Hapgood on The New Atheism

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?


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    December 18, 2007

    Lennox and Dawkins had a debate some little time ago, and the results did not inspire one to great esteem for modern Christian apologetics.

  2. #2 Julian Gall
    December 19, 2007

    Many religious fundamentalists criticise evolution without having a clue what it’s about. e.g. “If we’re decended from apes, how come there are still apes?”. In other words, they reiterate arguments that have long since been answered.

    However, it’s also true that some atheists (your good self not included, of course) move onto religion’s ground to criticise religion. e.g. “If there’s a god, how come he allows bad things to happen?”. This too is hardly a novel argument.

    These are the two groups who “deserve each other”.

  3. #3 Matt Penfold
    December 19, 2007

    Small correction:

    John Hapgood is the retired Archbishop of York. The present incumbant is John Sentamu.

  4. #4 brtkrbzhnv
    December 19, 2007

    Julian Gall: What’s important is not the novelty of an argument, but whether it makes sense. The why-are-there-still-apes‽ argument clearly does not, while the argument from theodicy is air-tight, which is why all known attempts at counterarguments are patently silly and why people who don’t believe in benevolent omnipotent and omniscient gods still use it so frequently, thousands of years after it was first conceived.

  5. #5 Ex-drone
    December 19, 2007

    What is a self-critical theology? I think that’s a typo. If he’s referring to fundies, I think he means “a hypersensitive, outwardly-critical theology”.

  6. #6 Chris Bell
    December 19, 2007

    This post made me think about how one-sided the debate audience tends to be. Dawkins fans pack the house, but Liberty University also brings a group. We need to enact an atheist buddy system. Every atheist has to bring an agnostic or a questioning theist in order to get in the door.

  7. #7 Jim
    December 19, 2007

    Did you mean the argument against theodicy is airtight?

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 19, 2007


    Thanks for pointing out the error. Guess I read the byline too quickly. I’ve made the correction.

  9. #9 ZacharySmith
    December 20, 2007

    Julian Gall:

    Questioning why god allows bad things to happen is perfectly fair. It may not be a new or novel question, but worth asking nonetheless. Religious apologists can hand wave & jump through hoops all they want to provide an answer – but do their answers make sense?

    When religion makes empirical claims about the natural world – such as the history of life – those claims have always turned out to be wrong. Religion is useless as a tool for empirical knowledge – period, end of story. No amount of hand-waving can change it.

    Science has defeated religious objections to empirical claims time and again. Religion, however, has yet to deliver convincing answers to questions like the one above. Until such answers are provided, it’s fair to continue asking.

  10. #10 RBH
    December 20, 2007

    Incidentally, Hapgood appears not to know the difference between a circular argument and an infinite regress.

  11. #11 Explicit Atheist
    December 21, 2007

    “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.”

    I don’t see how we can dismiss anything on the basis appeals to ignorance which is what the ‘little is known about the true nature’ of the self-refering psuedo-explanation named “God” amounts to. An explanation has to be based on the known, we can’t convert an unknown into a known, which is the function of an explanation, on the basis of nothing more than an unknown. The admission that the nature of God is an unknown mystery is a reason to dismiss God as lacking explanatory validity, it is certainly not a reason to dismiss criticisms that god lacks explanatory utility. Theists seem to think that admitting that the nature of God is an unknown mystery somehow enhances or protects the explanatory viability of the God proposition against criticism when in fact the logical outcome of such an admission is exactly the opposite.

  12. #12 Crudely Wrott
    December 22, 2007

    ” . . . 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.”

    Boy, howdy! That’s about the most concise, if unintentional, description of the state of human knowledge that’s come my way in a long time.

    Fact is, though our accumulation of knowledge concerning the whole, you know, shebang is breathtaking and imparts a certain hubris, we are just barely past the point of rubbing sticks together to make fire. Any competent thinker will admit that we are just beginning to see through the proverbial “dark glass.”

    “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” said one of my teachers when I was about eleven or so. Some sort of mental inversion took place in my mind shortly thereafter. (Some might call such a thing an “epiphany” but I like mental inversion better.) It became suddenly clear to me that each new piece of information about a subject adds a new dimension of complexity and inter-relatedness to the body of knowledge already at hand. My world view underwent quite a change upon this insight. Since then I have experienced the same process myself and observed it many times occurring to others in diverse disciplines.

    If these experiences and observations constitute a reliable means to make judgments and to proclaim insights that accurately describe reality and to make reliable and useful judgments concerning the claims of others, then riddle me this:

    How in hell can one proclaim insight into the behavior of an Invisible Supernatural Spook when on admits that next to nothing is known about the alleged ISS?

    It is moderately embarrassing to watch a fellow human self destruct. I feel for the guy, but I just can’t reach him.

  13. #13 noodlesoup
    December 29, 2007

    It is amazing how the juxtaposition of meaningless phrases is considered profound rather than being recognized as simply vague gibberish. That being said, I would like to point out that we ARE the universe and by being ONE with the ultimate mystery we are EXALTED in an awareness beyond the subjective. Finally, like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorn is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that she is pink; we logically know that she is invisible because we can not see her.

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