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Posts from the ‘Richard Dawkins’ Category


60-second adventures in religion

I can’t remember who told me about these, but they’re fab. The Open University Religious Studies is obviously plugging its wares – but fair enough. The results are wonderful and very useable in all kinds of places I suspect – wryly humoured animation with the added bonus is the wonderfully-suited satirical voice of David Mitchell. Read more »


The Loser Letters: impish wit and a satirical dissection of atheism

Mary Eberstadt has a wonderful turn of phrase and an impish wit, which are used to devastating effect in her 2010 book The Loser Letters. She boldly takes on the mantle of C S Lewis’ Screwtape, but instead of infiltrating the murky world of Wormwood’s diabolical apprenticeship, she joins the New Atheists in their quest to crush theism. So she writes 10 open letters, in the persona of A.F.Christian (i.e. ‘a former Christian’), to some of the leading lights of the movement like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. With great relish she writes to advise ‘The Brights’ (atheists) on how better to defeat ‘The Dulls’ (Christians), and above all to undermine belief in ‘The Loser’ (God). At times, the result is laugh-out-loud funny. Read more »


Dawkins, ‘Pragmamorphism’ and the scientific vandalism of executing Saddam

When a fellow-scientist brands Richard Dawkins naïve you sit up and notice. But that’s exactly what Emanuel Derman has done. I didn’t know anything about Derman before, but it seems that he has rather an intimidating CV: he is a theoretical physicist, economist AND successful businessman originally from South Africa. All of which gives him a rather unique angle on a topic to which I’ve frequently returned on Q: the nature of being human (e.g.see Fritz Kahn’s Industrial Palace or the Nothing Buttery Rant). Read more »


Richard Dawkins’ Faith-Free School – spot the inconsistency…

The UK’s new Coalition government has recently announced plans to allow for so-called Free Schools. This means that charities and faith groups will be allowed to set up schools within the state sector and funded by the Dept of Education, but which will be free from certain state controls. Of course, there have been faith schools for decades (and of course, until the 2nd World War, the vast majority of schools in this country were set up by the Church of England). But this is certainly a new departure, but consistent with the government’s policy of decentralisation and their philosophy of the state.

So up pops the country’s favourite atheist, Richard Dawkins. He had this to say in an interview with Mumsnet (as reported in yesterday’s Telegraph):

Thank you for suggesting that I should start an atheist free school. I like the idea very much, although I would prefer to call it a free-thinking free school.

I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded.

If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists.

I would also teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without any bias towards particular religions, and including historically important but dead religions, such as those of ancient Greece and the Norse gods, if only because these, like the Abrahamic scriptures, are important for understanding English literature and European history.”

In reply to another questioner, Prof Dawkins said: “The Bible should be taught, but emphatically not as reality. It is fiction, myth, poetry, anything but reality. As such it needs to be taught because it underlies so much of our literature and our culture.”

He also disclosed that he plans to make a documentary about “the present education system and the role faith plays within it”.

Well, well, well. He’s actually advocating a Faith-Free school. I wonder if you can spot the glaring inconsistencies in what he’s said.

On a separate note, it’s interesting that he still wants people to be taught the bible, for similar reasons to Andrew Motion (as mentioned yesterday).


Rage, God and Brahms’ 4th Symphony

It’s been a bit of an experiment – but as part of our contribution to Passion 4 Life events at All Souls, 2 friends (pianists extraordinaire, Craig Hudson & Robin Stephenson) and I have put on a little evening’s package for people to hold in their homes. We’ve called it a Brahms Soirée, and the idea is that Craig & Robin play Brahms’ 4th Symphony arranged for 4 hands on 1 piano, and I give a short talk, introducing the piece and throwing out a few provocations to think about during the performance. We had our first last night, and we’re going to repeat it in one or two other places.

Never quite done a talk like this – so an experiment, as I say. But here it is, in case it is of interest. Also, in case you want to get a recording of it, here are the suggestions from Radio 3’s Building a Library (this symphony is at the bottom of the page).


Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) was one of the greats – his name has gone down in music history as one of the 3 B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – giants whose presence is impossible to ignore. Another thing these 3 men all had in common was that they were not necessarily easy to get on with. That’s often the way with geniuses. Karl Goldmark was a composer friend who said this:

Brahms was built on big lines and was absolutely truthful. He could not tell even the ordinary conventional fib. … But he was never accustomed to… holding his tongue. If he disliked anything he would say so frankly. This bluntness, combined with his rough manner, frequently made him appear very harsh. One evening, Brahms, on taking leave of his hostess at a party, said, ‘Kindly excuse me if by chance I have forgotten to offend one of your guests.’

At least he had a degree of self-awareness. But faults often have their positive flip sides – and Brahms equally faced life’s realities very truthfully and honestly. So one of the themes we’ll explore is the emotional honesty of his music.

The Fourth Symphony was published in 1885, and bar a concerto and a number of chamber pieces, it was his final large scale work. He was 52, and would live another 12 years. But the question I’m interested in is what is he communicating? For you don’t write a 40 minute piece of music unless you have something to say – even if it is hard to express it well in words. Well, it is not a word we use very much – but I want to suggest it is the word ‘Rage’.

Now, I lived and worked for 4 years in Kampala in Uganda before moving back to London in 2005 – I can tell you that on the roads of Kampala I discovered depths of road rage that I never knew I had. But that is not the rage we’re dealing with here. No – I’m thinking about the rage that seems to lie at the heart of the Fourth Symphony – which is a surprise when we remember that this is Brahms’ last really grand statement. Its rage has been noted by one or two writers – and as I’ve listened to it many times in the last few months, it comes across clearly.

