So, I went to a public a little while back titled "The Bankruptcy of Atheism", by Dr. Alister McGrath. The title was someone misleading, as he spent most of his time defending theism than he did pointing out why atheism is bankrupt. It was essentially an 'interaction' with Richard Dawkin's book, "The God Delusion"
Probably over 500 people came to see the public lecture, which was too much for the room he was in, so a video feed was sent to a second room (where I was), and this room had all the aisles filled up, and people standing outside the door trying to listen in!
As a quick overview, he summarised "The God Delusion" in 5 points:
- Science naturally leads to Atheism
- Belief in God is irrational
- God is a virus of the mind
- Religion impoverishes view of the universe
- Religion is a bad thing
Over the course of the lecture, he systematically addressed each of these points. I'll attempt to do the same, basically repeating what Dr Alister said.
Before getting into the topic, it's a good idea to define a few terms (ok, one term). So for the purposes of the lecture, Dr. Alister used Dawkin's definition of religion, which was essentially "The belief in a God", but with obvious emphasis on the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity).
Also, before getting in to anything, he mentioned briefly that Atheism has been around since forever, and there's nothing new about. However, he stated that 1789-1989 was the "Golden Age" of Atheism, starting with the start of the French Revolution. Some event happened in 1989, which I can't remember nor find in research, which perhaps symbolised the end of this Golden Age...it was fairly arbitrary though.
Oh, and a disclaimer. I haven't yet read all of "The God Delusion", and I had barely even started it at the time of the lecture. So I will only say what Dr Alister said about it, and may write some more analysis when I finish reading it.
Well, on to the first topic.
Science Naturally Leads to Atheism
Dawkins says quite plainly that science naturally leads to Atheism. This seems quite sound on the surface, as evolution and Darwinism quite neatly explains any problems with creation. He also states that science and religion are incompatible - that is, mutually exclusive
Dr Alister's first point was to debunk the claim that science and religion are mutually exclusive, and talked about several devout Christian scientists, least of which is not the director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. He mentioned several others, but I didn't write them down. I think anyone who studies any science, and believe in a deity can quite easily debunk the claim they're incompatible. More on this in the "Religion impoverishes the view of the universe" section.
I think the crux of what Dawkins was getting at in this point was the science does not point to God, so there mustn't be one. Dr Alister put forth that, if anything, science leads to agnotism. Essentially, the result of science is, and will always be "we don't have enough evidence to comment either way". The scientific method is essential incapable of deciding whether or not God exists. Which is why a survey done on a bunch of scientist people (sorry, no source, but I'm fairly sure they weren't hand picked, and were all quite "prestigious") showed a 50/50 split between theists and atheists among them.
Stephen Jay Gould is mentioned a few times by Dawkins, and is Atheist. Gould has written a few books on darwinism and evolution and stuff, however has made it clear that his atheism has nothing to do with science. In fact, he is completely against the notion that darwinism implies atheism.
Finally, Dr Alister mentioned stated, for the theist, science is simply modelling God's creation.
Belief in God is irrational
[Faith is] blind trust in the absence of evidence even in the face of overwhelming counter evidence
Dawkins uses this definition of faith (or something similar) to put forth his point that belief in God is irrational. You can see clearly it's quite a loaded definition, and very few (if any) theists would agree with this definition. So I have no idea who what exactly he's trying to say - yes, if that was what faith is about, then I agree, it's irrational. I would call that definition blind faith. Let's see what theists (or rather, Christians) define faith as:
The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God's will.
Note: This definition comes from dictionary.com, but I believe it lines up with what I say. You'll notice a lot of other definitions on the same site say "despite inadequate evidence" and stuff, which is probably true. But it is NEVER true about contrary evidence, and nothing about blind trust. Indeed, I believe the trust has to come before the faith, just like people don't trust traffic lights until they prove their worth.
