Dawkins vs. Armstrong

The Wall Street Journal recently hosted an exchange of essays on the subject of evolution and God. The participants: Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong. Here’s your first question: Which of them wrote this:

Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.


That was Armstrong. Looks like it’s going to be a long day for God.

That was her first paragraph. Here’s the second:

But Darwin may have done religion–and God–a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped–even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

This indescribable transcendence to which the symbol “God” points, did it create the universe or not? If it did, then it sounds pretty similar to traditional notions of God. If it did not, then I would like to know in what sense it merits the label “God.”

I’m sure Armstrong would agree that for most people, at least in the United States, the term “God” refers to a an agent of awesome ability and intelligence that created the universe with an act of His will. Which part of that view specifically is being derided as unsophisticated? If I’m understanding her correctly the unsophisticated part comes in thinking that the existence of such an entity is the sort of thing for which you can collect evidence or reason about.

It is clear from her first paragraph that she thinks that certain common conceptions of God can be effectively ruled out by a consideration of nature. But I’m sure she is aware of people like Ken Miller or Francis Collins who would strongly disagree with her opening words. When they make their arguments for why the cruelty and waste of the evolutionary process is not a good reason to abandon traditional notions of God, are they in the grip of a hopelessly unsophisticated view of God and theology?

I’d also like to know more about these spiritual exercises that are said to point us towards an indescribable transcendence. Do these exercises have the same effect on everyone who practices them? Or is it only some people who are led to intuit from them an underlying indescribable transcendence? If the indescribable transcendence can only be intuited by first placing yourself in a suggestive state of mind, then perhaps these spiritual exercises are simply telling us something about the brain, and are not telling us anything about worlds beyond the physical.

Here’s an interesting paragraph:

But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.

Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence? That’s great! Guess we should put him right up there with Galois for showing there could be no general formula for finding the roots of a fifth degree polynomial. Reconsider that sentence in light of the fact that Armstrong is the one throwing around charges about who is and is not being sophisticated.

As for this constant derision for the idea of a scientific religion, I’m afraid I see nothing unsophisticated in the idea of wanting to have evidence for the things you believe. What could be more reasonable than to think that the existence of a loving God ought to be reflected in some clear way in the works He created? Paley’s work was an admirable attempt to draw reasonable inferences from nature, and his arguments were compelling and deserving of serious attention. They were only undone when new facts came to light several decades later, not when theologians managed to pinpoint a fundamental flaw in his whole approach.

Armstrong goes on like this for many more paragraphs. In the end she reminds me of John Shelby Spong. (She contributed a cover endorsement to Spong’s manifesto Why Christianity Must Change or Die, which argued for a version of Christianity which, shall we say, was very theologically liberal).

I agree with much of what she says about science making traditional notions of God seem untenable, or about the perils of using religion to make statements about the natural world. If this were an accurate description of how religion were generally practiced:

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences–and has helped me to appreciate — when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.

I still would want no part of it, but I certainly would not worry so much about people who did.

In the end I do not see what is gained by taking something as simple and beautiful as awe at the workings of nature and our place within them, and glopping it up with talk of God and religion and indescribable transcendence. The headline of her essay is “Karen Armstrong says we need God to grasp the wonder of our existence.” I’m afraid I simply fail to see how her vague, evidence-free indescribable transcendence brings clarity to anything at all. What do I grasp by hypothesizing such a thing that I did not grasp before?

As for Dawkins, I rather liked his conclusion:

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”

Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.

Unsurprisingly, I mostly liked Dawkins’ essay. Still, I do have two small criticisms. The first is that I wish he would stop writing things like this:

Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex–statistically improbable –and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings: from a lifeless universe–the miracle-free zone that is physics.

Terms like “statistically improbable” do not have much use when you are discussing notions of God. If you are talking about configurations of atoms I can see some merit in saying that configurations corresponding to life and intelligence are far too improbable to be explained by random collisions or what not. But phrasing things in this way opens him up to the charge that he is treating God like just another natural entity, when theology does not treat Him that way.

There is also this:

Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip.

