Who Are The God Experts?

A new book, The Dawkins Delusion?, critiques Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  Philosopher Michael Ruse says

The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.

while astronomer Owen Gingerich says

[McGrath] clearly demonstrates the … surprising lack of depth in Dawkins’ arguments.’

The official book synopsis says:

Alister McGrath … Once an atheist himself, he gained a doctorate in molecular biophysics before going on to become a leading Christian theologian. He wonders how two people, who have reflected at length on substantially the same world, could possibly have come to such different conclusions about God.

A review in the latest New Scientist says

Impressive essays by … Robinson, … Eagleton and … Orr set out to tell Dawkins how wrong he is. … McGrath … covers some similar ground … analysing the extent of Dawkins’s ignorance of theology. … from Dawkins’ perspective at any rate, is that it is no attack at all. For him, theology is a non-subject about nothing. … All four critics … charge that Dawkins is unqualified by asking why he should write this book at all. The idea that science necessarily entails an assault on religion has long been rejected by theologians and by scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Collins.

I heard the same story twenty years ago in a class on Science and Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, that only ignoramuses don’t know that relevant academic experts long ago rejected the idea that science and God conflict.   This topic illustrates a general problem with deferring to experts:  which criteria should count how much in choosing "the real experts"?   

Some look at "prominence", i.e., attention, in news coverage, books, journals, blogs, citations, awards, and so on.  There are also honored positions such as professorships, editorships, grant review boards, ad hoc committees, government agencies, and so on.  Media attention can be in media overall, in general academic media like Science or Nature, in academic media of broad fields like biology or philosophy, or in narrowly defined fields close to the topic.  And it may not be obvious which fields are how "close" to the topic. 

One can also focus on indicators of how expert a person is on a particular topic.  One can look at how many years he has focused on this topic, how many people worked for him, how many pages he has written or published, how many citations he gives, how much precise terminology he uses, how clear his writing seems, how many tables of data, how many equations or statistical tests he gives, or how many errors others can point out in his writings.   

Dawkins wins on some of these criteria and loses on others.  To my mind most discussion misses the key distinction between these two claims:

  1. A great intelligent power influenced the structure of our universe.
  2. Such a power intervenes in your life, e.g., answering your prayer.

Relevant experts do indeed consider the first claim to be within reason, but only a minority consider the second claim to be reasonable.  Most academic debate is on the first claim, but the second claim is what interests most people.  Maybe part of the problem is that we have a word, "atheist," for skeptics about the first claim, but no such moniker regarding the second claim.  Suggestions?

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  • How about ‘Deist’? 🙂

  • How about “reasonable,” as you suggest at the end? (I’m only partially kidding.) I don’t consider myself a God-expert, but I did just get done teaching about God (in one of my philosophy classes), and I had the students read a Richard Swinburne essay (a theist): he claims that the divide between science and religion has to do with the “style” of explanation, and that these kinds of explanations aren’t *rivals*: science gives causal explanations & religion gives (his term) “personal” explanations. His view is that for whatever physical theory you can give about the origin of the universe (that there was a big bang, that before that there was a big crunch, etc., etc.), there is *always* a different kind of question that is open: why was there a big bang? (or a big crunch, etc.), where this isn’t a “scientific” question, but more of a metaphysical question: why is there something rather than nothing? Using Swinburne’s distinctions, we could say that an “atheist” is someone who thinks that “no reason” is a better answer to this “fundamental question” and a “theist” is someone who thinks “God” is a better answer (where these are, ex hypothesi, not answers to a *scientific* question).

    That might help sort through this issue: part of the difficulty is figuring out what work “God” (or the denial) is doing. Presumably, Dawkins treats the “delusion” as “bad science”; whereas many others would not think of the God-question as a scientific question at all (but something more like an ethical question – see Kant; I don’t entirely agree with this way of putting it). There’s been some interesting work in philosophy by people like John McDowell on the problems with this kind of “scientism” (reducing everything to a naturalistic/scientific/causal issue).

