Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

'The Dawkins Delusion'

This review will discuss the main ways in which the writers Alister and Joanna McGrath respond to Richard Dawkins’ ‘God Delusion.’ In my opinion they are effective in their responses to Dawkins’ arguments, but not necessarily by providing altogether different replies and conclusions. Instead, they point out his fallacious, selective and misrepresented arguments against religious belief and the existence of God. By continuously challenging the validity of Dawkins’ arguments, the writers’ aim is to allow the readers to come to their own conclusions. The book offers religious believers reassurance, reminding them that they are certainly not suffering from the ‘mental virus’(p.41), and that their beliefs are unfairly misrepresented within ‘The God Delusion.’ Furthermore, it offers open-minded atheists the opportunity to question whether or not Dawkins’ arguments are as factually and scientifically grounded as many presume them to be.  I will present three significant approaches within ‘The Dawkins Delusion’, which the writers take, in order to successfully convey their reliable response: 1) Portrayal of Dawkins’ misrepresentation of belief; 2) Emphasis on Dawkins’ appeal to emotions; 3) The McGrath’s unbiased and accurate accounts. 
Although the writers are appreciative of Dawkins exposing religious violence, they highlight his generalisation of religion and its followers, placing all believers in one group. The authors are of course Christians, and for them this ignorant view of religion causing violence is certainly very problematic. Christianity, as the world’s largest religion, is quite clearly against acts of violence, with forgiveness and love at its centre. From his distorted readings of Scripture, to his idea that evangelical fundamentalists represent orthodox Christianity, Dawkins is presented as a distorting, ridiculing individual with very little knowledge of mainstream Christianity. For example, Dawkins uses one passage from the Old Testament consisting of hostility, in order to reach a very, (it would seem) unreasonable conclusion. The writers highlight the reality that such passages are bewildering, and puzzling. However, reading them within their textual and social contexts brings a clearer understanding to the reader, which is something Dawkins intentionally ignores. The passage he is particularly shocked at, is surrounded by passages which convey the virtues of compassion and forgiveness. (p. 46-58) Importantly, the writers explain to the readers (considering their desire to appeal to atheists) exactly why the Holy Scriptures should be read as a coherent whole, with Christ at their centre, as opposed to being scandalised by individual passages of the Old Testament. Dawkins seems ‘unaware of the Christian insistence that there exists a criterion - the life and teaching of Jesus,’ when reading Biblical passages.(p.58) Furthermore, the McGraths show the reader Dawkins’ crafty and rather impish misrepresentation, even of his own ‘competent and sympathetic authorities.’ (p.62) He fails to endorse the widely accepted point, made by Michael Shermer, that ‘for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good’ (referring to religion’s generally positive contribution to society). Evidence shows that religion (like all other social institutions) indisputably contributes greatly to the society in which we live. So Dawkins simply cannot come to terms with such a fact, due to this apparent emotional ‘hostile spin relentlessly placed upon religion.’(p.62)
In absence of factual evidence within ‘The God Delusion’,  the McGraths portray Dawkins as a character who manipulates emotions such as frustration and dislike, in his attempt to argue his cases ‘effectively.’ This is of course an argumentum ad passiones, a logical fallacy. ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ consists of endless examples, pointing out these fallacious arguments, structured to ‘suit his own polemical purposes.’(p.1) An interesting example is within the discussion of the indoctrination of children. (p.4) Dawkins strongly believes that imposing religious beliefs on children is abusive. Yet, for someone to force secular ideas upon young people, is perfectly acceptable. This stresses the lack of valid argumentation, as it is simply an emotional attack on believers and their ways of life. The book then begs the question, whether abuse and delusion only take place when religion is imposed. The writers rhetorically ask the readers whether this concern is not applicable for anti-religious ideologies and behaviour - again exposing Dawkins’ bias emotions. The readers also witness Dawkins’ ‘outrage’ at America’s leading evolutionary biologist who supports the argument that nature can be interpreted in both a theistic and atheistic way. (p.13) Stephen Jay Gould’s thoughts are automatically dismissed by Dawkins, as he is infuriated with the idea of scientists either having a religious belief, or at least respecting the ones who do. This dismissive response to his fellow biologist within ‘The God Delusion’ is used by the McGraths in order to strike back at Richard Dawkins for his polemical mentality, which seems to be centred on raging emotions. This has profoundly catastrophic implications on Dawkins part, as he portrays himself as a scientist who bases his views solely on reason. Similarly, in the writer’s reply to Dawkins’ ‘accidental by-product theory,’ they yet again indicate Dawkins’ ‘lack of serious evidence,’(p.30) and scientific grounding to his arguments. This particular theory describes the idea of religious life being a misdirected natural tendency - and as far as the writers are concerned, such theories are highly speculative, and are the the result of Dawkins’ assumptive and emotionally driven conclusions. One of the main themes considered in the book, is that of Science vs God. A question within this debate is whether science has limits - and of course Dawkins argues in ‘The God Delusion’ that it does not. This view is not representative of the scientific community, and according to the writers, does not have any valid grounding. Again, Dawkins’ view is characterised as an incredibly emotionally grounded exaggeration, with the McGraths writing ‘Dawkins does.. tend to portray anyone raising questions about the scope of the sciences as a science-hating idiot.’ (p.15) Their opponent seethes at any suggestions questioning his close-minded and misrepresented ideas. Debating on Dawkins’ assertion of religion being evil and violent, the writers humiliate him by highlighting his foolish belief that atheists would not act violently in the name of atheism. This belief clearly emanates from his sentimental naivety. (p.48) Without dwelling on the Soviet authority’s attempt to eliminate the entire Christian community between 1918-1941 in an atheist pursuit, let’s simply say ‘the facts are otherwise.’  With regards to lifestyle choices, Dawkins is shown to discriminate against practices grounded on faith. An example given, is fasting, seen as pointless by Dawkins. However, it would seem that cutting down on certain foods is perfectly acceptable and healthy. (p.61) We are shown that for Dawkins everything is seen from a negative angle, reducing religion to an ambiguous evil. On the contrary, the McGraths generally seem to portray a fairer, more balanced perspective. 
The writers vitally acknowledge two sides to each debate, such as when stating ‘nature can be interpreted in a theistic or in an atheistic way - but demands neither of these.’ (p.13) They constantly thrash Dawkins for his inability to do this, resulting in the McGraths coming across as a far more respectable and accurate source. They argue that ‘the natural sciences, philosophy, religion and literature all have a legitimate place in the human quest for truth’ (p.18), realising that science does in fact have its limits, just as any other faculty. With Dawkins refusing to accept this, the writers seem to show otherwise. Science cannot answer every question, and so all fields have a legitimate place in search for truth, and meaning. In other words, science certainly plays a tremendous role, as does the Christian Church for example. ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ is not an apologetic piece for Christianity (even though the writers do admittedly discuss matters concerning their own faith), but instead it seeks to fairly engage in some of Dawkins’ arguments. The writers continuously analyse their opponents’ positions, or rather anxieties (p.64), portraying themselves as accurate and open-minded Christian believers, offering a fairer and more balanced account within the atheism debate.The authors often highlight the points that they believe Dawkins gets right, and challenge the points where he fails. A relevant example of the writers honesty and portrayal of an unbiased approach is the reply to Dawkins on the source of religious belief. The writers state that there is often not only one cause for certain human behaviours and thoughts. Belief in God will have many natural explanations, which may include social factors, as well as brain and psychological processes. These are all causal factors in human religious experience, however God is the source and focal point. With the example given of the lover ( an example which Dawkins uses ), the McGraths  are able to explain how our social and psychological contexts may well affect us, but our Creator and Loving God guides and affects us to an even greater extent in religious life. The experience of romantic love may be caused by the behaviour of the lover, as well as our own emotions, thoughts and brain activity. However the ultimate cause is the loved one, just as the ultimate cause of spiritual experience is God. (p.38-39)
I confidently argue that the authors do demonstrate and provide open-minded, critical dialogue throughout their book, however they seem, on occasion, to be rather over-fastidious. Dawkins claims that belief in God is like a ‘virus’, which spreads across the nations of the world. Dawkins is yet again creating this idea of irrational belief as poisonous, and negative on society. The word ‘virus’ is clearly being used in more of a metaphorical sense than a literal one. (p.41)
The writers reply to this analogy by stating the fact that viruses are ontological substances, and are not mere hypotheses. Perhaps this is being somewhat superfluous in their analysis of this analogy. Throughout the majority of the book the writers maintain their very fair and unbiased reputation, however in this particular instance they wander off a little into the arrogant and dismissive world of Dawkins; albeit briefly.
‘The Dawkins Delusion’ - The Title
In this case the reader is able to ‘tell the chosen book by its cover.’ The title ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ summarises several themes and approaches within the McGraths response. Firstly, the replacement of ‘God’ with ‘Dawkins’ may be referring to the portrayal of Dawkins as an arrogant and ignorant individual who, as a ‘god’ of science, seems to believe he has the right to surpass any regular order of argumentation backed up by evidence, and simply introduce his own generalisations and conclusions on matters he has very little unbiased knowledge.  The entire book allows the reader to question whether or not it is the believers of God who are deluded, or Dawkins himself. He implores his readers to share in his frustration and utter loathe towards anything connected to belief in God. The writers of ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ certainly imply that their opponent is taking advantage of vulnerable atheists who will easily find his words convincing - not by any evidence at hand, but by his use of strong emotion. 
Through the portrayal of Dawkins’ misrepresentation of beliefs, his appeal to his own bias emotions, as well as the writers’ generally accurate, fair and engaging discussions, ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ successfully points out Richard Dawkins’ fallacious approach within his ‘God Delusion.’ 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Stephen Fry on God

