Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Debate about God's Existence Heats up in ole Alabama

There was a recent, and surprisingly civil, debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox (a mathematician) in Birmingham Ala. They are both Oxfordians. This is the first time Dawkins has ventured into the Bible Belt for a debate, a region he once dubbed "the country's reptilian brain" as opposed to the North and east and west coasts which he has dubbed the country's "cerebral cortex". No prejudices reflected there! Here is a link to a Wall Street Journal review article on the debate which James Foster kindly sent me.

For those interested in two recent good rebuttals to the fulminations of Dawkins see: 1) Alistair and Coleen McGrath's The Dawkin's Delusion (IVP); and just released, the marvelous story of how one of the world's most famous atheists Anthony Flew became a theist-- "There is A God-- How the World's Most Famous Atheist Changed his Mind" (Harper Collins). Francis Collins says this book will infuriate the fundamentalist atheists.

What I would remind folks on either side of the debate is that atheism is a religious point of view, not a scientific one. Why? Because it requires a certain kind of faith on the part of a mortal who is not omniscient to believe adamantly or event to pretend to know that there is no God, and to think that the evidence is so overwhelming that the counter evidence can be dismissed as non-scientific, insubstantial, purely subjective etc. This is indeed a form of fundamentalism, like various other sorts of fundamentalisms since there IS evidence, indeed strong evidence that a reasonable person could count as for the existence of God, including empirical evidence. Indeed, the vast, vast majority of human beings in all ages, intelligent or otherwise, have always thought that the evidence as we have it at least favors the existence of God. Atheism has always been a tiny minority view point, and continues to be such. It's just that some atheists have become more high profile and more provocative in the last ten years and they are getting more of a hearing than they did in the past.

But I will not spoil the reading of these two good books. They speak for themselves.


Leslie said...

I've been listening to this debate recently, though I'm not through it quite yet. I have listened to McGrath and Dawkins talk several times though and it has usually been quite inspiring as a Christian, to see someone stand up to Dawkin's fundamentalist atheism in an intelligent way.

But what you say here is true - atheism, particularly the new atheism we see today, is very much a faith though such atheists will fight this fact tooth and nail. While they are the minority, it still concerns me when I hear some very vocal atheists talking about religion as a mental disease or disorder. It's obviously not true, but the truth has rarely stopped the ignorant and conceited from doing extreme things.

I'm currently reading Moreland's "Scaling the Secular City" and have been very pleased so far with how he defends Christianity from all sides. I still need to read "The God Delusion" after which I suppose I will need to read "The Dawkins Delusion." :) Too many books and so little time!

Unknown said...

the most interesting part of the Lennox/Dawkins "debate" (however we wish to describe the event) was when Lennox was giving Dawkins the working definition that we Christians have for faith. Lennox drew up on the example of a marriage and how he has faith in his wife. Dawkins dismissed it by simply saying "that isn't what faith is" (paraphrase, at least).

i guess we can call Dawkins argument a strawman.

Sarah said...

You bring up some good points, Dr. Witherington. I actually spent a good portion of last semester thinking through the sorts of issues that arise from the science and theology debate (for a pneumatology and nature seminar), and this sort of question, perhaps, interested me the most.

Or rather, amazed me the most, haha, if only because it strikes me as being one of the more effective illustrators of how truly limited scientific positivism can be. Truly, as much as some people (atheists and theists alike) would like to dichotomize science and theology into their own respective corners, a closer look reveals that, clearly, both are both indispensable constituents of any given worldview.

John Polkinghorne actually makes a great point in his book, 'Science and Theology' where, after citing Richard Dawkin's "scientific" claim that creation is nothing more than a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he points out that Dawkins has unwittingly made an almost purely theological claim, seeing as how he is interpreting otherwise neutral data in terms of his presupposed belief in the impossibility of God’s existence.

It would seem, then, that rather than undercutting from the importance of establishing a sound theological groundwork for scientific endeavor, the apparent (albeit misguided) theological basis of his conclusions actually reiterates the interdependency of each upon the other. Moreover, that there are indeed evolutionary biologists who presuppose the existence of God and, in effect, are successful in interpreting the data according to this belief, stands as solid proof of this point.

Clearly, then, while science has done wonders in enabling astronomers to peer into galaxies billions of miles away, to discover and observe the blue supergiant explosions whereby the periodic table came into existence (hence making life possible), its hands are tied when it comes to shedding insight on how such a universe came into existence in the first place. I guess that is where theology has to step in.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for these reflections Sarah I think you are on the right track. The NT suggests in fact that God sustains creation in existence moment by moment, so actually theology comes into it at all points frankly.

Ben W.

Sarah said...

Very true; of course, that idea goes hand in hand with the need of both theologians and scientists to stop dichotomizing the two, and allow them to inform and improve upon one another, respectively.

Anonymous said...

Oxonians and Joanna, not "Oxfordians" and "Colleen." Why not make these simple corrections?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Brother Presbyterian:

You are only partially correct. In the first place almost no one in America knows what an Oxonian is, and so the term Oxfordian has often been substituted and rightly so. In the second place Alistair's wife goes by Colleen I believe. Nevertheless, I appreciate the corrections. We must all go on to perfection :)


Alan said...

Is it Alister or Alistair, or does it matter?

Ben Witherington said...

It is indeed Alister

Jeff Cate said...

I should point out that Al Mohler probably got a kick out of the WSJ article since it refers to him erroneously as a "former" seminary president.