TGD – Chapter 6

May 29th, 2010

Chapter 5 is titled “The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?” and is about whether or not morality is affected by a belief in God.

He starts out with a long tirade with quotes of all the Christians who’ve sent him and other atheists hate mail. He does this in a feeble attempt to show we’re all hypocrites, but again, it falls under the same category of problem so much of his writing has: finding a few idiots does not mean we’re all that way. I’ve seen just, if not more, viscous language in atheists attacks on Christians on various websites, particularly in the comment sections of Christian blogs (BTW, I’m thankful no one has resorted to that here, although perhaps the size of my readership (hi mom!) has something to do with that). Surely Dawkins wouldn’t suggest those idiots represent him?

After that off topic ramble, he settles down and gets to the point of how morality could be a result of natural selection. He makes some compelling points how certain aspects of morality can result in higher reproduction and survival rates and therefore can be easily explained by natural selection. He spends a fair amount of time on symbiotic species and how they both benefit from each other and applies that theory to humans.

From there he continues on to case studies about morality where simple scenarios are posed to people and they’re asked what is the more moral choice. The simple one is that we have a train roaring down the track and it’s going to kill 5 people who are stuck on it, but a person can change the switch so the train goes to a different track and only kill one person. The question, obviously, is universally answered that it’s OK if not imperative that the switch is made. But complications are added to the question where pushing someone in front of the train could save the five, and again the answer is uniformly the same that it’s not OK to do that. He then adds in a few other variants with the same conclusion. He never really closes the door on the point, but he appears to be saying that the fact that the answer is universally the same suggests natural selection.

But is that necessarily true? Maybe it’s true because God has placed that sense of right or wrong in us and he does no matter whether we believe in Him or not. Going further, Dawkins never explains from a Darwinist perspective it makes sense that we all universally agree that it’s not appropriate to throw one person in front of the train to save five. Surely that will work out better for our survival as a species, yes?

From there he goes on to discuss why people would be good if there was no God. I completely agree with him that atheists can and want to be good people although his method for proving this seem odd to me. He talks about a police strike where mayhem broke loose and that there was no indication that atheists did worse than religions. He additionally makes the stressed conclusion that because Republican states tend to be Christian and they show no better signs of lower crime rates (amongst other things ignoring the difference between morals and crime). It appears he says all this to back up his earlier conclusions that morality comes from natural selection.

Although he does touch on it for a short moment, he otherwise seems to miss the bigger point that it is the definition of what is moral that religion has the inside scoop on. Particularly his crime=immoral assumptions show his lack of understanding here. If society has made prostitution legal, does that make it moral? The same for slavery or bigotry or any number of other things that are legal in certain places (or have been). What religion does is give us a higher moral calling than solely the survival and improvement of the species. Natural selection gives us no “why” for morality and thus we’re left blowing in the wind trying to “reverse engineer” it from what is best for the survival and improvement of the species, a task littered with problems.

Which brings me to the final point I wish to address. At a number of points throughout the chapter he returns to his pot-shots of the evils done in the name of religion. There’s no doubt that there are a number of examples for him to pick from, but at this time my point is that the opposite point can be made as well. Eugenics was an ENTIRELY scientist generated evil. I use this one in particular because he admits it to be an evil. But there are others from scientific experimentation on people, which science has promoted in the past, to more modern issues like euthanasia that are currently being promoted despite their clear immorality.

Religion in no way has a monopoly on evil. In fact it’s quite the contrary. The greatest evils of the 19th and 20th century were done by atheists, including the slaughter of millions in numerous atheistic regimes. Most complaints against religious that rise to the level of wholesale slaughter have to go back at least 300 years and in many cases are far more dubious claims than the examples of late.

It bears repeating: Religion in no way has a monopoly on evil. In fact it’s quite to the contrary.

On to Chapter 7…

Blog colors – why green?

May 28th, 2010

For those who are relatively new to the site, you may have noticed the color changes in the last week from a white and gold colored theme to a green colored theme. For the astute Catholic reader it probably is somewhat obvious what the reason is, but I thought I’d elaborate for my non-Catholic readers.

The colors reflect the seasonal colors of the Church. In fact, if you had logged in last Sunday you would have seen that the colors were red for Pentecost. So you’ll see purple colors or red or white or green (like now) and even a couple days of pink and one day of black. They all follow the colors of what we call the liturgical year. In the upper right hand corner of the page you can see what day of the liturgical year it is today and based on that you can come to understand why the page is whatever color it is that day.

You can read more about the liturgical year here.

TGD – Chapter 5

May 28th, 2010

Chapter 5 is titled “The Roots of Religion”. In all honesty I was expecting it to be a bunch of accusations of ancient liars and why they chose to deceive all of mankind. In fact, that was not at all what it was about.

Instead Dawkins sets out to answer a very important question. He readily admits that the prevalence of religion creates a hurdle that the Darwinian atheist must overcome. Because religion is prevalent, it is incumbent on them to come up with a plausible natural selection reason why religion is so ubiquitous.

