The atheists didn’t expect the Inquisition

Seems like the idol of reason isn’t so reasonable after all. Very interesting kerfuffle going on about

Start with Ruth here, then have a read of these two posts (for a very different perspective).

So: the forum was an active community with thousands of heavily invested participants (ten times bigger than the front page) which has now not just been shut down but largely deleted. If someone came along and deleted my blog – or if some technical problem deleted the blog – I would feel bereft. It was bad enough when I lost about nine months worth of e-mails last year when my PC died. So I can understand the mental anguish that this has caused.

Also, bluntly, if Prof Dawkins doesn’t make a very strong effort to fix this – and counteract the impression that he doesn’t care for all the people who have rallied to his cause over the last several years – then i) his leadership of same is over and ii) the cause he has been promoting for so long has been grievously hindered.

God is not a pixel

An old post which I’m bringing up front in response to the request from James, and NMMNG’s comment about cheap shots. Consider this a more expensive shot! Originally posted 22nd December 2005.

Some thoughts about intelligent design and evolution

Intelligent design has been in the news again – a sensible judge has ruled that it is not a scientific theory, and therefore it would be unconstitutional for it to be taught in public schools in the US. So far, so straightforward. What I am going to argue here is that ID is actually a mistake on theological grounds, and rests upon both a mistaken understanding of the worth of science, and, indeed, a mistaken understanding of the nature of God.

The argument between ID advocates and the establishment evolutionary theorists seems frequently to centre on ‘what cannot be explained’. For example Michael Behe argues that some systems are ‘irreducibly complex’ – in other words, they depend upon the prior existence of other complex elements before they become evolutionarily useful. In order to have element A which is a benefit, you also need elements B and C – but you can’t have B without A and C, and you can’t have C without A and B. Behe uses the example of a mousetrap – you need five parts to the mousetrap (base, spring, etc) for it to be a mousetrap at all. If any of the elements are missing, then there is no mousetrap, there is no evolutionary advantage – therefore there must be some conscious design which brings the different elements together.

Now Behe’s specific criticisms seem fairly weak (although the conceptual point is interesting) but his is just one example of various criticisms that can be made of established evolutionary theory. I have much sympathy with the general point that there are big holes in it – that, in the words of one review I read, ‘the big scientific story of the 21st century will be the overthrow of Darwinian evolution’ – and the grounds for that are, in essence, that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is built on Newtonian physics, and just as Newtonian physics has been put in its place, so too will the neo-Darwinian synthesis – but this overthrow will be accomplished by a genius biologist, working within established scientific arenas, not by a theologian. (Might be a MoQ inspired scientist though…)

For the issue of explanatory gaps and problems within evolutionary theory is a question of science – as the good judge has determined. It has absolutely nothing to say of theological interest. Worse, those who try to use these (wholly to be expected and normal) ‘gaps’ in the theory are actually engaged in very bad Christian thinking. For what we have is a form of ‘God of the gaps’ argument. Hey! Here is something that science can’t explain! Well THAT must be where God is! Phew! Thought we’d lost Him just then…

The ID advocates have already conceded far too much to science. They are arguing that because there are specific details which science cannot account for (eg evolution of the eye – tho’ they should read Dawkins on that one) therefore ‘God’ must be the explanation, and therefore this is a good argument for the existence of God. But the God that they are arguing for is a scientific artefact – an object – an idol. In the terms of the debate they have implicitly accepted that scientific standards of evaluation and judgement are the appropriate standards by which to judge the question of God’s existence – and this is idolatry. Those who argue that Intelligent Design is Christian do not know what they are talking about. Intelligent Design is a heresy, a blasphemy, a denial of the living God.

The issue at stake between the Christian and the atheist forms of evolutionary theory (eg Dawkins – not all those who work in the field of evolutionary theory are atheist) does not rest upon one particular instance or other. God cannot be ‘proven’ by the presence of a problem which science cannot give a full account of. On the contrary, the issue is one of how to interpret the whole. God is either fully present as Creator throughout all of the creation; or there is no God. To say that at the point where the scientific explanation comes up short – there is God – this is an abandonment of the faith, this is the Vichy regime of theologies.

The Christian insistence upon a creator is not the assertion of a scientifically established ‘fact’ – it is the assertion of the correct way to interpret all facts. It is about an attitude and orientation towards life – to receive all of life as a gift, and therefore to live in thanksgiving (eucharist) for that gift – and is therefore primarily about asserting that this world is a meaningful world. It is not the assertion of a fact ‘within the world’ – it is an assertion about the world as a whole.

