Monday, 14 December 2009

Who has faith?

This post began life as a talk for a meeting at church yesterday under the title 'Is God a Delusion?'

A new phenomenon has arisen within the last few years that has gained the label ‘the new atheism’. This new flavour of atheism is far more aggressive than its predecessors in its attack on religion, and especially (given its cultural context of the UK and USA) Christianity. The big splash made by the new atheists in this country came with Richard Dawkins’ 2006 book ‘The God Delusion’. It very quickly became a bestseller and has become very influential in many people’s thinking. The other most publicised happening that is related to this (though I’m not sure directly) was the advertising campaign on London buses by the British Humanist Association – ‘There’s probably no God so stop worrying and enjoy your life’ which was enthusiastically supported by Dawkins. They believed it would be ‘a breath of fresh air’ that would get people thinking – and as Dawkins commented, ‘thinking is anathema to religion’.

This directs us to a critical starting point – the new atheists want you to believe that any religious idea is simply so absurd that you needn’t bother listening. Please take that fact on board, because in my experience they’ve been very successful in that regard - I’ve found it very hard to get those who share their ideas to listen to me in debate. Why? Because they already “know” that I’m basing my life on blind faith (incorporating their own special definition of faith) whereas they are basing theirs on the facts. I don’t doubt that you could find religious groups out there for whom that could be true, but that is far from being universally true (Dawkins also wants you to believe that all religion can be treated as though it is the same which is manifestly not the case – as modern anthropologists will tell you). I can’t defend some homogenous definition of ‘religion’ that bears no relation to reality; I can only defend the faith I know and teach, which isn’t even representative of all that calls itself ‘Christian’. The reason I am an evangelical (a much misunderstood word!) is because I believe it best fits reality. I’m not going to claim anything silly, like ‘and I’ll now prove it’ or ‘you’ll give up your atheism by the end of this meeting’! In this very short time I can only hope to raise some vital questions in your minds, and begin to see if the claims of Dawkins and his comrades can stand up to scrutiny.

Deciding just what to tackle in this brief time has been quite a struggle since The God Delusion covers so many areas, and makes so many assertions that we can’t even begin to tackle them all. I just want to raise two issues this afternoon that raise serious questions – first of all I want to question whether Christian faith really is the infantile, irrational thing Dawkins wants us to believe it is. Secondly, to begin to demonstrate this, we should ask how reliable Dawkins’ sources are when it comes to his (brief) critique of the reliability of the Bible?

According to Dawkins, faith ‘means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.’ I believe he first gave this definition in The Selfish Gene in 1976. By the time the 2nd edition came out in 1989 this view had hardened to the extent that faith qualified ‘as a kind of mental illness’. For Dawkins this is a core belief that colours his whole attitude to religion. Indeed, there is psychological research that demonstrates that people ‘tend to seek out, recall, and interpret evidence in a manner that sustains beliefs’. In other words, religious people will tend to interpret evidence in such a way as supports their religious ideas, but also (and here’s something that’s usually ignored) atheists will tend to interpret evidence in such a way as supports their atheistic ideas. Challenging our worldview is actually quite difficult because it is so deeply engrained in us, but you must not believe that atheists do not have these engrained prejudices in their thinking because it is patently untrue (as we shall see from the evidence that Dawkins seeks out and the interpretation he gives it)! The intellectually responsible thing to do is to recognise your bias, and then try and take account of it when you consider evidence.

So how does Dawkins’ definition of faith fare? Alister McGrath:

‘Dawkins has his own views of what religious people believe, and proceeds to rubbish these ideas with enthusiasm… To put it bluntly, Dawkins’ engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate, often amounting to little more than cheap point scoring… His tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents is the least attractive aspect of his writings.’

His definition of faith might seem fine… until you discover that you can’t find a Christian theologian to back Dawkins up (the only exception I found was quoting Luther without engaging with his context). He offers no substantial evidence that his definition is representative of any religion, let alone Christianity. By contrast, here’s the definition of W.H. Griffith-Thomas (1861-1924) who was principal of Wycliffe Hall theological college (part of Oxford University):

‘[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. If commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.’

That is representative of what Christians teach about faith! That is why I’m always delighted when Christians look into things, question and wrestle with real issues. It’s no great surprise that, having set up his straw man, Dawkins easily knocks him down. But the idea that religious people could be thinking, logical people who apply rigorous intellects to their religion is anathema to Dawkins – for some reason he refuses to acknowledge the mountain of evidence to the contrary. So you could say that his definition of faith fits his own faith in his definition of faith, if not much else!

