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A review of The Dawkins Delusion? By Alister McGrath.

Mar 20, 2007

SPCK, 2007.

The God Delusion by veteran theophobe Richard Dawkins has caused no small stir since being released late last year. It was a wild slugfest by the Oxford atheist and biologist, taking on most types of religion and belief in God. Many reviewers, even fellow secularists, found the book both embarrassing and sophomoric in its intolerant attack on religion and all who dared to disagree with him.

In this book, the first of two full-length critiques of the work to appear (the other is Deluded by Dawkins, by Andrew Wilson), a fellow Oxford professor weighs into the fray. McGrath has PhDs in both theology and molecular biophysics. Thus he is more than qualified to discuss Dawkins. In fact he may be more qualified than Dawkins to speak on the subject matter of this particular book. When Dawkins sticks to his strong suit, evolutionary biology, he can claim expertise. But when he wades into philosophy and theology, he quickly demonstrates that he is way out of his depth.

And because theology and philosophy made up the bulk of his 400-page polemic, McGrath finds it to be an intellectually lightweight affair. Instead of a well-reasoned, sustained and coherent argument for his case, the book is just a collection of cheap pot shots, rehashed and tired atheist arguments, and overheated polemics.

There exists much more competent atheist argumentation. The late atheist Stephen Jay Gould at least tried to stick to the evidence in his discussions, but Dawkins “simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking”.

Because The God Delusion is such a disjointed, rambling affair, lacking a clear line of argument, or proper use of evidence, it is hard to properly review it. As McGrath notes, to simply reply point by point to his many errors, misrepresentations and distortions would make for a long and dry read.

Thus McGrath singles out a few key areas, and devotes this brief (75 page) book to them. For example, Dawkins’ mistaken understanding of faith is discussed in the opening chapter. Contrary to Dawkins’ caricature, biblical faith is informed faith, faith based on reason and an honest examination of the evidence.

Consider the false dilemma Dawkins seeks to create: you either believe in facts, reason, and science, or you are superstitious, faith-based, and deluded. Of course very few scientists believe in such a simplistic and unnecessary dichotomy. They are aware of the limits of science, and recognise that other areas (philosophy, theology, and so on) can have a vital role to play in the big questions of life. Even an atheist like Gould would dismiss the claim that science must lead to atheism.

Indeed, Gould developed the idea of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) in which he suggests that both religion and science have primary roles to play, although they remain as separate spheres. Dawkins says there is only one magisterium: science. McGrath suggests that both Dawkins and Gould are wrong on this point: he instead posits POMA (partially-overlapping magisteria), in which both intersect and feed off each other.

He uses as but one example, Francis Collins, a man of deep Christian faith, but also a highly qualified scientist (head of the Human Genome Project). Science and religion can and do co-exist, contrary to Dawkins’ claims.

McGrath also critiques Dawkins on his understanding of the origins of religion. Dawkins of course just recycles the old naturalistic projection theories as developed by Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud. Dawkins, following Dennett, also speaks of religion as an “accidental by-product” or a “misfiring of something useful”.

But as McGrath rightly notes, in a Darwinian (or Dawkinsian) universe, there is no such thing as accident, because there is no such thing as purpose. “How can Dawkins speak of religion as something ‘accidental’, when his understanding of the evolutionary process precludes any theoretical framework that allows him to suggest that some outcomes are ‘intentional’ and others ‘accidental’? … For Darwinism, everything is accidental.”

McGrath also critiques Dawkins’ notions of belief in God as a “virus of the mind,” and the “meme”. These points are more fully explored in his earlier, and perhaps more important book, Dawkins’ God (2005). Here he reiterates his case.

Dawkins claims that belief in God is a kind of virus that infects the mind. But while biological viruses can be observed and identified, this virus is just a construct of Dawkins’ philosophical naturalism. And if religious ideas are viruses of the mind, perhaps all ideas are viruses. Maybe the idea of atheism is also a virus of the mind.

Dawkins’ theory of memes is also problematic. According to Dawkins, just as biological evolution involves genetic replicators, so culture has memic replicators. Thus a God-meme has evolved and is passed along in culture, “leaping from brain to brain” as Dawkins puts it. Yet as McGrath rightly asks, “has anyone actually seen these things, whether leaping from brain to brain, or just hanging out?”

We have no strong scientific evidence for memes; it is really only a mental construct designed to make a case for militant atheism. Thus Dawkins in large part makes his case against religion “dependent on a hypothetical, unobserved entity”. But it is Dawkins who describes God in just such terms. Says McGrath, “since the evidence for memes is so tenuous, do we have to propose a meme for believing in memes in the first place?”

McGrath finishes his book with a chapter on religious violence. As someone who has grown up in Northern Ireland, he knows all about this issue. He agrees with Dawkins that religious violence is repugnant. But Dawkins is just plain foolish, and wrong, to suggest that if we get rid of religion, we get rid of violence and everything becomes sweetness and light.

Violence comes from human nature, whether religious or secular. All people are capable of it, and atheists have been responsible for their fair share of it. Indeed, a good case can be made that atheism has been responsible for more than its fair share.

McGrath is not simply being critical here in this book. He has praise for some of Dawkins’ earlier work, even though not in complete agreement with it. But it is clear that Dawkins, the more or less dispassionate scientist of several decades ago, has become an embittered, angry, and nasty piece of work, flailing out at anything smacking of religion, resorting to the same doctrinaire, intolerant and bigoted fundamentalism and rhetoric that he accuses religious folk of being guilty of.

Why this change from a serious scientist to a secular holy warrior? We can only speculate, but as McGrath suggests, perhaps Dawkins, like other militant atheists, is feeling threatened. Threatened that he might in fact be wrong. Maybe even deluded.