So what provoked this rage? Now it’s notoriously difficult to pin down the emotional impact of any music, let alone something as monumental as a symphony. But there are some things to say. And I just wonder if we can hear resonances with something written almost 70 years later by the great welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. Written just 2 years before he died, Thomas raged against our mortality. Death: such an invasion, such an interruption, such an offence.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But isn’t this just the way it is? That’s life – life ends. Does that explain the symphony’s rage? Well, it may well be part of it – but I think there’s more. For it’s not constantly full of rage – it plumbs the depths of emotion, from the jubilant through the melancholic and the tragic to the downright furious. But what is significant, is that the 1st and 4th movements (the bookends, if you like) both conclude with a mood that is hard to hear as anything but fury. And that is significant – that is what he leaves us with, his last grand statement.

The moods in the middle are therefore like a struggle to overcome this sentiment, trying to find a resolution. But the rage wins out, and the last minutes of the 4th movement are overwhelming. One writer described the climax of the 4th movement as one of Brahms’ “most monumental fits of rage”. How do we get there?

1: Allegro non troppo

The opening doesn’t waste time – from the first bar we’re immersed in a sense of melancholy, a gentle elegy – but we’re not yet sure why. It is an achingly beautiful introduction – and there is just the hint of the tragedy to come. But the movement is long – around 12 or 13 minutes – and complex. There are surprises aplenty, there are joys and triumphs. But it’s as if we can’t escape the inevitable – by its conclusion, all the musical threads have come together, in a tragic, minor key. Yet we know there’s more (it’s only the 1st movement of 4 after all) – there’s a sense of something unresolved. What’s coming next? This is what one critic said:

We naturally crave an emotional resolution to what we have just heard. The three remaining parts of the symphony can thus be seen as different reactions to the events unfolding in the first movement. (Hurwitz, Brahms’ Symphonies, Continuum, p133)

2: Andante Moderato

This is slow, intense, and in fact, almost as long as the first. It contains rhythmical fanfares in the horns but also wonderfully rich, lyrical melodies, which the strings get to really milk for all they’re worth. I’m sure imagining all this won’t be a problem in Craig and Robin’s hands!

There is something pastoral, something almost fairy-tale about it. The fanfares are like archetypal calls of huntsmen in Viennese forests and the main theme seems to have echoes of folk music – so could this be a flight from the agonies of the first movement to the idylls of the countryside? Could it be escapism? The melody undergoes a number of variations, as if Brahms is holding onto the experience, achingly not wanting to leave. But he can’t stop – there is a relentlessness too here, as we’re propelled onto the climax, as intense as the first movement’s climax is tragic. Is this one possible response to the tragedy? To escape for the idyllic and pastoral, in the hope it will go away?

3: Allegro giocoso – Poco meno presto – Tempo 1

This is fast – and is even marked ‘giocoso’ meaning cheerful or jolly. Which is quite a surprise after what we’ve just heard. Yet more is going on. The joy feels a bit contrived – almost manic. It is a bit like an emotionally volatile person who is on a real high, a bit hyper. For their friends, there’s a relief that they’re out of the dumps, perhaps; but also a bit of wariness about what’s really going on underneath.

The 3rd movement is a bit of a barnstormer, fun, brilliant and exciting. But what is Brahms doing here? Is it a sense of trying to make the best of a bad job? I remember as a child going on long car journeys. And if the traffic was bad or whatever, and we were all feeling grim, my mother would do the honourable parent thing and say ‘let’s play a game’. Let’s do something fun – just to make it all go away. But of course, you still feel car sick, the traffic is still heavy, and you’re still on the road to that aged aunt you didn’t want to stay with in the first place.

The jollity of the 3rd movement still seems contrived and is haunted by dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

4: Allegro energico e passionato – Piu allegro

So we come at last to the glorious 4th- it is an overwhelming statement. And it is driven forward by the fact that it is a passacaglia – an Italian word derived from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street). This means that a recurring bass line holds it all together. Sometimes you might not be aware of it but it keeps coming back, like the relentlessness of fate, the inescapability of our mortality. It’s as if in the 2nd movement we tried to avoid it through escapism; in the 3rd through enforced jollity. But we can’t.

The bass line recurs with variations over the top, displaying a range of emotions – fear, anxiety, bravado. For instance, listen out for the beautiful quiet section before the momentum builds and builds until it can’t be contained. The rage overwhelms and rushes to form the mighty climax of the whole symphony.

Of course, it’s pure speculation as to what caused Brahms’ rage. Some have tried. But let me put it like this: if some aspects of our world didn’t cause you rage then I’d question your humanity: like earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, the corruption and dictatorships of Zimbabwe or Burma, the horrors of child abuse or human trafficking and so on. They provoke deep rage. They must!

But what do we do with that? Or more to the point, where do we take it? Brahms’ great friend Antonin Dvorak was a man of religious faith, and he sometimes despaired at Brahms’ total agnosticism. Dvorak said of him: “Such a man, such a soul – and he doesn’t believe in anything, he doesn’t believe in anything!”

But Brahms’ rage against fate, against our mortality, against human suffering – whatever it is, persisted. If there is no God, what do we do? Well our friend Richard Dawkins puts it starkly:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt. We cannot find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good; nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music. (‘The Evolution of the Darwin Man’, publ. in 2000 in The Sydney Morning Herald.)

Well, I don’t know what Brahms would have made of that – but he certainly shows no resignation to the music of the cosmos – his stand is one of resistance, and enraged resistance at that. Still – there is an inescapable logic to Dawkins. And if true, it renders even our rage futile.

But let me finish with a final thought – because I would argue that it is only if there IS a God that suffering is allowed to be a problem, or rather a question we can ask. Without a God, there is no one to ask. And the wonder of the Christian message is that there is a God to ask. And he does not give glib answers or pat solutions. I lived for a number of years in Africa – and I struggled to understand a lot of the agonies, especially as a Christian. But I do know this: the Christian God is one who knows first hand what this is about. His response was to come and get his hands dirty, to become one of us and to suffer the worst of us – at the cross. He is a God who knows – and who promises one day to wipe away every tear and every sorrow.

