Monday, February 20, 2012

Gunning for God (John Lennox) - Introduction and Chapter One

I recently had the pleasure of finishing Gunning for God by John Lennox. Read into my phrasing what you will.


Lennox opens by listing some of the atheists who have earned his ire. Dawkins takes the lead, a seemingly odd choice for primacy as he is followed by Hawking to whom Lennox recently devoted an entire book. The "lesser calibre" atheists that follow are Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and the "more junior Sam Harris". His targets are spread further afield when he lists Frenchman Michel Onfray and Italian Piergiorgio Odifreddi. Note at this time that Richard Carrier and Dan Barker are not listed. I'll come back to this.

He makes a reasonable criticism of Dennett's attempt to rebrand the godless as 'Brights'. This stillborn move never garnered the sympathy Lennox implies; all he can offer in support of his profession of its popularity is the fact that they possess a website. Is that really a mark of overwhelming adoption? And have the religious not similarly erred? Could we point to a single individual who describes himself as simultaneously the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God, and say that we are not alone in occasionally letting marketing get the better of us?

Also in this chapter Lennox makes light of atheists' reproductive abilities, citing a study showing that those who attend religious service once a week have on average 2.5 children, while those who lie in on Sunday have but 1.7. He makes exactly the same point with much the same wording later in the book and I'll discuss it further there. I've reviewed Lennox before, and it's interesting to see how his writing style evolved - I realise given his creationist leanings he would not favour the term. The introduction is polished, witty and tightly written. Unfortunately these high standards seem to slip when we stray outside material available in the free Kindle sample. I'd say the duplication of birth statistics is caused by a desire to get some more controversy and interest in the opening section. It's a trend I've noticed in recently published books; I hope it doesn't persist.

Chapter 1: Are God and Faith Enemies of Reason and Science?

The first two pages of this chapter are mainly quotes. I'll respond in kind:
"For Onfray, then, it is this fictional god that is an enemy of reason. Well, fictional gods may well be enemies of reason: the God of the Bible certainly is not. The very first of the biblical Ten Commandments contains the instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your mind”." [emphasis in original]
The commandments appear twice in the Bible, once in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy. Let's see if we can find this instruction.
20:2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
20:5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
20:6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
No joy. No mention of mind. Let's try Deuteronomy:
5:6 I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 5:7 Thou shalt have none other gods before me.
5:8 Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth:
5:9 Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me,
5:10 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
Again we come up blank, and unlike the other Bible verses, this one is without footnote. Is there anything remotely close in the Old Testament? Perhaps he's referring to Deuteronomy 6:5, a commentary of sorts on the Law:
"And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might."
Still no mention of mind. You may argue that I'm being selective with my choice of translations. Here are fifteen others supporting my case. If the commandments truly are the word of God, should Lennox be attempting to improve them? He could have used some reasonably similar quotes from the New Testament to support his case, but painting a picture of more long-standing support seems to take primacy over textual accuracy. Sticking with the Old Testament, he looks for the underpinning of all scientific fields:
"One of the activities fundamental to all branches of science (indeed to all intellectual disciplines) is the naming, and therefore classifying, of things and phenomena. Every intellectual discipline has its special dictionary of words. According to Genesis, in the biological field it was God who initiated this process by telling humans to name the animals."
Leaving aside for the moment the mathematical considerations raised by naming (roughly) a hundred million living and extinct species, this is still quite the stretch. To say that 'all intellectual disciplines' can trace their origins back to Adam's efforts with name tags is ludicrous and not indicative of good apologetics. Nor is
his later suggestion that Anthony Flew converted to deism, "on the basis of the evidence of the complexity of life", especially when balanced against Flew's retraction of that statement: "I now realize that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction." Still, it is pleasant to note that Lennox has stopped falsely referring to Flew as a theist. (See my earlier review of God's Undertaker.)