Until recently, atheists had high hopes that religion would simply fade out. However, it seems to be stronger than ever, and this has got them in panic mode. Perhaps the panic has to do with the fact that the very coherence of atheism is under threat.

As McGrath concludes, the fact that “Dawkins relies so excessively on rhetoric, rather than the evidence that would otherwise be his natural stock in trade, clearly indicates that something is wrong with his case. . . . Might atheism be a delusion about God?”

[1215 words]

48 Responses to A review of The Dawkins Delusion? By Alister McGrath.

  • Richard Dawkins, why are you are so angry with God? How has he ever harmed you? Every good gift you experience comes from his hand.

    The slave trader John Newton (1725–1807) was angry with God too. Like you he was an atheist for many years and dedicated his energy to destroying faith in everyone he could. Newton was miraculously converted and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace about the wonderful love and forgiveness of God. He was amazed that God could love and pardon and bless a loathsome man who did not deserve it.

    I pray, Richard, that you will backslide from your atheism. Turn around and experience God’s love and forgiveness in your life. Richard, when you get to read this, know that many people are praying for you, and the living God you spurn has provided the way by which you may be reconciled to him.

    Tas Walker

  • For the record, my late husband, Stephen Jay Gould, told me many times that he was an agnostic and not an “atheist.” Eleanor, Steve’s late mother, was an atheist.

    Another misconception, and perhaps more surprising to some: Steve was not a communist. He carefully said he learned communism “on his father’s knee”–not that he was a communist. Steve always felt badly that he disappointed his father by not becoming a Marxist. He, therefore, in honor of his father, gave the occasional lecture at communist locales, pro bono.

    He mentioned how his critical independence from his father was struck on the day he realized that communism was “misguided” and he dared to argue the points with his father. After the fall of communism, Steve reflected that he was happy his father was “not alive to see it.”

    Steve did not like pigeon holes. Critics attacked him with statements — ” he is an atheist” or “he is a red” or “he is communist.” Steve would never retort–“I am not a communist” or “I am not an atheist.” Too evocative of the McCarthy era for his taste.

    Rhonda R. Shearer

  • Bill said:

    “But as McGrath rightly notes, in a Darwinian (or Dawkinsian) universe, there is no such thing as accident, because there is no such thing as purpose. “How can Dawkins speak of religion as something ‘accidental’, when his understanding of the evolutionary process precludes any theoretical framework that allows him to suggest that some outcomes are ‘intentional’ and others ‘accidental’? … For Darwinism, everything is accidental.”

    This, again, is a total misunderstanding of evolution, but apparently you applaud it.

    “We have no strong scientific evidence for memes;”

    This is just an out-and-out lie, but that seems not to matter to you.

    “Yet as McGrath rightly asks, “has anyone actually seen these things, whether leaping from brain to brain, or just hanging out?””

    Is this meant to be a childish joke? Or are you truly that proud you have absolutely no understanding of what you are criticising. I find it amazing that theists continually bash Dawkins for not knowing enough about theology, but are quite happy to parade around their totally limited knowledge of the science they criticse.

    Chris Mayer

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  • So growing up in the 60s and 70s in Northern Ireland McGrath was probably influenced by religion quite a bit.

    And his statement about being “completely convinced that the future lay with atheism, and that religion would either die of exhaustion or be eliminated by a resentful humanity within [his] lifetime” (A. McGrath, The science of God, p3), is nothing but a popular view of that time and doesn’t explicitly say that he was an atheist at some point.

    Religious is not just passed on from one person to another, it is deliberately hammered into children’s brains, in the same way like somebody who was beaten as a child is likely to spank his own kids. Somebody who never rebelled against the system can never tell, because he has no reason to.

    Alister McGrath simply isn’t neutral.
    Nobody expects new arguments in a debate about God anyway, or did you? And given the Israel conflicts, the wars in Africa, Muslim terrorism, US-bible-belt evangelical fascism – conflicts, which seem unresolvable from the Christian point of view, who seriously can argue the benefits of faith?

    Boris Sbodunov

  • It never ceases to amaze me how the person of Christ raises such passionate responses on both ends of the spectrum and it’s clear that Dawkins is so riled up he can’t see straight.
    By the sounds of it, he’s not throwing out any new or amazing insights, just more of the same, i.e. Christians are responsible for so much violence in the world. I like your comment:
    Violence comes from human nature, whether religious or secular. All people are capable of it, and atheists have been responsible for their fair share of it. Indeed, a good case can be made that atheism has been responsible for more than its fair share.
    Communist China has killed over 40 million of its own people in just a handful of decades. Where and in what way does the Christian church, or even people calling themselves Christians, match that sort of ferocity?
    Clearly he, like others who use this argument, are disingenuous and grasping around for valid argument because they seem to have nothing really solid to base their rage upon.

  • Thanks Chris

    But let me call your bluff here. With an armful of important books on science already under his belt, and advanced degrees in the natural sciences, I’ll wager that McGrath knows far more about science in general, and Darwinism in particular, than you ever will.

    And for the record, this is what Dawkins himself said about McGrath’s earlier book, Dawkins’ God: Dawkins speaks of McGrath’s “admirably fair summary of my scientific works” (The God Delusion, p. 54 )

    It appears that you are the one making wild and reckless claims here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Boris

    But in a sense, no one is neutral, not even you. We all have biases and presuppositions which determine how we understand things and view reality. The trick is to be humble enough to admit it, and be open enough to follow the truth wherever it may lead.

    And your claim (and Dawkins’) that the reason people are religious is because of parents cramming it into their heads is simply foolish. You then might as well argue that the reason people are atheists is because their atheist parents hammered unbelief into them at an early age.