That is why I what to finish by referring to Edward Shillito’s famous poem Jesus of the Scars – he was a Christian pastor who had done his time years in the trenches of the 1st world war. The only thing that helped him through it was the God who was weak, who stumbled to his throne, who suffered wounds – Jesus of the scars, the only God to have been wounded thus.

Jesus of the Scars

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars we claim Thy grace.

If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know today what wounds are; have no fear;
Show us Thy Scars; we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Rev Edward Shillito (1872-1948) (Quoted in John Stott, Cross of Christ, p337)

You see, we don’t have to end where Brahms 4th does – we don’t have to be left flailing in our doubt and confusion. Because of Christ, the answer to our rage is not the escapism of the 2nd movement or the enforced jollity of the 3rd. Instead it is by coming to the God who knows us and loves us, and above all gets angry at the same things too – how could he not? And more than that, he comes to do something about it – first at the cross, and finally at the end of it all. As someone once brilliantly put it, the cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in a world such as ours (P T Forsyth, quoted in Stott p336). But what I love about this symphony is that it sweeps us up in these sorts of emotions and therefore the underlying questions. I hope it does that for you too.

Final thought – we might never have had this symphony. The conductor Hans von Bülow reproached Brahms for sending the manuscript of the Fourth Symphony, of which no copy existed, as an ordinary postal packet, not even registered.  “What would we have done had the packet gone astray?” The composer answered: “In that case, I would have had to write the symphony anew.” Thank goodness the postman did his stuff!


This time, I’m with Dawkins

One of the RSS feeds I follow is from a provocative little site called – and they never fail to come up with the most irritating and wretched examples of religious people doing really stupid things. Occasionally the site unfairly lays into religious people doing pretty sensible and reasonable things – but that doesn’t make much of a story for them, as one can probably imagine. Anyway, the site is reporting from the sharp end of the (mainly) American culture wars.

I wasn’t expecting great things from this little encounter – after all, Bill O’Reilly does have a certain reputation… But look at this and take notes… on how NOT to do it.

On this one, I was with Dawkins all the way… I mean honestly – it has it all: name-calling, preventing rational discussion, interruption, absurd and incoherent arguments… I’m impressed at how Dawkins managed (mostly) to keep his cool.

Far better, if you’re interested is the DVD of The God Delusion Debate between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins, both Oxford professors. Intelligent, respectful and challenging (despite the frustrations of the format). You can get it through the Ravi Zacharias Trust store for only £9.


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 13 (October 2009)

EN72damngoodworkswebSacred Treasure

Quentin Blake Cambridge

Topical Treasure

  • 70 years on from the start of the 2WW – here are some remarkable photos of Normandy then and now.
  • Interesting effect of photo-editing: NYTimes & Cheney in the kitchen.
  • The irrepressible and ingenious Quentin Blake has done a panoramic cartoon history of Cambridge University, in celebration of its 800th anniversary; and it’s now on display at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Click the image and watch the slideshow…

Quirky Treasure

  • This is scary: a map of every McDonalds in the USA:

  • Love this: Inflatable street art from New York (inevitably)

UK’s 1st Atheist camp begins: a bastion of rigourous thinking?

Well, having had a well-plugged launch a few weeks back, the Camp Quest atheist camp has started. They’re having a ball, it seems.

Sam Klein, organiser (c/o Daily Mail)

Well of course they are – kids’ activity holidays have to work hard not to be. Camping and canoeing etc – a right laugh. And the UK Camp Quest is a spin-off from an American equivalent that’s been running for a few years already. According to the camp director, Sam Klein (right) they are:

trying to get the kids involved in philosophical thinking but in a way they don’t realise they’re doing it

Hmmm. They do all the things you’d have on a Christian camp (singing – Lennon’s Imagine instead of Kendrick) games, activities talks and discussion groups, etc. The main difference is that it’s designed to get people thinking.

One parent said:

Anything that can teach the children ways of thinking critically, ways of examining arguments, and recognising logical fallacies and trying to determine for themselves what they believe is true, then I think that’s a positive thing.

What particularly stuck me was the so-called centrepiece of the camp, namely the:

search for two invisible unicorns. The unicorns cannot be seen or heard, tasted, smelt or touched, they cannot escape from the camp and they eat nothing. The only proof of their existence is contained in an ancient book handed down over “countless generations”. A prize – a £10 note signed by Professor Richard Dawkins – is offered to any child who can disprove the existence of the unicorns.

Of course, there are important critical thinking skills to be learned from that. And I’m certainly not advocating an anti-rationalist approach; merely uncomfortable with the atheistic reductionist-rationalist approach. But it’s not hard at all to see where that little game is heading. Unicorns… God… Flying Spaghetti Monster… Hmmm… all as spurious, irrational and ridiculous as each other. Because obviously, if only the theist gave it some SERIOUS thought, he or she would reject such an absurd notion immediately.

Now, it’s a nice line on Sam’s t-shirt – and I have to confess that hers is a phrase that I use more often than not. The funny thing is that I find myself wanting to say it to proponents of scientific materialism. As a result of their rampant reductionism, I have to reply, “yes, but…”. Ironic, really.

The interesting thing is to see what happened to the son of the founder of Camp Quest in the USA. Not that anyone’s into point-scoring or anything. It’s just that it’s hard to kick against the goads.

But hey – I’m just quoting journalistic accounts and so may well have completely misunderstood and unnecessarily maligned them…


St Augustine on Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’? Read on…

Botticelli - St AugustineAlister McGrath is at his best (IMHO) when engaging with debates of science and religion. After all, he’s a scholar of both. And he’s got a really helpful and timely piece in this month’s CT on Augustine’s Origin of the Species. Augustine was of course one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Full stop. And he was an African. Which endears him to me even more. And in these days of militant scientific materialism and neo-Darwinist thinking, it is refreshing at least to find that someone from the ancient past who as something to contribute to contemporary debates.