Dr Alister used a better definition of faith, that I can't find unfortunately, but when I saw it, I'm like "yep". I wish I'd written it down :(. But I hope that clears up anything about blind faith vs faith, and the rationality of it. I don't know a single Christian (or indeed, any theist) that has blind faith without sufficient evidence to back up that faith.
Dawkins states the belief in God is akin to belief in santa clause or the tooth fairy. To illustrate the fallacy of this argument, Alister asked how many people in the audience still believe in santa and the tooth fairy. He then took that further and asked how many people, before turning 18, didn't believe in santa, but now do. Clearly, it's a completely different kettle of fish.
Coming back to the study mentioned in the last heading, scientists are generally split on theism/atheism, so we can safely say it's outside the realm of science to deduce God's existence (or lack thereof). The next step is 1 of 2 possible courses of action - inference to best explanation, or empirical (best) fit. Simply put, the answer cannot come from science, so it must come from somewhere else. Where, though? Well, religion, philosophy and metaphysics
I can't remember where this fits in, but he also mentioned around this time that science answers the 'how' questions, and cannot provide answers for 'why'. Questions like "What is the meaning of life?" cannot be answered. Dawkins, and certainly other scientists, state that what science cannot explain, doesn't matter. So, the meaning of life doesn't matter... Just mull over that for a while.
God is a virus of the mind
This is fairly ludicrous, and it wasn't talked about much. But the basic idea was that religion is a virus of the mind, much the same that the plague is a virus of the body. It spreads to other people.
Like I said, not much time spent, so here's a quick list
- Real viruses are viewable - not so with religion. Dawkins is just hypothesizing
- Are all beliefs a virus of the mind? Or just some? What about the belief in no God?
Dr Alister said a bit about atheism being a 'faith' of sorts to, since no evidence points to a lack of God either. Which is where the last point in that list fits in. That's all I have to say on that point.
Religion impoverishes view of the universe
Dawkins states that theists have a drab view of the universe, and backs it up with several examples of religious people accepting a mundane creator, and quoting Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot":
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, , ‘this is better
than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said–grander, more subtle, more
elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead, they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a
little god, and I want him to stay that way.'
I can certainly sympathise with Carl Sagan - why do religions shy away from the
beauty and grandeur of what God created, being what the prophets said, and more!
I personally haven't met anyone who is like the theist in Carl Sagan's quote,
though I'm sure they exist. I think it's more of a personal each person
thing than a God thing. But anyway, there's 3 ways that a theist can enjoy nature:
Breathtaking moments: Those moments when you see an amazing sunset,
and it takes your breath away, and your heart misses a beat. Theists aren't
immune to enjoying it like this, just as noone is - religion doesn't stop that
appreciation (though it does stop the worship of a lovely sunset).
Mathematical Appreciation: Appreciation for the sheer mathematical
brilliance of how the world works. I can definitely relate to this, having
spent the greater part of this semester investigating fluid dynamics in only
a 2d system. It blows me away at how complicated it is, and only in 2d. This
isn't contrary at all to religion. Indeed, James Clerk Maxwell is just one example of
someone wanting to find out more about a phenomenon explicitly BECAUSE of his beliefs
Evidence of Creator: This one is unique to theists. We can
appreciate nature stuff on a whole new level, and that is because it points
towards the Creator. Or rather, bears witness to the creator - by finding
out more about nature, more attributes of the creator are realised.
Religion is the root of all evil
The final point and, really, the trump card of Dawkins is that religion is a bad thing.
It's the root of all evil, and only bad things come out of it. This is backed up
by numerous references of instances where religion has caused violence.
I'm not going to defend that (and nor did Dr. Alister) - Dawkins is absolutely right.
From crusades, to witch hunts, to the spanish inquisition, and much much more,
religion is the cause of a lot of pain in the world.