Armstrong seems to accept this sort of thinking as well. Which is strange, since there is a standard response to it. Of course there is something left for God to do after you accept evolution. Someone had to set up the initial conditions to make evolution and life possible. No small feat. Evolution simply pushes Paley-like reasoning back one step.

It would be difficult to address this point in detail given the space restrictions under which they were working. But it still should have been possible to acknowledge the argument.

At any rate, both essays are worth reading, and there is much more beyond what I have quoted. Go have a look.

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    September 13, 2009

    Theologians like Armstrong often seem to miss the fact that their very abstracted god is not only poorly defined, but also so totally different from traditional kinds of gods that it can no longer fill the roles those gods did and do for most believers.

  2. #2 Jonathan Lubin
    September 13, 2009

    I’m sure Armstrong would find the following argument too crass, but I’ll still make it here: the refined and sublime religion of the theologians is to the lowbrow religion of the megachurches as the sublime and eternal music of the concert hall is to the unsophisticated and ephemeral music of the juke-boxes. I find this argument unanswerable.
    But I also find unanswerable the argument put forth by Dawkins that the degraded religion of the megachurches is what we see all around us, and what causes such a great proportion of the world’s mischief; in effect, the theologians’ religion has no weight whatever in the world around us, and for all practical purposes, it’s the degraded religion that we have to fight against.

  3. #3 jimvj
    September 13, 2009

    Shorter Karen Armstrong:
    Yeah, you can debunk those Gods, but how about this one?
    Repeat ad nauseam.

  4. #4 Steve
    September 13, 2009

    Love. Evolution lacks it. It only exists as a way of survival. God’s love is deep, and perfect. If it’s up to be to believe in one or the other… I’ll take the latter. And so far, by all I have seen and read on both sides, there’s no indication I am left without a choice.

  5. #5 Steve
    September 13, 2009

    And it’s “me” to believe.. not “be” to believe… I hate when I mess things up like that!

  6. #6 Paul Burnett
    September 13, 2009

    I can’t find it right now, but somebody has compared religion to knitting – the transcedence of knitting instead of doing rosary beads or dancing in a circle to get closer to the Great Cosmic Whatever…

  7. #7 Dave X
    September 13, 2009

    God’s hate is deep, and everlasting. Unless god can dump that problem of evil (including everlasting torment in hell) somehow, it’s still all god’s universe. If god is responsible for the good, god is responsible for the bad. If god isn’t responsible for the bad, why should he take credit for the good? If it’s up to me to believe or not in a universe that tortures people forever based on the flawed choices they make, I’ll take the latter.

  8. #8 llewelly
    September 13, 2009

    I was a little disappointed by both essays. Karen Armstrong’s essay is very much like the many other essays she’s written about her god of meaninglessness. It is a god so devoid of relevance that only a nihilist would want to believe in it. I can see why someone who had never read about this sort of infinitely irrelevant god would be interested, but I’ve read about it before.
    Dawkins’ essay is mostly good, but the bit about scientific “laws”, and what happens when they are “violated” is rather muddled. He usually handles that issue a lot better. What went wrong this time? And regular readers of Dawkins will find nothing new in this essay.

  9. #9 itchy
    September 13, 2009

    Steve:

    1. What is wrong with love that only exists as a way of survival? If it’s still love, exactly as we know it, what makes it “less”? And how would we know the difference? What does love that is “deep” and “perfect” mean? How do you know God’s love is like this?

    2. As Dave X alludes, if “love” is the deciding factor in your belief, should you not also address the hate and evil that clearly exists?

    3. What does your choice have to do with anything? If you want something to be true, does that make it any more true? If I’m a stalker and I’d really like the object of my desire to love me, does that mean she does?

    4. Who says there are only two choices? What if God’s love isn’t deep and perfect, but is flawed? What if God has no love and is tricking you? Surely he’s capable of that? What if there is no God, but it appears that there is one? What difference do your choices make?

  10. #10 llewelly
    September 13, 2009

    Steve | September 13, 2009 9:40 PM

    God’s love is deep, and perfect.