He freely admits that the argument that religion can be “selection neutral” won’t suffice because religion takes so much time and effort that for the time alone there must be some offsetting factor.

He starts out with a few half hearted examples of direct advantages of religion. He mentions some study results that suggest religion helps with stress and reduces stress related death. He also mentions the placebo affect, that being told the God may heal you could help from a placebo effect perspective. But in the end you can tell these are half hearted and Dawkins doesn’t want to admit there are any direct advantages to religion. That wouldn’t help his cause.

Instead he focuses on two other theories.

The first is the idea of “group selection” which is a derivative of natural selection. If a group of people can instill characteristics in their people that helps that group survive whereas other groups wither away, those characteristics will survive. He mentions things like loyalty and being willing to die to protect the group, something that doesn’t help the individual but would help the group as being possible examples. But again, he doesn’t put too much weight in this theory either. Even this sort of a concession seems to trouble Dawkins.

Instead he moves on to the theory he puts the most weight in, that genetic characteristics can be tied together. He didn’t use this example, but one would be if red hair and high sperm counts were genetically tied, red hair people would be genetically superior even though there was no specific natural selection advantage to their red hair.

After a long explanation using moths that I thought could have been far more succinct (like my red hair example) he goes on to the hypothesis he backs which is that obedience is tied to religion and that obedience is a good trait for survival. He specifically mentions how obedience to one’s parents is a good thing (why do I suspect that he’ll be coming back to the parental obedience thing since he’s already played out the “we’re slaves to the religion of our parents” meme in earlier chapters?)

But again, he freely admits that he has no evidence of genetic linking of religion to obedience nor any scientific evidence that obedience, particularly to one’s parents, is a natural selection benefit. He also admits that he doesn’t feel compelled to actually know the specific answer of the genetic advantage whether it be direct, group, or associative. Merely the possibility that there is an answer is sufficient.

And I think that’s the thing that I find most strange, despite admiring his honesty. He’s spent a whole bunch of time criticizing what the religious person believes on faith, but then is seemingly oblivious to how many areas he has “faith” that an answer exists out there somewhere and he freely admits that he doesn’t have proof of it or even know what it is yet.

He seems to have this trend of wrapping of the chapter with some sort of an aside, ones I think Dawkins believes elaborates on his point. In this one he brings up the example of “Cargo Cults” which according to Dawkins are a group of small religions groups in the South Pacific who are very recent in time. His point seems threefold. One, that they’re idiots because they took the arrival of westerners as signs of an arriving diety. Two, that these religious groups have morphed their beliefs really quickly and any historicity of their claims of only 50 years ago are dubious. Three, that independently these groups have seemed to come up with similar themes to their religion.

Of course the fact that one religious group has done stupid things is no more proof of the existence or non existence of God nor the wisdom of any other religion than the fact that there have been a plethora of scientists who have advanced theories that have turned out turned out to be incorrect proves that God doesn’t exist. Nevertheless he somehow sees this as a significant data point for some reason beyond my grasp.

On to Chapter 6…

TGD – Chapter 4

May 23rd, 2010

Chapter 4 is the first chapter where Dawkins changes his tactic from attacking religion to defending atheism, although one can’t exactly blame him for that considering the title of the book. It’s pretty obvious what the book is going to focus on.

The chapter is titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”, although I think that’s a bit of an overstatement. It would be more properly titled “A Perfectly Reasonable Alternative To God”. I say this because the theory he lays out is not one that excludes the possibility of God but merely shows that it’s possible that we exist without God.

He lays his groundwork in his first two sections of the chapter titled “The Ultimate Boeing 747″ and “Natural Selection as a consciousness-raiser”. The point is to say the atheist must have a solution to the problem of how complexity comes from simplicity without the help of a designer. He goes on to show how Darwin’s work gave us a pathway for that. Natural selection shows us how biological life can transition from simplicity to complexity without a designer. He spends quite a bit of time explaining the significance of this breakthrough.

He’s very much right that it does show us an example of how it’s possible that God doesn’t exist, but natural selection could be aided by a super-natural being, couldn’t it? At a minimum, natural selection requires that random mutations of genes create diversity. Isn’t it at least a possibility that the randomness is not so random as it would seem? This says nothing of God interfering with the process of who is able to continue their lives to the point where they successfully reproduce.

I bring this up because one of the mistakes of the scientist is to assume a natural process is without divine interference without exception. Which is fine as far as defining natural processes go. But finding that natural process that works seemingly without exception does not mean that God could not interfere with it nor that He hasn’t interfered with it in the past. Point being, finding a natural process for how something works does not prove that God could not interfere with it.

The third section is a bit longer. It’s titled “Irreducible complexity” and it’s about refuting specific examples sited by some as examples where natural selection wouldn’t work. (I’m assuming the reader understands the concept of “irreducible complexity” which basically means that there’s no way for natural selection to get from step A to step B.) But he spends most of the section picking on articles in the Watchtower magazine or pamphlets.