    Also, McGrath was an atheist and a Marxist, before he converted to Christianity at Oxford as an adult. I too had a similar journey, as have millions of other people who, as fully rational adults, have embraced religion in general or Christianity in particular.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Chris Mayer is good at making assertions – too bad he’s not so good when it comes to making an argument.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  • As per usual Bill, don’t address anything I say just resort to either a straw man or an ad hominem.

    I stupidly thought this site could be an interesting place to debate and learn more about religion, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

    Your close mindedness has gotten so strong that you can even delude yourself into believing your beliefs are based on rational though and evidence.

    If you represent the Christian way to salvation, then I surely never want a part of it, and think there are a great many Christians who would feel the same way. I am sure you would use your brilliant powers of arrogance and condescension to dismiss them too.

    Chis Mayer

  • Ewan said:

    “Chris Mayer is good at making assertions – too bad he’s not so good when it comes to making an argument.”
    I tried to respect Bill’s rules to keep posts short and not push my bandwagons. Hence stick to those rules it is pretty hard to do anything other than assert something is untrue, especially when all that is being done by the other side is assert it to be true.

    It truly alarms me why so many Christians feel the need to lie about and distort science, if their religion is so strong I don’t see why it can’t stand by itself.

    Chris Mayer

  • Thanks Chris

    I will leave it to readers to decide who is being arrogant here, and who refuses to deal with the arguments and the evidence.

    As to Christianity, you certainly don’t have to take my version of it. I would encourage you to read the Gospels with an open mind and see for yourself what it is all about.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • “But let me call your bluff here. With an armful of important books on science already under his belt, and advanced degrees in the natural sciences, I’ll wager that McGrath knows far more about science in general, and Darwinism in particular, than you ever will.”

    If that isn’t arrogance, I certainly will never know what is.
    Chris Mayer

  • Thanks once more Chris

    I was not meaning to be disrespectful, and I appreciate your input. But you seem to confuse statements of fact with arrogance. I made that statement because you were blasting McGrath. The implication is that you seem to think you are superior to McGrath in this area. Thus it seems fair to ask you this: how many advanced degrees in science do you hold? How many books on science have you written? How many years have you taught at Oxford? In other words, just who is the one being arrogant here?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    In other threads you have expressed concerns that secularism (which you usually conflate with atheism) is taking over the world. In this piece you suggest that atheists are in panic mode and that the coherence of atheism is under threat.

    I’m quite confused about what you really think.

    Daniel Farrelly, Sydney

  • Thanks Daniel

    But there is really nothing to be confused about here. I see no logical contradictions in holding to the following propositions:
    A) Anti-God and anti-religion folk are working overtime to push their agenda and see their worldview established in the public arena;
    B) Such folk may be upset, panicky, or whatever, that the death of religion is not as easily or quickly happening as they had hoped;
    C) Atheism is indeed an incoherent and problematic worldview.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Chris Mayer on 21.3.07 / 8am wrote at length:

    Bill said:

    “But as McGrath rightly notes, in a Darwinian (or Dawkinsian) universe, there is no such thing as accident, because there is no such thing as purpose. “How can Dawkins speak of religion as something ‘accidental’, when his understanding of the evolutionary process precludes any theoretical framework that allows him to suggest that some outcomes are ‘intentional’ and others ‘accidental’? … For Darwinism, everything is accidental.”

    This, again, is a total misunderstanding of evolution, but apparently you applaud it.

    Could you please then explain how evolution operating with totally random processes, in the absence of any intelligent goal-focused purpose, can be called anything but purposeless?

    “We have no strong scientific evidence for memes;”

    This is just an out-and-out lie, but that seems not to matter to you.

    It would be useful to substantiate this assertion with some evidence.

    “Yet as McGrath rightly asks, “has anyone actually seen these things, whether leaping from brain to brain, or just hanging out?””

    Is this meant to be a childish joke? Or are you truly that proud you have absolutely no understanding of what you are criticising. I find it amazing that theists continually bash Dawkins for not knowing enough about theology, but are quite happy to parade around their totally limited knowledge of the science they criticse.

    Once again, I ask you Chris, to offer scientific evidence for the proposition you support there.

    Please demonstrate your understanding of “memes” so that it can be compared with Dawkins own explanations, such that we can draw valid conclusions about your knowledge of this topic.

    John Angelico

  • John, this is Bill’s site, not mine. I would have thought long explanations about the workings of evolution would be against Bill’s rules. If Bill allows it, then sure I can.

    I general, I try to correct things I see as errors in the hope people will go check the facts for themselves. I am honestly here to learn more about the thinking of religious people, but that doesn’t mean I can just sit by and watch blatant factual errors.

    As a final note, just remember that as Dawkins and any evolutionist will tell you. Evolution is NOT random, anyone who thinks that doesn’t understand it. You wont have to look far to find evdience for what I say there.

    Chris Mayer

  • By Chris Mayer’s “reasoning”, Jacques Monod doesn’t understand evolution:

    We call these events accidental; we say that they are random occurrences. And since they constitute the only possible source of modifications in the genetic text, itself the sole repository of the organism’s hereditary structures, it necessarily follows that chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendious edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. [Chance and Necessity, 1971]

    Indeed, when it comes to the origin of first life by chemical evolution, chance is all there is. There can be no natural selection without self-reproducing entities, so natural selection cannot be invoked to explain them.

    Creationists are well aware that Clinton R. Dawkins argues for non-random cumulative selection. But when his weaselly program is applied to biologically realistic scenarios, it fails miserably — see Weasel, a flexible program for investigating deterministic computer ‘demonstrations’ of evolution

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Bill,

    Where is the evidence (apart from a few individuals like Dawkins) that “anti-God and anti-religion folk are working overtime to push their agenda and see their worldview established in the public arena.” ?

