Tag Archives: speculation

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.

Book Review: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book. I had heard various things about Ehrman, though had not read anything of his before. Since he is a former student of Bruce Metzger, I expected extremely careful and thorough scholarship. At the same time, I had heard that his own beliefs had covered a gamut of viewpoints over the years from christian to atheist to agnostic, and that his writings were deeply critical and challenging to modern day christians. So, unsure of precisely what to expect, I opened his book with an open mind.

I have to start with a comment on Ehrman’s writing style and communication abilities: they are superb. He makes his case very cogently and acknowledges where there are doubts and possible objections to his propositions. Thoroughly honest in his approach, his model of writing is one that could well be followed by many others. Few theologians I have read have written with such clarity.

So what are these propositions? Well, he invents a new term for an old group known to any historian of church history. The early church leaders are now rebranded as “proto-orthodox.” That is, a group of people in the 2nd-4th centuries whose beliefs became what we now recognise as Christian orthodoxy. To summarise, imagine a young tree sapling. The traditional view of church history has been that “heretical” views and non-orthodox texts and opinions grew out of early christianity as a kind of ‘branch’ that either was cut-off or died anyway, leaving the main trunk intact. The revisionist viewpoint espoused by Ehrman was that there were lots of saplings growing in parallel, and that in the battle for survival, most of the saplings were killed and the victors, being the ones who wrote the history, distorted the true picture of what happened. Ehrman’s hypothesis, crudely outlined above, owes a great deal to Walter Bauer, who is given due recognition and acknowledgement in the text.

This certainly should raise a few eyebrows amongst historically-minded christians. For the first third of the book, which I thought were the most interesting, he looks at a few early non-canonical writings at the stories they contain as well as the stories behind their discovery and their authorship. Throughout this discourse, there is this thread of “proto-orthodox” though it seems entirely superfluous to the discussion, and no attempt is made to justify it. The central third of the book looks at the different bodies of beliefs, looking at the Ebionites, the Marcionites and there is a broad overview of the broad spectrum of belief which fell under the umbrella term of Gnosticism.

It is only in the last third of the book that Ehrman attempts to justify his proposition of the “proto-orthodox.” Crucial to this discussion is the authorship of the books of the New Testament. Here is where some of his arguments seem to lack coherency. For example, he states (quite correctly) that we have no surviving “original” documents but then goes on to argue that the “proto-orthodox” have altered the originals to suit their own doctrines. But if you do not know what the originals said, how can this be justified?

Likewise, I am well aware that there are controversies over the identity of the authors of the New Testament, but Ehrman does not really explore these. On a number of occasions, he states that the books of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter were probably forgeries, though no evidence to support this proposition is ever given. Instead we have reference to “most scholars” though these are not named or referenced. So, whilst being eager to get to grips with this more revisionist viewpoint, I was left frustrated that it was not well supported.

In conclusion, I do not find Ehrman’s revisionist definition of early christians as “proto-orthodox” to be convincing. It is well-argued, but the evidence presented just doesn’t seem to provide sufficient weight to back up his proposition. The conclusion of the book is also slightly odd. Ehrman recognises that there are some elements of heretical groups that are making a comeback in one guise or another, and he seems to suggest that a plurality of belief and the resurrection of some gonostic or Marcionite thinking is necessarily a good thing. But to me, applying Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most logical explanation behind the demise of the heretical elements looked at here were because they were late inventions that grew out a pre-existing orthodoxy that was already in place from the time of Acts. These later ideas lacked that most important ingredient: truth. While having different opinions is perfectly welcome, I do not agree with Ehrman that this in itself is a good thing if it introduces untruth. I have great respect for his writing and his research, and would recommend this book to anyone interested in this history of early christianity and the heretical beliefs that grew out of it. However, I would recommend it as part of a wider study, which I shall be doing myself. I have, as you may see, recently completed The New Testament And The People of God by N.T. Wright and on my table, waiting to be read this summer/autumn are Alister McGrath’s Heresy: A History of defending the truth and W.H.C. Frend’s The Early Church.

The News of the World: some thoughts on the cause of its fall & the consequences

I am writing this this offline on the evening of the 7th of July. I know the news has been moving very fast this week, so I apologise if this is already out of date by the time I get round to publishing it online.

