Thursday, April 24, 2008

Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana

Time to cleanse the palate.

I read Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice some time ago and enjoyed it. What I sensed in that novel was an author who, although knowledgeable of the source material, was still working through its implications and —perhaps intentionally—coming to know Christ more deeply.

Ms. Rice has since released Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. I can affirm what others have said so far and may even step out further to say that this is an exceptional book. The author takes us through the last months before Christ's ministry begins and shows us a full-grown and fully human Yeshua bar Joseph, as his attachment to the young woman across the road attests.

The book is pregnant with anticipation. Yeshua awaits the call to ministry from His Father. His kinsmen await his betrothal and the fulfillment of the prophecies to Mary and Elizabeth. Israel awaits release from the yoke of Rome. The imagery is lush, and as at least one other blogger has mentioned, sensual. Yet it's sensual in a pure manner. Even those moments of Yeshua's temptation reveal something pure about human desire and love. In addition to giving us a story about the Lord as a young man, this book reveals the complexity of human and familial relationships in first century Judea.

There's a theological depth as well in The Road to Cana that I didn't notice in Out of Egypt. In several scenes, Rice sets up visual allusions to themes in Catholic moral teaching as opposed to overt references to this or that doctrine. Rice seems to know when to let the images speak for themselves rather than to attempt a paraphrase.

I found myself moved repeatedly while reading The Road to Cana. Rice has managed to take stories with which all Christians are (or should be) intimately familiar and made them all the more human.

Excellent work, Ms. Rice. Thank you for this book.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Problems with The God Delusion, part II

Part I

In chapter 3, Dawkins addresses various proofs offered throughout the ages for the existence of God. He begins with the five proofs offered by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica. His summaries are telling in what they mention and fail to mention:
The first three are just different ways of saying the same thing, and they can be considered together. All involve an infinite regress – the answer to which raises a prior question, and so on ad infinitum.

  1. The Unmoved Mover. Nothing moves without a prior mover. This leads us to a regress, from which the only escape is God. Something had to make the first move, which we call God.

  2. The Uncaused Cause. Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God.

  3. The Cosmological Argument. There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God.

All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to regress.[1]

Before I address Dawkins’ approach, I want to address the notion of proof, particularly as it relates to Aquinas’ proofs. While there are certainly deductive proofs that lead inexorably to a required conclusion, not all proofs must be deductive. Inductive proofs are also legitimate, although imperfect, and lead not to conclusive ends but to probabilities (that is, justifiable but not proven in the popular meaning of the term). As Alister and Joanna Collicut McGrath point out, these arguments only show “the inner consistency of belief in God,” not “its evidential foundations.”[2] The McGraths point out that many atheistic arguments operate in the same fashion. Dawkins himself resorts to argument by probability later in his book where he explains that “the odds of success as low as one in a billion would still predict that life would arise on a billion planets in the universe.”[3]

Given that Dawkins can only explain the development of life and not its efficient cause (that is, the cause that induces an effect—life—that changes the potentiality of a thing into actuality), its rather stunning that he can’t imagine probability in the case of finite or infinite regress of the material universe. He, in fact, shows that he holds no distinction between what is material and what is not. While he accuses believers of accepting God as axiomatic, he commits the same “error” by axiomatically accepting that the material universe has always existed. The three first proofs of Aquinas demonstrate that, given a finite material universe, there must be something external to that universe to cause it. That much is a simple application of cause and effect.

Whether you accept a finite material universe or an infinite material universe, you have an axiom at either end. However, given the consistency of the principal of cause and effect, the clear ever-changing nature of matter, and the probability for any material object to exist at one time or another, one has to admit at least to the probability that at one time, since all material objects have the potential not to exist, there was at least a probability of no material object existing—a probability that must certainly be far from zero. Given infinite time, the probability had to be an actuality at least once if not more. If it was true once, it need not ever be true again because once we have no matter, we have no matter. Nothing. It would take something outside of the material universe to propel matter into being. At that point, we require an external uncaused cause, an unmoved mover. If this occurred, it is far more likely to have been at the beginning of the regress than somewhere in the middle (although there is nothing to say that the process could not have occurred more than once). While Dawkins can admit a one-in-a-billion billion probability, he can’t see what appears to this layman as a much higher probability that the material universe was caused at the outset by something nonmaterial.

Of course, Dawkins doesn’t even pretend to address any of this. Instead, he dismisses all three proofs with the following: “They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to regress.”[4] Does he substantiate this statement? No. Instead, he shifts the goal post:
Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.[5]

Suddenly, Dawkins jumps from a question of God’s existence to God’s essence. I don’t think most scientific epistemologies allow for such a great leap, but Dawkins doesn’t know enough about theology to know that it has an epistemology of its own. However, even this is really beside the point. He makes no attempt to address the basic points of the three proofs. Aquinas himself offered several objections to each and then refuted them (as he did with every one of the arguments in Summa Theologica beyond those few proving the existence of God). That was the method d'jour.