    Where are the atheist groups or organisations that can compare with the massive wealth, infrastructure and proselytising efforts of organised religion? Where can I go to practice the atheistic “religion” that you claim exists, or conspire with others to spread the atheistic “worldview”? Where are the “tele-atheists” intoning passages from Dawkins and imploring us to send money to further the cause?

    The answer is – nowhere. Atheism is spreading purely through individuals being dissatisfied with the answers that religion claims to provide. As we have discussed in other threads, religion really has no answers at all when it comes to explaining the real world, especially “acts of God”. People come to atheism through deep and critical thinking about the natural world, and finding that a naturalistic explanation is far more plausible than an invisible supernatural God for which there is no evidence. Religion can’t explain why the universe exists, or why the other planets in our solar system exists, or for that matter why the earth exists or why we exist? If your God wanted company, why not just create souls in situ and dispense with the physical realm altogether?

    You claim that atheism is “an incoherent and problematic worldview.” What is your basis for that assertion?

    Daniel Farrelly

  • (Sorry Bill, a bit of a long response)
    Chris Mayer 24.3.07 / 7am rejoined
    John, this is Bill’s site, not mine. I would have thought long explanations about the workings of evolution would be against Bill’s rules. If Bill allows it, then sure I can.

    Chris, overly long explanations should not be necessary, a pertinent quote with a link supporting your point might be sufficient.

    I general, I try to correct things I see as errors in the hope people will go check the facts for themselves.

    Well, if you wish to make a successful correction, evidence is required, otherwise you lay yourself open to the dual charges of
    a) unsubstantiated assertions and
    b) intellectual smugness
    neither of which you would agree with, I guess.

    I am honestly here to learn more about the thinking of religious people, but that doesn’t mean I can just sit by and watch blatant factual errors.

    The religious people here usually argue from a platform of faith informed by reason and evidence. I would be confident that you would still learn as you aim to do, whilst respectfully correcting factual errors with good (or better) evidence.

    But what factual error can you refute? Memes was the point at which you called the author (McGrath) a liar. What factual evidence can you point out to meet his argument?

    As a final note, just remember that as Dawkins and any evolutionist will tell you. Evolution is NOT random, anyone who thinks that doesn’t understand it.

    Are you not engaging in hyperbole or at least large-scale exaggeration here?

    By now you will probably have read the Jacques Monod quote regarding randomness and accident. What fact can be adduced against it? Should facts be adduced? 😉

    You wont have to look far to find evdience for what I say there.

    If you are saying that the universe displays non-random behaviour (with which point I would agree, but for different reasons), then you are either
    – arguing in a circle to prove your basic premise; and/or
    – contradicting one of the starting points of the evolutionary worldview; and/or
    – changing the ground rules of our discussion here.

    As the Monod quote points out, randomness is a part of the creed of the evolutionary worldview, derived from the fundamental article of faith – the absence of any guiding hand (dare I say it, there is no intelligent design process).

    These are philosophical aspects of the debate, before we even get to the facts.
    John Angelico

  • If you represent the Christian way to salvation, then I surely never want a part of it, and think there are a great many Christians who would feel the same way. I am sure you would use your brilliant powers of arrogance and condescension to dismiss them too.

    Chis Mayer

    LOL…How many times have we as Christians heard this flung out? It’s the old ‘you could have had me but you were so horrible that now I’m turned off Christianity for good’ routine. I don’t think that it’s debate they came for but more of a ‘nice, compliant’ cowering back into the corner rather than a strong intellectually-based response.

    As a final note, just remember that as Dawkins and any evolutionist will tell you. Evolution is NOT random, anyone who thinks that doesn’t understand it. You wont have to look far to find evdience for what I say there.

    No there is plenty published both in books and on the net for evolution theories. However, there is also plenty published to refute what has been put forward and we don’t have to look far for that either. Most of us here have read both sides and could probably sit and debate those finer points with you. The reality of the situation is that both positions demand faith as you were not there when the universe supposedly exploded out of nowhere into existence just as we were not there when the Spiritual Entity that we Christians know as God created the universe. You cannot go to the end of this universe and say, ‘See there’s nothing beyond’ and we also can’t go there and say it’s endless and beyond explanation and so there has to be more than what we can see or feel.
    Unless something changes in your spirit, you will go on believing as you do because faith is spiritual. However, if you really are searching for answers, you’ve come to the right place.
    Dee Graf

  • Thanks Daniel

    But with all due respect, only an atheist could ask these sorts of questions with a straight face.

    For example, take your concern about “massive wealth.” Let me just mention four individuals for starters: two atheists (George Soros and Ted Turner) and two agnostics (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett). Their combined fortunes would easily match that of most denominations.

    And of course you are also trying to pretend you know nothing at all of the multitude of humanist societies, skeptics societies, secularist societies, atheist societies, etc. And you also want to assure us that none of these folk can be found in our universities, our media, our courts, our political parties, our websites. And of course you know nothing of the Humanist Manifestos I, II, and 2000.

    Nor of course have you heard of Nietzsche, Marx, Feuerbach, Engels, Russell, Huxley, and until recently, Flew, to name but a few.

    You try to make it sound like your side is just a handful of girl scouts.

    Of course religion (Christianity especially) has plenty of answers. So that is not the issue. The real issue is, it appears you have rejected those answers and chosen instead to believe in your secular religion. Your strong faith is plain for all to see.

    If you are not just asking rhetoric questions here, this website has plenty of information if you are really serious about your last question. But only you know how genuine you are in all this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • John, when I, and others have posted links to material refuting things said on this site in the past, Bill has decided not to post them. That is his right, this is his site, and he has set specific rules.

