Tag Archive : atheism

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In this podcast recorded at Reasons to Believe in May 2019, Philosopher-Theologian Ken Samples and I discuss the nature of belief, pride, humility, and the life of the mind.

Topics:
-My personal journey from early atheism to Christian faith
Are people rational?
The role of emotions in belief formation
Intellectual pride and humility
The Intelligence Trap” by David Robson
The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins
Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII
Tenwek Hospital
As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.” Matthew Paris, The Sunday Times, December 27, 2008
-Responding to skeptics

Recently, the Spaniel and I sat down for a two-on-one [imaginary] conversation with renowned atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins. The following is a transcript of our conversation.*

*The answers come from his essay and the accompanying transcript in The Four Horsemen, Random House, 2019.[1] Of course they’re taken out of context – that’s the nature of this genre – but not in such a way as to alter the meaning.


Professor, it is such an honor for us to be with you here today. The Spaniel and I have heard so much about you – but we don’t believe all of it. Dr. Dawkins, are you a spiritual man?

“Religion is not the only game in town when it comes to being spiritual.” [2]

It may surprise some people that you are actually a great fan of the Bible. Why is that?

“Because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible. You can’t understand art, you can’t understand music, there are all sorts of things you can’t understand, for historical reasons – but those historical reasons you can’t wipe out.”[3]

You seem quite focused on the idea that religion is bad. Is that why you are an atheist?

“My concern is actually not so much with the evils of religion as with whether it’s true. And I really do care passionately about the fact of the matter: is there, as a matter of fact, a supernatural creator of this universe?”[4]

Well, is there a creator of this universe?

 “The fundamental constants of the universe are too good to be true. And that does seem to me to need some kind of explanation.”[5]

As you are aware, we have no idea what could have caused the Big Bang singularity. In your essay, you mentioned Lawrence Krauss’s idea that Nothing is unstable so it must produce Something. What do you think of his approach?

“Ignorance is something to be washed away by shamelessly making something up.”[6]

What does that make Professor Krauss?

“It is characteristic of theologians that they just make stuff up. Make it up with liberal abandon and force it, with a presumed limitless authority, upon others.”[7]

I guess we don’t know how the universe got started, do we? How about life? How did life get started?

“How did life begin? I don’t know, nobody knows, we wish we did.”[8]

Well, the biology textbooks suggest it just happened. Isn’t DNA the secret to it all?

“Almost all biology textbooks are seriously wrong when they describe DNA as a “blueprint” for life. DNA may be a blueprint for protein, but it is not a blueprint for a baby. It’s more like a recipe or a computer program.”[9]

Wow. Recipes and computer programs don’t just happen themselves into existence, do they? What else? Are there any other great mysteries that science cannot explain?

“How does brain physiology produce subjective consciousness? Where do the laws of physics come from? What set the fundamental physical constants, and why do they appear fine-tuned to produce us? And why is there something rather than nothing? Science can’t answer these questions.”[10]

With all these unexplained fundamental questions, it must be hard maintaining one’s faith as an atheist….

 “The human mind, including my own, rebels emotionally against the idea that something as complex as life, and the rest of the expanding universe, could have ‘just happened’.[11]

Emotions can throw us, for sure. So you’re sticking with the ‘just happened’ bit for now?

It takes intellectual courage to kick yourself out of your emotional incredulity and persuade yourself that there is no other rational choice.”[12]

You’re a brave man, Prof Dawkins. It must have been very risky to come out as an atheist at Oxford. (About as risky as licking yourself when nobody can see you” – the Spaniel). Now, you’ve clearly gone on record that no one can disprove God’s existence. You just think it’s improbable. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

“A creative intelligence capable of designing a universe would have to be supremely improbable… However improbable the naturalistic answer to the riddle of existence, the theistic alternative is even more so.”[13]

Could you explain to us how you calculated the improbability of God?

“To my regret I am not among the mathematically gifted of my species.” [14] (“Gimme four!” – the Spaniel).

That’s OK, professor. We all have our limits. So, with all those questions that science cannot answer, what’s your advice to people? Should we accept on faith that consciousness, life, and the universe came into existence out of nothing?

“Whether it’s astrology or religion or anything else, I want to live in a world where people think skeptically for themselves, look at evidence….if you go through the world thinking that it’s OK to just believe things because you believe them without evidence, then you’re missing so much.”[15]

I couldn’t agree more. Dr. Dawkins, this has been a very enlightening conversation.

“I think we’ve had a wonderful discussion.”[16]

Before we close, the Spaniel has a few questions he’d like to ask…

 “Unfortunately, we’re running out of time”[17]


Do you have any questions for “Dr. Dawkins” or the Spaniel? Please enter them in the comments section below. And don’t forget to subscribe so you’ll be automatically notified of future postings!


