I confess, I’ve never been a fan of Bill Maher’s shtick. To me, smugness is just about the most annoying human personality trait. It’s why I have a hard time enjoying any movie featuring Kevin Spacey … unless he’s the villain, which suits me just fine. Maher has long had the temerity to insert himself into forums where serious political and cultural issues are at stake. Kudos for that. But, no matter how sincere or thoughtful the arguments put forth there, Maher seems to think they can be dismissed with a witticism and his famous smirk, dripping with self-satisfaction. Some think these retorts incisive. They’ve always struck me as evasions. Rarely does Maher bother to engage the logic of an argument, which is fine as a comedian, but it hardly merits his apparent self-appraisal as a beacon of reason. It appears from the trailers that Maher has taken a similar tack in his new film, Religulous. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, so I’ll refrain from commenting until I do (Read My Film Autopsy now that I’ve seen it). In the meantime, the reviews and responses popping up around the Web are plenty interesting. Here’s a sampling…
In recent years, as our deepening understanding of the delicate complexity of the universe continues unabated, Naturalists are increasingly turning to “multiverse” hypotheses to blunt or dodge the force of fine-tuning and teleological arguments for the existence of a Designer. Roughly, the idea is that, parallel to the universe we inhabit, there exists an infinite series of universes, each of which is different from our own in at least one respect. In the multiverse, every contingent possibility is instantiated in at least one universe. If it helps, the concept has been used for dramatic effect on the TV show, Sliders, and in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The multiverse is thought to undercut design arguments because while it is wildly improbable that our life-supporting universe should exist if there was only one shot at it, it is inevitable that our universe exist if every possible universe exists. (Yes, it begs the question of the necessary conditions for this meta-universe, but we’ll leave that to the side.) There are mixed feelings about the multiverse hypothesis amongst skeptics and Naturalists. While it may be a stopgap against the implications of our apparently designed universe, it is an inescapably ironic move for the Naturalist to postulate a deus ex machina that is unobserved and, in principle, unobservable.
A number of recent books making the case against God have hit the best-seller list, most notably Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. If you follow the argument closely, you’ll notice that the gravamen of the case against God is their judgment that God, and specifically the Christian God, as he is commonly understood, is not good after all. Whatever its status as a logical proof against theism, the argument is existentially forceful because we meet a God in their arguments that is deserving of their unmistakable disdain. The argument against the goodness of God usually advances on three fronts:
- God cannot be good because the world is rife with evil and suffering;
- The God we meet in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, is repugnant to our moral sensibilities; and,
- Those who claim to follow this God are responsible for epic evils like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the “troubles” in Northern Ireland as well as for more quotidian evils like intolerance, anti-intellectualism, and being bores.
While it’s almost impossible not to relish Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ turns of phrase, it is hard to get past their exceedingly strident tones. Nonetheless, the basic thrust of their arguments should be, and is in fact, troubling to believers. LeaderU.com has collected a number of articles wrestling with the first question. Marilyn McCord Adams’ well regarded, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God also deals honestly and poignantly with this difficult question at greater length. The second concern about the biblical God is largely a theological question. The attributes of God, including the Goodness of God, are enumerated without much in the way of soul-searching at Grace’s Online Library and at The Christian Courier. As for the third contention, Robert Royal’s, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West and James Kennedy’s What if Jesus Had Never Been Born consider the impact of Christianity on history. Finally, Christianity Today is featuring a conversation between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson regarding Hitchens’ accusations against God and religion. It is truly a clash of the Titans.
The age old question of the existence of God has made headlines recently with Al Sharpton’s debate with Christopher Hitchens and ABC’s, Does God Exist? The Nightline Face-off. In the latter, Ray Comfort, a street preacher who is a regular fixture on Santa Monica’s 6th Street promenade, and Kirk Cameron, of Growing Pains fame, argued in the affirmative. Brian Sapient and Kelly of the Rational Response Squad argued for the irrationality of belief in God. One could have hoped, considering the import of such a momentous question, that ABC might have sought out philosophers more up to the task, but that probably wouldn’t have made for “good TV”. Instead, the viewer was treated to a foursome of philosophical lightweights. There were some high points. Despite his malapropism, calling fundamentally philosophical arguments “scientific proof”, Ray Comfort’s articulation of the complexity of the human body as a part of his argument from design was eloquent enough. And Brian and Kelly delivered a number of zingers that left Ray and Kirk speechless. But mostly, at best, both sides offered sophomoric versions of the arguments that need to be reckoned with when considering the evidence for and against the existence of God. Fortunately, more capable thinkers have addressed this question more profitably. William Lane Craig is well known for arguing for the rationality of belief in God and a number of his debates with worthy opponents can be found online. His debate with Michael Tooley at the University of Colorado is especially worth reading. JP Moreland’s and Kai Nielsen’s debate, published in the volume, Does God Exist?, is still an excellent read and features commentary from a number of thinkers who add valuable insight. Many other relevant volumes line the shelves at Amazon.com, including Richard Swinburne’s, The Existence of God, and George Smith’s classic, Atheism: The Case Against God. Online, Wikipedia provides a helpful catalog of the arguments for the Existence of God. Tim Holt makes the argument for the existence of God in summary form at Existence-of-God.com as does All About God, weighing both philosophical and scientific considerations. The Secular Web provides the counterpoint with a roundup of logical arguments for atheism.
