Disclaimer: This is my first attempt on this blog to work through some pressing theological issues in my personal life. I hope you find it helpful, and I hope you might be able to offer some encouraging words if you have struggled through some of the same thoughts. Part One will feature an introduction and review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006), Part Two will include a review of Alister McGrath’s response to the New Atheism movement, Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running On Empty? (Thomas Nelson, 2010), and Part Three will consist of some concluding thoughts and personal theological reflection .
My wife Alyssa and I often disagree on matters of theology. In particular, we frequently find ourselves arguing over the exact starting point of theological reflection. For Alyssa, the most important question facing the one who acknowledges the existence of God is What ought we to do? This question proceeds from a sincere concern for orthopraxy over orthodoxy, from the desire for ethical living in light of the theological claim, “God is.” God is, therefore, how are we to live? I deeply admire this question, and have tried to ponder its implications for my own personal life for years. However, as I approach theology, I have difficulty circumventing the more pressing initial question, “Does God exist?” as an underlying assumption. Some might perhaps prefer the question, “Is God?” instead. If God does not exist—that is, if God is not—then there seems to be little point in continuing any form of personal devotion to the supposed deity. It is from this concern for theological prolegomena that I have considered two works—one by an atheist and one by a Christian—and presented my deliberation of their merit in the essay below.
I should be entirely forthcoming before I embark on this period of reflection: atheism makes me anxious. I try my best to live as a faithful disciple of Christ, but I am often too easily swayed by sharp rhetoric and flashy infographics. My anxiety is compounded by the fact that as a student of the humanities, I have very little training in or knowledge of the natural sciences. It seems plausible that human neurology or psychology can tell us all we need to know about the origins of religion. It seems plausible, given our personal experience of the physical world, that miracles don’t happen and that all mysterious phenomena occurring in the natural world are capable of being explained rationally (my apologies to David Hume for drastically over-simplifying his arguments here). I simply do not have the skill set needed to investigate such questions as thoroughly as they deserve. On the other hand, I am inspired by the great work produced by the likes of Francis Collins, Ian Barbour, Sallie McFague, T.F. Torrance, and others who have sought to reconcile religion (particularly Christianity) and the scientific study of the natural world. It is with this admission of uncertainty and with openness of my own personal inclinations that I proceed with my analysis of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006) and Alister McGrath’s Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty? (Thomas Nelson, 2010).
Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell
There is an old story about a man in a car who passes a barn on the highway and notices that the barn is covered in bulls-eyes with arrows sticking out of the dead center of each target. A farmer stands near the barn, drawing his bow, and the man in the car decides to pull over and observe. “That’s some incredible marksmanship!” the man calls to the farmer. “Nah, it’s easy!” The farmer replies. He releases his arrow, hits a random spot in the side of the barn, and proceeds to paint a bulls-eye target around the arrow he just shot.
Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell by and large follows the same methodology as that of the farmer’s archery skills. It’s easy to “break the spell” of religion—that is, examine it too closely and kill the illusion it offers—when one begins with certain presuppositions at the outset and proceeds to paint their argument to fit these assumptions. Throughout the book, the author attempts to show his readers that religion has a natural, evolutionary origin, and once served a biological purpose for early human development. However, he offers little more than tentative theories regarding what that purpose might have been. Is religion the result of some prehistoric “sweet tooth” area that developed in our brains? Or does it more closely resemble the traits of a bacterium or parasite that “infects” the human mind and is “spread” from host to host?
The biggest problem with Dennett’s work is in his “atheological prolegomena” of sorts. Namely, the author “paints the bulls-eye around the arrow” when it comes to defining religion itself—if it doesn’t fit Dennett’s “tentative” definition of religious faith, it is not a religion. From the beginning, the author distinguishes seemingly at his own whim what does and does not constitute a true religion. Furthermore, from the opening pages of the book he perpetuates the false dichotomy between “religion” and “spirituality,” a divide often promoted by today’s “spiritual but not religious” crowd. According to Dennett’s logic, the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam constitute religions, but those who practice a private spirituality are not religious. Neither, for whatever reason, are those sects the author identifies as “satanic cults”. With religion so narrowly defined according to Dennett’s own specifications, he has little trouble pointing out seemingly fatal flaws in the faith of the religious. The author is clearly a skilled target painter.