Much has been said and written in the last few days about the News of the World hacking scandal. By the time I left my office this evening, it had been announced that this Sunday’s paper would be the last and that the proceeds of the final sales would go to some unnamed “good causes.” For the avoidance of libel, I acknowledge that the allegations made against the News of the World are as yet unproven, and any references to these actions ought to be read in that light.

So why did the paper close. It seems to me that the watershed moment in the hacking affair was the revelation that the phone of Milly Dowler had been hacked. Before this, the dominant theme of the story had been the phones of politicians and celebrities; the usual tabloid fodder. Though the alleged actions were illegal, there was nothing that sparked a widescale moral outrage at them; we are used to those in positions of power using underhanded and dubious means to achieve their goals. But the hacking of the phone of a murder victim seemed to flick a switch that had hitherto been unnamed. The escalation of the revelations from there only compounded the problem.

At this point, there began a pressure campaign on those who advertised in the NOTW to withdraw their funding. I cannot say for certain how much this pressure was applied by those who do not read [sic] the NOTW, though the impression I got from my limited viewpoint was that the non-readers were in the majority. Had it merely been a boycott from buying the paper, I am not convinced the paper would have folded with such rapidity, since any boycott would have been from those who never bought it in the first place, which is pointless. As the majority of a paper’s profits are made from its advertisers, removing this source of funding was always going to hurt the paper. When it became clear that the paper would not be a viable source of profit, it was decided to terminate the paper’s operation. It would be nice to think it was an act of conscience, but I don’t think this is the case. The business of the paper is the business of Rupert Murdoch: making money. The evidence seen so far seems to point to the idea that all actions taken were motivated by the love of money; even if sometimes this exhibited itself indirectly.

A further course of action which was possible, and which I advocated, was to pressurise the vendors of the paper into not selling it. Unless the vendors had a contract with the paper (or its parent company) then I cannot see that it would be impossible for a vendor to choose not to sell it.

What I find interesting to reflect on is that in spite of this being hailed as a victory for public opinion, it was corporations that ultimately swayed the matter to the extent that the paper folded. I don’t think that it would have done so if the advertisers hadn’t pulled out. So is it the case that the advertisers were the real champions of ethics? Well, I did find a list of those advertisers and it makes for interesting reading. It is not exactly made up of companies who are well-known for being champions of corporate social responsibility and one could certainly write several books containing the accounts of the misdemeanours by the likes of Tesco and Asda, amongst others.

So I would propose that the closing of the paper, while initiated by a mob mentality motivated by moral outrage, was ultimately decided by those corporations who feared for their own profits being damaged by the public boycotting of their own products and services in protest, had they not withdrawn their advertising funds.

Call me a cynic, but the whole thing seems to be about money and greed, rather than a fundamental sense of right or wrong.

At the time of writing, there was an unsubstantiated rumour going round that there was to be a planned merger of The Sun and the NOTW anyway, and that today’s announcement was merely an accelerant to that process. Part of this rumour included the proposition that the websites thesunonsunday.com and thesunonsunday.co.uk had been registered as domain names on the 5th of July this year. If someone who is more knowledgeable on how to check such propositions than I could confirm or deny this, that would be much appreciated.

So now that the announcement of cessation of publication has been made, what will be the likely outcome? Well, in the short-term it looks like we will have one fewer right-wing newspaper on the shelf on a Sunday. It’s not a huge step of progress, but it is a mild improvement. Ideally, I’d rather see more left-leaning papers as the closest we have to these are The Independent and The Guardian, and these are not exactly bastions of liberal freethought at all times.

Given the close links between the NOTW and The Sun, I think it likely that there will be a limited number of transfers going on, though I think it reasonable to assume there will be some job losses. While the problems at the paper may have been fairly widespread, I strongly doubt that everyone who worked at the paper was party to the hacking. So inevitably there will be some innocent people who are going to lose their livelihoods as a result; and what prospects do they have? Though the NOTW was never the most respectable of papers, I would not like to cast aspersions on everyone who worked there. If I try and put myself in the shoes of a budding young journalist, and the NOTW was the only national paper to offer me a job I would be tempted to take it. But given the seriousness of the allegations, will the fact that time spent at the NOTW will be on someone’s CV consign them to history as far their journalistic career goes. I have spoken to a number of people who formerly worked at Arthur Andersen, and who were not able to get a job in accountancy after Enron, in spite of the fact that they may have been very good at their jobs and acted at all times with the utmost integrity.