    You seem extremely good at putting words in my mouth, and creating strawmen for me to answer. Just to be clear, all I was saying is that the process of evolution via natural selection is NOT random, infact it is very far from random. Of course mutations, for example, are chance.

    Jonathan has also sone supremely well at shooting down a position I don’t hold, I am glad he thinks that is a good use of his time.
    Chris Mayer

  • Thanks Chris

    I have been more than fair to my critics, with the overwhelming majority of their comments being posted. And some of their links are posted as well. But you are right that there are rules to this site, and I will not let it become a platform for those pushing their own agendas, given the huge array of websites out there which people can go to if they want to hear the other side. Having said that, dialogue and debate is still welcome, and I appreciate your efforts to keep comments brief (something which all commentators need to keep in mind).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I aggree totally, and I wasn’t trying to criticise you on this point. Again, this is your site, and it would make little sense for you to let it become something you don’t want it to be.
    Chris Mayer

  • Thanks again Chris
    No, I didn’t think you were being critical there.
    Thanks
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWaych

  • Hey thanks for the review Bill,

    Since your review of the God Delusion I’ve actually gotten around to reading the thing. I must say that you were far more gracious in your comments about it than I would have been, to say that it was infantile and full of straw men would be an insult to most of the young scarecrows I know. I look forward to reading McGraths more scholarly rebuttal to atheisms latest holy book. I also heard that at a recent inter-faith prayer meeting to pray for world peace there were many Atheist protesters outside waving Dawkins book in the air and chanting against the proceedings, remind you of anything?

    As for Chris, keep up the good work son, reading your posts this morning really made me smile, you’ve got a long road ahead so i hope you manage to hold on to your youthful enthusiasm, but always remember that ALL of us are deceived at one point or another. 😉

    Paul Wilson

  • Bill,
    I’m impressed with the faith of the pro-Dawkins people. Hmmm, evolution’s not accidental Chris M, so does it have purpose? Doesn’t natural selection select traits which accidentally suit the environment (and so cull traits that suit a different niche). OK we agree mutations are flukes – but minor detail that even beneficial mutations are losses of info trending downhill).
    I’m still waiting for Chris to backup accusations of lies and errors.
    Now, Boris S, I agree the benefits of most faiths are doubtful. There’s little benefit in religious faiths such as Atheism, Evolution, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc – all based on unprovable premises & listed in probable order of magnitude of deaths they have caused.
    Christianity too is based on unprovable premises (as far as this forum would agree). But how many have been killed by Christians following the example and teaching of Jesus to love your neighbour and to do good to those who hate you?
    I’m sure Bill could add a link to a non-Christian documenting the positive benefits of Christianity to the modern scientific, economic, democratic, free world.
    Peter Newland

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  • Getting back to the issue of Gould’s position on Marxism and atheism, this link to an article by David Noebel of Summit Ministries in America provides some further interesting information: www.christianworldviewnetwork.com/article.php/1739/David_Noebel

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • John:

    Could you please then explain how evolution operating with totally random processes, in the absence of any intelligent goal-focused purpose, can be called anything but purposeless?

    Evolution has no teleological end, but it is certainly not “random” or “accidental”. The phenotypical constitution of a species is the consequence of a ruthless, inexorable vetting process – the very opposite of “accidental”. While genotypical mutation is (to a limited extent) “random”, the process by which such mutations are either preserved or expelled from the genome of a species certainly is not.

    Dee:

    The reality of the situation is that both positions demand faith as you were not there when the universe supposedly exploded out of nowhere into existence just as we were not there when the Spiritual Entity that we Christians know as God created the universe.

    The reality of the situation is that one position is supported by all available empirical evidence and the other is supported by none. Beliefs predicated on observable facts do not require leaps of faith: they are already congruous with the reality that you and I both share. Afterall, what better way is there to understand the universe than to (fastidiously and methodologically) observe it?

    Peter:

    Doesn’t natural selection select traits which accidentally suit the environment (and so cull traits that suit a different niche). OK we agree mutations are flukes – but minor detail that even beneficial mutations are losses of info trending downhill).

    As I said, there is nothing “accidental” about natural selection, nor the traits “selected” by this process: it is an inevitable consequence of the inviolable laws of the universe. Are animals well suited to their environment more or less likely to survive to reproductive age and pass on their genes, Peter?

    Secondly, “mutations are losses of info”? Uh-oh, that sounds suspiciously like a creationist argument! Care to explain how “mutations are losses of info”, citing empirical example and peer-reviewed genetic scholarship where applicable?

    Cheers, James Preston.

  • James Preston: Care to explain how “mutations are losses of info”

    Blindingly obvious I would have thought. In some cases, literally, as the small mutations involved in Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis cause loss of information required for sight. Mutations are responsible for heaps of diseases because they corrupt vital information. See also Beetle bloopers: Even a defect can be an advantage sometimes.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • With respect, James, I hear you saying that your belief is supported by all the empirical evidence (that has been found?), whereas I would say that your belief is based on scientific interpretation of what you call empirical ‘evidence’. Let’s take an example. Science examines geological strata and carbon dates it back several hundred million years and then finds out a decade later that their calculations were off by hundreds of millions of years. A new discovery has been made about dinosaurs that has proven past theories to be wrong. The problem with basing all your suppositions upon what you think is an infallible rock is just as much a decision of your belief system, of your will, as mine. I know enough about the universe to realize that it’s far too infinite to be explained by theories of concrete matter. No science-based debater that I’ve ever spoken with has been able to answer these two simple questions:
    Where does the universe begin and end? (At a brick wall for example?)
    The most interesting theory I’ve heard was that there could be some fifth or sixth dimension and it all bounces off that, but once again, that’s just reaching out into the fanciful.
    The other question is: When does time begin and end? If a matter-based, concrete, Science-is-God world view could be stretched around that one to come up with a satisfactory answer then that would be impressive. However, I suspect you’ll say as most others do, “Well science is still learning and we’ll know the answer to that one too one day.” Once again, you must rely on faith that science will one day have the answer. I happen to believe in the supernatural, the spiritual. I’ve seen a miracle with my own eyes (and I know that this is anecdotal and I can’t expect you to believe it but I actually didn’t need to see that miracle anyway as I already believed before I saw it). First I opened my mind to the possibility which then made it possible to believe. God never crosses the human will when it comes to individual human destiny.
    Dee Graf