And there was me thinking the vast majority of people were uninterested in discussing the existence and nature of God! This video has proved me wrong. Stephen Fry's outburst of emotion, seems to have had a huge impact on people - with around one million views after two days on youtube:

As he states himself, the argument which he puts forward is known as 'Theodicy' - questioning why an All-Good God would allow so much pain and sorrow to exist in this life. My initial thoughts when watching the video, immediately went to the writings and talks of Bishop Nikolaos, a well known clergyman, Harvard graduate, ex NASA employee, and physicist, in Greece. He was confronted by an atheist, who posed a very similar question to him. Surprisingly for the atheist, the clergyman said to him 'I am an atheist.' Understandably the man was shocked, and said 'what did you just say?!' After repeating himself, he explained:

If you do not believe in, or rather reject, a manipulating, power-thirsty, destructive, defiant, hard-hearted, hypocritical, shallow 'god' - nor do I believe or accept such a deity. 

Like Stephen Fry and Bishop Nikolaos, I completely reject such an idea of 'god.' However, If one were to ask me about the God Who 'is Love' (1 John 4:8), the source of life and joy, I would admittedly have something very different to say. This is the God Who is revealed in, and through, history, scripture, but above all, in humanity - in every single human person. Within Christianity we call this the 'image and likeness' - which means we are all created with a divine purpose and goal, which is to obtain true, selfless love for God and our fellow humans. Yes, there are many tears of pain and anxiety shed in this life - however we shed them alongside our partners, our children, our parents and friends. Without these moments of sorrow we would not see and appreciate the joy which this life brings us. What does joy mean? We could probably agree that it means trampling down on evil, selfishness, personal or global disasters, with the far greater power of love, unity and humility. This is the message, and indeed the experience of Christianity - out of pain, difficulties, illnesses and sacrifice, comes fulfilment, joy and life. These concepts are not mere romanticised sentiments of mine, but are the experiences of life; this life, which is granted to each and every one of us , in order to learn to love. Stephen Fry may dwell on the insects that eat their way into children's eyes - however I would suggest we witness the work of the doctors, nurses, carers, clergy, and family who make that child's life joyful and bearable.   One of the most influential books I have read, is  Bishop Nikolaos' 'Where God cannot be seen', which discusses the presence of God in times of distress, pain and death. The part which had the most affect on me, is when he visits a severely disabled man in his home. The man is unable to speak, or move at all. Finally they were able to purchase the machine which enables him to make his family aware of his thoughts, and what he'd like to say. The first thing that came out of that machine was 'Glory to God!' This is the first thing that a completely motionless, dumb and disabled human being has to say to the world. Within his limited, painful ( and arguably unbearable ) life, he manages to find the source of life, joy and love; God. The fact that there are tragedies in this life does not mean our Creator, of' all things visible and invisible,' (Nicene Creed) is not 'all-good', or omnibenevolent - but it does mean He allows these things to happen for the greater good: in order for us to learn to love one another, in unity, repentance and appreciation. 

This very God, 'our Father,' (Matt 6:9), 'present everywhere and fillest all things,' (Trisagion prayer), is 'our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble..even if the earth is shaken (Psalm 46), Who ' laid the foundations of the earth..sending the springs into the valleys,which run among the drink to every beast of the field' (Psalm 104). In this 'one God' (1 Tim 2:5), Who is the 'way, the truth and the life,' (John 14:6) I do fervently believe in, and would willingly devote my whole life to.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Entry into the Triodion

With apologies for the lack of new material at the end of January (due to a number of university assignments and commitments) I wish you all a very blessed and joyful February. 