    Link added by me.

  11. #11 Tyler DiPietro
    September 13, 2009

    The best “sophisticated” theologians can ever do is describe god(s) using semantically empty phrases. “God is really a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence”? Might as well just say “God is a gizornimplat goofoo which is glubberfied.” It would be just as meaningful.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 13, 2009

    Tyler –

    When writing this post i struggled in vain to find the perfect way of expressing what I thought of Armstrong’s argument. Now you have shown me the way!

  13. #13 Johan
    September 14, 2009

    “In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.”

    For me this is the most frustrating part of Armstrong’s writings. (I am not just thinking of this essay.) If she wants to appreciate religion as something akin to poetry I am not one to begrudge her that.

    But her claim that taking religious myths literary is somehow a modern idea is frustrating. There may be some truth to what she is saying but I think she vastly exaggerates. Who are these influential Jewish, Muslim and Christian thinkers that had the view she talks about?

    The influential Christian thinkers I know of didn’t have this view. Tertullianus, Aquinas, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and so on all had a much more literal view (though they endorsed some symbolism at times) than Armstrong.

    I do not know any specific Muslim thinkers but if the general idea of religion was so symbolic you would have to wonder why anyone would care which specific religion you belonged. Yet people clearly did.

    As for the Jewish thinkers she might be right about someone like Philo, though I can not say so with any confidence, but I cannot imagine that most of the authors of the Talmud, say, had that view.

  14. #14 MartinB
    September 14, 2009

    @Johan
    I suspect she is talking of the Mystics – Meister Eckhard comes to mind. There are similar mystics in most religions, although I am not too knowldegable about any of them.
    However, influential they were only in a spiritual sense.

    @Jason and all:
    Although I do agree with the point of view you are taking, I believe that some of the arguments presented here are weak:

    “Do these exercises have the same effect on everyone who practices them? Or is it only some people who are led to intuit from them an underlying indescribable transcendence?”
    The same could be said about most of modern science – most people will never be able to understand the Lagrangian of QCD, so these theories also only affect those with the right mindset.

    “did it create the universe or not?”
    Think of the relation between characters in a book and the author: Within the book, Harry Potter is the child of James and Lily and created by the laws of his own universe. Outside of it, it is Rowling who created him. Both are true on a different level.

    This point of view may also shed light on the question of suffering: Does Rowling feel “love” for Harry Potter? In a sense, probably yes, nevertheless, she made him suffer a lot instead of having him simply living a happy stress-free life at Hogwarts.

    @Steve
    “If it’s up to me to believe in one or the other..”
    If you are a rational being whow makes decisions based on observations and facts, it is not up to you to believe in evolution – the evidence forces you to. It *is* up to you to believe in a higher being for which there is no evidence.

  15. #15 csrster
    September 14, 2009

    Johan, as far as Jewish thinkers are concerned,
    she may have been thinking of the kabbalists and the ineffable “Ein Sof”. But as I always say, the trouble with the ineffable is how would you effing know?

  16. #16 speedwell
    September 14, 2009

    This point of view may also shed light on the question of suffering: Does Rowling feel “love” for Harry Potter? In a sense, probably yes, nevertheless, she made him suffer a lot instead of having him simply living a happy stress-free life at Hogwarts.

    So, to God, we are fictional characters in a book he wrote to entertain and instruct (presumably non-fictional) children? What are you talking about?

  17. #17 TGT
    September 14, 2009

    I interpretted Dawkins conclusion differently than you did. That quote isn’t saying “There never was a God.” It’s saying, since evolution began, there’s been no need of God. If God created evolution, he effectively replaced his “wonders” with natural wonders. Once evolution is in place, the natural world is complete without God. He has no place any more.

  18. #18 JimV
    September 14, 2009

    That giant, all-powerful, all-knowing being with the deep and perfect love for you? That was your mother, when you were a baby. I know it seems unfair that nobody took over the job when you got older and found out there were things she couldn’t or wouldn’t handle for you, but making up imaginary super-parents won’t really do much good. Still, whatever gets you through the night.

