Atheism in Crisis?

The White Horse Inn has an interesting programme this week on the trouble within atheism. Last year the well known atheist philosopher Anthony Flew underwent a conversion of sorts to a form of deism. It has made waves in academic and religious circles last year.

Flew has written what are now standard works for atheism. But, as I understand it, it was his consideration of the arguments for intelligent design which have caused this seismic shift in his thinking. To his credit he came out and said so.

His shift is to a form of deism, but not theism and certainly not Christian theism. As the WHI programme notes, he stills sees the God of Christian faith to be reprehensible.

I don’t know much about Intelligent Design theory. I only came across it a couple of moths ago and added it to my (ever-lengthening) list of topics to mug up on. I know that it is not creationism. It is a scientific approach to the data – an alternative to evolutionary theory. However, it clearly supports creationism.

Here’s an Intelligent Design blog I came across at the weekend. Two of the contributors, Behe and Dembski, I recognise as book authors in the ID field. Worth a quick scan, don’t you think?

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Atheism in Crisis?

6 thoughts on “Atheism in Crisis?

  1. John says:

    Intelligent Design is Creationism in new clothes and is not really scientific. That’s not necessarily a flaw – if your approach is primarily to look for how the world fits the Biblical description then ID works. However, it is poor science because of its fundamental assumptions of how the Creator would act and in its tendency to make evidence fit the model rather than building models to fit the evidence.

    More than that, ID isn’t an alternative to evolution – it doesn’t offer a theory of development but one of creation. Insofar as it allows adaptation, it’s evolutionary. Insofar as it requires divine intervention, it’s not scientific.

    As you might have guessed, I’m not a fan 🙂

    pax et bonum

  2. Stephen says:

    John,
    Strong words! I thought that ID is a conclusion arrived at rather than a starting point, and this is what distinguishes it from creationism. So, Flew came to the deist position, not because he was a creationist, but because the data led him there. At first sight, and from my limited understanding, your description doesn’t seem to fit. Can you explain further?

  3. Robert Hulmehttp://robhu.livejournal.com/ says:

    Perhaps I can be of some help Stephen?

    First of all I only half agree with John. I think most of ID is creationism in new clothes, but it needn’t be… unfortunately the examples of people you quote (Behe and Dembski) are doing just that… I would recommend you read Behe’s book ‘Darwin’s black box’ (which is an argument for ID from irreducible complexity) and then take a look at ‘Behe’s empty box’ (http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Catalano/box/behe.shtml) or the excellent rebuttal by Claire Stevens (http://www.btinternet.com/~clare.stevens/behenot.htm).

    I was involved in a discussion about Flew this several months ago on the UCCF website, which you may find fruitful (http://www.uccf.org.uk/dc/dcboard.php?az=show_topic&forum=17&topic_id=144&mode=full).

    In essence the main problem with where Flew is coming from is that his conclusion that there must have been a God was because:
    a) He was not aware of any recent research with respect to abiogenesis
    b) He assumes that were science does not currently have an answer then ‘God must have done it’

    Which leads us to two issues:
    a) Abiogenesis is a bleeding edge field in biology, and does have many of the answers that Flew thought did not exist (he has said himself that he was not aware of any modern research)
    b) Flew has fallen into the classic ‘God of the gaps’ way of thinking which is rather unfortunate as sooner or later those gaps get closed off (and it is an argument for God where one is otherwise ignorant)…

    I probably expressed this better in my original UCCF forum post:
    Anthony Flew is a fine philosopher, but he is no scientist. Abiogenesis is the current bleeding edge of evolutionary research, there are a variety of models being considered and tweaked all of which Flew is unaware of (as he has said in interview since that one). Its unfortunate that he made such a statement without looking at what has been researched in the last 10 years (something he has not done by his own admission).

    Even if you were to take Flew’s views as important you need to recognise what he is saying. He categorically states that he does not believe in the Christian God, he sees God as a ‘God of the gaps’, acting as the ‘prime mover’ to step in and start that spark of life by creating the first unicellular organism.

    It seems to me (I was a Christian until about 6 months ago) that evangelical christianity cannot be true if evolution is true. Some will argue that the initial chapters in genesis can be interpreted metaphorically, but I think its fairly clear that this is not the plain and simple meaning of the text – literally it is written in the same style in ancient hebrew as other sections in the bible which are interpretted as history, and theologically it forms the foundation for all kinds of doctrines that don’t make sense if you stop it from being a literal historic account (e.g. if evolution is true then there was death and pain before the fall, is that what you want restored?). There is an awfully large amount of scientific evidence in favour of evolution out there – this causes a severe problem for anyone who wants to hold the Bible as being a true account written by God (as I until recently did). The only options I can see are to uniformly and absolutely reject the facts of science (putting your head in the sand), rejecting the validity of the Bible (and so therefore any truth claims that Christianity has), or becoming some kind of wooly liberal. Take your pick :0)

  4. Stephen says:

    Rob,
    Thanks for the background and your take on the issues. I need to read the books to see whether ID is genuinely scientific, or a ‘trojan horse’ for creationism. You obviously to think the latter, yet Dembski would seem to deny it.

    I agree that there are serious theological problems if a Christian claims to be an evolutionist. But I would counsel wariness of invoking “the facts of science” in your arguments. A body of data is one thing. Theories and hypotheses are another. Scientists like to work within paradigms. I know a little of this, having been a post-doc researcher. Paradigms are governed by many things, and sometimes even data(!).

  5. John says:

    Two things here, then. First, ID. It’s not full-blown Creationism, because it doesn’t accept the totally wacky “evidences” and spurious logic that Creationists are wont to pull out. However, it’s not really scientific either because it calls on extra-natural agents to explain the unexplained. This doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, but it *does* make it non-scientific – because it’s not using the tools or approach of science.

    As for evolution and Christianity, there is no clash between the two. There *is* a clash between certain Christian traditions and evolution (and often science in general). However, I would say that the clash points to an error in the Christian tradition, insofar as they are opposed to the way the world really appears to be. “Evolution” simply describes the way that organisms change over time based on competition for resources. It’s not especially “nice” but it demonstrably happens.

    What people usually argue about are two things – speciation and biogenesis. Speciation is the creation of new species from old ones. The problem here is largely that “species” is actually a human category that we try to fit nature into, but it doesn’t really fit. Biogenesis (the emergence of life) is a genuine problem, and is the one that ID attempts to answer. Evolution tells us nothing about biogenesis, because it applies only to living organisms! There are various scientific theories about biogenesis but none is generally accepted. However, they have the merit of being scientific. ID’s biogenesis theory is religious in nature – none the worse for that, it’s simply a different kind of answer.

    pax et bonum

  6. John says:

    Oh, and Robert – there is plenty of space between “fundamentalist evangelical” and “woolly liberal”! Indeed, it’s not even a scale between these two. It’s more like a plane or even a cube – lots of room for lots of different approaches.

    This is why I remain a Christian. My faith relies on the trustworthiness of the Bible as the story of humanity’s relationship with God, but not on its inerrance in the modern evangalical sense. Similarly, my science relies on the trustworthiness of human perceptions of the world and our ability to understand it, without requiring an absolute Law Of Everything.

    This in no way reduces the importance of the Bible. Indeed, I would argue that it *increases* the seriousness with which we must approach it. But perhaps that’s something for another post!

    pax et bonum

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