So let me finish with an analogy, which may make my point clear. Consider a television screen (or a computer monitor). Go right up close, and all you can see are individual dots, picture elements, what we now call pixels. They are of myriad different colours; they change periodically. Science is about establishing the nature of the pixels – is this pixel green? Is this pixel blue? Intelligent Design is saying ‘No, this pixel isn’t blue, this pixel is God!’

God is not a pixel.

We step back from the screen – we put scientific endeavour into its proper context – and we see that there is the image of a man on the screen. It is an interpretation of the whole, it is not a question of detail.

Someone profoundly trained in science may still not be able to see the image. It is a Rorschach test, and this is the fundamental divide – is this pattern of dots meaningful or not? If it is – there is God. This is not a scientific question. This is not a question of intelligent design. This is a question of the language you use to describe the presence of meaning in the world.

‘I should like to say that … the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer… It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to say it. practice gives the words their sense’. (Wittgenstein)


“You speak of signs and wonders
But I need something other
I would believe if I was able
But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table”

Five questions on creation

This is extremely interesting (via Doug).

1. Do you believe in God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen?
2. Do you believe that the claim that God is the maker of heaven and earth, if true, provides a good explanation of the existence, or some of the characteristics, of the world in which we find ourselves?
3. Do you believe that this claim provides an explanation of matters that would otherwise be inexplicable – such that this explanatory power constitutes a good reason for believing the claim?
4. Do you believe that this claim stands or falls by its explanatory power – such that if it is shown not to have such explanatory power, it follows that it should be rejected?
5. Do you believe that the meaning of the claim is constituted by its explanatory power, such that ‘God’ essentially means only what is needed to provide this explanatory power, and anything that follows from it?

A lot depends upon how the terms are defined (especially ‘explanation’ – is it meant in a scientific sense, ie causal?) but I would say yes to at least the first four I think. Which makes me unorthodox by his lights!

Falling in love with Frankenstein

This is a sketch for a much longer essay about science fiction. Click ‘full post’ for text.

One of the dominant themes of Modern culture is the Frankenstein conceit – what you might think of as the ‘mad scientist’, or, more profoundly, the Faustian bargain. A man (and it normally is a man) is so consumed by his rational intellectual pursuits that he unwittingly provokes disaster and his own death.

As I see it, this is the way in which humanity’s soul has digested and absorbed the impact of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment project is precisely that which has elevated one element of our human nature falsely above the others; it has insitutionalised asophism; and thus we are in the midst of ecological crisis. The devil has come to collect his due.

Being a fan of sf, especially visually, I am struck by the way in which this theme has been subverted and then overcome within the world of fiction and film. I see this as a creative analogue of the way in which the Enlightenment project has itself been undone from within. (This is, I believe, why there is such an efflorescence of angst-ridden writings from the humourless atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens et al – they are aware in their bones that they are being left behind.)

Three examples of this shift:
1. The Matrix trilogy. The first Matrix was pure Frankenstein – the intellectual products of humanity turn against their creators and destruction follows; human liberty and salvation lie in battling against the machine. However, the second two films explored something more creative – the machine is not monolithic, it has variety (and therefore more dramatic interest of course) – there is a possibility of an alliance between human and mecha.

2. Battlestar Galactica, the new series. Whereas in the original series we are facing highly efficient automata (rational products of Enlightenment) now the cylons are riven with their own competing needs and desires. The Cylons are now just like us; we can even breed with them.

3. The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The original Terminator film is a real classic, and a classic description of the Frankenstein – a totally remorseless source of death and destruction ‘it absolutely will not stop until you are dead’. With the films a little first, but now much more with the series, we have much more creative ambiguity. This crystallised for me in the recent episode where Summer Glau starts to learn ballet. A vision of beauty – and whether it is human or mecha falls by the wayside.

(I’ve also been put in mind of this by recently finishing Dan Simmons’ Hyperion cantos, but I’ll write about them separately.)

I believe that what we have in this medium – film and television science fiction – is the creative resolution of the human conflict created by the Western idolatry of reason. As our society moves beyond the Enlightenment, so too does our fiction. Robots who are pure products of reason are no longer very interesting – the robots need to have more to them – and this is simply a mirror for how we see ourselves. In other words, there is more to humanity than the remorseless application of reason.

I find this encouraging and exciting.

What makes me angry with (some) atheists

Scott g asked me why I lose calm when discussing matters related to atheism, which I’ve been pondering. At root I don’t agree that it isn’t about praxis, although I accept that the link is not direct.

I think there are two sorts of atheist criticism, and one of them riles me, the other doesn’t at all (in fact I find it rather congenial – oops, there might be more on that another time).

