An Atheist’s Admiration for the Sermon on the Mount

I’m convinced that if everyone in the world practiced the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), 95 percent of the world’s problems would be solved. It might surprise you to know that even atheist extraordinaire Richard Dawkins shares my admiration for the Sermon on the Mount. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes:

“Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 283.

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Addendum, September 30, 2012:

I recently discovered a blogpage written by Richard Dawkins entitled “Atheists for Jesus” (April 10, 2006). At the top of the page is a photo of Dawkins wearing a T-shirt that reads “Atheists for Jesus.” In the article, Dawkins explains in greater depth his admiration for Jesus as an ethical teacher, while dismissing the theistic worldview of Jesus. Here’s an excerpt:

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” . . .

I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. “Atheists for Jesus” would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of “Atheists for Jesus” might be just what is needed to kick-start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right—could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?

I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists.

Dawkins is wrong, of course, when he claims that a “reborn Jesus” would not be a theist. Jesus would know all about the anthropic, fine-tuned universe—a body of evidence that Dawkins actively misleads his readers about in The God Delusion. In fact, I think it is likely that Jesus, being the absolute exemplar of intellectual honesty, would connect his ethical teachings to the evidence for a Cosmic Designer that permeates our growing understanding of cosmology and quantum mechanics.

But I do agree with Dawkins on this: Jesus might well wear a “Jesus for Atheists” T-shirt, because Jesus is for all people, weak and strong, young and old, male and female, believer and nonbeliever. The one who said “Love your enemies,” the one who forgave those who crucified him, would certainly be for atheists. He would not be for atheism, of course, because atheism doesn’t square with reality. He would want everyone to know the truth.

But Jesus welcomed the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion, the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, the rich and the poor, the drunks and prostitutes. So why wouldn’t he welcome an atheist as well?

Read Richard Dawkins’ “Atheists for Jesus” in its entirety at RichardDawkins.net.

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Answering a Reader’s Objection . . . and Answering Richard Dawkins

On May 5, 2012, reader Thopter raised an objection to my earlier blog entry, “The Big Bang Is Happening Now.” Thopter wrote:

The Big BangThere is another option: That the only reason the universe *appears* to be fine-tuned to support life is because if any of those things were different, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. We don’t know if other universes exist, with different force strengths, which are incapable of accommodating life, so we cannot rule out the possibility that we just happened to hit the jackpot and develop inside a rare universe that has the right balances to harbour life. There is no evidence either way just yet, so neither scenario can be dismissed.

To restate, Thopter suggests that the seeming fine-tuning of the universe could simply be an incredible fluke, and if we hadn’t “hit the jackpot,” we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it. I addressed this objection in my book God and Soul, so to save time, I decided to simply plunk down an excerpt from my book. In that excerpt, I also critique Richard Dawkins’ discussion of these questions in The God Delusion.  Dawkins’ discussion is, in my view, extremely misleading. The excerpt follows. I’d be eager to know what you think . . .

BEGIN EXCERPT:

Richard Dawkins takes an odd approach when discussing the anthropic principle in his 2006 book The God Delusion. He writes:

It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.

I don’t know if Richard Dawkins is engaging in sly disinformation or if he simply hasn’t done his homework. In either case, he’s simply wrong. There are not just “two candidate solutions” to the question of origins, either God or the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle comes in assorted flavors, including a weak and strong version.

The weak anthropic principle is essentially a circular statement or tautology: The universe appears to be fine-tuned for life because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be here to observe it. This weak form is apparently the flavor of anthropic principle Dawkins refers to above.

The strong anthropic principle goes a step further and says (according to Brandon Carter) that the universe and its constants, forces, and parameters “must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage” in order for the universe to exist. Why must the universe and its parameters be fine-tuned so as to admit the creation of observers? In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), John Barrow and Frank Tipler offer three possible answers to that question:

(A) There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers.’ 

(B) Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being.

(C) An ensemble of other different universes is necessary for the existence of our Universe.

Option A is the God hypothesis, the Cosmic Designer. It suggests that perhaps the universe is able to produce and sustain living observers because it was deliberately designed to do so. That is the goal and purpose of the universe, and the parameters necessary to achieve that goal and carry out that purpose were laid down at the moment of the Big Bang. This is the view I present throughout this book.

Option B, “Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being,” is known as the participatory anthropic principle. Physicist John Wheeler entertained this view. George Greenstein’s “symbiotic universe” is also a version of this view. According to Greenstein, observers need a universe to live in, and a universe needs observers in order to exist, so the universe and its observers participate symbiotically in bringing each other into existence. Fred Hoyle also considered this view when he wrote:

A further possibility … [is that our existence] forces the nuclear details to be the way they are, which is essentially the common religious position taken backwards. Before ridiculing this last possibility, as quite a few scientists tend to do, it is necessary … to explain the condensation of the universal wave function through the intervention of human consciousness. While this could be seen as a matter for philosophical discussion, I suspect its resolution will eventually come from exact science.

