Archive for January, 2008

30th January
written by simplelight

My post two days ago has been honored with some critiques. 

Dan over at Fitness for Occassion makes the following two points which I would like to comment on:

  1. If God could potentially be incredibly unethical, as SL posits, then how would moral truth come from God?
  2. [Atheism] is not a religion, not a system of beliefs.  It is simply the idea that God does not exist.

On the first point: I’m not sure that the existence of moral truth (or absolute truth) in humanity is a very strong argument for the existence of God. (But I do believe it is part of an argument). However, the point that Hitchens made was that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy is going to obliterate earth in 5 billion years proves that God is either a) nonexistent or b) not good. To which I say, not true. First, it might not happen. Second, I hope our little band of humans will have made a plan given the 5 billion years advance notice of our destruction. Third, God is the standard for Truth. This was Richards’ point on the necessity of a resting point for any set of beliefs. This is the failure of relativism. If we don’t take some absolute, external criterion as our yardstick for measuring truth then we’re left with nothing. As I said, Hitchens didn’t even bother to address that point.

On the second point: Atheism has always been more than a single idea that God does not exist. To say “I am an atheist” conveys a lot more information than to say “I don’t believe in sentient pink unicorns”. The existence or nonexistence of God is a fact which touches on almost every aspect of life: what we strive for, what we uphold as ideals, what our purpose is, and what kind of society we would want to build. That makes it, if not a religion, at the very least a system of beliefs. Every atheist I know is arguing about a lot more than the mere existence of God.

If atheism is going to make an argument about how society is going to be organized (which Hitchens was doing in the debate) then the rest of us would like something a lot more substantial than a one line statement about something that doesn’t exist. We would like answers to: What informs your system of jurisprudence?  What values does your society hold dear? What exactly does “self evident” mean in our defining documents? Where do our rights come from and who guarantees them? What motivates our concern for the poor? That’s why atheism needs a foundation. Because the next time an atheist says that they’re going to eliminate a few million people I’d like an answer more comprehensive than it’s based on ”a simple idea”.

30th January
written by simplelight

First Things has an interesting article on the link between atheism and violence. I don’t believe that most atheists press their thinking to the ultimate conclusion of their philosophy.  After witnessing the venom at the debate between Hitchens and Richards I might revisit that idea, though.

28th January
written by simplelight

[Update: If anyone has a link to the video/audio transcript please post in the comments]

Last night I attended the debate at Stanford between Christopher Hitchens and Jay Richards. The topic was “Atheism vs Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design” which I felt was a little too broad for a meaningful debate.

My heart at first sank when I saw Jay Richards. He has hair reminiscent of an early Abba member or a really blonde version of the BeeGees. He looked as though he had just put away his surfboard and strolled into the debate. Christopher Hitchens came slouching in making every effort to look like a disenchanted intellectual who is angry with the world but is sustained daily by his special breed of cynicism.

Christopher Hitchens opened for the first 14 minutes and unleashed his standard diatribe against ‘religion’. He seemed a little unprepared but is clearly a gifted rhetorician and quite capable of thinking on his feet. He didn’t say much new and his style was well captured by a later comment from Jay Richards: “A sneer is not an argument and insults do not constitute evidence”. His main argument was that if the world was designed by a creator, it was not a benevolent creator. He frequently resorts to this argument despite it clearly not belonging in a debate on Atheism vs Theism. (Just because one doesn’t like God, doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist).

Jay Richards had the floor for the next 14 minutes and presented a rational, well-thought out argument for theism. He had 6 main points (and a seventh which he added later)

  1. Moral truth – we all know what it is, the question is where did it come from and atheism has no answer to that. This issue was half-heartedly contested by Hitchens and a question from the audience regarding an evolutionary explanation for morality.
  2. A finely tuned universe – basically a brief overview of the anthropic cosmological argument (every physical constant finely tuned for mankind and unlikely to have occurred by chance). Hitchens seemed to feel that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy will be obliterating earth in 5 billion years refutes this argument. Unfortunately his argument went along the lines of: “What kind of cruel god would allow this?”
  3. A beginning to the universe in a finite past – therefore something caused the universe which must be God. He used the phrase “resting point” for the basis of a theistic belief and asked what the basis for atheism was. This is a fairly strong argument. Granted, there are theories which postulate an eternal universe but those seem to be less accepted these days.
  4. Irreducible complexity - he didn’t get into details but cited the bacterial flagellum and asked why it’s obvious that Mt. Rushmore was ‘designed’. This argument obviously runs the risk of each instance of irreducible complexity being knocked down with subsequent research (a point which Hitchens noted). I spent many years doing research on genetic algorithms in computer science and this argument does accord with my experience of computer simulations.
  5. Materialism – the atheist, materialist philosophers all conclude that consciousness is an illusion and feel that this is problematic. For most people, a purely material view of the world leads to a conclusion which seems incompatible with experience. Obviously this is not a proof for the existence of God but Richards’ point was that our subjective experience is more consistent with a theistic philosophy.
  6. Free will – it’s incompatible with a mechanistic worldview. Hitchens’ bizarre response was that if free will was given to us then it can’t be free will.
  7. The origin of biological information (added towards end of debate). They touched briefly on the direction of entropy but unfortunately nothing conclusive from either side. (I’d like to challenge some of the atheists who really know their biology to read this book and provide a rebuttal to the main thesis of the book in the comments below.)

Richards ended with the question: which worldview (atheism or theism) best accomodates all the above observations?

Hitchens then had 4 minutes to respond and, to my mind, did not answer one of the points that Jay Richards had made. For the rest of the debate he attempted to generalize from particular observations (how can we think Mohammad really made a midnight ride into the sky on his horse, how can anyone believe in a God who demands that we kill our children (Abraham/Isaac), genital mutilation in the name of religion, to his point that God does not exist. Along the way he attacked Mormonism, Islam, Catholicism, etc.

Jay Richards maintained his composure admirably, was exceptionally well-informed on every topic while still being likeable, charitable, and theologically rigorous. 

Hitchens’ hubris appears to know no bounds. When asked whether he thought he was more intelligent than everyone else who believes in God he said: “Yes. And the polls suggest that I am too” (!)

Basically there were two messages: one hopeful; and one of despair (he mentioned sex and schadenfreude as his two purposes for living), futility and constant railing against a God who doesn’t exist. Atheism, to my mind, has always been deficient on the inspiration front and it seems a shame to spend one’s allotted time fighting the God you don’t believe in.