The first sort I associate with Dawkins and his ilk, and it is by far the most common sort that I encounter (admittedly this might be triggered by people discovering who I am and what I do). This tends towards supercilious condescension (The God Delusion etc) and is convinced of its own intellectual superiority. This riles me because for various reasons I see it as not only intellectually inadequate but manifestly inadequate; that is, any fair minded investigation of the debate would undoubtedly consider the Dawkins critique to be not just false but foolish too (think of Terry Eagleton’s famous evisceration of that book). In other words, what engages me here is a conviction that the truth matters – and these sorts of atheists seem not to care about truth.

Now the second sort of atheist is rather different to this – and in fact, the variety of this second sort is much greater and more interesting than the uniformity of the first sort. Perhaps a better label would be ‘non-Christian’ rather than atheist, because I would include people with all sorts of diverse understandings here, eg Buddhists, pragmatists, MoQists and so on. Such people can criticise Christian understandings much more radically than the Dawkins-style fulminations because they are a) more educated and understanding of mainstream Christian thought, and b) they accept the reality and necessity for rejecting science as the primary boundary marker for knowledge and wisdom. In other words this second sort of ‘atheist’ is living in the same world that I’m living in, and we can have all sorts of productive conversations – and we do.

Really what my “thresholds” were about were fencing off the first sorts of atheists; or, perhaps a bit more defensible, they are ways for me to work out what sort of atheist I am engaging with. I really enjoy and value the conversations I have with the second sort, but not the first, which I find frustrating. Now that is a spiritual issue, because I don’t think that this reaction of frustration and anger is a defensible one; it’s a fault in me. Hence I need to try and cultivate my inner calm.

Kim Fabricius on Dawkins et al

“Professor Dawkins himself has a knack for the memorable metaphor. His great book The Selfish Gene is a case in point. People can be literally selfish, but not genes. Indeed Dawkins does not even think that there are genes for selfishness. Okay, he wrote: “The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.” But he didn’t really mean it. Not literally. The author of Genesis said that the universe was created in six days. But who would take that literally except some crazy fundamentalists? Oops – and Dawkins.”


The nature of an outsider’s perspective (part one)

I didn’t succeed in recording the first part of my Learning Church sequence on evangelicalism, which is rather a shame. I’m going to try and write up my talk, in two parts. The first one about where I personally am coming from and why I have the perspective that I do. The second one will be about my triangle and how I use it to interpret goings-on in the Anglican Communion.

So you could call this my “testimony”, if you were so inclined.

I grew up in what might be considered a typically Anglican family – there was belief but not a great deal of belonging. As a family we went to church three or four times a year (always at Christmas and Easter) and the Bible, stories of faith and prayer were a part – not a huge part – but definitely a part of the context of my early life. I have a distinct memory of when I was about seven years old of starting to read the Bible from the beginning – I think I got as far as the first genealogy! There was an occasional attendance at Sunday School, but no great commitment to it. On one side of the family was an active Anglican commitment (one grandparent being a church warden for some fifty years); on the other side a much more non-conformist ‘chapel’ heritage, with a strong commitment to social activism. It’s interesting seeing those two strands wrestle within me every so often.

At the age of eleven I was sent off to Boarding School. This was a Christian foundation and the school assemblies every morning were embedded in Christian worship, including the singing of a hymn every day; in addition there was a full church service every Sunday morning, in the chapel, attendance at which was compulsory. In my second year at boarding school I remember a conversation with a class mate about Gandhi, and whether he was bound for hell or not. As I took my friend’s understanding of Christianity to be ‘the truth’, and as I couldn’t accept the justice of Gandhi being doomed to eternal torment, I became an atheist. At first not a very active one, but over time, more and more determined. When I was about fourteen some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to visit and left a tract detailing their opposition to the theory of evolution. I read the tract; thought ‘this is interesting’, and decided to explore further. I wanted to hear from an alternative point of view so I purchased Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Blind Watchmaker’. This I found much more persuasive, and, along with the acceptance of evolution I accepted his general antagonism towards religious belief.

In essence the rejection of Christianity was driven by two things: a sense that it was unjust, and a sense that it was untrue. However, being at boarding school meant that I continued to be fed the diet of worship, including the singing of hymns, recitation of set prayers, and listening to sermons on a regular basis. I am certain that this has strongly shaped many of my attitudes to liturgy today, both positively and negatively.

My antagonism towards Christian belief manifested itself as antagonism towards religious believers, ie my classmates, including the very same classmate with whom I had had that original conversation about Gandhi. The trouble with me, however, was that I wouldn’t let things alone, and whenever the opportunity arose I would engage vigorously in discussion about the truth or otherwise of Christian doctrine. The real truth was that I was obsessed with God! (I still am really.)

