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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