Thursday, August 7th, 2008
Antony Flew's review of The God Delusion has, as expected, generated a number of responses.
The familiar accusations re-surfaced that he didn't really write his book and now also that he didn't really write this article, despite the assurance in the introduction concerning this. What do these critics believe is to be gained by Christians in 'ghost writing' a book or article that does not even fully endorse the 'ghost writer's' own beliefs? From the various comments made, I cannot see what evidence these critics would accept as showing that There is a God expressed Flew's own beliefs. If this is so, the critics' statements are not falsifiable, and hence could be said to be meaningless.
Another set of critics accuse Flew of being so senile that he was incapable of reading The God Delusion properly (or had only read the index) and so, they say, Flew makes various errors in his article. It would, of course, be interesting to see a discussion between these two sets of critics on whether Flew really did write the article or not, but instead let's look at a few of the comments. I will not try to defend everything Flew wrote, because as a Christian I do not agree with it all, but let's try to examine the issues without the venom.
A secularist bigot?
Firstly, is Dawkins a "secularist bigot"? There is lots of discussion on whether the term secularist is appropriate but, surprisingly, there is little dissension on the term "bigot" as defined by Flew (although it is not a term I would commonly use of anyone). It is claimed that a "secularist" refers only to someone who maintains that the church and state should be separate, and that Flew should have used the term "atheist" instead (further proof of Flew's senility, of course). However, the term "secularist" has a much wider meaning. For instance, in a paper delivered at the 2006 Annual Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Barry Kosmin wrote:
The terms “secular,” “secularism,” and “secularization” have a range of meanings.
Furthermore, Kosmin distinguishes between "hard" and "soft" secularists:
The hard secularist considers religious propositions to be epistemologically illegitimate, warranted by neither reason nor experience. It followed from this view that these propositions are morally pernicious and politically dangerous.
Now I'm not asserting that Flew is aware of this paper, but it is clear that his use of the term "secularist" has a widely accepted and applicable meaning in the context in which he used it.
Einstein gets a fair airing in the comments. Clearly, Einstein's views on God were not theistic, but Flew's complaint is that Dawkins selects quotes from Max Jammer's book Einstein and Religion to try to show that Einstein used the term God in a particular way and simply ignores those statements that do not fit his case (eg. pages 93 and 264 from the link above), rather than addressing them and explaining, if possible, how they do not affect his case. Neither Dawkins nor Flew are arguing their case for or against God from what Einstein did (or did not) believe. But as Dawkins raised the issue of what Einstein actually believed, it seems to me to be fair comment to point out counter-evidence in a book that Dawkins quoted and has clearly read (or might that have been just the index?).
Flew mentions "a less important point" concerning the lack of definition of Deism in The God Delusion. The point that it seems to me Flew is making here is that the fundamental feature of Deism (at least for Flew) is that it denies any revelation by God in the world. Discounting the whole article on this one point seems like desperation to avoid the key challenges that Flew makes.
The key challenges
The comments on Flew's article that I have seen appear to ignore his main point, namely that Dawkins fails to present the doctrine which he is attempting to refute in its strongest form. Indeed, Dawkins appears not to have taken the trouble to do his basic research. This is why Flew characterises The God Delusion as "an attempt ... to spread the author's own convictions". Not because that is different to any other book advocating a viewpoint, but because the arguments and discussion used by Dawkins address a strawman version of God, ignoring the counter-arguments and the strongest forms of the arguments that point to the existence of a God. This is the point that the atheist Michael Ruse makes in his e-mail to Daniel Dennett:
I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design ... what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues ... neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas.
Can we hope for a serious grappling with the issues that Flew and others raise? The very reason that bethinking.org published Flew's article is that it was a fascinating disagreement between a former and a current atheist, raising issues which highlight the serious limitations of The God Delusion.