[1] The Four Horsemen: the conversation that sparked an atheist revolution Random House, 2019

[2] P49

[3] p111

[4] p123

[5] p79

[6] p9

[7] P5

[8] P8

[9] P18

[10] P21

[11] P22

[12] P22

[13] P2

[14] P17

[15] P99

[16] p131

[17] p130

Late in life, atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell received this challenge: if, after death, he found himself face to face with God, what would he say? Russell replied, “I probably would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’”¹

Theists contend that though evidence for God is both present and sufficient, bias can fog even brilliant minds like Russell’s. It’s possible that bias could explain Russell’s atheism, but is the accusation of bias merely an ad hominem counter argument? We often assume that human beliefs arise from the application of reason to facts and experience; that we are, in effect, Homo rationalis (rational man). If Russell were objectively rational after considering all the evidence, then his defense is valid. His unbelief would signify failure on God’s part.

Homo rationalis is widely embraced and resonates with our self-perception. We always think our own beliefs are based on facts, reason, and experience.

Social scientists in the 1970s broadly accepted two ideas about human nature. First, people are generally rational, and their thinking is normally sound. Second, emotions such as fear, affection, and hatred explain most of the occasions on which people depart from rationality.²

However, the Christian Scriptures reject the doctrine of Homo rationalis, instead predicting that people would refuse to believe in the face of overwhelming evidence. In a parable recorded in Luke 16, Jesus says, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” And in Romans 1:21, Paul writes, “Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

In recent decades, researchers from a range of disciplines have investigated the nature of human belief. The results of this research enable us to test which is more correct, Homo rationalis or the biblical perspective.

Finding #1: Relying on Heuristics

Humans routinely sift through mountains of information to make even simple decisions. Ideally, a person one would take accurate, complete data and apply reason to reach a logical and correct conclusion. Reality is not so cooperative; we often lack both time and desire for exhaustive analysis, even if perfect information were available. Instead, we make the best possible decisions based on imperfect, incomplete data.

Heuristics are those mental shortcuts people use for deciding as efficiently as possible given the information on hand. We all use them, several times a day. Heuristics are quite helpful, actually. If you encounter a shadowy figure in a dark alley with something shaped like a gun in his hand, the “representativeness” heuristic would recommend avoidance. Logic would be useless until you determined beyond all doubt that (1) yes, it was a gun, and (2) the bearer had malicious intent—which could be too late.

Unfortunately, heuristics are often wrong and used as a substitute for thoughtful reflection. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a comprehensive portrayal of how our minds work and how an expanding catalog of cognitive biases and faulty heuristics routinely and predictably lead us astray. Heuristics are automatic, quick, and effortless. Kahneman labels this “System 1” thinking. Thoughtful reflection (“System 2” thinking) yields better decisions at the cost of time and effort. What Kahneman and his collaborators found was that our minds are naturally lazy so we rely on System 1 as much as possible: “System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.”³

Cognitive biases are tendencies deeply embedded in our subconscious that lead us to err in predictable ways. Almost two hundred have been described in the literature. Many serve to enhance our own self-image or minimize emotional tension. For example, confirmation bias is the tendency to assign greater significance to evidence that supports our preexisting opinion. Heuristics and biases are closely intertwined. One way to understand the connection is that heuristics represent a shortcut to decision making, but are neutral regarding outcome. Biases push those decisions in certain (somewhat) predictable directions. Having invested a lifetime researching heuristics and biases, Kahneman concluded that “the human mind is not bound to reality.”4

Finding #2: Emotional Influences

It would be a sorry state of affairs if we regarded tragedy and suffering with cold indifference. But to what extent do emotions determine our beliefs? Is it merely an occasional exception or do emotions undermine the validity of Homo rationalis? In recent decades, a clear picture has emerged. It began with the observation that patients with specific brain injuries lost all capacity for emotion. The surprising consequence, though, was that such patients also lost the ability to make decisions. They could analyze a problem all day long without ever forming a conclusion. Dr. Antoine Bechara summarized the outcome of this research in 2004: 5

“The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level.” (emphasis added)

Now, this is far from saying that every decision is purely or primarily emotional nor that emotions inevitably lead to flawed conclusions. But when it comes to objective analysis or honest truth-seeking, emotions may not merely impede our progress; they can propel us right off the cliff. Consider the emotional fervor over certain political, social, religious, and even scientific issues. It is easy to believe the issues inflame our passion; more often it is our passions that inflame the issue. Despite the evidence, few will admit to thinking emotionally rather than logically. Most likely we don’t even know we’re doing it.

In 2015, Jennifer Lerner of Harvard University reviewed 35 years of research on the role of emotions in judgment and decision making:6

“The research reveals that emotions constitute potent, pervasive, predictable, sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial drivers of decision making. Across different domains, important regularities appear in the mechanisms through which emotions influence judgments and choices.”

Finding #3: Social influences

If Homo rationalis existed, then we could completely trust expert opinions. But there are two obvious problems. First, experts often disagree. Second, recent history shows that experts sometimes fail spectacularly. The bandwagon effect inclines people to conform their opinions to the perceived majority position. This may occur either to enhance one’s own conformity and social acceptance, or because one sincerely (perhaps naively) trusts the wisdom of the majority.