Dennett frequently offers egregiously generalized straw man characterizations of religious persons while bolstering his own positive view of “brights” (that is, the term coined in 2003 by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell to refer to those who have risen above the irrational muckity-muck of religious faith). Atheists are friendly, open to criticism and dialogue, while their religious opponents are superstitious of any outsiders who might want to examine their faith with a skeptical objectivity (pp.16-17). Dennett also operates on the assumption that such skeptical objectivity is even possible in the study of religion. He offers little or no substantiation for some of his claims, which occasionally border on the level of personal hunch, while challenging his opponents to prove his intuition wrong using evidence that he himself doesn’t see fit to offer:
I, for one, fear that if we don’t subject religion to…scrutiny now, and work out together whatever revisions and reforms are called for, we will pass on a legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendants. I can’t prove that, and those who are dead sure that this will not happen are encouraged to say what supports their conviction, aside from loyalty to their tradition, which goes without saying and doesn’t count for anything here (pp.39-40).
Despite these shortcomings, I found Dennett’s book delightfully written, and quite passive in its rhetoric compared to the work of some of his New Atheist contemporaries. At times the author can be quite humorous. Additionally, Dennett does ask some important questions worthy of consideration by theists. He is correct in his contention that the claims of religions should be scrutinized closely (perhaps what religious folk might call, “testing the spirits”), and that upon closer examination many creeds may indeed be found to contain little more than superstitious nonsense. He is also sympathetic (though incompliant) with those who argue that the spell should not be broken, that the religious should just be allowed to continue on their merry way of self-delusion. Though much of his argument relies on the now all but abandoned Dawkinsian theory of the meme, his concern for unearthing the origin of not just religious belief but also “belief in belief” is laudable. The historical genesis of early Yahwism in particular remains a mystery to many scholars to this day, and deserves continued research into its development. Just how did a belief in a sole invisible creator deity arise amid a culture that offered an infinite personal pantheon of physical idols? If modern humans do have a “God center” in the brain, why did that develop (Dennett offers few concrete answers)? There are more religious people willing to ask serious questions—even at the risk of breaking their own “spell”—than the author himself realizes.
 I am aware this personal view constitutes what could be considered an appeal to authority fallacy. While I admire these women and men—and I do hope that their views are in some ways “more correct” than those of the New Atheists—I am not so naïve as to suggest that they are correct simply because they are experts.
David Bentley Harts’ article entitled ‘Hunting the Snark’, is worth reading if your enjoyed ‘Breaking the Spell’.
I look forward to reading more of these sorts of posts from you. This blog might be called a biblioblog, but it has often more accurately been a theo-biblioblog over the years, which is something I’d like to recover.
On my father’s side I come from a couple generations worth of atheists, so, like you, atheism tends to make me uneasy. My father wasn’t a terrible person, but he has some important flaws, flaws that I found hard to challenge without some sort of shared worldview. When I consider his atheism (not sure if he still maintains such a rigorous position or if he’s softened in his older age — pragmatically it doesn’t matter because he lives the same way) I cannot say that the choices he has made over the years are “bad” because he has made choices that at the moment made selfish sense. I’ve heard the arguments for charity, compassion, and even love having value if there is no deity (-ies), but all that didn’t matter when one of your parents embraces atheism and appeared to make most of his decisions pragmatically, rather than reflectively, because, “Why not?”
@whitefrozen: Thanks for the suggestion. I found a copy of Hart’s essay, “Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark,” here: http://bit.ly/nSpymN. I read about a quarter of it before I realized it is quite lengthy. I plan to read the rest of it tomorrow, since we had guests over this evening and I was a bit pressed for time. It looks interesting!
@brian I’m always wary of posting theological thoughts in places that I know receives high traffic. But I’m realizing that as anxious as it makes me, it’s probably the only way to get a good dialogue started. Thanks for sharing your personal experience. I have a similar experience, I think—I did not grow up in a particularly religious household, and my dad identifies as an atheist (though not militant). The idea of making decisions pragmatically rather than reflectively sounds all too familiar.
Another difficulty that I have—and this extends to even my own specialty in biblical studies—is that if I run into someone who seems knowledgable about the subject, I usually assume that they are knowledgable, and in a moment of heated exchange, I often lose my rhetorical footing. I would have been a terrible debater in high school, if my HS would have had a debate team. For instance, I have a grandfather who is (while not atheistic) vehemently anti-Christian as well as a “Jesus mythicist”. Now, I know mythicism is ridiculous; I’ve read enough works on the historical Jesus to know the arguments, and I know the material well enough to present counter-arguments if I have a few days or weeks to sit, think, and write about it. But when having a back-and-forth discussion face to face with my grandpa, I often find that my ability to recall complicated arguments and pertinent information falls flat, even though I know them. So I inevitably end up walking away feeling stupid and wrong. That is one of the reasons atheism makes me so uneasy—because part of me thinks they’re right.
Joshua Paul Smith wrote “I have very little training in or knowledge of the natural sciences. It seems plausible that human neurology or psychology can tell us all we need to know about the origins of religion. It seems plausible, given our personal experience of the physical world, that miracles don’t happen and that all mysterious phenomena occurring in the natural world are capable of being explained rationally.”
