the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

some big old issues touched upon: contra Mark Bahnisch

some optimist's view of the past and future of religion

The comments thread on the Larvatus Prodeo critique of The God Delusion is too large to adequately cover here, so I've chosen to focus on the blog's principal contributor, Mark Bahnisch, a writer I usually find quite stimulating (in passing I note that Shaun Cronin has written another post contra Dawkins on the blog, but I doubt if I'll have time to analyse it).

In Mark's first comment, he describes Dawkins as 'a very bad advocate for atheism' and claims that there are many better. Unfortunately he provides no names of these better advocates, nor does he give any coherent examples of Dawkins' poor advocacy. Further down in the thread he repeats the same assertion but again provides no names of better advocates, nor does he give examples of faulty logic or bad argument, he merely complains about Dawkins' arrogance on a video he once watched.

In this first comment Mark follows up his contemptuous remarks about Dawkins with a paragraph I can only describe as extraordinary:

I have no idea why he would think that the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are of any interest whatsoever in this context. People get taught the holes in them in first year philosophy, or at least they did when I was doing first year philosophy. To “disprove” them is easy work, but proves nothing other than they’re weak arguments.

Does Mark really have no idea why a book devoted to arguing against the existence of God should bother with any of the historical arguments for the existence of God? Or is he just being preposterous for the sake of being preposterous?

As to the quality of these pro-God arguments, Mark contradicts himself badly through the use of quotation marks. He tells us [again without showing us] that the arguments are weak and full of holes, and that to 'disprove' them is easy work, but his use of quotation marks strongly suggests that the arguments haven't been disproved at all [otherwise why on earth would he use them?]. So maybe he doesn't believe they're all such weak arguments?

And what do you know – further down in the thread, Mark refers to the ontological argument as 'the hardest to refute', and points out that 'There are a lot of Wittgenstein’s disciples from Cambridge who claim it’s valid'. Presumably these were disciples who'd failed first year philosophy courses.

Having myself read a book of collected writings, from Anselm on down, on the ontological argument, I personally find Dawkins' commentary on it to be just about spot on. It's no more than a language trick, as Schopenhauer noted long ago, and it's hardly surprising that the language philosophers of the fifties got themselves entangled in it.

Mark claims that the philosophical arguments for God's existence are old hat and that it's unlikely anyone would use them nowadays. This may be true for the ontological argument [leaving aside a few weird Wittgensteinians], but my current reading – The God Factor: 40 scientists and academics explain why they believe in God – indicates that many of those old arguments are still trotted out.

By far the most common one is the argument from design. Clearly this is influenced by current trends, but the fact is that the argument from design, once called the teleological argument, is the oldest of all the theist arguments, going back at least as far as Aristotle.

The cosmological argument is also still used by educated Christians, though it's often confused with the teleological argument – the idea of a designer being confused with, or supplementing, the more narrow idea of a cause. The arguments may be weak but they're still employed, especially, it seems, by well-educated, science-trained Christians, who are clearly wanting a more rational argument to support the faith they've largely – indeed almost universally – inherited from their parents. It's only to be expected that Dawkins would address those arguments, though Mark Bahnisch, of all people, would surely forgive him for not spending too much time on them, and for treating them quite scathingly.

On a couple of occasions, Mark talks about Dawkins being dogmatic about matters of which he knows little, but he gves no examples of this dogmatism. He may be talking about Dawkins' scathing remarks about theology, which I'll deal with in another post.

Mark accuses Dawkins of alienating liberal Christians by polarizing the debate, and insufficiently acknowledging, for example, pro-scientific pronouncements emanating from the Catholic hierarchy.

This leads into a larger debate, of course, about the compatibility or otherwise of religious faith and scientific knowledge. Mark appears to be sympathetic to the Catholic Church's official position on this matter, whereas I suspect that their position is more politically expedient than philosophical. Again, though, this is a subject for another day.


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