Obviously, Augustine won’t help anyone engage with the specifics of  Charles Darwin’s arguments per se but as McGrath says in his conclusion, he does open up the possibility of a freedom within the interpretative bounds of handling Genesis well.

So does Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis help us engage with the great questions raised by Darwin? Let’s be clear that Augustine does not answer these questions for us. But he does help us see that the real issue here is not the authority of the Bible, but its right interpretation. In addition, he offers us a classic way of thinking about the Creation that might illuminate some contemporary debates.

On this issue, Augustine is neither liberal nor accommodationist, but deeply biblical, both in substance and intention. While his approach hardly represents the last word, it needs to be on the table.

We need patient, generous, and gracious reflection on these big issues. Augustine of Hippo can help us get started.

What is important is the possibility Augustine gives us in how to handle Genesis 1-2 in particular, without either being enslaved to the scientific worldviews of the day, or ignoring them as inevitably irrelevant. Too many interpreters fall into one or other of these 2 traps. And in McGrath’s words, Augustine was simply concerned ‘to let Scripture speak for itself’. Can’t say fairer than that.

Image: Botticelli’s wonderful take on St Augustine


A N Wilson changes his Easter tune!

I was a green and callow undergraduate in 1992 – present at a debate between A N Wilson (who’d recently produced his iconoclastic hatchet job, Jesus) and Anthony Harvey, who’d given the Bampton Lectures and subsequently written Jesus & The Constraints of History. It’s etched on my memory, not least because it was so frustrating to listen to Wilson rip into the historical record of Jesus; but mainly because it was the first time I’d ever spoken out in a public event. Wilson’s main contention (as I remember), in common with countless theologians, was that Paul was the one who forged what we would recognise today as Christianity. So i put my hand in the air, and found myself asking why Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the message of the Cross and Resurrection as something that he himself had received before passing them onto others (1 Cor 15:3-8). Well, it received the scorn it didn’t deserve, although I seem to remember Harvey saying something in its defence.

So I nearly fell of my breakfast chair on Saturday when my mother passed her copy of the Daily Mail (I don’t read it myself, note), that Wilson has changed. Quite radically in fact. Al Mohler noted something of his honesty and openness 2 years ago. But now, Wilson’s gone even further. He opened his article, provocatively entitled Religion of Hatred, (to which my immedate assumption was, “oh no, here we go again”), by describing a Palm Sunday procession that he took part in last week, in London. He’s not unaware of the shock this would be to many:

For much of my life, I, too, have been one of those who did not believe. It was in my young manhood that I began to wonder how much of the Easter story I accepted, and in my 30s I lost any religious belief whatsoever. Like many people who lost faith, I felt anger with myself for having been ‘conned’ by such a story. I began to rail against Christianity, and wrote a book, entitled Jesus, which endeavoured to establish that he had been no more than a messianic prophet who had well and truly failed, and died.

But he’s changed now. And he has turned his gaze against ‘irrational’ haters of religion, like Hitchens, Dawkins and Polly Toynbee. These, with countless others, are now the preachers of a Religion of Hatred.

For ten or 15 of my middle years, I, too, was one of the mockers. But, as time passed, I found myself going back to church, although at first only as a fellow traveller with the believers, not as one who shared the faith that Jesus had truly risen from the grave. Some time over the past five or six years – I could not tell you exactly when – I found that I had changed. When I took part in the procession last Sunday and heard the Gospel being chanted, I assented to it with complete simplicity. 

The change was brought about by a number of factors. But one was that he refused to be cowed by the heat and vitriol of the new atheists. Then there’s this:

But there is more to it than that. My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die. The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people’s lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings. Every inner prompting of conscience, every glimmering sense of beauty, every response we make to music, every experience we have of love – whether of physical love, sexual love, family love or the love of friends – and every experience of bereavement, reminds us of this fact about ourselves.

The historicity of the resurrection lies at the heart of his confidence:

Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic. Nor is it irrational. On the contrary, it meets our reason and our hearts together, for it addresses the whole person. In the past, I have questioned its veracity and suggested that it should not be taken literally. But the more I read the Easter story, the better it seems to fit and apply to the human condition. That, too, is why I now believe in it. Easter confronts us with a historical event set in time. We are faced with a story of an empty tomb, of a small group of men and women who were at one stage hiding for their lives and at the next were brave enough to face the full judicial persecution of the Roman Empire and proclaim their belief in a risen Christ. Historians of Roman and Jewish law have argued at length about the details of Jesus’s trial – and just how historical the Gospel accounts are. Anyone who believes in the truth must heed the fine points that such scholars unearth. But at this distance of time, there is never going to be historical evidence one way or the other that could dissolve or sustain faith.

Read the whole article – it’s fascinating. Amazing to read it in a national newspaper. And it indicates that, in common with so many, he’d before been protesting just that little bit too much.


Resurrection Bullets – a few thoughts for Easter 09

To coincide with EA’s Slipstream co-ordinated blogathon for Easter, here are a few random bullets on Jesus’ Resurrection. And because i feel in the mood for some alliteration, here is some alliteration…

The attractions of accepting it

One could mention a zillion things – but here a few of the big ones:

  • JESUS: Jesus is who he claimed to be – it’s one thing to claim to be sent from God (anyone can do that, as history has proved); it’s quite another to predict the circumstances of one’s death AND then resurrection (cf. Mark 8:34-38, 9:31, 10:32-34). By the same token, it endorses his fulfilment of OT expectation (cf. 1 Cor 15:4)
  • DEATH: Death is not the end – he has beaten death at its own game. Therefore he goes through death in order, for example, to prepare a place in the Father’s house for his people. (John 14:1-6)
  • FALL: The serpent will be crushed (cf. Gen 3:15, Rom 16:20, Rev 20:10) so that the effects of the fall are completely reversed. That is why Rev 21-22 speaks of a heavenly garden city in Jerusalem where there will be eternal access to the Tree of Life (Rev 22:1-5)
  • RELIGION: Because of the resurrection, we discover that physical temples and religious shrines are no longer necessary. Jesus IS the Temple – i.e. the meeting place with God. The resurrection endorses his credentials as the greatest mediating point between God and humanity. (cf. John 2:19 & Acts 17:24-25)
  • JUSTICE: The world is not hopeless because evil doesn’t get away with murder. There will be a reckoning, and that is profoundly GOOD news. See Paul’s sermon in Acts 17, where he argues that the resurrection demonstrates ultimate authority and right to be the judge. (cf. Acts 17:31)
  • TRAILS BLAZED: Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection, a metaphor from the world of farming and harvests. The firstfruits indicates the quality of the rest of the year’s crop – and would be dedicated to God. Jesus is the first, the trailblazer, the pioneer – and all who follow and trust in him, will revel in the fact of being part of the great resurrection harvest. (1 Cor 15:20, 23)
  • GRIEF: The resurrection doesn’t remove human grief – it is only the super-spiritual who pretend that it does. Paul for one would have been deeply affected had his dear friend, the Philippian Epaphroditus, have died (cf. Phil 2:27). But what the resurrection does do is profoundly to CHANGE grief for those who have died in the Lord – hence his encouragements to the Thessalonian Christians (cf. 1 Thes 4:13).

This is a poem which Garry Williams quoted this week at New Word Alive 2 in his seminar on the English Puritan emigrant to America, Anne Bradstreet. (Tim Chester blogged the seminar). She wrote a number of remarkable poems. This one was written after her 3 year old granddaughter had died:

With troubled heart and trembling hand I write,
The Heavens have chang’d to sorrow my delight.
How oft with disappointment have I met,
When I on fading things my hopes have set?…
Farewel dear child, thou ne’re shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Mean time my throbbing heart’s chear’d up with this
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.

The barriers to believing it

  • Scientific Materialism: the supernatural simply doesn’t exist. Remember Dawkins damning, patronising remarks at the close of his debate with John Lennox (after Lennox had hurriedly concluded with his confidence in God on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection):

Yes, well that concluding bit rather gives the game away, doesn’t it? All that stuff about science and physics, and the complications of physics and things, what it really comes down to is the resurrection of Jesus. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox – and it’s impressive and we are interested in the argument about multiverses and things, and then having produced some sort of a case for a deistic god perhaps, some god that the great physicist who adjusted the laws and constants of the universe – that’s all very grand and wonderful, and then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.

  • Deism: there is a divine creator, but he’s moved on. He has little or nothing to do with his universe now, and certainly wouldn’t have any interest in intervening within it.
  • Presumption: dead people don’t rise therefore Jesus didn’t rise.
  • Platonism (of sorts): the material world is evil and the spiritual is, well, spiritual. So Jesus couldn’t have risen with a heavenly body because why would God want to have a body anyway? Though of course, that would probably have ruled out the Incarnation as well…

The consequences of the con

But just suppose that the resurrection DIDN’T happen. Suppose it’s all one big con. Where would we be without the resurrection of Jesus? Well, the interesting thing is that the Apostle Paul was himself acutely aware of the fall-out if the resurrection was not true. He was quite upfront about it – for the entire Christian gospel is at stake here. He spells out a number of consequences in 1 Corinthians 15: 12-18 (for fun, here adapted from Eugene Peterson’s The Message), namely:

  • Our message (of the resurrection) is essentially just a matter of smoke and mirrors
  • We (the messengers of that resurrection) are ourselves just groping in the dark, lost and hopeless.
  • We Christians are a pretty sorry lot because all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years but not for eternity. We might enjoy the delusion of being forgiven but we really are not.

But Paul didn’t think it was a con – and nor do I. At the very least, there is evidence the points in this direction.

The data beyond debate

Yes, I realise that was a pretty contrived heading – it’s pretty late as I write this. And indeed, loads of different folks spell out the evidence for the resurrection. It did happen in history. Here are the main bullet points. For detail, check out Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? And N T Wright’s Who Was Jesus?

  • The Cross: perhaps he didn’t die or just swooned? But then, crucifixion was pretty barbaric and Roman soldiers would be unlikely to make mistakes in doing their duty. What motive could they possibly have for letting him be substituted or endure only half-measures?
  • The Empty Tomb: otherwise, it would been a synch for the Roman/Jewish authorities to have produced the body. It was the very thing they most feared (hence what was probably the only guarded tomb in Jerusalem!) (cf. Matt 28:11-15). It couldn’t have been the wrong tomb (body would have been produced; right tomb would have been quickly identified) Why else was no tomb ever venerated by anybody?
  • The Appearances:  incl 500+ at one time (1Cor 15:6) – therefore, can’t be hallucinatory? If it had been, it would still require some sort of ‘supernatural’ explanation.
  • The Early Church: for the church to have come into existence out of the embers of the crushed and fearful faith of the first disciples (cf. John 20:19-23),  something must have happened! How else did they endure persecution? Why else change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?

Dawkins is now saying more than ‘probably not’

Well, well, well. Melanie Phillips has written an excellent article in this week’s Spectator (nicely called ‘Is Richard Dawkins Still Evolving?’), having attended the second Dawkins/Lennox debate earlier this week. This was quite a remarkable event in that Dawkins never normally allows himself to get into debates with Christians – but here he is doing it with a fellow Oxford scientist for the second time, not in the Bible belt like last year, but on home turf, in Oxford Town Hall.

I’ve not heard or seen recordings of the debate, and have only so far read Phillips’ reflections. But according to her, there are some startling revelations:

  • Dawkins stated (at the start of the Oxford debate with Lennox):

A serious case could be made for a deistic God.