When I was seventeen there were a couple of knocks to my sense of self and sense of purpose, one of the more significant being a rejection from Oxford University. I had a distinct sense that I was going to end up at Oxford, so, whilst ‘banking’ an offer from the LSE I resolved to try again in the context of a year out. What actually happened over that year, however, was a more general ‘drift’. Most of my ambitions had either been realised or put on hold and I had the opportunity to explore and read more widely. Most crucially, whilst thinking through my re-application for Oxford I came across a description of the Philosophy and Theology course, written by one of the students, which was headlined ‘You don’t have to be religious to work here’. This caught my interest, and the more I explored it, the more I thought ‘this is actually what I want to study’.

My motivation was not entirely honourable. I read ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ at around this time, and was intrigued by the thought that modern scholarship provided much more heavyweight tools for attacking Christians with! Following some pleasing A Level results I then reapplied to Oxford and the experience could not have been more different than before – all the doors seemed to open up before me, and I got my place, to go up in the Autumn of 1989.

That summer, with my future settled, and after working in Colchester doing various exciting and exotic jobs(!) I spent three months travelling around the United States and Canada with a friend. I had recently read Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ for the first time, and that had a huge impact upon me. I had always had a strongly ‘mystical’ streak, even in my aggressive atheism, and I devoured a lot of material on the occult and New Age spirituality. Pirsig’s account of Quality made a tremendous amount of sense to me – it still does – but it was probably the most important factor in dismantling the aggressive atheism that I had imbibed from Dawkins.

So I went up to Oxford, all the chips on my shoulder still intact, and waded in to my tutorials with my prejudices. Which didn’t last for very long. Very gently – astonishingly gently really – my principal tutor, who was the College chaplain, slowly took apart all of my beliefs about what Christianity actually was, and demonstrated, both through his teaching and example, that Christianity was intellectually credible. You didn’t have to leave your brain behind when you walked in the door. Essentially, what I had been rejecting as Christianity I would now recognise as fundamentalism, and there is the world of difference between the two.

However, this change in my attitude was not enough to bring me to a form of belief. Logic and reason can do many things but our foundational commitments are not borne on either, they’re much too important for that. What triggered the change was a religious experience. I was on my own at home in the August of 1990 and reading the book ‘Green Christianity’ by Tim Cooper. I remember vehemently disagreeing with him about God, and thinking ‘but God’s not like that!’. And I caught myself thinking that, and realising that I was arguing from a position of accepting God – in other words I realised that I did believe in God – and at this point my head exploded. I fell to my knees and my sight was wiped out with white brightness. Two things in particular erupted into my consciousness. The first was about the overwhelming priority of love. That love was, in the strictest scientific sense, the fundamental force governing the universe; that I loved God – and always had – and that I was loved by God; that love literally made the world go round. The second is caught in the phrase ‘become who you are’. There was an astonishing degree of affirmation involved – an affirmation I still draw on today – and I was on an emotional high for quite some time – weeks – afterwards. This was the foundation of my vocation.

Well I returned to Oxford a little chastened, in that a lot of the positions I had adopted I now repudiated, and I largely withdrew from active involvement in many wider endeavours. I had received the wound of knowledge and I needed to dig down and work out where that wound had come from. So I actively pursued my studies, and explored Christianity, and slowly more and more pieces fell into place. I was confirmed in the Church of England one year later – as someone who still had lots of doubts, and was undoubtedly ‘unorthodox’ in belief, but someone who was also committed to this path.

In 1992 I left Oxford and went to London, working for the Civil Service. Church attendance fell away during this time, although my own personal explorations of the faith continued actively. The next really significant breakthrough occurred in 1995, when, as a result of my wider personal life becoming rather complicated (see here) I had another religious epiphany. This one was not so positive, in that God made it clear to me that I was embarked upon the road to hell. He also made it clear that I was called to the priesthood; specifically I was given a vision of celebrating the Eucharist – THIS was what I was called to do. I resisted for as long as I was able to – about two days – because the thought of becoming a vicar was anathema to me. To me a vicar was a figure of fun, an ineffectual wimp tossed hither and thither by cultural forces beyond his comprehension, an intellectually vacant space. I gave in, of course. (In retrospect I’m sure that reading the Susan Howatch novels in the months preceding laid a foundation for this; ignoring the literary merit I think they’re pretty sound theologically).