Joshua, great writing here!
It’s a shame you have very little training or knowledge of the natural sciences for it is here we see the greatest concentration of miracles. For example, since at least the enlightenment, science held to a static model of the universe, religion held that out of nothing God created the universe. The American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889–1953) discovered in 1929 that the light of all visible stars was redshifted meaning moving away from each other and earth. The reasoning went that if they were all moving away from each other, at some point in the distant past they must have been converged. This reasoning led Hubble to caculate the maximum age of the universe which showed that indeed the universe had a beginning!
Robert Jastrow wrote in his book God and the Astronomers, “There is a kind of religion in science . . . every effect must have its cause; there is no First Cause. . . . This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover.” Jastrow was later compelled by the evidence to admit “Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world.” (Though Jastrow never did call himself anything but an agnostic). In otherwords Jastrow was realizing that the biblical model was not irrational or improbable, and indeed that science seems to have been attesting it.
The faith of the scientist was violated by the discovery that the universe had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics were not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover was a startling conclusion to say the least. Another agnostic, George Smoot, and a Nobel Prize winning scientist admitted to the parallel saying “There is no doubt that a parallel exists between the big bang as an event and the Christian notion of creation from nothing.” The discover of the ‘big-bang’ so greatly irritated Einstein that he fudged equations to avoid the implicatoins of a beginning (he later called this the biggest blunder of his life). Einstein, Fred Hoyle and others who held to a static universe saw the ‘elephant in the room’ implication that a beginning meant something or someone beyond scientific investigation must have started it all. Einstein was ultimately forced to accept the evidence and he give up his atheism (and his error) in favour of deism.
If the creation of an entire universe out of nothing is not seen to be miraculous – nothing is! Atheists by their own admissions have no sharp rhetoric or flashy infographics that dismis this rather inconvient truth, and this isn’t the only miracle that begs explaination. How did ‘life’ spring from ‘non-life’ (especially given that science, which studies the repeatable and observable only ever sees ‘life’ begat ‘life’)? How did maximum entropy produce order (meaning an ordered universe)? How does the ‘rational’ spring from the ‘irrational’? Put them all off these miracles together and you have a scenario where the naturalist claims the cosmic atomic bomb detonates giving birth to a universe with order, structure, and improbable rational life all without the intervention of a causal agent!
Either way you look at it, naturalisticly or not, it is still a maracle. Then again, some times our experience deceives us such as telling us that things in motion actually just want to come to rest (rather than remain in motion). Perhaps we should be less trusting with our experience, and more trusting with our reason.
Online dialogue can be even more frustrating than being with someone in person. Over the last year especially I’ve become less prone to engage in a sustained argument. I’ve tried to write blog posts that are more question oriented than proposition defending, but that doesn’t mean that things stay in control. For better or for worse, when people communicate online it is easier to be argumentative than to sustain a dialogue. (You may find this podcast on the evolution of argumentation online to be fascinating like I did: http://youarenotsosmart.com/2013/09/30/yanss-podcast-episode-nine/ )
There are many topics that I don’t feel like I have the time and energy to address. I have a book that I am reviewing where several of the essays are from a mythicist perspective and it is just life sucking. Not so much because I think they offer plausible arguments, but because I wish I didn’t agree to waste my time reading what appear to be mind numbingly bad arguments. In fact, mind numbing is the perfect depiction: I just can’t take it serious enough to try to engage it. I keep thinking, “There are so many other things I should be reading that would be constructive to my learning process!”
So sometimes I am like you were I presume that those who seem knowledgable are knowledgable, but at other times I’m just bored with the idea. Mythicism definitely bores me. Often atheism does as well (though Alan de Botton is one of my favorite modern philosophers and he is an atheist). These subjects turn my brain into mush and make me want to go watch reruns of old baseball games. Of course, if atheism and/or mythicism are true I presume I’d be spending my time more efficiently doing something I enjoy like watching baseball than I would if I spent time arguing about it!
I’d add to what Brian said not to fret about these things but to do as you are lead (i.e. … losing your rhetorical footing).
The Apostle Paul was a terrible public speaker [2 Cor 10:10] and yet God is still able to glorify Himself in our weaknesses. Michael Rydelnik narrates how as a Jew, once he discovered Y’shua, wanted to tell other Jews about Him, so entered debates in his school. In one debate he was utterly thrashed by a boy a year or two above him in age, embarrassingly so. He was completely deflated and reflected upon his loss for years after.
