Letter to an Influential Atheist

Posted in Reviews

“Letter To An Influential Atheist” is a new book by Roger Steer. The atheist in question is Richard Dawkins.

In it Roger attempts to refute Dawkins arguments for atheism, and put forwards his own arguments for Christianity. The book is well written, but I feel it is doubtful that it will convert many atheists. To give one example of why it will be found unconvincing, Roger claims that there is good documentary evidence for the Resurrection because there are a lot of manuscripts of the Bible. Perhaps I should respond to this non sequitor by pointing out that while Roger is proud of his 5,000 Greek manuscripts, there are far more extant copies of “The Blind Watchmaker”. Perhaps “The Blind Watchmaker” is even truer!

If all Roger can do to document the resurrection is say that there are manuscripts from 300 years later, then he is in deep trouble. He claims there is documentation and cites p52 as proof. I wonder why he does not tell his readers that this manuscript does not even mention Jesus!

Roger writes “The point is that the documentary evidence for the New Testament is very much more reliable than for other famous historical writings which no one ever questions.” Is Roger certain that nobody ever questions any stories in Tacitus or Thucydides?

Roger complains that Dawkins approach to history is not sound. Can Roger name one historian who judges the veracity of stories from ancient history by counting the number of copies of manuscripts it is mentioned in?

More information about the early manuscripts can be found at here and here The early manuscripts are clear evidence that early Christians would alter the stories of the baptism, crucifixion, resurrection etc for purely doctrinal reasons. We do not have what the original evangelists wrote and the stories have been edited, perhaps to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

Roger also claims as evidence of Christianity the old, tired idea that the authorities would have produced the dead body of Jesus to stifle the new religion. Even his own Bible claims that the disciples did not go public until six weeks after any supposed events – by which time any body would have been unrecognisable. Factor in the taboo on touching corpses, the claim in Galatians 6 that circumcision was the issue Christians were persecuted on, and the idea becomes absurd.

Atheists can judge the worth of the book’s arguments for Christianity by the strength of these two arguments – arguments that have been rebutted and refuted countless times on infidels.org

But we are here to discuss Dawkins arguments for atheism , not Roger’s arguments for Christianity.

Why is Dawkins an atheist? Dawkins has claimed on more on one occasion that science cannot disprove God. I, for one, can’t imagine what evidence would disprove God. Alan Guth, an atheist, speculates in his book ‘The Inflationary Universe’, about what sort of technology could be used to create a universe. He concedes that a sufficiently advanced being, or civilisation, could create a universe.

So why is Dawkins an atheist, when there is no proof that the universe was not created?

I am not Dawkins’ spokesman, but his main argument seems to me the argument from moral outrage, or the argument from suffering, if you wish to call it that.

Dawkins has done natural theology, looked at the world God has supposed to have created, and reflected on what characteristics God must have, judging by what he has created.

Will Roger say that atheists have no right to do natural theology? Are we only allowed to look at the world to see if it reflects the handiwork of a God, if we agree in advance that only results favourable to theism are allowed? It seems to me that Dawkins has as much right as Roger, the Archbishop of Canterbury, imams in Teheran or anybody else to do natural theology, and as much right as they to argue the case for what he finds when he looks at the world.

What does Dawkins see when he sees the world?

In “River Out of Eden”, Dawkins has a chapter called God’s Utility Function. He writes “Cheetahs give every indication of being superbly designed for something, and it should be easy enough to reverse engineer them and work out their utility function. They appear to be well designed to kill gazelles. The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we would expect if God’s purpose in designing cheetahs was to maximize deaths among gazelles. Conversely, if we reverse-engineer a gazelle, we shall find equally impressive evidence of design for precisely the opposite end: the survival of gazelles and starvation among cheetahs. It is as though cheetahs were designed by one deity, gazelles by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is only one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is He a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? Is He trying to avoid overpopulation in the mammals of Africa?”

So Dawkins does see how a deity could have created a world which led to cheetahs and gazelles which compete to the death for the right to live. Dawkins simply draws the natural conclusion that there could be two deities , in competition with each other. Or perhaps there is one deity , who likes seeing his creatures tear each other apart.

Either way, Dawkins sees no support in natural theology for the deity of Christianity. There may be a sadistic, blood-thirsty deity in Dawkins view, but Christians say themselves that this deity is not theirs.

So if the deity of Christianity is not the deity of the jungle , who likes spectator blood sports, how will Christians account for the carnage of nature?

Naturally, Roger addresses this question in his book. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I welcome the fact that he will be able to address the problem in this debate, if he feels I am misrepresenting his arguments.

