Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Is Christianity Anti-intellectual?

I'm speaking on this in a week's time - here's a first draft for your interaction.

So how do you answer this question? I could I suppose wheel out some clever Christians to show that clever people believe in Jesus. But there are plenty of stoopid Christians in the world. Instead I'm going to interact with Richard Dawkins. He's the professor for public understanding of science, but he's also rather interested in this question about faith and intellect. It's the subject of his recent bestseller, The God Delusion, and all quote from him are from that book.

  1. Firstly, Dawkins says (p51) "It is the nature of faith that one is capable of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so". He asserts that faith is anti-intellectual because it isn't based on evidence. So the question is, does this describe Christianity. In John 20v31, an eyewitness of Jesus' life writes to say that he has gathered a stockpile of evidence. That evidence is for us to consider so that we may believe Jesus to be the Son of God. He doesn't expect blind believe, but writes so we would believe with adequate reason. You need to consider that evidence for yourself and see if it stacks up - and we can talk about that if you like. But, for now, we must conclude that Christianity is not anti-intellectual because it is a worldview based on evidence.

  2. Secondly, Dawkins (p283) "My belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming". He asserts his own position but in the process demonstrates that he considers Christians to be fundamentalists. Anti-intellectual because nothing could change their minds. So let us ask, is there anything that could refute Christianity. In 1 Corinthians 15, in the Bible, we're told that if Jesus did not rise from the dead - resurrection - then Christians are pitiful fools. That is to say, the whole thing falls apart if the resurrection did not happen. It should be abandoned in such circumstance. Therefore, Christianity is not anti-intellectual fundamentalism because like Richard Dawkins we know what it would take to change our minds, and would recant if required.

    Titanic director, James Cameron, recently claimed to have found Jesus' tomb - complete with his body and that of his family. If this is authentic then he has found the 'necessary evidence'. You ought to check his evidence, weigh it against the evidence for Jesus resurrection and see which carries best fits what happened.

  3. Thirdly, let us observe that far from being anti-intellectual Christianity is more than just intellectual. Anyone of any IQ is welcomed by Jesus. Class, culture and mental competence are not barriers to belief in him. The good news about Jesus is remarkably simple to understand - a child could manage it. Yet, it is deep and rigorous enough to occupy a lifetimes study. Further, Jesus calls people to follow him completely. Do not leave your brain at the door. Nor your heart, body, emotions or desires.

But if there is evidence and we have a criteria for refuting Christianity, and it's open to all... why isn't everyone queuing up to become a Christian?

Dawkins again, this time quoting Martin Luther with relish (p190). "Reason is the greatest enemy of faith, it never comes to the aid of spiritual things but frequently struggles against the divine word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God" Dawkins plays dirty here because he imposes his own definition of reason (something he wont let happen when it suits him - for example with Einstein earlier in his book). We have already said that Christianity fits criteria for being reasonable. The mind is not to be bypassed. But the quote is accurate. We should observe that Martin Luther was a theologian, a lawyer, a scholar, a linguist as well as being a brewer. He was no intellectual lightweight. But, his quote is right...

We'll see how. Let's play Bruce Almighty (illustration borrowed from Mike Reeves). Suppose for 24 hours you are God. What would you do with your great power? More importantly, how would you want your creatures to relate to you? Inevitably we'd ask for devotion, obedience, good morals, performance. And The Bible calls this "the wisdom of the world" (1 Corinthians 1v21). It's the way that human wisdom dictates what God is like. I almost don't dare put these words in their context. It might cause a riot. But, we can't avoid the evidence. This comes at the start of the letter that includes the famous poem about love that we read at weddings. Paul writes that the wisdom of this world cannot know God. If we try to come up with what God is like we only ever get cheap fakes, imitations, false gods, idols... Christianity is having none of it. All human attempts to reach God will fail. Human intellect will fail.

