Meanwhile, former Archbishop of York John Hapgood weighs in on four recent books about religion and atheism. The first: The New Atheists by Tina Beattie. Sadly, I am familiar neither with the book nor the author.
Hapgood’s essay is the usual gibberish from the high-minded wing of the Christian community. Here’s his opening:
The so-called new atheism turns out to be little more than a step backwards to the old-fashioned atheism, which used to make great play with the idea of an unbridgeable gulf between religion and science. Supporting this claim was, and to some extent still is, a simplistic appeal to the contrast between faith and reason, as if they had no need of each other.
In my experience, these sorts of empty homilies are ubiquitous in theological writing. I’m afraid I will need to have it explained to me what need reason has of faith.
Mostly Hapgood just parrots the party line on the subject of Richard Dawkins. He’s soooooo meeeeeeeeean! I won’t attempt a detailed reply, but the following statement deserves some attention:
Circular arguments, like the claim that God could not have been responsible for design “because a designer would have to be even more complex”, thus raising the question of who designed God, can be quickly dismissed because as little is known about the true nature of creativity as about the true nature of God. All it is possible to claim is that God, as the ultimate ground of existence, is defined in terms of creativity.
Oh, for heaven’s sake! Give me a plain-talking fundamentalist any day. Everytime I read this sort of contentless theological argle-bargle, I am reminded of P. B. Medawar’s apt description of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man:
The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing about for sense.
Or perhaps this comment from Woody Allen, in his short story “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers.”:
How curious your last letter was! Well-intentioned, concise, containing all the elements that appear to make up what passes among certain reference groups as a communicative effect, yet tinged throughout by what Jean-Paul Sartre is so fond of referring to as “nothingness.”
That’s exactly how I feel reading things like, “All it is possible to claim is that God, as the ultimate ground of existence, is defined in terms of creativity.” Hapgood is welcome to define things however he likes, he is even free to pretend he is engaged in something subtle and deep in doing so, but if he intends to reply to Dawkins he really needs to be a bit more precise. Dawkins, you see, was replying to the argument from design. That’s the one where people point to some bit of comlex esoterica (the bacterial flagellum perhaps), assert that it could not have come about via natural causes, and then conjure into existence a superintellect that is said to provide the missing explanation. Dawkins pointed out the obvious, that this is an exceptionally ineffective sort of explanation, since it attempts to explain mysterious complexity by reference to an even more mysterious sort of complexity. You think the flagellum is hard to explain? How about the existence of an entity capable of bringing whole worlds into existence with one waggle of his finger!
We might, nonetheless, be stuck with the design hypothesis. That is, we could conceivably conclude that nature’s data is of a sort that simply cannot, even in principle, be explained in any other way, and that the origin of this superintelligence will simply have to remain a mystery. Dawkins devotes many pages of his book to explaining why we have not reached that level of desperation.
Say what you want about this argument, but it is not circular and it has nothing to do with the “nature of creativity,” whatever that means.
At any rate, Hapgood meanders on in this vein. He reviews mathematician John Lennox’s book God’s Undertaker, and seems very taken with Lennox’s probability arguments. Not having read Lennox’s book I can’t comment in detail on his argument. Given the history of such arguments, I’m not optimistic that Lennox has found one that works.
I close with one final quote:
Intolerance is not restricted to new atheism. The same might be said of various forms of fundamentalist religion, and there is a sense in which the two extremes deserve each other. The consequences of this mutual contempt and abuse are tragic, because there is much to be learnt from the creative encounter between an evolutionary science, conscious of its own limits, and a self-critical theology, rooted in an awareness of the ultimate mystery of its subject matter.
Once again, I have no idea what this means. What is a self-critical theology? What constitutes a creative encounter between evolution and theology? To me that’s like saying, “There is much to be learnt from mixing a discipline that arrives at its conclusions via calm and thorough contemplation of evidence with a discipline that attempts to fill in gaps in our understanding by making stuff up.” Creative encounter indeed.
And in precisely what sense does anyone deserve religious fundamentalism?