Saturday 19 November 2011

Unbelievable?: The Conference — Big Questions Stream

The Big Questions Stream is the last of three DVDs in this boxed set of Premier Christian Radio's one-day apologetics conference held in May this year. (I have already reviewed Disc 1 and Disc 2.)

Disc 3 begins with Mark Roques and his talk entitled: "Is Jesus the only way?"

It's a dynamic lecture, if a little unfocussed and with iffy sound. Roques claims that all people live by faith, giving as an example some rat-worshippers in India. He says there are four types of response to rat-worship, each conforming to a specific type. The first is that of, for example, James Bond, who would describe rat-worship as irrational. Roques claims this is a "modernist", secular worldview and what he describes is essentially a materialist worldview that denies the existence of anything supernatural. But as a first example it shows how ill-advised it is to use fictional examples to explain what you are claiming as fact. Religionists seem to do this a lot, as if they can't see how it's likely to be interpreted. By picking a fictional example you are essentially basing your factual claims on something that has been made up. If Bible-believers want to convince people that scripture is more than "made up" they should stop doing this.

The second example is the response of Paul Merton, who visited some rat-worshippers during a TV documentary. Merton apparently described rat-worship as "true for them" — which Roques says is a post-modernist worldview, in which everyone is entirely autonomous.

The rat-worshippers' response, however, is that rat-worship is "true" — which is Roques' example of the third type of response.

Roques' fourth type of response is exemplified by Christianity: "Don't worship rats, worship Christ."

He then goes on to list four views of salvation. The first is the "exclusivist" or "restrictivist" view, in which only those who have been called by God will go to eternity in heaven, while everyone else goes to eternal punishment. The second is an "inclusionist" but not "universalist" view, which allows even some people with no knowledge of Christ to be saved. The third is "theological pluralism", which holds that all religions can lead to God, and the fourth is the "universalist" view where everyone will be saved. Unsurprisingly there's disagreement on the matter, but as it's theology there's no way of conclusively resolving the issue — because theology is mostly fabrication. Incidentally Roques says he holds to the "inclusionist" view of salvation.

During a Christian apologetics conference there's bound to be a good deal of dissing of other religions, but some of those other religions have their own conferences, and what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Mark Roques is also guilty of conflation when he claims that for James Bond the god is science, and when later on in his talk he claims people have made "money" their god. Many religionists seem to do this, giving the impression that they are locked into a mindset in which it is impossible for anyone not to believe in a god of some kind. For such religionists, there's no such thing as a true atheist.

Roques is very big on story-telling (likening this to the parables of Jesus), but he needs to be clearer on the distinction between factual and fictional stories, otherwise people will be inevitably drawn to the idea that the whole of scripture and theology is just a series of stories. For myself I'm glad that in this lecture he used his faux "common" accent only once.

Next on Disc 3 is a two-hander with John Lennox and David Robertson on the question "Is there evidence for God?", and it has the assertions, the atheist-bashing, and what I can only describe as self-congratulatory smugness — coupled with attempts at mitigating false modesty — coming thick and fast. I found it difficult to keep up, abandoning my use of the pause button for note-taking purposes and just let the whole thing roll over me.

The usual canards are in abundance: atheists have no grounding for moral judgements, they are closed-minded to evidence by a priori assumptions, and they don't understand the meaning of faith. But throughout their discussion neither Lennox nor Robertson explain what precisely their subjective experience of God is. It's all a tacit admission of mysterious ineffability. They say much but convey little, and I found it frustrating waiting for either of them to deliver even one thing that might be a serious challenge to atheists — either "new atheists" or the plain vanilla variety.

Lennox makes a good point, however, about "nothing buttery" when decrying materialism, but I don't think he realises that he is actually validating the materialist view when he makes it.

So in response to the question "Is there evidence for God?" the answer must begin with "It depends what you mean by evidence." And if you're after compelling evidence, rather than just a subjective feeling, forget it.

Finally we have (again) Mark Roques, with "What about suffering?" beginning with the tale of Cornish Christian boy Thomas Pellow, captured by Turkish pirates and forced to be the slave of the Sultan. He converted to Islam (to save his own skin), and returned to his parents 30 years later. He was, we are told, sustained by his Christian faith.