Watchtower is put out by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and is about as credible a source as most campaign literature about the opponent. The fact that Dawkins uses this as a valid point to rebut is laughable and seriously undermines his credibility. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a very small minority group, are roundly criticized for their wacky beliefs and shoddy logic by almost all Christian groups (it’s one of those rare things that almost all Protestants from Evangelicals to Episcopals, Catholics and Orthodox call all agree on. Flatly stated, you don’t use them as representative of anything but JW’s beliefs.

Which leads to Dawkins next section titled “The worship of gaps” where he tries to change the battlefield. He realizes that theists have turned the table on him with irreducible complexity. When it’s just “God vs. Science” (and please don’t forget that I flatly reject that premise; I’m stating it as Dawkins, not my own) Science has a bit of an upper hand because they get to poke 1,000 holes in God and every one blunted by theists does nothing to stop the other pokes. Irreducible complexity creates the opposite scenario where the theist can try to poke 1,000’s of holes and the scientist has to try and stop or plug everyone one of them.

So Dawkins attempts to change the playing field by stating that going for these gaps is a “fundamentally unscientific way to proceed”. He delves deeper into the ideas he brought up in the consciousness-raiser section that what natural selection does is not just show a solution to one example of complexity from simplicity, but also that it shows it’s possible for that to happen and therefore, even thought we may not know the method for other areas today, it is possible that we’ll find an answer for the simplicity to complexity problem sometime later.

While I agree with him that it does raise the possibility, possibility does not equate to proven, which is the leap he seems to make.

This is where I will further agree with him: He brings up examples of people who purposely make themselves ignorant because the “gaps” to allow for room for God. He’s right that there are people who are afraid what science may discover and it’ll close the gaps and squeeze out God. For those people, they purposely want ignorance and they fear science. He’s right that many of those people exist and he’s right that purposeful ignorance is never the right way to live, nor for the scientist to make progress.

But here’s where he’s got it wrong: Those people are not all religious people, they are a subset. There’s TONS of religious people who want to discover. Those people are interested in investigating what’s in the gaps as much as anyone, unlike those who’d like to leave the gaps alone and call that God. As I showed with biological natural selection, it’s both very possible that it’s the way things work and that it’s guided by God.

The chapter finishes out, minus one final section, with a couple sections that go beyond Dawkins area of scientific expertise to talk about what might be options for the equivalent of natural selection outside of biology. I want to give Dawkins a lot of credit for these two sections because he’s very fair in stating that these are just hypotheses and is quite clear in stating that there are no firm answers in these areas. He freely admits scientists don’t yet understand. It takes a noble man to admit the areas he doesn’t have an answer.

His point is that he doesn’t need one, at least not yet. The whole point of the buildup about the gaps and natural selection was that the gaps shouldn’t trouble the atheist, we know that it’s possible and that’s all we need to know. To admit that there are gaps is not to admit that there is a God. Dawkins is right about this. So while he throws out a couple ideas for the “Six Numbers”, something I didn’t know anything about until I read this chapter, he’s quite upfront that they’re just ideas.

But going back to a point I made in my earlier rebukes of whether science will ever answer to whether God exists, the trouble I have with the whole premise is that he’s asking everyone to suspend their belief in God for all eternity while infinite resources and infinite time are spent “filling the gaps”. Just the possibility that the gaps may all be filled some day is enough for him to declare “there is almost certainly no God.” And that’s what I most take exception to. Ignoring all of the evidence provided by miracles and the such, it’s possible that God doesn’t exist and a purely natural explanation will be found for everything. It’s also possible there’s certain areas where no answer can be found for how complexity came from simplicity. Why should his predisposition be given the benefit of the doubt?

Effectively the best answer he can give is that the religious attitude encourages us to worship the gaps and thus encourages ignorance. Ignoring that the number of religious who are inquisitive and desire answers makes his assertion patently and observably not true, it’s also no justification for why we should be predisposed to his viewpoint any more than statistics that show religious people are more charitable are scientific proof that God exists.

The final section is titled “An interlude at Cambridge” which is appropriately titled because one wonders why he puts it here or what point he’s trying to make other than pat himself on the back or defend his appearance at the conference (which he spends fully half the section on) which appears to have been organized by people who were biased towards faith. Since I know nothing of the conference, I didn’t get much from the section.

Overall, this was one of Dawkins most cohesive and rational chapters. He sets out to make a number of points and for the most part makes them, minus some overstating of the conclusions. From reading it I get the feeling that Dawkins would be far more convincing sticking to positive arguments for atheism than his rage-filled rants against believers that has been filled with stereotypes, bigotry and half-truths. Sadly, based on the table of contents we’re back to attacking faith in Chapter 5.