Once more my life changed course, but this time it was through a commitment not simply to exploring the faith in an intellectual sense, but through starting to change my life and habits away from ‘the works of darkness’ and putting on the armour of light. I became actively involved in the church I had recently begun to attend and put out feelers concerning potential ordination. I left the Civil Service one year later and worked as the school caretaker in the church school, joining in the Daily Office and generally getting embedded in the church life.

I also started up a Master’s degree at Heythrop, as this seemed to be a part of the vocation. My intellectual gifts had helped open up the path of faith for me in the first place, and it seemed natural that they would be a part of the vocation itself. In this I was encouraged and affirmed by the church hierarchy. This was a mistake. The first fruits of the mistake came at the end of the first year when I received a mark in an examination on Wittgenstein which was a) by far the worst mark I had ever received in such an examination, b) on the basis of what was, without doubt, the best work I had ever done, and c) which caused consternation to my tutor and fellow students (in other words, it wasn’t just me who thought the mark surpassing strange). Despite their best efforts to have the work re-marked the college refused and the papers were later destroyed. I later discovered, through a friend, that the principal examiner for the paper was not familiar with one of the key works on the topic (Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer). In my various answers I had adopted an extremely allusive style, with a great many references to Wittgenstein’s writings on religion, which someone familiar with the field would have recognised instantly. However, for someone not familiar with the writings, they would undoubtedly have appeared strange and idiosyncratic – hence the low mark. I abandoned the MA in bewilderment, but trusted that God was in charge.

I was accepted for training for ordination, and after a tour around different theological colleges – I was keen to go to an evangelical college like Ridley, but my Bishop talked me out of it(!) – I went up to Westcott where my training was a combination of vocational work and a PhD. At first I flourished – there is an important part of me that revels in academic life – but in the second term the academic side completely fell apart. I realised that I had a profoundly different approach to the role of academic theology in the life of the Spirit, and that the essential thing for me was to be formed as a priest, not trained as an academic. I abandoned the PhD but then had a frankly awful time at Westcott as the institution sought to ensure that my academic training was sufficient, while I was spiritually straining in a completely different direction. I also met my wife at this time – in church – and after an extremely rapid courtship we got married. All of this rather overwhelmed me and with the benefit of hindsight I can see that I was deeply depressed throughout my second year there.

I then returned to London where I pursued my curacy in the East End. This was, on the whole, a very positive experience, a good grounding for ministry, but the last year of this was intense and draining, and involved the sudden death of my father (for more in this see here). Once more I was in a state of bewilderment, but it became clear that I needed to take time out. Through a legacy, my wife and I – and a newborn son – were able to spend a year on sabbatical in Alnwick, Northumberland, surely one of the most beautiful places on God’s green earth. This was a year in which I was able to catch up with myself, and digest all that had happened. In particular this was a time when I was able to come to terms properly with the collapse of all my academic pretensions and ambitions. I gave very serious consideration to pursuing a PhD at Durham, but in the end it became clear that parish ministry was the right next step. I still have a distinct academic ‘itch’, but I am much more relaxed about whether it will end up being scratched or not. In particular it is much more clear to me that the role of the intelligence is in the service of the church and whilst it may be possible for that service to overlap with the needs of the academic institutions there are definite times when there is conflict. And my calling is to serve the Body – the cloister not the academy.

All this was prior to Mersea. When I saw the post advertised I immediately felt ‘this is it’. I withdrew from another post that I was exploring and, as had happened occasionally before, felt that all the doors were opening up. It’s a bit like cracking the combination of a safe – slowly all the tumblers fall into place, things get turned one way or another and then – it all opens up.

Now since my rejection of fundamentalism at the age of 12; and then my intellectual explorations of the faith through University; and then my immersion in serious religion of the Anglo-Catholic sort through my church sponsorship, training and curacy, I had never had to deal all that seriously with evangelicals. They represented a sort of ‘here there be dragons’ element in my mental map, and, in particular, I found it hard to distinguish them from fundamentalists and other lunatics. Yet here on Mersea I was immediately immersed in a context where there were a great many evangelicals, and even more on the way, especially amongst my colleagues. So I have been forced to engage with what evangelicalism is and means. I am an outsider to evangelicalism; it would be a mistake to class me AS an evangelical; but I find, after a number of years getting to know it as an ideology and getting to know evangelicals as individuals, that I am much more sympathetic to it than I would ever have expected.

That is the context in which I shall be exploring evangelicalism from an outsider’s perspective. As someone convinced of the reality of God and the overwhelming love of God; one who is committed to a historically grounded orthodox faith; and one who has a growing sympathy with the evangelical tradition – but also as someone who remains an outsider.