    Okay, that was a jerky way to put it, but I think the concept has some validity.

  19. #19 Rieux
    September 14, 2009

    Jonathan Lubin:

    [T]he refined and sublime religion of the theologians is to the lowbrow religion of the megachurches as the sublime and eternal music of the concert hall is to the unsophisticated and ephemeral music of the juke-boxes. I find this argument unanswerable.

    Hey–finally a ScienceBlogs debate that my music B.A. qualifies me to participate in!

    I don’t think the parallels are nearly as clear as you believe. From the point of view of Armstrong and the “concert hall” music fan, there are some similarities–mainly in the scorn each can sometimes express for run-of-the-mill religious belief/musical taste. Still, Armstrong (like most Courtier’s Reply-wielding loons) by-and-large pretends that run-of-the-mill believers don’t exist, or at least that their “literalist” beliefs are fringe silliness that no one needs to pay any attention to. In contrast, to the extent that there is elitism in favor of classical over pop music, the elitists generally don’t fool themselves into thinking that pop is only embraced by a negligible portion of the populace.

    I think the bigger incongruity between the two worlds you’re comparing is the view from the “low”-er end of the spectra. Devotees of Beyonce or Keith Urban or the Jonas Brothers may be bored or even disinterested to the point of hostility by classical music, but if you play “O Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana, or Tchaikovsky’s 1812,* or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for them, they won’t have any trouble accepting that those pieces are music. “Boring” or “dead white man” music, perhaps–but still music. More than that, anyone who has listened to a meaningful amount of Western music–pop certainly included–won’t be terribly confused about the general outlines of what Orff, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven were trying for, artistically, in those pieces. Disparate as their cultural niches are, Beethoven’s Fifth and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” just aren’t fundamentally different modes of expression.

    I don’t see any similar fundamental congruity–and I certainly don’t think a “megachurch” believer would see any–between Armstrong’s conception of religion and the ordinary Christian/Muslim’s conception of (their) religion(s). As Armstrong makes clear in the piece linked here, the stuff she blathers on about for hundreds of pages in her books is just a totally different animal from “religion” as it is all-but-universally understood in the Western world. Whereas an American pop fan would have no problem finding Beethoven understandable, if perhaps boring, it seems to me that an ordinary American “megachurch” religious believer would find Armstrong incomprehensible. That speaks of massive semantic disconnect, not (merely) high culture vs. low culture.

    * Of course, to a serious classical music snob, these pieces are themselves “low art.” But whatever. Possibly the real musical analog for Armstrong is the atonal music by guys like Anton Webern and Alban Berg–but the audience for that work is even smaller than for Armstrong-ish theology. Webern and Berg don’t get much “concert hall” play these days.

  20. #20 Koray
    September 14, 2009

    Armstrong writes:

    Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead.

    Is this an admission that religion is just philosophy? In any case, what are the origins of this help? Is it man made? If not, how are you “certain” that it is not man made?
    She also writes:

    Darwin made it clear once again that—as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the “God beyond God.”

    What else can we throw away from religious texts? Once we have liberty to toss out stuff, don’t we end up with 3 identical religions? Is she a Christian or a Muslim?

  21. #21 Modusoperandi
    September 14, 2009

    Rieux “As Armstrong makes clear in the piece linked here, the stuff she blathers on about for hundreds of pages in her books is just a totally different animal from ‘religion’ as it is all-but-universally understood in the Western world.”
    It should be noted that History of God and The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism are pretty good reads. Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time is apparently revisionist, whitewashed nonsense, and her talking about her own, so vague as to be indistinguishible from either mental static or a false-positive, version of God, on the other hand…

    “Possibly the real musical analog for Armstrong is the atonal music by guys like Anton Webern and Alban Berg–but the audience for that work is even smaller than for Armstrong-ish theology.”
    No. The real comparison would have her God as music that uses no instruments and no notes; a tuneless silence that’s nonetheless “spiritually fulfilling”, apparently. Imagine having an empty spiritual stomach and patting your belly while commenting on how full you feel after sitting down at the breakfast table and filling your tummy with non-oatmeal with a non-spoon in a non-bowl. And the milk is 1% (minus the 1%). Oh, and the breakfast table isn’t there.