QHs – Big logs, SCOTUS decisions and TGD progress

May 17th, 2010

Today’s quick hitters:

  • I took my elder 2 boys (6 and 5 respectively) on a power boat ride yesterday down to the Delta and had a grand time despite the deteriorating weather (will someone please tell who ever is in charge that it’s mid-May and us California folks do not accept rain after the month of April). I always ask them on our way home from events what they liked the best. Usually, they purposely pick different things but yesterday it was a unanimous decision: The big log we fished out of the water. It was floating down the slough we were anchored in and we went and got it. It was easily 10″ in diameter and 5 feet long. It looked a lot smaller in the water until I tried to pull it into the boat. It must weigh 100 lbs. And nothing says fun to boys like BIG THINGS!
  • I never know what to make of Supreme Court decisions because it’s always far more nuanced than what the press says. Today’s two rulings about the ability to keep prisoners who are a threat (like sexual predators) after they’ve served their terms for public safety (the court says yes we can) and making it a requirement that juveniles be given the possibility for parole for everything but capital cases are no exception. I lean towards backing the juvenile decision and being critical of the served term decision. However, it generally seems to me that the court mucks in far too many areas (although to be fair, the served term decision, although overturning a lower court decision, made it so the court was not interfering). Generally speaking I’m a fan of letting the electorate make the decisions and only let the court step in for truly egregious situations.
  • Never fear on The God Delusion. I’m still reading. I finished Chapter 4 over the weekend. For what it’s worth, because I’m blogging the book chapter by chapter, it’s taking me a lot longer than it does to read a regular book. Between taking notes and re-reading sections that trouble me or I’m having a hard time understanding what he’s getting at, plus stopping reading at the end of each chapter so I can blog about it without polluting my comments by what comes in later chapters, it’s been a laborious and slow project. Expect a chapter 4 summary shortly.

QH’s – IVF, surrogacy and respect for life

May 14th, 2010

Two days in a row of thematic quick hitters:

  • I saw this story on about a fight over 2 fetuses. The basic story is that one couple used Invitro Fertilization and had 4 left over embryos and then donated them to another couple who used two and then a legal fight ensued over the remaining two. Most people read stories like this and take sides as to who is right and who is wrong, but I think they’re all missing the key issue: IVF. If there was no IVF, there would be no left over embryos. There would be no debate over whether disposing them is OK. There would be no debate over donation. There would be no “embryo contracts”. The root issue is the stupidity of IVF. It’s treating the human creation process without the reverence it deserves.
  • Which brings me to story number two about botched surrogacy with Indian women from the Brisbane Times in Australia. Again, the average person look at these stories and pick sides without recognizing the root issue: surrogacy. How dehumanizing is it when we can rent out our bodies like it’s a car or a boat? Womb for rent here. Vagina for rent there. Most people still recognize the wrongness of prostitution, but when it’s renting the womb, it doesn’t seem to cause the same reaction. Even if it’s not renting but “gifting”, is “sympathy sex” any better?
  • The root issue here is that we’ve dehumanized the reproductive process. It’s no longer about a man and a woman coming together and receiving the gift of a child whenever that gift may be given. No, now it’s about controlling the process. No children when we don’t want them, even if it means killing them in the womb when we make a mistake. And however many children we want and WHEN we want them. Even if it mean abusing poor people by renting their bodies like they’re poor prostitutes or freezing a bunch of embryos and donating them to each other. All of these problems would just go away if we just respected the sexual act as the wonderful, potentially reproductive act that it is, a gift when it bears fruit, but also a gift when it does not and let nature take its course.

QH’s – Golf, my nemesis, and fear

May 13th, 2010

Today’s quick hitters:

  • There’s a story out about Obama declining to play golf with Limbaugh. First, let me be clear that I think Limbaugh is a master public relations person and he knows how to play the media game. He knows he’s going to look like the nice guy by letting this play out the way it did and he knows he’ll never have to play with Obama. And even if it went through, he’d make it work to his advantage. He’s that kinda guy. So I won’t be fooled into thinking Limbaugh is the naive nice guy here, he’s as scheming as the rest.
  • But it led me to think about who my nemesis is. Is it someone like Dawkins? Is it a political type person? Is there someone out there who I loath so much that I wouldn’t play golf with them? And while there are definitely people who it would take talking myself up to play golf with, it would be an eminently good thing for me to play golf with whoever that person was. I think what’s lacking in today’s culture is a lack of personal connection and personal sympathy. If we all played golf with each other more often, the resulting personal sympathy would keep political foes as merely political foes and not hated people who we treat as subhuman and abuse worthy.
  • Which brings me to my last link of the day. Bronstein, the SFGate editor, interviews to Tea Party activists. He does a good and fair job of interviewing them, so kudos to him. But what struck me is the fear those two ladies felt coming into SF for the interview. They both state it explicitly and you can see it in their body language and timid voices. And it’s a valid fear. They are hated in some circles and those people would abuse them if given the anonymous chance to do so. As an example, they fear that people would vandalize their cars if they left their signs up in their cars while they did the interview. And who could argue that wasn’t a real possibility? That’s the opposite of playing golf together. That’s the hatred that has us dehumanizing our foes so much that perfectly regular people who would never damage a “regular” person’s property, would do it out of hatred of the “teabaggers”. Everyone needs to take a collective breath, play some golf, and learn to respect one another despite our different views.