Atheism requires as much faith as any kind of theism. If we take a responsible definition of faith I see no reason why that should be a problem. The atheist must have faith that science will provide all the answers (since it hasn’t yet). The Christian must have faith that ultimate answers are given by revelation of God in the Bible. The question is whether or not such faith is reasonable. It would be a great benefit to this debate if the ridiculous rhetoric that ‘atheism is based on reason whilst faith relies blind trust and subjectivity’ was finally binned on the basis of being untrue on both sides!

If that is the case, then are there credible reasons for believing what the Bible has to say? Is my faith in the God shown to us in the pages of the Bible reasonable? Well, Christianity is nearly unique among world religions in that it is verifiable. By that I don’t mean that you can prove that it’s true, but that there are things you can check out that could show it up to be false. If the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection recorded in the Bible are not historical realities then Christianity is untrue and should be abandoned immediately. This whole area merits an entire meeting (at least) devoted to it, but I decided that since it will act as a good illustration of the reasonable nature of Christian faith, that I’d just offer a few brief points on the question of the Bible’s reliability.

Dawkins tells us,

‘Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world… All were then copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese Whispers generations’ by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.’

Have ‘scholarly theologians’ all thrown the Bible out as a reliable witness? Certainly there was the ‘higher criticism’ movement of the nineteenth century – who found its figurehead (though not originator) in Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). (If you were taught at school that the Pentateuch was made of 4 different sources – J,E,D and P – that’s what we’re talking about, although now rather out of fashion.) But how reliable is this ‘scholarly’ criticism that Dawkins refers to? As long ago as the 1920s Prof. Robert Wilson investigated these ideas. In fact, having learnt around 26 Semitic languages and dialects he set to work studying the primary evidence, to see if Wellhausen’s dismissal of the Bible’s accuracy stood up to scrutiny. Take for example a raid by a king – Chedorlaomer – and his subsequent defeat by Abraham (Gen. 14). Wellhausen said it was ‘simply impossible’ and critics supposed a Jewish archaeologist between 900-300 BC must have invented the story in honour of Abraham by using the names he’d just discovered! Wilson found in his researches that such critics rarely checked the primary sources. His conclusion on this event?

‘Against the historical character of this narrative we have the assertion of Wellhausen and other critics of our times (only about 4000 years after the supposed expedition!) that the expedition was “simply impossible”, and that it is probably that the account may have been fabricated (or forged) by some person unknown, at some time unknown, for reasons unknown. Not one item of evidence in the way of time, place, logic, psychology, language, or customs, has been produced against the trustworthiness of the document… But a German professor says it is “simply impossible”, English followers echo “simply impossible”, and the Americans echo again “simply impossible”. And this assertion of “simply impossible” is called an “assured result of scientific criticism”!’

Wilson's findings sound a clear warning to us to ask what starting assumptions such 'scholars' have. If they've already decided the Bible is hopelessly inaccurate, don't expect to find any other conclusion than just that! Sir William Ramsay was doing similar work in the NT around the same time. (He was awarded 3 honorary fellowships from Oxford colleges and 9 honorary doctorates for his work.) He focused on Luke-Acts, but began believing Wellhausen’s theories – that it was written 160-180 AD and was largely fictional (as Dawkins wants us to believe). His conclusion after a lifetime of research?

“Further study… showed that the book [Acts] could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgement, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement.”

Prof. F.F. Bruce (only person to be president of both SSOT and SSNT) also added:

“Research in the field which forms the historical and geographical background to Luke’s narrative has not stood still since Ramsay’s heyday, but our respect for Luke’s reliability continues to grow as our knowledge of this field increases.”

Certainly you can always find theologians who will deny the accuracy of the Bible, but the interesting thing is that it has largely been the theologians who have been reticent to accept the Bible’s accuracy (since they have adopted an agenda that adapting theology to modern trends is the way forward), and the historians have been far more positive. Reasons like this show why TIME magazine could conclude, in an article surveying the credibility of the Bible,

“After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived – and is perhaps better for the siege. Even on the critics’ own terms – historical fact – the Scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack.”