  • Dee Graf, a small point in your otherwise astute post: carbon dating could not be used to date hundreds of millions of years. This is because its half life is only about 5700 years, so none should be present in anything over ~250,000 years. Curiously though, we often find radiocarbon in coal alleged to be hundreds of millions of years old, and even in diamonds that are supposedly over a billion years old. See Diamonds: a creationist’s best friend: Radiocarbon in diamonds: enemy of billions of years.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Thanks Jonathan, I stand corrected. Glad my central point was still succinct though. I might have to check out that link and get my terminology up to date. 🙂
    Dee Graf

  • Jonathon:

    James Preston: Care to explain how “mutations are losses of info”

    Blindingly obvious I would have thought. In some cases, literally, as the small mutations involved in Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis cause loss of information required for sight. Mutations are responsible for heaps of diseases because they corrupt vital information. See also Beetle bloopers: Even a defect can be an advantage sometimes.

    I’m still unclear as to what you mean by “loss of information” in this context. There are many ways of interpreting that phrase, so you’re going to need to be more specific.

    For instance, does “loss of information” refer to bulk genome size? If so, mutations can add such “information” as frequently as they detract it. Common genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome (extra chromosome) and Huntington’s Disease (trinucleotide repeat disorder) result from an increase in the size of the genome. The page you linked about the beetle suggests that to turn “molecules into man would require mutations to add information”, but there is virtually no correlation between genome size and evolutionary progression. What we consider to be “basic” lifeforms (such as algae and protozoa) frequently have genomes that are many orders of magnitude bigger than the human genome – perhaps up to 200 times bigger in some cases (link).

    Even if your concept of “information” refers only to “active genes” (that is, genes responsible for the creation of proteins or the sequencing of these processes, which account for barely 5% of genetic material within humans – the rest of the genome serves no apparent function) then the same argument still applies. Some mutations increase the number of active genes in the genome (primarily through “gene duplication”), some decrease that number. The point is that it does not necessarily require less information – in a raw, genetic sense – to produce a blind human or a wingless beetle. These phenotypical manifestations are not less “complex” than the alternatives, the genes in these cases are simply coding for different proteins. One phenotype may be more “harmful” than the other, but that is a different argument: it still makes no sense to argue that the genome of a wingless beetle contains “less information” than the genome of a beetle with wings.

    Finally, “loss of information” could be referring to the genome of a species as a whole and the total scope of genetic variation from one organism to the next. In this case virtually all mutations increase the amount of genetic information within a species.

    Dee:

    No science-based debater that I’ve ever spoken with has been able to answer these two simple questions:
    Where does the universe begin and end? (At a brick wall for example?)

    Where does the line of a circle begin and end?

    If by “the universe” you are referring to space-time itself, then the absolute furthest it could extend is about 13.7 billion light years (about 123 billion trillion kilometers) from its point of origin (presuming expansion at the fringes occurs at the speed of light). Matter, which cannot travel the speed of light, must occupy an area somewhat smaller than this.

    The other question is: When does time begin and end?

    This is a difficult question to answer, not because there isn’t a scientific answer to this problem but because the scientific answer is extremely difficult to understand (I refer you to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity). The point here is that space and time are basically the same thing (neither can exist without the other) and that time is relative (the “speed” of time changes depending on your frame of reference). For us, the origin of time is about 13.7 billion years ago, which is not merely a point in time but a point in space as well. For a photon, however, or for anything else that moves at the speed of light, time literally does not exist. A photon created at the big-bang has not aged one second since then: they are, quite literally, eternal.

    Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing. Apologies for length, these concepts are very difficult to compress into “less than 100 words”.

    James Preston

  • James Preston on 31.3.07 / 4am wrote: “John: Could you please then explain how evolution operating with totally random processes, in the absence of any intelligent goal-focused purpose, can be called anything but purposeless? Evolution has no teleological end, but it is certainly not ‘random’ or ‘accidental’. The phenotypical constitution of a species is the consequence of a ruthless, inexorable vetting process – the very opposite of ‘accidental’. While genotypical mutation is (to a limited extent) ‘random’, the process by which such mutations are either preserved or expelled from the genome of a species certainly is not.”

    James, aren’t you unwittingly playing with words here? A vetting process reads like an orderly evaluation against some set of criteria.

    You say there is no teleological end – but you have thereby stuck yourself without a purpose for the entire process, and no logical reason for vetting. What we have then is events without meaning. Brutally ruthless, yes, possibly inexorable (but unknowably so), but still utterly meaningless.

    So you will have great difficulty making any sense of concepts like “non-random” and “non-accidental”, won’t you?

    John Angelico

  • There is a big difference between information and the amount of genetic material. So gene duplication doesn’t double the information any more than handing two copies of an assignment will double your grade
    (see www.creationontheweb.com/images/pdfs/tj/j20_1/j20_1_99-104.pdf).