Today, Sunday the first of February, marks the entry into the 'Triodion', which is the primary liturgical book of the Lenten Period. The Church brings us all into this blessed period - a time of spiritual and physical cleansing, self sacrifice and humility - with the Gospel passage of the Tax-Collector and the Pharisee:

The Gospel of Luke 18:10-14
The Lord said this parable, "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

The pharisee is highly respected, and a careful observer of the details of the law, whereas the tax collector is despised as a sinner who collaborates with the occupying Roman forces, betraying and cheating his own people. The practices of the Pharisee seem worthy examples to follow, however without a humble and repentant heart these outward practices are completely worthless and lead to further pride and judgement of others. The passage makes it perfectly clear why this supposedly respectable and devout man has no humility and love - he 'prayed thus with himself.' Pride is therefore the mistaken belief, or rather delusion, that one can be self-sufficient, in need of no one else. For this reason the pharisee looks inward, seeking fulfilment, as opposed to the tax collector who is well aware of his unworthiness and sinfulness. By his posture he shows an awareness of the state of his soul, standing far from the altar, with eyes cast downward. 'God, be merciful to me a sinner' (Ο Θεός ιλάσθητί μοι τω αμαρτωλώ) he prays! This moving prayer is the foundation of the Jesus Prayer, as is the refrain 'Lord Have Mercy' that permeates our Orthodox Church's worship. Just as we read in a later passage of Luke's Gospel, with the criminal humbly saying to Christ 'Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom'  (Luke 23:43) we see the tax collector approaching the Lord with an open heart of repentance and humility, confessing his transgressions, leading to justification and new life in Christ. The pharisee, through his egoism and self-centredness would never have contemplated such an idea or the need of repentance and confession.

It is easy for us as Orthodox Christians to read this passage and understand why the pharisee was unable to have a loving relationship with Christ and his neighbour, however is it as easy to recognise our own pharisaic tendencies? There is no difference whatsoever between this parable and the way in which we treat our fellow human beings in our daily lives. It's really very easy to claim to understand this holy parable, however I think we'll find the way in which we easily judge brothers and sisters according to their morality, faithfulness to Church teaching, and social or religious group will tell a different story! We must remember that of course the Church's canons are important, and are there to guide the faithful Christian community, but at the same time unnecessary dwelling and concentration on the canonical law can be problematic and hypocritical, when Christ's mercy and love transcends rules and regulations. In one way or another every human being will sin and 'fall short of the Glory of God' (Romans 3:23) but more importantly, we should never give up on the path leading to salvation and righteousness - with the tax collector, the crucified criminal, and all of the Saints as our examples and guides, on this road of continual repentance.

'We mistakably believe that Saints were never tempted or did not live a secular life, with problems and temptations.' Demetris Salapatas, Theologian - extract from 'An Ascetic who became a Rapist who became a Saint'

This misconception that Demetri outlines for us, is far from the truth. Saints are those who fall,  and continuously struggle - reaching humanity's very goal which is holiness, sanctity and Theosis. Many of us have to get rid of this troubling misconception that one of the main characteristics of the Church is to condemn this and that, as well as pointing fingers at people who live 'immoral lives.' We are all guilty, and nobody is free from immorality, uncleanliness, and pride. The Church, as our Mother, and as our spiritual hospital, provides us with the medicines of compassion, forgiveness, individual understanding and care, leading each of us back onto the path of true joy. The Church, founded by Christ and His very Apostles, has had over 2000 years of experience, knowing exactly how joy, life and love is obtained. Todays reading of St Paul's epistle to the Romans, points to the answer found in the parable: 'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (Romans 8:28-39) No one but ourselves. As we have discussed, the Love of God is there for the worst of sinners, as long as we humbly turn to Him, opening our hearts, asking for this gracious love.

As we celebrate tomorrow's great feast of the 'Presentation of Christ in the Temple,' let us present ourselves with the humility which we find among repentant drug users, prostitutes, prisoners, the tax collector, and all the Saints and righteous servants of God who live and breath the words of todays Gospel, 'God, be merciful to me a Sinner.' Only then will we turn and flee from our pharisaic, hypocritical tendencies, in order to obtain communion with the source of salvation, joy, and love: Christ.

' Let us flee the proud speech of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, as with the groans we cry to the Saviour. Be merciful to us, for You alone are ready to forgive.'
 - Kontakion for the Sunday of the Publican & The Pharisee