invisible elephant in the sky is their protector. Still, he takes responsible action on the basis of what he knows, even though he risks humiliation.

Horton Hears a Who is a smart and entertaining film. I doubt that it’s a deliberate parody of the emotionalism exhibited by the “new atheists.” But I can’t help thinking Richard Dawkins will not be happy with it. At least he can’t complain that he was tricked into doing the voice-over for Kangaroo.

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