    Most people would realise that Down’s syndrome is informationally downhill because of the chromosomal duplication. As I’ve explained elsewhere:

    Most people have 22 pairs of ordinary chromosomes plus the pair of sex chromosomes (XX or XY). Down’s Syndrome people have instead of a pair at 21, a triple, hence the term trisomy 21. But there is no new information, any more than two copies of an encyclopedia contain twice as much information.

    Here this results in an imbalance. Note that many reactions in the body require a precise sequence of enzymes — Down’s Syndrome people have an extra copy of the superoxide dismutase gene which breaks down the very reactive superoxide ion (O2–). Its product is peroxide (O22–), which is normally broken down by the next enzyme. But in this case, with the extra production, there is too much to cope with.

    It should also be stating the obvious that a wingless beetle has suffered a loss of information compared to a winged one. This sort of change doesn’t explain how the wings arose in the first place.

    Quibble all you like, but add up all these types of information-losing changes you like, and you will never turn bacteria into biologists.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Where does the line of a circle begin and end?

    Judging by this, you believe that the events which are now occurring in time and space will occur in exactly the same manner and sequence again and again. Intriguing if not horrifying thought. The same child who was recently beheaded and roasted in Iraq for being a Christian is doomed to be repeatedly murdered in such a fashion ad infinitum. Now that’s my idea of hell.

    I agree that time is an illusion, but that’s all that most people can conceive of.

    Your last paragraph reads like poetry and it’s a shame with a mind like yours that you have so limited yourself to the finite understanding that is known scientifically to humankind and may yet be changed.

    Dee Graf

  • James Preston conflates information with the amount of information-carrying material. However, a book with 5 copies of p. 10 doesn’t have extra information even though it has extra pages. And these extra pages can even be a disadvantage, putting the book into a higher weight bracket for posting.

    Similarly, the extra chromosome of Down’s Syndrome results in an extra copy of the superoxide dismutase gene which breaks down the very reactive superoxide ion (O2–). Its product is peroxide (O22–), which is normally broken down by the next enzyme. But in this case, with the extra production, there is too much to cope with.

    Gene duplication is the same sort of fallacy. The evolutioniry just-so story is that an existing gene may be doubled, and one copy does its normal work while the other copy is redundant and non-expressed. Therefore, it is free to mutate free of selection pressure (to get rid of it). However, such ‘neutral’ mutations are powerless to produce new genuine information. Dawkins and others point out that natural selection is the only possible naturalistic explanation for the immense design in nature (not a good one, as Spetner and others have shown). Dawkins and others propose that random changes produce a new function, then this redundant gene becomes expressed somehow and is fine-tuned under the natural selective process.

    This ‘idea’ is just a lot of hand-waving. It relies on a chance copying event, genes somehow being switched off, randomly mutating to something approximating a new function, then being switched on again so natural selection can tune it.

    A wingless beetle certainly does have less information, but this can be an advantage in some cases. But changes of this type do not explain how wings occurred in the first place! And while you can quibble all you please, this sort of change will never turn a bacterium into a biologist, no matter how many you add up (see The evolution train’s a-comin’ (Sorry, a-goin’—in the wrong direction).

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • John:

    You say there is no teleological end – but you have thereby stuck yourself without a purpose for the entire process, and no logical reason for vetting. What we have then is events without meaning. Brutally ruthless, yes, possibly inexorable (but unknowably so), but still utterly meaningless.

    Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. I do not understand by what mechanism any entity or process could be said to possess inherent, objective meaning, so I wouldn’t have thought that there would be anything controversial about suggesting that the evolutionary process – and all other processes, for that matter – lack teleological direction. If you want to argue otherwise then the burden of proof is upon you to demonstrate the origin and function of said “meaning”.

    So you will have great difficulty making any sense of concepts like “non-random” and “non-accidental”, won’t you?

    To say that evolution is “non-random” is to say only that the process is not governed by chance. Some outcomes are demonstrably more likely than others: this is the consequence of natural selection.

    Jonathon:

    So gene duplication doesn’t double the information any more than handing two copies of an assignment will double your grade.

    You need to define “information” for me here, otherwise we’re going to keep talking past each other.

    It should also be stating the obvious that a wingless beetle has suffered a loss of information compared to a winged one. This sort of change doesn’t explain how the wings arose in the first place.

    Again, I’m not too sure what “information” is meant to mean in this context. You say that winglessness corresponds to a loss of genetic information, as though it is somehow reasonable to presume that it takes less genes to produce a wingless beetle than it does a winged one!

    Using the example of a ladybird:

    Inheritance of winglessness was first reported by breeding lines from a wingless individual found at The Uithof, Utrecht in The Netherlands in 1990 (Marples et al, 1993). They found that winglessness is controlled by an allele with a major phenotypic effect that is recessive to the normal winged one.

    In other words, winglessness in an individual beetle doesn’t mean that the gene for wings has suddenly dropped out of its genome, it just means that a competing recessive allele (which in this case is a gene that codes for winglessness) becomes active in its place. Again, by what definition of “information” could the genome of the ladybird be said to be losing “information” here?

    James Preston conflates information with the amount of information-carrying material. However, a book with 5 copies of p. 10 doesn’t have extra information even though it has extra pages. And these extra pages can even be a disadvantage, putting the book into a higher weight bracket for posting.

    Genes can only code for a finite number of amino acids (20) and generally a single-point mutation on the nucleotide will change the amino acid that is produced. In other words, the duplication of a gene which eventually undergoes a single-point mutation, will code for a new amino acid and therefore serve a different function from the original gene (which is still active an serving its original function). Again, I’m not sure how you can define “information” so that it precludes this process from being said to produce new information.

    Also, genomic parsimony does not appear to be subject to selection pressures, hence the radical differences in the size of genomes even amongst closely related species (see the first link in my previous post). The majority of DNA in the human genome, for instance, is so-called “junk DNA” – DNA that serves no apparent function. In fact, there are more exogenous viruses in human DNA (8% of the genome) than there are active genes (i.e. the genes necessary to create a human being)! I’d like to see the ID explanation for that!

