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September 4, 2007

4

Humphrys on Dawkins – In God We Doubt

by quaesitor

John Humphrys, (in?)famous BBC bulldog journalist, has been working on a book that is about to come out any day – IN GOD WE DOUBT – drawing on all his recent research and lifelong struggles with belief and unbelief. He describes himself as a sincere agnostic and a flavour of the book was contained in his interesting article from the last Sunday Times. What is especially interesting is his take on the militant atheists (and he’s met a few – regular readers will remember his chairing of the debate between Profs Lewis Wolpert & William Lane Craig and the subsequent interview). He doesn’t have a lot of agreement with theists either – well, he’s an agnostic isn’t he (and his article on Lane Craig earlier in the year was disappointing as i said at the time)? But at least he does try to get into the mindset of the theist with a degree of sympathy – which, sad to say, is an attitude that is shamefully absent from the likes of Dawkins. (Incidentally, my brother’s found a fascinating video interchange between Woody Allen and Billy Graham, of all people, that Dawkins and many Christians could do well to learn from – i’ve placed them at the bottom of this post – they’re just great)

Here Humphrys has a great little list which speaks for itself:

But let me try to sum up the attitude of those militant atheists who seem to hold believers in contempt:

    1. Believers are mostly naive or stupid. Or, at least, they’re not as clever as atheists.
    2. The few clever ones are pathetic because they need a crutch to get them through life.
    3. They are also pathetic because they can’t accept the finality of death.
    4. They have been brainwashed into believing. There is no such thing as a “Christian child”, for instance – just a child whose parents have had her baptised.
    5. They have been bullied into believing.
    6. If we don’t wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed.
    7. Trust me: I’m an atheist. I make no apology if I have oversimplified their views with that little list: it’s what they do to believers all the time.

His riposte to each of these points is unassailable, I would have thought (although i know one or two creationists who might have a word or two to add, depending on how he interprets ‘creationist’, that is!):

So let’s answer each of those points:

    1. This is so clearly untrue it’s barely worth bothering with. Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling The God Delusion, was reduced to producing a “study” by Mensa that purported to show an inverse relationship between intelligence and belief. He also claimed that only a very few members of the Royal Society believe in a personal god. So what? Some believers are undoubtedly stupid (witness the creationists) but I’ve met one or two atheists I wouldn’t trust to change a lightbulb.
    2. Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible. It doesn’t prove anything about either.
    3. Maybe, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Count the number of atheists in the foxholes or the cancer wards.
    4. True, and many children reject it when they get older. But many others stay with it.
    5. This is also true in many cases but you can’t actually bully someone into believing – just into pretending to believe.
    6. Of course the mad mullahs are dangerous and extreme Islamism is a threat to be taken seriously. But we’ve survived monotheist religion for 4,000 years or so, and I can think of one or two other things that are a greater threat to civilisation.
    7. Why? For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable.

However, the thing with all this is that the militant atheists have had their day, as i’ve mentioned here before. That’s why they are ranting so much and pumping the bestseller lists with their tomes. People read them out of a peculiar fascination (I suspect) or to confirm their prejudices. But i really can’t see them convincing many people to change their minds. Their rhetoric and bile simply get in the way. Because what people are attracted these days to is precisely what John Humphrys advocates – doubt. That is the spirit of the age not belief (whether theistic or atheistic). Which of course presents plenty of challenges to both theists and atheists. So while i find myself agreeing with many of Humphrys’ points, i know that he would have 7 equally challenging responses for Christians as well. That is really where our challenge lies – and it is a tricky one, because i know full well that as a believer, i am riddled with doubts all the time. But then, that’s precisely why this blog is called Quaerentia – to evoke the theological classic phrase, faith seeking understanding (a phrase which, as it happens, one of Humphrys’ interviewees in his article completely mangles).

_____________

Here are the Woody Allen/Billy Graham exchanges – enjoy

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sep 4 2007

    I found Humphrys article sort of embarrassing.

    It’s very easy to just call a given atheist a fundamentalist or militant, because this is simply playing on a long-established trope and stereotype. But it’s ultimately intellectually lazy to do so, and that laziness is then reflected in the poverty of Humphrys’ arguments.

    If Humphrys thinks that atheist writers oversimplify the views of believers, then he could at least provide some evidence of this: instead he not only provides none, but he unapologetically oversimplifies the arguments of the atheists he’s talking about, and then refutes those. Admitting that you are attacking a straw man doesn’t make it any less silly of an exercise.

    Worse, it really seems like he managed to confuse two different meanings of the word “materialist”: a basic fallacy of equivocation. And the usual confusion about love: love is an _emotion_ and a _regard_ one has for others, not an objective fact or object for which a proof of existence is required. Trying to paint love as a form of faith in order to try to validate particular other beliefs in factual claims is to engage in incredibly sloppy argumentation.

    Atheism IS about doubt. The vast majority of non-believers are atheists because we don’t see any good reason or argument behind people’s arguments that belief is warranted. This is a position in the sense of a category we are in: the unconvinced, not any single philosophy or dogma we all share.

    Is Dawkins biting? Sure. But he’s biting because he is in the position of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Lots and lots of people love the emperor, and so ANYONE pointing this out is likely to be painted as meanspirited, no matter how unfailingly polite they are (and Dawkins, if you’ve ever seen him in a debate or discussion with a believer, is pretty darn polite and respectful of other people, just not willing to ooo and ahhh at beliefs and arguments that present themselves as profound, but ultimately are not very informative or convincing).

    Reply
  2. drfrank
    Sep 4 2007

    In response to the previous comment left by ‘Bad’ (though I couldn’t say whether he is or not):-

    I doubt Dawkins ‘is in the position of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes’. It would take a privileged position indeed (a God like position) to point this out. Dawkins is a human being with a partial perspective, like the rest of us. Just because many people think his perspective is privileged, is this is a fact? Dawkins may be polite in debate. But I don’t know of the debates he’s had with believers about their belief where he evidences a willingness to sustain a conversation indefinitely. Which is my understanding of tolerance.

    Reply
  3. Sep 5 2007

    It would take a privileged position indeed (a God like position) to point this out.

    Not at all. What he’s pointing at are arguments: things that have been claimed to be conclusive and important, but which he argues have huge flaws of reasoning and misrepresentation.

    Just because many people think his perspective is privileged, is this is a fact?

    I’m not sure where you are getting this “privileged” stuff from. When it comes to logic and evidence, no person is privileged in any sense.

    But I don’t know of the debates he’s had with believers about their belief where he evidences a willingness to sustain a conversation indefinitely.

    I’m not sure what you are talking about. Are you claiming that Woody Allen and Bill Graham are still in the studio discussing things even to this day?

    If not, then when has anyone declared an end to the conversation?

    Reply
  4. drfrank
    Sep 5 2007

    Bad, I interpret you to maintain that ‘logic and evidence’ tend to be objective, regardless of an observer; yet to my mind, they’re both humanly generated. Dawkins strikes me as adamant to discuss issues of religious belief on the basis of his logic, evidence, and rationality as if these were separate from him, an observer.

    Maybe my hunch is inaccurate but if accurate, then I, like a good few other people, take Dawkins’ perspective to be irresponsible. See
    http://rayison.blogspot.com/2007/05/fundamentalism-has-nothing-to-offer.html
    for example, or the article by Terry Eagleton, in which he writes:
    “(Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’.”
    — found at:
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html

    Reply

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