  • Well, that’s interesting. I’m not sure that is quite the same thing as atheism (or have I missed something?). Or is that also simply another ‘God delusion’, just like garden fairies or The Flying Spaghetti Monster? This presumably now puts him in the ranks of many of the greats who founded the Royal Society and The United States – which is a very different community to belong to from the one lays claim to. As Phillips points out, this rather undermines his previous assertion that:
…all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection…Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.
  • Dawkins ‘vehemently denied’ that he had changed his mind. But Phillips came back to him with a number of challenges, including a telling exchange on creation out of nothing, and some key points about using historical evidence. But as she says:
Even more jaw-droppingly, Dawkins told me that, rather than believing in God, he was more receptive to the theory that life on earth had indeed been created by a governing intelligence – but one which had resided on another planet. Leave aside the question of where that extra-terrestrial intelligence had itself come from, is it not remarkable that the arch-apostle of reason finds the concept of God more unlikely as an explanation of the universe than the existence and plenipotentiary power of extra-terrestrial little green men?
It is a brilliant article and worth reading in full…

don’t you just love the word ‘probably’

It’s all a bit of a gag, i think. The bloggers have blogged and columnists columned (eg Ariane Sherine, whose idea it was and Ruth Gledhill). And Richard Dawkins is doubling the money raised. Good for them, I say.
But what i love is the use of the word ‘probably’.

Carlsberg had made it their very own (HT ads of the world):

It sounds so reasonable and humble. But it is a façade. Carlsberg were only saying probably because they have to. After all, how do you PROVE that Carlsberg is the best lager in the world. But despite their tongues being firmly rooted in their cheeks, of course they believe it is. Which is fine.

So the bendy-buses are to parade atheism, after the Christians parade the Christmas story. And that’s great. I have no problem with anyone advertising their worldviews on buses. That’s what democracy and free speech are all about. I just love the use of the word ‘probably’. Because it’s quite hard to enjoy life in this way, when there is the scintilla of doubt…


ELF08 – The Dawkins-Lennox Debate Revisited

Once again, John Lennox has been present at the ELF – and he has been talking about (and showing a video of) the debate he had last October with Richard Dawkins in Birmingham, Alabama (see Quaerentia passim – but esp here) – what was interesting was that the format was agreed by both men – but the frustration they both felt with it was caused by the fact that the radio broadcasters were pressurizing them time-wise. That certainly explains the sense of it being truncated at the end.

  • Watch the whole debate online in low-res video – – you can also buy CDs and DVDs of the debate
  • Despite the fact Richard Dawkins & John Lennox have both worked in Oxford for years, they had never met before. But since the debate, they have seemed happy to work together again. So they have met subsequently and recorded an hour-long follow-up conversation. This will soon be broadcast on the radio and then available on the internet. Watch this space – as soon as i know, I’ll post a link.
  • Then this coming October 16th, they will meet in Oxford – on one night the film of the debate will be shown, and then the next night, the two will meet in Oxford’s Universe Museum of Natural History to discuss and debate further. This is quite a deliberate and poignant move – for this was the location for the famous 1860 evolution debate between ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. Again, no doubt this will be broadcast and available. Watch this space.


  • In August this year, at the Edinburgh Literary Festival, John will be debating Christopher Hitchens on something on the lines of “The New Europe is better off with the New Atheism”.

Angels no longer fear – science & religion

We shouldn’t really be that surprised. But people still are. Is that because of media bias and ‘a militantly atheist and secularist lobby’? According to Bishop Tom Wright it is. (See David Aaronovitch’s heat-filled counterpoint in yesterday’s Times).


You see, it is one of the facts of contemporary life that people have rejected modernist scientism, the worldview of ‘nothing buttery‘ which does what it says in the tin – it reduces everything to ‘nothing but…’ X Y or Z. And the modernists can’t stomach that… which goes a long way to explaining the vitriolic rants and insults from the so-called New Atheists.


The necessary rejection of the absurdities of nothing buttery has been getting an increasingly good press. A few weeks ago, it was the Templeton Prize (see earlier post). This month it’s the Economist’s fascinating article on a €2m scientific project called ‘Explaining Religion’. As the article notes, ‘Religion cries out for a biological explanation’. Now that might seem like a nothing buttery approach in itself. But what this article begins to show is that the more the psychological or physical affects of religious belief and community are analyzed, the less they conform to what an evolutionary biologist might expect. There is something more out there. Which is pretty humbling really … for the reductionists at least.


This means that the secularist finds him or herself stuck in rather a tight spot. That of course is a million miles from a scientific ‘proof’ for God – but it contains not a little irony. As the article concludes:

Dr Wilson quips that “secularism is very maladaptive biologically. We’re the ones who at best are having only two kids. Religious people are the ones who aren’t smoking and drinking, and are living longer and having the health benefits.”
That quip, though, makes an intriguing point. Evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists, and most would be surprised if the scientific investigation of religion did not end up supporting their point of view. But if a propensity to religious behaviour really is an evolved trait, then they have talked themselves into a position where they cannot benefit from it, much as a sceptic cannot benefit from the placebo effect of homeopathy. Maybe, therefore, it is God who will have the last laugh after all—whether He actually exists or not



Templeton Prize for Mathematical Pointers to God

His unique position as a creatively working scientist and reflective man of religion has brought to science a sense of transcendent mystery and to religion a view of the universe through the broadly open eyes of science. He has introduced a significant notion of theology of science. He has succeeded in showing that religion isolating itself from scientific insights is lame, and science failing to acknowledge other ways of understanding is blind.

So said Professor Karol Musiol, Rector of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, of his friend Professor Michael Heller (left) – a philosopher, theologian and mathematician – who has won the Templeton Prize (worth £820,000!). See the whole article in The Times (HT – Nancy Heeb). This is how Heller describes the relationship between his theism and his science:

If we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about the cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the great blueprint of God’s thinking about the universe, the question on ultimate causality: why is there something rather than nothing? When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes. Science is but a collective effort of the human mind to read the mind of God from question marks out of which we and the world around us seem to be made.