    Okay, need to run now. More to come later.

    James Preston

  • James Preston is just handwaving, like most antitheistic evolutionary propagandists. He seems to harbour the delusion that if we add up the type of observed changes, such as loss of wings or eyes, we will eventually turn bacteria into biologists with all the gain of function required. If he were a businessman, he would be telling his creditors that if he made enough little losses, given enough time they would add up to a profit. Or if he were an author, he would show his publisher several copies of the same page and try to convince him that there really is a book there.

    Yes, there are only 20 amino acids that DNA codes for (there are a few organisms that have a 21st or 22nd). But the information lies in the sequence. Your hard drive has only 1s and 0s, but it would be folly to claim that a copy of a program is new information.

    And just because Preston can’t think of a function for alleged junk DNA, it doesn’t follow that none exists. Much of it has been shown to have a function after all, especially in gene regulation. Dr John Mattick of QLD Uni thinks that it could be part of a sophisticated operating system, and said:

    the failure to recognise the implications of the non-coding DNA will go down as the biggest mistake in the history of molecular biology.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • James Preston wrote on 3.4.07 / 4pm:
    Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. I do not understand by what mechanism any entity or process could be said to possess inherent, objective meaning, so I wouldn’t have thought that there would be anything controversial about suggesting that the evolutionary process – and all other processes, for that matter – lack teleological direction. If you want to argue otherwise then the burden of proof is upon you to demonstrate the origin and function of said “meaning”.

    JA> So you will have great difficulty making any sense of concepts like “non-random” and “non-accidental”, won’t you?

    To say that evolution is “non-random” is to say only that the process is not governed by chance. Some outcomes are demonstrably more likely than others: this is the consequence of natural selection.

    Then you agree with me, James, that within the philosophical materialist framework there is no “meaning” or “purpose”.

    Consequently, “natural selection” cannot be invested with any meaning, since it is a descriptive label applied to events occurring within a meaningless framework.

    And within that materialist framework, our discussion, our thinking, your use of the term “natural selection” to imply some form of ‘guiding hand’ to a collection of meaningless processes, is likewise meaningless.

    You seem to define ‘natural selection’ as “that non-random process which guides all other processes”.

    However
    a) it can only be inferred after the event (that is, when you use it as a descriptive label) but

    b) somehow it must be acting in advance to influence the results of processes non-randomly (when you use it as a ‘guiding hand’).

    Thus, it is at the same time a non-random process acting within the material universe, and the inferred result of other processes, which I believe is logically impossible.

    It’s an imputed form of intelligence, derived from outside the system. A substitute for God, in fact – almost deus ex machina :-).

    John Angelico

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  • An open letter to Alister McGrath,
    Alister, I enjoyed your interview re the Dawkins Delusion on Sydney Australia Christian radio station 103.2 fm last night which I heard via Melbourne’s 89.9 Light FM. The interview is at www.fm1032.com.au/MP3.asp?ChannelID=17, Size: 7.7mb Dur: 16:26 Date:22/4/2007. I note that you will be in Australia in September.

    After the interview (unfortunately not on the MP3) one caller asked you how dinosaurs fitted in. You asked her where she was coming from – she said she had trouble explaining dinosaurs as a Christian. You then answered indirectly about how some people believed in a recent creation while you believed in long periods of preparation of this wonderful world and how important humans were.

    As I see it, the direct implication of your answer is that you, as a Christian, don’t actually believe what the Bible unequivocally states as fact in Genesis. It also seemed to me that you would rather not have answered the question, possibly because you realise that admitting you don’t believe clear historical statements in the Bible is damaging to your credibility as a logical thinker, not to mention the credibility of Christianity. So please correct me if I am wrong – I rang the talkback number many times but could not get through.

    I think that many atheists humour Christians who believe in millions of years of evolution; because they know that if the Bible is wrong in Genesis then Christianity is baseless and illogical. Yet atheists, who are happy to humour old-earth creationist ideas such as you seem to hold, can be apoplectic with biblical creationists who logically base Christianity on the historical reliability of Genesis.

    Incidentally, when I became a Christian as a new graduate I believed in billions of years of evolution but am now convinced that Genesis as real history makes far more logical and scientific sense than the mythology of evolution with god mixed in.

    Peter Newland

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  • Ah Darwinism the theory expounded by a young recent graduate at a very early age on his first voyage in life discovering the wonders of Gods creation. Note: not the ancient bearded man of wisdom as is so often portrayed.
    Most evolutionists seem to stop at the point where humans supposedly evolved from Monkeys. Ah! Where to from there?
    One little element of minuscule life accidentally created maybe by a lighting strike or something similar then had the knowledge that it had to eat or digest some form of nutrients to survive but there was none and it was all alone without a clue in how to survive. Unfortunately no fruit of food of any sort had been created at that exact time and there was no other sex with which to copulate.
    Hmm Copulate what is that.
    Ok self replicate then err how does one do that. Oh I know just wait for the next evolutionary accident of course.
    From all this we are told to believe that every conceivable accident/ war / scientific development / voyage to the moon / understanding of the cosmos / duplication via two sexes when self replication was the ultimate evolvement. Discovery of penicillin, fuel and the atomic bomb, the quarks, the fish, the Bugs and snakes and the phenomenal knowledge contained in bacteria. The God particle, all plants and the destiny of each etc. etc. et al. Were all contained in the information exploding within the first minuscule single cell of life. NOT.

    And they call my belief in God a delusion.

    Dawkins is the last person we should be listening to on life and spiritual matters

    Dennis Newland

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