The question Alister posed was whether this is characteristic of religion, or if
it is of the fanatic? The answer is fairly obvious - while these bad things that
happened are a result of religion, it's definitely not typical. Dawkins doesn't
actually mention any good things that have come out of religion...such as, oh,
the abolishment of slave trading in the British empire, not to mention the
countless charities and...well, etc.
The problem with Dawkin's statement here is that it can immediately be turned on
its head. Atheism is the root of all evil. And this can be backed up by just as
many examples of evil coming as a direct result of atheism. I wrote down
"Soviet Union, 20th Century" in my notes here. Unfortunately, my history sucks,
and so too does my google skills, seemingly.
However, it's irrational to look at these 'bad eggs' and say "wow, atheism is the
root of evil'. That's just stupid, really :P...That wouldn't prove a point though,
would it? It's much more sensible to say that beliefs inhibit both good and bad
things. A result of our human nature, perhaps?
But (Dawkins says) that religion provides transcendant motivation. What does this
mean? Simply that fanatics can go 'God says to do this, and that trumps all'. There
is no authority higher than that of God. I would agree with this statement,
to a degree - I would add that it's a bit rash of one to blow themselves up because
of it, especially since that would be an act that's in direct conflics with, well,
a lot of teachings (being specific to Christians here, really).
Dawkins did not talk about Jesus much at all - probably because this blows his
whole argument of violence and religion out the window. Jesus one act that could
be considered violence is the temple/whip scene. There's no evidence the whip
was used against anyone (which doesn't mean that it wasn't - just that we can't
say whether it was or not), and he even sat down and made the whip before using it.
Hardly a rash decision.
Being that Jesus is God in the flesh, we can look at his violence free life and
see that violence is not God's nature. (caution: This is me now, not Alister)
I can tell the atheists are screaming
"what about the Old Testament?" and, yes, He's quite violent in that, but rightly
so. The (OT) dialogue was something like this:
God: Keep these commands, or these things will happen to you
People: Okie, sounds like a deal.
People go off and disagree
God: RARGH, I'M GOING TO KEEP MY END OF THE BARGAIN!
Fast forward a few thousand year
People: Look! God is EVIL!
(ok, back to the actual lecture now :p)
And just a quick thought provoker: If all traces of religion were to disappear
forever tomorrow, would that be the end of violence?
Moving on, Dawkins states that, in general, religion is a bad thing. It
has nothing but negative effects on many parts of people's life, such as
self esteem, career progression, family life, etc. I don't know how far he
gets into it, but the impression I get is that it has a negative impact on
ALL facets of life.
Alister first pointed out (and this is obvious) that pathalogical religions aren't
the norm. That is, religions that have a purpose to 'hurt' themselves or
But what about the effect that non-pathalogical religions have? A study was conducted
(again, sorry, no sources), which drew upon 100 other studies for its result.
The results were intriguing:
- 79 claimed that religion has a positive effect on people
- 20 claimed that religion has a mixed, or an uncertain effect on people
- 1 claimed that religion has a negative effect on people
Now, I'm not sure what exactly was being tested, but very very interesting
results. If Dawkins' statement was true, these numbers would be inverted.
It was concluded that Dawkins, in this book, cherry picked many examples to
prove his point. I'm uncertain at the moment whether the same can be said
about the lecturer's choice of examples - they were probably cherry picked
too. Hard to remove bias, I guess.
Also, there wasn't much in the book on positiveness of atheism. Only negatives
of religion. It's not exactly fair to downtrod other belief systems if the
same flaws exist in atheism, and even if they don't, there's plenty of merit
in religion which was nicely avoided.
Thirdly, it was stated that the majority of the book was criticised by atheists,
more so than by theists. So The God Delusion probably shouldn't be taken
seriously as the 'norm' thinking of atheists. Atheists are probably more reasonable
Finally, Alister shed some insight into Atheism. Although it has always been around,
it's only recently that its flared up. The reason for this is that Atheism
gains popularity when it criticises unpopular beliefs. I suppose "The God Delusion"
is proof of this?