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Columnists

Look and learn

Paul Vallely

VallelyMy son took me around the Greek section at the British Museum recently. At the end there were some people from an art school who offered us paper and pencils and invited us to sketch three statues in an ante-room. I sat and attempted my first drawing for decades.

I was secretly quite impressed at my effort but the end-product for the art school folk wasn't what was on the paper. What, they asked, did you see in the statues which you hadn't noticed until you started drawing?

When you draw you see things differently because you look in a different way. The thought was still in my mind when I went to see the celebrated Christian apologist William Lane Craig on his Reasonable Faith tour of the UK - in which he tried, without success, to debate an elusive Richard Dawkins. I went on the final night when the analytic philosopher had, instead of Dawkins' empty chair, a real opponent in the shape of the atheist chemistry professor Peter Atkins.

Craig began with his usual palette of arguments, familiar to anyone who had listened to his debates on the internet. God could plausibly be argued, he said, from thinking about the origin of the universe, from the existence of moral values and from the historical facts about Jesus. I had heard all that from him before so I decided to repeat the sketching exercise of looking in a different way. I focused not on what was being said but the way that the two combatants were saying it.

Craig has in the past been accused by the atheist Daniel Dennett of resorting to mind-bogglingness. When you start asking cosmological questions about what was before the Big Bang, or become entangled in philosophical conundrums about why something exists rather than nothing, you almost always end up in a peculiar place.

'Professor Craig, brilliantly and with a wonderful enthusiasm,' says Dennett, 'takes our everyday intuitions - our gut feelings about what's plausible, what's counter-intuitive, what couldn't possibly be true - and cantilevers them out into territory where they've never been tested. In cosmology whatever the truth is, it's going to be jaw-droppingly implausible and counter-intuitive in one way or another. Perhaps we are alone in the universe‚Ķ or perhaps that's not true.  Both alternatives are mind-boggling.' But that doesn't actually get us anywhere. God is, therefore, just an extrapolation of human instincts projected onto an inappropriate cosmic scale

Atkins scored an early blow by describing Craig as a latterday medieval scholastic. Craig says things like: 'Science gives evidence for a philosophical premise from which a theological conclusion can be reached.'  Maybe, but it does open you up to all manner of category mistakes. And to say things like 'God has sufficient moral reasons for allowing evil: that statement is logically possible' merely tells us that it could be possible to answer the ancient theodicy of whether suffering can have a purpose. But it doesn't help us understand what that purpose is. Sound logic does not tell you anything about the validity of your starting assertions.

Yet the New Atheists have nothing better to offer here. Dawkins has no ontological moral basis for how anything can be evil; he simultaneously denies that evil exists while happily branding as evil anything with which he disagrees. Similarly Atkins offered nothing by way of serious argumentation. Instead he moved slowly into the most familiar of New Atheist tactics: derision and abuse. 'There is always an air of pessimism when a philosopher is speaking,' he began sliding down to 'philosophy is a complete waste of time'.

Atkins' lack of intellectual rigour became even more apparent. Craig had asserted that there can be no objective moral values without God, only relativistic ones. That is the same as saying that atheists cannot live moral lives, Atkins insisted. This is clear nonsense, but so is suggesting that it is invalid to ask whether the values on which atheists draw are just a post-Enlightenment secular articulation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet Atkins's response was to brand the question a 'disgusting slur'.

Craig is a cool customer. All his arguments were philosophical not religious, he pointed out. Even his thesis about the Resurrection was based on historical rather than theological criteria. By contrast Atkins' assertion that 'There is nothing in the universe that cannot be scientifically explained' was the only position being advanced on faith that evening.

And Atkins' rhetorical flourishes like 'Ah, but who designed the designer?' were tantamount to saying that no explanation could be valid unless we had an explanation of the explanation. That would be like saying evolution could only be true if we can explain why the original organisms from which everything evolved existed in the first place.

Sadly Atkins response was to move further onto the familiar New Atheist territory of insult and invective. Religion is a comfort blanket for the anxious and deprived. Craig's arguments were childish. Out came the tired comparisons to wizards and fairy stories. People had seen Jesus alive after his death, but then people had also claimed to have seen Elvis. Yes, but no-one had founded an Elvis religion whose devotees were  prepared to die for their beliefs, Craig riposted drily.

When you draw you see things differently because you look in a different way. The same thing happens when you set the substance of the atheism debate on one side and look at the style and the semiotics.  For all its dismissal of religion as irrational there is something anti-intellectual about the New Atheist modus operandum. Perhaps it just allows passion to prevail over reason. Or perhaps it is deeply cynical. Either way it does not feel like it has won the argument. 

Paul Vallely