QH’s – Pixar, SCOTUS nom and perfect games

May 12th, 2010

I’m going to get back on track with doing daily Quick Hitters:

  • I’m a big fan of Pixar. Their ability to make hit after hit without getting at all formulaic has been astounding. I was glad they were bought by Disney because they really are the rightful heir to the Disney legacy. In any case, I’m here to report I’ve re-ordered my ordinal list of Pixar movies after a re-watch of the Incredibles last week:
    1. UP
    2. Finding Nemo
    3. Ratatouille
    4. Monsters Inc.
    5. Wall-E
    6. Cars
    7. The Incredibles
    8. Toy Story
    9. Toy Story 2
    10. Bugs Life

    For what it’s worth, I have a particularly hard time placing 5-7 right now. The change was to bump The Incredibles above the Toy Story movies and now is in a dead heat with Wall-E and Cars. They’re all REALLY close. In fact, when I started conceiving the new list it was going to go Incredibles, Cars, Wall-E, but there’s something about Wall-E that I really like and the freshness of Incredibles wore off resulting in the exact opposite order for the published list. In any case, the rest are more obvious to me with 3-4 being the next closest two. But what’s remarkable to me is that even Toy Story 2 is better than just about every other childrens movie in the last 10-15 years.

  • I have no idea what to think of the Kagan nomination at this point because I’m entirely not familiar with her and the raging talking head debate is full of half truths and ad hominum attacks that just can’t be trusted. Without the ruling history for me to appeal to, it’s very hard to determine anything meaningful about her, which is precisely what Obama wants from where I sit. A cautionary tale for Obama: Be careful. Sometimes Souter ends up not being the conservative that nobody can prove anything about and ends being a turn-coat Souter who was really a liberal all along. You may end up getting a closet conservative if you’re not careful.
  • I’m a lifelong casual A’s fan. I grew up in Oakland and have attended my fair share of games (from as young as 8 or so to as recently as a month ago on a bobblehead day). So I take great joy in hearing that Dallas Braden threw a perfect game over the weekend. I wasn’t there (although I take great pride in having been at games 19 and 20 in the 20 game winning streak, the most impressive regular season team performance in modern baseball history) although I wish I had been. For those keeping score, that makes 2 of the 19 perfect games in MLB history from the A’s (Catfish Hunter in ’68 being the other). For you cross bay Giant fans, you’ll have to wait for your first. :)

TGD – Dawkins scriptural claims

May 10th, 2010

As I mentioned in my Chapter 3 review, Dawkins spends one section tearing down the Bible and using half-truths and outright lies to do so. I waffled on whether to break it down because it’s a lot of work for something that anyone with even a smidgen of Biblical knowledge will realize is garbage. But because there are so many who don’t know and the section might seem compelling to them, I decided to do a rebuttal of all of his points:

1. “The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal.”

If by “historical evidence” he means “texts other than the Bible” then he’d have the following case: “A guy named Jesus lived about 2000 years ago and was executed by the Romans for riling up Jews in Palestine. Why he was executed is a bit unclear but it likely had something to do with Messianic claims.” That information would come from historians like Josephus who were merely documenting history. Add in what the Gospels say, which everyone should realize that while it might not carry divine status, it does carry at least some historical status, and it’s hard to make the argument that Jesus didn’t make any divine claims. But even without scripture, the evidence is far more compelling that Christ did make those claims than not.

2. “[The gospels]…All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.”

Most scholars agree the gospels were written between 30 and 60 years after Christ’s death (i.e. from 60 AD to 90 AD). It’s unclear if Dawkins is suggesting that “long after the death of Jesus” is 30-60 years. If so, I don’t see what’s so troublesome about that. Is he arguing that a World War 2 veteran who wrote about the battles he participated in, or in the case of Mark or Luke, a historian who interviewed WWII veterans and wrote about it, in the 70’s through the turn of the century would not be considered credible? If he’s saying the Gospels were written at some other time, he’s really going out on a limb, historically.

As for the Epistles, I’m not sure what that has to do with it. I’m sure John Kerry wrote many a political letter to his fellow politicians that referenced Vietnam that didn’t mention each and every detail of his time during the War. It’s one thing to write letters with specific points in mind, which is what Paul was doing when writing to various budding Christian communities, it’s an entirely different thing to write a memoir or a history. In fact, Luke specifically starts of his Gospel stating that the point was to bring together what had been written or communicated in many different forms (i.e. like the Epistles) into one history for “easy reference”. He begins his Gospel this way:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. (Luke 1:1-4)

3. “When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus’ death, nobody knew where he was born.”