  22. #22 Rieux
    September 14, 2009

    Modusoperandi, have you ever heard Webern’s work? It’s not a whole lot different than your description of Armstrong-esque music.

  23. #23 qbsmd
    September 15, 2009

    I can’t find it right now, but somebody has compared religion to knitting – the transcedence of knitting instead of doing rosary beads or dancing in a circle to get closer to the Great Cosmic Whatever…

    Posted by: Paul Burnett

    That was from P.Z. Myers’ interview in Expelled.

  24. #24 felixma
    September 15, 2009

    atheists caused 911 – treat them accordingly

    you have forfeit your life

    http://www.sotoman.info/freethinking/index.php?topic=1198.0

  25. #25 Antonio Jerez
    September 15, 2009

    This is typical Karen Armstrong talk. She is a mystic herself and thinks that the essence of all “true” religion is ineffable mysticism. It´s hogwash but her message sells.

  26. #26 oldfuzz
    September 15, 2009

    I have read more of Armstrong than Dawkins. For me, an engineer–terminally analytical and model addicted–I find much of value in both until they project their personal view as the universal. Ask anyone, “Is there a God?” “Yes!” says the theist. “Please describe this God you believe in.” Invariably their description of God is something I disbelieve, hence I am, to them, an atheist. The atheist will answer, “No!” When I ask, “Please describe this God you disbelieve in.” their response is also a God I disbelieve. What am I? I disbelieve the God of both the theist and atheist.

    To those who say atheists don’t believe in God I reply, “If atheism is the disbelief in God, then you must have a definition of the God you disbelieve. Otherwise you have abandoned reason, which may be the cornerstone of atheism.”

    Me? I’m a non-theist, for want of a better term, (not an agnostic for whom the evidence is inconclusive) because my three score years of considering the idea is that it is valid as a personal belief which defies universal agreement because the definition of God is beyond words.

    That said, reading Dawkins, Armstrong and others who offer their mindful and heartfelt thoughts for consideration as personal views can be very helpful.

  27. #27 windy
    September 15, 2009

    Imagine having an empty spiritual stomach and patting your belly while commenting on how full you feel after sitting down at the breakfast table and filling your tummy with non-oatmeal with a non-spoon in a non-bowl.

    The Present Tense Tureen?

  28. #28 Michael Kingsford Gray
    September 16, 2009

    “ineffable mysticism”?
    We Aussies can bloody-well ‘F’ it!

  29. #29 Valhar2000
    September 16, 2009

    The atheist will answer, “No!” When I ask, “Please describe this God you disbelieve in.” their response is also a God I disbelieve.

    This atheist will answer “Any and all of them”. What does that leave? I don’t claim to know that there are no gods, mind you, but I do not acceot the proposition that any of them exist, since I see no evidence that supports this contention.

    To those who say atheists don’t believe in God I reply, “If atheism is the disbelief in God, then you must have a definition of the God you disbelieve. Otherwise you have abandoned reason, which may be the cornerstone of atheism.”

    How exactly does that argument make any sort of sense? Are we supposed to believe in any and all gods that we cannot name? How could we, even? Are we supposed to blithely accept every myth ever proposed by man or alien until we can describe them all and explain their non-existence?

    Me? I’m a non-theist[…]

    Well, I hate to break it to you, but that is what the word “atheist” means, at least to the vast majority of the people who apply to themselves. That high unreachable peak that you so proudly and bravely climbed? We built bungalows, a Wal-Mart, gift shops and a casino on it years ago.