His book states that suffering is necessary for freedom. Should we increase Roger’s freedom by having cheetahs chase him at random moments? Surely gazelles would prefer the freedom to live in a world where they are not subject to the chance of instant, unexpected death. And perhaps cheetahs would prefer to get food without having to hunt for it. Eventually, even a cheetah gets old and slow, and starves to death…..

Roger also writes ‘Perhaps we can go on to say that living with pain can purge, refine, even ennoble character.’ Perhaps it can, although why gazelles need noble characters is an interesting question.

It is hard to argue that pain is necessary to ennoble character. In the Siege of Leningrad, pain abounded, yet people were not visibly ennobled. Cannibalism was practised. Stealing from the dead was the only way to survive.

Can we not be ennobled by a long, rewarding life , surrounded by adoring friends and loving family, with our characters ennobled by the depth and warmth of our relationships? Why does Roger , and presumably his God, feel that pain is necessary for ennoblement?

In that great work of genius, Job, the writer explains that suffering does not ennoble character. Before suffering, Job was a noble, righteous character. ‘When I found someone in need , too poor to buy clothes, I would give him clothing made of wool that had come from my own flock of sheep.’ ‘When the poor cried out, I helped them. I gave help to orphans who had nowhere to turn.’

After God had allowed Job to suffer, simply because God felt challenged in his amour propre by Satan, Job became a changed man, concerned only with himself. Job says of someone in pain ‘He feels only the pain of his own body and feels the grief of his own mind.’

Pain makes people selfish, as Job recognised. True, it can make a few people noble, but will Roger say that pain is given only to those who need it to make them noble, or will he agree with Dawkins that pain strikes with pitiless indifference?

Dawkins writes ‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.’ Roger can not only contemplate this pain in the animal kingdom, but go on to say that his God created this world. A world where natural selection, the destruction of all which is too weak to fight for survival, was God’s chosen method of designing animals and man.

Dawkins has also famously claimed that Darwin’s theory of natural selection made it possible to be an ‘intellectually fulfilled’ atheist. What did he mean by that?

I think he meant that, despite the horrendous cruelty in the world created by God, it was difficult to say that animals had not been created, if you were unable to provide a mechanism which could explain how animals were adapted to their environment. True, they might be adapted to kill and exploit, but they were still adapted, and that needed an explanation.

In Dawkins view, Darwin and Wallace provided a solution of how the human species could come to exist, in a natural manner that did not involve God. Wallace, as Dawkins points out, never came to terms with the idea that the mental functions of human beings could have evolved without supernatural intervention, but Wallace , ironically, laid the ground for a path that he personally found unappealing.

Is Dawkins write to think that Darwin and Wallace produced a theory which could show how human beings could evolve by natural means?

Roger appears to write in his book as though consciousness could not have evolved by natural means.

I fail to see the problem. A fertilised egg is not conscious, yet it develops consciousness over the course of the next nine months, with no sign of divine intervention. Does God have to implant this gift of consciousness into the developing baby? If a natural system can develop consciousness over a short time period, then why cannot another natural system develop consciousness over a much longer time period? Not by the same methods , of course, but I wish to show that there is nothing implausible as such in the idea of a natural system going from a non-conscious state to a conscious state without divine intervention. It happens all the time.

Consciousness is mysterious. How does a material system produce thoughts? An equally mysterious question is “How does God get a material system to produce thoughts?” You quote Professor Susan Greenfield, a humanist, as saying ‘… the big question that scientists are still ducking is how the actual feel of emotions, raw consciousness no less, is accommodated in the physical mass.’ Your views on the process by which God implants consciousness are requested.

While it is mysterious how a material system produces consciousness, there is nothing unnatural about it. Indeed, it is the most natural thing imaginable. Simply imagining shows how natural it is that we can imagine. And there is no sign of divine intervention about it.

We can lose consciousness and regain consciousness in operations without the surgical team having to pray to God to cooperate with the anaethnetist. As a Greek philosopher once observed ‘A blow on the head has a different effect to a blow on the foot. This cannot be due to an immaterial soul.’

To confuse the mysterious with the unnatural is to make a category mistake. Consciousness is mysterious but it is not unnatural.

Indeed, it is Christians who struggle to explain how humans were given consciousness by God. Why do other animals, such as dogs, cats, gorillas, chimpanzees have consciousness if it is a gift from God to us because we were made in God’s image , while cats and dogs were not? Or does Roger regard cats and dogs as unconscious? I can agree that they have a different mental life to us, but to say that they are unconscious?

If humans were descended from a species that was just as animalistic as sharks or dinosaurs, why did God decide to give that particular species this gift of consciousness?

What distinguished that species as being suitable for this gift, when you hypothesise that that species could no more have developed consciousness than could sharks or dinosaurs? Did God just choose one species at random? Or was the precursor of humanity a particularly suitable species in some way for receiving consciousness? And if that species was marked out as particularly suitable for receiving consciousness, why should we rule out the idea that that suitable for consciousness species could not have developed consciousness on its own, given millions of years to evolve?