UPDATE: I need to clarify something here, as Mike pointed out some sloppy wording on my part. God's essence is His existence. That's a basic doctrine of the faith. What I meant to say was that Dawkins leaped over the facts of His existence and went right to the properties of God. In the very little philosphy that I've had since I began my theology program, we should approach these questions in a particular sequence based on Aristotle's methodology, working from general to more particular. Aquinas does just this. Anyway, the sequence is this:

1. Does x exist?
2. What is x?
3. What are the properties of x?
4. Why does x have these properties?

Dawkins leaps to question 3 without truly addressing the validity of question 1 (not to mention 2). To the first question, the line back from effect to cause leads us to an uncaused cause (whether this is a probablity or definitive). To the second, we have to say that God is pure actuality—there is no potential in God because He is unchanging. You see that this relates directly to the uncause cause. God doesn't change; He only has a formal aspect. Matter changes, so it has a formal aspect and a potential aspect. From here you can then move on to properties.

Back to our regularly scheduled denunciation...


Dawkins also spends some time on Pascal’s wager.[6] I can only say, as with other philosophical demonstrations, he removes so much of the context as to reduce it to ludicrous simplicity:
The great French mathematician (one wonders why he bothered with the adjective great) Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God’s existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.[7]

Of course, Dawkins fails to note that the wager is based on the assumption that we cannot trust reason,[8] in which case, it is hardly a proof and is a wager in the true sense of the term. He misses the point Pascal was trying to make, or he ignores it completely. As a reporter of the “facts” of philosophical proofs, then, we have to conclude that Dawkins is either not up to the task or is simply not being honest.

The entire chapter is filled with these kinds of tactics—not rational arguments but dismissals, not careful refutations, but polemic denunciations. Dawkins is not just playing out of his depth here: he’s standing on the side of the pool trying to comment on a game of water polo when he can’t even swim.

Part III

1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), p. 77.
2. Alister and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Athiest Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p. 25.
3. Dawkins, p. 139.
4. Ibid, p. 77.
5. Ibid, p. 77.
6. “Pascal's Wager,” (2008, April 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:46, April 23, 2008, from
Dawkins, p. 103.
“Pascal's Wager.”

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Problems with The God Delusion, part I

I set out in Dawkins’ book thinking that I would get at least a presentation of the reasons offered for faith in God or even for belief in the reasonableness of the proposition of God. Initially, Dawkins came across as somewhat reasonable. His question was simply this (or so he said): why is the faith of believers treated unhesitatingly with respect and not critical analysis? We do we let certain religious assumptions go by without question while all other areas of human existence come under scrutiny?

I think that is a fair question, albeit asked in apparent unawareness of the other areas of human existence in which modern people (at least in Europe and the “West”) approach questions of morality and thought. I do think we need to look critically at what we believe, and if respect means unquestioning acceptance of the legitimacy of a belief, then I agree that we should not “respect” all beliefs without question. However, while Dawkins poses this question, that really isn’t his intent (or at least the intent he conveys in this book). The question he is really posing is, why shouldn’t we treat religion derisively? Why shouldn’t we treat it with contempt?
To demonstrate what I mean, the last paragraph of chapter 1 sets us up to expect a fair, critical analysis of religion. It’s about as clear a statement of intent as one can expect or get:

It is in light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimed for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.[1]

Fair enough, or so I thought. The first page of the next chapter, “The God Hypothesis,” starts off thus:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[2]

If this god were an actual person (as we believe Him to be), then we would undoubtedly have to see Dawkins’ first salvo as a logical fallacy—an overt ad hominem rather than a substantive claim. The beginning of the next paragraph in which the author claims it unfair to attack such an easy target rings a little hollow. Of course, he also knows that attacking one perception of God is not the same as addressing the possibility of any supreme being. He acknowledges this and proposes a definition of the God hypothesis: “[T]here exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created this universe and everything in it, including us”[3]. Very good. We have a definition, even if it’s not phrased exactly how we would like. This at least gives us a direction. He also proposes an alternative view: “[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end of an extended process of gradual evolution”[4].

