Sunday 18 September 2011

Unbelievable punishment

Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but I had more than one motive for ordering the DVD set of the Unbelievable? Conference. I've attended a number of events where talks were recorded — video as well as audio-only — and I've been struck by the variable quality of the results. I've watched countless talks on-line that I didn't personally attend, and given the variable quality of those too, I considered how difficult making such recordings might be. I've had the opportunity to test that myself over the past few months, by recording (with permission) most of the talks given at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub. Four of these are now available as Skepticule Record episodes. One of them — the juggling and maths of Colin Wright — I recorded in video, but video is a far more demanding medium than audio only, and I have yet to get around to doing what's necessary to make that available.

I attended both TAM London 2009 and 2010, but only the first has been made available on DVD (which I have), and in the light of the above I was curious to see what sort of job Premier would make of recording their own conference. I was also interested to see and hear what Christian spokespersons say to their self-selecting audience on the matter of Christianity in Britain. I live in Britain but I'm not a Christian, and what I hear on Unbelievable? (and elsewhere) makes me concerned about religious influence in public life.

Unbelievable?: The Conference DVD 2011 consists of three discs, of which I've so far watched the first. The box, with the subtitle "Honest answers to Tough questions", lists the contributors but gives no information regarding duration (though I understand it's about ten hours), PAL/NTSC format or region coding. (I use a multi-region multi-format DVD player so this isn't a problem for me, but it could be an issue for some.)

Disc 1 (the only one I've watched so far) is the Apologetic Stream, with an introduction by Justin Brierley in the Big Brother chair (sorry, that's how it seemed to me — I haven't watched Big Brother for years, do they still have the chair?) followed by a keynote speech by John Lennox entitled "What are we apologising for?" in which he explains the common misconception about "apologetics" (and how it has nothing to do with apologising). He goes on to explain why apolegetics is necessary as a biblical imperative, and who should do it. He's an excellent speaker, and is talking here to an sympathetic audience, so his tacit assumptions about the truth of scripture are legitimate in such a context.

Lennox identifies two attacks from which Christianity needs defending — first the scientific argument espoused by Richard Dawkins and a "minority" of scientistic atheists, the "New Atheists" — and second the attack on the morality and ethics of scripture. He makes a good point about asking questions of people until they respond with questions of their own, and his anecdotes are amusing, but I'm wary of taking his anecdotes at face value given his misrepresentation of his debate with Dawkins.

Towards the end of his keynote address it seems to me Lennox shifts effortlessly into "preacher" mode, with what appears to be an evangelical strategy for countering fear by appeal to revelation.

John Lennox is also first up in the Apologetic Stream with "Has Science Buried God?" He begins by stating that most scientists of the past were believers. This isn't surprising, and doesn't support his case because almost everyone of the past would have been believers. He states that God is a person not a theory, and then attempts to knock down a straw man of an equation of God and Science. He also states that he's not a fan of Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), and that science itself arose out of the Christian worldview — but when science began, as I've pointed out above, the Christian worldview was pretty much the only one around.

Lennox claims the idea that science equals rationality is false, and "scientism" comes from a false concept of God. He posits the opposition of "God" on one hand and "mechanism" on the other as a false dichotomy. He then goes on to complain about Stephen Hawking's statement about gravity and creation from nothing — a complaint Lennox has apparently addressed in a whole book. I've yet to read Hawking's The Grand Design (it's on my Kindle), but I have suspicions that his poorly phrased statement may have been instigated by his literary publicist in an effort to court controversy (and book sales).

Richard Dawkins' argument about explanatory complexity (in The God Delusion) is then applied to the book itself. Lennox asks, what is the explanation for The God Delusion? It's Richard Dawkins, but Richard Dawkins is more complex than the book, so according to him he isn't an adequate explanation for his own book! This, frankly, is a fatuous argument. Dawkins isn't the ultimate explanation for his book, he's merely one level of a hierarchy of explanation. This matter of explanatory power is something I see throughout a whole spectrum of theistic attempts to explain things by appeal to God — from John Polkinghorne to Ray Comfort to, er... John Lennox. The way we attempt to explain things we don't currently understand is by appeal to things we do understand, and indeed John Lennox himself touches on this when he talks about reductionism. But any attempt to "explain" something by appeal to something that we don't understand is clearly not an explanation at all. (Incidentally this is exactly why "intelligent design" isn't science.)

Lennox next addresses the question, who created God? — claiming it's a trick question, because it assumes that God was created. But is he therefore claiming that the universe could not be uncreated? This argument (known as the Cosmological Argument) is, as we've seen before, an exercise in special pleading.

In the Q&A Lennox begins by writing down a whole series of questions from the audience and then proceeds to answer them en bloc. I found it heartening to hear him cite atheist scientists again and again — this shows that the Gnu Atheists are definitely making an impression, and that theists feel they are obliged to answer. To a question about determinism Lennox responds with the argument from morality, but in a typically shallow fashion that sneaks in the usual conflation of morality and absolute or objective morality. This, I feel, is where the battle lies.

There are also questions about the "multiverse", which leave me cold, as it's all unfalsifiable speculation and not an argument.

Next up in the Apologetic Stream is Jay Smith with "How do I respond to Islam?" Islam, apparently, is the greatest threat to Christianity today. Smith spends much time denigrating the Qur'an as full of incomplete, derivative stories — in contrast to the New Testament, which is "true". (The Old Testament is apparently not relevant to the modern world.) Smith's zealous delivery is fast and furious, reminding me of a fairground huckster or a salesman standing with a microphone in the back of a truck surrounded by dodgy consumables. He's preaching (to the converted, no doubt, here), and I can imagine what he's like at Speaker's Corner, where he's apparently a regular.

Time and again he compares the Qur'an to the New Testament, declaring one to be so much better than the other. He has an answer for everything, as he demonstrates in the Q&A, but he's so slick and so fast I can't help thinking that what he's saying is just too good to be true — just like a snake-oil salesman.

Finally in the Apologetic Stream we have David Robertson with "How do I make the case for faith?" beginning with a clip from BBC Newsnight, in which Jeremy Paxman interviews Russell Brand (the clip isn't actually on the DVD, but I noted the link displayed on the screen and watched it via iPlayer).

Robertson's talk is mainly about making Jesus available to people (such as Brand) who are seeking him, which would seem to restrict his evangelism to those who are already susceptible to a religious way of thinking. Naturally he mentions his book The Dawkins Letters, and makes the claim that Dawkins wrote The God Delusion not as a result of 9/11 but because he was expecting religion to be dead by the beginning of the 21st century. It's an interesting but (at least here) unsubstantiated claim.

Another claim Robertson makes is that atheism is on the decline, which I think is only supportable by cherry-picking the data — just this month there's a report that it's religion that's on the decline: "All in all, these data point to a society in which religion is increasingly in retreat and nominal."

This was a mammoth session and I was flagging a bit towards the end, but I've another two discs to go. Watch this space for more of my punishment.