Rather, the only way is through what he goes on to call "my foolish message" namely that the only way we can know God is through "Christ Crucified". God on a cross, dying to bring us to him. No one invents God like that - Me Almighty wouldn't die for creatures who hated me. Not going to happen. But this is Christianity. It isn't clever or sophisticated. It doesn't pander to our desire to show off our intellect. In fact it is designed to thwart our intellectual pride and superiority complexes. It leaves us foundering without the knowledge of God unless we are prepared to trust in God on a Roman Cross to save us. That is to say boldly that our confidence to come and know God comes from the shameful criminal death of Jesus of Nazareth. No one looks clever when they say that.

Endorsing Richard Dawkins book, Derren Brown says... "In hope that those secure and intelligent enough to see the value of questionity their beliefs will be big and strong enough to read this book". And Jesus says - yes engage your brain. But ultimately if you try to think yourself to God, to prove that you're "big and strong" enough you'll fail. Christians are people who come on their knees to "God on the Cross" with no boasts. They look stupid at times but there is no other way. In this "reason is the greatest enemy of faith" because it demolishes our self-confidence. It flushes it down the toilet. Dawkins, one last time (p50). "If he existed and chose to reveal it, God could clinch the argument unequivocally, in his favour". The cross of Jesus says he has - and that this is a matter of evidence to consider not irrational leaping in the dark but it does thwart our proud minds... it puts us on the spot and asks us to consider the evidence.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for this Dave. It seems to be a big theme at the moment, doesn't it? - The reasonableness of Christianity, I guess with Bill Craigh doing his stuff too. Alister McGrath gave a lecture on Dawkins' in Durham yesterday - thoughts are on my blog.

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  2. your write up is helpful. thanks for highlighting that.

    bloging to help us think ourselves clear is definitely a good idea.

    we have a challenging path to walk between showing Christ is reasonable without bowing to the idol of intellect, and showing God's foolishness at the cross.

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  3. 1. Amazing post. Loved it, really like the aggressive, fast critique of Dawkins. It's gripping writing.
    2. You don't give any reasons for thinking that Christianity is true. That supports and confirms Dawkin's anti-intellectual conclusion. You just go straight for the Bible and expect that to be rationally persuasive. Why would someone who doesn't take the bible as an authority listen to you? That is a big mistake rationally and unpersuasive to an outsider. You need to support your conclusion (that Christianity is not anti-intellectual) with some good rational argumentation. Might I suggest the argument from Jesus. So, if Jesus said and did all the things that the NT records him saying and doing then any reasonable person has to say, he is God. The NT is historically proven, through higher criticism it has been shown to be accurate and trustworthy in its picture of Jesus, therefore the only rational, open minded, free thinking response is to accept the historical person of Christ was and is, God incarnated into human existence.
    3. You wrote, 'It isn't clever or sophisticated.' I think that the true meaning of the passage you quoted is that God's foolishness is above mans cleverness. By that logic, the cross isn't actually foolish, it just looks foolish to Dawkins. But it's actually very clever. I personally think that there is an elegant beauty and sophisticated brilliance to the gospel. I think it is clever and sophisticated.
    Love
    Tom

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  4. Thanks Tom. I knew I could rely on you to give me helpful feedback. I'll take that into account.

    I suppose in terms of not giving evidence I was trying to do a high impact 'there is evidence' therefore it's not a thing without evidence... but i suppose that lacks impact without showing some of it!

    point taken about the clever/sophisticated - i need to be slightly more careful in my phrasing there - I agree the cross is the cleverest thing ever, and the most brilliant and beautiful.

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  5. Just a few thoughts:

    1. You could also include a reference to Luke 1:1-4 in the first part, alongside John 20:31. Just to show that its not a one off.

    2. Point #2 is particularly good.

    But I do wonder if it is worth, talking in a bit more depth about the evidence available for Christianity and the opportunity for intellect to be used to examine it?