Option C, an “ensemble of other different universes,” is the multiverse concept, which we will examine in Chapter 4.

Scientists such as Paul Davies, George Greenstein, John Wheeler, and others all acknowledge the validity of Option A, the God implications of the anthropic principle. I can’t explain why Dawkins misstates the case. Is it because he’s a biologist, not an astrophysicist, and simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Doubtful. He could certainly have done his homework, as I have done. His misrepresentation of the anthropic evidence is inexplicable coming from a scientist of Dawkins’ calibre.

The anthropic principle is not an alternative to the God hypothesis. It doesn’t solve the problem of human existence. Rather, the anthropic principle IS the problem. The question posed by the anthropic evidence is the most important question facing science, philosophy, religion, and humanity as a whole. It’s a question that doesn’t merely cry out for an answer — it shouts to us and shakes us and demands that we answer it. The question is: WHY is the universe so incredibly, unbelievably fine-tuned to produce life?

Theistic philosopher William Lane Craig stated the problem in a 2003 debate with then-atheist philosopher Antony Flew (not long after this debate, Flew announced his conversion to a theistic world view):

The chances that the universe should be life-permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable. For example, Stephen Hawking has estimated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed into a hot fireball. P.C.W. Davies has calculated that the odds against the initial conditions’ being suitable for later star formation (without which planets could not exist) is one followed by a thousand billion billion zeros, at least. Davies also estimates that a change in the strength of gravity or of the weak force by one part in 10100 would have prevented a life-permitting universe. There are around fifty such quantities and constants present in the Big Bang which must be fine-tuned in this way if the universe is to permit life. And it’s not just each quantity which must be finely tuned. Their ratios to one another must also be exquisitely fine-tuned. …

Paul Davies comments, “Through my scientific work, I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.”

Now, this is knowledge that Dawkins seems to suppress in his allusion to the anthropic principle. In fact, the above statement by William Lane Craig scarcely begins to convey the real enormity of the problem posed by anthropic principle. What kind of analogy could I use to convey the astounding odds against a life-giving universe? I could say: Imagine flipping a coin trillions and trillions of times and every single time it comes up heads — what are the odds of such an event? Or I could say: Imagine selecting the one winning lottery ticket out of trillions and trillions of lottery tickets sold — what are your odds of winning that lottery?

Yet even those analogies don’t come anywhere close to conveying the odds against our finely tuned, just-so, life-giving universe arising by sheer chance. If Richard Dawkins understands the true implications of the anthropic principle, he should have presented them honestly, as his fellow atheist, George Greenstein, did in The Symbiotic Universe. Or as I have done in this book.

It pains me to say this because, on the whole, I admire Dawkins as a fine writer and science popularizer. I enjoy his writing in The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. I agree with Dawkins’ statement that natural selection is a “consciousness-raiser” because it makes us aware of “the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without deliberate guidance.”

But Dawkins fails to understand that the anthropic principle is an equally powerful consciousness-raiser. The anthropic evidence forces us to squarely face (if we have the courage and intellectual honesty) the riddle of our existence — and the riddle of our life-giving universe.

From God and Soul: The Truth and the Proof by Jim Denney, copyright 2012 by Jim Denney.

The Puzzle of Existence and a Puddle of Doubt

A very smart man once wrote a very stupid thing in a book.His name was Douglas Adams, and the book was his posthumously published The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time (New York: Ballantine, 2002; pages 131-132). Adams died of a heart attack in Santa Barbara in May 2001; he was only 49. I’m a longtime fan of Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But in this instance, Adams’ analogy—known as The Puddle Analogy—is far less profound than he supposed.

Adams’ Puddle Analogy has been cited many times by various writers as a satirical demonstration of the “fallacy” of the “fine-tuned universe” argument. The Wikipedia article “Fine-Tuned Universe” quotes the Puddle Analogy and notes that the fine-tuned universe argument has been called “puddle thinking” by some critics. Richard Dawkins quotes The Puddle Analogy in A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (page 169), adding that he had heard the Adams analogy numerous times and “thought it was more brilliant every time.”

Here is the stupid thing Douglas Adams wrote:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Here’s why The Puddle Analogy is stupid:

Adams begins: “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking…” He doesn’t seem to realize that, in order for a puddle to wake up and think its first thought, a vast number of interconnected and incredibly unlikely coincidences have to occur.

The Big Bang had to happen, and the Big Bang had to explode with just the right amount of force to allow matter to disperse evenly and smoothly and allow galaxies to form. Had the Big Bang not been precisely fine-tuned, our universe might consist of nothing but tenuous hydrogen gas—or a single supermassive black hole. The laws of nature had to be laid down at the instant of the Big Bang, and had to be fine-tuned to an accuracy of one part in the trillions before the universe itself could exist, much less a contemplative puddle.

The electromagnetic force, the gravitational force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force all had to be perfectly balanced in order for stars to form and begin cooking up the elements needed to make planets—silicon, nickel, iron, oxygen, magnesium, and so forth. Adams’ pensive puddle could not find itself sitting in “an interesting hole” unless the hole was situated on a planet orbiting a star that was part of a galaxy that was created by the incredibly fine-tuned forces and conditions of the Big Bang.