I've toyed with the idea of reading God and Stephen Hawking (Lennox). I've resisted because cosmology is an area in which I'm almost entirely unencumbered with knowledge. Lennox touches on the subject when he adds a third Irishman to the mix, citing C S Lewis as saying
"They [the laws of nature] produce no events: they state the pattern to which every event — if only it can be induced to happen — must conform, just as the rules of arithmetic state the pattern to which all transactions with money must conform"
This is in response to the claim that the universe can create itself from nothing.
Lewis was a great writer, and I've resisted reviewing Mere Christianity because bashing someone's heartfelt expression of their faith with no real negative comments towards outsiders fails to excite me. But if Lennox would like to refute Hawking, Krauss, and others in the field it may be best to bring out someone with relevant expertise.

Moving on to the New Testament, Lennox speaks of the Gospel according to John:
"It records a collection of signs — special things that Jesus did, that pointed towards a reality beyond themselves, and thus bore witness to his identity as God incarnate...John records how people believed in Jesus because of the evidence he provided through the performance of such signs. And John regarded that evidence to be sufficient also for those, like ourselves, who did not directly observe the events."
In a discussion of science this is an odd standard of evidence. Sathya Sai Baba, a self-professed living god, had close to a hundred million followers at the time of his death. To this day one can travel to many countries and meet living witnesses to his miracles, which included healing, resurrection of the dead, and telepathic repair of plane engines while levitating. Applying Lennox's supposed scientific standards of evidence analysis to Sai Baba would proclaim him the new Messiah. I think this attempt to shoehorn scientific justification into his faith damages both in the attempt.

Moving on, Lennox addresses the question "Is Faith a Delusion?". I have Christian friends who can give a good, solid, rational defence of their faith. I've met atheists with some deeply irrational reasons for atheism. (And vice versa, naturally.) I was curious how Lennox would tackle this. Sadly, there's little in the line of original thought in this section; it consists of long quotes from Manfred Lutz and Alister McGrath. In fact it's rare to encounter a page in this book without an indented section from another author. Given access to a plain text copy I'd love to run some stats. I'll tackle the quote from McGrath, as I've heard it before:
"Indeed, the New Atheists love to classify faith in God along with faith in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But that is rather silly. Alister McGrath recalls: As a child I believed (for a very short while) in Santa Claus. However I soon sussed the real situation out, although I must confess I kept my doubts about Santa’s existence to myself for some time because I also noticed that there was material advantage in so doing. I have never heard of an adult coming to believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. I have known many adult people come to believe in God. So clearly there is a great difference."
Once we step outside the limiting bounds of Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus to allow us to consider the adult popularity of the 9/11 truther movement, homeopathy, acupuncture, faith healing, global warming deniers and the fact that I like Scooter, we see there's excellent scope for dismissing the analogy. True, examples abound  of theists who easily outstrip the thinking of the average homoeopath. But this is not universal, and I take issue with what could be read as McGrath's implication that no adult has ever come to believe in the irrational.

The chapter eventually reaches an end after an attempt to recruit Einstein to the theistic side and a contrast between faith in God and faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe.

On to Chapter 2 -->


hargaden said...


I am astonished by Lennox's misquoting of the Decalogue. In fairness to him and out of habit I pulled out my Hebrew Bible. There is absolutely no basis for Lennox's claim.

More troublingly, as a Christian teacher, it is of massive theological significance that Jesus adds "mind" to the Deut 6:5 comamndment.

Just a slight and tiny critique: how is subscription to 9/11 "Truther" or homeopathy epistemically equivalent to belief in God? Are you not falling into an rhetorical trick that is below you by equating those types of beliefs with the claims being made when a Christian (who has a sense of what they are saying) declares "Jesus is LORD"?

Also, next up you have to read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It isn't an apologetic text, but it might be the most brilliant work of Christian art in the last 10 years...

Geoff said...

Thanks Kevin!

I'm glad to know someone with the relevant background has checked the Hebrew.

I also appreciate the critique. It wasn't my intention to imply that all theists have, at most, the same backing than those held by conspiracy theorists, though I see how I left it open to that reading. Let me tweak.

