Friday, 15 February 2013

Dissing Dawkins

Hardly a week goes by without a self-appointed defender of the Faith whinging about critics who call Christianity to account based on the public profile Christians both tolerate and create out in the public arena.

These geniuses' stock response to skeptics like Richard Dawkins is to loudly complain that their critique is both shallow and unfair.  Skeptics clearly haven't done the hard yards by researching the leading thinkers.  The wicked critics, they charge, have taken aim at a straw man, a laughable caricature of Christian truth.


To clarify from the outset, this is neither a pro-atheistic rant, nor any kind of endorsement of the so-called New Atheists.  Rather it's a protest at the duplicity of those who regard writers like Dawkins and others as beneath them, and who have built a flattering image - an idol if you will - of what they think legitimate Christianity is like.

Christianity in the abstract is notoriously hard to pin down.  Christians can usually, however, be easily spotted.  They attend churches, buy (and occasionally read) bibles, get themselves or their kids baptised, find prayer helpful and hold an awful lot of propositions to be true regardless of the lack or otherwise of evidence.  Evidence is apparently irrelevant when truth is imparted by something called revelation.  While there are many exceptions, Christians of whatever flavour tend to be earnest, sincere folk who hold solid traditional values.  Even those who consider ourselves to be outside their fold still have friends, colleagues and relatives who inhabit that space and are, by and large, better persons for it.

Christians are the inheritors of a religion that began among fisher folk, craftspeople, slaves and illiterates.  Jesus was not a university-educated intellectual.  Nor was Peter, James or John.  While Paul wrote cryptically, he too would be hard to pigeon-hole as an academic by today's standards.  No one ever accused him of dispassionate objectivity!  Boastful and opinionated, yes; convoluted in his thinking and hugely egotistical (especially when he was claiming not to be), and a gifted, driven communicator; yes.  But he was neither an Einstein or even (thank God!) a Karl Barth.

And the people who attend Christian worship services are overwhelmingly ordinary, everyday folk.  The alleged excellencies of the theological elite tend to leave them cold.  They're there because, regardless of the theology, they're making a statement about values, community, personal and family identity, cultural inheritance... Take your pick.

Nor is it rocket science to "take the temperature" of contemporary Christianity.  Tune in to the Sunday morning TV evangelists, browse the shelves at your local Christian bookstore, have a conversation with your 'born again' brother-in-law.  Chances are pretty remote that you'll run over a reference to Bultmann or Tillich.

So why would a skeptic bother to swot up on the works of such rarified and justifiably obscure writers as Gunton, Torrance and company, when Christians themselves either can't be bothered, or, if they're not easily intimidated, find their work debatable and dubious? Reformed apologists are particularly obnoxious when it comes to trotting out their preferred authorities, invariably fellow-travellers in the Reformed tradition (J.I. Packer anyone?) that have near zero credibility outside that particular communion. These braying apologists would, I'm sure, love to provide the critics with a compulsory reading list - one that no one outside the ivory towers of their seminaries cares a whit for.  They would have a hard time giving away those books at the local Christian bookshop.  There it's all Joyce Meyer, Joseph Prince and Joel Osteen.

No wonder then that the skeptics focus their aim at the forms of Christianity that they see out in the real world rather dive down intellectual rat holes.  Not that coming to grips with some of these thinkers isn't potentially rewarding.  But let's be honest, when it comes to a choice between Eberhard Jüngel and Franklin Graham, crotchety old Franklin will win hands down every time (and frankly, if you've ever tried to read Jüngel, you'll understand why.)

And while that happens, you can hardly blame Christianity's critics for directing their firepower in the direction where all the fuss is.


  1. Agreed. Richard Dawkins may not understand Paul Tillich's theology, but he doesn't need to. He offers very valid (and, in my opinion, devastating) critiques of the fuzzy, half-baked beliefs 95% of the faithful hold to.

    1. When Dawkins pointed out that Craig defended the killing of Canaanite children, Dawkins was accused of only bashing fundamentalists and not engaging with sophisticated theology.

      When Dawkins then refused to debate Craig, it turned out that Craig had all along been one of the foremost Christian thinkers in the world and Dawkins was accused of not engaging with sophisticated theology.

  2. I believe your point is well taken. Mark Knoll touched on this same theme in his book "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." The debate has become so sharp between atheists and Christian apologists that I believe reasonable debate has become extinct. For example, many of the respondents to your statement will assume exactly what you said you are not doing: engaging in a pro-atheistic rant. They will see it exactly that way and rush to jump on the bandwagon with supportive statements without ever understanding the point of what you said. A snappy salute for Dawkins is the prescribed attitude. Christians on the other hand would see your statement as another indefensible attack on Christianity. It is neither. What you have tried to do is find that slice of rationality where constructive debate can happen but that has become ever so tiny.

    -- Neo

  3. Skeptics clearly haven't done the hard yards by researching the leading thinkers.

    True, and neither have the Christians themselves. They would have to break down the closed doors of the biblical scholars who are completely out of touch with what Christian churches actually teach their congregants. Far from being on the beaten track of Christianity, the biblical scholar is an aloof, far out doofus as far as the every day, average church goer is concerned.

    I don't know many times I have heard an average church goer say that they don't care how much alphabet soup a scholar has after his name, they know what the bible says and they don't need any scholars to tell them.

    Well, they don't, I reckon, because they do have the Reverend Billie Bob to tell them all they need to know. Don't even need to read the bible, they know what it says...and so forth and so on...and they're not gonna be fooled by no dang college professors!

    But, when their simplistic (and ignorant) beliefs are attacked by skeptics they run to those same hated "know nothing" biblical scholars for protection.

    It's all confirmation bias, of course, the desire to believe those who confirm our presupposed beliefs and assumptions. And, there's no way to escape confirmation bias except by accepting evidence based arguments - whether we want to or not.

    Now, people say they would accept the truth, no matter what it is, but they prove every Sunday that they really won't. It has been proved, with plenty of evidence, that evolution is true. Yet, people would still prefer to believe that God poofed everything into existence, as is. Then, there are others who choose to believe God poofed the universe into existence from nothing and let evolution take it's course from that point.

    That's when they allow cognitive dissonance to take control of their thinking and try their best to believe two opposites at the same time, black is white and white is black...the sun orbits the earth and the earth orbits the sun, everything had a cause, God didn't have a cause.