These statements are useful because they frame the discussion and give it boundaries. So why does Dawkins begin with what he knows will be an inflammatory statement? If he intends to provide a reasoned discussion of these two positions, why does he start the chapter with the literary equivalent of a handful of sand in the face?[5]

It’s simple. Dawkins doesn’t intend to fight fair or play by the rules of rational argument. He wants to win, and he will present the facts (and sometimes the fictions) in whatever way he can to exploit what he considers the weaknesses of his opponents. Dawkins’ method is evident in every treatment of the reasons for faith. He presents no religious in its entirety or even in an acceptable précis. He presents the most basic description of an argument for God or faith, often highly slanted to increase its apparent absurdity, then hammers away at the absurdity he has conjured, often without any logical subtlety or lucidity. A case in point is the five “proofs” of the existence of God of Thomas Aquinas, as well as other common proofs for God’s existence. I will address these points in the next post.

Part II
Part III

1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company), p. 27.
2. Ibid, p. 31.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. What I mean by “sand in the face” is the common convention in movies (no doubt with some real-world substance) in which the bad guy will throw a handful of dust in the face of the good guy just as the bout commences, leaving the good guy at a disadvantage (that is, temporarily blinded) and unable to raise an adequate defense quickly.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Back from Seattle

Hiyo. I've been in Seattle all week for a Microsoft summit. I finished The God Delusion on the flight there and nearly finished another related book before landing. I plan to write my own response to Dawkins' book tomorrow, but I would like to recommend The Dawkins Delusion to anyone who wants the perspective of a pro-religion molecular biophysicist and his neuropsychologist wife. I already had my own issues with Dawkins' treatment of God and religion, but the McGraths hit him from two perspectives he attempts to use in The God Delusion. Needless to say, it's a pretty devastating critique from people who supposedly share a common epistemology.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

In the face of Dawkins' rigorous logic...

... I have no other choice but to abandon my faith.


Okay, sorry, but I couldn't resist.

I intended to have this book finished by today, but frankly, every time I pick it up, I think, "This is an hour of my life I will never get back!"

That's a pretty selfish way to look at it, but there it is. So I took back the copy I had (which I couldn't check out again) and found another copy so I could actually wrap up this analysis. Right next to it, I found a copy of McGrath and McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion? I've been waiting to read any responders to Dawkins until I can formulate and post my own thoughts. However, I got a kick out of the quote by Michael Ruse (author of Darwinism and Its Discontents) on the cover of this book: "The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why."

I do have to say that Dawkins is readable. One just really has to be careful to sift the dross from the useful information.

Ruse also brings to mind for me that many atheists (probably most) are not of the militant mindset. I can appreciate that many people look at all the evidence and simply cannot see it (or don't accept it as definitive). Given the poor witness of many Christians (myself included), that doesn't surprise me.

Oh yeah, did I mention that I often use the prayer cards I receive in the mail as bookmarks? And that I often "forget" to remove those bookmarks from the library books that I return?

I'll probably be using Post-It notes to capture my thoughts and responses in this next copy. It'd be a shame if I forgot to remove them.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Oh, for Pete's Sake!

I don't know how many times that clause has left my lips over the past few days. I put of reading The God Delusion during Easter week, but because of our library's policy on new books, I have to wrap up this one by Saturday. That part isn't particularly difficult. The book is not a challenging read. The passages that actually focus on matters scientific are eloquent and enjoyable to read—until, of course, Dawkins comes to his point. I will have more on that later, when I write a more detailed account of his claims.

Suffice it to say that Dawkins is no philosopher (a fact he surely acknowledges with pleasure). The problem is that it shows. He attempts no actual argument in many cases but simply dismisses proofs and premises with no explanation why. He paints with the broadest of brushes, and the first three chapters seem to be nothing more than 100 pages of logical fallacies (argument by authority and poisoning the well apparently being his two favorite approaches to philosophical debate). I'll have more this weekend.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

On Days Past and Perspective

I had an interesting experience just recently. I've been following and and coming across old friends and classmates and attempting to reconnect with a few here and there. Just the other day, I came across a name of someone I knew in eighth grade. When I followed the links to this person's profile, it led to a LinkedIn account, which noted workplace and professional info. As it turns out, this nice girl I knew in eighth grade has turned out to be someone apparently very well known in the international affairs circles: books, articles, conference presentations, UN missions. I was stunned at how silently successful she's been. Given how bright she was then, it doesn't really doesn't surprise me how well she's done.

I mentioned this to my wife, and she asked if I had tried to reestablish contact. I thought it probably wasn't necessary to intrude, but after some thought, I went ahead and sent an email.

She responded very nicely, but she couldn't remember me at all. It's rather funny to because I remember so many things about her and she so little (that is, nothing). Oh yeah. I had a crush on her. No wonder I remember so much more. Anyway, what I find interesting now is how different our perceptions at the time were and how those perceptions affect our memories.

I will probably read one of her books and review it here (as best I am concerning my lack of expertise on the subject).