Thursday, October 20, 2011

Richard Dawkins: "Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig"

This is an old issue, but it's always good to make certain points very clear.


Don't feel embarrassed if you've never heard of William Lane Craig. He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either. Perhaps he is a "theologian". For some years now, Craig has been increasingly importunate in his efforts to cajole, harass or defame me into a debate with him. I have consistently refused, in the spirit, if not the letter, of a famous retort by the then president of the Royal Society: "That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine".
Craig's latest stalking foray has taken the form of a string of increasingly hectoring challenges to confront him in Oxford this October. I took pleasure in refusing again, which threw him and his followers into a frenzy of blogging, tweeting and YouTubed accusations of cowardice. To this I would only say I that I turn down hundreds of more worthy invitations every year, I have publicly engaged an archbishop of York, two archbishops of Canterbury, many bishops and the chief rabbi, and I'm looking forward to my imminent, doubtless civilised encounter with the present archbishop of Canterbury.
In an epitome of bullying presumption, Craig now proposes to place an empty chair on a stage in Oxford next week to symbolise my absence. The idea of cashing in on another's name by conniving to share a stage with him is hardly new. But what are we to make of this attempt to turn my non-appearance into a self-promotion stunt? In the interests of transparency, I should point out that it isn't only Oxford that won't see me on the night Craig proposes to debate me in absentia: you can also see me not appear in Cambridge, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and, if time allows, Bristol.
But Craig is not just a figure of fun. He has a dark side, and that is putting it kindly. Most churchmen these days wisely disown the horrific genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament. Anyone who criticises the divine bloodlust is loudly accused of unfairly ignoring the historical context, and of naive literalism towards what was never more than metaphor or myth. You would search far to find a modern preacher willing to defend God's commandment, in Deuteronomy 20: 13-15, to kill all the men in a conquered city and to seize the women, children and livestock as plunder. And verses 16 and 17 are even worse:
"But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them"
You might say that such a call to genocide could never have come from a good and loving God. Any decent bishop, priest, vicar or rabbi would agree. But listen to Craig. He begins by arguing that the Canaanites were debauched and sinful and therefore deserved to be slaughtered. He then notices the plight of the Canaanite children.
"But why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel's part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, 'You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods' (Deut 7.3-4). […] God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. […] Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God's grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives."
Do not plead that I have taken these revolting words out of context. What context could possibly justify them?
"So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgment. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli [sic] soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalising effect on these Israeli [sic] soldiers is disturbing."
Oh, the poor soldiers. Let's hope they received counselling after their traumatic experience. A later post by Craig is – if possible – even more shocking. Referring to his earlier article (above) he says:
"I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God's command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land.[…] Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.
It is therefore completely misleading to characterise God's command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated. No one had to die in this whole affair."
So, apparently it was the Canaanites' own fault for not running away. Right.
Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn't, and I won't. Even if I were not engaged to be in London on the day in question, I would be proud to leave that chair in Oxford eloquently empty.
And if any of my colleagues find themselves browbeaten or inveigled into a debate with this deplorable apologist for genocide, my advice to them would be to stand up, read aloud Craig's words as quoted above, then walk out and leave him talking not just to an empty chair but, one would hope, to a rapidly emptying hall as well.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cosmic Solitude

I heard this expression several years ago, but I didn't remember exactly in what context. It seemed very appropriate, though, to describe the feeling that comes over us when we face the idea that we are alone before the Universe. When we get to the conclusion that there is no supernatural being to protect us, the first sensation is of helplessness, it's scary. The intensity of that fear will vary according to how much the person was involved in the religious thinking, but it always occurs in some degree, except for those who become atheists in a very young age, before they develop the psichological dependence on this "divine entity".

Where did it come from?

The story behind the expression is interesting. It started with an interview a writer (Vides Junior) had with me about five years ago for a book he was writing, yet to be published.
One of the questions was:

8 - Does the search for knowledge necessarily lead to atheism?

My answer: No, but it favours it. It depends a lot on what premise the person starts from. I know people who have a lot of knowledge, but as they start from the premise that there is a god, they only take into consideration the arguments that favour this perspective. For knowledge to lead to atheism, the person has to be very honest, and he has to be able to face very hard truths, among them what I call 'cosmic solitude'.

And in the next answer I took up the subject again:

          9 - What is god?
My answer: That's complicated. I think it comes in part from the need to feel protected, in part because human beings are not able to accept their own finitude. It's hard to face the cosmic solitude.
According to Freud, 'god' is the father figure, and can be protective or punishing, or both. Anyway, extreme religiosity is usually a sign of immaturity, incapability for making decisions.
He got curious and asked me to get deeper into the concept of "Cosmic Solitude"

My answer: Searching the internet, I found that it has to do with Carl Sagan, but it's about the fact that we don't have contact, and neither do we know if there are inhabitants on other planets. I started to use the expression to define the feeling of helplessness that follows when we stop believing in a god. I got the idea from a book of Flávio Gikovate [a Brazilian author], but I don't think he used this expression.
The idea is that before the Universe we are nothing, totally insignificant. As there is no god to protect and guide (and punish) us, we are alone, helpless. We are forced to decide for ourselves, to assume total responsibility for our lives, and that's hard to do. This makes people more important, since they are our only source of support. It also forces us to accept imperfection as something inevitable, to understand that life is not fair and the world isn't good, and will never be.


Later on I developed the concept a little further.

The acquisition of knowledge will never be enough to make someone reconsider his concepts, especially the most cherished and deeprooted ones. You have to resort to an almost brutal honesty, you have to be able to bear the pain of realizing that we are wrong and trying to fool ourselves. Facing ourselves is the most difficult thing to do, and to admit that we are wrong causes a mental distress very hard to bear.

But after the fear passes, after the feeling of helplessness is accepted as the inevitable consequence of our independence, many things change for the better. One of the feelings that arises is an amazing sensation of freedom. Since there is nobody to protect us, neither is there anyone to punish us. The responsibility that is imposed upon us during this process also implies in freeing ourselves from 'imaginary sins', there is no such thing as sinning in our thoughts, the only thing that matters are the concrete results of our actions. We are alone before the Universe, that's true, but we have each other; human solidarity assumes an entirely new meaning.

The idea that we are absolutely insignificant in the great scheme of things, that the Universe wouldn't change a bit if our little planet would cease to exist, is a hard blow on our self-esteem. The paradox of our existence is this: on one hand we are nothing to the Cosmos, on the other hand we are extremely important to the people around us.

Alone in the Universe, but together.


[Originally posted on - translated by myself]