Why did God choose Homo sapiens to receive these gifts, while he allowed another branch of humanity, Neanderthal man to become extinct? Were we just lucky that we were the favoured branch of the family? Can we really believe we are the pinnacle of creation when a very closely related species was so little favoured by Roger’s God that he allowed them all to die?

Roger also claims that a “conscience” could not have evolved without divine help.

Roger has no problem with the idea that certain aspects of us could have evolved without divine help. He writes – ‘Whatever we are by creation, we affirm: our rationality and sense of moral obligation. What we are by the Fall, we deny or repudiate, our irrationality and moral perversity.’

Why does Roger believe that all nice things about us were created by God and could not have evolved , while all bad things about us evolved naturally , against God’s will?

What law of nature says that only bad aspects of our mental life , anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, religious zealotry and fanaticism etc evolved quite naturally, while the nice aspects of us are impossible to explain by evolution?

Surely if some of our emotions have evolved, then there is no reason at all to believe that other emotions could not also have evolved.

Indeed, the presence of negative emotions is a problem for Christianity, as God is supposed to be guiding our evolution. Roger insists all things are sustained by God. This means that envy, hatred, jealousy, religious zealotry are all sustained at every instant by God.

Atheists do not have such problems.

Altruism in social animals like us is easy to explain. We must work together to survive, and humans who are totally anti-social struggle in the world. At the same time, cheaters can sometimes prosper. Hence we would expect people to be altruistic , especially to close genetic relatives, while there would be the constant temptation of cheating, leading to people developing ways of detecting cheats, liars and punishing them in some way if they are caught.

Evolutionary psychology is, of course, in its infancy, and needs a lot of work before it is totally satisfactory.

However, even this infant science is a far more powerful explanation of what we see than Roger’s view that we were created nice, and somehow fell, allowing all these negative emotions to evolve in some way that he cannot explain (as he holds the view that evolution cannot explain conscious emotions like pride and jealousy.)

Roger also makes much of the fine-tuning of the Universe in his book.

Why are things the way they are? Fine-tuning is a problem, of course, but is God the answer? When Einstein worried why gravitational mass was identical to inertial mass, did he throw his hands up and say ‘God simply fine-tuned them to be the same.’?

No, he did science and came up with a reason for it. That is the only correct aproach. Naturally, we do not have all the answers yet. Perhaps we never will, and theists will continue to write books, saying “Science does not have all the answers, so God must have done it.”

Fine-tuned design is a problem, but God is not the answer.

Could God fine-tune the human body to run 100 meters in 6 seconds? Or 1 second? Or 0.1 second?

Would there come a time when , no matter how much God made our legs strong enough to run fast, the problems of supplying oxygen to the legs would be insuperable? Or perhaps some other problem would occur?

Or would such a point never happen?

Suppose it was impossible for God to fine-tune the human body to run 100 meters faster than 0.33 seconds.

If I then challenged God to produce a human who could run in 0.35 seconds, God could do that, but He would be very lucky that I did not ask him to do it in 0.25 seconds, as that would be too much for even a God.

Suppose I challenged God to create a universe where the strength of gravity was enough to allow the Big Bang to expand , but strong enough to make stars and planets form, yet weak enough to allow us to move around.

God would say, I can do that, but he would be very lucky that I did not ask him to produce a universe which was so finely-tuned that problems fixing G would have led to insuperable problems fixing the electric charge or the capacitance of a vaccum or whatever.

So was God just lucky that a universe can be made which does not have to be fine-tuned very much more than ours is, or was it always possible for God to find a combination of constants which allowed a universe to exist?

Surely if it is always possible to find a combination of constants which allow a universe to exist, this is just a brute, unexplainable fact – indeed the very fact that the fine-tuning universe is supposed to solve.

It means there was no luck involved in the project to create a universe, as there would be luck involved in having to meet the specification of creating a human to run in 0.35 seconds, when it could easily have been the impossible task of making a human to run 100 meters in 0.25 seconds.

So where does the fact that there is a solution to the universe building problem come from, when there could easily have been no solution?

Was God just lucky he was not stymied, as he would be stymied by the task of making a human being run 100 metres in 0.0000001 seconds?

The alternative, that it is a priori always possible to find laws of physics which allow universes to exist, seems equally mysterious, as though it is always possible to create a human who can run at almost light speed.

To sum up, the fine-tuning in the universe is a mystery, but positing somebody who set up the laws of physics to satisfy these fine-tuning constraints just replaces one mystery with another, as we cannot explain how such a task is always possible, when proponents of fine-tuning point out themselves how unlikely it is.

Steven Carr