The recent release of Ron Howard’s movie "The Davinci Code" has provoked a renaissance in the controversy that surrounded the publication of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel. It is tempting to be dismissive of all the handwringing. Dan Brown’s claims are really just a knock-off of parts of the seemingly perpetual parade of novel theories about the life of Christ that make their debut each Christmas and Easter on the covers of Time and Newsweek. One might be surprised that Christians are so easily scandalized by unorthodox claims about the object of their faith when similar claims are such standard fare. And, after all, it’s just a novel. On the other hand, in a historically and biblically illiterate culture, Brown’s claims do have purchase on the hearts and minds of believers and non-believers alike. To boot, Brown has refused to let his book be dismissed as mere fiction, insisting instead that, "all of the art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies — all of that is historical fact". Brown’s novel wouldn’t be the first to leave an indellible imprint on the course of history. So, I, for one, welcome the cottage industry of critical analysis that has accompanied the release of the film. As usual, LeaderU.com is featuring a roundup of essays and interviews including Ron Rhodes’ "Crash the Da Vinci Code", Ben Witherington III’s "Mary, Mary, Extraordinary", and Sandra Miesel’s merciless "Dismantling the Da Vinci Code." Envoy Magazine offers Carl E. Olsen’s critique from a Catholic perspective. The New Age Center reprints an article from the New York Times by Bruce Boucher quibbling with Brown’s art history, ending with this fabulous quote from Voltaire: "If it’s too silly to be said, it can always be sung." There are many more for the Googling. Additionally, Amazon.com is hawking a multitude of books piggy-backing on the success of the Davinci Code. Here are some critical ones.
The recent conversion to deism of well-known atheist Antony Flew has been widely reported. As he tells the story, his recent considerations of apparent design in the universe, and in particular of the complexity of DNA, have led him to believe in the existence of a God who is at least intelligent and powerful. The best account of Flew’s new perspective can be found in an interview with Gary Habermas in the upcoming issue of Philosophia Christi. The interview is available online on Biola University’s website. Richard Carrier has also corresponded with Flew about his recent thinking and commented on it at The Secular Web. One could conclude that Flew’s story illustrates the persuasiveness of current arguments for the existence of God from design even to a person who one can assume was predisposed against them. One of the best details of the story, however, is the collegiality it reveals between Flew and the late CS Lewis as well as with the Christian philosopher Gary Habermas. Understandably, Flew has been somewhat circumspect in his comments so far, pointing instead to the forthcoming edition of his seminal work, God and Philosophy.
As war in the Middle East rears its ugly head once again, any person of conscience must wrestle with the question of war. Naturally, on the Web one can find a second front, the war of ideas. At First Things, Richard John Neuhaus’ “Sounds of Religion in a Time of War” is a typically well-considered assessment of the war in Iraq while George Weigel brings the “just war” tradition to bear in “Moral Clarity in a Time of War”. LeaderU features a number of articles in “Warview: Iraq, the US, and World Opinion”. While one could have hoped for wisdom on war from a secular worldview, B. Stephen Matthies at The Secular Web instead offers a critical review of Christian approaches in “Just War Tradition, Pacificism, and Nonviolence” The pacifist position is well represented at Sojourners Magazine and Pax Christi. See “Just? Unjust?” by George Lopez and “Liberation Without War” by Jack Duvall.
For any of you nostalgic for your days sparring for your high-school debate team, here’s a spirited argument of the point-counterpoint variety that is sure to please. A while back Jonathan Wells, author of The Icons of Evolution, shot off the salvo, “Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher about Evolution“. The National Center for Science Education has offered its own defense in lieu of your own local “high school biology professor”. And now, to counter that counterpunch, Wells has written “Inherit the Spin” wherein he countenances each of the NCSE’s answers and finds them unsatisfying. With this most recent contribution Wells has elevated the debate considerably and one hopes that the NCSE will return for round four.
Jef Raskin, one of the originators of the Macintosh, writes an interesting lament at what often passes for the history of its development. “Holes in the Histories” is instructive for its catalogue of how the telling of history can be corrupted by the use of secondary sources, by oversimplification, by misrepresentation, by an affection for celebrity, by relying on appearances, and by a general lack of interest in the truth of the matter. Every day, each of us hears countless reports, studies, and comments about the way of things and Raskin’s article is a welcome reminder to be wary of taking such claims at face value. It is also a call to avoid such carelessness about truth in our own words. We are especially vulnerable to being taken in by fictions when we are inclined to agree with their source for other reasons. David C. Wise’s Creation/Evolution page (link expired) is a sobering account of ways in which the “Creation Science” movement has been incorrigibly guilty of many of the sins of scholarship that Raskin describes. For example, see his article “Moon Dust” (link expired).
The Edge, an unassuming gathering of the worlds’ “most complex and sophisticated minds…asking each other the questions they are asking themselves” kicks of the new year with: “What is your question? Why?” The answers range in quality and interest from the disingenuous and rhetorical: “Are we ever going to be humble enough to assume that we are mere animals, like crabs, penguins, and chimpanzees, and not the chosen protégés of this or that God?” to the esoteric: What is the difference between the sigmundoscope and the sigmoidoscope? A number of these intellectuals are troubled by age-old, philosophical questions like the source of evil and the nature of identity. But unfortuntely, honest bewilderment and questioning are noticeably scarce, and in their stead are pedantry, scientistic surety, and several smug, scornful dismissals of philosophical and theological approaches to the same issues. In some cases, the essays reads like satire, guilelessly betraying the inability of science on its own to answer important questions. For example, Rafael Núñez argues that finally admitting we are merely animals is a road to peace. It is a relief to learn that what I thought were hateful slurs, like “Capitalist Dog”, actually hold the seeds of reconciliation. James Gilligan’s decent essay considers the limits of science, and almost admits this problem. (2/7/02)