Of course, sceptics will simply point out that this prize is biased: it’s for people who already accept God. Dawkins described it as ‘a very large sum of money given […] usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.’ Well so what?! After all, the culture wars of modern science appear to make scientific advancement very difficult for those who do accept God. But the fascinating thing about all this is simply that it gives exposure to top-level scientists who are theistic, much to the incomprehension and frustrations of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. They seem to be everywhere these days. In fact, if you visit the average British university Christian Union these days, you are much more likely to meet students from the ‘hard’ sciences like Physics and Chemistry or Medicine, than you are from the wishy-washy arts subjects like (Languages, Literature, History – and I speak as someone from one of those who started out in the wishy-washy world of Classics). There is a widespread acceptance (despite media gossip-mongers and New Atheist ranters) that there is no intrinsic or necessary contradiction between science and religion.


I’m no scientist or mathmo, so i don’t fully understand it all – but that is not what interests me. It is simply the fact of philosophical compatibility that gets me. This is how The Times article breaks Heller’s ideas down:

  • They revolve around the search for a fundamental theory of creation. His research ranges beyond Einstein and into quantum mechanics, cosmology, physics and pure mathematics, including his own version of the Heisenberg equation, below. Although his theories do not prove the existence of God, they may provide circumstantial evidence that He exists.
  • So long as the Universe had a beginning, we can suppose it had a creator, he says. But if the Universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
  • Professor Heller argues against the Newtonian concept of creation, that is, against the idea of an absolute space and an absolute time and of God creating energy and matter at certain times.
  • He suggests modern theologians should go back to the traditional doctrine that the creation of the Universe was an act that occurred outside space and time.

For the amateurish novice like me, there are some great books out there that provide accessible avenues into all this. Here are one or two of my favourites:



Dawkins vs Lennox 5 – final remarks and scorn

OK, I know I’m beginning to sound a bit obsessed with this – but i’ve just listened to the concluding remarks of the debate again (it sort of fits in with a talk I’m giving this Sunday) and was taken aback by the derision and scorn in Dawkins’ voice at the end when talking about the resurrection – having been pretty civil and neutral all the way through. For sure this is off the cuff and not necessarily carefully considered. But notice how there is little defence or argument for his position – merely a string of rhetorical dismissals and insults (which i’ve highlighted in red). I include his final paragraphs or so for the sake of completion and to give a feel for the rest of the debate.

John Lennox (after giving various arguments about God’s existence, he concludes:)

I would remind you that the world Richard Dawkins wishes to bring us to is no paradise except for the few. It denies the existence of good and evil. It even denies justice. But ladies and gentlemen, our hearts cry out for justice. And centuries ago, the apostle Paul spoke to the philosophers of Athens and pointed out that there would be a day on which God would judge the world by the man that he had appointed, Jesus Christ, and that he’d given assurance to all people by raising him from the dead. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a miracle, something supernatural, for me constitutes the central evidence upon which i base my faith, not only that atheism is a delusion,but that justice is real and our sense of morality does not mock us. Because if there is no resurrection, if there is nothing after death, in the end the terrorists and the fanatics have got away with it… [The moderator cut his final remarks off there because he had gone over time!]

Richard Dawkins

Yes, well that concluding bit rather gives the game away, doesn’t it? All that stuff about science and physics, and the complications of physics and things, what it really comes down to is the resurrection of Jesus. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox – and it’s impressive and we are interested in the argument about multiverses and things, and then having produced some sort of a case for a deistic god perhaps, some god that the great physicist who adjusted the laws and constants of the universe – that’s all very grand and wonderful, and then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.

In a garden (with its beautiful birds and bees etc)… of course it is natural to think there is a gardener. Any fool is likely to think there must be a gardener. The HUGE achievement of Darwin was to show that this didn’t have to be true. Of course it is difficult. Of course it had to wait until the mid 19th century before anybody thought of it. It seems so obvious that if you have got a garden there must be a gardener who created it and all that goes with that. What Darwin did was to show the staggeringly counter-intuitive fact that this not only can be explained by an undirected process (it’s not chance by the way, it is entirely wrong to say it is by chance – natural selection is the very opposite of chance)… that it has an explanation that can derive from simple beginnings by comprehensible rational means. That is possibly the greatest achievement that any human mind has ever accomplished. Not only did he show that it could be done. I believe that we can argue that the alternative is so unparsimonious (whatever that means!?), so counter to the laws of common sense, that reluctant as we might be because it might be unpleasant for us to admit it, although we can’t disprove that there is a god, it is very, very unlikely indeed.

So there you have it – at least he concedes that there is tiny, tiny possibility that there could just be a god. Which is not exactly the same as saying that there definitely isn’t, is it? Or am I perhaps missing something here?



Dawkins vs Lennox 4 – reflections on the debate

Have now managed to listen to the debate – you can too on Richard Dawkins’ official site. I enjoyed it, especially because both were gracious to each other and it was done in a professional and good-natured manner. Here are some random thoughts:

  • Was it unfair? Having listened to it, i would actually say it was more frustrating than unfair – so i take back my comments from a few days ago (Oct 5th 07). The format was just a bit odd, i felt – the moderator read an extract from the God Delusion, Dawkins had a few minutes to comment, then Lennox responded. Then the moderator would go onto the next point. I felt very frustrated listening and completely understand why Dawkins felt the need to come back to a previous point in his allotted time to speak to the next point (if you see what i mean). But actually Lennox also had a few moments (though not as many) when he was constrained by the format. It would have been better to have allowed 2 minutes each response after their main remarks before moving on. Fortunately the moderator did ease up in the second half of the debate, and Dawkins was allowed to have the last word. So it wasn’t unfair – but it was very annoying for the debaters and the listeners!