  30. #30 Paul Orwin
    September 16, 2009

    I haven’t read Karen Armstrong in a long time (History of God, terrific. Battle for God, ok) but I don’t think she is a defender of theistic evolution, or ID, or creationism, or even religion per se. It is odd, in fact, to set up a dialogue between two people (Armstrong and Dawkins) who are both near the “anti” end of the religion spectrum. The comments seem a bit unfair to me. From History of God, she quite clearly lays out her opinion that God is a human construct (it’s on the first bloody page!), and thoroughly explains the origins of the monotheistic religions. In Battle for God (IMHO implict in all of this, of course) she suggests the rise of fundamentalism in all 3 monotheistic religions as a consequence of the marginalization of religion as logos (I think this means religions as way of understanding the world, but I might have that wrong). Now you can agree or disagree with these points (I agree, FWIW), but they are not the perspective of a christian apologist. I don’t know her later work; maybe she has gone back to Jesus?

  31. #31 Modusoperandi
    September 16, 2009

    Rieux “Modusoperandi, have you ever heard Webern’s work? It’s not a whole lot different than your description of Armstrong-esque music.”
    No. I only listen to the sweet ring of tinnitus.

    felixma “atheists caused 911 – treat them accordingly”
    He’s on to us, lads and ladies! Scatter!
    “you have forfeit your life”
    Is that anything like misplacing my glasses, because if so, it’ll turn out that your life was on your face the whole time.

    windy “The Present Tense Tureen?”
    Sorry. I never click any links. My mother says that’ll give me a virus! I know!

  32. #32 oldfuzz
    September 17, 2009

    Interesting. I respond, “Me? I’m a non-theist[…]”

    and you reply, “Well, I hate to break it to you, but that is what the word “atheist” means, at least to the vast majority of the people who apply to themselves.”

    Good point, although that does not work with the vast majority of atheists I know, many of whom are Buddhists and progressive Christians. (Yes, there are Christians who don’t believe in God.) One refers to god as the original cause of the big bang, citing its unknowability. (Don’t think that’s a real word.)

    The question is one of how to address the unknown which holds at least two domains: the knowable-but-not-yet-known and the unknowable. For me it’s a question of whether one uses god language not whether there god(s) exist. My view is that the question of god’s existence is moot.

    The idea of god is, in my opinion, a way of addressing the ultimate unknowable, which is altered as unknowns becomes known. The irony is that each of us lives with different knowledge and, it appears, different knowledge potentials. If god is our grasp (belief) in the unknowable, including creation, then.

    The question, for me, is whether the individuals–Dawkins and Armstrong in this case–are being honest in their discourse. I think they are, but feel Dawkins is more concerned in promoting atheism than Armstrong is in converting others to theism.

    It’s a good area for discussion provided we don’t turn it into a TEA Party.

  33. #33 Pseudonym
    September 18, 2009

    There’s one piece of thinking that I’m seeing in many of the comments that I think deserves mention, and that’s the charge that Armstrong “pretends that run-of-the-mill believers don’t exist”.

    This, to me, is essentially the same as saying that most biology papers pretend that creationists don’t exist. It’s literally true, but it doesn’t really help understand what’s going on. Karen Armstrong (and John Shelby Spong, Richard Holloway and the like) all believe that the “run-of-the-mill believers” have already lost the argument, so there’s no point bothering with all that.

    The analogy with music is an interesting one, and I appreciate the person who brought up Webern. (I was thinking of composers like Stockhausen and Cage; a lot of people wouldn’t recognise that as “music”.)

    More to the point, Armstrong says herself that mysticism is difficult to put into words. That a lot of people think it sounds like gibberish is evidence (though not definitive proof) for that point. It’s like explaining a piece of music to someone without actually playing it for them.

    We scientists find it hard to explain the beauty of what we see to people who haven’t been there. How could you possibly explain how profound Noether’s theorem is to someone who doesn’t understand even high school physics?

  34. #34 SteveC
    September 21, 2009

    @Pseudonym: “I was thinking of composers like Stockhausen and Cage; a lot of people wouldn’t recognise that as “music”.)”

    Well, no, some of Cage’s stuff isn’t recognizable as music, eg:

    The crescendo was my favorite part.

    The criticism that Armstrong pretends that run-of-the-mill believers don’t exist is a reaction to the “courtiers reply” that the “new atheists” arguments do not address the sophisticated theological arguments that are out there.