What a ridiculous claim. Christ’s own mother was still alive, by most accounts, when the first Gospels were written. To suggest that no one had ever talked to her, much less the dozens of other relatives who would have known, is ridiculous.

4. “Johns’ gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem.”

After this quote, Dawkins quotes John 7:41-42, which says that some were unconvinced that Jesus was the Messiah because he was from Galilee. This is the first instance in this section of an error Dawkins makes repeatedly when referencing scripture when is to confuse a quote in scripture with the positive consent of the author. John is telling us what some people thought. No where in there does John indicate that what those people thought was accurate. More likely, John knew, having written his Gospel after the others, that the other Gospels had clearly established that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem, and so it would obvious to the reader that these people were wrong about Jesus. It was likely so obvious to him that this was the case he didn’t even feel the need to rebut the claims of these people.

5. “Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus.”

This is the same error as with the previous item. Matthew is entirely silent about where Mary and Joseph were from. After giving Christ’s genealogy, Matthew simply states, “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” and continues on with the story of how Mary conceived without having sex. There’s no mention of location. There’s no mention of moves or lack thereof. Nothing. So at best all Dawkins could say is “well, since there’s no mention, I’m going to assume they were there the whole time.” And it’s not a horrible assumption. Without any other evidence it would make sense. But it is an assumption and when other texts give us other ideas, it’s reasonable to suggest that it’s a false assumption.

In fact, going further, Matthew NEVER says the place is Bethlehem. All that is said is that Herod tells the Magi to look for the baby in Bethlehem. Then the Magi set out and a star leads them to the baby. For all we know, taking this text without any context of the rest of what scripture had to say, the star took them away from Bethlehem and the Magi found the baby in Galilee.

Obviously that’s just a stupid interpretation, but it’s exemplary of what happens if you try to read a text in a vacuum.

6. “Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ and therefore he had to go to ‘the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’. … David, if he existed, lived nearly 1000 years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier?”

For such a brilliant scientist, you’d think Dawkins logical skills would be stronger. Did he even consider the possibility that Joseph lived in Bethlehem as a child himself, that being of that family, he was raised there but then left the area later in life? Nowhere in scripture does it suggest that it had been 1000 years since Joseph’s descendants had lived there. If anything, it suggests the opposite, that the descendants of David lived in Bethlehem right up until the time of Christ. That Joseph personally lived in Bethlehem would make sense.

7. “There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the empire as a whole – but it happened too late; in AD 6, long after Herod’s death.”

Which would logically indicate that it was likely some other census that was being referenced to. One that was broader than a local one.

8. “Robert Gillhooly shows how all the essential features of the Jesus legend, including the star in the east, the virgin birth, the veneration of the baby by kings, the miracles, the execution, the resurrection and the ascension are borrowed – every last one of them – from other religions already in existence in the Mediterranean and Near East region.”

The key word here is “borrowed”. That’s Dawkins’ (and perhaps Gilhooly’s) assumption and means of deriding an event that he doesn’t like. I mean, just what is the line of reasoning here? Group A predicts something, group B later claims it happened, therefore, group B is lying? Or is it group A claims something happened, group B later claims a similar thing happened, therefore, group B is lying? Those logical chains just don’t make any sense so all he can do is say they were “borrowed” without any evidence that this is the case.

9. “Matthew traces Joseph’s descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations? Worse, there is almost no overlap in the names on the two lists!”

Which of course logically suggests that there was more than one genealogy that would trace back to David, something not too uncommon in relatively isolated communities. Or is the devastating claim that the number of generations is different? Doesn’t Dawkins have any cousins who are enough younger or older than he so as to be more close in age to his parents or his children? I know I do. One family can easily have 5 generations in 100 years and others can have as little as 3.

10. “The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalen.”

It’s the “more or less arbitrarily” that is Dawkins error in this instance. In fact, Dawkins shortly thereafter gives a pretty reasonable explanation of why at at least Thomas was excluded: it make claims that the Church couldn’t support about ferries and the such. It’s as if Dawkins has never been involved in the peer review process that scientists go through to get their works published. How do they determine if a work gets published? They read the work and then check that work against what is known and how defensible the claims are. Those that aren’t justifiable don’t get published. The same is true of the Gospels. The ones that seem to have sourced themselves well and are credible were kept as canonical. Those that weren’t, didn’t get approval. What again is wrong with that? If anything it shows that the Church was critical in nature and wasn’t going to fall for any ridiculous claim that someone made.

11. “Most of what the four canonical gospels share a derived from a common source, either Mark’s gospel or a lost work of which mark is the earliest extant descendant.”