Roques quotes David Hume's distillation of Epicurus's paradox — according to which an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God is an incoherent concept. Roques goes on to say, "I want to try and respond to this with some perhaps fresh material." This sounds promising but ultimately leaves us high and dry, as in delivering his talk he often seems to get diverted down side alleys, never returning to the place whence he came.

Asking the question, "Is it possible to be an atheist and also affirm the existence of evil?" Roques then examines materialism, quoting Richard Dawkins in River Out of Eden on the "blind, pitiless indifference" of the universe, as well as Dawkins' response to the 2006 Edge Annual Question — "What is your dangerous idea?"

Dawkins' contribution was "Let's all stop beating Basil's car" in which he floats the (not original) idea that just as Basil Fawlty's defective car is not to blame for its deficiencies, neither are we as material humans "at fault" for our own shortcomings. Given that these essays for the Edge were supposed to be radical and iconoclastic, it's disingenuous of Roques to point to Dawkins and claim that materialists deny that humans have any moral responsibility. The problem — as usual with debates of this kind — is that key terms haven't been properly defined. What does Roques mean by "evil" or "moral"? He's speaking to a largely Christian audience, so he may consider these terms don't need defining. But this is an apologetics conference and the audience will be going out to defend their faith. Without rigorous definition of terms, their efforts could well come across as unconvincing or even sloppy.

Here's an example of what I consider egregious sloppy thinking:
"Materialism declares that only physical things exist and so it is not possible to speak about purpose, goodness and wickedness. Evil is an illusion."
First off, we need to know what Roques means by purpose, goodness, wickedness and evil. By this measure we could claim that thoughts, being "non-physical", don't exist — when they clearly do.
"Evil does not exist. It is an illusion. A delusion. A toothfairy. This is what many atheists believe. It's their religion."
This is the worst kind of straw man fallacy, and teaching it at an apologetics conference is doing nobody any favours. Roques belabours his "no responsibility in materialism" point, but without saying what he means by responsibility. When we consider ideas of materialism and determinism in human action we must be careful what we dismiss. It is possible to hold to a materialist, determinist worldview in which free will does not depend on substance dualism, and still maintain that we are responsible for our actions. The question then becomes not what do we mean by "responsible"? but what do we mean by "we"? The entity — the human — held to be "responsible" comprises the sum total of who "we" are — our current thoughts and disposition, our memories, our experiences, our genetic make-up, our education, even our present environment. Such questions are way deeper and more subtle than Roques portrays in his talk.

Roques may even be going out on a limb relative to his religionist cohorts. He claims that Anselm and Aquinas were wrong about goodness, and that Plotinus — and Plato before him — were bad influences on early Christianity. He makes this challenge:
"If naturalism/materialism is true, then surely both goodness and evil are illusions. So where do you get your notions of evil and goodness from as you rail against God?"
See how disingenuous his approach is? "Rail against God?" This may be a reaction to Dawkins' deliberate caricature of the Old Testament God in The God Delusion, but such emotive language is inappropriate to an honest examination of the problem of evil.

Roques may be a dynamic speaker (despite seeming to lose his way several times in this talk), but the thrust of his argument is superficial. When pressed he is revealed — as far as I could see — to have nothing original or indeed useful to add to the morality debate. In the Q&A the first questioner asks why God allowed evil in the first place:
"There's a sense in which I don't know the answer to that deep question."
And as he offers nothing more of substance in response, there's a pronounced lack of any other sense in which he did know the answer.

So what did I get out of these three DVDs? I could have attended the conference itself, but I would still have needed the DVDs in order to see the parallel streams. The cost of the DVD set is comparable to the cost of the conference, but if I'd attended I would have needed to add the same again in travelling expenses. In any case I think I might have felt uncomfortable in an audience of mostly believers.

On the whole I found the talks as presented on the DVDs disappointing, but also — on another level — heartening. Much was made of equipping Christians for defending their faith in the wider world, but the armoury provided here appeared clumsy, outdated and ineffective. Not once did I find myself thinking, "Gosh, there's an argument I really must look into further." Maybe these evangelicals will be effective in converting teetering agnostics who are confused by recent new atheist literature — or maybe not. It's seems clear, however, that anyone who is happy to self-identify as an atheist on the basis of honest enquiry into the God-question will not find anything challenging on these DVDs.