I've downloaded the free sample of Gilead, thanks for the recommendation.

hargaden said...

I'm not critiquing the post but McGrath's argument is not that adults don't believe in irrational things. His argument is that belief in Jesus's resurrection and implicit Lordship is not like:

a) Believing in a teapot in orbit between here and Mars.

b) Believing in the existence of fairies.

c) Believing in Santa Claus

... that is just using three famous examples by 20th Century atheists.

There are many reasons why adults would come to believe generally in:

a) Political conspiracies (for example, Germany's efforts to introduce Mexico into World War I)
b) The efficacy of unusual medical procedures (for example, radiation therapy or anti-depressants)
c) The potency of belief of faith (for example, placebo effects)
d) An appropriate sceptism in the face of apparent scientific orthodox (for example, phrenology)
e) The ability of otherwise flourishing human beings to make abysmal aesthetic choices (for example, the ongoing success of Glee)

None of these would ever justify:

a) The 9/11 Truther movement
b) Homeopathy and Acupuncture
c) Faith Healing
d) Climate change denials
e) Liking Scooter.

Also, none of them would be beliefs comparable with never mind analogically equivalent to a historically aligned declaration of Christian faith.

Geoff said...

It's quite possible I'm being unfair to McGrath in that case, and he could well make that point in the work from which the quote is snipped.

Unfortunately Lennox didn't really present much of the argument bar the quote above so I choose to blame him for any error.

I'd quibble slightly over whether it's possible to be a rational (albeit mistaken) accupuncturist or climate change denier. That said this may just be because it threatens my belief that Scooter are the ultimate expression of Teutonic musical talent :)

Do you know what work the quote is from, by the way? Just curious, and a future reader may want to know.

Ronald said...

Good article. As always, your writing is superb. Just a few minor points picked up in the comments.

Lennox clearly blew it with the Decalogue reference. I’d be curious to know how he managed that slip up. Were I to guess, he was mentally conflating what is actually contained in the Decalogue with Jesus’ citation of the Shema (Deut. 6.4ff and Lev. 19.18, among others) as ‘the first and greatest commandment’ in Matt. 22.38. Either way, I’m not sure how that slipped past his editors. It only reaffirms my growing suspicion that Christian scientists and philosophers do not Bible scholars make.

However, his idea that that loving God with one’s mind is valid. Again, he conflates Jesus’ words with what are actually in the Shema, but that raises another question noted by Kevin: Where did Jesus get the idea to add ‘mind’?

To avoid turning this into a textual criticism post, I’ll skip the boring stuff, but your commenter might want to check out Paul Foster’s article ‘Why Did Matthew Get the Shema Wrong?’ or Allison and Davies’ Matthew commentary. Perhaps on a more popular level, he could try Michael Brown’s ‘Answering Jewish Objections’ Vol 4 for a summary of Foster’s article (with less Hebrew, Greek, and German – though it might be worth noting that Brown’s PhD is in Semitic languages).

The fun stuff:

The idea of ‘loving God with all your heart’ is what the NT authors were wrestling with how to translate. The ancient Hebrew’s concept of the heart was that it was primarily the seat of intellect – emotions and feelings to a much lesser degree. My understanding is that the Greeks introduced the concept of the heart as being the seat of emotion, and the mind as the seat of intellect, which Western culture has widely adopted. Therefore, a bit of a culture clash occurs when the two meet and Hebrew texts start getting translated into Greek. So, if ‘heart’ connotes both the seat of intellect and emotion, the writers of the NT might expand the Shema to include ‘heart, soul, strength, and mind’ as Mark does (again, for more technical concerns, see the above references).

Having said all that, in a way Lennox is right, whether he knew it or not. Many of the commandments found in Deuteronomy invoke using one’s ‘heart’ – which, again, was primarily about thought and intellect. Anyway, I could continue on and on about this, so I’ll just leave it at that.

hargaden said...

McGrath's argument about Santa is in "The Dawkins Delusion"