  • How about “deist”?

  • Brent and James, a Deist “believes that God created the universe and then abandoned it.” I need a name for someone who just claims that if there is a God he does not intervene in your life, but who makes no claim about whether there is a God.

  • Robin, are you reading Schick & Vaughn’s “Doing Philosophy” textbook? Why use the word “abandoned”? Why not say, “created the universe and now doesn’t intervene” – why not? Some would claim (a la Leibniz) that God doesn’t *need* to intervene? (Not so sure I buy that!)

    What you seem to be looking for is a term for someone who thinks that the only *possible* God is the one described by Deism (but doesn’t claim whether such a God exists). How about “agnosto-deist”? (Kidding.) You could simply describe such a person as one who denies the existence of miracles, regardless of whether God exists. (i.e. a “a theistically mute miracle-denier”) Good luck finding a term that isn’t unwieldy!

  • michael vassar

    Methodological naturalist?

    Personally, I’m generally in the “noncognitivist” camp. e.g. given the normal meaning of the word believe used by a certain set of rationalists, there is nothing that it would be like to “believe” in “god”. Theists are thinking or feeling something, but they are not viewing the world in terms of a pseudo-Bayesian web of interconnected beliefs (where probabilities at least normatively always sum to 1) wherein the proposition “god exists” is held to be true (with any probability) for any “god” with the characteristics attributed by them to “god”.

  • The proper word is probably ‘ignostic’ — someone who believes that god as described by theists either a) doesn’t make sense, or b) could only exist in such a way that its existence meant nothing.

  • In the book, Dawkins cites Lee Smolin’s Fecund Universes theory, a model which proposes black holes as a potential reproductive mechanism for universes themselves, and the universal physical constants as “genes” that are tuned in a process resembling “cosmological natural selection” (minus the destructive selection part).

    The model grew out of an attempt to explain why the physical constants seemed conspicuously friendly to the development of black holes in our universe, but it turns out the same friendliness applies to the development of biological life.

    In Biocosm, James Gardner asks the begged question: if the “genes” are being tuned, why do we insist that it’s black holes they’re tuning for, and not biology (or both)?

    The simulation argument also suggests we might have something resembling a creator for our universe.

    I absolutely agree, though, that our best arguments against Christian theology’s claims are best directed not against the claim that a creator exists or is possible, but that the biblical Jehovah isn’t it.

    Proposals for the term: Adeist, Condeist.

  • You know, the flat-Earth theory wasn’t really wrong, because… um… hold on a second… there’s a difference between believing that the Earth has a flat shape in a scientific sense, and the emotions we experience on seeing the apparent two-dimensionality quality of the ground. In fact, the flat-Earth theory is really an internal aesthetic experience rather than an external prediction, so mere observation doesn’t have anything to say about it. Science cannot prove or disprove the flat Earth!

    The ultimate distinguishing characteristic of a rationalist is that there comes a point where the rationalist shrugs and says “Guess I was wrong,” instead of coming up with another damn stupid excuse.

  • Michael Ruse is quoted above as saying, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.” That’s very much to his credit, that although he agrees with the conclusion of Dawkins’ book, he disagrees with the arguments. You don’t often get people willing to make these kinds of public statements that undercut arguments in favor of their beliefs.

    Sounds like McGrath himself is a theist, unfortunately, so his book is arguing for a conclusion he believes in, as did Dawkins. And of course, as is true for virtually 100% of books every published. Can you imagine a book arguing page after page for the existence of God, written by someone who doesn’t believe in God? Or vice versa? Is it a sign of bias, that we never see that?

  • Matthew, am not reading that; just copied definition from google. A god who arranged the initial conditions of the universe to get the specific details he wanted in my life would be “intervening” as far as I am concerned.

    Byrne, “ignostic” means something different than what I want.