What of the prime minister and his involvement? I would like to think he’d resign as a sense of duty and seeking to do what is best for the country; though I have never been given any reason to suppose that he has anything but his own interests and those of his friends and business associates at heart. It is now 10pm and I just saw on a preview of Newsnight that Andy Coulson is expected to be arrested tomorrow (the 8th). This may damage the prime minister a lot, though unfortunately the British public are a fickle lot with short memories. I suspect the Lib Dems lack the spine to pull out of the coalition and will seek to hang on to the bitter end of the 5 year term. By this time, the NOTW will be a distant memory, as will the 2012 Olympics and many other national embarrassments, though it is yet to be seen whether or not Ed Milliband will, by then, have actually done anything productive.

On creationism/ID

I would like to thank Lewis S for his well-considered post in reply to an earlier post I made. Lewis had clearly thought through the issues discussed and the challenges he raises deserve an equally considered response, I feel. They also touch on a number of subjects which I think concern a lot of Christians and critics of Christianity. Of those, I will choose to look at one in particular

Creationism/ID

For the record, I do not subscribe to young earth creationism or to the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis. I think there is a quite profound difference between the belief that God created the world and the belief in a particular method of how He/It did it. As you will be able to read elsewhere, I recently read through Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and found that apart from the introduction which was not written by Darwin, there is nothing overtly atheistic about it. It seems to me that the idea of “special creation” has been bound up in many people’s minds with the core of the Abrahamic religions, and that by undermining the former, that the latter is then consequently undermined too. I do not agree with this view, as I consider it to demonstrate a poor grasp of theology (which I think is true in a lot, though not necessarily all, creationists) and a stretching of the good science into conclusions where the evidence does not reach.

I have no issue with creationists or ID proponents believing what they do, and am perfectly happy to worship in church alongside them. While I believe them to be mistaken, it is no reason to break up personal relationships or to adopt any kind of haughty attitude. To me, the core of Christianity is the person, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the subsequent soteriology that that entails. Anything else is a distraction and I would not want anything petty to break apart such relationships.

One of the labels that is often applied to YEC/ID proponents is “anti-science” which I personally think is a bit harsh, particularly on the ID supporters. To quote Richard Feynman,

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Those who dissent from scientific consensus tend to fall into one of two categories: genius or crackpot. It is by questioning what we commonly accept that a lot of progress may be made. But there may also be a lot of wayward pot-shots that happen along the way. In my experience, there are often a few gems hidden within the criticisms of YEC/IDers that deserve serious consideration, but given how far their main hypothesis lies from mainstream science, they are disregarded wholesale.

Where I see the failings of YECers is that while they may well accept scientific methodologies, their conclusions are biased, based on a pre-existing paradigm. IDers are merely pursuing a route of falsification which Darwin mentions several times in Origin. So the fact that they keep coming up with possible examples of potentially irreducibly complex structures which do turn out to be explainable by means of natural selection, I think, adds to the body of evidence supporting Darwin. All too often in debates around creationism and evolution, I think those on the side of evolution don’t put up the best possible argument but instead refer to rhetoric and name-calling, unwilling to engage with those who disagree with them. At times, it seems as though it is a default position to adopt simply because of their distaste with any possible alternatives. To me, scientific integrity means it should be questioned and challenged; if it can be falsified, then it is important that serious attempts should be made to pursue such lines of enquiry.