Then later, once he had become a professor, he met this old Messianic Jew at a conference. The two got talking. During the course of the conversation he realized that they had both lived in the same neighbourhood when he was a boy (though this man was older). He asked the old man how he became to believe in Y’shua as a Jew. The man narrated the most amazing story. He had been a teacher at Michael Rydelnik’s very school (though Rydelnik did not remember him), and he witnessed this young Jew debating an older boy getting utterly thrashed in a debate though making some good points about Y’shua being the Messiah, but still getting whipped about. His pity for the boy left an impression on him to the point he felt compelled to answer the question for himself. He began studying Hebrew scripture considered to be Messianic to see if it was possible Y’shua was the Messiah.
After years of self-study, he concluded that the boy he witnessed getting thrashed in the debate was ultimately correct and the only thing to do about it was to discover Y’shua for himself. It turns out this boy was Michael Rydelnik and the debate which was forever a sore memory for him was the means of saving this old Jew.
Don’t fear your weaknesses but rejoice in them – for in them God is glorified!
My experience has been that it is pointless to “argue” with atheists. This is for two reasons:
. They bring the presupposition of atheism to the evidence > all evidence is interpreted through the atheist lens
. Belief comes from God. Unless God draws someone to Jesus, no amount of talking will make any difference.
What led me to this conclusion – other than five years of trying what couldn’t work, is the fact that atheists, those who self describe as not believing anything that isn’t proven by the scientific method reject the findings of science as they deal with origins.
So far, all atheists that I’ve encountered say something like, “I’m an atheist because I don’t believe what Christians believe.” And, “I don’t believe what you believe, therefore what I believe is correct.? Never, at least to date, do they give positive evidence for what they DO believe; that this is a material universe only, i.e. A universe without any supernatural component.
If they really were logical and rational, those who claim to be scientifically based thinkers would instead be saying something like:
. I don’t believe that material things can begin to exist without an external cause because this has never been observed, tested or verified.
. I don’t believe that everything material can come from literally nothing material without a material cause, because this has never been observed, tested or verified.
. I don’t believe that an infinite regress of cause is tenable, because this has been scientifically / philosophically refuted.
. I don’t believe that the material infinite is tenable, because this has been scientifically / philosophically refuted.
. I’m not going to change the definition of nothing to mean there was actually something because this is a ludicrous, absurd, illogical and an irrationally desperate thing to do.
BUT give me one example of these things occurring and I’ll start believing that this is a material universe only, i.e. I’ll start being an atheist.
Until then, I must believe that a Creator of some sort is the most logical explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. In fact until the above scientific facts are overturned, I’ll accept that the existence of a mathematically precise, life supporting, moral universe is best explained by the existence of an immaterial Creator.”
For some reason, and I’m not sure why, those who consider themselves to be the most logical and rational among us expend great amounts of time and energy explaining that they don’t believe in an immaterial God because there is no material evidence for Him, other than the existence of, you know, everything.
Hi, I’ve thought and read a lot on this subject (I confirm I’m a man of science) – and I do recommend you the following book: “Belief in God in an Age of Science” by J. Polkinghorne (http://www.amazon.com/Belief-God-Science-John-Polkinghorne/dp/0300099495), it’s not lengthy and goes to the point(s) – although not always easy reading.
You may also check some Q&A on Polkinghorne former website (just skip complex subjects): http://www.starcourse.org/jcp/qanda.html
So said, it’s quite easy to find the logical fallacies of Dennet and Dawkins – and I confirm you already found many. They’re not able to pinpoint their arguments with compelling scientific explanations, simply because in most of the cases it’s not possible. A question like “why a certain brain feature did develop” is a sort of non-sense from a scientific standpoint. It’s already difficult to understand *how* something develop, stay away from *why*. Moreover, I don’t see what the belief in a unique God has to deal with genetics or any brain features: if they really think that people who believe in a unique God are somewhat genetically different (in specific traits) from people who believe in many Gods (or in none), then they have the burden of the scientific proof. Which is (a) impossible (b) almost ridiculous.
The point is that atheist must always find a scientific proof for everything, for a simple reason: they think that if something is “true” then it can be scientifically proven. They simply don’t realize that such assumption cannot be scientifically proven – so it can’t be true (according to their line of reasoning). And if they still want to believe in something that can’t be proven, then it’s religion – not science.
Here’s a weird fact and/or thought to consider. Why are there strong similarities in all the ancient pagan worship modes?
From South America to Sumeria, they all seem to have many of the same ideas from their various gods and one of them often was human sacrifice. It happened globally and often. Was outlawed by Rome right before Christ for example, civilized Rome.
IF humanity dreamed up religious impulse, why did they do THAT? There is no logic under the sun to that. Which leads me to believe what they called gods were (are) real.
This militates against the “dreamed up idea for religion”. So does the resurrection of Christ, but, that’s another line of reasoning.
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