    Well, what are these sophisticated arguments? The “sophisticated” arguments seem to be just as crappy as the “run-of-the-mill” arguments, but with the added bonus crapularity of not actually arguing for anything coherent.

    Every argument the opposition puts forth fails not only to be good, they seem to fail even to escape idiocy.

  35. #35 Himangsu Sekhar Pal
    January 5, 2011

    Proof That There Is A God
    Or
    Proof that God has not kept Himself hidden

    A, Properties of a Whole Thing

    If at the beginning there was something at all, and if that something was the whole thing, then it can be shown that by logical necessity that something will have to be spaceless, timeless, changeless, deathless. This is by virtue of that something being the whole thing. Something is the whole thing means there cannot be anything at all outside of that something; neither space, nor time, nor matter, nor anything else. It is the alpha and omega of existence. But, if it is the whole thing, then it must have to be spaceless, timeless, changeless, deathless. Otherwise it will be merely a part of a bigger whole thing. Now let us denote this something by a big X. Now, can this X be in any space? No, it cannot be. If it is, then where is that space itself located? It must have to be in another world outside of X. But by definition there cannot be anything outside of X. Therefore X cannot be in any space. Again, can this X have any space? No, it cannot have. If we say that it can have, then we will again be in a logical contradiction. Because if X can have any space, then that space must have to be outside of it. Therefore when we consider X as a whole, then we will have to say that neither can it be in any space, nor can it have any space. In every respect it will be spaceless. For something to have space it must already have to be in some space. Even a prisoner has some space, although this space is confined within the four walls of his prison cell. But the whole thing, if it is really the whole thing, cannot have any space. If it can have, then it no longer remains the whole thing. It will be self-contradictory for a whole thing to have any space. Similarly it can be shown that this X can neither be in time, nor have any time. For a whole thing there cannot be any ‘before’, any ‘after’. For it there can be only an eternal ‘present’. It will be in a timeless state. If the whole thing is in time, then it is already placed in a world where there is a past, a present, and a future, and therefore it is no longer the whole thing. Now, if X as a whole is spaceless, timeless, then that X as a whole will also be changeless. There might always be some changes going on inside X, but when the question comes as to whether X itself is changing as a whole, then we are in a dilemma. How will we measure that change? In which time-scale shall we have to put that X in order for us to be able to measure that change? That time-scale must necessarily have to be outside of X. But there cannot be any such time-scale. So it is better not to say anything about its change as a whole. For the same reason X as a whole can never cease to be. It cannot die, because death is also a change. Therefore we see that if X is the first thing and the whole thing, then X will have the properties of spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness by virtue of its being the whole thing. It is a logical necessity. Now, this X may be anything; it may be light, it may be sound, or it may be any other thing. Whatever it may be, it will have the above four properties of X. Now, if we find that there is nothing in this universe that possesses the above four properties of X, then we can safely conclude that at the beginning there was nothing at all, and that therefore scientists are absolutely correct in asserting that the entire universe has simply originated out of nothing. But if we find that there is at least one thing in the universe that possesses these properties, then we will be forced to conclude that that thing was the first thing, and that therefore scientists are wrong in their assertion that at the beginning there was nothing. This is only because a thing can have the above four properties by virtue of its being the first thing and by virtue of this first thing being the whole thing, and not for any other reason. Scientists have shown that in this universe light, and light only, is having the above four properties. They have shown that for light time, as well as distance, become unreal. I have already shown elsewhere that a timeless world is a deathless, changeless world. For light even infinite distance becomes zero, and therefore volume of an infinite space also becomes zero. So the only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that at the beginning there was light, and that therefore scientists are wrong in asserting that at the beginning there was nothing.
    Another very strong reason can be given in support of our belief that at the beginning there was light. The whole thing will have another very crucial and important property: immobility. Whole thing as a whole thing cannot move at all, because it has nowhere to go. Movement means going from one place to another place, movement means changing of position with respect to something else. But if the whole thing is really the whole thing, then there cannot be anything else other than the whole thing. Therefore if the whole thing moves at all, then with respect to which other thing is it changing its position? And therefore it cannot have any movement, it is immobile. Now, if light is the whole thing, then light will also have this property of immobility. Now let us suppose that the whole thing occupies an infinite space, and that light is the whole thing. As light is the whole thing, and as space is also infinite here, then within this infinite space light can have the property of immobility if, and only if, for light even the infinite distance is reduced to zero. Scientists have shown that this is just the case. From special theory of relativity we come to know that for light even infinite distance becomes zero, and that therefore it cannot have any movement, because it has nowhere to go. It simply becomes immobile. This gives us another reason to believe that at the beginning there was light, and that therefore scientists are wrong in asserting that at the beginning there was nothing.
    I know very well that an objection will be raised here, and that it will be a very severe objection. I also know what will be the content of that objection: can a whole thing beget another whole thing? I have said that at the beginning there was light, and that light was the whole thing. Again I am saying that the created light is also the whole thing, that is why it has all the properties of the whole thing. So the whole matter comes to this: a whole thing has given birth to another whole thing, which is logically impossible. If the first thing is the whole thing, then there cannot be a second whole thing, but within the whole thing there can be many other created things, none of which will be a whole thing. So the created light can in no way be a whole thing, it is logically impossible. But is it logically impossible for the created light to have all the properties of the whole thing? So what I intend to say here is this: created light is not the original light, but created light has been given all the properties of the original light, so that through the created light we can have a glimpse of the original light. If the created light was not having all these properties, then who would have believed that in this universe it is quite possible to be spaceless, timeless, changeless, deathless? If nobody believes in Scriptures, and if no one has any faith in personal revelation or mystical experience, and if no one wants to depend on any kind of authority here, and if no one even tries to know Him through meditation, then how can the presence of God be made known to man, if not through a created thing only? So, not through Vedas, nor through Bible, nor through Koran, nor through any other religious books, but through light and light only, God has revealed himself to man. That is why we find in created light all the most essential properties of God: spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness.

