Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Some Christian Criticism of ID

“In The Blind Watchmaker, [Dawkins] provided a sustained and effective critique of the arguments of the nineteenth- century writer William Paley for the existence of God on biological grounds. It is Dawkins’s home territory, and he knows what he is talking about. ^This book remains the finest critique of this argument in print. The only criticism I would direct against this aspect of The Blind Watchmaker is that Paley’s ideas were typical of his age, not of Christianity as a whole, and that many Christian writers of the age were alarmed at his approach, seeing it as a surefire recipe for the triumph of atheism. There is no doubt in my mind that Paley saw himself as in some way ‘proving’ the existence of God, and Dawkin’s extended critique of Paley in that book is fair, gracious and accurate.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins turns his attention to such other ‘arguments’ based on the philosophy of religion. I am not sure that this was entirely wise. He is clearly out of his depth, and achieve little by his brief and superficial engagement with these great perennial debates, which often simply cannot be resolved empirically. His attitude seems to be ‘here’s how a scientist would sort out this philosophical nonsense.’ [Examples follow in the book.]…

In The God Delusion Dawkins criticizes ‘the worship of the gaps.’ This is a reference to an approach to Christian apologetics that came to prominence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries- the so-called God of the gaps approach. In its simplest form it asserted that there were necessarily ‘gaps’ in a naturalistic or scientific understanding of reality. At certain points, William Paley’s famous Natural Theology (1801) uses arguments along these lines. It was argued that God needs to be proposed in order to deal with these gaps in scientific understanding.

It was a foolish move and was increasingly abandoned in the twentieth century. Oxford’s firs professor of theoretical chemistry, the noted Methodist lay preacher Charles A. Coulson, damned it with the telling phrase ‘the God of the gaps.’ In its place he urged a comprehensive account of reality, which stressed the explanatory capacity of the Christian faith as a whole rather than a retreat into ever-diminishing gaps. Dawkins’s criticism of those who ‘worship the gaps,’ despite its overstatements, is clearly appropriate and valid…Unfortunately, having made such a good point, Dawkins then weakens his argument by suggesting that all religious people try to stop scientists from exploring those gaps…[Despite my desire to further quote criticism of Dawkins I will stay on topic here. It is interesting to me to note here how the 'God of the gaps' is a term coined by a Christian preacher in the porcess of criticizing a specific apologetic strategy, a preacher who was by no means alone in his rejection of this new development in modern times in some Christians' thought.]

It is hardly surprising that the ‘all too limited’ human mind should encounter severe difficulties when dealing with anything beyond the world of everyday experience. The idea of ‘mystery’ arises constantly as the human mind struggles to grasp some ideas. That’s certainly true of science; it’s also true of religion.

The real problem here, however, is the forced relocation of God by doubtless well-intentioned Christian apologists into the hidden recesses of the universe, beyond evaluation or investigation. Now that’s a real concern. For this strategy is still used by the intelligent design movement- a movement, based primarily in North America, that argues for the ‘intelligent Designer’ based on gaps in scientific explanation, such as ‘irreducible complexity’ of the world. It is not an approach which I accept, either on scientific or theological grounds. In my view, those who adopt this approach make Christianity deeply- and needlessly- vulnerable to scientific progress.

But the ‘God of the gaps’ approach is only one of many Christian approaches to the question of how the God hypothesis makes sense of things. In my view it was misguided; it was a failed apologetic strategy from an earlier period in history that has now been rendered obsolete. This point has been taken on board by Christian theologians and philosophers of religion throughout the twentieth century who have now reverted to older, more appropriate ways of dealing with this question. For instance, the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne is one of many writers to argue that the capacity of science to explain itself requires explanation- and that the most economical and reliable account of this explanatory capacity lies in the notion of a Creator God.

Swinburne argues that the intelligibility of the universe itself needs explanation. It is therefore not the gaps in our understanding of the world which point to God but rather the very comprehensibility of scientific and other forms of understanding that requires an explanation.” –Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? : Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (2007), p. 24-25, 29-31.

“When philosophy textbooks gather under the same heading a range of texts from the Middle Ages to today, from Anselm and Aquinas through Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and Kant to contemporary writers, as if all these folks were doing the same thing- offering ‘proofs for the existence of God’- they mislead the students who read them. In fact the medieval texts so cited were usually doing something like the opposite- giving an account of God that would render anything like a ‘proof’ altogether inappropriate. Those who seek to reduce Christian faith to the arena of rational proof- whether liberal Deists trying to eliminate Christianity’s ‘irrational’ elements or conservative advocates of ‘intelligent design’ trying to make religion fir their own version of the ‘scientific’- are not preserving traditional Christianity but engaging in a particular and characteristically modern project that has diverged from the Christian tradition. “ –William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology, (2007), p. 10.

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