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The end of god-13: The new apologetics, same as the old

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Religion has always had its own defenders, called religious apologists, who have tried to find ways to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable and at least somewhat consistent with advances in knowledge in science and other areas. In response to the recent onslaughts on their faith by the new atheists, there has arisen in response what one might call the ‘new apologetics’, attempts to combat the arguments of the new atheists. But in examining these arguments one is startled to discover that there is really nothing new.

While this series of posts has demonstrated that developments in science over the last two centuries have resulted in powerful new evidence and arguments against religion and god emerging thick and fast, religious apologists are still appealing to the arguments of Saint Augustine of Hippo (4th century), Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and William Paley (19th century), and even Paley is just revamping the arguments of his predecessors.

As Sam Harris says in his book The End of Faith (2004):

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is at the center of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach. (p. 21-22)

The only thing that is new about the new apologetics is that the new apologists have taken those very same old arguments and tried to redefine terms and adjust their meanings to respond to the genuinely new arguments and evidence of modern science and the new atheists.

Recall that there are still two major unanswered questions in science: the origin of the universe and the origin of life. The new apologetics, as I said earlier, has seized on these to create a God of the Ultimate Gaps as an ‘explanation’ for these questions.

But when we say these two questions are as yet unsolved by science, it has to be realized that it is not that scientists have no idea whatsoever about how the two major events occurred, but that the suggested solutions are as yet somewhat speculative. In the case of the origin of the universe, one suggestion is that our universe may not be unique but just one of many possible ‘multiverses’. There has been more substantive progress in the area of the origin of life, suggesting that a credible model is not far off. (I have discussed some of the possible candidate models in an earlier post.) But in both cases, we do not have the level of evidentiary support and predictive capabilities that would elevate these speculations to the level of scientific theories and so scientists would likely label these two problems as yet unsolved.

Religious apologists, perhaps sensing that the origin of life is a problem that may be solved fairly soon and thus shying away from depending too much on that being inexplicable, have focused more on the origin of universe as an argument for god and even argued that big-bang cosmology suggests the existence of god. They argue that the anthropic principle (the idea that the properties of the universe seem to be fine-tuned in just the right way for life as we know it to exist) is evidence for god, although that argument makes no sense.

John Lennox (in his The God Delusion Debate with Richard Dawkins) even suggests that since the story of Genesis postulates that there was a beginning to the world, this means that the Bible predicted the big bang theory! Dinesh D’Souza in his debate with Daniel Dennett suggests something similar, that Saint Augustine anticipated the big-bang theory and thus this must somehow be seen as a ‘win’ for religion and evidence for god.

D’Souza is correct that Augustine’s cosmology

“affirms that the world was created by God from nothing, through a free act of His will. With regard to the manner in which creation was effected by God, Augustine is inclined to admit that the creation of the world was instantaneous, but not entirely as it exists at present.

In the beginning there were created a few species of beings which, by virtue of intrinsic principles of reproduction, gave origin to the other species down to the present state of the existing world. Thus it seems that Augustine is not contrary to a moderate evolution, but that such a moderate evolution has nothing in common with modern materialistic evolutionist teaching.
. . .
For Augustine, God is immutable, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, absolutely devoid of potentiality or composition, a pure spirit, a personal, intelligent being.

But Augustine provides no evidence in support of his belief. He is merely guessing, based on what the Bible says. As Dawkins points out in response to Lennox and which applies equally well to D’Souza, there are only two possible options: either the universe had a definite beginning or it did not and thus anyone has a fifty-fifty chance of guessing it right, which hardly makes it a daring prediction.

Furthermore this kind of retrospective elevation of people like Augustine is hardly proof of the validity of religion and clearly demonstrates how desperate religious apologists are. If the scientific evidence that emerged in the mid twentieth century had provided support for an alternative model of the origin of the universe as one that had no beginning (say a static universe or the steady state theory), then Augustine’s guess would have been ignored and some other medieval cleric who happened to make the opposite guess would have been hailed as their champion prophet, and the Genesis story would have been reinterpreted in some way to be consistent with that model.

The chances are that one can always find some cleric from ancient times who has said something that could be vaguely interpreted as being in favor of some modern scientific theory. To argue that this should count as proof of prophecy and thus of evidence for the existence of god is a real stretch.

POST SCRIPT: Equal rights for gays gets a boost

The California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that gay couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. California thus joins Massachusetts in legalizing such marriages. But this decision has greater implications since opponents of gay marriages in Massachusetts were able to invoke an old law that restricted the practice only to residents. California has no such restriction which means that people from all over the country can go to California and get married.

Of course, anti-gay groups are angry and are planning to try and overturn this by putting a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage on the November ballot. If this challenge can be beaten back and the amendment defeated, this might mark a sea change in attitudes towards gays.

I find the opposition to gay marriage really baffling. Why would anyone care if other people get married? It seems to based on nothing more than religion-based prejudice.


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