    Hal, excellent question.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Michael V, presumably you say that because you see belief in God as wrong and unjustified by rationality. I tend to agree with that much, but it seems your way of thinking would mean that anyone who believes anything that turns out to be false or irrational isn’t actually ‘believing’ it. Something just seems absurd about totally redefining ‘belief’ to only include Bayesian beliefs. Perhaps we need a different word – ‘Bayeslief’? ‘Bbelief’?

    Hal, I think that it comes down to people’s reasons for writing books. For one, they want to impress people, and it’s much easier to write an impressive case for something you believe in (plus you avoid the guilt of lying.) Much more than that, they want to persuade people of their belief because they see people believing in the truth as good. I don’t think it’s a sign of bias at all.

  • Actually come to think of it I can imagine someone writing a book purporting to prove the existence of God who is not himself a believer, and I imagine it has happened on occasion. Either he is trying to convince himself, or he is trying to convince and impress others with the depth of his belief.

    Nick, suppose that there is controversy about an issue, that you have weighed both sides and decided that on balance, one side is more convincing. Is it really right to promote that side, present arguments in its favor and rebut arguments against it? Does that lead people to the truth? Or wouldn’t it be better to present both sides as skillfully as you can and let people weigh them and judge for themselves which side is right? In this way you can improve your own accuracy by letting yourself be swayed by how other people interpret the arguments you have assembled.

    In fact I could imagine someone writing a book where the first half was an attempt to present the case for a particular position, and the second half presented the opposition case against that position. You could even do one of those printing and binding tricks where you turn the book upside down and you see the opposite side as though it is the front of a new book. Has anyone heard of a book like this?

  • TGGP

    Perhaps one can only be a God-expert when you are certified as such by God. On the other hand, before I admitted to myself I was an atheist I tried to salvage my belief in God by having him/it resemble nothing so much as H.P. Lovecraft’s Azathoth, whom most would not like to be certified as anything by.

  • Robin, here’s a quick follow-up: By “intervening,” I have in mind things like answering prayers (helping my basketball team win, etc.) post-“creation.” I take it that even a deist allows that God set up the conditions of the world (the laws of physics, free will if there be such a thing, etc.). “Abandoned” seems to imply a moral failure (which might be closer to the relationship of the “demiurge” of Gnosticism to the creation).

  • Robin asks which criteria should count how much in choosing
    “the real experts”?

    Dawkins ask whether theology is a waste of time. This
    question does not fit the usual frame work of the “choose an
    expert” problem.

    In the usual framework there is a family of problems and a
    gold standard. The competing experts answer yes or no to
    problems in the family and for some of the problems enough
    gold is found to pay for the unveiling of the true
    answer. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, the true answers permit
    the chooser to score the experts. Who said yes when the
    answer was no? Who said no when the answer was yes? Who

    Theologians are perhaps important people. One faces a moral
    dilemma and hopes that a theologian can offer guidance about
    God’s wishes. One would like a gold standard by which one
    can check who is the wisest theologian. Imagine an
    expedition to Hell. One surveys a 100 inmates and returns
    with valuable data. Comparing what the dead really did with
    what theologians say about sin offers a basis for choosing
    the theologian most in touch with God’s will.

    Some people will feel that the idea of an expedition to Hell
    is childish and doesn’t take religion seriously. Others will
    take the exact opposite point of view. This is the point at
    which they decide that religion is a word game without
    referents and refuse to play.

  • Peter Mexbacher

    What begs the question is this:

    >Using Swinburne’s distinctions, we could say that an “atheist” is someone who >thinks that “no reason” is a better answer to this “fundamental question” and a >”theist” is someone who thinks “God” is a better answer

    What answer is God? If we follow that the majority of those who posit God only believe in a first mover, a creator, but not someone who influences our daily lives, the word God is empty of any meaning; a word shell which means essentially the same thing as “no-god”.

    Only an active God would be “of use” to people – and positing such a God is indeed at odds with science, and leads to a path of darkness.

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