And in order for that puddle to wake up one morning and think at all, it would need to be a lot more complex than a mere puddle of water. A thinking puddle would be a very complex puddle indeed. Even if that puddle were comprised of exotic alien nerve cells suspended in a matrix of liquid ammonia, it would certainly need something like lipid molecules and protein structures and nucleic acids in order to become sufficiently evolved as to wake up and contemplate its own existence.

Such components require the existence of carbon. And if you know anything about where carbon comes from, you know that carbon doesn’t grow on trees. It is formed in an amazingly fine-tuned process involving the precise placement of a nuclear resonance level in a beryllium atom. Any enlightened plashet would have to conclude that a superintellect had monkeyed with physics, chemistry, and the biological composition of pools and puddles.

The rest of Douglas Adams’ scenario, in which “the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and … the puddle gets smaller and smaller” is meaningless in view of the fact that thousands of events, forces, and conditions have to interact in a fine-tuned way in order for the sun to exist, the air to exist, the sky to exist, and the hole in the ground to exist, so that a puddle can wake up one morning and wonder about its place in the cosmic order.

No analogy is perfect, of course, but The Puddle Analogy is downright misleading. It misrepresents the essence of the fine-tuning argument. An analogy should simplify, but not over-simplify.

And that’s why The Puddle Analogy that Richard Dawkins thinks is so brilliant is actually incredibly dumb.

Lament for an Atheist (Part I)

Christopher Hitchens in 2007

In June 2010, I heard that Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to do a talk and book signing at a Borders bookstore in San Francisco. I considered going and having him sign a copy of his book Hitch-22, then hand him a copy of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul. But just days before he was to appear, he canceled his book tour without explanation.

A couple of weeks later, I was saddened to hear that Hitchens had been diagnosed with cancer. He died two months ago, on December 15, 2011. His death was due to pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer.

I have admired Christopher Hitchens for years. It took great moral courage for him to shelter novelist Salman Rushdie in his home in 1993 after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. And it took great physical courage for Hitchens to voluntarily undergo waterboarding so that he could write about the experience in Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, Hitchens got it wrong about God and the soul.

After the publication of his book God Is Not Great, I frequently found myself in the odd position of defending the razor-tongued atheist from some of my devoutly religious friends who were exasperated with his views. I’d ask them, “How can you be angry with Hitchens for believing what he feels compelled to believe, based on the evidence he’s seen?”

And then my friends were exasperated with me!

Hitchens formulated his views on God in much the same way he arrived at his political views. He observed, read, and debated great minds. He’d follow logic and evidence wherever it led. Whenever I watched Hitchens debate, I came away convinced he was daring his opponents: “Prove me wrong.”

But as near as I can tell from his writings and speeches, Hitchens was completely unaware of the evidence I present in my book God and Soul. Though I didn’t agree with him on the question of God and soul, I genuinely liked him. I enjoyed reading his work and hearing him speak. I wanted him to live, and I’m very sad that he’s gone.

In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens blamed much of the evil in the world on religion. And it’s true that many atrocities, savageries, and cruelties have been committed in the name of religion: The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the execution of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade, Martin Luther’s rabidly anti-Semitic treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, the Salem Witch Trials, the 1066 Granada Massacre and other pogroms, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel-Palestinian problem, Jonestown, India versus Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jihad, 9/11, and on and on—all of these evils were rationalized on religious grounds. But does religion really poison everything? It depends on how you define “religion.”

If, by “religion,” we mean a tribalistic social unit organized around certain beliefs, rites, rituals, and traditions, defended by figurative or literal “holy wars,” then yes, that sort of religion has a distinctly poisonous history. (And by tribalism, I mean any social structure that demands philosophical conformity within the group and that practices hostility toward those outside the group.)

But if, by “religion,” we mean a commitment to live according to the teachings of, say, the Sermon on the Mount—teachings that cut across the grain of our tribal instincts by commanding us to love our enemies, forgive those who sin against us, and pray for those who persecute us—then Christopher Hitchens was simply wrong. That kind of rational, selfless religion has never poisoned anything.

In fact, another prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, writes in The God Delusion, “Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.” In other words, the Sermon on the Mount is the sort of religion that even an atheist can endorse.

So Hitchens’ blanket statement that “religion poisons everything” couldn’t be more wrong. The Crusades and the Inquisition and the pogroms weren’t caused by the Sermon on the Mount or anything else said by Jesus of Nazareth. As physicist Freeman Dyson explains:

We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls.

When evil people want to do evil things—when they want to commit acts of murder, genocide, oppression, or terror—they will grab any rationale to make their evil seem “good.” If it weren’t some twisted pretense of religion, it would have been some other excuse. But the evil would have happened in any case.

There is no evil in the Sermon on the Mount. The evil is in people—in human nature itself. That’s what poisons everything.

Next, in Part 2: How Hitchens Got It Wrong About God.

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