Have I disproved atheism and proved that Christianity is true? By no means. But I hope that even this very brief survey of a few issues highlights that the truth about the Christian faith is not what Richard Dawkins would like you to believe. If you only have the Richard Dawkins Encyclopaedia of Religion as your guide let me plead with you to investigate much further before dismissing the Christian faith because you are being seriously misled. These issues are far too important to allow such misrepresentation to get in the way, because if the Bible is true then it demands a response of wholehearted faith, but if it is false it should be discarded instantly. The apostle Paul went so far as to say that if the Bible is not historically true ‘your faith is futile… we are of all men most pitiable’ (1 Cor. 15:17, 19)! Richard Dawkins believes the case is so obvious that after a mere 5 pages of discussion he can conclude, ‘I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity.’ He then fires at will to demolish the kind of faith we’ve discovered Christians don’t have. So please ask yourself very carefully, who is really deluded here?


  1. The two key issues that have moved me from mild agnosticism to atheism are these:

    First, the massive level of human involvement with 'The Word of the Lord': authorship (obviously God didn't actually write it); translation; editing; omissions of the gospel of Philip etc... Your speech that you gave seems to be implying that there are no historical errors or contradictions in the Bible which is patently untrue as they are numerous. The question is whether you are brave enough to put your bias aside and look for the possibility that they may be there.

    Second, the issue of 'interpreting' the Bible. If is to be followed as God's guidance for how he expects us to act then why should Christians not literally stone people to death for being a homosexual?

    "If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives." (Leviticus 20:13)

    Who are we to decide that that part of God's word should be ignored? Why? Because it is obviously abhorrent. Misogyny, homophobia, racism are rife in the Old Testament. Should we ignore those nasty sections of Deuteronomy and Leviticus and if so, why not the whole Old Testament? I see no distinction.

    I really must pick you up on your arguing about Dawkins' lumping all religion together. This really is central to his argument - what Dawkins describes as the God Hypothesis:

    'There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.'

    It is only in this respect that any commonality or otherwise between religions really matters. And it is the fundamentals that Dawkins is scrutinising: Is there a God!? Every religion believes the answer is yes. Whether it happens to be Christianity or not is irrelavent.

    Christians never allow themselves to be pinned down on the really difficult yet fundamental issues. Or perhaps even read the whole of the God Delusion, which if you really believed your own advice about putting your prejudice aside, you would do!

  2. Thanks for your input Nick.

    You've raised some important points, and I don't have time give the thorough answers needed now - so there's something for me to do in my holiday! In particular I think I'll try and put a post together on how to interpret the Bible as that's a really important issue that deserves a proper answer.

    A couple of little things to clear the ground slightly: there isn't really any debate that 'gospels' such as the Gospel of Philip are in an entirely different category to the four gospels in the Bible. No one questions that it could not have been written any earlier than the 2nd century, but historians routinely date the biblical gospels in the 1st century - the very liberal scholar J.A.T. Robinson (who has no axe to grind over their reliable historicity etc) even went so far to date the whole New Testament before AD70!

    Translation: an important subject, but not relevant here. The doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible relates to the originals, not the translations. That is not to say we don't have extremely reliable translations in English (as well as some not-so-reliable), but the final court of appeal in interpretation is in the original languages.

    Editing: ?? Do you mean the idea that biblical texts were subject to editor after editor before getting to us? That whole area of 'redaction criticism' has always seemed of rather dubious reliability to say the least (rather like J,E,D and P). If, on the other hand, you mean textual criticism - studying the history of manuscripts to determine where copying mistakes etc crept in, that's a whole different ball game. But copying mistakes are very different to editing, and scholars have done an excellent job in pointing them out.

    I am not aware of any contradictions in the Bible - things that are difficult to resolve, yes, but no undoubted contradictions. All too often authors who play the contradictions card come up with examples that are pretty laughable if you take a sensible approach to interpreting the Bible (on which, I hope, more to come from me soon!). Historical inaccuracies - I've no doubt that there'll be some conflict with current historical theories, but the general pattern over the centuries is that those theories come and go, and the Bible is left unscathed (Wilson did very important work here which is why I mentioned him). That may sound vague, but without anything specific to go on that's pretty inevitable!

    My point as regards lumping all religion together is that it produces a kind of deity that no one recognises! If the police were dealing with a case involving eight suspects and released a picture of the suspect that contained features of all of the suspects then we can be pretty confident that the crooks would never be caught! God has become an incredibly vague word - for meaningful debate to take place greater definition is required, which is why I set out my stall as I did.

    Don't worry, I do intend to read all the God Delusion. When I said I was reading it piecemeal I meant I wasn't reading it straight through because of time constraints to make sure I'd covered the most relevant parts first - not because I don't intend to go back and read the rest!