I find it interesting to compare the approaches taken by creationists such as Ken Ham to that of Fred Hoyle’s view of the Big Bang theory. Ham objects to evolution, not because of any particular flaws in the theory but because he disagrees with a particular conclusion that may be reached from it; namely the undermining of his worldview of the creator god. Hoyle objected to Big Bang theory because he felt it accorded too well with the Judaeo-Christian view of the world having a beginning, which may then imply a creator (c.f. Thomas Aquinas and the “first-mover” idea). Both of these men start out by objecting to a possible corollary and then went in search of the evidence to undermine the theory. As far as I know, Hoyle never adopted the big bang model of the origin of the universe, in spite of its near universal acceptance in modern science (an interesting recent exception being the severe modification proposed by Roger Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology hypothesis). While I do not agree with Ken Ham, I think he sometimes given a rougher time than he deserves, as some of his critiques are not without basis.

To my view, the problem with Christians who reject evolution is shared with some atheists who reject Christianity. It is the problem of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I fully acknowledge there are problems with Christianity, and I will touch on one or two of these later on. At the same time I acknowledge that there are problems with evolution. If there weren’t, there would be no need for research; we would know everything. But the fact that both have their difficulties does not mean that I will reject them outright. Indeed, I am happy to embrace both as working hypotheses.

To return to what I think Lewis S was getting at, even though he didn’t phrase it quite as such is this: how do I reconcile the creation account in Genesis with evolution? To me, the key is about trying to understand Genesis in the context in which it was written and what would have been observed by the writer(s) and readers. Without an extensive knowledge and study of biology, as Darwin, Russell and their contemporaries had, it would be highly surprising indeed if the author(s) of Genesis would have come up with a description that mirrored our current understanding of the development of life. They were merely expressing themselves in the best way they possibly could. There is some indication, though I would not like to stress the point too much, that the civilisation which produced the book of Genesis had a grasp of what structures in nature were more complicated. This is given by the “order of creation” in the genesis account which, with a few exceptions, broadly mirrors the current scientific consensus.Andrew Parker has recently written a book entitled The Genesis Enigma which goes a lot further than I would consider reasonable along this route, though I shall say no more about it here.

It was also long before Darwin that Christian scholars and apologists warned against taking the start of Genesis in what we would not call a literalist manner. Augustine of Hippo wrote a piece called De Genesi ad litteram in which he advocated such a view. And this was written in the late 3rd/early 4th century!

I have to say that I am not a biologist, so can boast no evolutionary training beyond the average. Instead, my master’s degree was in mathematics, with a very heavy dose of physics (in the last couple of years, subjects covered included quantum mechanics, general relativity, twistor theory, string theory, fluid dynamics and electrodynamics). For that reason, the particular areas of creationism that I felt most able to look at were their physics explanation for a young earth. The two dominant ideas here were the slowing down of thespeed of light (which, if true, could help explain the red-shifting of galaxies and get past the rather awkward fact of any object being more than 10,000 light years away) and the decreasing strength of the earth’s magnetic field (where an extrapolation is taken and an argument is made than with a much stronger magnetic field, life could not exist on earth). The former argument was dependent on a single paper that has since been debunked, as the author cherry-picked his data and made an arbitrary cut-off date at which light stopped slowing down. This happened to coincide with the most accurate measurements of the speed of light. The author also supposed that all measurements (including those where the only available light was a candle!) were entirely accurate. The latter theory may have seemed more promising, were it not for the mathematical uncertainties that creep in when using any form of extrapolation model. Here, I think of the GCSE experiment in Hooke’s law using a spring where the students discover that you can’t extrapolate your results, as it misses a change in the molecular structure that changes the deformation from elastic to plastic. Also, the discovery of geomagnetic reversal was the final nail in that particular coffin.

This was roughly the route by which I largely came to reject creationism. One line I have heard a few times from creationists who cannot fathom that someone can both be a Christian AND be persuaded by the evidence for evolution is “well, if you don’t believe the first chapters of the Bible, how can you say you believe it?” I consider this argument to be both fatuous and vacuous. It fails to recognise the Bible as a compendium of books, not a single book by a single author. It also draws on some strange form of logic whereby rejection or acceptance of one part (in a literalist manner) compels you to reject or accept the whole. It is rather like saying you disagree with an editorial piece in a newspaper, and thereby being forced to reject the entire contents of the said paper.

So what shall I say in conclusion, then? The fact that I am persuaded by the evidence for evolution in no way diminishes my Christian faith. It would be truly astonishing if the authors of the book of Genesis had given an account that was technically accurate, as it would have required a breadth of study and technology that was far beyond what was available at the time.

