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Enjoyable use of logic and semantics to deconstruct New Atheism
on 12 April 2015
Lennox is an Oxford Mathematician and a Christian. He has a style of writing that I enjoyed and I can thoroughly recommend this book. The book is essentially in two halves, I should say sections as the split is more like 2/3 and 1/3. The first is a deconstruction of New Atheism and draws on both the published works of the likes of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens; and, also on public debates between the author and Dawkins and, separately, Hitchens. The deconstruction is essentially a “glass houses” argument and as an atheist I agreed with much of Lennox’s analysis. The second half of the book concentrates on miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. I found the chapter “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” the most interesting and thought-provoking, despite it being largely Christian orthodoxy.
Before a more detailed review I should make it clear that whilst I’m an atheist I am no fan of New Atheism. I have read Dawkin’s “God Delusion” and Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation” and found them vulgar and derivative. Lennox makes several references to a symposium called “Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion & Survival” organised by The Science Network in 2006. This was essentially a New Atheist “love-in”. All the lectures are available on line and in amongst the diatribe there are some more considered discussions. There was actually a second symposium “Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark” in 2008 which is much more balanced and has more scientific rigour. In total, there is five days’ worth of lectures. It has been some time since I listened to them but I did make my way through them all. This is a lengthy review and I have tended to focus on the touch-points for me as an atheist. This not so as to misrepresent the book; but, to highlight the areas where I either agreed or disagreed with Lennox. I recommend this book to other atheists.
Anyway, back to Lennox’s book. I found the first section to be very much a “tit-for-tat” with lots of quotes from the high priests of New Atheism followed by Lennox’s critique. This does lead to some degree of repetition but I didn’t find this to be too annoying. However, the nature of this type of approach is that the arguments tend to be partial and I was surprised by a number of omissions. For example, the discussion on morality omits Kant’s categorical imperative. However, Lennox makes a number of charges stick, not least that New Atheism argues against its own caricature of religion and not the true nature of religion. More significant is the charge that New Atheism fails to apply its own scientific approach to its analysis of religion. I have to say I did find some real substance in Lennox’s arguments and as a mathematician myself I was drawn to Lennox’s logical style. I enjoyed some of the semantic arguments.
Lennox’s argument is initially semantic and he makes several references the Oxford English Dictionary for the definitions of faith, belief, delusion etc. It could be argued that this is “point-scoring” and that popularised discourse by its nature uses imprecise language. However, I think Lennox makes a serious charge. Scientists that in their own field have rigorously defined taxonomies and ontologies should apply the same rigour to their New Atheism and they don’t. Although Lennox, too, is not always rigorous with his language. As a mathematician he will know of Frege’s work on quantification and know that the statements “God does not exist” and “There is no God” are not equivalent. Nevertheless, the hub of Lennox’s argument is that atheism is itself an expression of faith – faith in the scientific method, faith in the regularity of the universe, faith that that regularity will continue indefinitely so that everything in the universe is explainable by science. All I can say is “absolutely correct” – I agree entirely with Lennox’s analysis, atheism is a belief system.
Lennox’s next charge is that New Atheism is, in its own right, a form of extremism that fails many of its own tests. Again, I can only agree with Lennox. Lennox asserts that there is a clear line of sight from the Enlightenment to the atrocities of the 20th century via the works of Nietzsche, Marx et al. Further, New Atheism is wilfully ignorant of the intellectual atheism underpinning the atrocities of Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Lennox cites many quotes from New Atheists about the eradication of religion that are as extreme as those professed by despots. But here is the interesting thing. Lennox accepts the atrocities of “Christendom” but makes the clear statement that those atrocities may have been in the name of Christ but were in no way an expression of the message of Christ. Religious extremists pervert and distort the true nature of their religion. By Lennox’s own analysis New Atheists are extremists and so we should allow that they are perverting and distorting the true nature of atheism. Of course, the difficulty here is that the “true” nature of religion is contained in its Torah, Bible, Koran etc. But what is the true nature of atheism? On what grounds can we say that New Atheists are extremists but other moderate forms of atheism are not? I do find the “bad people do bad things” defence of Stalin etc. to be too simplistic. However, I also think it is too simplistic to argue that atheism leads inexorably to totalitarianism.
Lennox next considers how morals can be derived in an atheistic framework. He makes much of Hume’s “you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’”; and, since science deals with the ‘is’, any attempts to derive an ‘ought’ will always fail. Similarly, attempts to explain morality in evolutionary terms are also flawed – citing our compassion for “the handicapped, the weak, the ill and the aged” as contrary to the evolutionary imperative to secure the survival of the strongest of the species. Whilst agreeing with much of Lennox’s analysis I did find that the argument from compassion asserts an a priori determinism that is inconsistent with the a posterior operation of survival of the fittest. Through-out the book, Lennox makes much of the fact that New Atheists fail their own test – but morality derived from God is also problematic at the genetic level. The Bible may tell us what is right from wrong but where does the drive to obedience come from? Is it inherited either genetically or via social convention? Lennox likes to invert New Atheism in on itself and the resulting arguments become somewhat semantic. Here, Lennox argues that since New Atheism is unable to provide either an absolute or relativistic moral framework it is impossible, on either analytical or synthetic grounds, for it make any meaningful criticism of religious morality. Essentially, in the absence of a moral framework the statement “religion is bad” has no meaning. This is a valid logician’s argument but this is a zero sum game – Kant has shown that there are no ontological proofs of God’s existence either.