    Footnote: If the universe is treated as one whole unit, then it can be said to be spaceless, timeless. I first got this idea from an article by Dr. Lee Smolin read in the internet. Rest things I have developed. This is as an acknowledgement.

    B. CLIMAX

    I think we need no further proof for the existence of God. That light has all the five properties of the whole thing is sufficient. I will have to explain.
    Scientists are trying to establish that our universe has started from nothing. We want to contradict it by saying that it has started from something. When we are saying that at the beginning there was something, we are saying that there was something. We are not saying that there was some other thing also other than that something. Therefore when we are saying that at the beginning there was something, we are saying that at the beginning there was a whole thing. Therefore we are contradicting the statement that our universe has started from nothing by the statement that our universe has started from a whole thing.
    I have already shown that a whole thing will have the properties of spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness, immobility (STCDI). This is by logical necessity alone. It is logically contradictory to say that a whole thing can have space. Let us suppose that the whole thing is having space. Then the so-called whole thing along with the space that it is having will constitute the real whole thing. If my arguments that I have offered so far to show that the whole thing will always have the above five properties by virtue of its being the whole thing are sound, and if they cannot be faulted from any angle, then I can make the following statements:
    1. In this universe only a whole thing can have the properties of STCDI by logical necessity alone.
    2. If the universe has started from nothing, then nothing in this universe will have the properties of STCDI.
    3. If the universe has started from a whole thing, then also nothing other than the initial whole thing will have the properties of STCDI. This is only because a whole thing cannot beget another whole thing.
    4. But in this universe we find that light, in spite of its not being a whole thing, is still having the properties of STCDI.
    5. This can only happen if, and only if, the initial whole thing itself has purposefully given its own properties to light, in order to make its presence known to us through light.
    6. But for that the initial whole thing must have to have consciousness.
    7. So, from above we can come to the following conclusion: the fact that light, in spite of its not being a whole thing, still possesses the properties of STCDI, is itself a sufficient proof for the fact that the universe has started from a conscious whole thing, and that this conscious whole thing is none other than God.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.