My personal take on the "New Atheism"

Introduction

The purpose of this blog post is to clarify what I understand by the term “New Atheism” as has been banded about by various writers and commentators over the last few years. This is very much just a collection of thoughts that, by the process of writing, I am seeking to put in some sort of order myself. This is not intended as a critique on the movement (if indeed there really is such a thing), nor is intended as either an attack or defence of any group or individual. As ever, if you think I have made any factual errors then please correct me, and if you disagree with me, please let me how you disagree with me, so that I may have some food for thought. If you take any offence at this, it is unintended and I shall seek to clarify as far as possible any points which may have been poorly worded.

Before publishing this post, I did send this off to an atheist blogger who has written more about this than I. In respect of his wish to not have our conversation published verbatim, a paraphrase of his response is included as an afterword.

Background

This has come about from my recent reading of Alister McGrath’s recent book, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging With The New Atheism.” Though it happened more out of coincidence than design, I also read Richard Feynman’s The Meaning Of It All recently, and some of the contents of this book and RPF’s take on the interaction of science prompted me to consider how his view of the relation between religion and science differed from some of the modern views.

The key question

To my mind, the key question must be “What is the difference between an atheist and a New Atheist?” In McGrath’s book, he doesn’t give a particular definition of what a New Atheist is or how they are demarked from other atheists. In the chapter on what’s new about the New Atheists, he talks about anti-theism (more on that in a bit) and spends a fair proportion of the chapter on the Brights. He refers to the 4 key texts (as he sees them) and draws from these a general ethos that typifies the approach, which is then further exemplified by a wider online community. But maybe it need not be so black-and-white. Are human beings not free to believe what they want? Though it may be helpful in terms of understanding how groups interact to be able to put labels on them, humans are far more than the sum of all the adjectives we can apply to them.

In my reading, I have never come across a statement of (dis-)beliefs of New Atheism which has wide acceptance. Neither in the form of a creed, or even a more corporate mission statement. I think perhaps the reason for this may lie in the idea that such statements are only needed for affirmative viewpoints, rather than negative ones. In this, I recognise I may be at odds with some atheists who would consider their worldview to be perfectly positive, but merely with an absence of one or a few factors that are otherwise present in another person’s worldview.

Without wanting to get bogged down in semantics, I propose that we let any disagreements there be put aside for now, in favour of obeying the Monty Python cloud god’s instruction to “Get on with it!”

The 4 manifestos

In McGrath’s book, he identifies 4 books as the key texts on which the New Atheism is based. In other words, they each act as a kind of manifesto. They are:

The End of Faith – Sam Harris
The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
Breaking The Spell – Daniel Dennett
God is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens

Here, I must make a confession. I have not read any of them in full. My extent of reading these texts consists of reading extracts in other publications (usually reviews and counter-arguments) and one or two chapters in full, though not very recently. This is not because I refuse to read them, but merely because they are low on my priorities. If anyone thinks that I would do well to read them, then please feel free to buy one or all of them for me! However, I would present you with an equal challenge. That if someone wants to challenge my Christianity with these books, then you must allow me to buy you a book which may challenge your atheism. I think that’s only fair.

However, whilst acknowledging that I am not totally au fait with all their arguments, I do not consider myself ignorant of their views either. I have read plenty of other writings of theirs and watched debates or interviews in which they feature. In this respect, my order of familiarity is as follows:

1. Dawkins
2. Hitchens
3. Dennett
4. Harris

Science and timing

If there are no clear boundaries between an ordinary atheist and a New Atheist, are there are at least characteristics which may commonly be found in one but not in another? This is where McGrath comes back into the picture, as the central part of his book deals with the 3 key features he sees as being distinguishing: 1) the notion that religion is inherently evil; 2) that religion is incompatible with rationality and 3) that religion is incompatible with science.

McGrath gives an overview of why each of these 3 premises is at best, doubtful; at worst, false. My thoughts on these are summarised in my review of McGrath’s book. Of the 3, the one I am most interested in the supposed incompatibility with science. The main reason for this is because I specialised in science during my formative years, culminating a mathematics degree which included a large amount of physics. So as a Christian, when someone states that science and faith are mutually exclusive, I do tend to raise something of a quizzical eyebrow.

