At Richard Dawkins’ site, Paula Kirby offers a lengthy but absolutely devastating critique of four anti-Dawkins books–Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion?, John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, Andrew Wilson’s Deluded by Dawkins? A Christian Response to The God Delusion, and David Robertson’s The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths–focusing most of her attention on the last of these, which she finds the best of the four, though that is certainly no compliment to Robertson.
As Kirby’s review demonstrates, all four books are chock-full of the same canards, fallacies, unsubstantiated assertions and other varieties of woolly thinking (to say nothing of blatant misrepresentations of The God Delusion) that many of us experience in countless exchanges with apologists–the one about how since Stalin and Hitler were atheists (arguable in the extreme in Hitler’s case), atheism leads to Stalinism/Nazism, & c. & c. being a particular favourite. Kirby’s reaming of Robertson (who apparently trolls the discussion fora at Dawkins’ site) is so thoroughgoing that it serves as an eminently useful primer in counterapologetics. So much so that it has earnt itself a permanent slot on my sidebar.
I do want to pick up on something Robertson says that I think is pretty revealing of what motivates much of the bigotry directed at atheists.
He objects to Dawkins’ opening paragraph of chapter 2 in TGD. You know the one: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction …” Robertson finds it offensive: “you are implying that I believe in this cruel, capricious and evil god.” He goes on, “if you attack my family, my friends, my community I am offended because part of my identity is tied up with them…. My identity is bound up with the God of the Bible and especially Jesus Christ. Therefore, when you attack him you are attacking me. So please don’t patronise.”
Why do atheists inspire such hatred, as the infamous CNN panel discussion wondered? It’s because our atheism is taken personally–as a personal attack–by those who object to it. Forget this nonsense about “Militant Fundamentalist Atheists (TM)”: simply to be an atheist is to be mean, hostile, offensive to Christians, at least according to those who share the mindset of Robertson. Hence the flurry of ad hominems and strawmen that Kirby encounters in the anti-Dawkins books she reviews. It’s an emotional–not to mention tu quoque–reaction: one that tries to dress itself up in the garb of reasoned argument, and fails miserably.
Upon reflection, there is one aspect of Kirby’s otherwise masterful piece that bothers me. It’s where she addresses the question of what atheists would accept as evidence of the supernatural:
1. If one type of prayer were convincingly demonstrated to work better than another type. For instance, if the efficacy of prayers said by Christians were consistently significantly greater than that of prayers said by Moslems or pagans, or people who just keep their fingers crossed. Or if any kind of prayer were shown to have a consistent, significant effect. Or if a single prayer achieved something truly extraordinary, something which simply could not be otherwise explained: the scientifically verified re-growth of an amputated limb, for instance.2. If a new planet were to appear (as opposed to just being seen for the first time thanks to better instruments, for instance) in the solar system. This would violate the law of energy conservation and could only have a non-natural cause.
3. If evidence were to emerge that the universe must have begun in a high state of order, necessarily imposed from outside.
4. If there were any observable astronomical phenomenon that required the addition of a supernatural element before it could be described.
5. If, say, the Bible, had contained some specific information about the world which was unknown to science at the time of the “revelation” but which was later confirmed by observation. If it contained successful predictions of specific events in our own time that could have no plausible alternate explanation (not just vague allusions to suffering / evil / upheaval).
6. If someone undergoing a religious experience subsequently had new, verifiable knowledge that could not have been gained by other means. Not the usual stuff about how we should all love one another and watch our cholesterol, but something specific – the example Stenger gives would have been of someone in the 20th century specifically knowing that on 26 December 2004 a tsunami in the Indian Ocean would kill hundreds of thousands of people. We just couldn’t account for such prescience other than by the existence of something outside the material world.
I have previously stated that it would take extraordinary evidence indeed to convince me of the supernatural–so extraordinary that I can’t imagine what it would look like. The suggestions Kirby offers here haven’t really convinced me otherwise, and here’s why. What they describe are phenomena that appear to be beyond the capacity of science to explain: and if they can’t be explained in natural terms, then we must defer to supernatural explanations. But isn’t this just arguing from ignorance? And if it is, hasn’t Kirby just made a huge concession to apologists who routinely appeal to ignorance by way of making ambit claims about which phenomena science will never, ever be able to account for?
The question put to atheists–what would you accept as evidence of the supernatural?–is one that I’m beginning to think is little more than a clever apologetic trap. To accept it as a reasonable question is to presuppose the possibility that the supernatural exists. But how do you not presuppose this possibility without appearing dogmatic? Could it be that we agnostic atheists ought to be agnostic about more than just the existence of the supernatural–ought we rather to found our agnosticism on the fact that we lack sufficient evidence to justify giving even the possibility of the existence of the supernatural serious consideration?