I’ll ignore the fact that Dawkins is basically ignoring John’s gospel which is wholly different than the other 3 in how it is organized and what it focuses on. But again, what exactly is Dawkins claiming? That all three are restating what had been written before? Obviously what he’s trying to claim (as can be seen from the next item) is that they’re just blindly copying someone else s work and they have no idea what they’re talking about. But it’s just a stupid notion that because they all reference the same events in Christ’s life, perhaps using someone else’s work as a staring point for their own personal testimony, that it means they’re just copying what they have no knowledge of.

12. “Nobody knows who the four evangelists were, but they almost certainly never met Jesus personally.”

Of all of his claims this is the most ridiculous. John and Matthew were apostles. They lived with Jesus during his public ministry and were PERSONAL witnesses to the resurrection. Luke and Mark were both followers of Paul and are mentioned in Paul’s Epistles multiple times. While it is accurate that they never met Jesus personally, through Paul, who himself only knew Christ after his ascension, they would have most likely met most of the apostles who did personally know Jesus.

Perhaps Dawkins is trying to claim that everything is scripture is bunk and we can’t even trust the names on the books (“Matthew didn’t really write Matthew”) but that would again put him WAY outside the scholarly mainstream that he claims to respect so much. While there are passages and sections that scholars debate whether they personally come from the claimed author, generally it is believed that even those questionable passages came from close followers who rounded out those sections after the disciples death.

13. “It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never existed at all.”

I included this one as proof of just how much Dawkins is willing to deviate from scholarly accepted information when it suits him. Sure the vast majority of credible scholars suggest that Jesus indeed lived, but why let that stop Dawkins from throwing in a jab of what he’d prefer to be the case with the small caveat to give him some critical breathing room when questioned (“well I did say it wasn’t widely supported”).

14. “Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history.”

Again, more complete hogwash. As long as by “reputable” Dawkins limits that to mean “the ones I find reputable”, I guess it could be accurate. Nevertheless, there is much evidence to suggest that much of what is said in the Gospels is accurate and a fair number of confirming external documents for a number of scriptural claims. Additionally, there are very few external documents that contradict scripture, although there are some for a number of minor details. The vast majority of biblical scholars will tell you as much that the Gospels appear to reflect real events that happened in Palestine between about 6 BC and 35 AD (or thereabouts). Whether the divine claims are true is a religious question, but the basic histories are accurate.

And so ends Dawkins scriptural blunder-filled section…

It’s worth noting to conclude this post that I included just about every scriptural claim that Dawkins makes in the section. It’s not that he made 50 claims and I picked the 14 that were errant. Sadly, on the contrary just about EVERY one of his claims are at best ignorant or at worst purposely misleading.

TGD – Chapter 3

May 4th, 2010

Chapter 3 of The God Delusion is titled “Arguments for God’s Existence” and is theoretically a point-by-point rebuttal of all the arguments for God. I say theoretically because as with much of the book so far, his ability to stick to a point to its conclusion is amazingly weak and it results in not rounding out any particular point. Furthermore he doesn’t address a number of arguments for God although Dawkins should be given some slack for that because making a comprehensive defense of every attack can unnecessarily bog things down. I get the feeling the meat of his point is not to rebut arguments for God but to make arguments against, and that is planned for future chapters.

In the case of this chapter, he starts off by addressing Thomas Aquinas’ proofs. He manages to explain and retort them, at least to his satisfaction, in 3 pages. Anyone who thinks they can sufficiently explain what Aquinas had to say in 3 pages (mind you this book is formatted similar to a novel, not a textbook) without creating a mere shell (or should I say strawman?) of what Aquinas said, is lying to themselves.

As can be expected from that short of a section, he doesn’t provide a good rebuttal. What is surprising is that he doesn’t even provide a good rebuttal to his overly simplistic summary of Aquinas’ work. His argument is basically that the God Aquinas is arguing for, is not necessarily a “personal” God. Dawkins is right about this, Aquinas’ proofs do not attempt to prove that. But what Dawkins seems oblivious to is the concept of laying a foundation. Once you’ve proven there must be SOME SORT of God, that’s a foundation that the rest can be built upon. Once you know he exists, then you can try to find out more about what He’s like.

But after 3 pages of his 30 page chapter he’s done with all a-posteriori arguments having believed he’s dispatched Aquinas. He then goes on to address a-priori arguments. I’m not a philosopher at heart and neither is Dawkins. He spends about 6 pages flying through a number of philosophically minded arguments from Anselm to Diderot and a number in between, but I get the feeling that Dawkins is as interested in them as I am. He’s a scientist at heart, not a philosopher, as am I.

The next argument he tackles is that of beauty which is not much worth commenting on as it’s really an abstraction of the points Dawkins will make further on.

The next three sections are titled “The Argument from Personal ‘Experience'”, “The Argument from Scripture” and “The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists”. Even though the scripture section is in between the other two, I’m going to address it separately because the other two sections are mirror images of each other.

