Richard Dawkins Says He’s No Accommodationist

Richard DawkinsIn a recent Newsweek interview, Richard Dawkins said he didn’t think believing in God and believing in evolution were incompatible positions:

No, I don’t think they’re incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God—to name only Francis Collins as an outstanding example. So it clearly is possible to be both.

This led some, like Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education and Unscientific America author Chris Mooney to wonder whether Dawkins was moving toward their more accommodating position. Well, he’s not, as he explains in a note to Jerry Coyne:

How utterly ridiculous. All I was saying is that it is possible for a human mind to accommodate both evolution and religion because F. Collins’ mind seems to manage the feat (along with lots of vicars and bishops and rabbis). I also needed to make the point that TGSOE [The Greatest Show on Earth] is not the same book as TGD [The God Delusion] because many interviewers who are supposed to be interviewing me about TGSOE have simply ignored it and gone right back to assuming that it is the same book as TGD.
I sympathize with politicians who have to watch every syllable they utter for fear it will be misused by somebody with an agenda.

Does the Problem of Evil Require Giving Up God?

facesBarney Zwartz, religion editor of The Age, argues:

One of the main problems with the debate as formulated these days is that the God it discusses is not a God anyone actually believes in. It is a philosopher’s model, it is an abstract set of attributes: perfect power, perfect knowledge, perfect goodness— but no personality, no historical context, no interaction with humans.  It’s purely theoretical. It’s not the God of the Torah, of the Bible, of the Koran, the God people actually believe in and turn to in trouble. It’s divorced from God’s character, which involves love and grace.

The question gets it the wrong way round because it puts us at the center rather than God. It assumes God is here to serve me, rather than the reverse. The idea has crept into society that God is relevant only to the extent that he benefits the believer, smoothes her path, makes her a winner.
This is an infantile faith, and one which struggles to accept suffering.  This is the faith that asks “why me?”, or “why do bad things happen to good people?” In fact suffering and moral merit are not connected.

Philosopher and critic Russell Blackford counters:

Most of the supposed explanations of evil make sense only in a pre-scientific setting. They are now absurdly implausible even at face value. In particular, most of the suffering that there has been on this planet took place long before human beings even existed. An all-powerful God did not need any of this. It could have created the world in a desirable form without any of it just by thinking, “Let it be so!” That’s what being all-powerful is about, if we take it seriously.
Barney Zwartz tried to defuse the issue, or dance around it, in various ways, but he freely admitted to having no explanation that was satisfactory. At least that’s honest. Someone else might have tried to push harder on the free will defense, the higher goods defense, or some other lame explanation. These explanations do sound glib, as Barney says. In fact, they sound desperate or even intellectually dishonest. Some of them are morally monstrous. They are the refuge of someone who wants to hold onto religious faith at all costs.
The fact remains that the problem of evil is a real one for people with a traditional idea of God. The problem rightly causes many honest people deep anxiety. It assuredly does not involve a God that no one believes in, but the God that most monotheists actually worship, and it has never been satisfactorily solved. Of course, if you don’t start by believing in gods at all, or you believe only in limited gods or metaphorical gods, the problem does not arise for you except as a hypothetical scenario. But for people who posit the traditional Abrahamic God, the problem assuredly does arise, and there is no adequate answer. The intellectually honest response, painful though it may be, is to stop believing in that God.

Richard Dawkins & Karen Armstrong on God

God-and-Darwin-001Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong have both written pieces for The Wall Street Journal answering the same question, “Where does evolution leave God?”
The really interesting thing here is that Armstrong seems to be arguing against the reconciliation of science and faith. “By the end of the 17th century,” she says, “instead of looking through the symbol to ‘the God beyond God,’ Christians were transforming it into hard fact … an intelligent, omniscient, and omnipotent creator.” When Darwin came along, he created a disaster for Christians because they had “become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.”
As she sees it:

Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. …
Darwin made it clear once again that—as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the “God beyond God.” The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.

It’s no surprise that PZ Myers has a problem with this:

I don’t want to live peacefully with difficult realities, and I see no virtue in savoring excuses for avoiding a search for real answers. I am the product of millions of generations of individuals who each fought against a hostile universe and won, and I aim to maintain the tradition. I want my children to do the same, and I want all of my fellow human beings to struggle to wrest a better world from the rocks and gasses and radiation of this universe we find ourselves in. There are no easy solutions. Each of us can think of a thousand thorny problems, from the personal to the global, and we all know this: we will not solve them by going to church and kneeling down and praising an immaterial god whose primary attribute in the sloganeering of theologians like Armstrong is that he is a symbol of that which doesn’t exist.

Typically, “new atheists” like Myers are criticized for fighting against a very narrow definition of religion (“marked by biblical literalism, belief in a ‘personal’ God, hostility to scientific rationality and progress, and a deeply conservative politics,” explains James Wood)—rather than, say, engaging with the more sophisticated theology of thinkers like Armstrong, Terry Eagleton, or John Haught. Yet, says Jerry Coyne:

No matter how sophisticated modern theologians like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught consider themselves, they are always too removed from the world to understand what “religion” means to most people. Hint: it’s not apophatic.

Maybe he’s on to something. Protestant preacher Fleming Rutledge calls Armstrong “an enemy of faith” for her “generic, spiritualized, anthropocentric approach to God,” and agrees emphatically with Dawkins when he concludes:

There is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”
Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.

Dan Dennett to Bob Wright: No “Purpose” Required

moralityDaniel Dennett has responded to Robert Wright‘s recent opinion piece in which he suggests that a “higher purpose” in evolution is driving the increasing morality of our species:

Robert Wright notes that the speculations he outlines on how a moral sense could evolve are “compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.” Indeed, these speculations—actually rigorous abstract arguments—have been developed by evolutionary theorists who, like Mr. Wright, see our moral intuitions as real phenomena in need of an explanation.
But the point of these arguments is to demonstrate that there can be a traversable path, an evolutionary process, from, say, bacteria, to us (with our moral intuitions) that doesn’t at any point require that the evolutionary process itself have a purpose. In other words, their implication is that our moral sense would evolve even if there weren’t a creative intelligence in the background.
So the compatibility that Mr. Wright finds is trivial.
Go ahead and believe in God, if you like, but don’t imagine that you have been given any grounds for such a belief by science.

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