  • What do debates achieve? Having glanced at a few of the comments on the official sites – it is clear that the two sides were cheering for their man and were not necessarily open to having their minds changed. But what i think it did do was to provide a platform to gain a degree of mutual respect and to set out the stall for those who are confused and wavering. The audience in the theatre were probably evenly balanced – but i sincerely hope that people will have realised from Lennox’s excellent performance that Christian theism is no pushover, despite the atheist rhetoric and bluster.

  • Failing to engage. I am biased – i am of course a Christian theist – but i did feel that Dawkins dodged most of the arguments placed before him – most tellingly the issue of morality. He ducked it by talking about the possibility of atheists who behave uprightly – which Lennox rightly conceded fully. No one disputes that good behaviour exists amongst atheists (although his suggestion that within a Darwinian framework, we all have a ‘lust for doing good’ was a striking one and probably more contentious). What was completely avoided was Lennox’s cogent argument that atheism removes the grounds for even the categories of good and evil.

  • Failing to prepare – again I’m biased and i was cheering for my man. But it did seen that Lennox was by far the better prepared – he had really done his homework on Dawkins’ books and his wider reading and experience was brilliantly used. Dawkins on the other hand presumably pitched up without really preparing that much (or at least it sounded like that as he was more hesitant and fumbling) – which i fear is a mark of his position – he simply doesn’t give a theistic argument any credence at all and thus assumes it is a pushover. This was especially evident with the sheer scorn and ridicule he poured on Lennox’s closing remarks about Jesus and the resurrection. Those comments particularly are a classic illustration of 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

I did feel that in purely debating terms therefore Lennox had the upper hand. But the issue is not necessarily always to win the argument but to win the man – and that is of course a much tougher call. But I was very excited to hear that John Lennox did everything he could to do both and therefore should be very pleased that it went as well as it did.



While we’re on this theme, there is another debate in the USA this week – Alister McGrath against Christopher Hitchens. Details at the Trinity Forum page. Will post further details when i can.



Dawkins vs Lennox 3 – was it fair?

I’m very tentative about commenting on this debate as i’ve not yet listened to it. But i’m going to anyway because I’m a little bit concerned. If you did get a chance to see/listen to it, then please, please correct me if i’ve got something wrong. I greatly admire John Lennox and my gripe is certainly not against him nor his lines of thought.

What surprised me was this comment from Coel on the Faith Central article i referred to before.

Interesting format for this debate. First the moderator reads an excerpt from The God Delusion. Then Dawkins is invited to expound on it. Then Lennox reads a prepared critique of that excerpt. Now, at this point, surely the thing to do is to invite Dawkins to respond to Lennox, defending his work? But no, the moderator then moves on to a new excerpt, and the above repeats. In other words, the format gives Lennox repeated opportunities to critique Dawkins, but gives Dawkins no opportunity to respond to Lennox! And even when Dawkins points out the one-sidedness of this, the moderator persists!

If this is correct, then I’m not at all surprised that Dawkins was frustrated, to say the least (see transcript already posted). It would drive me absolutely bananas if I was in his shoes. What are we scared of, Christians? Why not let the guy respond to critiques? Surely it just gives him more ammunition in the future, and will make him all the more reluctant to enter into these sorts of environments. I take my hat off to him for even being willing to enter into the lion’s den of America’s Bible Belt. The debate’s format simply gives the impression (however unfairly) of being defensive and nervy – and there’s surely no need for that?



Dawkins vs Lennox 2 – a few points transcribed

Haven’t been able to listen yet – but Faith Central on the Times site has helpfully provided a transcript of a few of the exchanges – here are one or two (though of course we have no way of knowing the context to what was said just yet):

On faith

Dawkins: If it were evidence based, why would you need to call it faith? You would just call it evidence.
Lennox: I presume you’ve got faith in your wife is there any evidence for that?
Dawkins: Yes plenty.
Lennox: There you go.

On the Big Bang and the Bible

Dawkins: There are two possibilities, either the universe was here for ever, or it had a beginning, getting it right [that there was a beginning] isn’t that impressive, there were only two possibilities.
Lennox: At least it [the Bible] got the right one.
Dawkins: Toss a coin and you had 50 per cent chance of getting it right.

On ‘who created the creator?’

Lennox: Your book assumes God was created, no wonder you call it the God Delusion, created Gods are by definition a delusion. I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in. I need to know what you mean by God, none of us, Christians, Jews, Muslims, believe in created Gods. The point is not whether God is created or not, it’s about simplicity. We can’t just postulate complexity we have to go back to simplicity…We need some kind of ultimate explanation for the complex object. You can’t evade the issue by saying God was always there – you still need an explanation.

On Atheism and faith

Dawkins: This is supposed to be a debate and I feel intensely frustrated. Teaching children that faith is virtuous. It is teaching them that you don’t have to justify what you do. The convention that we have all bought into that religious faith is something to be respected, not to be questioned. In most cases that’s quite harmless, but if you take your faith really literally, then it’s the fact that you were educated as a child in a madrassah and which if you happen to be unstable or violent, leads to the sort of terrible acts in the name of religion.I would not for a moment say that all religion is bad or dangerous, only a minority of religious people are bad or do bad things.

Lennox: I agree with you on many points, and am ashamed as a Christian for many of the historical acts like the Crusades undertaken in the name of Christianity. But your attempt to airbrush out the atheistic regimes in your book concerns me that a scientist who is very concerned with historical evidence is content with a superficial analysis of the Cold War. I would like you to write another book in which you differentiate between religions.

Dawkins: I agree that Stalin, and Pol Pot did bad things, it may even be their Marxist, their Atheism that led them to do bad things. Those 19 men who flew planes into targets in the US – they weren’t psychopaths, they were well educated, rational people, who thought they were good, the same thing could be said of the Taliban. Once you grant people the premise of their faith, then the terrible things that they do follow.


Lennox Atheism is a faith as well
Dawkins: It’s not
Lennox: Don’t you believe it?

Will post more as i hear of it…