In his brief history of New Atheism, McGrath cites 9/11 as being one of pivotal moments in shaping the New Atheism. Sociologically, I think this a valid point, though in terms of the science argument, there is one interesting thing he fails to mention, and this seems not to have been particularly picked up on by any apologists that I know of. That was been the timing of the publication of The God Delusion with respect to the death of Stephen Jay Gould. Here, this is only my opinion, based on my view of events. This is where Feynman comes into it, as mentioned earlier.

In his lectures of 1963, which were transcribed and published as The Meaning of it All, Feynman (who, elsewhere, identifies himself as an atheist) states that he sees no conflict between someone being a scientist and having a religious belief. This is a similar line that was adopted by Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and palaeontologist who sadly died somewhat prematurely in 2002. His notion of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (Noma – nothing to do with Nooma video series by Rob Bell) has been highly influential, if not universally agreed upon, in the understanding of the science-faith relationship.

Dawkins seems to be opposed the Noma idea (Google “Dawkins on Noma” and you’ll get the idea). The trouble is, Gould was a heavyweight figure, not only as a communicator like Dawkins, but also as a leading thinker in his field, which was dangerously close to Dawkins’ own research areas. It is one thing to fight critics like Terry Eagleton, Alister McGrath or Mary Midgely, but to take on Gould could have been seriously damaging for Dawkins, had The God Delusion been written while Gould was still around.

“New Atheism” as a sociological label

As people, we love to stick labels on others and try to understand groups of people by clumping them together. I think the label “New Atheism” is just another example of this. There may be great differences in the approaches and emphases between, say Dennett and Harris, yet they are still labelled as New Atheists. If we stay look at the other side of the coin, a term that is used quite frequently is “religious fundamentalist.” I don’t know of anyone who defines themselves as such, nor am I aware of a firm definition which segregates religious fundamentalists from other religious people. Yet I do see that there are elements of society where this description is apt, in spite of its hazy meaning.

As an aside, I do not think that the term fundamentalist is very close to its original meaning – those who subscribed to the ideas of the magazine The Fundamentals. For example, anyone who does not subscribe to the theory of evolution is often labelled as a fundamentalist, yet the writings of that particular magazine endorsed the work of Charles Darwin though they rejected the philosophical (over-?) stretching of his biology into a more general reductionism – which is the approach favoured more by Dennett with his “universal acid.” And since The Fundamentals was a Christian publication, it certainly then does raise interesting questions on the precise meaning of the term “Islamic fundamentalism” as is also often heard these days.

So with that in mind, does McGrath’s apparent unwillingness (or inability) to define New Atheism render his arguments null and void? I would propose not. Maybe, in time, those adherents to Dawkins & co. may adopt the terminology as their own – much as followers of the Jewish sect known as The Way later adopted the pejorative term Christ-ian. So who is a New Atheist? Well, I would be perfectly happy for it to be a self-defining term; if you want to call yourself a New Atheist, so be it. However, I find the main theme running through anything that is identified as New Atheist, is anti-theism. So rather than put forward either of the statements “I do not believe there is a God” or “I believe there is no God,” anti-theism has a more strident aim (some might say evangelical) of ridding the world of religious belief. Whether this be by force (as McGrath highlights in Harris’ condolence of violence towards believers) or by persuasion, that is up to the individual. This view does actually crop up in McGrath’s book, in pages 23-26. However, it does get rather drowned by the rest of the chapter and his critique on the Brights. Where I then disagree with the use of the word “New” is that this more aggressive form of atheism does not appear to be new. I have met and spoken with many people for whom the “four horsemen” simply put into print what they had been saying for many years previously.

Conclusion

I’m not a fan of sticking the New Atheist label on anyone who hasn’t put it on themselves. By the use of the term, it seems to divert attention away from the real issue, which is the discussion of the claims to truth by advocates of and adherents to different worldviews. Where two worldviews differ, I believe each side should be able to provide a defence for their position, reasons why they do not agree with another’s and also that it is at least courteous to listen to one another’s views, learn from them and, if necessary alter one’s own views based on such discussions. Where anti-theists and religious fundamentalists alike fail, I believe, is in their apparent dogmatism which leads to an unwillingness to engage.

