On Friday, 11/21/08, I ate at home while doing laundry. My supper consisted of cold turkey and gravy, a stuffed pepper, and two sugar-free oreos. With supper and laundry done, I headed out to a local Starbucks. There I drank coffee, listened to the typical mix of Starbucks music (let's save the planet now, James Taylor and Willie Nelson) and reread the Introduction to "There is A God" plus it's appendices. The Introduction and first appendix was written by philosopher and writer Roy Abraham Varghese. They concern the intellectual merits of the "New Atheism" as espoused by Richard Dawkins and others.. The second appendix is an interview of N.T. Wright by Antony Flew. I will not include my views on this interview; either in December or January, I will discuss what Wright had to say in a continuing series on this blog, "Close Encounters of the Theological Kind."
Varghese has been involved in the philosophical debate between theists and atheists for some time. Where does the New Atheism fit in in the debates over the past few decades? Varghese's answer: it fits in no where. Why? Among other reasons, Dawkins and company refuse to engage in the real issues surrounding the issue of God's existence such as the evident rationality at work in the universe, life understood as autonomous agency, consciousness, conceptual thought and the concept of self. (Flew, There Is A God, Introduction, p. xvii) In fact Varghese demonstrates that Dawkins atheism is a faith claim, a rival to the faith claims of monotheistic religions. Varghese quotes Dawkins to demonstrate that Dawkins views are based on belief and not evidence:
"I believe that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe." (Flew, p. xix)
In the Introduction, Varghese demonstrates the rather nasty rhetoric the New Atheists aim at their opponents. Dawkins did not exempt Flew from such attacks when Flew embraced theism. Those wanting specifics can read the Introduction, or click the above link to Dawkins above.
The first appendix, also written by Varghese, is called "The 'New Atheism': A Critical Appraisal of Dawkins, Dennett, Wolpert, Harris, and Stenger." According to Varghese, the New atheism's foundation is the stated belief that a supernatural God does not exist and that all their arguments hinge on proving this point. Varghese states that Dawkins and company fail to establish this foundation because they ignore five phenomena which are relevant to whether or not God exists. These phenomena, Varghese points out, are present in our immediate experiences and can only be explained by God's existence. These five are:
1. The rationality implicit in the totality of our interaction with the physical universe.
2. Our capacity to act autonomously.
3. The existence of consciousness; the ability to be aware.
4. "Conceptual thought, the power of articulating and understanding meaningful symbols such as are embedded in language."
5. "The human self, the 'center' of consciousness, thought, and action." (Flew, Appendix I, p. 161-162)
Most of the appendix is concerned with dealing with these five phenomena in greater detail.
Varghese points out that these five are not proofs for God's existence; they are in fact five factors that cannot be rationally denied, factors which presuppose God's existence. (Flew, Appendix I, p. 162)
This is how Varghese briefly summarizes the atheists' view of the origin of life:
"But the atheist position is that, at some point in the history of the universe,the impossible and inconceivable took place. Undifferentiated matter (here we include energy), at some point became 'alive,' then conscious, then conceptually proficient, then an 'I' " (Flew, Appendix I, p. 163)
Varghese uses the example of a table to illustrate the absurdity of the atheists' position. No matter how long the table remains, it will never evolve into a conscious being. And what is true for the table is true for all nonliving subatomic particles. (Flew, Appendix I, p. 163-164)
I particularly like Varghese's retort to the atheists' contention that all thought, no matter how noble, is nothing but neural transactions. Varghese refutes this notion with this illustration:
"But to say that a given thought is one specific neural transaction set is as inane as suggesting that the idea of justice is nothing but certain marks of ink on paper. It is incoherent, then, to suggest that consciousness and thought are simply and solely physical transactions." (Flew, p.164
Even before Flew himself abandoned atheism for theism, he was critical of Dawkin's atheistic writings. Dawkins believes that all human actions and thoughts are the product of our genetic makeup. We are programmed to survive, to look out for number one. There is no room for human freedom of choice; we are all slaves of the genetic machine. Dawkin refers to the genes responsible for such programming as "the selfish gene." (Flew, p. 79-80) Flew disagrees:
"Genes, of course, can be neither selfish or unselfish anymore than they or any other nonconscious entities can engage in competition or make selections." (Flew, p. 80)
I have only skimmed the surface of this book. As I wrote earlier, this book is written so the average reader who is not a professional scientist or philosopher can understand. Flew has not embraced the Christian faith, yet what he has written has great value in the Christian witness to those whose scientific views prevent them form acknowledging a creator. Flew states that Christianity is the one religion that he would embrace. Let us hope that the eighty-five year old's journey from atheism to theism ends with his repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
This concludes this brief examination of "There Is A God.'' The next work featured on "Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual" will be Miroslav Volf's "The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World."