Saturday, June 14, 2008

Really smart religious person thingy

A common criticism of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is that they only ever argue against a dumbed down version of religion, and that there are more subtle, sophisticated arguments out there which they have no answer for. As an agnostic I'm open to this line of attack; I've no dog, or god for that matter, in the race really, and I'm genuinely interested in whether a better case can be made for the various divine beings of the various holy books.

So I listened intently when Kim Hill interviewed respected religious philosopher William Lane Craig this morning (link to audio and will break after a few weeks unfortunately). To be fair to Mr Craig, Kim Hill, in between her rapid-fire thinking and interruptions, isn't the easiest sparring partner*, but I thought he was really, really weak. He had no satisfying answer to the problem of evil, nor the existence of other religions. And his 5 key arguments (or however many there were) were shot full of holes. At other times she just clobbered him with his own disingenuous debating points (like how he stays out of politics except on abortion which is an ethical issue, to which Ms Hill kindly pointed out that most people would consider at least some of the other stuff covered in politics ethical).

Really, if this is as good as the theists can do**, then the New Atheists do seem to be pitching their arguments at just the right level.

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*And, to also be fair to Kim Hill I should point out, for her faults, she's still pretty fab. I could do with out the how to cook duck stuff. And the interruptions every time the interviewee pauses for either breath or thought are infuriating if you're trying to actually understand the subject at hand. But, despite all this, she's smart, knows her stuff, and has covers some excellent subject matter.
** I had a hack at trying to make the case for a kind of Christianity here.

2 comments:

Jay said...

You said:

"I've no dog, or god for that matter, in the race really, and I'm genuinely interested in whether a better case can be made for the various divine beings of the various holy books."

From your description of the interview it would seem you definitely have a dog in this fight. You're clearly not unbiased. I listened to the interview too and thought he came off as rather well. He didn't have much time to defend his arguments in detail given the short time of the interview and the constant interruptions of Kim Hill. But nonetheless I thought they came out pretty good. I didn't see anything particularly weak about his first argument for the cause of the universe.

You said:
"At other times she just clobbered him with his own disingenuous debating points (like how he stays out of politics except on abortion which is an ethical issue, to which Ms Hill kindly pointed out that most people would consider at least some of the other stuff covered in politics ethical)."

This is a ridiculous point to raise against anyone. Many people think there's a difference between getting involved with mainly ethical issues of politics then that of having a voice on for example wage and price control and how that effects people's economic well-being. Clearly there's a difference between abortion and the other. Kim's right that they do have moral implications, but Craig's certainly right that Christian leaders shouldn't put themselves as the spokesperson on what position Christians ought to take on such complex issues as wage and price control etc when such positions are so trivial to the Christian life, whereas abortion on the other hand is much more obviously direct and serious in its moral implications. Many people recognize the distinction, so why don't you? Would you say that a spokesperson for a Humanists organization should tell his followers to vote a certain way on minimum wage, pension plans, education, welfare etc? Should he say that if people didn't vote that particular way then they aren't Humanists? Of course not. Any rational person would see that he shouldn't be telling people what position they should take on such matters in order to be a humanist. It's trivial to other issues and there's no easy answer here. To think people should get involved with such things would lead then to every religious body or organization on particular moral issues having to get involved on such matters.

You said:
"Really, if this is as good as the theists can do**, then the New Atheists do seem to be pitching their arguments at just the right level."

Most of the Atheist arguments out there don't even address the arguments that Craig used. Also if you're going to find out what exactly is the best out there, then go by one of their books, instead of forming an opinion on a half hour radio interview with constant interruptions by the host. Just some friendly advice.

Terence said...

Hi Jay,

Thanks for your comments. You're wrong though: I am, when it comes to questions of religion, uncertain if not wholly unbiased. I am genuinely interested in hearing good arguments from both sides. I thought Terry Eagelton's Demolition of Dawkins in the LRB was a treat and I've had a hand at defending a form of Christian belief here (http://tinyurl.com/57y39p) but William Lane Craig's arguments were , it seemed to me, very week.

As for your point about abortion, but not economic matters, being ethical. I'm sorry but I think you are utterly wrong. Abortion is an ethical issue because it pertains to the wellbeing of fetuses and women, economics is ethical because it relates to the wellbeing of people. There's no difference (something that a considerable number of more honest and socially active Christian thinkers recognise); it is to Craig's considerable detriment that doesn't do the same.