When formulating an opinion on a complex subject, rarely do people rely on their own analysis. For example, on initial consideration, Professor B may consider Professor A’s opinion. The opinion of Professor A will be treated as additional data, sometimes prompting Professor B to reach the opposite conclusion from what he might have reached independently. Professor C then comes along and, rather than seeing disagreement between Professors A and B, she sees unanimity. If she trusts her colleagues, the inclination toward agreement becomes ever greater. This is the mechanism by which information cascades develop. In an information cascade, the early deciders have a disproportionate impact over equally qualified experts who arrive later. When a cascade has occurred, the majority viewpoint of 100 experts may be completely opposite to the opinion of the same 100 experts analyzing the data independently, blinded to the opinions of their colleagues.

Finding #4: Intelligence and Religiosity

There is no evidence that more intelligent or better educated individuals transcend their own emotions and biases or are less susceptible to peer pressure. In Kahneman’s collaborative research, it didn’t matter whether the subjects were average high school students or Ivy League undergrads. Highly intelligent and educated people are more confident,7 making them less likely to doubt their opinions or change their minds. Rather than pursuing truth wherever it may be found, smarter people channel their energy toward arguing and reinforcing their preexisting opinions.8

Belief Formation Research Supports Scripture

While Bertrand Russell, and many others, may attribute unbelief to lack of evidence, the Bible declares that belief is a choice. Research on human decision making has demonstrated that we are heavily influenced by nonrational factors that can lead to faulty decisions and incorrect belief (or unbelief). It seems the Bible’s view is well supported. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the dividing line between fact and fancy cuts through the mind of every person, believer and skeptic alike.

(Jointly posted at Reasons to Believe on June 14, 2019

Endnotes
  1. Leo Rosten, “Bertrand Russell and God: A Memoir,” The Saturday Review, February 23, 1974, 26.
  2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 8.
  3. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 81.
  4. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 365.
  5. Antoine Bechara, “The Role of Emotion in Decision-Making: Evidence from Neurological Patients with Orbitofrontal Damage,” Brain and Cognition 55, no. 1 (June 2004): 30–40, doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2003.04.001.
  6. Jennifer Lerner et al., “Emotion and Decision Making,” Annual Review of Psychology 66 (January 2015): 799–823, doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115043.
  7. David G. Robson, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2019).
  8. Dan M. Kahan, , “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study,” Judgment and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (July 2013): 407–24.

Although it’s been out now for 13 years, The God Delusion  by Richard Dawkins still sets the standard for 21st century atheist polemics. Both lionized by atheists and demonized by some believers, he is deserving, I think, of neither.

I’ve followed Dawkins for a while, mostly because of his particular pronouncements on the “improbability” of God. This thought intrigued me, because as someone  who has studied advanced probability (all right, I took a senior level math course in college), I was curious how that improbability was determined, and the methodology behind it.

Dawkins’s argument appears in Chapter 4, and reduces to this:

  1. The origin of life is an extremely improbable event. (on that we all agree).
  2. The history of life has been an inexorable progression from simple to complex. (conceded by most, except for young earth creationists).
  3. Darwinian evolution is the one thing we know that builds increasing complexity over time. (highly tendentious).

And finally, in his own words:

  1. “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.”

Elsewhere, he states (more clearly) that a cosmic designer would have to be more complex than life, so it seems [to him] illogical to explain complexity by postulating something even more complex. The latter is probably true, as far as it goes.

In a way, I was disappointed. I hoped he might have something interesting to offer on calculating the probability for or against God’s existence, but instead he merely offers a philosophical argument, and not a very good one.

In making his case, Dawkins commits three logical fallacies:

  1. Begging the question. Dawkins assumes what he sets out to prove. His thesis on Darwinian evolution assumes it happened without divine intervention. Even if we know evolution happened, which is almost certainly true on some scale, we don’t really understand how it happened. Natural selection, which Dawkins so reveres, is the black box, but inside is the biochemistry. Dawkins is no biochemist. (He’s no mathematician, either). If evolution was actively guided by the same designer, the case for improbability collapses. One has to assume it was not, which is begging the question.

2. Category error. Truly, I’ve been surprised that theologians would try to refute his argument by insisting that God is simple, not complex. How about neither? The words “simple” and “complex” as we apply them in the physical realm have no meaning with regard to an immaterial being that exists outside of space, matter, energy, and time. It’s as meaningless as talking about the “color” of God. Drop the assumption of material complexity, and the case collapses.

  1. Equivocation fallacy. All Theists define God as uncreated, self-existing, and the first cause. Dawkins brushes right past by asking “who designed the designer?”This is just an unimaginative restatement of the old “who made God?” argument. A God that was “made” would not, by definition, be God. Dawkins own twist is to try and add a patina of authority by reframing it in scientific verbiage. The argument is purely a philosophical one. There is no way in the realm of science or mathematics to assign a probability to the solution.

This little discussion is neither intended as proof of theism nor a refutation of atheism. There is but one point to conclude. Dawkins’s many references to the extreme “improbability” of God amount to nothing more than an expression of personal feeling, not mathematics or science.