There is nothing so frustrating as trying to have a civilised conversation over a game chess, when you are in a room full of people shouting at one another with their fingers in their ears and pretending that that is a meaningful and productive conversation.

Afterword: A response from an atheist

As mentioned in the introduction, I did ask a knowledgeable atheist to give this a once over, in order to help eliminate any unnecessary errors or misunderstandings. What follows below is his response, though as he did not wish for a verbatim quotation, I have edited it a little. Any misinterpretations are therefore due entirely to me. Here is what he had to say:

The term “New Atheist” is rejected by some atheists, who claim the media did it. However, the term “New Atheist” is very much warmly accepted by some of the New Atheists. Notably Victor Stenger, if I recall correctly, and Dawkins himself.

There is also a separation that is sometimes made between the thought leaders in the field and those who follow them. The fans of the New Atheists have no generally accepted overall name. Some prefer to call themselves atheists. Others very happily self-identify with the “New Atheism” label. There is also the term Gnu Atheists for the fans, especially the American ones; see this blog post of mine for details.

Others still happily self-identify with the Gnu Atheist and the New Atheist labels; notably Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson and Russell Blackford.

The separation between New Atheism and atheism in general is a pronounced anti-theism on the New Atheism side.

You make an extremely interesting observation about the death of Gould in relation to the timing of the success of the New Atheist movement. It doesn’t go as far as you hope, but it is definitely a factor.

I will be happy to write a review of Alister McGrath’s book, once it arrives (I’ve ordered it). While I very much like McGrath as a person, I find his work on New Atheism is not comprehensive enough. You also miss the main success of the New Atheist movement is their MORAL argument against religion, i.e. in effect they are saying religion is incompatible with morality (i.e. you think science or rationality, but the underlying message is morality). Those counter-attacking the New Atheists have never really managed to deal with that one well. The only ones who have dealt with it well are atheists and agnostics (Josh Rosenau, me, Jim Lippard, etc.)

Keith Ward wrote a book which I think dealt with this better than McGrath. Keith Ward, “Is religion dangerous?” The problem is, Ward didn’t manage enough take-home soundbites or any follow-up campaign, so he did not garner a very broad following.

I like McGrath, but I find his promotion of Christianity actually undermines his defence of religion against the New Atheists.

Book Review: Gaia by James Lovelock

It has to be noted, first of all that this book is now 30 years old. Much has changed since it was written and to that end the author has included a new preface which acknowledges this. He also acknowledges that there are some factual errors within the book but that he would rather the original text be preserved as it was originally written, rather than constantly be revised.

The starting question is this: how could we identify if there is life on another planet? In other words, what are the signatures that distinguish life from non-life? The answer is not that straightforward, though Lovelock, with some acknowledgement given to some other scientists, comes up with a working definition for what characterises that which is living. But what Lovelock then does is to apply these criteria to the whole of planet earth and comes to the startling conclusion that the earth (or at least the biosphere) is a living thing; not just that it contains living things, but rather that it is itself a living entity, which has then been dubbed Gaia, after the greek goddess of the earth.

From here, Lovelock then looks at various aspects of biology and chemistry on earth and seeks evidence for this claim. His central argument is that of homeostasis: that the earth is self-regulating in order to maintain the conditions needed for life.

The book is characterised by two different personalities, so to speak. On the one hand, there is a quite reasonable scientific discourse (mostly focused on chemistry) about the make up and balances within the atmosphere and oceans, while on the other hand there is an impassioned environmental polemic on what mankind has done to harm the planet. While I do disagree, per se, with having these two styles married together, the way it is done seems to take the edge off the level of scientific credulity that Lovelock might have otherwise been afforded. My impression of it was that the scientific overview of feedback systems was immensely interesting, but the overarching Gaia hypothesis was itself unnecessary. Though this book has been hugely influential, particularly within the environmental lobby (rightly, I believe) the weight of scientific evidence for the master narrative is small and yet to be convincing.