Lennox then considers the atheist caricature of the Old Testament God as a despot and uses the Canaanite invasion and God’s direction to commit genocide as an example. Lennox makes a semantic argument that the command to kill ‘all’ Canaanites doesn’t actually mean “all”. But the main thrust of the argument is that this demonstrates that the God of love is also a God of justice and that God was both punishing in the Canaanites for centuries of decadence and setting an example for future generations of Israelites. I have never really agreed with the New Atheist deconstruction of Biblical events. If there is no God, the Bible is a revisionist account of historic and/or mythic events. I cite Karen Armstrong here who has written a number of well-balanced books on a range of religions. I take her view that the Bible represents a tradition of thought over a number of centuries and that therefore arguments and understanding are developed and refined. What I found more interesting in this chapter is Lennox’s analysis of justice in an atheist world. The quotes the nihilism of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky’s “If God does not exist, everything is permissible”. He also quotes Dawkins’ assertion that the universe is governed by impersonal laws that do not discern good and evil and hence provide no justice. However, Lennox does make a leap from a cold unfeeling universe to cold unfeeling humankind. He does entangle moral wrong doing (sin) with law-breaking. Given that western legal systems are inextricably linked with Judaeo Christian ethics then the entanglement is understandable. However, Lennox does seem to envisage an atheist society as one without even basic laws.
Lennox is much concerned with the fact that injustices in the mundane atheist world will not be rectified in a Final Judgement. His central thesis is that there will be final justice for everyone. The idea that injustices will not be rectified seems abhorrent to him. Of course the Final Judgement is an article of faith and, to my mind, does not offer any compelling argument against the unfairness of our mundane existence. Nevertheless, he does present a readable account. If I can indulge in caricature for a moment, Lennox does present a sort of “cosmic conservation law” in which for every sin there must be accompanying forgiveness. If as a result of Original Sin our individual sin does not die when we die, what happens to all the accumulated sin when humankind returns to its pre-Fallen, sinless, state? Humankind is unable to satisfy this law though its forgiveness alone – because we have committed too many sins. Hence, Jesus’ role in taking on the sins of humankind and removing sin from the world. What struck me was not the message but Lennox’s logical approach. Given the axioms (The Fall, Original Sin, Redemption) the argument is logically compelling. As an atheist I, of course, reject the axioms.
Lennox next considers miracles and seeks to deconstruct the observations of David Hume. I am no Hume scholar, but I did think that Lennox confused analytic (a priori) with synthetic (a posteriori) statements. For example, Lennox uses the example of smoking causing cancer to counter Hume’s assertion that events are connected rather than causally linked. The statement “smoking causes cancer” is clearly a synthetic/empirical statement as it expresses a conditional truth. The necessary, a priori, statement is “smoking always causes cancer” which is demonstrably false. Lennox also confuses the uniformity of the laws of nature with the uniformity of experience. It is well known that even simple non-linear systems can admit chaotic solutions. Lennox quotes C.S. Lewis a number of times and indulges in Lewis’ predilection for analogy. The problem with arguments from analogy is that they are always flawed at some level – they are earthbound examples (e.g. a thief stealing money from a drawer) that do not require a supernatural explanation and, hence, are fundamentally unconvincing as arguments for the supernatural. Lennox is highly critical of Hume but I found Lennox’s argument that we need the laws of nature to know that a miracle has happened to be essentially a restatement of Hume that there must be uniform experience to the contrary for a miracle to be a miracle.
Lennox does appear to make an uncharacteristically poor reading of Hume’s miracle maxim. Briefly this states that we should only believe a miracle if the likelihood of the miracle being true is greater than the likelihood that the testimony is false. This has actually spawned a large number of academic papers and attempts to prove the statement using probability theory. Anyway, Hume refers to the “greater miracle” meaning either the miracle or the testimony. But Lennox interprets this as a separate “bigger miracle” that is needed to explain the first miracle. This seemed an odd error in an otherwise balanced book – maybe I have misunderstood Lennox, but I did read the paragraph several times. Lennox also makes the common mistake of comparing miracles with sudden new scientific discoveries or theories that completely break the prevailing orthodoxy. For example, before Einstein it was believed that light travelled through ether and respectable scientists (e.g. Michelson and Morley) were performing experiments that attempted to detect the ether. Thanks to Einstein we know why they failed. Lennox’s comparison fails because the new science explains phenomena in a better way than the old and leads to results and experiments that can be reproduced in laboratories around the world. Miracles do not meet either of these criteria.
So, to the chapter on Jesus rising from the dead. As I said at the start of this review, I found this chapter quite compelling. The attacks on New Atheism were kept to a bare minimum and were along the lines of “how can they dismiss history without studying it first”. Again, I can only agree with these sentiments. Lennox attempts to establish certain truths (e.g. the women found the tomb empty) from within the biblical record and then proceeds to interpolate a narrative that vindicates the truth of the entire biblical account. I found this reminiscent of Frank Morison’s “Who Moved the Stone”. What spoiled this a little for me was at the end, Lennox felt he had to explain how the risen Jesus could appear in bodily form to the disciples after penetrating a locked room. So we have the analogy with Flatland and the higher dimensions of string theory. I’m not sure why Lennox felt he had to explain this event in natural terms and not others. I have to say that I am not an adherent of the Jesus Myth Theory but I am yet to read an atheist text that satisfactorily accounts for the rise of Christianity based upon the life, death and disappearance of an earthbound Jesus. I am aware of the ferment of opinion in early Christian Church and that much of what is now orthodoxy was not established until 325CE. So, whilst I enjoyed Lennox’s retelling of the resurrection, I was not convinced of its historicity. I do adhere to Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot argument – the burden of proof lies with Christians to ‘prove’ the resurrection, not with atheists to disprove it. But that sounds like a New Atheist cop-out.