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  6. The Cartesian cogito (I think therefore I am) is the limit of knowledge, after that, we're all going on faith. Modern science takes this a step further with the need for a GUT (General Unified Theory) in modern physics and the need for a missing link in evolution whilst Superstring theory is contrary to Ockham's Razor. The deception of the senses and the fallibility of memory leaves a big hole for any belief structure that relies primarily on evidence, whilst the strongest argument for evidence, causality, is both circular and requires a prime cause. It may just be that not believing in God requires more faith (be more anti-intellectual) than believing in Him.

    (Also, Paul tells us that everyone has all the evidence they need to believe in God.)

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  7. Many thanks Rich. I'll have to chat through some translation of that on Sunday! U got your broadband working yet?

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  8. I think the third point would be a bit confusing: your audience will be in an 'is it anti-intellectual?' mode, which is a bit different to 'does it seem foolish?'. I think having showed that Christianity engaged the intellect and can be demonstrated to be consistent with recorded fact (e.g., the resurrection), you could prosecute more on the basis of truth than wisdom. But that could be just the way I think - not sure I'd entirely 'get' where you go in your 3rd point if I were a non-Christian wondering if Christianity isn't just anti-intellectual. You also might want to give a few sentences at the start conceding that it can sometimes appear anti-intellectual - to identify before you prosecute, otherwise the audience will get the impression you think they share Dawkins' attitudes 100%, or that you have no idea why they'd think Christianity is anti-intellectual. We've got to acknowledge some Christians are! Then the audience will know you're not just prosecuting their belief, but belief that some Christians wrongly hold.

    Now I just want to ask Rich Fryer, how can the Cartesian cogito be the limit of knowledge? It's merely a restatement of the assumption that thinking is intrinsic to being, therefore surely doesn't form an limiting epistemology at all? I do like your main point, by the way, Rich. I especially enjoy the hunt for a GUT - given Gödel's incompleteness theorems, we surely can't have a GUT that's complete & consistent - you say physicists rather need one?

    I suppose although no-one believes much entirely based on 'evidence' (it is always 'observed' and interpreted in a framework of prior assumptions), we should show that our belief is consistent with observation - so could give evidence of that.

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  9. The Cogito is not the limit of epistemology, but the limit of certainity. All we can really know is that there is thought going on. After that, we are open to misinterpretation - evil demon, brain in a jar(matrix) etc.

    Physics needs a GUT to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics. Otherwise one or both are wrong, at least on an ontological level, if not as practical guides to how the world works. Whether one can exist is another question, and it's likely that one won't if one or both theories are wrong (and the history of science tells us they are likely to be wrong).

    Thomas Kuhn's work on the philosophy of science is very helpfull in describing how people build their world views (generally using evidence to support what they believe rather than vice versa) but given our subjective nature, we cannot be objective which leads to obvious problems in this field.

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  10. Hey Dave, I really like what you've done

    In the future I think it would actually be worth having a title like "Post-modernism is anti-intellectual!" Attacking societies world view.

    Also I think it might be worth pointing out that Christians use the word faith very differently to how the world does.

    Also I think you make the point but I'm not sure, about how there is no such thing as a bare fact - all facts (or evidence)needs to be interpreted -and as sinful God haters we are not exactly impartial, or rational! despite what we think. John 3v19 "Men love the darkness......."

    I really enjoyed and benefitted from the mission week at surrey, so thanks for getting me involved .

    Steve Wicks

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  11. My feedback is limited to: I thought it was very good and I couldn't fault any of it. Great stuff.

    But I thought I would also say that the comments of Rosemary about intellectualism/wisdom, identifying, and the point made twice about providing evidence is also good. Makes me wonder why I don't have the wit to think the same things myself.

    ... always happy reading on this blog.

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  12. Steve Wicks,

    Postmodernism isn't the devil!

    Tom

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  13. I was at the Arborfield Men's Breakfast this morning, and Ken was talking on Luke 23, and verse 39 seemed very appropriate to this debate.

    "Aren't you the Christ? Then save yourself and us."

    That's exactly what he was doing :)

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