The first section is entirely about discounting religious experiences and his argument is effectively “the mind can play tricks on you”. Which is no doubt the truth in a number of circumstances. What is remarkable to me is that he turns around in the section on scientists and spends a bunch of time asserting that the vast majority of scientists are atheists, assumably because it disproves God (although he doesn’t say so explicitly). There’s no escaping the basic premise that he’s making: Regular people are dumb and scientists are smart.

So far, if there’s on unifying theme to this book, this is it. Regular people are dumb, the scientific method is infallible, and scientists are the only ones smart enough to see that.

Of particular note in this regard is his addressing of the miracle at Fatima. (A quick side note, I write these posts as I read, and don’t read more until I’ve written all the posts I desire for each chapter. So I didn’t know he’d be addressing Fatima when I wrote of it in my last post on TGD.) While Dawkins admits that it’s harder to “write off” 70,000 people and their shared vision, he still dismisses it. His basic argument is it’s impossible “that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing.”

I’ve met no one nor read any account that’s claimed that’s what happened at Fatima, that the sun and earth left their orbits.

All that is claimed is that it appeared that way. The fact that the sun and the earth actually stayed in their orbit is in fact, a part of the miracle. How did these people come to see this? Science has no answer. They’ve got no theory, much less any proof of a theory, that suggests the incident was a natural occurrence. The best Dawkins can do to refute it is to say the sun and earth remained in its orbit. It’s laughable.

Laugable or not, it’s angering in that he gives people no credit. When he heard a voice whispering to him as a kid, he got up and investigated and determined that it was just an artifact of the wind through his house. Is he so naive to think that when others hear a voice they don’t do the same thing? Apparently. He specifically credits his not being “impressionable” for the reason that whispering voice didn’t fool him.

Does he think those 70,000 people at Fatima wouldn’t consider what possible natural explanations could explain what they saw? Of course they do, but Dawkins just thinks they’re all too “impressionable”, all 70,000 of them, to consider what natural explanations there might be.

Dawkins laughs at the organization in the Vatican who’s job it is to investigate the validity of miracles because he assumes its job is to promote whatever any nutjob tells them is a miracle. What he doesn’t realize is that the fact that the Vatican has such an organization is proof that we DON’T take claims of a miracle lightly. We’ve got a whole organization to make sure the claim is defensible. Many a religious organization has had their hopes crushed when the Vatican has declared this miracle or the other a fake. From the grilled cheese Virgin Mary to at least one of the miracles ascribed to Pope John Paul II, many of the claimed miracles are shot down as being fakes.

But to Dawkins we’re just all dolts who wouldn’t think to question anything while he and his fellow scientists are the noble objective ones who aren’t so “impressionable”.

Moving on, perhaps the tying theme that has Dawkins putting his scripture section in between the personal experience and the scientist section is the “regular people are dumb” argument. In the scripture section he’s back to his bungee jumping in and out of various topics, scoffing all the way along, without spending sufficient time on any to make a point. Between the half truths of a proper understanding of scripture and the misrepresentations of what is actually in scripture, there’s not much in this chapter of note, although I’m sure to the scripturally ignorant it’ll seem convincing. If I have time I’ll make a separate post about these scriptural claims.

I will give Dawkins one thing, in regards to scripture, there are plenty of believers who haven’t read it nor understand how to properly interpret it. I, just like Dawkins, would like them to learn more about scripture so as to not make false assertions about God based on a poor understanding of scripture. He’s right that a lot of people take certain things in scripture as the literal truth when they were never intended as such and any passing understanding of reality makes that interpretation of scripture ludicrous. Nevertheless, that some mishandle the Bible does not prove that the Bible is not valid.

The next to last section of the chapter is about Pascal’s wager, that it’s safer to bet on God than against Him (i.e. if non-believers are right, the religious lose nothing after death, but if believers are right, the non-believers lose everything). Dawkins is right to suggest that it isn’t a proof of anything, and I doubt Pascal would disagree with him. It’s merely a way to encourage people to open their mind to faith. He also spends a fair amount of time suggesting Pascal is asking people to be hypocrites, to pretend to believe, but I think that’s taking too shallow a view of Pascal.

The final section is on some recent attempts to use the same sort of logic in the Drake’s equation to determine whether God exists. Dawkins is right to suggest that the answer that comes out has more to do with the person asking the questions than the questions themselves, but I find it interesting that Dawkins at least appears less critical in the extraterrestrial life case that Drake presents than he seems here. In either case, it’s not an area where either side can put much stock and Dawkins argument is a reasonable one.

Overall the chapter is about what I expected, setting up strawmen and arguing against them. What became most clear to me in this chapter is Dawkins general disgust of regular people as separate from scientists. The mind can play tricks on everyone but the scientists it appears. Whether it be his off hand comments like “admittedly, people of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true.” (as if no scientist have ever mistaken the truth for what they wanted to be true) to his dismissing the testimony of literally billions of people, including people he otherwise admits are smart people, there’s no disguising his disgust.

On to Chapter 4… (perhaps with a detour to rebut his specific scriptural claims before that)